Oct 242013

blackfish-thumb-630xauto-36453As a travel writer, I have to cover SeaWorld from time to time. I wrote this in the New York Post in January 2009, 13 months before Dawn Brancheau was eaten by Tilikum at SeaWorld:

“At SeaWorld, daily shows by Shamu the killer whale titillate you with the dangerous possibility that the star will suddenly remember its place on the food chain and gulp down a trainer.”

And I just posted this on Twitter:

This about sums up what is left unsaid—loudly unsaid—in Blackfish.

Let’s not be disingenuous about this. Orcas are wild, seagoing carnivores. They do not belong in tanks. People go to watch a creature the size of a school bus submit to a puny human. Yet the movie includes clips of trainers registering shock that their bosses never warned them that, gee, killer whales were so dangerous.

There’s a lot of armchair psychology going on, a whole lot of anthropomorphization, and some justified excoriation of amusement practices (albeit for its first hour, ones that haven’t been employed in decades by the respected parks).

It is human nature to gawp at power and, perhaps in further worship of power, to make animals dance. It is also human nature to be cruel.

And it’s the nature of animals to act like animals.

It’s not SeaWorld. It’s us.

I like this tweet, too, although it wasn’t mine:

Blackfish leaves out the fact that we go to SeaWorld, to circuses, and to many zoos because the animals are dangerous, and it teases our latent anxieties to wonder if our power over them is about to crumble.

Not to justify or excuse any of it—but Blackfish lets all tourists off the hook.

(Also, shouldn’t it be called Blackmammal?)

Oct 132013
Re-introducing Orelia Key Bell

Re-introducing Orelia Key Bell

I wandered alone down a shady side lane at Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, a staple tourist stop where some 70,000 of the city’s favorite sons and daughters have been buried for more than 150 years. Margaret Mitchell went there after giving the South some currency with Gone with the Wind. So did former mayor Maynard Jackson, who was permitted to be buried in the white section a a few scant years after desegregation.

Often at these cemeteries, you see lots of grand graves that belong to people who are of no permanent distinction, although their elaborate carved vaults try in vain to argue the opposite. Maybe a Southerner from 100 years ago would have known the names around me, but most of them meant nothing to me. The march of stones intended to memorialize actually absorbed the identities of the thousands of their occupants. Browsing the names registered nothing, like scanning a box of yellowed and pointless used books in the final desperate moments of a picked-over garage sale.

Just as the monotony of reading non-famous names was diminishing the intrigue of a visit, a plot caught my eye. Continue reading »

Sep 292013

Shark Tank is far from fake. Up to now, if an entrepreneur appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank, they also had to agree to the following clause, which appeared in the end credits of seasons 1 through 4:


This requirement, which I talked about in a popular post here earlier, has solicited derision from many, including from the entrepreneurs themselves.

Scott Jordan, the owner of Scottevest (Season 3) explained on a post on his site, “merely appearing on the show, whether a deal is made or not, I have to give 5% of my “business” or 2% of the profits forever to the producers. So, my appearance was not free. … Free? They make money out of every deal I make from here forward.” Losing that much of your business is something that kept many entrepreneurs from signing up to appear on the show.

Apparently no more. The following screen shot was posted in a Facebook group for people who have pitched the sharks on Shark Tank. It purports to be from a post by Mark Cuban, who says his continued association with the show depended on the equity or percentage clause. The typos possibly hint that it was composed and posted on the fly:

Continue reading »

Aug 142013

My next book: Frommer's London 2014

My next book: Frommer’s London 2014

I have turned in the last chapter of Frommer’s EasyGuide to London 2014, the first guidebook to be edited and published by Arthur Frommer since the 1970s. He created the brand in 1957, and he asked me to be the first author of a flagship book when he retook publication. Of course I said yes.

Reinventing a guidebook under the supervision of the man who defines them has had me thinking about what makes a worthy one. I found myself dipping into the archive to look at what Arthur himself did in the 1950s.

Here’s a nugget from the very first guide he wrote, 1955′s The G.I.’s Guide to Travelling in Europe:

“In most of your encounters with British food, you’ll feel that you’re shoveling hay into your mouth.”

Times have changed and that is no longer an appraisal I can agree with, but I instantly loved his pointedness in telling it like it was. One might call it refreshing honesty. But in the framework of writing a guide, it’s what I call telling people what they really want to know.

