Wednesday, 22 July 2015
SF Bicycle Coalition proposes to eliminate voting membership
The Board of Directors of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition is proposing to amend the SFBC's Bylaws to abolish voting membership in the organization, and transfer all decision-making authority for the SFBC to itself as a "self-perpetuating" board. If the proposed amendments to the Bylaws are approved, the current members of the Board will elect their successors, and members will lose all of their rights to any say in SFBC decisions or any transparency or oversight over Board or organization meetings, decisions, finances, etc. According to the proposed new Bylaws:
This corporation shall have no voting members...
All powers and activities of this corporation shall be exercised and managed by the Board of Directors of this corporation....
Directors shall be elected by a majority vote of the Directors.
Under California state law, these changes to the Bylaws to strip the membership of its rights can only be made if they are approved by majority vote of the current members, after adequate notice.
The voting is going on now through July 31st. I strongly urge all SFBC members -- especially those concerned about organizational democracy or the SFBC's advocacy goals -- to click here now and vote "NO".
SaveSFbike.org, a new ad hoc organization of SFBC members formed in response to the Board proposal, has published an excellent analysis of the proposed Bylaws changes, what they do and don't mean, and why it's important to vote "NO". For the record, I had absolutely no role in creating this ad hoc group or producing its Web site, which I learned about only after the Web site had launched. But I wholeheartedly endorse its message, and urge my bicycling friends in San Francisco to read it and spread the word to everyone they know in SF.
The official ballot describes the proposed revision of the Bylaws as being made "in order to better protect members' privacy". As SaveSFbike.org explains in the FAQ on its Web site, this claim is simply false.
California state law protects the privacy of information about members of a member-controlled organization. That information can be released only to members, and can be used only for purposes related to their interests as members. An organization can provide alternate ways for members to communicate with each other, without releasing addresses to anyone. Typically this is done through "blind" forwarding of messages by the organization, so the sender never sees the recipient addresses. This is the method used by most labor unions that operate their elections under these rules.
The law allows an organization to challenge a request for the membership list from a member, if it has reason to believe that the information will be shared with non-members or used for other purposes. The law also allows for sanctions against any member who misuses the membership list or discloses it to non-members. And if the Board of Directors misuses the membership list, the members can remove them and elect a new Board.
The proposed SFBC Bylaws, by abolishing voting membership, would abolish all of these privacy protections. These state privacy protection laws don't apply to information about non-voting "members". KQED can call you a "member" if you give them money, but they can legally share, rent, sell, or give away any of the information they have about you to anyone, for any purpose, at the sole discretion of their Board of Directors. The same would be true of the SFBC if the proposed changes to the Bylaws are approved, even if the Board chooses to create a class of non-voting "members".
If you want to vote for continued legal protections for the privacy of member information, legal restrictions on who it can be disclosed to and how it can be used, legal remedies for misuse of member information by other members, and accountability of the Board of Directors to members for any misuse of personal information by the Board, vote "NO".
If "privacy" is only a pretext, and a completely bogus one at that, what's the real issue?
The ballot doesn't mention the substance of the proposed change to the Bylaws: The abolition of voting membership, and the transfer of power to a self-perpetuating board.
Creating a self-perpetuating board is like setting a wind-up toy into perpetual motion: once it leaves your hand, there's nothing you can do to get it back on track if it starts to wander off course or fails to follow an unexpected twist in the path. Most of the time, most members of membership organizations are content to let the Board of Directors do the work of overseeing the organization's operations -- as long as they are satisfied with what it does. But election of the Board by the members is a key oversight mechanism that makes it possible for members to reclaim the organization if the Board gets out of sync with members' wishes.
A recent local example is SF Pride. After the Pride Board of Directors overturned a committee recommendation to make LGBT hero Chelsea Manning an Honorary Grand Marshal of the 2012 Pride parade (apparently fearing that honoring Manning might offend corporate sponsors of Pride), outraged Pride members elected new Board members committed to restoring the accountability of Pride to its membership and its community roots. In 2014, the new Board made Chelsea Manning -- represented by Daniel Ellsberg as her stand-in -- one of the Honorary Grand Marshals of the parade. That correction couldn't have happened with a self-perpetuating Board of Directors such as is being proposed for the SFBC.
Without members, an advocacy organization also loses much of its lobbying clout, since it can no longer truthfully claim to "represent" anyone.
The issues raised by this proposal to change the structure and governance of the SFBC -- the internal democracy (or lack thereof) of the SFBC, the role of members in making policy decisions, the mechanisms (or lack thereof) for members to communicate with each other about issues being decided by the SFBC, and the relationship of the Board, staff, and membership -- are the same issues I tried to raise in my campaign for the Board.
The improprieties in the conduct of the vote on whether to amend the Bylaws, including the gross misstatements in the notice of the vote and on the ballot about the substance and purpose of the proposed amendments, are disturbingly reminiscent of the improprieties in the conduct of the last Board election, in which I was a candidate. After a clearly illegal last-minute "extension" of the election to allow more votes to be cast, I was eventually told that I had not been elected, and that all of the candidates endorsed by the current Board had been elected. But the Board still refuses to tell me or any other members how many votes I or any other candidate received.
False accusations against me, about my campaign for the Board, and about what happened before, during, after the Board election are being used by the Board as its pretext for making fundamental changes to the structure of the organization. And this is all happening during a time when the Board knew that I was far away on a two-month bicycle trip across Argentina.
