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Friday, April 11, 2014

Food Watch (national): Don't forget to celebrate National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day (April 12)

For National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day, all post offices and banks operate on normal Saturday schedules. Check your municipal authority for information about trash collections. In NYC, alternate side of the street parking is suspended. (Note: That last part is a joke. Our lawyers say you can get into big trouble misrepresenting regulations on alternate side of the street parking.)

by Ken

Who can keep track of all these holidays? Apparently not only is tomorrow, April 12, National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day, but the whole danged month is National Grilled Cheese Month. I haven't read the legal paperwork, but this could mean that we're supposed to be eating a grilled cheese sandwich every damned day of the month.


The Zillion Dollar Grilled Cheese, available only this month at Chicago's Deca Restaurant + Bar, is served with lobster mac 'n' cheese -- "because of course."

From HuffPost's Joseph Erbentraut ("This $100 Gilded Grilled Cheese Might Actually Be Worth It"):
Meet the "zillion dollar grilled cheese" available only this month at Deca Restaurant and Bar at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in downtown Chicago. Its price tag? $100.

The sandwich features thin slices of black Iberico ham sourced from acorn-fed free-range pigs living primary in southern Spain, Ellis Family Farms heirloom tomatoes, 100-year-old aged balsamic vinaigrette and Oregon Perigord white truffle aioli, according to a press release. Even the bread -- artisan country sourdough cooked in Laudemio Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi extra virgin olive oil -- is fancier than most.

And the kicker, of course, is the cheese: 40-year aged Wisconsin cheddar infused with 24k gold flakes. Yes, 24k gold flakes.

Finally, this grilled cheese is topped with Hudson Valley foie gras and a sunny-side-up duck egg, plus lobster macaroni and cheese on the side. Because of course.


Unfortunately we can't identify the family on account of they're currently in witness protection. (Oops, we probably weren't supposed to reveal that.)

The Hearty Mariner

Sardines, guacamole, piquillo peppers, tapioca, and port wine cheese, on 17-grain bread

Lox 'n' Stuff

Smoked salmon, peanut butter and mint jelly, eggplant medalions, roasted garlic, and Velveeta, on a bialy

The Italian

Genoa salami, pickled pork snout, Nutella, hot peppers, and lemon-flavored mascarpone, on foccaccia

Baa-baa Black Sheep

Lamb shanks, stewed rhubarb, dandelion honey, and roquefort or gruyere cheese, on either brioche or croissant
(Note: we have substituted the dandelion honey for the original recipe's Vicks VapoRub, which is not recommended for internal consumption. Sometimes candlewax was used, but that's probably not recommended either.)

And try this vegan treat:

Cauliflower ribbons, sprouts, flax seeds, hay, and pumpkin-seed fake-cheese, on crusty gluten-free alfalfa bread


However you like it -- licorice and eggs, licorice-and-chive mashed potatoes, sea bass poached with licorice, licorice crumb coffee cake, etc. -- enjoy! (Yes, the picture is in color. Can't you tell?)

Monday, April 07, 2014

Urban Gadabout: New from the people who brought us "Inside the Apple" -- "Footprints in New York"

An 1847 view up Wall Streeet to the third (and currrent) Trinity Church, completed just the year before, distributed as last week's "Postcard Thursday" offering from the Inside the Apple blog. [Click to enlarge.]

by Ken

Last week's "Postcard Thursday" e-mail from the Inside the Apple team of Michelle and James Nevius (viewable as a blogpost here) had special significance for me, even though we were told that it's "not, technically, a postcard." The view at right gives some feeling of what it looks like today. It's a streetscape I haunt virtually every day, and two of the 1847 view's most conspicuous features still stand in forms not wildly different from what's depicted here. The view enlarges surprisingly well; I've tacked it up, with the relevant text, on the outside of my cubicle at work.

Looking west up Wall Street we see the then-new third Trinity Church, designed by Richard Upjohn, the one that still stands today -- and as you begin to investigate the history of New York City, you quickly discover that it's woven around Trinity Church, the breathing heart of Episcopal New York, which is to say the spiritual home of NYC money.

(The first Trinity, built in 1698, was destroyed in the great fire of 1776, which destroyed so much of the New York City of that time, still huddled at the southern tip of Manhattan Island. The second Trinity, built in 1788-90, "was torn down after being weakened by severe snows during the winter of 1838–39," per Wikipedia.)

The building with the flag on top is what we know as Federal Hall National Memorial, the successor to the building, the actual Federal Hall, where George Washington was inaugurated. Since I work half a block away, and my gym in fact is right next door to FHNM, I can vouch for the fact that FHNM is a site beloved of tourists, in even the raunchiest weather, partly because diagonally opposite it is the site of the New York Stock Exchange.

Behind FHNM (as we're viewing it), Nassau Street runs to the right (north) and Broad Street runs to the left (south). The area has been associated with stock trading at least since May 17, 1792, when 24 stockbrokerrs gathered outside 68 Wall Street, farther east, under a buttonwood tree, and signed the Buttonwood Agreement, which laid the groundwork for the New York Stock and Exchange Board, later shortened to just the New York Stock Exchange. The site at the southwest corner of Wall and Broad Streets now houses a cluster of NYSE buildings, including the landmark 1903 headquarters at 18 Broad Street.

Since I work in the adjoining building, 20 Broad, and in fact my gym is in the building directly to the east of FHNM, this 1947 view has had me mesmerized it since the Inside the Apple team of Michelle and James Nevius circulated it last week. Their "Postcard Thursday" offerings are one of the highlights of my week, and you never know what may turn up on the Inside the Apple blog.

