Tuesday, 13 January 2015
Obama "data breach" bill ignores sensitivity of travel info
Today President Obama released the text of his proposal for a "National Data Breach Notification Standard".
The point of the bill is to create a nationally-standard requirement for businesses to notify consumers whenever "sensitive" personal or account information is improperly disclosed.
The President's bill is only the starting point for what will likely be (and should be) vigorous debate in Congress and by privacy advocates, data security experts, and the public.
But I want to point out two key flaws in the first draft proposed by the President, both of which pertain especially to travel, which could and should be fixed by fairly simple amendments:
First, the bill appears to have a loophole that could leave transportation common carriers -- airlines, railroads, bus companies, etc. -- exempt from its requirements. As written, the bill applies only to companies subject to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act, which doesn't generally apply to communication or transportation common carriers or some financial services providers. The bill includes special provisions for coordination between the FTC and the FCC (for communications carriers) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (for financial services providers). But it clearly needs to include a similar provision for coordination with the Department of Transportation (DOT) for issues pertaining to transportation carriers, over which the DOT and not the FTC currently has exclusive jurisdiction for consumer protection.
Second, perhaps more significantly, the bill omits location information from its definition of "sensitive" personal information, the leakage of which triggers notification requirements.
It appears that the bill wrongly conceives of identity theft and consequent financial loss as the sole, or at least the most significant, threat model for breaches of personal data security.
But that leaves out the grave, often violent (and not infrequently fatal) risks of stalking and harassment, primarily but not exclusively in the context of domestic abuse.
Victims of stalking, harassment, and domestic violence may be much more gravely endangered by involuntary disclosure of information about their location -- whether from cellphone traces or airline reservations -- than by disclosure of any of their financial records or account information.
There has been growing recognition that location information (including by definition travel data) is one of the key categories of especially sensitive and personally revealing data, along with health and financial information. But that insight didn't make it into the President's proposal, which urgently needs to be amended to explicitly define any information about the physical location of an individual person as being, per se, "sensitive" personal information.
This isn't a hypothetical issue.
Not long ago I accidentally discovered a major public leak, which was still ongoing until I reported it to the responsible company, of personal location tracking logs stored in conjunction with use of a "location-aware" smartphone app and associated Web-based service. I'll have more details once the service provider responsible for the leak has had a chance to mitigate the damage and disclose it to users. It appears, unfortunately, that the applicable state data breach notification laws currently have the same defect as President Obama's bill, and omit location data from the categories of personal data leakage of which triggers their notice requirements.
Friday, 19 December 2014
The Amazing Race 25, Episode 12
Manila (Philippines) - Los Angeles, CA (USA)
As has become the norm, The Amazing Race 25 was decided in the final episode by a test of the racers' memory of the sequence of places they had visited.
It's tempting to make fun of people who travel around the world while staying so focused on their next destination, rather than on where they are and what is happening around them, that by the end of their journey they have difficulty remembering where they've been without consulting their notes.
There's more than a hint of reality, however, to this aspect of the reality-TV show. You might not keep notes about where you've been. Or maybe you do, perhaps in the form of blog entries or Facebook updates. But how much do you remember about your previous journeys without looking through the photos you took? How many images do you remember that you didn't stop to photograph when you saw them?
Some people can't remember anything that they are told in a class unless they take notes, even though they never look at those notes once the lecture is over. Is what matters to your memory looking at your pictures after your trip? Or is it the act of photography that focuses your attention in the moment, and fixes images in your memory at the same time that it fixes them on film or in arrays of digital sensor data?
How much are your travel memories, and your travel stories, shaped by the tools that you use to record and refresh your recollections? By the practice of repeated retelling?
There's a genre of travel writing and oral travel storytelling that blurs the lines between fact and fiction. I have a couple of friends who get paid to tell travel stories on stage as performance art, and many written travel narratives compete more with novels than with works of history or geography. Readers and listeners aren't expected to take them entirely at face value: We allow considerable artistic latitude when travel stories are presented as entertainment or even as educational parables, rather than as journalism. Is it more fun to read or listen to a good story, or to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
But do we ourselves retain the ability to distinguish the way things appear in our travel slideshows, or in the stories we tell about our travels, from the way they appeared in the moment to ourselves or others?
A common theme of interviews with people who've participated in The Amazing Race is that the story told by the TV broadcasts -- ten hours or so of video edited down from a from a month or so of filming around the world -- doesn't entirely correspond to cast members' memories of what happened. But The Amazing Race is different from most travellers' reality in that cast members don't carry cameras themselves and don't see any of photos of their trips until the TV show -- edited by someone else, from a different point of view -- is broadcast several months later.
If the racers sometimes have difficulty remembering details of earlier events that seem obvious to TV viewers who have seen them focused on, and if the racers' sometimes feel that they are watching a TV show about other people, detached from their own experience, that should perhaps be a lesson about how much our own memories may differ from the way that other people -- those we travel with or those we meet along the way -- might tell the stories of our trips.
What determines what you remember about your travels, and how you remember it?
Please share your thoughts in the comments during this hiatus -- like the season of storytelling between big trips -- between seasons of "The Amazing Race".