But this vote isn't about me any more than it's about privacy. It's about the organization, its structure, its governance, its future -- and the interests of its members, the bicyclists of San Francisco.
Thank you for helping to save the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition!
- My 2014 candidacy for the SFBC Board of Directors
- More about the issues and my candidacy
- My follow-up message to SFBC members about the election improprieties
- Analysis of the proposed SFBC Bylaws changes by SaveSFbike.org
Discussion elsewhere of the proposal to amend the SFBC Bylaws:
- SaveSFbike Twitter feed
- SFbike mailing list (multiple threads starting with this one)
- Former SFBC Policy Director Andey Thornley ("I’ve voted 'No' on the SFBC bylaws proposal, and I recommend a 'No' vote by other members, let me explain why....")
- SF2G Google group (scroll down to bottom of this old thread for recent messages; see also multiple other threads)
Thursday, 9 July 2015
The news from Las Rosas
It's mid-summer in the northern hemisphere, mid-winter where I'm currently travelling in Argentina. Today I'm in Las Rosas in the province of Santa Fe, a town unlikely to be mentioned in any guidebook although large enough to have at least three hotels for local business visitors. It's the sort of place that a tourist would be unlikely to seek out, but that you find yourself in when you are travelling by bicycle -- the counterpart of a small town in the "flyover states" in the USA (such as those I passed through while bicycling across Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan in 2013).
In the last month, travelling slowly and stopping often, we've ridden about a thousand kilometers and crossed a little more than half the width of Argentina from Mendoza in the west towards Buenos Aires in the east.
It's been physically harder than we expected, but rewarding. I'll have a detailed report on bicycle touring in Argentina after our trip, for anyone considering travel by bicycle here. And I'll have more about travel in Argentina in my columns about the next season of The Amazing Race, currently being filmed, part of which took place in Argentina.
One of the best things about travelling by bicycle is that except on a few established routes, it forces you off the tourist track. I can't go far enough in a day on a bicycle loaded with 20 kg of camping gear, water, etc. to rush from one tourist highlight to another. Most of the time on a bicycle tour is spent in the places in between, where tourists haven't worn out our welcome or come to be treated as part of an industry rather than as visitors, guests, and friends.
I've spent several months in Buenos Aires on previous trips, but that gives about as accurate a picture of life in the Argentine provinces as time as a tourist in New York City does of life in Lake Wobegon or the rest of the USA.
In more than a month, we haven't met anyone else travelling by bicycle, although many people use bicycles for local transportation and/or recreation. We've gone weeks without seeing another tourist or hearing anyone else speaking English. This is a cosmopolitan and connected country, but we've been in a city of almost 100,000 people where the arrival of two tourists from the USA on bicycles was unusual enough to get us greeted by the mayor (we met by chance at the installation of a new mural in the town park) and featured on local TV. We've stayed in hotels catering to local business travellers that have never before had a tourist or anyone from the USA as a guest, much less anyone travelling by bicycle.
We were spotted at the edge of the smaller town where we ate lunch yesterday by some 12-year-old boys on BMX bikes, half a dozen of whom escorted us to the one lunch counter in town (at the soccer club, of course), popping wheelies along the way. They are studying English in school, but had never met a foreigner or talked with a native speaker of English. "Do they speak English in the USA?", the boldest of them asked us in Spanish.
Today it's the 9th of July -- Argentina's independence day and a national holiday. Cyclists we met on our way into town and while looking for a hotel insisted that we join them at the town plaza, where the local recreational cycling club (with 80 members, 30 of them women) is holding a charity ride of circuits around the plaza to raise money for the volunteer fire department. We're looking forward to mate and conversation while we watch the ride and the other festivities.
Wednesday, 1 July 2015
Expert critique of EU travel surveillance and profiling plans
Independent legal experts commissioned by the Council of Europe (COE) to assess proposals for surveillance and profiling of air travellers throughout the European Union have returned a detailed and perceptive critique of the proposed EU directive on government access to, and use of, Passenger Name Record (PNR) data from airline reservations.
Before the revelations by Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers about dragnet surveillance of telephone and Internet communications, few people appreciated the nature of the threat to freedom posed by government acquisition and use of PNR data for dragnet travel surveillance.
The expert report to the Council of Europe marks a breakthrough in the "post-Snowden" understanding of the nature and significance of government demands for PNR data. The report reframes the PNR debate from being an issue of privacy and data protection to being part of a larger debate about suspicionless surveillance and pre-crime profiling. The report also focuses the attention of European citizens, travellers, and policy-makers on the decisions made (in whole or in part) on the basis of PNR data: decisions to subject travellers to search, interrogation, or the total denial of transportation ("no-fly" orders).
The report specifically cites the Kafkaesque case of Dr. Rahinah Ibrahim as an example of the way that decisions made on such a basis tend to evade judicial review or effective redress.
The PNR directive under consideration by the European Union would require each EU member to establish a Passenger Analysis Unit (PAU), if it doesn't already have one. These PAUs would function as new national surveillance and pre-crime policing agencies. Each PAU would be required to obtain PNR data for all air travellers on flights subject to its jurisdiction, "analyze" this data (i.e. carry out algorithmic pre-crime profiling of air travellers using PNR data as one of its inputs) and share the raw PNR data with its counterparts throughout the EU.
The United Kingdom already has such a Passenger Analysis Unit. It's not clear which, if any, other EU members already have such units, although staff of the US Department of Homeland Security, based in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, already perform similar functions as "advisors" making "recommendations" to their European counterparts regarding the treatment of European travellers, based on US profiling of PNRs and other travel history and surveillance data.