Michelle and James's Inside the Apple is one of the great books about New York City, breaking down many of the city's historic areas geographically but telling their story historically, since the history of any site is the story of the people who lived, worked, and/or played there over time -- in most cases many layers of time, since nearly every part of the city has been undergoing change almost from the very beginning. (There are splendid links to tie people and places together.)

I wrote about Inside the Apple on July 3, 2011, after I had the considerable pleasure of doing one of the Neviuses' occasional public walking tours (most of their tours are arranged directly with clients) -- this one with James, of "Revolutionary New York." As I wrote at the time: "In an introductory note, Michelle and James explain":
The goal of Inside the Apple is to give you a different pathway into the city's long and rich history. While there are many books that focus on New York's notable events and famous people, ours is instead organized around the places where those events took place. By grounding the narrative in sites that you can see and visit, we provide concrete, tangible, connections between the city of today and its intriguing past.

People have long tried to answer the question: What makes New York unique? We feel the answer is deceptively simple: more than any other American city, it is primarily experienced on foot. . . .


. . . because today I got my pre-ordered copy of Michelle and James's new book, Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers, which they've been previewing on the Inside the Apple blog for months. The new book is a further step in connecting the geography of the city with the stories of the people who have been connected to places.

James and Michelle "en route to Paris"

As Michelle and James explain in the preface:
The concept of this book is simple: We wanted to build a time machine.

Since our grasp of particle physics is weak, we decided on the next best thing, to tell the story of New York City by having each chapter transport the reader to a distinct historical era, from the Dutch village of New Amsterdam to the modern city of skyscrapers that's been built along the very streets the city's Dutch founders once walked.

As our goal is to, literally, walk in the footsteps of the New Yorkers who've come before us, each chapter is linked to a person (or, sometimes, a group of people) whose story is emblematic of that era. Some people -- like Edgar Allan Poe and Abraham Lincoln -- are universally famous. Others, such as Gertrude Tredwell or Stephen DeLancey, will only be famliar to a few. But all of them played an important role in the story of the city.

New York is so chock-full of intriguing sites that it's a historian's dream. We've been leading walking tours of the city for nearly fifteen years, and in that time we've searched out forgotten byways and journeyed to unexpected corners of the city. It's those places -- from the city's oldest house to a small synagogue on a stretch of Broadway that most people don't even know exists -- that paint a vivid portrait of New York. We talk about famous sites in these pages too, but we hope when you're reading about some of the more off-the-beaten-path sites, you may want to seek them out yourself.

The greatest joy of leading tours is the moment when a client -- often someone for whom history has always been dry recitations of names, dates, and battles -- makes that real, personal connection with the city of the past. It can happen in unexpected places -- a walk down the streets of Little Italy can evoke childhood memories. Examining gun placements in the old fort in Battery Park can suddenly illuminate the importance of the War of 1812 to someone who'd never before been able to get a handle on it. Simply walking from Battery Park to Soho -- the same path that Alexander Hamilton walked during the Revolution with his artillery company -- can do more to reveal the contours of the war for American independence than any textbook. It's our hope that the New York stories in these pages will uncover some of those hidden histories, too.

You can buy the book from your regular bookseller or via this link on the Inside the Apple website. For information about receiving Inside the Apple updates, or to contact Michelle and James, go to this webpage. Or subscribe to the e-mail list by simply sending an e-mail to with the word "SUBSCRIBE" in the subject line.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Food Watch (Jersey City): Not for the weak of stomach -- the bacon craziness just keeps getting crazier

What? You settle for a BLT made with fewer than 50 strips of bacon? Then you need to hie to Jersey City by April 1 to the Zeppelin Hall Spring Bacon Festival to sample the Fifty Shades of Bacon BLT. (Note that the sandwich comes with fries, in case you were worried that it might be too heart-healthy.)

by Ken

It was only last month that the March "Bacon Issue" of Food Network Magazine set DownWithTyranny Food Watch to wondering: "Hasn't the bacon thing by now gone a little too far? ('A little'? How about a lot?)" I'm not sure any more comment is required regarding the porkorama now in progress (through April 1) at Jersey City's Zeppelin Hall than you'll find in the Thrillist report by Cayla Zahoran, who took the pictures, and Thrillist NYC Editor Andrew Zimmer.

Bacon Cheesesteak

"Have you ever ordered a bacon cheesesteak and thought, 'Hey, there's way too much steak on this'? Well, your prayers have been answered with this cheesesteak loaded entirely with bacon. And feel free to call it a cheesebacon."

Bacon World-Tour Monster Sandwich

"If you were to travel around the entire globe sampling bacon, you'd be the awesomest traveler ever, but you'd also probably come back with an appetite for this guy: the Bacon World-Tour Monster Sandwich, loaded with 10 different types of bacon including smoked pork belly, Black Forest bacon, Irish bacon, beef bacon, pancetta, speck, turkey bacon, jowl bacon, Canadian bacon, and Tocineta Cascabel."

Double-Smoked Bacon Mac 'n Cheese

"This is the Double-Smoked Bacon Mac 'n Cheese. We suggest taking that bacon flower on top, crumbling it up amongst the pasta and cheese, and enjoying the change in texture as you destroy it."

Bacon-Bacon Terminator

"Fried onions, melty cheese, and tons of bacon top the Bacon-Bacon Terminator burger, but what makes it truly a machine sent from the future to end all human existence is that it's stuffed with chopped bacon, diced and smoked pork chop, and bacon au jus. Judgement Day, indeed."

Steak House Bacon

"Why anyone would want non-thick-cut bacon is a mystery, especially after downing this Steak House Bacon that's been double-smoked, grilled, and topped off with apple cider reduction and crispy onions."