Friday, 12 December 2014
The Amazing Race 25, Episode 11
In this episode of The Amazing Race 25, the contestants faced a cycling challenge whose difficulty was a consequence -- in a not so obvious way -- of the economic conditions in the Philippines that I talked about last week.
As I've noted previously, the on-screen host and off-screen co-producer of The Amazing Race, Phil Keoghan, is a cyclist who takes every opportunity to put the racers on unusual bicycles. If you're preparing to compete in the race, you should ride as many different types of bikes as you can find, especially unusual configurations of cargo bikes.
The design of the diamond-frame bicycle, and its more recent relative the motorcycle, has changed remarkably little in the last century. Although there are some cargo bikes with the load carried in front, and some front infant and child seats and carriers, larger loads and adult passengers are almost always carried on the rear of a bicycle. A few seasons ago in Malawi, one member of each team had to pedal a bicycle "taxi" with their teammate behind them on the pillion.
But tricycle rickshaws, both pedal powered and motorized, have long been, and continue to be, made in at least three fundamentally different configurations:
- "Delta" trikes, with two drive wheels and the passenger(s) and/or cargo in the rear, and the driver and a single steering wheel in front;
- "Tadpole" trikes, with the driver and a single drive wheel in the rear, and the passenger(s) and/or cargo between or over the two front wheels; and
- "Sidecar" trikes, with the driver riding a more or less standard bicycle or motorcycle, and the passenger or cargo carried on a third wheel alongside.
Each of these designs has it's own pros and cons, as Phil would say. Each is the norm in different countries.
Standard Indian cycle-rickshaws are delta trikes, while standard Vietnamese cycle-rickshaws are tadpole trikes.
Motorized "auto-rickshaws" in India and most other countries are delta trikes which require a rear differential in the drive train, but which can be steered directly with handlebars, with an extraordinarily small turning radius, without the need for a complicated steering-wheel linkage.
The Philippines is one of the few large countries in which almost all three-wheelers, whether pedal powered or motorized, have sidecar configurations.
Why is this? Largely because either a delta or a tadpole design requires more complex custom components than does a sidecar attached to an off-the-shelf bicycle or motorcycle.
Indian (delta) cycle rickshaws and (delta) auto rickshaws are manufactured entirely in India.
In the Philippines, as I mentioned in my previous column, there's almost no domestic manufacturing, and no significant domestic production of either bicycles or motorcycles. It's much cheaper to import a cheap mass-produced bicycle or motorcycle, and attach a simple locally-made sidecar, then to import an expensive and very bulky complete tricycle rickshaw. The only moving part on the sidecar is a standard wheel, which is neither powered nor steerable and generally doesn't even have a brake.
While sidecars can be compact and maneuverable, their asymmetry (power, steering, and often braking all from only one side) makes them less intuitive to drive and potentially less stable.
The biggest challenge for the racers was steering a sidecar bicycle rickshaw, with their teammate as passenger, around corners and through city traffic.
Most of the racers also had problems with the sizing of the pedicabs. That should be a reminder that, as with clothing, it can be difficult to find a properly fitting bicycle in a place where most local people are much shorter, taller, thinner, or fatter than you are. Even in Japan, with a large bicycle manufacturing industry, there are many common makes and models of bicycles that aren't produced in sizes appropriate for someone like me 5'11" (180 cm) tall. As the racers found out, you can ride a bicycle that's much too small for you, at least for a short distance. But it won't be comfortable and you won't be able to develop much power.
Friday, 5 December 2014
The Amazing Race 25, Episode 10
Singapore (Singapore) - Manila (Philippines)
[Overseas job postings in the window of a labor broker in Cebu, Philippines]
Do you remember the first time you came face-to-face with Third World or Fourth World poverty? For people who grew up in the First World, such a moment is often one of the most enduring of travel memories and most life-changing of travel experiences.
Whether or not you are travelling to such a place, you can -- and should, if you want to understand what people's lives are like in much of the world -- read, watch movies, and listen to friends tell you stories about what they've seen and experienced in different parts of the world.
None of that, however is likely to fully prepare you or enable you to really imagine what it's like for an entire family to live in a 10' × 10' (3m x 3m) shack they've built themselves out of scrounged materials discarded by richer folks, with no toilet and water carried from a tap 100 yards (100m) away, if they're luckier than some slum dwellers, or a muddy sump a mile (1.5 km) away if they are less lucky. Or to live on the street -- literally.
Common reactions to seeing things like this for the first time include:
- "I know what poverty is like in my country, but poverty here is qualitatively different."
- "I understood this intellectually, but that couldn't prepare me for the reality."
- "Now that I've seen what life is really like for people here, I'll never forget it, even after I get home."
A reluctance to confront poverty shouldn't keep you from travelling to the Third or Fourth World. Poverty is not confined to the global South. Wherever you go, keep in mind that poor people are not animals in a zoo, even if poverty forces them to live their lives in public view.
