Thursday, 14 September 2017
Digital devices for world travellers
[Some of the mini-laptops and handheld computers I've used in my travels around the world since 1995. Back row, left to right: Gateway 2000 Handbook 486, Asus Eee PC 901, Panasonic Let's Note CF-R7. Front row, left to right: Psion netBook / Psion Series 7, Psion 5mx, Psion Revo Plus / Diamond Mako.]
Among the most frequently-asked questions at my travel talks is, "What type of laptop computer, tablet, smartphone, or other digital device do you recommend that I bring with me on a trip around the world?"
The answer begins, of course, with, "The smallest, lightest, and most rugged device that will meet your needs." But what device that is depends on your needs.
Some people get by with a smartphone. But what if you need or want to write documents or blog posts or lengthy messages or do work that requires a keyboard, but you don't want to carry a "full-sized" (and fragile) laptop computer?
You can carry a tablet, a separate (folding) keyboard, and some sort of case or stand to hold them both in the right position. But that tends to be awkward to use, and the whole kit typically weighs as much as a miniature laptop, "subnotebook", or "palmtop" computer with a built-in keyboard.
Do miniature devices with "real" built-in keyboards really exist? Yes. Since 1995, when I first got a computer small enough to bring with me when I travel, I've had a succession of devices (as shown in the photo above) that are substantially smaller, lighter, and more rugged than any typical laptop. On any of these except the smallest (the Psion 5mx and Psion Revo at lower right), I could comfortably write and edit long documents. I wrote and edited most of my first book on the Gateway 2000 Handbook 486 at the top left, which is the next smallest of these devices.
The problem isn't that devices like this don't exist, but that (with the exception of the brief popularity from 2007-2010 of the Eee PC and competing "netbooks" -- none of which came close to the build quality or performance of the Psion netBook from a decade earlier) relatively few people have been willing to pay the price of miniaturization or of higher quality construction for smaller and lighter devices that can stand up to travel.
Most travellers in the USA go by car, not by plane, and have plenty of room in their vehicle for a full-sized laptop if they need it on the road. As a result, keyboard devices smaller and more expensive than a "standard" laptop have been niche products in the USA and many other parts of the world -- except in Japan and to a much lesser extent in Europe, where more business people travel by train and by mass transit. Few models or even product lines of smaller devices with keyboards -- again, except for some that are distributed only in Japan -- have been widely available or remained in production for very long.
"Tiny" in the USA connotes "toy-like", and people expect toys to be (a) cheap and (b) not suitable for doing real work.
Not so in Japan, where "tiny" connotes "finely crafted" and "precious". A Panasonic Let's Note is marketed as a premium-priced jewel of a computer, not a cheap toy. The smallest current model, the Let's Note CF-RZ6a, is smaller than the first (and smallest) Eee PC in the photo above, but as powerful and full-featured as many "full-sized" contemporary laptops. Like the Psion netBook of 20 years ago, but unlike most other laptops or digital devices, it's designed and tested to withstand shock and vibration including being dropped onto a hard floor from the height of a desk -- a routine travel event that will crack the screen and often the case of most other laptops. I've dropped my Psion netBook off a podium onto a hard floor without it being damaged, and I've carried my Let's Note in a bicycle pannier for months at a time and over many miles of bone-shaking gravel and paving stone surfaces. The Let's Note CF-RZ6a is the the best netbook-sized device for world travel currently in production -- if, and only if, price is no object.
Lack of distribution and availability in brick-and-mortar stores is especially problematic for a category of device that most people not only don't know exists but can't evaluate (or assume won't be worth the price) until they can try it. Most people won't pay more for a smaller computer that they assume must be less powerful or that has a keyboard they assume will be too small to really be useful.
I had to buy each of the devices in the photo above, except the Asus Eee PC, by mail or online without being able to inspect or try them. Few people will do that. I plan to look at a Let's Note RZ6a, to replace my 10-year-old Let's Note RZ-7 whose batteries no longer hold a charge, when I'm in Tokyo in November. But I'm not going to spend more than US$2,000 to order one from Japan without a hands-on inspection of the size, shape, wight, build quality, and functioning of the keyboard, touchscreen, and other components.
Can you really type, even touch type, on a device that's smaller than a standard laptop? Maybe, depending on your own typing style, the size and shape of your hands, and the design and build of the keyboard. A keyboard is not a commodity. Personal tastes for key spacing, layout, and feel vary so much that reviews are of limited use. You can't tell if a keyboard will work for you until you try it, hands on.
Last night, for example, I got my hands on a prototype of one of the most promising of the current crop of new digital devices that might enable me to leave even my mini-laptop behind some of the time when I travel, and still get writing and other work done on the road. But because the keyboard (although functional) was one of the components of the prototype that wasn't yet in its final form for mass production, I can't really judge the keyboard until I receive one of the production models.
[Prototype of the Gemini Android/Linux clamshell PDA with keyboard and touchscreen. The lighting was poor; there are better photos of the Gemini PDA here in the only earlier hands-on review of the prototypes.]
