Friday, 13 March 2015
The Amazing Race 26, Episode 4
Phuket (Thailand) - Bangkok (Thailand)
The teams of travellers on The Amazing Race 26 were given a weird array of tasks this week, most of which had little relevance to normal visitor activities. My friends with more experience and knowledge than I have about travel in Thailand found the episode relatively uninteresting.
The one choice the racers had to make that might have been a test of real-world travel skill was whether to travel around the city of Bangkok by water taxi or by "tuk-tuk" (three wheeled semi-enclosed motorized rickshaw).
Because the teams that chose each mode of transport had to perform different tasks along the way, it was hard for viewers to tell which was faster. And the choices offered to the cast members by the TV producers omitted other transit options that would probably have been the best choices for at least some portions of the racers' assigned route.
What's the best way to get around Bangkok?
Taxis are not the way to go. I've seen worse city traffic in Jakarta and São Paulo, among other places, but a taxi in Bangkok can get stuck in a traffic jam for hours even if you're only trying to go a couple of miles. It's frustrating even for passengers, and road rage among drivers seems to be common. I once took a cab to a business meeting in Bangkok, to keep my suit looking presentable in the heat and humidity. Half-way there, after an hour or so, my driver jumped out to argue with another cabbie over who had the right of way. He left the engine running, his door open, and the cab stopped in the middle of a gridlocked intersection, while he chased down another driver he thought had cut him off and they got into a combination of a fistfight and a kickboxing match. Unlike in Los Angeles, no firearms were involved. But I decided it was best to walk away and find another taxi.
Tuk-tuks are faster than taxis in some cities such as Delhi or Bombay where the chaotic traffic flow leaves them room to maneuver around and between cars and trucks. But the vehicular travel lanes on Bangkok streets are generally too narrow for a tuk-tuk to fit between adjacent lanes of cars and trucks. A tuk-tuk in Bangkok is noisier than a taxi, and open to the air (for better or worse) rather than air-conditioned, but generally no quicker than a cab.
There's little reason for most tourists or ordinary visitors to hire a private water taxi the way the racers did. Similar "longtail" water buses offer frequent, relatively fast, relatively inexpensive service along and across the Chao Phraya River through the center of the city. Water traffic on the river is heavy, but not so much so as to significantly slow down the narrow longtail boats. Between points sufficiently close to the river, this is usually the fastest and most pleasant way to go.
The main drawback to the water buses is that stops at the designated landings are short, the boats don't tie up to the docks while loading and unloading, and there are no gangways. Passengers have to step on and off the boat quickly when the boatman bumps it up against the pier, holding it in place only briefly by keeping the engine running.
Make sure you have a map that shows the water bus routes and landings -- a paper map, not one on your phone or on another electronic device. This is not the place to expose your phone to snatch thieves, and you don't want to risk dropping your phone in the river if the boat lurches and you grab for a handhold. I say again, carry a paper map. Keep track of your progress, so you're poised to get off the boat promptly when you get to your landing.
Not mentioned on The Amazing Race 26 were any of Bangkok's rail transportation options. Bangkok's canals, which at one time were its primary transportation arteries, were filled in for roads rather than for railways. But over the last 20 years, Bangkok has gradually put in place a limited but quite useful, and still expanding, urban rail transit network.
Despite the currently small size of the network, it's a bit confusing because there are three different urban rail systems with different operators and separate fares. A shared stored-value payment system -- like the Oyster Card in London, the Octopus Card in Hong Kong, the Clipper Card in San Francisco, or the Charlie Card in Boston -- is planned but not yet implemented.)
The elevated BTS "Skytrain" -- the first system to be built, because it was assumed that it would be too difficult to keep rail tunnels below the shallow water table from flooding -- and the underground MRT "Metro" were built and are operated by separate private concessionaires. The Airport Rail Link to downtown is operated by the state railway.
If your route is between points reasonably close to any of these lines, they are the best way to go. Fares are relatively high for locals, but that's sometimes a benefit for foreign tourists since it means that these trains (like the similarly somewhat costly metro systems in, among other places, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro) are much less crowded than more affordable local mass transit options. In cities like these, poorer people walk or take buses, while only wealthier classes can afford the train -- the faster, more comfortable, premium choice.
The most obvious mistake made by all of the contestants on The Amazing Race 26 this week was to take taxis from the Bangkok airport to their next assigned "route marker" downtown.
Where there's a train between the airport and the city, it's almost always a better choice than a taxi unless you have too much luggage to handle on public transit or you are traveling in a family or other small group that can share a cab. Especially if the airport is far out of town, it's often quicker and cheaper to take the train from the airport to the city even if you still end up taking a taxi for the last few miles from the downtown rail station to your final destination.