In some countries where rich people are able to segregate their lives from those of poor people -- including of course the USA -- both wealthy locals and wealthy tourists can be oblivious to the living conditions of the poor. Teresa P.R. Caldiera's "City of Walls", which I mention in the resource guide in the most recent edition of "The Practical Nomad: How To Travel Around The World", provides many insights into the causes and consequences of this sort of segregation. If you travel by car or taxi or on a tour bus, rather than by public transit, and walk around outside only in the enclaves of the rich, it's possible to visit such places while never being confronted with the poverty that's out of sight and out of mind to the local gentry.
In other countries -- not necessarily ones where poverty is deeper or more pervasive -- poverty is less well hidden. In these places, it's much more normal for even wealthy visitors to see, hear, feel, and smell what life is like all the time for poorer folks.
Preparing yourself for and coping with the "culture shock" this can produce, and finding ways to maximize the benefit you can get from it as an educational experience, are larger topics than I can address here.
Philip Briggs' "Ethiopia: The Bradt Travel Guide", which I also mention in the resource guide in "The Practical Nomad", includes a remarkably sensitive chapter on "Bridging the Cultural Gap" that's really about bridging the gap of wealth between rich Northern travellers and poor Southern locals. It's worth reading if you are going anywhere in the Third or especially the Fourth World, not just Ethiopia or elsewhere in Africa. It's the best treatment I've seen of issues such as guilt and begging, tipping, overcharging of foreigners by locals, and meanness by budget travelers, as well as the emotional and existential impact of profound differences in wealth.
Poverty in the Philippines catches many visitors by surprise, as it did the contestants on The Amazing Race this season. Many visitors don't realize how impoverished the country is, and aren't prepared for the depth and pervasiveness of poverty the way they might be if they were travelling to South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa.
The Philippines isn't a Fourth World country, but it is a Third World country. Per capita income in the Philippines is closer to that of Indonesia or India than to that of Thailand or Mexico. And the distribution of income in the Philippines is even more uneven than it is in Indonesia.
Why the Philippines isn't "developing" at the same pace as some of its neighbors, and why poverty in the Philippines remains so extreme and so prevalent, are complex questions addressed in the works of Philippine scholars like Walden Bello, and on which every Filipina or Filipino you meet will have their own opinions.
But as in the cases of Malta and Singapore in the preceding legs of this season of The Amazing Race, part of the explanation for the economic state of the Philippines lies in patterns of immigration, emigration, and migrant labor. To understand the Philippines, you have to understand, or at least be aware of, the Filipinas and Filipinos you don't see in their own country: the millions working in other countries around the world.
The Philippines is one of the largest remittance economies in the world. Filipinas and Filipinos working abroad send home more money than do citizens of any other country except China and India. Remittances to the Philippines exceed even those to Mexico, even though Mexico has a significantly larger population. And while remittances from Mexicans working abroad, mainly in the USA, are vital to the national economy, remittances represent about five times larger a share of total national income in the Philippines than in Mexico.
Many observers see remittance economies as an example of the "tragedy of the commons". Migrant workers are making rational individual economic decision by choosing to take higher-paying jobs abroad, but collectively these decisions serve to further impoverish their homelands.
Remittances tend to be spent on imported consumer goods, not on development of local productive capacity. Migrant workers are held up as role models and national heroes, leading (luring?) educated and qualified young people away from careers within the country. The departure of the best and brightest for jobs abroad, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as the "brain drain", bleeds the country of its "human capital" and perpetuates national dependency on imported expertise.
These dynamics are at work in many countries, but in no other country as large as the Philippines are they are so powerful an influence. And in no other large country is understanding the pervasive impact of the "invisible hand" of the international migrant labor market so essential to understanding the state of affairs that you find within the country when you visit.
Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.
Friday, 28 November 2014
The Amazing Race 25, Episode 9
Malta (Malta) - Singapore (Singapore)
In this episode, The Amazing Race 25 made its way from one island city-state, Malta, to another, Singapore.
As in Malta, the proximity of much poorer neighboring countries makes immigration and border controls a political, economic, and social issue in Singapore in ways that tourists who arrive and depart by air may not notice.
Singapore is an island, but it's linked to the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula and the rest of the Asian mainland by a road and rail causeway and a second highway bridge. More than a hundred thousand people cross between Singapore and Malaysia every day.
Singapore was formerly part of the same British colony, and then part of the same independent country, as what is now Malaysia. Relationships between such formerly united countries vary widely.
Vietnam, Germany, and Yemen have been reunified after periods of partition. North and South Korea, and Ethiopia and Eritrea, are officially at war, although both Korean governments profess a desire for reunification. It's possible to travel between them only by way of other countries, most often China or Russia in the case of the Koreas, and Yemen, Saudi Arabia, or the U.A.E. in the case of Ethiopia and Eritrea. The governments of both Taiwan and the P.R.C. also both profess a desire for reunification, although most travel between them continues to be via the anomalous enclave of Hong Kong. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have "normalized" their diplomatic relations since the wars that accompanied their successive partitions from each other. Except between parts of Kashmir, it's easier for foreigners to travel between them than most people think (I'll save that story for another day), but the borders between them are still largely closed to locals.