I prefer to buy "mature" hardware and software that has been tested and debugged in extended real-world use. It's typically cheaper (especially second-hand), more reliable, and better value than anything on the cutting edge. But mass-produced time-proven hardware isn't an option if you want a digital device you can travel with that has a keyboard but that's smaller than a netbook with a 10" diagonal display. No smaller "palmtop" or "subnotebook" sized digital device with a keyboard has been mass-produced in several years.
The only current prospects for such a device are from crowd-funded start-up projects. In March 2017, I contributed to the crowd-funding campaign for the Gemini PDA with an estimated delivery date in November 2017. I was willing to risk my money on this particular project because it was deliberately trying to replicate the most successful elements of the Psion design (but with updated digital components and connectivity), and because the keyboard and case of the Gemini PDA were being designed by Martin Riddiford, the same person who did such a superb job on the design of the Psion netBook, 5mx, and Revo.
As I wrote some years ago, "IMHO (in my humble opinion), the Psion line of 'palmtop' computers running Psion's EPOC version 5 operating system (ER5) are the best portable computers for travellers ever made. Although I no longer use my Psions on a daily basis, neither the hardware nor the software have been matched, much less surpassed, by any competitor or successor. They have both hardware and software features that wouldn't be matched for years, and in some cases has yet to be matched, by later generations of netbooks, tablets, and smartphones."
The Gemini PDA prototype photographed for the Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign was actually built around an actual Psion 5mx keyboard. It's the odd case of a "start-up" with a proven design I already know I like.Continue reading "Digital devices for world travellers"
Tuesday, 29 August 2017
What would happen if a robot got hit by a train?
A couple of weeks ago, while waiting for a commuter train back to San Francisco from Redwood City, I had an unexpected and disturbing encounter with one of the "self-driving" motorized delivery robots that are currently being tested in Redwood City.
The robot -- a knee-high wheeled box about the size of a hassock fan or footstool -- was working its way along the edge of the platform, beyond the yellow line marking the danger zone, where it could have been struck by or sucked into a passing train and turned into 50 pounds of flying shrapnel. Some "Baby Bullet" express trains on that track go past the platform in Redwood City at 60 mph without stopping.
I was surprised to see one of these robots on the Caltrain platform at all, much less to see it trying to use the platform as a through passageway, and even more surprised to see it drive right up to the edge of the platform before it jerked to a stop and turned to continue along the platform toward me.
I yelled at the robot, hoping that a human operator might be monitoring it, but the only response from the robot was a repeated recorded message, "Let me go! I'm working! I'm going to be late!" -- as if the platform was a right-of-way, and humans were expected to yield to robots.
I saw no marking on the robot, but another passenger on the train had encountered a similar robot accompanied by a human minder earlier in the day. They passed on the card they'd gotten from the robot handler with the name of the company that operates the robots, "Starship Technologies".
The e-mail address on the business card didn't work, and there's no phone number on the company's Web site. I got in touch with a spokesperson for Starship Tech only after they responded to my Tweet about the incident. But almost three weeks later, and after multiple exchanges with staff of Starship Tech, Caltrain, and the government of Redwood City, I still haven't gotten any coherent explanation of what happened or why.
Last night, all else having failed, I took the Caltrain to Redwood City again to bring the issue before the city council. I hadn't planned on writing about this yet, but since I've heard that some of my comments from the webcast of the city council meeting are circulating and being discussed elsewhere online, I'm posting them here in full.
My name is Edward Hasbrouck, and I came down from San Francisco today to alert you to a serious safety issue involving the delivery robots that are operating here in Redwood City.
On August 9th, I was on the Redwood City Caltrain platform when I saw a delivery robot on the platform, out at the edge beyond the yellow line marking the danger zone. The robot went almost to the drop-off before it turned back, and then it tried to push along the platform through the crowd of people waiting for the oncoming train, playing a loud recorded demand that we move aside to let it pass.
There was no visible marking on the robot. There's no phone number on the Web site of the company, Starship Tech. Supposedly there's a 2 × 3" label on each robot with a phone number. But that's too small to read from any distance, and that phone number goes to voicemail, so it doesn't provide any way to communicate with the human operator or report problems in real time.
Caltrain told me they don't believe that the city permit authorizes use of the Caltrain platform by these robots. But a spokesperson for Starship Tech told me that the company intends to continue using the Caltrain platform as a robot thoroughfare at all times except 4 to 6 p.m.
One of the first things we teach small children before we let them out on the street is to stay away from train tracks. Similarly, keeping robots away from moving trains should have been a priority for robot programmers and operators.
This incident should be a wake-up call that the city needs policies and procedures to deal with the inevitable cases when robots get into places where they aren't allowed, aren't wanted, fail to yield to pedestrians, or cause a nuisance, tripping hazard, or even a greater danger.
Redwood City took the lead on this issue, and you are setting a precedent not just for this technology, but also for the regulatory framework in which it operates. You need to get this right, not just for your own sake but also for the sake of other cities following your lead. But because there wasn't yet any experience with these robots, some of the problems may not yet have been apparent.