When he reported from Berlin’s Revi telephone bar, he essentially told male readers if they stood a chance of getting laid: Continue reading »

Jun 152013

Spotted in London at Foyles (which is moving into a newly constructed building next door in early 2014): Penguin UK’s brilliant and audacious reissue of Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four.’ It’s designed in the classic orange and white bands as mid-century Penguin paperbacks were, but it’s embossed and redacted.

No American publisher would have the courage to let a book’s theme drive the design so confidently that the title of the product would be obscured.


May 062013

20120717-220452.jpgI just got this excellent message on my Facebook page.

It seems the mystery of “Who’s leaving smiley faces beside celebrity graves” has been solved, and the answer is rather beautiful in its guilelessness:

Hi Jason. — It’s been brought to my attention that you have been curious to who has been leaving the rock smileys on the celebrity graves… That would be me!
I also leave them on other graves that catch my attention, next to street art, and anything else that catches my attention in the Los Angeles Area. — Also as the commenter on your blog mentioned, Pittsburgh. I just came back from visiting there where I spent a lot of time visiting their cemeteries and leaving my rock smileys.
If you go to my Facebook page, you will see several albums of pictures of where I have left them.
It all started with my friend Tamra finding a little rock with a face on it, and how it made her smile. Then a few of us thought we’d leave some rock smileys around for others to find, sort of like a pay it forward type of thing. — And well, I’ve gone a little crazy with it.
And I am totally flattered that you made a blog entry about my rock smileys… :)
—Lisa Albanese

Continue reading »

Apr 302013

Fort Worth’s namesake is a traffic island. Rude!

I stopped at a New York City monument for lunch. Although thousands of people visit it every day, it was never a popular attraction. Near the northwest corner of Madison Square Park, in an concrete traffic triangle bordered by Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and 25th Street, a squat obelisk is encircled by an iron fence.

It was built in 1857 as the central feature of one of the city’s most important intersections. Today, everyone who rides the N train slides right under it. Every tourist who photographs the Flatiron Building would be staring at it if only they’d turn around. Around back is a hatch.

Inside, General William Jenkins Worth’s corpse rests quietly in the middle of one of the busiest traffic interchanges in Manhattan.

Continue reading »

Apr 202013

New York Travel FestivalI spoke today about how to avoid travel scams at the New York Travel Festival. If you missed my talk, Spike the Baby (And Other Rules for Dodging Travel Scams), you missed a lot of detail about various scams both tried-and-true and newfangled.

One element of my talk was a brief list of resources for finding out the latest scams and knowing how to ward them off. Here are some key links for doing your own country-by-country research before you set off on your own.

Recent travelers keep warnings current on the many excellent travel sharing boards such as Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree and BootsnAll (although beware that some people think that voluntarily overpaying for an inferior product qualifies as a “scam” — it doesn’t), here are a few additional links that you should keep in your  bookmarks. Be warned that the State Department’s Travel Safe mobile phone app is not updated with the speed of international events, so it’s best if you avoid using that and stick to the Web-based warnings pages, which are updated more attentively.

Because the U.S. State Department doesn’t have the good sense to create easy-to-use URLs for its most important travel update pages, I have taken the liberty of creating shortlinks that you actually stand a chance of remembering at the moment you need them most.

My NY Travel Fest talk was about avoiding scams while you’re on the road. I gave a separate talk, with its own list of prescriptions (click here for that), at the recent New York Times Travel Show, and it covered ways to protect yourself when you’re still at home, booking travel.

As I said during my talk today, if you should fall prey to a scam, don’t beat yourself up. Stuff happens, and there are professionals who devote every one of their dastardly brain cells to devising new methods of outwitting you. The happy fact is that major scams are fairly rare. Don’t be afraid.

Apr 162013

From my travel photo files: The 443-foot-tall London Eye is erected in the fall of 1999. It was assembled flat, lying on barges in the Thames, and had to be slowly winched into a vertical position, 2 degrees an hour, while London stood by and wondered what millennial folly this would turn out to be.

It turned out to be a landmark for our age. It has been called the Millennium Wheel, the British Airways London Eye, the Merlin Entertainments London Eye, and the plain old London Eye. Today, it is known as the EDF Energy London Eye.

The London Eye is hoisted into place, fall 1999.

The London Eye begins life as a sort of wink, fall 1999.

Apr 032013
Me with Mark Burnett

Me with Mark Burnett

It has been a while since I wrote about Shark Tank here, but that doesn’t mean I don’t often still get questions about the show.

The most common one? It’s whether I can connect people to Mark Burnett. (If you think I can, perhaps you aren’t ready for the intellectual rigors of pitching the Sharks. Here’s the general application link.)

But there are other things you didn’t know that I could tell you.


Continue reading »