The relationship between Singapore and Malaysia (and to some extent also Indonesia) has much in common with that between Mexico and the portions of the USA that used to be part of Mexico. The ratio of average income between Singapore and Malaysia is quite similar to that between the USA and Mexico. Singapore relies on lower wage Malaysian workers, and Malaysians take jobs in Singapore for the money despite discrimination against them in Singapore and what many perceive as a crowded yet atomized and soulless city life.
Mutual economic dependence is mixed with mutual hostility and mutual fear about wealth, race/ethnicity, language, and religion. As in so many other regions, rhetoric of "diversity" on both ends of the causeway masks the existence of overlayed "communities" that often live side by side with only limited interaction. The epitome of this is of course in Los Angeles -- nominally one of the world's most diverse metropolises -- where people who drive everywhere fly over each other's neighborhoods on elevated freeways, without stopping and often without even being aware of who lives down below, much less what their lives are like. Similar phenomena are found in, among other places, Johannesburg and São Paulo.
Singapore is a dense, high-rise city, with roughly twice the land area of Malta but ten times the population. So you might expect that, at least when they aren't working, people who live in Singapore would be eager to get away to the Malaysian countryside. In practice, wealthy Singaporeans and wealthy expats tend to fly to places further away on their vacations.
While there are exceptions, many Singaporeans and wealthy expats living and working in Singapore hardly ever visit Malaysia, even for a day trip or a weekend. And if that seems surprising, consider how many people live their lives in San Diego and rarely, or never, visit the larger city of Tijuana just across the line that divides the trans-border metropolitan area. For tourists, it's regarded as a minor sideshow among the attractions of the region, not – as it should be – as essential to getting a sense of regional context.
Because most of the people crossing between Singapore and Malaysia are Malaysian workers, Singapore has put a low priority on improving passenger transit links. There is no rail connection between downtown Singapore and Malaysia: Long-distance trains from Malaysia, which used to run through to a station in downtown Singapore, now terminate at "Woodlands" at the Singapore end of the causeway. The nearest stations on the Singapore MRT (subway/metro train) are a long, hot walk from the causeway. But it's easy and inexpensive, if a bit time-consuming, to take an inexpensive local bus from the MRT station across to Johore Bahru ("J.B."), the Malaysian city at the north end of the causeway.
You can get buses either directly from downtown Singapore, or somewhat more cheaply from J.B., to points throughout Malaysia. Malaysian trains are comfortable and cheap but slow and have limited routes. There's been talk of building a new high-speed rail line between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, but progress has been slow and even the route into Singapore has not yet been agreed.
Depending on traffic, taking a taxi across the causeway or the newer "Second Link" bridge might save you time and isn't too expensive.
Customs and immigration formalities are generally straightforward, but as at the border between San Ysidro (south of San Diego) and Tijuana, traffic jams and substantial delays are always possible. A few years ago, crossing from Singapore to Malaysia on a Friday evening, I spent two claustrophobic hours, after I got off the bus at the checkpoint at the Malaysian end of the causeway, in a throng of Malaysian workers going home to their families for the weekend.
Walking would sometimes be faster than waiting in traffic, but pedestrians aren't currently allowed on either the causeway or the Second Link bridge. Bicycles are allowed on the causeway, though, paying the same toll and using the same two-wheeler lanes through the customs and toll plazas as motorcycles and scooters. You can also take bicycles on the "bumboats" (inexpensive shared water taxis) that shuttle across to Malaysia from a ferry terminal in the Changi neighborhood near Singapore's airport.
Indonesia is also nearby, but not nearly as close or as accessible. The Singapore Strait between Singapore and Indonesia is deeper and much wider than the Johore Strait between Singapore and Malaysia. There is no bridge between Singapore and Indonesia, and few ferries.
The closest Indonesian island to Singapore is Batam, about an hour away by ferry. Because of its proximity to Singapore, it's one of the fastest growing urban areas in Indonesia, with a population that has doubled to more than a million in the last decade. Batam is a free trade zone dominated by foreign-owned export-goods manufacturing and assembly plants like the "maquiladoras" in similar zones in Tijuana and elsewhere in Mexico along the USA border.
Many foreign visitors imagine that it would be inexpensive to travel "overland" or by boat from Singapore to Jakarta or other more touristed portions of Indonesia. Unfortunately, that isn't true. Distances are large, and inter-island ferries are infrequent and don't go directly from Singapore to any of the major Indonesian islands or tourist destinations. By the time you pay for ferry fare as well as food and lodging at unavoidable layover points along the way, it's cheaper to fly.
Friday, 21 November 2014
The Amazing Race 25, Episode 8
Palermo (Italy) - Malta (Malta)
"Where's Malta?" asked several of the teams on The Amazing Race 25 when they got the clues directing them to the island nation in the Mediterranean Sea. One team speculated that Malta might be in Spain, Italy, or Greece before they got around to considering that, "Maybe Malta's its own country."
Malta is actually the name of an independent country -- formerly a British colony and major naval base -- as well as the name of its largest island. The racers' ignorance is understandable, however, since Malta is small and not a major destination for foreign tourists.