Other cities and states that have more recently adopted rules for delivery robots have almost all included requirements that aren't part of the Redwood City pilot. These include an adequately sized label with an ID number and contact information on each robot, prompt responses to public inquiries, and reporting of safety incidents to the authorities.
People who see robots where they shouldn't be, or doing things they shouldn't do, need to be able to identify the robot, communicate the
problem quickly to the robot operator, and have their complaints reported to the city so it can learn from experience.
I request that the City Manager revoke the delivery robot permit until the permit conditions can be revised to deal with incidents such as this. If the City Manager does not do so, I request that you place on the agenda for your next meeting a resolution to suspend the pilot program and direct that the permit be rescinded pending revision of the rules for operation of these robots.
I could have gone into more detail if I hadn't been limited to three minutes. But I've already heard from the Mayor and one of the other members of the City Council today, promising that city staff will be looking into this matter further.
If you see a robot on any of the Caltrain platforms, please report it immediately to Caltrain staff, with a photo if possible. If you send me a copy of your report and/or photos, I'll also do what I can to get them to the relevant Caltrain and city staff.
Tuesday, 9 May 2017
European Commission to investigate airline reservation (in)security
Fifteen years after I published my first critique of the extreme insecurity of airline reservations stored by computerized reservations systems (CRSs) and made available without passwords or access logs on public Web sites, and four months after the continued existence 15 years later of those same vulnerabilities was publicly demonstrated by hackers inspired in part by reading an interview with me on a German IT news site, I've finally found the right unit of the European Commission to investigate my complaint that these CRS practices violate the privacy and data protection provisions of the European Union's Code of Conduct for CRSs.
In the U.S., there is no general Federal privacy law requiring businesses to protect personal data about their customers or other individuals. But there are general requirements for this in the European Union(and many other jurisdictions including in Canada), as well as specific requirements for the protection of travellers' personal data in the EU Code of Conduct for CRSs.
The European Commission has the authority to enforce the Code of Conduct for CRSs, and the responsibility to investigate complaints of violations. But I have never been able to find any public indication of how or to whom to submit such a complaint. Saying, "You can complain to the European Commission" is like saying, "You can complain to the U.S. government." Exactly how, and to whom, are you supposed to complain? Knock on the door of the White House or the nearest U.S. Embassy? Try that in the U.S., and you are likely to be arrested, if not shot, if you even manage to get within shouting distance of the door. The European Commission has published procedures for complaints against EU member states, but not for complaints against commercial entities such as the CRSs which are regulated directly by the Commission rather than, or in addition to, by the national governments of EU member states.
I'm not the only person to have asked this question.
In 2011, MEP Martin Ehrenhauser, an independent Member of the European Parliament, submitted a written question to the European Commission asking, "Has the Commission designated a point of contact or established procedures for handling complaints from individuals of violations of the Code of Conduct for CRSs? If so, how has the Commission made public this point of contact and the procedures for handling such complaints? If not, why not?". The eventual written response from the Commission ignored this part of the question entirely, and didn't mention the Code of Conduct for CRSs.
More recently, on 20 March 2017, MEPs from three different countries and political groups -- MEPs Jan Philipp Albrecht (Verts/ALE), Birgit Sippel (S&D), and Sophie in 't Veld (ALDE) -- submitted a new question to the Commission:
Article 11 of the Code of Conduct for Computerised Reservation Systems (Regulation (EC) No 80/2009 of 14 January 2009) requires that 'technical and organisational measures shall be taken ... to ensure that personal data are only accessible for the specific purpose for which they were collected.' The Commission has the power to investigate and enforce the code under Section 6 of the regulation.
Personal data in the passenger name records (PNR) hosted by Computerised Reservation Systems (CRS) are available through CRS-operated public websites, just by using a name and the short 'record locators' displayed on items such as boarding passes and baggage labels. Due to a lack of access logs, data subjects are unable to gather from CRSs, whether their PNR data have been disclosed and to whom. Security researchers demonstrated these and other vulnerable aspects of CRSs at the Chaos Communication Congress held on 27 December 2016.
1. Does the Commission believe that giving access to PNR data on the basis of a name and record locator, with no password nor access logging, is compliant with Article 11 of the Code of Conduct?
2. Does it intend to investigate these vulnerable aspects and possible violations of the code?
3. Has it established procedures for handling complaints from individuals about violations of the code?
If a written question such as this from an MEP is not answered by the Commission within six weeks, the MEP who submitted the question is entitled to place it on the agenda of the next meeting of the responsible committee of the European Parliament. More than seven weeks have passed, but there has been no answer from the Commission to this question.
Meanwhile, however, I made contact while I was in Brussels with Mr. Paul Nemitz, Director of the unit for Fundamental Rights and Union Citizenship of the European Commission Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers (DG JUST). Mr. Nemitz and I agreed that his unit was probably not the one responsible for investigating my compliant, but he generously offered to accept my complaint, find out what unit was supposed to be responsible for dealing with it, and forward it to them.