Like Bacon-Wrapped BBQ Ribs, Gulf Shrimp Draped in Pecan-Smoked Bacon, the Bacon-Wrapped Buffalo Hot Dog, Bacon Sausage Menage à TroisCrispy Applewood Bacon Bathed in Chocolate Ganache, the BaconPop, and Bratwurst and Bacon Sliders? Visit the Thrillist article.

Meanwhile, here's the posted menu:

Zeppelin Hall Restaurant and Biergarten, 88 Liberty View Dr., Jersey City, NJ 07305. Reachable by PATH train (four blocks from the Grove Street station) or NJ Transit Hudson-Bergen Light Rail (one block from the Jersey Avenue stop). Note: You can buy tickets here.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What Have The Excesses Of Free Market Capitalism Done To Once Idyllic Nauru?

I remember Nauru from the time I was a pre-teen stamp collector. It was-- still is-- just a speck of a South Pacific Island, about 8 square miles and less than 10,000 people. Earlier, it had been a German colony that was taken over by the Brits after World War I-- like Tanganyika (which, coincidentally, also has a village named Nauru). I haven't thought about Nauru in half a century until last night. I didn't even know that around the time Nauru became independent, phosphate mining had given it the highest per-capita income of any country in the world-- almost all of which has been swindled. They went from wealth to poverty and Nauru was reduced to taking money from Australia to host a virtual concentration camp for refugees from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iran, Palestine and Pakistan.

As the Sydney Morning Herald reported this week "Witness accounts from inside Australia's detention centres are rare. Walled in behind government secrecy, contracts which bind them to silence, and fear for their future livelihoods, staff and former employees of the organisations running the centres bite their tongues… [Australian Prime Minister] Julia Gillard had reopened the offshore camp in a desperate revival of former prime minister John Howard's 'Pacific solution'-- an attempt to deter asylum seekers by shipping them to the tiny Pacific nation for indefinite detention." Today, a report by Jay Fletcher in Australia's Green Left Weekly blew the whistle on the horrors of the "detention camp."
A former welfare worker at the Nauru refugee detention camp says the July 19 riot that razed most of the Topside compound was an “inevitable outcome” of a “cruel and degrading policy”, in a new book released last week.

The Undesirables by Mark Isaacs follows several big whistleblower revelations that have come from Nauru since the camp was re-established by then-PM Julia Gillard in August 2012.

In February last year, veteran nurse Marianne Evers broke ranks to tell ABC’s Lateline that she likened the offshore “processing centre” to a concentration camp. “I knew that conditions weren't ideal, but conditions were less than ideal. In fact I would describe them as appalling,” she said.

A joint letter by Salvation Army staff in the aftermath of the July 19 protests said they had predicted it would happen: “The most recent incident in Nauru was not borne out of malice. It was a build up of pressure and anxiety over 10 months of degrading treatment, and a planned peaceful process that degenerated. It was a reaction to a refugee processing system that is devoid of logic and fairness.”

Isaacs’ book offers the same conclusions, the Sydney Morning Herald reported: “Criminals were given a sentence to serve: these men were not even given that,” Isaacs wrote. “They feared they would die in Nauru, that they would be forgotten, that they would become non-people ...

“It doesn't matter who you are, or what side of politics you are on, if you had been in the position I was in, having to sit there and have a man's friends show you the cord that he tried to hang himself with, crying with them, the rain coming down … it was overwhelming.

“The camp was built around destroying men ... grind[ing] them into the dust.”

Since the riot and Isaacs’ time on the island, Australia has transferred women and children from Manus Island to the Nauru camp. The unaccompanied children were sent to the remote camp, which still has mostly tent-based housing, last month.

After the visiting the centre last October, the UN refugee agency said: “Overall, the harsh and unsuitable environment at the closed [refugee processing centre] is particularly inappropriate for the care and support of child asylum-seekers ... UNHCR is of the view that no child, whether an unaccompanied child or within a family group, should be transferred ... to Nauru.”

Indeed, individual asylum seekers have figured this out for themselves. A Rohingya couple opted for an abortion rather than risk giving having a baby in the awful conditions on the island.

…Uncertainty for asylum seekers on Nauru has grown much worse in recent weeks. The island’s chief justice, Australian Geoffrey Eames QC, resigned this month over the cancelling of his visa and the deportation of the island’s only magistrate in January.

On Manus Island, three asylum seekers tried to commit suicide in the space of a week. Two Iranian men cut their arms with razors and an Afghan man tried to hang himself. Another refugee said the Iranian men were angered by over the PNG-led inquiry into last month’s fatal violence, in particular comments by Justice David Cannings, who is leading the inquiry, that detainees appeared healthy and well.

Another refugee told the inquiry about the prison-like conditions at the centre, including worm-infested bread.

Despite reports that police were ready to arrest several people involved in the violent death of Reza Berati, PNG staff were sent back into the Manus centre. Sources in Australia say many people that were hurt during the violence have gone missing. Some who had been released from hospital had not returned to the centre while investigators were there.

Despite mounting evidence from whistleblowers that Nauru and Manus Island are inflicting severe psychological harm on men, women and children-- precipitating both the camps’ constant protests and bouts of self-harm-- the Abbott government shows no signs of reversing the cruel regime.