Most of the travellers I sent to Malta during my career as a travel agent only went there because the cheapest tickets between other places were on Air Malta and allowed -- or required, due to less than daily schedules on many routes -- a free stopover on the island. "Low-fare" airlines have driven down prices on many routes within Europe, but Air Malta used to be one of the few airlines that offered cheap one-way consolidator tickets across the Mediterranean, such as between Europe and North Africa and between Iberia and Greece ot Turkey. For a small airline, Air Malta (airline code "KM", as in "Knights of Malta") also serves a surprisingly large number of airports, including many "provincial" and secondary cities.
For what it's worth, most of these travellers who reported back to me said that Malta was interesting, distinctive, and worth a short stopover if you are passing through, although expensive even by European standards and probably not worth going too far out of your way to visit unless you have some special interest or motivation.
Malta is the smallest member state of the European Union, in both in area and population. It's a crowded cluster of little islands: Luxembourg has only slightly more people than Malta, but almost ten times the land area.
Malta is also distinguished by having the largest number of refugees and asylum seekers per capita of any EU member or other First World (i.e comparably wealthy) country. Of fewer than half a million residents of Malta, almost a thousand are seeking asylum and almost ten thousand more are other refugees. Most of these are "boat people" who arrived from or via Africa or the Eastern Mediterranean.
A small cluster of crowded rocks in the middle of the sea isn't an attractive goal for any but the most desperate refugees. Malta's refugee and asylum seeker crisis only began after Malta joined the EU in 2004 and the Schengen Area at the end of 2007.
A citizen of any EU member state has the right to live and work anywhere in the EU, and all controls on travel across borders within the Schengen Area have been abolished. That's why many people in other countries around the world who can claim citizenship in EU member states by ancestry or otherwise are now acquiring passports of countries they never intend to live in, as de facto lifetime pan-EU residence and work permits, with the right to pass that citizenship status and its privileges on to one's children.
But the EU and Schengen treaties are accompanied by the EU's so-called Dublin Regulations, which assign responsibility for adjudicating asylum claims to whichever EU member country a refugee first arrives in.
Even if an asylum seeker makes it onto a plane or ferry onward from Malta to the European continent, any other EU country in which they are found can send them back to Malta.
The burdens of these rules on both countries of arrival and the refugees themselves are felt in all the EU members closest by land or sea to poorer countries to the east and south. The largest numbers of refugees and asylum seekers subject to these rules arrive in the EU via Greece. But Malta's small size as well as its location make the refugee problems there proportionately much worse.
Like the USA, but unlike most other EU countries, Malta tries to discourage refugees and asylum seekers by detaining most of them, typically for a year or more, while their claims are being processed. But most refugees who arrive in Malta (unlike people who seek asylum in the USA, most of whom are eventually deported) eventually obtain some sort of legal status and move on from Malta to other European countries.
While the implications of EU asylum processing rules on the Maltese refugee crisis have been widely discussed, the significance of another group of regulations and practices has been almost entirely overlooked.
Why, we need to ask, are migrants arriving at Malta by boat in the first place?
Not because it is cheaper, or because they couldn't afford to fly. Human traffickers charge more than the price of tickets on low-fare airlines to smuggle refugees and asylum seekers across the Mediterranean in overcrowded and often unseaworthy small boats.
And not because they are not legally entitled to travel to, enter, or remain in the EU. An asylum claim can only be made or adjudicated after an asylum seeker arrives in a country of refuge. But most of those who make it to Malta eventually have their claims upheld, and are officially determined to be entitled to remain. In other words, they are legal travellers and legal entrants, even though the legality of their entry can only be determined after the fact.
The reason refugees are taking to the sea, where many of them die en route (like those who die in the desert trying to enter the USA from Mexico), is that airlines -- in flagrant violation of their obligations under international aviation and human rights treaties -- refuse to transport them.
Airlines simply will not sell you a ticket or allow you to board a flight to another country if you don't have a visa or other advance permission (such as citizenship of a country that is allowed visa-free entry to your destination), but say you intend to apply for asylum at your destination.
Governments fail to enforce the obligations of common carriers to transport such passengers.
And of course most asylum seekers -- people who, by definition, are suffering from or have a justified fear of persecution -- have little or no realistic access to judicial redress.
The right to travel may seem abstract, and of less significance than rights that are more obviously matters of life and death. This is a case where the deaths of "boat people" at sea -- legitimate refugees fleeing real persecution, who are entitled to asylum if they can reach a country of refuge -- are directly attributable to violations of the right to travel by airlines, and the acquiescence in (or encouragement of) those violations by national governments.
Tuesday, 11 November 2014
More on why I'm running for the board of the S.F. Bicycle Coalition
In announcing my candidacy for the for the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, I said that I would bring to the Board a focus on policy advocacy, on bicyclists' rights, and on participatory decision-making and internal transparency and democracy within the SFBC -- all of which have been under-represented on the current Board.
What does this mean, and why are these issues important?Continue reading "More on why I'm running for the board of the S.F. Bicycle Coalition "
Friday, 7 November 2014
The Amazing Race 25, Episode 7
Marrakesh (Morocco) - Palermo (Italy)
"What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." (Not.)