To my pleasure, Mr. Nemitz did as he said he would. I have now received a letter from the Haed of Unite (Acting) of the Directorate General for Mobility and Transport (DG MOVE), Directorate E.1, advising that "my unit is in charge at the European Commission of the implementation of the Code of Conduct and deals with any alleged infringements of the Code of Conduct. There is no specific form or procedures to be used for lodging a complaint for an alleged violation of the Code of Conduct."
I have not yet received any indication of how long the investigation of my complaint may take.
For those who may wish to submit their own complaints of violations of the Code of Conduct for CRSs, these can be directed to:
Directorate General for Mobility and Transport (DG MOVE)
Unit E.1 - Aviation Policy
Rue J.-A. Demot, 24, 5/76
B - 1049 Brussels
Many thanks to former MEP Ehrenhauser; current MEPs Albrecht, Sippel, and in 't Veld; their assistants; and Mr Nemitz for helping to uncover this information and finally get my complaint accepted and (I hope) investigated.
Background on CRS/GDS insecurity:
- Who's watching you while you travel? (18 April 2002)
- How safe is airline passenger data? Not secure at all. (20 April 2016)
- "Travel data: fraud with booking codes is too easy" (27 December 2016)
- CRS/GDS companies and travellers' privacy (30 December 2016)
- "What can I do to protect my PNR data?" (12 January 2017)
- Unresponsive "comments" from Amadeus (18 January 2017)
Background on EU CRS regulations and enforcement:
- EU Code of Conduct for CRSs
- Parliamentary Question: Implications for the EU?US PNR agreement on CRSs, including new CRS providers such as Google (30 November 2011)
- Answer on behalf of the Commission (9 February 2012)
- Parliamentary Question: Enforcement of the Code of Conduct for CRSs (20 March 2017)
- Letter from the European Commission, DG MOVE, Directorate E.1 (27 April 2017)
Thursday, 4 May 2017
The Amazing Race 29, Episode 6
Lake Como (Italy) - Venice (Italy)
The "streets" of the old city of Venice are mostly too narrow for cars or trucks. Transportation and deliveries are by water along the canals, or by foot and handcart. As one of their tasks in this episode of The Amazing Race 29, each pair of travellers had to maneuver a heavy cart through the pedestrian streets and up and down the steps of the bridges over the canals to deliver a load of suitcases to a hotel.
In real life, multiple workers' cooperatives have, for many years, provided porterage between the docks and Venice hotels for tourists who don't want to schlep their own luggage through the lanes and alleys, over bricks and cobblestones, and up and down steps.
The cast of The Amazing Race is often given tasks that the TV producers consider characteristic of local work. But this was a rare on-camera reminder that, as organizations like Tourism Concern and the hotel and restaurant workers' union UNITE HERE have long pointed out, some of the hardest jobs in places like Venice economically dominated by tourism are jobs in the "hospitality industry" itself.
One reason that the cast of The Amazing Race is able to keep up such a grueling pace of seemingly continuous travel around the world for the month or so each season takes to film is the work done by the employees of the luxury hotels and resorts where they are pampered and fed and get to rest between each leg of the race.
As a traveller, I am grateful to the workers (as well as the hosts who help visitors without remuneration) around the world who make my journeys possible, especially in parts of the world where the standards of tourist accommodations and services are far above those of most local residents, including the workers who serve tourists..
That's become less and less visible over the years of The Amazing Race. In the first seasons of the TV show, each episode began and ended with scenes of the racers relaxing at the "pit stop". In later seasons, footage of the "pit stops" disappeared from the broadcast episodes, and was moved first to "DVD extras" and then to bonus streaming segments on the CBS Web site.
Using a bland and comfortable hotel as a refuge from culture shock, poverty, noise, etc. can give you a chance to process your travel experiences and recover from temporary sensory overload. But it's a mixed blessing: it can keep you from ever fully immersing yourself or assimilating.
Regardless of where you stay, and how well rested you are, you shouldn't expect to enjoy travelling at the pace set by around-the-world racers -- or most guidebooks. I ignore most published estimates of how much time to allocate to particular destinations, or multiply them by a factor of at least two or three, even if they are written by people I know and whose expertise I respect.
Articles that purport to explain how many "been there, done that" notches you can cut in your travelling stick in 48 hours or a week or some other amount of time are especially misleading. Successful travel writers are, by professional necessity, experts at checking out as many sites and sights and inspecting and assessing as many hotels and restaurants as possible, as quickly as possible. A guidebook writer's trip is not a vacation, as my friend the consummate guidebook writer (and recently also novelist) Tom Brosnahan illustrates with the story of his honeymoon in the final chapter of his memoir, Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong Tea.
Thursday, 27 April 2017
The Amazing Race 29, Episode 5
Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) - Alesund (Norway) - Oslo (Norway) - Milan (Italy) - Lake Como (Italy)
There's more than one way to travel -- or to accomplish almost any travel task.
To the extent we can judge from the edited version of "reality" on the TV show, this season's cast of racers hasn't fared much worse at travel teamwork or argued with their partners' much more than the pairs of racers in previous seasons, who auditioned for the cast as pairs and had months to prepare for the race. That suggests that while the racers in previous seasons may have "trained" for the race, they didn't focus as much as they should have on teamwork practice rather than just individual fitness. On the other hand, several of this season's racers seem to be making goodd use of their experience in the military and/or in emergency services, which often require collaboration and division of labor, under stress, with partners one didn't choose.
