Saturday, January 26, 2008

Movies Are ??? Than Ever

The movie There Will be Blood has been hailed with near unanimous critical praise. The word among the cognoscenti is that it’s a lock for Best Picture. Thus it was with high expectations that I recently attended a showing. Well, Oscar sure thing or not, the principal accolade it got from me during its two hours and thirty-eight minutes was my most-glances-at-my-watch-during-a-movie award. Seventeen glances, if memory serves me.

Which got me to thinking, are not movies longer than they used to be? Or have to be? Or am I just emulating the younger generation; is it that my attention span is getting shorter?

I remember that during the heyday of the Hollywood studio system, the directors were simply employees of the studios (along with the actors and all the other talent). They were given a budget, and they adhered to it or else they found themselves on a new milk route in the morning. Louis B. Mayer (or Harry Cohn, or Jack Warner, or any of the studio bosses) would tell the director that he’s got this much money and that many people to bring in a 90-minute movie, and that’s it.

Today, of course, the whole system has changed. In particular, the director is not only not an employee, he’s an
 auteur. And more often than not, he has final-cut rights. So it seems clear that in this new world of film-making, there are few constraints on a movie’s length. Few checks and balances. Is this the case? Are movies indeed longer than they used to be?

To attempt to answer this question other than anecdotally, I decided to look at the lengths of Academy Award nominees in recent years (2003-2007) and compare them with lengths of movies made 70 years ago at the height of the studio system (1933-1937). Here are the results:
Picture 8
So to the extent my samples are representative of the entire industry, movies are longer than they used to be, 23 minutes longer. (Whatever happened to the fabled cutting-room floor?)

Which brings up another question: do great movies
 have to be two hours-plus? I think the answer is clearly no. Yes, it’s true that some of the greats have been unusually long:
Picture 4
But are three-hour lengths needed to make a classic? Or even two hours? Many (most?) of the great classics have been brought in at sub-two-hour lengths:
Picture 5
And if we look at some of the classics (other than Oz and GWTW) from the studio-dominated 1930s, almost all were shortish. As examples:
Picture 6
Another interesting illustration of the bloat that has distended movies can be discerned by comparing originals with remakes. The 1934 Cleopatra(Claudette Colbert) came in at a brisk 1:42. In 1963, Elizabeth Taylor’s version of Cleopatra limped in at 3:12 , one and a half hours longer (with a million more extras). Or Charles Laughton’s Mutiny on the Bounty took 2:12, while Marlon Brando’s remake needed 3:05.

In 1930, almost two-thirds of the American population went to the movies every week. Today, that number is less than 10 percent. This startling decline in the role of movies in our entertainment lives has been explained by many analysts in many ways. I mention it here only because in the early 1950s, when television began to exact its devastating toll and movie attendance went into free fall, Hollywood responded with the slogan, “Movies are Better Than Ever.”

Are movies better than ever? Don’t know. But I do know that movies are
 longer than ever. Is longer better? Not necessarily. In fact, all I can say with complete conviction is that longer is… longer. 

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Democratizing Art

The following piece was inspired by a provocative essay written by the late Edward C. Banfield in the April 1982 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “Art Versus Collectibles – Why Museums Should be Filled with Fakes.” Banfield was a professor at Harvard, not of art, but of government. The art worldhated his proposals. The article can be accessed online if you’re a subscriber to Harper’s (it’s real cheap to subscribe, and worth it to read the article).


If any form of culture merits the opprobrium of elitist, it is the visual arts. Works of art are spread around the world, are priced out of sight, and many are in private hands, rarely or never seen by the public.

A work of art that is housed in a museum can only be seen by physically visiting the museum, then hoping it is on display – most museums show only a small fraction of their works – and then often coping with crowds to actually get a good view of the piece (which increasingly is protected from vandals by glass).