There are some things that happen during the filming of The Amazing Race that television viewers never see. Each episode of the reality-TV race around the world is separated from the next by a 12-hour (or occasionally longer) "pit stop", typically at a luxury resort or hotel. The racers are filmed arriving at, and departing from, each pit stop. But the cameras and microphones follow them into their hotel rooms only when they are invited in by the racers, typically only for brief and controlled glimpses.
In real life, each season's race around the world lasts about a month. During that time, the two-person teams of racers are on camera continuously, almost everywhere else they go. Behind the closed doors of their hotel rooms, however, they can relax, plan strategy, process what they've experienced, argue with each other, make love, etc., without being interrupted or worrying about what the people watching them will think.
That's as it should be, and as it should be for ordinary hotel guests as well, especially long-term travellers in less familiar places. Sensory overload is an important element of culture shock. In a place where there are few foreign visitors and people who look like you are a rarity, being the constant focus of attention can be enough to make anyone feel like they have inadvertently become the star of their own reality-TV show. Often, the only escape for an overwhelmed visitor, and the only place where they can regain a sense of being in control of their space and their experience, is inside their hotel room.
Immersion in sensory overload can be enjoyable, in controllable doses. The longer the duration of your trip, the more likely you are to need to withdraw, at least occasionally. The ability to exclude both temporarily unwanted people and temporarily unwanted stimuli from your hotel room is most vital for long-term travellers, road warriors, and people like some of my readers who for various reasons have lived in hotel rooms for months at a time.
The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that under U.S. law, once you have paid for a hotel room, your room is your home and your castle. You are entitled to the same protection against unwanted intrusions in a hotel room as you would be in the same room if you owned it outright as a condo.
As is often the case, however, the law is one thing and business norms are another. The difference is made clear in a fascinating and widely-misreported legal case involving a gambler arrested earlier this year in Las Vegas.
Paul Phua is a Malaysian businessman well known as a high-roller at casinos in Macau and in Las Vegas, where he has played in million-dollar-ante (U.S. dollars) televised poker games.
(Macau is an enclave in China near Hong Kong on the Pearl River Delta. Macau used to be a colony of Portugal, as Hong Kong was a colony of the U.K., and both are now "Special Administrative Regions" of China. Hong Kong continues to use its special legal status to provide a haven for banking and incorporation. Macau uses its special status to provide a haven for legal gambling. Casino gambling is generally illegal in China except in the Special Administrative Regions. Most Chinese citizens can't get visas to travel to the USA or other countries, but can more easily get permission to travel to Macau from the rest of China. As a result, Macau has become the world's largest legal casino gambling center: Significantly more money is bet and lost to the casinos in Macau than in Las Vegas.)
Paul Phua and his son Darren Phua were arrested in July of this year, during the soccer World Cup, in a residential villa (a 10,000-square-foot hotel suite) at the Caesar's Palace casino-hotel complex in Las Vegas. Gambling, including betting on the World Cup, is of course legal in Las Vegas. That's how Caesar's Palace makes its money, and that's why the Phuas were there. They have been charged with U.S. Federal crimes, however, for allegedly using the Internet connection from their hotel villa in Las Vegas to send messages to unlicensed sports betting businesses in Macau and elsewhere.
If you have time, and enjoy a good story, I encourage you to read the motion. I spend a lot of time skimming and sometimes reading legal briefs, as part of my work as a policy analyst and consumer and human rights advocate. Most of the time, even when the arguments are important, it's just work. But this is the best-written piece of legal story-telling I've read in years, even down to the legally irrelevant asides. ("Once they left the villas, the first comment of [agents] Lopez and Kung was to agree that the female butler was "pretty hot." Ex. F., Trans. Disc 3, p. 39, lines 24-25. Turning back to the case, they...")
The essence of the Phuas' lawyers' argument was that FBI agents and Nevada state law enforcement officers repeatedly cut off the Internet service to the Phuas' villas, waited until the residents of the villas reported the outages, then came into the villas with hidden cameras and recorders but disguised as, and falsely claiming to be, repair technicians working for the hotel.
The police then used the information from these warrantless entries to apply for a search warrant for the Phuas' villas as well as a another villa occupied by some alleged associates of the Phuas, claiming that the residents of the villas had "consented" to their coming inside.
The legal issue is whether you can be deemed to have "consented" to a search by the police if you let a person into your home who claims to be a repair technician, especially when the only reason you called for service is that the police had turned off your service.
This sounds like something out of a comic-book story of surveillance in a tin-pot dictatorship, where the phone in your hotel room stops working (because the secret police have disconnected the line), and then the secret police show up at your door, pretending to be from the telephone company, and pretend to "fix" the phone while installing wiretapping devices.
There's more to the malfeasance of the FBI and Nevada police in this case. They tried to hide from the judge the fact that they were the ones who had disconnected the DSL lines to the villas, prompting the residents' service request to the hotel. They also claimed to the judge that the Phuas had been "free to leave" while they were being kept in handcuffs for more than five hours. Since the Phuas weren't being detained, it wasn't necessary to read them their rights or allow them to talk to their lawyer, who had shown up outside the villa and was turned away by police.