In addition to extending naval training for turning boats back at sea, including buying new orange lifeboats, Abbott has announced plans to buy several Triton drones, at a cost of US$2.7 billion, to patrol the country’s borders for asylum boats.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Traveling And Living Abroad

Howie, into the Sahara Desert… with loafers

I don't recall there being any blondes in the part of Brooklyn where I grew up. When I got to college, one of my first girlfriends was blonde-- when her head wasn't shaved. She was from an aristocratic Alabama plantation family… but she had broken free-- got a job as a model, enrolled in a state university and dropped a lot of acid. I never have been able too figure out what she saw in me, but I'll never forget her. My first trip "abroad" was with her. We decided to hitchhike to the North Pole. We got as far as Montreal, which we both loved. The next summer I hitchhiked down to Mexico City; loved that too. And I've been traveling abroad ever since. After college I went to Europe for the summer... and stayed almost 7 years, 7 years that including a road trip by VW van to India, Afghanistan, Nepal, Iran, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Since returning, I've managed to spend at least a few weeks outside of the U.S. every year, these days a month in the summer and a month in the winter. This blog is meant to reflect on it. Some of my favorite recent trips have entailed renting houses in Tuscany, Marrakech, Phuket, Yucatán, Bali and Rome. Sometimes I still wander around and don't get all sedentary in one spot, like on recent trips through the Himalayas, one through Mali, and one through Cappadocia.

So, when I read Nick Kristof's Times column Sunday, Go West, Young People! And East!, I could easily relate. But not agree, not entirely. Of course, I agree with him when he explains how traveling as a student "changed me by opening my eyes to human needs and to human universals." Same with me. His travels led him to the career he has now as a NY Times globe-trotting columnist. Mine led to me becoming president of a large international record company.
Gap years are becoming a bit more common in the United States and are promoted by organizations like Global Citizen Year. Colleges tend to love it when students defer admission to take a gap year because those students arrive with more maturity and less propensity to spend freshman year in an alcoholic haze.

Here’s a suggestion: How about if colleges gave students a semester credit for a gap year spent in a non-English-speaking country?

There’s a misconception that gap years or study-abroad opportunities are feasible only for the affluent. There are lots of free options (and some paid ones) at, which lists volunteering opportunities all over the world. It’s also often possible to make money teaching English on the side.

So go west, young men and women! And go east! Y al norte y al sur!
Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! I've loved going west to Polonnaruwa and east to Aix-en-Provence and al norte to Reykjavík y al sur to Tierra del Fuego! So what's the beef? A parenthetical: "(A shout-out goes to Goucher College in Baltimore, which requires students to study abroad. Others should try that.)" My problem: "requires." Encourages, motivates, incentivizes… that's all awesome. Requires? Nooooo. One thing that I did learn while traveling and living abroad is that it isn't suited to everyone. My sister came to visit me in Amsterdam, where I lived for nearly 4 years, and stayed one day before boarding a plane back to Brooklyn. Two friends took my advice and flew first class to Bangkok, checked into a suite at the legendary Oriental-- the best hotel in town-- and called me up to scream that they didn't appreciate my practical joke, then turned around and flew home immediately-- not even one night in Bangkok!

Kristoff advocates for all young Americans to learn Spanish and offers a joke about people who refuse to learn any languages.
If someone who speaks three languages is trilingual, and a person who speaks four languages is quadrilingual, what is a person called who speaks no foreign language at all?

Answer: An American.

One of the aims of higher education is to broaden perspectives, and what better way than by a home stay in a really different country, like Bangladesh or Senegal? Time abroad also leaves one more aware of the complex prism of suspicion through which the United States is often viewed. If more Americans had overseas experience, our foreign policy might be wiser.
There's another perspective. When I traveled across Asia on the "Hippie Trail" and later worked in an international youth center in Amsterdam, people spoke all languages. Everyone seemed comfortable except Americans. Eventually I figured out that some Americans-- and basically only Americans-- have some kind of innate paranoia that if someone is speaking another language, it means they are plotting against them in some way. Force them to live abroad? I don't like that whole "force" thing if it can be avoided. Universities encouraging students to study abroad or, much better, take a year off to live abroad, that I totally concur with. It won't be a miracle cure for provincialism and small-minded bigotry, but it will definitely help move the ball down the field.

Howie, crossing the Golden Horn

Monday, March 10, 2014

Even this baby harp seal knows what a great place the Newtown Creek Nature Walk is for just hanging out

The long steps of the Newtown Creek Nature Walk, fronting directly on the creek, attracted a maritime visitor yesterday. (The photos were taken by Sean Scaglione for NYC's Departmental of Environmental Protection.)

by Ken

Newtown Creek, which separates the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, may be one of North America's most contaminated waterways, which means that most visitors to the Newtown Creek Nature Walk, one of the city's most wonderful attractions, came from the landward direction. The youngster pictured here, however, on an exceptionally nice late-winter day, came from (and presumably left by) the water.

This account was provided by the Worker Harbor Committee's intrepid blogger, Mai Armstrong:

Baby Harp Seal Has a Sunday Sunbathe on Newtown Creek

March 10, 2014

A baby seal was seen lounging on a step at the Newtown Creek Nature Walk yesterday. No, the chubby critter was not sick, he or she just thought they’d stop by for snack and a bit of sun.

As reported by the New York Daily News, the baby harp seal plopped itself on a low step at the Newtown Ceek Nature Walk which is a public access point to the contaminated waterway.
Officials believe the seal swam in on the high tide in search of a meal, and decided to stick around for a sunbathe before heading back out on the receding tide. “There were no injuries and no concern, the animal appeared to be alert and aware.”
New York Daily News: A group of teens skating nearby said they were startled by the sight of a baby seal on the pavement around 2 p.m. at the Newtown Creek Nature Walk.

Damian Snickersen, 14, said he and his friends tried to coax the adorable seal to the water without touching it. “It looked scared. It was a baby seal, not too big, like the size of a dog, a fat dog,” he said. “We wanted to lead it to the water but we didn’t want it touch it.” Read more at The NYDN here.


The Newtown Creek Nature Walk, on the southern (Greenpoint, Brooklyn) bank of Newtown Creek, which at this point serves as the boundary between Brooklyn to the south and Queens to the north, is at the same time a park (open to the public every day during daylight hours, weather permitting; it's one of the most wonderful spots in New York City to visit and hang out) and a gigantic work of art.