Let’s say that I want to see Las Meninas, the great Velasquez masterpiece in the Prado. I have to get on a plane and fly to Madrid to see it (as Donna and I did six years ago). The Mona Lisa? Hop back to the Louvre in Paris. Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte? On to Chicago’s Art Institute.

Let’s consider further
 Las Meninas. One of the world’s finest works of art, or maybe just the finest Velasquez, or surely a really fine painting – how many people actually get to see it? The answer is, not many. Last year, 2.6 million people visited El Prado, and assume that all of them viewed Las Meninas. Perhaps a half-million were from the United States (surely an overestimate). A tiny percent of our population.

This means that only a trivial number of Americans have or will see this painting, even over the course of decades. It’s too far away, it’s too expensive, and it takes too much time. And surely repeat visits are much more infrequent.

Contrast this experience with watching a Mozart opera. We don’t have to travel to Salzburg; we can enjoy a great musical experience without traveling overseas, or traveling anywhere. We can hear a live performance, listen to a CD, watch a DVD or perhaps go see a Met Opera HD telecast to our local cinema. (This year, more people will see Met operas in movie theaters than in the opera house itself.)

And here is the basic difference. Music is reproduced -- by orchestras, singers, recordings, telecasts. Art, on the other hand, is proscribed from being reproduced, or at least from being
 exactly reproduced. Only shoddy reproductions are allowed by owners, by museums and by the law. You can buy reproductions in museum shops – and they certainly encourage you to do so – but they are purposely not very true to the originals. As Prof. Banfield points out, “The position of the art world is that only bad reproductions are good.”

Exact reproductions in art are called forgeries. Yet in music, the higher the quality of a performance, the more the adulation. As Banfield writes: “Cultural commentators apply a curious double standard to the visual arts and music. People who sneer at a very good reproduction of a painting will praise a far inferior reproduction of a symphony.”

So, the best music in the world performed by the best performers can be easily and inexpensively enjoyed and owned by anyone anywhere. Not so in the visual arts.

Why this difference? In fine art, there are two principal interests: economic and aesthetic. Today, we are witnessing the economic value of top works of art increase dramatically. When the total supply of a work consists of a single entity, and the number of interested owners is many, the price clearly appreciates.

The aesthetic experience has nothing to do with the economic interest; it is entirely separate.

Suppose that a work of art could be reproduced
 exactly. By exactly, I mean that the original and the copy could not be distinguished except by the most sophisticated scientific instruments. Would the viewer of Las Meninas The Copy have a different aesthetic experience from the one viewing Las Meninas the Original if he were not told which was which? I posit no; the experience would be the same. I can imagine that if the viewer indeed knew which was which, the outcome might be affected because of a widely assumed correlation of monetary value with artistic value.

This postulation that exact copies have an equal aesthetic value with the original is, of course, heresy in the art world, where the cult of the original dominates. Banfield quotes noted art critic John Hughes: “Even the most perfect replication is intrinsically dead, like a stuffed trout.”

That said, is creating an exact copy even in the realm of possibility? The answer is yes. You can start with Hans van Meegeren, the Dutch forger who successfully duped everyone with the six “Vermeers” that he created. Until he confessed in 1945 that they were forgeries, no one was the wiser.

Well, there aren’t that many forgers around with the talent (or boldness) of van Meegeren, so exact reproductions are unlikely to emerge from human hands. But with the advent of new technology, it is now possible to create copies that are of a quality where the aesthetic experience equals that of the original. Ironically, the scientific world’s most sophisticated technology is necessary to root out fakes, and equally sophisticated – but different -- technology is what now makes possible exact copies, or “fakes.”

I’ve personally only experienced exact reproductions once. It was during a visit to Sunnylands, the Palm Springs home of Leonore Annenberg.

When her husband Walter died in 2002, the art collection that they had amassed of 53 paintings, drawings and watercolors by 18 artists were donated to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The trove included works by Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso, Braque, Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat, Bonnard, Vuillard, and Matisse.