The COE expert report on Passenger Name Records, Data Mining & Data Protection was commissioned by the COE Directorate General Human Rights and Rule of Law, and prepared by Douwe Korff (Emeritus Professor of International Law at London Metropolitan University, Associate at the Oxford Martin School of the University of Oxford, and currently Visiting Fellow at Yale University in the USA) and Marie Georges (independent expert formerly on the staff of the French national data protection authority, CNIL). The report was presented and discussed at a meeting today of the "Consultative Committee of the Convention for the Protection of Individuals with Regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data (T-PD)".
According to the introduction to the report:
Much has been said and written about Passenger Name Records (PNR) in the last decade and a half. When we were asked to write a short report for the Consultative Committee about PNR, "in the wider contexts", we therefore thought we could confine ourselves to a relatively straightforward overview of the literature and arguments.
However, the task turned out to be more complex than anticipated. In particular, the context has changed as a result of the Snowden revelations. Much of what was said and written about PNR before his exposés had looked at the issues narrowly, as only related to the "identification" of "known or [clearly 'identified'] suspected terrorists" (and perhaps other major international criminals). However, the most recent details of what US and European authorities are doing, or plan to do, with PNR data show that they are part of the global surveillance operations we now know about.
More specifically, it became clear to us that there is a (partly deliberate?) semantic confusion about this "identification"; that the whole surveillance schemes are not only to do with finding previously-identified individuals, but also (and perhaps even mainly) with “mining” the vast amounts of disparate data to create "profiles" that are used to single out from the vast data stores people "identified" as statistically more likely to be (or even to become?) a terrorist (or other serious criminal), or to be "involved" in some way in terrorism or major crime. That is a different kind of "identification" from the previous one, as we discuss in this report.
We show this relatively recent (although predicted) development with reference to the most recent developments in the USA, which we believe provide the model for what is being planned (or perhaps already begun to be implemented) also in Europe. In the USA, PNR data are now expressly permitted to be added to and combined with other data, to create the kinds of profiles just mentioned -- and our analysis of Article 4 of the proposed EU PNR Directive shows that, on a close reading, exactly the same will be allowed in the EU if the proposal is adopted....
Yet it is obvious (indeed, even from the information about PNR use that we describe) that these are used not only to “identify” known terrorists or people identified as suspects in the traditional sense, but that these data mountains are also being “mined” to label people as “suspected terrorist” on the basis of profiles and algorithms. We believe that that in fact is the more insidious aspect of the operations.
The report develops these key points about government access to and use of PNR data as a suspicionless dragnet surveillance system and as part of predictive pre-crime policing (outside of normal mechanisms for penal sanctions or for review and redress for police action) in detail.
In addition, the report endorses and highlights the point I have been making for many years that because most PNR data for flights worldwide is hosted by, and communicated through, reservation databases accessible from the USA and worldwide without purpose or geographic access limitations or access logs, the USA and other governments can already obtain and use this data, entirely bypassing putative controls on access to PNRs directly from airlines.
Continue reading "Expert critique of EU travel surveillance and profiling plans"
"Europe" must also examine the highly credible claims by Edward Hasbrouck ... that the USA has been systematically violating previous agreements, and is still systematically by-passing European data protection law, by accessing the CRSs used in global airline reservation systems hosted in the USA to obtain full PNR data on most flights, including most European flights (including even entirely intra-European ones), outside of any international agreements....
[W]e believe that the supposed safeguards against such further -- dangerous -- uses of the data are weak and effectively meaningless, both in their own terms and because, as Edward Hasbrouck has shown, the USA can in any case obtain access to essentially all (full) PNRs, through the Computerized Reservation Systems used by all the main airlines, as described next.
Monday, 22 June 2015
American Airlines claims it doesn't have to give you a ticket or tell you the fare for your trip
Closely related to airlines' efforts to escape their obligations as common carriers and to replace ticket pricing based on a published tariff with personalized pricing are their moves to escape their legal duty to provide each ticket purchaser with a "ticket".
In the days of paper tickets, there was no ambiguity as to whether the airline had given you a ticket when it confirmed your reservations. Airlines' own individual tariffs as well as IATA standards for interline ticketing specified the format of the ticket, with a separate "coupon" for each flight, and the information required to be included on it. Blank ticket stock ("accountable documents") was individually numbered and controlled, and contained physical security features like those on banknotes (paper money). Without the original ticket, you couldn't fly.
Despite the transition from paper tickets to electronic tickets, airlines continue to generate an essentially identical "virtual coupon record" (VCR) within the airline's reservation system for each ticket purchase, containing exactly the same information as used to be included on the paper ticket. All major airlines' tariffs define the VCR as being the "ticket" for all legal purposes.
American Airlines' International General Rules, for example, define "ticket" as follows (all caps as in the original, which is copied from the Sabre CRS in which the character set includes only capital letters):
TICKET MEANS THE "PASSENGER TICKET AND BAGGAGE CHECK," INCLUDING ALL FLIGHT, PASSENGER AND OTHER COUPONS THEREIN, ISSUED BY CARRIER, WHICH PROVIDE FOR THE CARRIAGE OF THE PASSENGER AND HIS BAGGAGE.
The problem is that while the airline has this record of the details of the ticket, the ticket purchaser no longer does. US Federal regulations (14 CFR 399.83) continue to require airlines to provide each ticket purchaser with a ticket, but that requirement has come to be almost universally ignored. Typical e-ticket confirmation notices contain only a small fraction of the information contained in the ticket.