With experience, most travelling couples come to an informal and often unstated understanding about who is better at which travel tasks, or at least about who should lead when.
When you pair up with a stranger you meet on the road -- to share transportation or other services, for mutual support, for companionship, for protection, for a holiday romance, or for whatever other reason -- it takes time to figure out who should lead which steps in the travel dance. The result can be some hesitation and stumbling, as you both try to take charge or both wait to see if the other will do so.
It's also natural, if you haven't travelled with someone who does things differently, not to realize that there are other ways to do them than the ways that seem natural (to you), or to which you have become accustomed. That can lead to launching into Method A while your partner launches into Method B, without understanding why you are going in different directions. If you don't recognize that there is more than one possible approach, neither will you recognize the need to ask your partner, "How to you think we should deal with this problem? How should we start?"
We saw this when the racers had to follow a map on a scavenger hunt through the streets of Alesund, Norway.
Michael assumed that the way to orient himself with respect to the map was to consult his compass. I always carry a compass for this purpose, and Michael wasn't the only racer this season who brought a compass and was shown trying to use it.
Liz assumed that the way to orient herself with respect to the map was to observe the relative position and direction of landmarks sighted in the real world and shown on the map.
Both of these are valid orientation strategies, and each has its uses and limitations. A magnetic compass can't be relied on inside a metal-bodied vehicle or under overhead electrical lines such as those that power electric locomotives, streetcars/trams, or trolleybuses. A GPS compass won't work in the canyons between highrise building where it doesn't have a line of sight to the satellites. Orientation by landmarks isn't always feasible or reliable in a landscape of similar terrain and/or similar-looking buildings in all directions.
On the streets of Alesund, both techniques were workable, but neither Liz nor Michael seemed to recognize that there was more than one way to figure out which way to go to follow their map. Their different approaches were equally valid, but they wasted time arguing about which to rely on.
Michael and Liz rehashed the same argument later in this double-length episode when they were getting off a water taxi on Lake Como and trying to decide which path to follow along or inland from the lakeshore.
Have there been travel challenges that you assumed could only be dealt with in one way, but for which you discovered your travelling companion had a different but equally valid approach?
The water taxis we saw in this episode are themselves one of the characteristic sights and bucket-list fantasies of visitors to Lake Como: beautiful mahogany Italian-made Riva runabouts that reminded me of my automobile engineer uncle's prized Hacker, Riva's closest U.S.-built counterpart and principal international rival. Either a Riva or a Hacker Craft is the marine equivalent of Rolls-Royce touring car as a status symbol of speedy but also stately water transportation.
I've recent acquired one of my transportation fantasies, a gently-used Avatar 2000 recumbent bicycle that was being sold by someone who didn't really know what it was and charged much less than it might be worth. (Most people wouldn't want a recumbent, or vintage components, and it's not clear what, if anything, its "market" value would be today.) Like a Hacker, it embodies engineering elegance, style, and spare-no-expense detailing, components, and workmanship, including an extraordinary amount of custom leather-work and machining.
The "production" run of 200 or fewer hand-made Avatar 2000's over a decade wasn't intended to be profitable in itself, even with a US$2,000 (in 1981) price tag. The prototypes were intended as a proof-of-concept intended to sell some larger company on licensing the patents, which never happened. I test-rode a used Avatar 2000 in the 1980s when I was first looking for a recumbent. I coveted it, but couldn't justify what it would then have cost. I ended up with an Infinity instead, one of several much cheaper semi-mass-produced knock-offs of the Avatar 200 design. Functional and enjoyable, with all the general advantages of a long-wheelbase under-seat-steering recumbent bicycle, it was my main commuting and recreational bike for 20 years. But it was never going to be the same as an Avatar 2000. Now I've been able to acquire an Avatar 2000 for a fraction of what it would have cost when it was new.
What's your fantasy conveyance, and where on your travels might you find it?
Thursday, 20 April 2017
The Amazing Race 29, Episode 4
Stone Town, Zanzibar (Tanzania) - Dar es Salaam (Tanzania)
If we judged places by events, we would have left with bad impressions of Dar, Zanzibar, and the trip between them.
In Dar es Salaam, it was hard to finding a decent affordable hotel during the visit of U.S. President Bush and his entourage and army of camp-followers. My cellphone was stolen out of my shirt pocket by a pair of sidewalk snatch-thieves impersonating staggering midday drunkards on a downtown street. We wasted time at a consulate applying for visas to Eritrea, which we hoped to visit later on the same trip, and were told that our visas had been approved, only to find out weeks later that our visa applications had been denied. When our ferry (one of the same ones the cast of The Amazing Race 29 took back and forth) from Dar arrived on Zanzibar, corrupt officials checking passengers' papers tried to tell us that we had underpaid for our visas to Tanzania, and needed to pay the difference to them on the spot, in cash (they generously offered to accept either U.S. dollars or Euros), without a receipt. It was one of only two times I can remember being shaken down for a bribe in decades of travel around the world. We called their bluff, declined to pay, and were allowed to go on our way after an hour or so in a sweltering little guard shack at the ferry landing when they found someone wealthier and more vulnerable -- a Chinese trader -- to target. But this didn't get our time on Zanzibar off to a good start. A few days later, we had just settled down for a restful vacation within a vacation at a beach resort on the east coast of Zanzibar when we learned of a death in the family, and had to agonize over whether we could, or should, try to make our way back to the U.S. in time for the funeral.