But what interested me most was the role of the hotel-casino management and staff.
The New York Times editorial, like much of the of the other news analysis, got this backwards:
During the 2014 World Cup, the agents suspected that an illegal gambling ring was operating out of several hotel rooms at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, but they apparently did not have enough evidence to get a court-issued warrant. So they enlisted the hotel’s assistance in shutting off the Internet to those rooms, prompting the rooms’ occupants to call for help. Undercover agents disguised as repairmen appeared at the door, and the occupants let them in. While pretending to fix the service, the agents saw men watching soccer matches and looking at betting odds on their computers. There is nothing illegal about visiting sports-betting websites, but the agents relied primarily on that evidence to get their search warrant. What they failed to tell the judge was that they had turned off the Internet service themselves.
The voluminous court filings (those that are available without charge through RECAP are linked from this copy of the docket sheet) and other news reports about the underlying facts make clear that the actual chain of suspicion and illegal snooping went in the other direction:
Contrary to what the Times suggested, the police didn't "enlist" the hotel in their investigation. The hotel initiated the investigation, enlisted the police to spy on its guests, gave the police full access to all the data it had already collected about these guests and all the surveillance tools it had already installed, and provided support without which the police wouldn't have been able to trick the guests into letting in the cops disguised as Internet repairmen.
Reprehensible (and unconstitutional) as the cops' actions were in this case, anyone who spends time in hotel rooms ought to be at least as outraged at the hotel's role in spying on its guests.Continue reading "The Amazing Race 25, Episode 7"
Thursday, 6 November 2014
I'm a candidate for the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition
Who am I, and why am I running for the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition?
Bicycling is central to my life and identity. I'm a former professional bicyclist (as a messenger, not a racer -- professional racers are a tiny minority of the numbers of working cyclists). I've never owned a motor vehicle. The ability to rely on bicycles and mass transit for year-round transportation is one of the reasons I moved to San Francisco in 1985, and have lived here (when I'm not travelling) ever since.
I write about travel, including bicycle travel, and I work for a travel-related human rights organization. I've ridden and observed bicycling in cities around the world (including in India, China, Argentina, the Netherlands, etc.), in addition to touring long distances by bicycle across North America and Europe, and I think bicycling has a key role in any sustainable human future.
In recent years, the SFBC has come to have an effectively "self-perpetuating" Board of Directors, with the members of the current Board nominating their successors and the election by the members of the SFBC serving as little more than a rubber-stamp approval of the Board's slate of nominees. This year, I'm the only candidate on the ballot for the SFBC Board of Directors other than the candidates nominated by the members of the current Board.
I would bring to the SFBC Board of Directors a focus on policy advocacy, on bicyclists' rights, and on participatory decision-making and internal transparency and democracy within the SFBC -- all of which have been under-represented on the current Board.
Events over the past year, from motorized vehicular killings of bicyclists to the backlash by some motorists against bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users expressed by Proposition L (which was defeated, but still got 60,000 votes), make clear the need for us to renew our commitment as a civil rights organization to defend bicyclists against discrimination and to realize the full potential of the "transit-first" clause of the city charter. Bicycle-friendliness requires more than just bicycle-specific infrastructure. Too many bicyclists in San Francisco are still subjected to bias and harassment by motorists and police. The SFBC can and should, as part of our work, be doing something to change this. But that's only part of the challenge we face.
I've posted my complete answers to the SFBC questionnaire for candidates for the Board of Directors, which give more detail about my candidacy, as does this follow-up article with more about the issues and why I'm running.
I would welcome a chance to talk with SFBC members about my candidacy and about what you want the SFBC to be doing. Feel free to contact me by phone at 415-824-0214 (be aware that I might be travelling and in another time zone) or by e-mail at "firstname.lastname@example.org".
If, like most of the people I know in San Francisco, you are a member of the SFBC, and you know me -- as a friend, as a neighbor, as a colleague, as an activist, and of course as a bicyclist -- please support my candidacy, and encourage your friends to do so as well.
[I plan to post a follow-up article with more details. But I haven't been able to find out when the ballots will be sent out, and want to make sure that at least this much information is available to voters when the ballots arrive and voting begins. I was given wrong information about the election deadlines, and was finally told the deadline for candidate statements to be sent out with the ballot the same afternoon that they were due. I've requested a copy of the minutes of the decision scheduling and establishing procedures for the election, but haven't received it. So far as I can tell, someone on the SFBC staff and/or the current Board of Directors -- I don't know who -- is making up the election rules and procedures as the election is being conducted.]
Friday, 31 October 2014
The Amazing Race 25, Episode 6
This week, many of the contestants on The Amazing Race 25 continued to have trouble finding their way around Marrakesh, both on foot in the center of the city and driving product-placement cars into the outlying mountains. The team that lost the most time to missed turns and other route-finding mistakes finished last in this leg of the race, and was eliminated.
It's easy for television viewers to think, "I could do better than that." But could you really, if you understand neither spoken nor written Arabic? And how would you go about it?
Here's an updated overview of techniques and tools for finding your way to a destination in an unfamiliar city, especially where there are few or no signs in any writing system you can read:
- Get someone to lead you.