The Amazing Race 26 is far from over, but broadcasts in the USA will be interrupted until 3 April 2015 to clear the airtime on CBS for college basketball. In the meantime, happy travels!
Friday, 6 March 2015
The Amazing Race 26, Episode 3 (Update on how to apply for "The Amazing Race")
Nagano (Japan) - Phuket (Thailand)
This season's broadcasts of "The Amazing Race", at least on the San Francisco TV station I've been watching, have featured repeated advertisements for auditions next month for contestants on future seasons of the reality-TV travel show.
If you want to take your own trip around the world, you are better off working to pay off your debts and pay for your own trip than investing your time in a long-shot effort to get picked by the producers to be in the cast of a TV show. As I said after the first episode of "The Amazing Race" on 5 September 2001, "You don't have to be selected by network television producers to be able to take a trip around the world."
It's easier than you think to do it on your own. There's detailed advice about how to get the time and money for a trip around the world in my book, The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World. Airline ticket prices are significantly higher than they were in 2001 when The Amazing Race premiered, but that's only one more reason to take a longer-duration trip and to combine trips to multiple destinations in a multi-stop journey rather than taking multiple brief round-trip vacations.
But I realize that some people are travel exhibitionists, and want to show off their travel skills and have their missteps and arguments with each other exposed on TV and preserved for posterity. An article I wrote in 2004 in this blog about how to apply for The Amazing Race has remained consistently among the most-visited pages on my Web site for more than a decade.
So what's happening now with casting for future seasons of The Amazing Race?
You can be picked for the cast of The Amazing Race in any of three ways:
- Film your own application video (or have a friend film it), and upload it with an online application through the casting Web site at TheAmazingRaceCasting.com. Don't try to get too fancy with your video techniques. You are applying for a place in the cast, in front of the cameras, not for a spot in the production team behind the cameras. (Applications used to be accepted by mail, but the postal address has been removed from the application Web site, so it's not clear if that is an option any longer.)
- Come to an open "casting call" for "The Amazing Race". These are held at unpredictable times and places, and aren't advertised in any consistent manner. Casting calls have been held at outdoor clothing and sporting goods stores, shopping malls, movie theaters, and ski areas, among other venues. A professional TV film crew -- typically provided by a local CBS affiliate TV station -- is set up to film application videos. Presumably, the TV producers realized early on that some people who looked good on camera had no skill at video production. The advantage of applying at one of these casting calls is that you don't have to film your own video. The disadvantage is that you only get one chance in front of the camera to film your application video in a single take. If you are thinking of applying for the cast, and have a chance to go to one of these casting calls, you should go and observe, even if you plan to film your own video. It's a unique chance to meet your competitors and see how they present themselves, to help you figure out how to make yourself stand out from them.
- Be invited by one of the members of the TV production team. This doesn't get talked about much publicly, but since the earliest seasons of The Amazing Race, many members of the cast have been invited to apply. The casting staff for the TV production are constantly on the lookout for people they think would attract viewers to the TV show. They approach friends, acquaintances, and total strangers. People have been accosted on the street, or in a bar, and asked, "Would you be interested in being on The Amazing Race?" Some of these people had never heard of the TV show before they were invited to apply. Some have been invited as individuals, some as couples. "Is there someone you would like to go on the show with? Can you find a partner for the show? Would you like us to find you a partner?" Sometimes the TV producers already have one person in mind for the cast, and are looking for a partner for them. Is this fair? No, but that doesn't matter. This is a commercial, for-profit television production. Casting decisions are made on the basis of which cast members, in which partnerships, the producers believe will maximize viewership and profits. Nothing else really matters.
Casting for the first few seasons of The Amazing Race was advertised one season at a time, although in practice the producers would routinely hold on to some applications that were interesting but passed over from one season, and call aplicants back for future seasons.
Now it's official that applications are being accepted year-round, on a rolling basis, without regard to any particular deadlines for specific seasons. Apply whenever you are ready, and the producers will call you back whenever they have a season in which they think you might be a good fit. That might be right away, or not for several years, or never.
Applications are also now officially being accepted from singles as well as couples, so you can apply by yourself if you are open to having the TV producers pick a race partner for you. Half of the teams this season were matched up by the TV producers. That's actually happened before, and it looks like it could happen again. You might be introduced to a potential partner well in advance, or assisted by the producers in finding one acceptable both to you and to the TV producers. Or -- as was done this season -- you might be asked to agree to a "blind date" ("We've got a perfect match for you...") for the month-long race around the world.