But none of these mishaps kept us from enjoying our time in Dar es Salaam, Stone Town, and elsewhere on Zanzibar. You should never judge a country (including, of course, the USA) by its border guards, bureaucrats, or criminals.
Dar es Salaam was and still is relatively untouristed: Most foreign tourists in Dar are only passing through en route to or from wildlife preserves in the interior of mainland Tanzania, or Stone Town and the beaches of the island of Zanzibar. In 2008, Dar es Salaam gave me the impression of a being more relaxed and accessible than other big African cities I've visited, or than I would have expected from its population. Strolling through the center, it felt more like a small town than a mega-city.
That may have changed: What I noticed first in the establishing shots of Dar es Salaam in the latest episodes of The Amazing Race 29 was a skyline of highrise buildings and construction cranes that didn't exist a decade ago.
It was an important reminder that the pace of change is typically far greater in the "developing" parts of world than in already "developed" regions. The corollary, of course, is that it is more important to have up-to-date information in planning a trip to Africa (or anywhere else in the "developing" world) than a trip to Europe, and more likely to be misleading to rely on other travelers' memories (or our own!) of what a city like Dar was like a decade ago than what a European or U.S. city was like twice that long ago.
It was also a reminder that Africa is increasingly citified, even though the overwhelming majority of foreign tourists go to Africa to see its non-human animals, not to meet its people, and stay away from big cities as much as they can.
In population, Dar is one of the fastest-growing cities, perhaps the fastest-growing city, on the world's fastest-growing and fastest-urbanizing continent. Growth like this doesn't mean just more of the same, but qualitative change in the urban environment and, often, in the demographics and culture of its people. You might not agree with the political spin of this article (see also the thread of comments), but it gives a picture of some of the patterns of change. The "old city" of Stone Town, long since fully "built up", appears to have changed much less in the decade since I was there.
Have you been in Dar es Salaam recently? What was it like? How did it compare with your expectations, or with what you had read or heard from people who had been there in the past?
Wednesday, 19 April 2017
Chicago airport police attack passenger on Republic Airlines plane
[Schedule of "United Airlines" flights from Chicago O'Hare to Louisville on April 9th]
Many of my readers, and NPR listeners who heard me interviewed on WBEZ in Chicago last week about air travel and class, have been asking for my take on the airline passenger dragged off a plane by police at O'Hare Airport on April 9th.
Inquiring minds want to know why four members of the crew for another flight were trying to board a flight that was already full and otherwise ready to depart, why the airline was willing to remove paying passengers to make room for the deadheading crew, whether an airline has the legal right to remove a paying passenger who has already been given a boarding pass and seated, who called the police, and what authority the airport police had in this situation.
I've held off on posting this while I tried to find out more about the back story and identify who was really responsible. But since none of the airlines involved have chosen to talk to me, despite my diligent efforts, and many questions may be answered publicly only at trial (or never publicly if the likely lawsuits are settled out of court), here's my educated guess as to what happened and who's responsible.
There's plenty of blame to go around:
The as-yet-unnamed police, who worked for the city of Chicago and were accredited as law enforcement officers although through an agency independent of the Chicago Police Department (more on that below), deserve much more serious sanctions than they have received to date. So does the city of Chicago for its continuing failure to hold any of its multiple police forces accountable or rein in their bigotry and brutality. (Full disclosure: I write this as a former Chicago resident and victim of "minor" but routine Chicago police torture who still feels the pain of my police-inflicted injury occasionally, more than 35 years later.)
United Airlines -- the airline most passengers thought was operating the flight -- shares significant blame, especially for its initial choice to defend the actions of the police who roughed up the passenger and of the gate agents (who may or may not have worked for United) and/or the flight attendants and pilots (who definitely didn't work for United) who called in the police.
But some of the responsible companies have yet to be sufficiently shamed, and some may not yet have been publicly named.
For starters, this flight wasn't operated by United Airlines. It had a United Airlines flight number, but it was a Republic Airlines flight operated by Republic Airlines pilots and flight attendants and under the operational control of Republic Airlines management.
This wasn't the sort of bait and switch code-sharing that occurs when a flight is labeled with multiple flight numbers. This is a different but equally deceptive form, in which an airline puts its flight number -- i.e. its brand label -- on a flight actually operated by a contractor. The contractor's identity is disclosed to ticket purchasers or passengers as inconspicuously as the law allows, if at all. Typically, the flight crews and gate agents handling these flights are required to wear United uniforms, even when they are employees of a ground handling service or a contractor airline like Republic.