This could mean hiring someone (perhaps one of the crowd of children or older students who crowds around you wanting to practice their English) to walk with you, or hiring a taxi to drive in front of you, as contestants in The Amazing Race have sometimes done even when they were required to drive their own vehicles. In a maze of twisty little unsigned and possible unnamed streets, it can be almost impossible to give clear verbal directions or draw a clear map, even with a common language. It's common for a generous local informant eventually to give up and say, "It's too hard to explain. Just follow me and I'll lead you there." The most difficult aspect of a situation like this can be deciding whether or not to offer to pay, or if so, how much. Someone who is doing you a favor out of generosity or hospitality may be offended to be offered a tip. But in a place where personal services are normally compensated, someone who takes time to help you may expect you to pay them the normal local wage for such a service, and feel ripped off if you don't. You can't always tell what's expected. I think it's generally best to offer a tip or payment, especially if someone has spent significant time or gone significantly out of their way to help you, but to take no for an answer if your offer is refused.
- Ask passers-by for directions.
This is easier said than done if you have no language in common with most of the people on the street. The more tools for communication you have, the better your chances that the next person you meet, after proceeding in the direction you have been pointed, will be able to understand where you want to go, and get across to you what to do next. Any map -- even a bad map or one in a language neither you nor your informant understands -- can be helpful as an aid to non-verbal communication. Have paper and pencil handy in a place where you don't have to dig in your luggage for them, and offer them to people from whom you are asking for directions. The first chance you get -- ideally, before you even set out -- get someone to write down the name and address of your destination and any other information that might help you find it or help someone along the way give you directions (e.g. a phone number at your destination that a local person can call on their cell phone). If someone tells you to take bus number 64, ask them to write that down in the local language. The next person you encounter may not understand "64" in English, but if you show people at the bus stop a page in your pocket notebook with "Bus 64" written on it in the local language, they'll be able to indicate with gestures whether or not you should board an unlabelled bus that comes along. I doubt that this technique is prohibited by the rules of The Amazing Race, but I've hardly ever seen this technique used by contestants on the reality-TV show.
- Use digital maps.
With the exception of the advice about specific smartphone models, most of what I said two years ago in my three-part series series about Smartphones and Digital Maps for International Travel is still valid today. To make use of digital maps, you either need reliable, affordable, wireless data coverage while you are travelling, or you need to have digital maps downloaded and stored on your device for "offline" use. For now, Nokia Maps remain the best worldwide offline maps for smartphone use, but it's not clear for how much longer the Nokia Maps database for Symbian will continue to be updated: Microsoft has paid Nokia to discontinue development of new phones with the Symbian operating system, in favor of Windows Phone. No more new Symbian phones are being made, although tens and perhaps hundreds of millions of them remain in use. As for data service for access to online maps (such as Google Maps) while abroad, T-Mobile USA has begun offering the first service plans for customers in the USA that include wireless data even while roaming in many countries. But while these plans do include roaming data usage in China and, somewhat remarkably, India, they don't include Morocco or many other Third or Fourth World countries, especially in Africa. Even offline maps stored on your own device are less reliable than paper maps, and have other drawbacks. Cellphones are theft magnets, and smartphones more so. iPads and other tablet devices are worst of all, and the top targets of snatch thieves around the world. Even an unsuccessful attempt to steal your device can result in it being damaged and rendered temporarily or permanently unusable. What's you Plan B for maps -- and everything else for which you use your phone -- if it runs out of juice or is lost, stolen, or damaged beyond repair?
- Use paper maps.
Paper maps are as useful as ever, but have been getting harder and harder to find, either in advance of a trip or locally. The travails of paper map creators, publishers, and distributors mirror those of authors, publishers, and distributors of printed guidebooks. Both local people and visitors (at least those with money, who used to buy high-quality paper maps) are using digital maps on smartphones, drastically reducing sales of paper maps other than the cheapest and poorest quality ones. Even if good maps are published locally, they may be not be easy for visitors to find. So it's more important than ever, and more likely to be worth the price premium, to track down and procure the best maps you can before your trip. Most specialized brick-and-mortar travel book and map stores in the USA, including the entire chain of Rand McNally company stores, have closed. So has Maplink, which for many years was the largest mail-order supplier in the USA of international maps. (Maplink's domain name was sold at the bankruptcy auction, and now redirects to a completely different company with which I have no experience.) There are still some excellent map stores in other countries, as I list in the resource guide in the latest edition of The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World. But international shipping tends to be quite expensive for small map orders. Since the demise of Maplink, the best source in the USA for international travel maps has been Omni Resources (Omnimap.com). As was Maplink, Omnimap is mainly a wholesale distributor but happily services retail orders. They have only a very few maps on display for walk-in sales at their office in North Carolina, but you can get a sense of their mail-order catalog from this page of maps of Morocco. Call or e-mail them if you can't find what you want, or aren't sure which map(s) will be best for your purpose. It's hard to judge or compare maps without having them in your hands. (For what it's worth, I had no financial interest in Maplink, and have none in Omnimap -- they don't have an "affiliate" advertising program.)