Why does this matter? The airline can, and will, enforce the rules of the fare (as specified in the ticket) against the traveller. But without a ticket, and the information contained on it, a traveller has no way of knowing which provisions of the tariff apply, and thus cannot enforce those terms against the airline. And the airline, of course, has no reason to tell the traveller about information on the ticket that might benefit the traveller in a dispute with the airline.
As I said in comments I filed with the US Department of Transportation in 2010,
In the case of electronic tickets, industry standards and airlines' conditions of carriage define the “ticket” to consist of the “Virtual Coupon Record” (VCR), which contains all of the information previously included on paper tickets. But while a few airlines routinely provide purchasers with complete VCR images, and some others do so on request, many do not. [Fewer do in 2015 than did so when I filed these comments in 2010. - EH]
A complete ticket (or the VCR which constitutes the complete e-ticket) includes a variety of information which is important to purchasers but often omitted from e-mail confirmations:
- The validating carrier, which may be the transporting carrier, a codeshare partner, or an entirely different airline in the case of interline or offline ticketing, and which may be vital to know in the case of changes, refund claims, airline bankruptcy, etc.;
- The date and place of issue, which may determine when a ticket must be presented for refund or exchange, or the jurisdiction of claims related to the ticket;
- The indication (in industry standards, by an "X" or "O" for each segment), of which transfer points are allowable stopovers and which are only connection points;
- The fare calculation, including the fare basis for each segment, which are essential to determining the refund value of a partially used ticket, or the allowable routings and other governing provisions of the applicable tariff in case of cancellations or changes;
- The breakdown of taxes and fees, which is essential to determining which of the “taxes and fees” are imposed by and passed on to governments, and from which agencies of which governments to seek refunds of what amounts in the case of user fees that may be refundable if tickets aren't used, and which fees are imposed by and retained by the airline, and should properly be considered part of the fare;
- The "not valid before" and "not valid after" dates for each segment;
- The free baggage allowance for each segment (note that this is already part of each industry-standard ticket, and allows specifying different allowances for each segment).
Where this information is held by the airline, and specifies the details of the contract between the airline and the ticket purchaser, there are good reasons to require the airline to furnish a copy of this information to each ticket purchaser. 14 CFR 399.83 should be retained and should be enforced.
I have been unable to find any record of enforcement action by the DOT against any of the airlines that have been violating DOT regulations by failing to provide complete tickets.
The issue is now before the DOT, however, as a result of a formal complaint against American Airlines (AA) by frequent flyer Mike Borsetti. Mr. Borsetti was overcharged by AA for several tickets, including charges for alleged "taxes" that exceeded the taxes actually imposed by governments. Aside form the overcharging and the misrepresentation of taxes, Mr. Borsetti's complaint explicitly raises the issue of AA's violation of 14 CFR 399.83. Without the fare calculation and tax breakdown contained in the tickets, Mr. Borsetti is still unable to tell exactly how much he was overcharged, or how much of a refund he is due.
In its answer to this complaint, AA makes no attempt to argue that it ever provided Mr. Borsetti with a ticket, as required by the applicable Federal regulations. Instead, it essentially argues that the rule requiring the airline to provide a ticket is obsolete and should be ignored by the DOT -- even though the transition from paper tickets held by the passenger to e-tickets held by airlines within their computer systems has made it more, not less, important, to enforce the requirement that each ticket purchaser receive a complete copy of their ticket.
I've filed comments with the DOT in support of Mr. Borsetti, explaining why it's important for the DOT to enforce this provision of its regulations and impose sanctions on AA. Any member of the public (that's you!) can file comments by clicking here. You can type a message in the form, or attach a text, word processor, or PDF file, and can give your name or comment anonymously.
You can read all of the comments others have submitted here.
Most regulatory proceedings like this draw no public comment at all, so even brief comments will be an important show of support. Tell the DOT that if the airline creates a ticket for you within its computer system (specifying in detail the terms of the contract by which you are bound, and by which the airline should also be bound), you are entitled to have a copy of it.
Sunday, 21 June 2015
FCC finally takes note of robocall/SMS terms of service -- 6 years late
Six years ago, American Express changed its terms of service to require cardholders to give AmEx permission to robocall or text-message them "at any telephone number … you provide to us or from which you place a call to us, or any telephone number at which we reasonably believe we may reach you."
When I declined to agree to these proposed new terms, AmEx cancelled my card and closed the account I had held with them for twenty years. Despite some publicity including a story in the New York Times prompted by my initial article, the story failed to get traction, and the new AmEx terms of service went into effect.
Other companies adopted similar terms of service, including almost all of the largest credit-card issuers. I reported on similar terms of service for eBay and PayPal (then part of the same company) in 2012.
Fast forward a few years to the present, and eBay's impending spinoff of Paypal as (once again) a separate company has drawn renewed scrutiny to PayPal's terms of service.
A story earlier this month by Bob Sullivan on Credit.com, citing my earlier reports, finally got the attention first of more consumer advocates and then of the FCC. In response, the head of the FCC's enforcement bureau has sent a letter to PayPal stating that:
FCC requirements directly prohibit requiring a consumer to consent to receive autodialed or prerecorded telemarketing or advertising calls as a condition of purchasing any property, good, or service, and the company must give consumers notice of their right to refuse to give such consent. PayPal's amended User Agreement does not give consumers notice of their right to refuse consent to calls that require consumer consent from PayPal, its affiliates, and its service providers. If PayPal fails to include this required notice and/or fails to allow its users to refuse such consent, we are concerned that consent is in fact a condition of purchase of PayPal’s service and thus violates the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and could subject PayPal, its affiliates, and its service providers to penalties of up to $16,000 per call or text message.