Regular travellers on some routes come to realize what airline actually operates the flights on that route. But as the schedule at the top of this article shows, "United Express" flights with United flight numbers from Chicago O'Hare to Louisville are operated by three different contractors: Skywest, Republic Airlines, and Trans States Airlines. In this situation, it's unlikely that any but the most sophisticated passengers noticed which airline would be operating their flight, even if that information was somewhere in the fine print. If you choose to fly on United Express on this route, you are taking pot luck (especially in case of any change of schedule) on which of three airlines will actually operate your flight.
Even fewer of the passengers on Republic Airlines Flight 3411 probably realized that, as has been noted in my FAQ about Airline Bankruptcies, Republic Airlines is bankrupt and has been operating in bankruptcy for the last year.
Proponents of airline deregulation and "free markets" would claim that if you don't want to fly on this airline, you could choose another (solvent) airline instead. O'Hare to Louisville is a "competitive" route served by both United and American. But some of the connections with American flight numbers between O'Hare and Louisville are actually American Eagle flights operated by -- you guessed it -- Republic Airlines.
So it looks like you can "choose" between big-name competitors United and American. But regardless of whether you choose "United Express" or "American Eagle", you might end up being transported by the same bankrupt contractor you've never heard of, Republic.
For my next "Jeopardy" question, I'll take "Tweedledum or Tweedledee?" for $800 in Monopoly money, if you please.
What, if anything, does this say about who was responsible for the decision to put a deadheading crew on the flight at the last minute, at the expense of paying passengers?Continue reading "Chicago airport police attack passenger on Republic Airlines plane"
Thursday, 13 April 2017
The Amazing Race 29, Episode 3
São Paulo (Brazil) - Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) - Stone Town, Zanzibar (Tanzania)
[A travel writer on "vacation": working on my laptop in the shade of a palm tree at a beach resort on the east coast of Zanzibar. I'll have more on The Amazing Race 29 in Dar es Salaam and on Zanzibar next week.]
Thursday, 6 April 2017
The Amazing Race 29, Episode 2
Panama City (Panama) - São Paulo (Brazil)
On the good side, São Paulo is one of those urban agglomerations that is so large, so important, and so distinctive (in some respects) that a visit is essential to a well-rounded picture of the world. You might realize that São Paulo is the most populous conurbation in the Southern Hemisphere, but did you know that is also essentially tied with New York and Mexico City as the most populous urban area in the Western Hemisphere? Despite that, it's utterly, astonishingly, off the international tourist map. When foriegners think of a Brazilian city, they think of Rio de Janeiro, even though greater São Paulo has more than twice as many people as Rio, and an even greater share of economic power. There are lots of foreign business visitors to São Paulo, but few foreign tourists and especially few foreign backpackers.
Local people ("Paulistas"), whether rich or poor, are unlikely to relate to you as a "tourist". Because they have few occasions to deal with foreigners, ordinary Paulistas of all classes are also unlikely to speak English or understand any foreign language other than possibly Spanish, which they will typically answer in Portuguese. Brazil is its own self-contained world, and the language barrier is high.
Many of the reasons for the lack of foreign tourists in São Paulo are related to "class war", which in Brazil is more than a figure of speech. Street crime is epidemic and often violent, unlike in some parts of the world where it is largely confined to theft and other property crime. Of the places I've been, only the USA and South Africa have rivaled Brazil for the risk of violent crime against ordinary foreign tourists.
São Paulo sprawls, and upper-class Paulistas (i.e. those who, like their counterparts in the USA or among white South Africans, call themselves "middle class" even if they are in the top 10% of national wealth) get around mainly by private car. Except for the limited number of destinations served by the Metro system (which is priced out of reach of the poor), urban public transit is slow and uncomfortable at best, dangerous at worst. Like Los Angeles or Gauteng (metro Soweto/Johannesburg/Pretoria), the urban areas with which it is most comparable, São Paulo can be impenetrable without a local host to drive you around and introduce you to the many parallel worlds being lived by different classes of people behind different walls, whether those of the favelas or those of the "gated communities" of the rich.
All that said, the Paulistas we met were wonderfully generous, hospitable, and open to us about their lives and the city they love. We couldn't have asked for more of a welcome.
Travel can be at its best when looking at foreigners and foreign places enables us to better understand ourselves and the places we call "home". São Paulo is sui generis, but it also focused my attention on relationships of class and urban geography that influence the terrain of travel in many places while often being hidden from tourists' notice.
In that anthropological sense, and as a mirror in which to look at the way class shapes cities in the USA, I've never been anywhere as thought-provoking as São Paulo. I highly recommend City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo, by Teresa P. R. Caldeira, which makes these comparisons between São Paulo and Los Angeles explicit.
Thursday, 30 March 2017
The Amazing Race 29, Episode 1
Los Angeles, CA (USA) - Panama City (Panama)
Whatever lessons the remainder of the season may have in store about romance (or breakup) on the road, success or failure at the travel tasks in this first episode of the "blind date" season didn't appear to have much to do with the racers' unfamiliarity with their teammates' strengths, weaknesses, or travel and relationship styles.
