Spending time in windowless rooms in Aspen

I’m in Aspen for Fortune‘s fifth Brainstorm conference. It’s not the fifth annual one because we skipped last year, but I came here last summer anyway to follow Tom Friedman around for a Fortune story. So I’ve been here six summers in a row, and know my way around (even on the bike paths). But the place still weirds me out. Too many billionaires in jeans, environmentalists driving SUVs, and actual Aspenites who can’t afford to live here. Or maybe I’m just envious.

Anyway, we Fortunistas are blogging our conference. Very 21st century of us. And only five years late!

Hutong nostalgia

ChinaWent to the opening tonight at the Yossi Milo Gallery of an exhibit of photos of urban China taken by Sze Tsung Leong. They’re part of a series called History Images, which is also coming out as a coffee-table book.

The pictures, shot with a large-format (4″ by 5″ film) camera and printed really big, are breathtaking. They show sterile new neighborhoods going up and atmospheric old ones going down, but bring out a certain geometric beauty even in the new stuff.

There was much tut-tutting among the people around me at the show about China’s disregard for its history. Sze Tsung himself was less judgmental. The impression I got from talking to him is that he was out to document the transformation, not condemn it.

It’s interesting how people in the U.S., a nation that displayed utter disdain for its architectural heritage until about 30 years ago, now get all huffy about destruction of the past in China. Maybe we’re just trying to share the hard lessons we’ve learned (if only we could have the old Penn Station back!). But in Beijing in particular, it’s hard to see what else the Chinese are supposed to do. The traditional architecture of the city is of one-story “hutongs” built around courtyards. They’re charming, but utterly impractical for a city of 15 million people. (For one thing, you need higher density for public transit to work.) So most are being torn down and replaced with apartment buildings. Is that really such a horrible thing?

Some of the hutongs in the center of Beijing, near the Forbidden City, will survive as a sort of urban theme park. Many are occupied by well-connected government officials, an effective (if corrupt) way of ensuring that they won’t be torn down.

Extreme diligence in pursuit of the seemingly trivial

One of my favorite things about being in LA (I’m back in New York now) is the opportunity to sit down at breakfast with the Los Angeles Times. I know, I can read it online, but the Times site isn’t very good—certainly not in the same league as nytimes.com or washingtonpost.com or even sfgate.com. But the paper is still great. Flawed, yes, but with a daily complement of interesting articles that would put most other newspapers on earth to shame. Plus Steve Lopez!

The best of the lot yesterday was a page-one piece about “Foley artists,” the low-tech craftspeople who provide sound effects to the movie business. The rise of digital animation has only increased the demand for their work; movies made without any ambient noise are apparently in desperate need of people who know how generate fake but convincing sound effects using hoses and washboards. This may not last forever—one has to assume that, eventually, they’ll be able to fake sounds digitally as well. But for now, new technology has created a bunch of new low-tech jobs.

The article, by Richard Verrier, is characterized by what to me is the distinguishing and most endearing LA Times trait: Extreme diligence in pursuit of the seemingly trivial. Yes, the paper breaks big stories in D.C. and elsewhere. But that’s not what I read it for. My favorite LA Times story of the past year or so was a depiction by Erika Hayasaki of life at Montebello High School. When I say seemingly trivial, the emphasis is on the seemingly: Hayasaki’s story depicted how a high school with an overwhelmingly Latino student body was sharply divided between the second-generation immigrants who play football and join the drill team and the newcomers who maybe play soccer but otherwise stay out of school activities. A better depiction of the complications of modern-day immigration cannot be found.

And that, actually, is the problem: It literally cannot be found. Repeated searches of the LA Times site and archives failed to turn up the article. I finally came across it via Google, on the blog of a Montebello High grad who asserts (less than credibly) that Hayasaki made it all up.

In outer space at LAX

acb07-exteriorHere are some exceptionally low-resolution photos (note to self: get new camera phone) of Encounter, that groovy looking spaceship restaurant in the middle of LAX.

As I imagine is the case for most people who pass through the airport, I’ve been wanting to try it for years, and finally did last night at the urging of my ever-brilliant college classmate Bennet Ratcliff (I’d link but the man’s new Website isn’t ready yet).

271f4-signSo what’s the verdict? Definitely go there for drinks. Mixed drinks. It’s just so cool sitting up there at the bar with a martini, feeling like you’re floating in the sky.

But unless you’re stranded at the airport and need sustenance, you might want to leave it at that: The wine Bennet and I had with dinner (a Terrazas Malbec) was unimpressive and the food was, while certainly good for an airport, not great.

f4a6a-interiorThen, again, I was a tough critic last night, having stuffed myself only hours before with a spectacular lunch (veal kidneys!) at Angelini Osteria near the tar pits in LA. And again, I can’t think of ever having eaten better at an airport.

But that’s not saying much of anything. I wonder where one can find great airport food? This is the kind of thing Tyler Brule would know …

When dinner was served at the Oscars

I’m in Los Angeles right now, staying at the Biltmore, the massive old grand hotel downtown. In a little hallway on the ground floor, the walls are covered with photos of early Academy Awards ceremonies held here at the hotel.

The most striking photo is a huge image of the 1937 Oscars (reproduced below; to see it bigger, just click on it). The first thing one notices is a somewhat scared-looking young Henry Fonda staring out from the bottom of the picture. He’s the only immediately recognizable figure, although some more looking turns up Walt Disney and big-mouthed Martha Raye. A distinguished looking man in the foreground stands out as obviously important — turns out he’s Cecil B. De Mille.

dinnerWhat really gets me, though, is that everybody’s sitting at tables together waiting for dinner to be served. In the middle of the room is a little table with a few Oscar statuettes on it. Giving them out clearly won’t take up the whole evening. Instead, it’s your basic industry get-together, where people chat with their tablemates, visit friends at other tables, catch up on gossip, etc. It looks like it might actually have been fun. Then the industry had to go and get too big and too glamorous — not to mention too afraid of eating —for things to work that way anymore.

I don’t think I’m paying enough for cable TV

Almost every ad on washingtonpost.com this morning is a broadside from either the telcos or the cable companies about video franchise legislation, which is up for consideration on Capitol Hill today. The telcos want to be able to offer TV over their lines without having to get permission from every last city and county in the country. The cable companies, which have spent the past few decades negotiating franchise deals with every last city and county in the country, want the phone guys to suffer like they did.

Or something like that. I make no claim to expertise on this debate, and from my reading of the press coverage, no other journalist can, either. It’s one of those classic big-money Washington battles that only people in the industries involved fully understand.

It’s funny, I wrote a piece in Fortune a few weeks ago that made a big deal out of the debate over network neutrality, which pits the telcos and cable companies on one side against Internet companies like Google on the other. Philosophically, it’s a much more important issue than who issues video franchises. But the battle lines aren’t as clear, and there’s no one-day-to-the-next connection between passing a new law and one side or the other suddenly making a lot more money—as would be the case if the telcos succeed in getting video franchising decisions switched from the local to the state level. Which means that in K Street terms, network neutrality is a yawner compared with this video franchise stuff.

The telcos’ ads on washingtonpost.com ask, “Are You Paying Too Much for Cable TV?” Whether you click yes or no, you are directed to the same site, which every time I checked it this morning was inaccessible. Not the best advertisement for getting your TV or Internet from a phone company.