Second, we direct your attention to the requirement that the written agreement must identify the specific telephone number(s) to which the consenting consumer gives his or her consent to be called or texted. A blanket User Agreement that purports to apply to 'any telephone number that [consumers] have provided us or that we have otherwise obtained' does not meet the level of specificity required by law. Many consumers have more than one telephone line. Consumers have the right to choose on which line(s) they wish to receive telemarketing or advertising calls, if they elect to receive such calls at all.
Finally, the Commission has ruled that should any question about the consent arise, the seller will bear the burden of demonstrating that a clear and conspicuous disclosure was provided and that unambiguous consent was obtained. We direct your attention to this statement because it underscores the importance of complying with federal law when structuring your agreements to collect the prior express written consent of consumers.
All well and good, if a few years too late. The real question will be whether the FCC follows up with similar letters to the other companies, including all of the major credit card issuers, with similar terms of service, and what enforcement action the FCC takes against those companies that have been enforcing such terms of service, placing robocalls, and sending text messages on the basis of these terms for years.
I'm working on a series of requests to "opt out" of any consent to robocalling or text messaging that may have been deemed to have been implied by my use of credit cards or other services such as eBay and PayPal with terms of service like this. It may take a few months, but I'll let you know how it goes.
[Update: Bob Sullivan reports that PayPal has responded to the FCC by changing its terms of service and adding an "opt-out" link for robocalls and SMS spam. That still leaves unanswered what, if any, action will be taken by the FCC against other companies with similar terms.]
Tuesday, 26 May 2015
Senators and travel companies question airlines' pricing practices
It seems odd to me that the movement for "net neutrality" has led to demands for the US government to protect consumers against discriminatory and/or predatory practices by requiring Internet service providers (ISPs) to operate as common carriers of data packets, at the same time that traditional common carriers of people and goods, starting with airlines, are trying to get the government to release them from their longstanding obligations to act as common carriers -- and are taking action to repudiate or ignore those obligations, without waiting for changes in the law.
As discussed below, members of Congress have begun to take an interest in some aspects of this issue, and airlines' plans are running into opposition from competing sectors of the travel industry. But a larger consumer movement is needed to get the US government to maintain and enforce the longstanding and still necessary consumer-protection rules that require airlines licensed as such by the US government to continue to act as common carriers.
What does this mean, why does it matter to travellers, and what is being, or can be, done about it?Continue reading "Senators and travel companies question airlines' pricing practices"
Thursday, 21 May 2015
Snapshots from my visit to Palmyra in 2008
The month I spent in Syria was one of the highlights of my most recent trip around the world in 2007-2008.
[We spent an entire day exploring the Roman city of Palmyra, most of the time without a single other person in sight.]
There were bureaucratic hassles, but these were caused more by the US than the Syrian government. US financial sanctions against the Syrian government, which made travel to Syria difficult for US citizens, predated the current civil war in Syria. Our bank went even further than was required by the US government (and probably further than was legal) to retaliate against us for having legally travelled to, and legally spent money in, Syria.
But the measure of pleasure in my visit to Syria wasn't how I was treated by border guards, visa officers, or banks. As was also the case in Yemen, the attitude I met on the street, in shops, in the hammams (bathhouses) and in other places in Syria was, "We hate the people who rule us. You probably hate the people who rule you. Why should we care if Assad hates Bush, and vice versa? You are our guests. We love Americans. Please be our friends!"
Communications are difficult (and, with the secret police watching, potentially dangerous) through the great firewall of Syria, and I neither speak nor read any Arabic. People spoke more-or-less freely with me, but usually without giving their names. I haven't kept in touch with any of the people I met in Syria, and I don't know how many of them are dead or alive, homeless or displaced.
As for the places we visited in Syria, I know that many of them are no more, or are only remnants of what they were just a few years ago.
All five of the World Heritage Sites we visited in Syria have been substantially damaged by the fighting. None of the factions or foreign intervenors in the Syrian civil war (including the USA and its proxies) have spared these places any more than they have spared human life: the covered souks and grand mosques and minarets of Damascus and Aleppo, the Roman amphitheater at Basra, the Krak des Chevaliers (originally a Crusader castle, where I celebrated my birthday while snow fell on the cedars of Lebanon, and which has been used again in the current war as a fortified hilltop gun emplacement), and last but not least, the Roman provincial capital city of Palmyra in the inland desert of central Syria.
[The Roman structure on the butte-like hill in the background has been conspicuously visible as a fortified high point and source and target of shelling in recent news images of the fighting in Palmyra.]
I've seen the depressing toll that war takes on cultural treasures before: in Amritsar five years after Indira Gandhi ordered a tank assault on the Golden Temple, and in Hue, where the central palaces and temples of Vietnam's Forbidden City and historic capital were destroyed by US and allied forces during the reconquest of the city after the Tet offensive in 1968.
Palmyra is a remarkable place -- one of those where the sometimes-arbitrary designation, "world heritage site", actually seems appropriate. It's unique and irreplaceable.
But human lives, it should go without saying, are also unique and irreplaceable.