Road navigation was what separated the winning and losing teams this week. The racers never got more than an hour's drive from Panama City, but team after team got lost for several hours at a time.
Why was it so hard for the racers to find their way, even with maps in hand and in a place where the road signs are in English and/or Spanish?
It's tempting for television viewers to blame the blind date couples' navigation problems on their lack of experience working with their partners as teams. But the TV producers love arguments between teammates, and would likely have shown them to us if they had been the cause of teams being delayed or eliminated.
Some of the racers blamed a general lack of street signs. I've read that road signs are absent from many intersections in Panama, even junctions of significant rotes. But I don't find this an adequate explanation for the racers' difficulties. Many of this season's racers have experience in the military, where one has to be prepared to navigate without road signs or in places where the signs are all in an unfamiliar alphabet or writing system. The racers had paper maps. With a map, an automobile odometer, a compass (something anyone on "The Amazing Race" or travelling independently ought to be carrying), and some practice, it's possible to do a fair amount of navigation by dead reckoning.
The problem, I suspect, is a lack of practice at dead reckoning. Let this be a lesson to my readers who aspire to compete on "The Amazing Race". That, in turn, may be a consequence of an "Amazing Race" rule that has made the "reality-TV" show increasingly different from real-world travel: Members of the cast aren't allowed to bring cellphones, GPS receivers, or other electronic devices with them on the race around the world.
That wasn't such a big deal in the first season of "The Amazing Race" in 2001. There were a few cellphones (Nokia Communicator) and handheld PDAs that could connect wirelessly through a cellphone (I had a Psion Revo Plus) with touchscreen Web browsers. But none of these devices had integral GPS receivers, and the iPhone (which popularized the concepts Psion pioneered) wouldn't be introduced for another five years. Even for early adopters of these devices, international cellphone roaming was prohibitively expensive. Neither travellers nor locals, anywhere in the world, were expected to rely on pocketable electronic devices for navigation or other travel services.
In the early seasons of "The Amazing Race", teams sometimes gained an edge by borrowing a cellphone. But they weren't lost without one.
Fifteen years and twenty-eight seasons of "The Amazing Race" later, the ubiquity of entry-level Android smartphones has led to substantial decline in non-smartphone products and services for travellers and atrophy of the skills -- such as map-reading and dead reckoning -- to make use of them.
Paper maps still exist, but today the people who are willing to pay for the most detailed, accurate, and up-to-date mapping -- wealthy people, delivery and emergency services, and even the military -- want maps in digital formats, and that's where all the effort is going. Printing paper maps has always been expensive, especially since the more frequent the updates, the smaller the press run and the greater the cost per copy. There is no longer a critical mass of buyers for good paper maps of many places. Local availability of good maps has always been spotty, but it's vastly worse than it was 15 years ago. If you want good paper maps, it's more important than ever to track them down in advance and bring them with you. These days the only locally available paper maps tend to be free maps handed out to advertise local businesses, often with scales distorted to highlight the advertiser(s) or make their location(s) seem more attractive. In maps, as in apps, you often get what you pay for.
Similarly, translation apps and Web sites have destroyed the market for printed phrasebooks and translation dictionaries for travellers.
Many of the staffed travel information and hotel-booking offices that were common (and in some parts of the world ubiquitous) at long-distance train and bus stations have been replaced by tourist information Web sites, smartphone apps, or unattended information kiosks. This is a logical priority for limited marketing and tourism promotion budgets, but it leaves visitors without smartphones much worse off than they used to be.
Technological changes that affect the tools and skills you need for world travel aren't limited to smartphones and the Internet any more than to maps and navigation. When I first visited China in 1989, electronic calculators were rare. Knowing how to read an abacus was a skill more basic than knowing how to recognize characters, and one I included in the first edition of "The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World. Today, I've heard from recent immigrants that students in China think of an abacus as something their parents or grandparents used. They might have handled an abacus in an elementary-school class about numbers, but they've never relied on it as a general-purpose calculating tool.
This isn't the first time that new ways of doing things have made older travel skills largely obsolete. How quickly, and how completely, did railroads and then automobiles eliminate the need for most travellers to know anything about horses or other draft animals, which had been the vehicles of human mobility and the most essential travel skills (for anyone who wanted to go further or faster on land than they could walk) for all prior human history?
Travellers today aren't likely to need to fall back on their ability to handle horses. It's still common, however, to find yourself in a spot where your smartphone is broken, lost, stolen, or has no signal. It's still worthwhile, I would argue, to learn and to maintain your ability to function without a smartphone, even if you carry one and use it as your primary tool for many tasks. The more you rely on your smartphone, the more you should have a "Plan B".
Before you leave home, make a list of all the things for which you use your phone. Think about each of them, and how you would accomplish the same task without your phone, or whether you would be willing and able to do without it.
What are those functions for which you have come to rely on your phone, especially when you are away from home? Or for which, if you are younger, you have never used any tool other than a cellphone? (What's a "phone booth"? What's a "cybercafe"?) What's your "Plan B" for travel without your phone?
What other travel skills have been, or are being, forgotten? Are they still worth learning as a fallback? Please share your thought in the comments.