The long steps that fronting directly on Newtown Creek, are just one of the many components of this amazing space along Newtown Creek and one of its tributaries, Whale Creek. The steps afford an up-close view of Newtown Creek which was never available to the public before. At low tide all the stairs are above water level, but as the tide rises, the lower stairs are submerged. It's a fantastic place to just stand or sit and watch for as long as you like. The photos above show the steps facing west toward the point where Newtown Creek flows into the East River (with Brooklyn at left and Queens at right), and across the river the skyline of Manhattan. The lower photo faces east (with Queens at left and Brooklyn at right), toward the creek's inland continuation.

New York City's Department of Environmental Protection, which operates the nearby Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, has a great flier for the Nature Walk, with excellent descriptions of its fascinatingly diverse array of components. This is from the introduction:
The Newtown Creek Nature Walk was designed by environmental sculpture artist George Trakas. It was built by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) through the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs Percent for Art Program in conjunction with the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant upgrade. DEP’s general contractor, the joint venture team of Picone/McCullagh, constructed the Nature Walk, and 5-Star Electric was the electrical contractor. The landscape architect was Quenelle Rothschild & Partners, LLP.

The Newtown Creek Nature Walk is situated serenely between industrial and natural areas. The landscape features indigenous trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and boulders that re-imagine this open space as a vibrant intersection, where multiple histories, cultural identities and geologic epochs coexist. Visitors are inspired to ponder the various eras of Newtown Creek, from its inhabitance by the Lenape people before the arrival of Europeans, to the thriving cooperage, ship-making and lumber industries of 18th and 19th century Greenpoint. The Nature Walk affords the public its first opportunity in decades to enjoy intimate views of Newtown Creek and to enjoy the local environment and history of the waterfront.
On one of my visits to the Newtown Creek Nature Walk, our MAS tour led by Jack Eichenbaum had the great good fortune to piggyback onto a tour being led at the same time by the designer, George Trakas. Everywhere we looked George was able to tell us riveting stories about the conception, design (including the choice of materials), and execution of whatever we were seeing, as well as the plans for later phases of the Nature Walk. If there had been time, I'm sure he could have told us stories about every square inch, horizontal and vertical, of the place.

One thing that quickly became abundantly clear was that George's close involvement with the Nature Walk didn't end or even lessen with the completion of the design, or even the construction of the project's first phases.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Trip Advisor's "12 trips of a lifetime"

Soar in a balloon above unique landscapes: This is the most striking image of the Trip Advisor "12 trips of a lifetime," and looks like it might indeed be a cool thing to do -- except for someone with a pathological terror of heights, who probably has no business in a balloon.

by Ken

[Click to enlarge]
You'll be pleased to hear that Howie is back on terra firma, in Quito (Ecuador), after his sea galavant around the storied Galápagos Islands.

Long-time readers know that his travels often take him to off-the-beaten-path destinations, while my gadding is pretty much confined to the service area of New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority -- or, more specifically, anyplace my unlimited-use MetroCard will take me. At least as regards actual travels, that is. For travels of the armchair variety I'm prepared to go wherever a real-world traveler of the right sort volunteers to take me.

Once upon a time this was the province of writers in newspapers, magazines, and books. Video crept into the picture as early as the old newsreels but eventually got a big kick with the expansion of TV programming and more recently with the home-video boom. When I think how hard it was to follow along on the travels of Michael Palin when they could only be caught by synchronizing your schedule with such times as the various series happened to be shown on TV, I'm delighted by the ease with which they're now available on DVD. I know there are a plethora of other camera-accompanied travelers whose journeys can similarly be bought or rented at our convenience; at some point I suppose I'll have to troll for guidance as to which are worth pursuing.

See the Northern Lights: Those Northern Lights sure look cool, but the trip is to northern Iceland, and with all good will toward the sturdy folk of Iceland, do I really want to journey to the north of their island?

Since there are gazillions of places I regret never having been, I was a sitting duck for a feature offered in a recent e-mailing from Trip Advisor, called "12 trips of a lifetime." I got on the Trip Advisor mailing list by writing a review after a memorable walking tour I took a year or two ago around the World Trade Center site, including a visit to the memorial itself. I had already done tours of both the Trade Center area and the memorial, but wanted an updated view, and by the end of the tour, "the amazing Debbie" (as I described her in my review) had become a dear friend to everyone. So when she asked just one thing, that we add a review on Trip Advisor, I felt obliged, and proceeded to find out what the heck Trip Advisor was and how it worked.

Of course, since that was -- and remains -- my only review, anyone who tries to vet it will discover that it is my only review, and that it must therefore be bogus, when in fact it is scrupulously truthful, and from someone who's hardly inexperienced in the world of walking tours. Anyway, I've never had any reason to write another review, but I do now get all sorts of e-mail from Trip Advisor, as well as notifications anytime a college classmate (presumably located on my paltry Facebook friends list) either plays a new golf course or visits a new inn -- or anytime anyone "likes" one of his reviews. (This is someone I last saw probably 40 years ago, though in that time we've spoken a few times on the phone and e-mailed a few times, and insisted that we really should get together at some point. That point just hasn't arrived, apparently.)

Walk the Great Wall of China: I love reading about the Great Wall, which sets my imagination, both geographical and historical, running wild. But I also have some idea of the ordeal you have to go through to get to any of the segments of the wall that are open to tourists, and the actual hiking doesn't sound quite as romantic as the image -- look at those steps! Also probably not a good place for a committed acrophobic.