As part of the terms of the gift, Mrs. Annenberg received framed
 copies of each of the donated works. And not your run-of-the-mill copies, but astonishing reproductions made possible by using the latest digital techniques. Today, these works hang in place of the originals at Sunnylands, and they are spectacular.

But don’t take just my word for it. When Philippe de Montebello, director of the Met, visited her home in Palm Springs to see the installation, he said, “Lee, who has the originals, you or the Met?” (Perhaps in jest, but not apochryphal.)

Today, museums are being priced out of the art-acquisition market by the soaring prices for works by the top artists. Also, insurance and security costs have skyrocketed. All these factors make loans of art to other museums that much more expensive.

So consider the following scenario: the museum makes an an exact reproduction of one of its top showpieces, sells the original for millions of dollars (to a collector who
 must own the original), and exhibits the exact copy. The museum-goer receives the same aesthetic experience while the museum uses the proceeds for a variety of other purposes to fulfill its mission.

Or consider this: The museum sells an original (perhaps at a lower price), but makes 100 exact copies, and sells each for a modest amount to 100 other museums around the world. Now children, students, art lovers everywhere can share in this exhilarating visual experience without spending thousand of dollars on airline and hotel tickets.

Will any of this ever happen? Probably not. But it should. Fine art should be as accessible to everyone as is fine music. And great literature. And all the other components of what we call “culture.”
Imagine: An exact copy A Sunday on La Grande Jatte in every museum in the world. 

Monday, January 14, 2008

I Coulda Been a Contenda

I was a technology analyst for Morgan Stanley in the late 1970s, about the same time that personal computers were introduced to the world by Apple, Radio Shack and Commodore. Settling on an Apple II in early 1978, I became an indefatigable proselyter for the PC. When visiting institutional clients, a regular part of my job, I was paid to talk about tech stocks. But all I wanted to talk about (and demonstrate) was the miracle of the personal computer -- to the chagrin of clients and my employer.

The first PCs had few applications available other than games, but I was determined to demonstrate to all who would listen that many more practical tasks were possible. When challenged to show them a “practical task,” my pitch became a little more difficult. Remember, this was before any decent word processor or database applications, and a year before invention of the VisiCalc spreadsheet, the program (with its successors) that did so much to legitimize the PC industry.

So I decided to create my own useful application, or at least something that I thought would impress my audiences. I took a primitive list manager and fed it with information about 60 New York City restaurants – their names, locations, cuisine types, price ranges and phone numbers. Moreover, I even appended ratings of to four stars. And the list could be searched or sorted in any variety of ways – how about a moderately priced, three-star French restaurant in the East 40s? A few clicks, and voila.

Well, the application and its hard-copy printouts became popular around Morgan Stanley. Some of our salesmen used to carry them around as they scheduled their client meetings.

But soon after I left Wall Street for venture capital, my PC-based restaurant application had become but a faint memory as I focused my efforts on creating technology start-ups. In fact, I thought everyone had forgotten about that restaurant application. But then a few days ago this scan of a yellowed printout appeared in my email:

Restaurants List 1980

It was sent to me by that venerable Silicon Valley dean of technology marketing, Regis McKenna, who apparently forgets nothing and throws away less.

Today, my restaurant list appears rudimentary, crude, totally worthless. Restaurant information floods the Web, and Zagat Guides in particular are not only ubiquitous, but are the basis of a good-size business, both on- and off-line.

So here’s my point. Having had this idea a year before Zagat started, I should have given up Wall Street, I should have foregone venture capital and instead entered the restaurant-information business.

I was first! I was computerized! I was ahead of Zagat! The business could have been, and should have been, mine!
 The Rosen Restaurant Review! It’s even alliterative. And Rosen is a lot less ambiguous to pronounce than Zagat (which syllable is the accent on, anyway?). Well, next time around, it’s gonna be different.