I find it disturbing when people seem more concerned about what is going to happen to the stone column of ancient Palmyra than about what is going to happen to its present-day inhabitants. The headline about the fighting in Palmyra in today's Los Angeles Times, for examples, mentions the "Fabled ruins, artifacts of Palmyra, Syria" but says nothing about people. The first four paragraphs discuss threats to museums, artifacts, ruins, and statues. The human death toll isn't mentioned until paragraph five.
[This man arrived at the long-distance bus depot in Palmyra while we were waiting for our bus to Homs. The sheep -- legs trussed but alive and shitting -- was loaded into the luggage compartment of another bus as unaccompanied cargo.]
As in any foreign war, it's easier to say I care about the people I met in Palmyra, or about people I've never met in places I've never visited, than to figure out how to translate my concern into action.
[We met these boys at the top of the hill overlooking the Roman city. They were just playing. Unlike urchins we've encountered at tourist attractions in some other countries, they didn't ask for handouts, they didn't try to sell us anything, and they didn't try to pick our pockets. Today, if they've survived, they are old enough to have enlisted or been conscripted into fighting for one or another faction in the civil war.]
The US government, acting in my name, is neither improving the lives of the people on the ground in Syria nor increasing its understanding of their grievances by sending in more small arms and inflicting more death from above. And the US government needs to be prepared to recognize facts on the ground: an organization that controls territory, wields power, and carries out some level of administration is a government, whether we like it or not. Establishment and maintenance of diplomatic relationships are typically more important with enemies, with whom there may be few if any other channels of communication or opportunities for "citizen diplomacy" through tourism and business, than they are with friends.
US refusal to recognize governments because the US disagrees with their policies has had long-term negative repercussions with Cuba, with Iran, with Vietnam, and elsewhere. The US was wrong not to recognize that the Taliban was, at one time, the (evil) government of Afghanistan, and may be equally wrong in selectively failing to recognize other governments it doesn't like, such as in Somaliland and the Western Sahara (SADR). It's not as though moral or political legitimacy is a criterion of US diplomatic recognition, as is evident from the US recognition of absolutist family monarchies and practitioners of apartheid, where the Emir's word is law and his son will become the next emir, democracy be damned, in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait (where the US fought a war to reinstate the monarchy), Oman, Bahrain, and the U.A.E.
But at the end of a day with news like today's, it's hard to know what to do except mourn for Palmyra, and its people.
Friday, 15 May 2015
The Amazing Race 26, Episode 11
Trujillo (Peru) - DFW Airport, TX (USA) - Arlington, TX (USA) - Dallas, TX (USA)
One of the unrealities of The Amazing Race as a "reality" television show is that members of the cast have been forbidden to have cameras, phones, or most other electronic devices. I'm old enough to have made my first trip around the world with a film camera (okay, it had battery-powered zoom and autofocus) and nothing else electrical in my luggage beyond a flashlight and a cheap digital watch. But today, travellers take smartphones and other electronic travel gadgets for granted (although, given international roaming fees, they probably shouldn't).
This season, each of the participants in The Amazing Race 26 was provided with a device that looked like a smartphone, although it appeared to have been crippled to function only as a camera and to have neither phone, GPS, nor Internet capabilities.
Throughout this season of the race around the world, the teams were shown taking selfies. It wasn't clear whether they were merely taking the opportunity to document their own journeys (in spite of each pair of racers being accompanied by a professional videographer and sound technician) or whether the selfies were being taken on the orders of the TV producers, perhaps to be used as product-placement advertisements for one of the sponsors of the show.
Viewers didn't find out what was up until this last episode of the season. The decisive final challenge for the remaining teams in the race was to arrange each of their selfies from the month-long trip around the world in the order in which they had taken them.
At least the racers were only given cameras, and told to take handheld selfies, rather than also being provided with selfie sticks. Whatever one thinks of handheld selfies, they are by nature self-directed and have limited effect on other people nearby. Selfie sticks are much more problematic. Selfie sticks are increasingly being banned in museums and at concerts, where they interfere with other people's views. In crowds, they can be quite dangerous.
My current peeve is the people who try to ride a rented bicycle one-handed across the Golden Gate Bridge while using their other hand to wave a camera around on the end of a selfie stick.
Don't get me wrong: Riding over the bridge to Sausalito, and returning by ferry, is a great excursion. I'm glad that thousands of people a day have discovered this and are making it part of their visits to San Francisco. Those wielding selfie sticks probably mean no harm, and don't realize the hazard they pose to themselves and others.
The bridge sidepaths are narrow for heavy two-way traffic, and even skilled riders need to keep both hands on the handlebars (and the brakes, in traffic) and pay full attention to holding their line. The crosswinds are often strong and gusty. As the sidewalks round the bases of the towers, eddies of wind turbulence coincide with sharp blind turns. I've been riding over the bridge regularly for 30 years, and know what to expect, but the only places I've ever been blown off any of my bikes by wind gusts are on the Golden Gate Bridge and its approaches. An out-of-control selfie stick with a camera on the end makes a dangerous flail. When I encounter fools like this weaving around on the bridge sidepath while waving selfie sticks, I'm tempted to snatch their sticks away and throw them and their cameras over the railing into the bay.
The next step is the flying photographic drone. These aren't yet quite small, light, and cheap enough to have become an expected part of any traveller's equipage the way a camera is. But drones are making aerial photography (even in places like over the Golden Gate Bridge where a drone crash could precipitate a serious car crash) accessible and affordable to a rapidly growing spectrum of amateur photographers. Flying camera drones are already no larger, heavier, or more costly than the first video camcorders carried by amateur travellers in the early 1980s. The first commercial use of flying drones has been in wedding photography, but I expect that professional travel bloggers won't be far behind in packing drones in their luggage. How long will it be before flying drones are no longer an object of curiosity, or before vacation photos are expected to include aerial video selfies?