Okay, so I clicked through to the "12 trips of a lifetime," and they're to places that pretty much all lurk in many people's imagination, including mine. And there are lovely pictures of all 12. So I got the idea that I might like to share this feature with our readers, incorporating, say, three or four of the pictures. Only when I took another look at the list, thinking I might choose photos according to the three or four places I would still most like to visit, I came to the realization that I'm really not inclined to add any of them to my list of Places I Most Regret Never Having Been.

The closest, in fact, is the one place on the list I can give myself partial credit for having been: Niagara Falls. It's only partial credit because the Trip of a Lifetime is to the Canadian side, whereas the visit I made with my family when I was maybe seven or eight was to the U.S. falls. I'm thinking it must have been on the late-summer cross-country car trip we made from our home at the time in Milwaukee across Lake Michigan to pick up my older brother at the summer camp where he had been a counselor, then somehow or other across the northern U.S. till we swung up to the Niagara area on our way to New York City, where my grandparents lived.

(Actually, I wish I remembered that trip better, since it must have taken me to or through places I've never been again. Apart from Niagara Falls, my one vivid recollection is of the ferry trip across Lake Michigan, which was rough enough that most everyone on board seemed to be vomiting, many of them publicly enough that the stench was itself a threat to the digestive equilibrium. I recall that they showed some kind of movie, but the thought of being trapped in a room with all that aroma was hurl-inducing.)

All that said, let's proceed to --

Trip Advisor's "12 trips of a lifetime"

The text comments are presumably comments submitted by Trip Advisor readers who have taken these trips.

See the Northern Lights
North Iceland, Iceland

"Great swathe of green light with hints of red sweeping across the sky and down to the horizon. Breathtaking!"

Sleep in an over-water bungalow
Bora Bora, South Pacific

"The bungalows are beautiful... We certainly don't know how we'll be able to top this trip!"

Tour the canals in a gondola
Venice, Italy

"Venice is amazing, the Grand Canal is one OHHH AHHH after another . . . very relaxing, informative and romantic."

Marvel at the wonder of the Taj Mahal
Uttar Pradesh, India

"Magic - just magic! You don't realize until you go, just how stunning this place is."

Explore the ancient pyramids
Giza, Egypt

"You feel like part of the ancient history. The heat, the dust, the sun. The spirit of a long gone civilization."

Walk the Great Wall of China
Beijing, China

"You feel like part of the ancient history. The heat, the dust, the sun. The spirit of a long gone civilization."

See an awe-inspiring sunset
Santorini, Greece

"It's the perfect spot to enjoy the beautiful sunset, amazing volcano views in the Aegean Sea, peaceful ships..."

Dive into the Great Barrier Reef
Queensland, Australia

"The deeper side of the reef was extremely beautiful... the sheer beauty of the coral is unimaginable."

Visit gorillas in their natural habitat
Ruhengeri, Rwanda

"The gorillas came very close to us - one even pushed me aside to get past with her baby. It wasn't scary."

Soar in a balloon above unique landscapes
Cappadocia, Turkey

"Cappadocia is probably the best place on Earth for hot air ballooning... to the canyon and all the way up to the sky."

Trek the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Cusco Region, Peru

"The trip of a lifetime. Inca Trail was such an experience. 4 days of hiking... worth it when you see the view at the top."

Journey to the edge of Niagara Falls
Ontario, Canada

"Maid of the Mist will make you feel alive . . . hear the thunder, feel the swells and pitches! A fantastic life long memory."

Now this is more like it! Niagara Falls from the Canadian side! But didn't we ride on the Maid of the Mist back in the '50s, from the U.S. side? I know we were on some boat. Still, I've always thought I might like to go back to the falls, especially now that I know so much more about how they were formed and have evolved.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Traveling With A Conservative? Have You Read The Ugly American?

When I was 13-- and all my friends were studying for their bar mitzvahs-- I was making my first big hitch-hiking excursion. My grandparents were in South Beach, which was very grandparent-friendly back then, for Easter and I decided to see what hitching would be like. Brooklyn to Florida with $20 and a toothbrush in my pocket. I got as far as the New Jersey Turnpike and got arrested. They made my father come pick me up. He gave me the dough for a Greyhound. But it wasn't about the destination. I wanted to try out hitchhiking. I had plans.

A couple years later-- having sent farming implements and seeds ahead, care of poste restante-- I set out for Tonga. This time I think I had nearly $90… and it was for life. I said goodbye to everyone and hitched to California and stowed away on a boat bound for New Zealand, where I planned to stow away on another boat bound for Tonga. There were two a year back then. I was discovered on the boat in San Pedro Harbor and beaten up by some drunk watchman. So I went back to Brooklyn. But I've been traveling ever since.

And not to Disneyland or Aruba. After college I flew to Germany, bought a VW van and drove to Morocco. But Morocco was just a practice trip, like South Beach had been. After Morocco, I drove my girlfriend up to England so we could be at the Isle of Wight Festival and see Dylan and Hendrix and so she could catch a plane back to the U.S. to complete her last year at college. I drove to India. Not just India-- Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, all the way down the west coast of India to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and then all the way up the east coast of India to Nepal. And then back to Europe. I was away almost 7 years. What a glorious adventure! Sometimes I write about it on here and sometimes there's call to bring up my travels at my political blog, Down With Tyranny. This is from a post from 2009 about looking for peace in Afghanistan.
There aren't many members of Congress who have traveled extensively out of the country. In his delightful book, Fire-Breathing Liberal, Rep. Robert Wexler marvels at how many of his Republican colleagues [on the House Foreign Relations Committee] seem to think not possessing a passport is a badge of honor! Last weekend I spent some time with Rep. Barbara Lee who is no longer surprised when she talks with Republicans who haven't been-- and don't want to be-- outside of the U.S. The opposite extreme would be one member who certainly qualifies for the Century Club, Rep. Alan Grayson. When I told him I was going to Mali, he was able to give me some travel tips for remote, seldom visited villages like Bandiagara and Sanga, and a few weeks ago he told me about some odd customs I can expect to experience in Albania.
NYC Mayor Bloomberg had much the same thing to say about Republican Know Nothings trying to grapple with foreign policy: “If you look at the U.S., you look at who we’re electing to Congress, to the Senate-- they can’t read,” he said. “I’ll bet you a bunch of these people don’t have passports. We’re about to start a trade war with China if we’re not careful here,” he warned, “only because nobody knows where China is. Nobody knows what China is.”