There aren't really any "rules" for casting. If the producers really want you, you may have some room for negotiation about which season would be most convenient for your schedule, or whether you want a partner picked in advance or a "blind date" you meet at the starting line.
There's now a dedicated Web site for applications for the cast of "The Amazing Race" at TheAmazingRaceCasting.com, which includes the online applications for teams of two people (any relationship) and individuals applying by themselves.
The casting Web site includes some, but not all, of the open casting calls, and some of the information including casting call listings is out of date.
Here in San Francisco, the next open casting call (not listed on the main casting Web site, as of now) is on Saturday, 18 April 2015, from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Marmot store at 165 Post St. (between Kearny and Grant; take the Post St. exit from the Montgomery St. BART station) near Union Square. I'll drop by for at least part of the day to check out the scene and interview people waiting their turns in front of the camera, so please say hello if you are there.
The casting call advertisement on the Web site of the local CBS affiliate also includes a list of casting criteria and suggestions for applicants. Nothing really surprising, but these aren't on the main casting Web site, and I haven't seen them spelled out like this before:
Suggested Questions To Answer While Auditioning:
- Why would you make a great team to win The Amazing Race?
- What do you hope to improve or change in your current relationship?
- What issues do you need to work on?
- How much have you traveled together?
- What team do you most relate to from the past season?
Contestants will be selected based upon having the following traits:
- Physically and mentally adept
- Adaptable to new environments
- Interesting lifestyles, backgrounds and personalities.
What if all this sounds too complicated, or too much of a long shot? It's a lot easier to take your own trip around the world than to get on the cast of The Amazing Race. As Scoop Nisker always says on KFOG, "If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own." Over to you, travellers.
Friday, 27 February 2015
The Amazing Race 26, Episode 2
Tokyo (Japan) - Nagano (Japan)
The obvious question posed by this season of The Amazing Race is how much the cast of dating couples and "blind date" couples matched up by the producers of the TV show, and meeting each other at the starting line, has to do with the way real people choose their partner(s) for a trip around the world.
My answer is that in this, as in many other aspects, the trips depicted on the TV show have more in common with real-world travel than you might expect.
Pairs of contestants on previous seasons of The Amazing Race haven't been limited to romantic partners. Teams have included siblings, cousins, parents or grandparents and children or grandchildren, co-workers, and platonic friends who met in various other ways. One season consisted of larger family groups. And in the real world, groups of more than two people -- most often a family grouping, a trio of friends, or a pair of couples -- sometimes travel together around the world.
Yet the reality, as I know from analyzing who buys airline tickets around the world from Airtreks.com, where I used to work, is that the overwhelming majority of around-the-world trips are taken by couples or singles, with about equal numbers of each -- as on this season of The Amazing Race.
The difficulty of coordinating schedules goes up, and the chance of reaching consensus on an itinerary goes down, as the number of people in your travel party increases. Few people have the trust and confidence (and few people should have the trust or confidence) to commit to a long-term trip with anyone other than their best beloved, whomever that may be.
But what about the "blind date" aspect of this season of "The Amazing Race"? How many people who set off around the world alone hope to find love, much less a long-term partner, along the way?
A lot of people, I think, whether or not they admit it even to themselves. Part of the romance of travel is the possibility of a travel romance, whether with a fellow traveller or a local person. Even travellers for whom romance isn't a travel goal often find it on the road unexpectedly.
Travel partnerships, like arranged marriages, aren't necessarily romantic, or don't start out that way, even if they sometimes eventually become so. It's routine for single travellers headed the same way, especially in less-travelled and logistically more difficult areas or ones with poor or nonexistent mass transport, to join up to share transportation and sometimes hotel rooms. A travelling companion can provide a degree of mutual protection against harassment or assault (sexual or otherwise), a second pair of eyes to watch out for thieves, and companionship and conversation to mitigate sensations of isolation and culture shock.
Searches for riders to share the costs of a driveaway car across the USA have long been a fixture of hostel bulletin boards, and are among the progenitors of long-distance ridesharing services. "Travelling companion wanted" notices are a staple of bulletin boards in all sorts of other real-world and online gathering places for independent travellers.