By the way, I’m not alone in making the wrong choice. Remember Pan American World Airways? It sold its eponymous building on Park Avenue to Met Life in 1981 for $400 million, with the proceeds helping it to remain in the airline business. Well, ten years later Pan Am shut down. Oh, and in 2005 the building was resold for $1.5 billion.

Better they had stayed in real estate and forgone flying. 

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Car-Pooling -- An Idea Whose Time Has Come -- and a Solution


Twice a day in every American city – indeed, in cities worldwide – for two- to three-hour periods, commuters drive into and out of central business districts. These periods, familiarly known as rush hour, are anything but rush.

Rather, the so-called rush hour can be characterized by:

• Traffic congestion
• Slow speeds
• Long commute times
• Stressed drivers
• Single-person occupancy

The last-named feature is the glaring one. Anywhere from 80-90% of commuting cars have no occupants other than the driver. Thus a car that can seat five is operated at a 20% load factor, or worse. No other transportation system operates so inefficiently. Airlines, which need 80% or so load factors just to break even, wouldn’t last a week operating with only 20% of their seats filled.

Yet we tolerate this system with almost no one being exercised. Except me.

It’s a terrible system on at least five counts:
• It wastes gasoline.
• It wastes our time.
• It excessively pollutes the air.
• It excessively generates greenhouse gases.
• It stresses the parking lots.

And if you think it’s bad now, consider the following:

Traffic is worse than it’s ever been,
But better than it’ll ever be.


Every day
We’re making more cars
We’re making more people,
But we’re not making new roads.
 (At least not in most metropolitan areas.)

So how do we solve the rush-hour problem of traffic congestion, long commutes, and excessive fuel usage, emissions and greenhouse gases?

The solution is car-pooling.

Yes, that’s an old idea, but one that has never been successfully implemented in metropolitan commuter situations. (In fact, it only seems to work in neighborhoods with parents shepherding kids to school and play.) Most of the reasons are well known:

• Individuals’ independence
• Fear of riders getting stranded by drivers’ schedule changes
• Personal preference issues of riding with another (smoking, radio, talking, gender differences, et al.)

But there are two other impediments:
No effective software systems exist to implement widespread car-pooling
No effective governments programs exist to encourage pooling

In order to solve the problem, then, we need a system that:
• Is extremely easy-to-use
• Has ubiquitous access – at home, office, anywhere, any time
• Dynamically matches drivers and riders
• Offers incentives to both riders and drivers
• Allays fears.

Once this system is developed, we then need governments (local and state) to implement and encourage it.

In the last two years, I’ve been investigating the possibility of developing Poool, and then offering it to employers and governments on a pro bono basis. Working with Avery More, a Dallas-based venture capitalist/entrepreneur, and a team of software engineers, also in Dallas, I’m convinced that such a dynamic matching system is feasible.

Indeed, there are a lot of matching systems out there today. We can easily bring together multiple buyers and sellers, whether of romance (dating services), goods (eBay, Amazon), tickets, whatever.

But the key to success in car-pooling is “dynamic.” This means that if the universe of users is large enough, there is a very high probability of matching a rider and driver (schedules, locations, personal preferences) at any time – even if the driver has to work late, or leave early, or gets sick. In other words, No Rider Left Behind (to coin a phrase).

Ideally, the way to begin such a program is with large employers. Organizations with at least 250 employees at a common site would be large enough to ensure statistically a high degree of matches. Another benefit of making it organization-based is that the fear of the unknown would be mitigated; participants would share the same employer. Finally, the radial pattern of commuting would also assist in ensuring successful matches – everyone converges on a single location in the morning, leaves that single location later that day..

The system would be accessible to the user anywhere. On one’s home computer, office computer, cell phone or PDA. Whenever plans changed, a new driver (or rider) would be just a few key clicks away.

The system also would have (as current car-pooling software also incorporates) personal profiles of each participant. This way, all individual preferences would be respected in the matching.