The racers' task of sorting their selfies in order by where they were taken wasn't easy. The focus of a selfie is, by definition, on one's self, leaving only peripheral clues as to its context. How much does your appearance really vary depending on where you are?
It's tempting to dismiss selfies as inherently narcissistic, and/or as exemplifying the trophy-hunting style of travel: "Been there, done that, got the selfie to prove it. Time to move on."
There's another way to look at selfies, however, as exemplifying a focus on the internal journey that is often the most important aspect of travel. Travel is often a personal growth experience, and self-transformation is often the most important part of our journey. Not every traveler intends or is conscious of how travel is changing them. Many a traveller realizes that they have become a different person only after they return home, as part of "reverse culture shock" or "reentry shock".
From this perspective, the selfie is the visual counterpart of the travel diary or journal: an attempt to document and preserve a record of the internal journey of the traveller. This makes sense: When you show someone your travel photographs, do you tell them about what you saw, or do you try to explain how it made you feel?
But that still leaves the same question as is posed by any travel photography: Do our photographs enhance our ability to remember, or does what we photograph displace or overshadow our other memories?
Will we come to rely on our personal archive of selfies (and will we preserve it?) to remember which trips to which places we enjoyed, and which we didn't?
And are selfies and self-image a substitute for, or a supplement to, introspection and self-awareness?
Friday, 8 May 2015
The Amazing Race 26, Episode 10
Otuzco (Peru) - Trujillo (Peru) - Huanchaco (Peru)
The highlight of this episode of The Amazing Race 26 was a visit to the site of Chan Chan (near Trujillo on the coast of northern Peru), once the largest city in the Americas and largest adobe (mud-brick) city in the world.
Despite its scale and significance, Chan Chan is less well known and visited by fewer foreign tourists than several other pre-Hispanic American sites including Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes (perhaps the single most iconic "bucket-list" tourist destination in the world not yet visited by The Amazing Race), Teotihuacan near Mexico City (visited by The Amazing Race in season 3), and the Mayan sites of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, including Chichen Itza (The Amazing Race 3 went to nearby Tulum).
One reason for lower visitorship to Chan Chan is that while vast, it is low and sprawling without pyramids, towers, or other iconic tall monuments. Another is that the adobe which is its most characteristic and significant feature is constantly weathering away.
That highlights a common dilemma for archaeologists and for governments trying to balance economic development and funding for historical preservation through tourism with the negative effects of both tourist visits and the the reconstruction that creates or preserves visual attractions for tourists.
Although it wasn't mentioned in the voiceover narration or any of the racers' comments on the reality-TV show, that dilemma was reflected in the racers' task: working with "archaeologists" to make and transport mud bricks to be used in reconstruction and "maintenance" of deteriorating and/or reconstructed portions of Chan Chan.
It may be that when Chan Chan was inhabited, there was an ongoing and continuous process of rebuilding of deteriorating adobe walls through the incorporation of new mud bricks. But the "reconstruction" of historical artifacts is not archeology, and "maintenance" is only sometimes considered an appropriate part of "conservation".
The work the racers were involved in would more accurately be described as part of an ongoing process of replacing or covering over architectural and archaeological artifacts with new replicas constructed to allow tourists to experience the site as some interpreter thinks it might have looked at some particular past time.
There's nothing necessarily wrong with the construction of replicas, whether they are merely made to look like the originals (or what someone thinks the originals once looked like) or whether they are replicas built with what are thought to be historically authentic although new materials and techniques. Experimental archaeologists make replicas of large and small artifacts in order to test theories of how and from what materials they were made, and to determine empirically what sorts of fabrication marks or traces those techniques would leave on artifacts after aging.
But from the point of view of conservation, preservation, or archeology, it makes more sense to build these new replicas anywhere other than on top of, displacing, or commingled with the materials found on archeologically significant sites. Even when the best efforts are made to ensure that reconstruction and repair is nondestructive and reversible, it almost inevitably entails at least some loss or damage of the historical record. It can be particularly unfortunate if reconstruction work today interferes -- in ways that may be impossible to anticipate -- with attempts to employ imaging, sensing, or other research techniques developed in the future.
From the point of view of historical interpretation, there are difficult choices to be made as to whether to "restore" sites or artifacts to the way someone thinks they looked at some point (and if so, which one) during the time when they were inhabited or in use, or at the time when they were "discovered" or encountered by Europeans or other foreigners, or simply to "stabilize" them against further deterioration.
That last task is particularly difficult at Chan Chan, where the adobe is inherently vulnerable to erosion whenever it rains. It rains rarely in the coastal and Andean deserts of western South America. Years often pass with no rain at all. But when it rains it pours, as it did in places in the Atacama Desert a little further south earlier this year. Both falling rain and flash floods of groundwater can rapidly wear down or wash out large sections of exposed structures made of material with no water resistance.
Tourism can be a problem even at unreconstructed archaeological sites. Visitors can trample and compress the ground (obscuring traces of what is or was below) and damage structures even if they are trying to be careful and not deliberately looting or picking up fragments as souvenirs. Creating access for tourists may be difficult without alteration to sites and structures. Visitors' breathing can increase the humidity in confined spaces where dryness has been a preservative, and lighting can fade murals and accelerate the deterioration of textiles.