A couple years ago, Paul Krugman recommended a post by Richard Florida, America's Great Passport Divide. That's where that map just above comes from. I couldn't help but notice that the states with the smallest percentage of passport holders-- i.e., states with people who don't travel outside the country-- are also the states that elect Republicans the most regularly. Mississippi is the worst, closely followed by West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama and Arkansas.

"It’s a fun map," writes Florida. "With the exception of Sarah Palin’s home state, it reinforces the 'differences' we expect to find between the states where more worldly, well-travelled people live versus those where the folks Palin likes to call 'real Americans' preponderate. Mostly to entertain myself, I decided to look at how this passport metric correlates with a variety of other political, cultural, economic, and demographic measures. What surprised me is how closely it lines up with the other great cleavages in America today." And, as he says, the statistical correlations are striking across a range of indices.

People in richer states tend to hold passports and people in poorer states tend to not. Same for educated people versus ignorant people. The kinds of folks who elect John Boozman, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, Lindsay Graham, Jeff Sessions and David Vitter, don't hold college degrees-- or passports. They watch Glenn Beck instead and listen to Hate Talk Radio.
States with higher percentages of passport holders are also more diverse. There is a considerable correlation between passports and the share of immigrants or foreign-born population (.63) and also gays and lesbians (.54). The more passport holders a state has, the more diverse its population tends to be.  And yes, these correlations hold when we control for income.

What about politics? How does passport holding line up against America’s Red state-Blue state divide? Pretty darn well, actually. There is a considerable positive correlation between passports and Obama voters (.59) and a significant negative one (-.61) for McCain voters.  It appears that more liberally-oriented states are more globally oriented as well, or at least their citizens like to travel abroad. Again, the correlations hold when we control for income, though they are a bit weaker than the others.

...And finally, states with more passport holders are also happier. There is a significant correlation (.55) between happiness (measured via Gallup surveys) and a state’s percentage of passport holders. Yet again, that correlation holds when we control for income.

There are stark cultural differences between places where international travel is common and those where it’s not, and we can see them playing out in the cultural and political strife that has been riving the country over the past decades. Think of John Kerry, who was accused of looking and sounding “French” and George W. Bush, who’d hardly been overseas before he became president, or for that matter Barack Obama, with his multi-cultural global upbringing, and Sarah Palin, who had to obtain a passport when she traveled to Kuwait in 2007. The trends in passport use reflect America’s starkly bifurcated system of infrastructure. One set of places has great universities and easy access to international airports; another an infrastructure that is much further off the beaten track of the global circulation of capital, talent, and ideas.
I've been reading a very research-oriented academic book by John Hibbing, Kevin Smith and John Alford lately, Predisposed. One of the themes is that "liberals and conservatives report distinct personality and psychological tendencies and have different tastes in all sorts of things from art and sports to personality traits and vocational preferences… Conservatives' cognitive patterns reveal a comfort level with clarity and hard categorization while liberals are more likely to value complexity and multiple categories."

Roland and I are planning a trip to Thailand. We would never think of taking a conservative with us. We take chances-- all the time. Conservatives don't. Our trips are always off the beaten path. Even if a conservative does go abroad, most don't venture away from the most predictable and "safe" (and shallow) experiences. We're happy because a progressive friend who's never traveled abroad is rarin' to go. Predisposed reinforces that "people who seek out new information [liberals] are simply much more likely to arrive at different political conclusions than those who are comfortable avoiding the risk and uncertainty accompanying new information [conservatives]… Conservatives' relative discomfort with the new and unfamiliar shows up not only in self-reports about themselves but in behavioral patterns like a reluctance to acquire new but potentially risky information. Such reluctance has pros and cons; it protects conservatives from negative situations but also means that invalid negative attitudes cannot be disproven… [V]ariations in people's willingness to explore new objects and situations may be at the core of the differing world views of liberals and conservatives."
The differing orientations to new information are likely to manifest themselves in differing attitudes towards science and religion, with liberals eager for more data even if those data are alarming (think global warming) and conservatives more likely to be content with knowledge that they believe has already been revealed to them. Seen from this vantage point, it is not surprising that attacks on science are more likely to come from the political right. The one-study-shows-this-but-another-shows-that nature of the scientific process is probably more bothersome to the conservative than to the liberal mindset. From the conservative perspective, referring to a set of findings and claims as "just a theory" could hardly be more damning; it bespeaks an absence of certainty that is troubling, especially if someone is proposing big and expensive changes on what is taken to be little more than debatable conjecture. To liberals, theories, even if dissent is present and i's are left undotted and t's uncrossed, are much more valuable-- the weight of current scientific evidence is likely good enough for them and future modifications to knowledge are more likely to be taken in stride.
In the last couple of years, two our our most memorable experiences were fraught with the kind of uncertainty and danger that would cause a conservative to break down. We went wandering in the Himalayas and had no idea where we were or which way went where. And it was raining. A couple years before that we wound up in a trackless bush in Mali and ran into villagers who seem to have never seen anyone like us before. It was worth the whole trip. But we're not conservatives.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Holiday Tipping

One day I went to lunch with a world-famous multi-platinum artist on my label and he did something he had never done in all the years we had been eating together. He offered to pick up the tab. I was so flabbergasted that I didn't have time to grab the check before he handed his credit card to the waiter. I was composed by the time the waiter returned but I noticed my lunch companion hadn't added a too to our rather expensive meal. I pulled out some cash and put it on the table. The parsimonious singer-- then in his 30s-- asked me why I was doing that. I explained the concept of tipping. Apparently no one had before. He also had trouble with the concept of 15% but it liked how much easier it was to figure out 20% and I expect waiters the world over have me to thank for that extra 5%-- if not the entire tip.