In effect, this system, which I have named Poool, uses technology to help solve a transportation problem, much as technology has made possible automated tollbooth collections and congestion-pricing schemes.

The beneficiaries of Poool are manifold.

Riders will enjoy fuel savings that are non-trivial, especially at $3-plus per gallon gasoline. Their cars will be freed up for family use.

Driver benefits will require some creativity. For drivers opting into the system, state and local governments could reward them through a variety of financial incentives: cash, tax abatements, a share of congestion-pricing revenues (in New York City, assuming it’s implemented), lower congestion-pricing fees, toll-booth fee reductions.

Other driver benefits could be free or preferential parking and the satisfaction of being a good citizen (the “Prius-owner” syndrome). And one could create an affinity awards program, say Frequent-Poool-Driver Award Points. Finally, those drivers who elected to alternate with each other say daily or weekly would reap double benefits.

Employers would benefit by becoming better citizens: reducing road wear, emissions, greenhouse gases and traffic congestion. Their image would be burnished. A more direct benefit would be the reduced pressure on providing parking spaces.

Community and societal benefits are myriad. The improvements in traffic, the environment, and energy consumption would be palpable.

Before actually developing the Poool software, I’ve begun some market research tests. First, Avery and I visited several large employers in the Los Angeles area to gauge their temperature for our idea. We thought L.A. would be fertile ground because rush hour is now three hours twice every weekday and parking is a major issue. Also, employers of more than 250 employees in the South Coast Air Quality Management District (all or parts of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernadino counties) are required to implement a ride-sharing program.

You would think, then, that this would be fertile ground. Imagine our surprise. Or surprises. The first surprise came at an aerospace company that was attempting to comply with the SCAQMD car-pooling requirement. Their “system” consisted of a Human Resources staffer with a folder in her desk drawer. Whenever employees were hired, she would put their names, addresses and phone numbers in the folder and tell them, if they were interested, she would try to match them with riders or drivers. Needless to say, few employees at that company were car-pooling.

The second surprise was that companies could actually buy out of compliance. One CEO told us that they set up a program and complied with the regulation, putting into place a system with driver rewards and preferential parking. They then learned that it was costing them three times as much as the fee they could pay SCAQMD to buy out. Guess what they did?

My second market test is underway, but I’m not sanguine. I met this week with officials in New York City, the first U.S. city to propose the congestion pricing system first championed in London. The idea is to tax vehicles entering in peak hours the central business district in order to discourage their entry and to raise revenues (for mass transit) derived from those who do enter.

I didn’t get a lot of city encouragement for Poool; they’re totally focused on getting the congestion pricing approved and implemented. So my next meeting is in 10 days with New York state officials. We shall see.

Congestion pricing, by the way, uses a “stick.” You pay a fee to enter the CBD. Poool, by contrast, offers a “carrot.” You’re rewarded if you comply. As to reducing the number of cars, CG is forecasting just a 6.4% drop in vehicular traffic in the CBD (but a lot of revenue from those that enter the CBD).

With an effective car-pooling system, I think the reductions could be more significant. If we were to increase multiple-occupancy vehicles from 10-20% in rush hour to just 30-40%, the results would be dramatic – rapidly flowing traffic, little congestion, more parking spaces, and the concomitant environmental benefits.

But for this to happen we need a governmental champion to get it started. I’m convinced that employers will not do it on their own, nor will commuters. And government programs will have to go beyond the lip service of ineffective signs on the highway (“Call 1-800-CARPOOL”).

For those of you who say, Yes, but.. Sure, there are a lot of difficult challenges, including the not insignificant one of behavioral change. Yet if there is forceful government leadership and important societal benefits, behavior can be changed. Most people now use seat belts in cars, though resistance was high at the start. Few people now smoke in public places; we can give thanks to responsible government initiatives.