If cost is no object, the best preservation or conservation strategy may sometimes be to leave ancient artifacts in the ground, and to keep tourists away. But making artifacts visible, doing so in situ, and creating on-site replicas or replacements that enable visitors to imagine that they are seeing history as it once was, are often the most effective strategies for generating revenue to support both local people and conservation work.
I'm not an archaeologist, I haven't visited Can Chan, and I pass no judgement on its curators. Many governments and many local tourism entrepreneurs recognize that archaeological artifacts are a perishable and nonrenewable national resource, but nevertheless regard their economic exploitation through tourism as essential to national economic development, and in some cases to survival. Who are we to fault them, if we are unwilling to contribute as much to fund the protection of ancient artifacts that have been left in the ground as we are willing to spend to visit those things and places that we can see and experience for ourselves?
Without a time machine, we can visit neither the past nor the future. In reality, we travel in the present, even if our fantasies may take us elsewhere or to other times. Whether we travel to learn about the past or (as is my personal priority in travel) about the future, no Herculean labor of historical "reconstruction" or World's Fair "futurism" can take us there, other than in our imagination.
Friday, 1 May 2015
The Amazing Race 26, Episode 9
Amsterdam (Netherlands) - Trujillo (Peru) - Otuzco (Peru)
One of the benefits of travelling to many different places is gaining enough perspective to tell which activities, ways of doing things, foods, etc. are really characteristic of the specific place where you first encounter them, and which are actually common around the world even if you never see them in your home country.
A case in point this week on The Amazing Race: fresh squeezed sugar cane juice.
The Amazing Race has occasionally returned to a place that it visited in an earlier season, for a "reprise" of a challenge that was especially popular with viewers. Real travellers do the same thing, returning to places we have visited before to try to recreate peak experiences. The attempt is rarely entirely successful, although it can be interesting to learn about both how places have changed and how we as observers have changed since our previous visits.
In this episode, the racers had to perform a very similar task to one that was assigned to the cast of The Amazing Race 17 five years ago: cutting and crushing raw sugar cane and drinking a cup of the cane juice. But that was in Bangladesh, and this time was in Peru, almost exactly on the opposite side of the globe. The antipode of Trujillo is actually closer to Kuala Lumpur than to Dhaka, but on a global scale that's about as far apart as major cities get. The antipode of anywhere in the lower 48 mainland US states, by contrast, is somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
I first tasted fresh cane juice in Pakistan, but it's common, with minor local variations in additives (lime, salt, ginger, etc.) , in many countries in Asia, Africa, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Oceania. So why is it rare to the point of being almost unknown in the USA (except in Hawaii), even in places where sugar cane is grown?
Sugar cane is uneconomical to ship long distances. Most of the weight and bulk is the fiber, not the juice. That's why sugar cane is invariably pressed ("milled") and often further processed close to where it is grown, regardless of whether will be used for refined sugar, rum or other cane-based alcoholic drinks, or ethanol fuel.
Raw sugar cane juice goes bad if it isn't drunk, refined, or fermented almost immediately. Rum is fermented from molasses, which is why it was possible to ship refined molasses from the Caribbean to centralized and sometimes faraway distilleries in Boston and elsewhere. Cachaça, which The Amazing Race encountered in Brazil several seasons ago, is fermented from raw cane juice, of necessity in smaller "artisanal" production facilities close to the cane fields.
Small quantities of fresh sugar cane show up from time to time in farmers' markets and some stores in San Francisco, but the one juice bar in our neighborhood that used to have a cane press wasn't able to find a sufficient and reliable supply of fresh local cane.
A cane press is a sizable, specialized investment. Typically, a cane juice vendor, having invested in a press and secured a constant supply of cane, sells nothing else. You can't readily extract the juice from sugar cane using a food processor or a standard juicer of the sort that you would use for most fruits or vegetables. The cane fibers are strong and stiff, and have to be squeezed hard between heavy, firmly mounted metal rollers. Extracting as much juice as possible requires as many as half a dozen passes through the press, with the crushed stalks being folded over on each other again after each pass. Power is supplied either by a gasoline or electric motor or by a person pulling heavy metal crank arms two or three feet long.
I doubt that anyone is manufacturing cane presses in the USA, so if you wanted one you'd have to source and import one from abroad. You might run into problems with workplace safety regulations, since it's necessary to shove the stalks firmly into the moving rollers, which could easily grab and pull in your fingers. I'm not sure it would be possible to fit effective safety guards on a hand fed cane press, and a mechanical feeder, even if such exists, would add another whole level level of complexity and expense.
Finally, both cutting sugar cane to harvest it -- as the racers had to do in this episode -- and pressing it for juice, one or two stalks at a time, are slow and unavoidably labor-intensive, even with a motorized cane press. That's why commercial sugar cane cultivation is concentrated in the lowest wage countries, and uneconomical in high wage countries even where growing conditions for cane are good.
If you haven't tried fresh sugar cane juice, you don't know what you are missing. It's not too sweet (no sweeter than many other processed and packaged drinks) and with a far more complex flavor than you would expect from "sugar water". It's cloudy, somewhat viscous, and has a fresh green taste that reminds you that sugar cane is a sort of grass. The most deeply flavored processed derivatives of sugar cane, blackstrap molasses and dark punch rum, can't come close to the subtlety of flavors in a glass of fresh-squeezed cane juice -- regardless of whether it makes you think of Peru, Bangladesh, or wherever else in your travels you first encountered it.