Last week my favorite restaurant guidebook, Zagat, asks the pressing question: Holiday Tipping: How Much Do You Give?. In line with the true Zagat ethos, it all came down to reader surveys. First off, they wanted to know how does your tip change if you receive bad service?
43% said they would leave 5% less, 29% said 10% less, 7% said it wouldn't alter their typical tip and 6% said 'no tip' at all. So it looks like, for now, service is still affecting the amount of tip being left in restaurants and hence, should be a motivator for staff to do a good job.

Also, when it came to changing our current system, we asked respondents how they would feel about a no-tipping policy if it meant higher menu prices? 28% said 'hate it' 34% said 'not sure,' 21% said 'love it' and 17% said 'like it but only in upscale restaurants. So there's still a large contingent that is unsure and against overhauling the system.

The longstanding debate: Do you tip on the pre-tax total or the post-tax total? Our data revealed that most people tip post-tax (57%) as opposed to pre-tax (43%). Also the post-tax tip was more common in the South and Midwest (both at 64%) than in the Northeast (55%) or West (54%). Also men are slightly more likely to tip pre-tax (44%), while only 41% of women do this.

If you've ever ordered an expensive bottle of wine and wondered if you should factor the full value of the wine into your tip, well, so have we. We asked surveyors this questions and found that most people didn't know what to do (34%), 24% found it appropriate to tip on the full value of the bottle, and only 21% found it inappropriate, with another 21% saying it depends on a sommelier's assistance. Guess there's no standard practice for wine tipping on the consumer front. The confusion continues...

What about tipping on on discounted meal via Google Offers or Groupon? We asked diners whether or not they tip on the meal pre-discount or post-discount. 75% said they tipped pre-discount with only 7% responding that they tipped post-discount. Good to hear that those hard-working servers are being taken care of.

Now for the question of the hour, what factors the size of your tip? When it comes to what affects tip most, attentiveness of server was the #1 factor (49%) that affected the amount of the tip. Next up was the level of friendliness (21%) and problem with an order and resolution at 9%.

  When asked "are you likely to tip more if..." attentiveness won out again, with 80% saying that this would cause them to tip more, 38% said they would tip more if it was their 'regular server,' 32% said if they got something for free and 22% said if they were impressed by the quality of the food.

…As for food delivery folks, 52% said they tipped a percentage of the total amount ordered (averaging 14.2%), while 32% they left a flat dollar amount regardless of the total, (averaging $4.52). Not too shabby!

…Which service personnel do you plan to tip?

47% said they were planning to tip their housekeeper/maid, 47% said mailman/postman, 41% said hairdresser/stylist, 40% said the paper boy, and 24% said the garbage collector.
And, yes, none of this applies anywhere but the U.S.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

If You Were Planning To Go To Thailand For Christmas… You May Have To Rethink Your Holiday

Fortuitously, we decided to skip Thailand for our winter vacation this year and go to the Galápagos Islands instead. Fortuitously because peaceful, tranquil, beautiful Thailand is engulfed in a spasm of political violence right now. Yesterday, one of our favorite rental portents sent out offers for half-price stays:

Protesters are demanding that the country's prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of deposed right-wing populist Thaksin Shinawatra, resign. Bangkok is filled with demonstrators and police have been escalating the use of force. So far at least three people are dead and over a hundred injured. This evening opposition leader Suthep Thaugsuban of the People's Democratic Reform Committee met with Shinawatra in person and gave her an ultimatum of two days to step down. He's calling for a nationwide strike by civil servants and government employees on Monday. The problem is the widespread corruption that is draining Thailand's economy.
This wave of political unrest started with a blanket amnesty bill pushed through the lower house of parliament in October, which many saw as a ploy to allow Thaksin to return from self-imposed exile.

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets daily, blowing whistles and calling for the bill to be scrapped. Bowing to public pressure, the Thai Senate voted it down Nov. 11, but by then, political scars had reopened, and adversaries of Thaksin saw an opportunity to press their cause.

Thaksin's main opponents come from Bangkok and the south and represent the traditional bureaucratic elite of Thailand. His supporters are largely drawn from the rural, northern parts of the country, where his populist economic policies such as public health care and agricultural subsidies have won him a devoted following.

Once a negligible political force, his base has grown to represent the electoral majority, as Thaksin and his related parties have won every election they've entered since 2001. In 2006, a military coup ousted Thaksin, then the prime minister. And in 2008, Thailand's Constitutional Court dissolved the People's Power Party (PPP), composed primarily of Thaksin allies, over charges of electoral fraud.

In the most recent election, in 2011, Yingluck won in a landslide with a margin of more than 4 million votes out of 26 million cast.

The opposition claims Thaksin has rigged the electoral system and buys votes. Other observers say the traditional elite of Thailand have not come to grips with the reality of a changing country.
23 countries, including the U.S. Canada, the U.K., Russia, Germany and Sweden have warned their nationals that Bangkok isn't safe. Tourism accounts for over 7% of Thailand's GDP, about $28 billion. Travel agencies and tour operators are changing their clients itineraries. So far most tourists who were planning to spend Christmas there seem to be keeping to their plans, although I suspect a lot of people are very nervous right about now.