I truly believe that a meaningful number of people will commute with others in the same car if it’s encouraged, if it’s easy, if it’s pleasant, if it’s safe, and if it’s foolproof. What of the few who may not find an emergency match late one night on Poool? A safety net has to be there – taxi or car service. This is a cost of the system, but small compared with the rewards.

There clearly a lot of loose ends – this is still just an idea. The software has to be developed and to work. Measuring compliance with pooling will require its own technology (cameras, while avoiding privacy issue). Liability has to be considered. And a host of other “details.”

But here the devil is not in the details. The devil is in doing nothing, and watching a terrible situation get worse.

To the barricades! 

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Obama -- A Personal Take

They’re in New Hampshire now. Fitting, from a personal viewpoint, because that’s where the whole
 Barack Obama thing started for me. Not with the inspiring speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, but in New Hampshire, a year ago.

Donna and I were catching the news one evening last winter, well before anyone had declared for the presidency. During the course of the broadcast, we both had an epiphany. Or at least a political epiphany.

We saw this confident young man addressing a group of people on a snowy night. The man, Barack Obama, was black. The group he was speaking to was all white, very large, and wildly enthusiastic.

I said to Donna, “There’s something going on here. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything else like it, and I can remember some charismatic politicians in my time.” Among them are FDR (yes, I’m that old), JFK, Adlai Stevenson (a two-time loser, but a charismatic speaker), and Colin Powell (whom I witnessed having CEOs and factory workers eat out of his hands; but then he declined the call).

The "something" that was going on in New Hampshire in early 2007 had nothing to do with his policy on this issue or that, or his votes in the Senate, or anything as specific as that. Rather, the “something going on,” at least in our view, was that this could be a candidate who could unify this unbelievably polarized country (just as I thought that Colin Powell, a Republican, might have done).

Obama books

Neither of us had ever been involved politically at the national level, but there’s always a first time. (Well, when I was 19 and at college, I campaigned for Adlai, but that hardly counts.) We then read Obama's books, we did some further research, and we soon got in touch with the Obama exploratory committee and said we’d like to raise money for him – even though he had not yet declared.

Out came our tin cup. We solicited friends, friends of friends, close relatives, distant relatives, casual acquaintances, and any warm bodies who would take our phone calls or keep our e-mails from going into their spam box.

We learned in the process that many of our friends were behind Hillary, that a lot were Republicans, some were Biden fans, a few supported Richardson, and a lot were simply unwilling to commit to anyone that early. We probably wore out some of our friendships during this exercise, but we were on a mission.

When all was said and done, the response turned out to be remarkable. We were floored by how many people from how many different camps sent in their $2,300-per-person checks. By the end of the March quarter, the two of us had raised one-half percent of all the money that the Obama campaign had raised nationally.

Part of the carrot that we used was to promise them an intimate meeting with the senator at our apartment. On the evening of May 3, about 50-plus of them showed up on Central Park West for our “intimate” reception.

As it turned out, the event actually was reasonably intimate. The senator generously pressed the flesh with everyone either before or after his talk. He posed for pictures, he signed copies of his first book (Dreams from My Father – a wonderful insight into the person), and only the insistence of his handlers got him to finally leave.

Obama speaking
Obama at Chez Rosen, May 3, 2007

One impression of of Obama that evening sticks in my mind. Observing him in action mingling with the crowd stands in contrast to my one meeting with a Clinton (Bill). Now both Obama and Clinton are masters at this game, but with one significant difference.

I've met only one Clinton (Bill), and just once. But I spent four hours in a Metropolitan Opera box with him (and six others) in early 2001, just after he had left office. There was, of course, a lot of chitchat before, during and after the performance (Aida).

And herein is the difference. At the opera, Bill (“the smartest person in any group”)
 lectured. At our fund-raiser, Barack (no intellectual slouch himself) listened. In his campaign, Barack says the election is not about me, it's about you. I believe him.

On January 8, the New Hampshire voters will cast their ballots. Forty-five percent are registered independent. In Iowa, Obama dominated the independent vote. So even though the chart of the polls compiled by
 Real Clear Politics shows a tight race between Obama (rising green line) and Hillary (declining purple line), the trend is definitely toward Obama, before and after Iowa.
Obama - RCP NH
Source: Real Clear Politics 

But the chart above shows the average of many polls, some of them not yet reflecting the Iowa results. The most recent poll, from American Research Group, has data through today (Jan. 5), and shows Obama with a 12-point lead over Clinton and 18-point lead over Edwards -- significant changes just in the last few days.

Picture 1
Source: Real Clear Politics

My favorite observation on the Iowa results comes from former Bill Clinton campaign staffer Paul Begala, who appeared last night on Charlie Rose. Begala quoted some Democratic operative as saying that Hillary's loss may have been a blessing in disguise. As Begala reminded us, Churchill had this rejoinder when his wife Clementine proffered that phrase after his defeat in 1945: "It may well be a blessing in disguise. At the moment, it seems quite effectively disguised."

On to New Hampshire. A year later.

Obama working crowd
Working the crowd

Obama, BMR, DKR
Barack, Donna, Ben

Obama signing
Signing "Dreams from My Father"

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

On to Pyongyang -- Part 1

On Feb. 26, the
 New York Philharmonic will play Gershwin’s An American in Paris and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, From the New World – in North Korea! Or, rather, in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. And Donna and I will be there also, along with some fellow board members, a few other curious parties, and 50 members of the world press.

Time Ping Pong
From Ping Pong Diplomacy in 1971 to Pyongyang Philharmonic Diplomacy in 2008. Ten months after 15 American table tennis players arrived in Beijing, Richard Nixon became the first American president to visit China while in office. The Ping Pong visit also marked the first thaw in Sino-American relations since the Communist takeover of mainland China in 1949.

Our frosty relations with North Korea are not dissimilar to those we once had with China. Except in the case of North Korea, the estrangement has lasted over half a century.

So the question arises: Will this cultural exchange in February be a harbinger of improved relations with North Korea, much as the 1971 event presaged a new era of U.S.-China relations? Will it help North Korea re-enter the community of the world and emerge from its figurative and literal darkness? The 2003 satellite image below illustrates the literal darkness of the North versus its southern neighbor.

Korea at night

There are at least two data points suggesting an affirmative answer. First, the Philharmonic trip is being strongly supported by Christopher Hill, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and our chief negotiator in the Six-Party agreement regarding the North Korean nuclear program. Second, President Bush recently sent a personal “Dear Mr. Chairman” letter to Kim Jong-il, leader of a state that was a founding member of Bush’s “axis of evil.”

Most people we’ve talked with are highly supportive of the Philharmonic trip. Yes, North Korea is a totalitarian government with a miserable human rights record. And yes, they’ll probably get some sympathetic press coverage for hosting this visit. But the benefit to us in starting a dialog with the guys we’re at odds with seems like a good step in narrowing our differences. There’s not much to be gained by talking just to our friends.

Nonetheless, there is opposition, even within the cultural world. An example of this contrary viewpoint is found in the writings of Terry Teachout, theater critic for the Wall Street Journal. Excerpts from a recent blog of his:

It horrified me--no other word is strong enough--to see them [the Philharmonic management] sitting next to the smirking representative of Kim Jong Il, the dictator of a brutally totalitarian state in whose Soviet-style prison camps 150,000 political prisoners are currently doing slave labor.” [The trip is] "a puppet show whose purpose is to lend legitimacy to a despicable regime."

As for me, I see this as an historic opportunity. As the old saw goes, even the longest trip begins with a single step. I plan to document the trip with photos and video. Which will lead to Pyongyang, Part 2. Maybe even Part 3.

Tehran, anyone?


Scenes from the New York Philharmonic Dec. 11 press conference formally announcing the trip to Pyongyang.