Caveat emptor, however. Failing to hit it off romantically isn't the only hazard to throwing your travel lot in with people you've just met. In Kashgar, my partner and I got together with two other couples to charter a jeep over the Karakoram Highway. We were a day into the journey before we discovered that some of our companions were financing their trip by smuggling Chinese silk sewn into their overcoats in place of the original cotton-batting insulation. By that point we were high in uninhabited desert mountains. It wasn't as though we could get out of the jeep and walk. Luckily for them, and for us, the border guards weren't searching American or European tourists like us and our companions, and were only extorting bribes from the Pakistani smugglers. The soldiers kept the local bus passengers squatting on the stony ground in the sun, while inviting us and our companions to take tea in comfy chairs in the shade of their commander's tent. This, of course, was exactly why some of the locals had paid our companions to carry their contraband for them. But smuggling is never without risk, and we would rather not have been at risk of being associated with it. Don't let this scare you away from ever getting into a car with strangers, but don't be oblivious to the risks, either.
As with the "blind date" couples on this season of "The Amazing Race", the nature of the relationship between a travelling couple is often ambiguous, even to the travellers themselves, and left to be determined during the trip. Sharing transport may or may not lead to sharing hotel rooms with separate beds, or to sharing a bed.
At the finish line of this episode, blind daters and first-place finishers Jenny and Jelani could only shrug at MC Phil Keoghan when he asked them (after only three days on the road together), "Is there any romantic connection between you?"
"This is a friendship. It's a budding friendship," Jenny answered. It's too soon, she suggested, to think about whether it might become romantic, and no need to jump to conclusions.
The difference between the race and the real world is that travellers in ad hoc travel partnerships usually aren't committed to stay together for more than a few days or at most a couple of weeks -- basically until they get to the next fork in the road or transport hub. Travel can be a relationship "trial by fire". But if it doesn't work out, it's easy to split up and move on in different directions or at different paces. The "blind date" couples on The Amazing Race 26 don't have that option: they are stuck with the partners the TV producers have matched them with for the duration of a month-long (in real life) trip around the world. We'll see how that works out as the season progresses.
Thursday, 26 February 2015
The Amazing Race 26, Episode 1
Los Angeles, CA (USA) - Tokyo (Japan)
When the first season of "The Amazing Race" launched in 2001, the producers of the reality-TV show thought of it as a "relationship" show about pairs of travellers, not a travel show.
On September 6th, the morning after the first episode was broadcast, the couple who finished last appeared on the "Early Show" -- live from the sidewalk in Times Square in front of the CBS studios in New York with a "relationship expert" to analyze what issues between them might have contributed to their elimination.
As of the morning of September 11th, my book publisher's publicist was finalizing arrangements with CBS for me to appear on the "Early Show" on September 13th, following the second episode, to analyze the race as a travel expert.
That never happened. After September 11th, CBS postponed the second episode for a week while it debated whether an international travel show would still attract a viewing audience or advertisers, and came close to canceling the rest of the season, and the show, entirely. Planned promotional activites for the show were cut back drastically, and it was only gradually that The Amazing Race found its audience.
While The Amazing Race defied expectations by succeeding in spite of September 11th, it also defied its creators' expectations by succeeding primarily as a travel show. Sure, some viewers enjoy the soap opera in the relationships between the pairs of travellers. But travellers and armchair travellers watch The Amazing Race mainly to imagine what they would do in the travel situations in which the cast members are placed.
This season -- perhaps looking for something new to refresh the show after 25 seasons with the same general formula -- the producers of The Amazing Race are returning to their original vision of a "relationship show". All of the teams this season are either "dating" romantic partners or pairs of singles, each of whom applied separately for a "blind date" travelling around the world with a race partner picked for them by the show's casting team.
Does this dating game have anything to do with reality? I'll have more to say about that as the "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" season unfolds. In the first episode, host Phil Keoghan focused his questions on whether one of the "already dating" or the "blind date" couples would win the race.
At least in this episode, the amounts of experience the eleven teams had with (a) big cities and (b) international travel appeared to have more of an effect on the order of finish than how long they had known their partners (from months or years for the already dating couples to meeting each other at the starting line for the "blind date" pairs).
As we've seen when The Amazing Race has been in Japan before, the public transportation system is fast and efficient but can overwhelm a newly arrived foreigner with its complexity. Taking a taxi and leaving navigation to a professional driver may seem simpler, but trains can be faster for many journeys within and between cities -- if we can find our way through the seeming chaos of the megalopolis.
A big city and/or a different culture can overwhelm a new arrival. In a familiar setting, our minds filter out most of what we see, hear, feel, and smell, as "background noise". We are aware of only the out-of-the-ordinary stimuli that pass through these subconscious filters.
In a strange environment, everything is out of the ordinary, and our filters work poorly, if at all. The result is a flood of unfiltered stimuli that can be as exciting or as panic-inducing as the states of mind produced by perception enhancing or altering drugs.
Sometimes we seek out this "travel high". Sometimes we experience this sensory overload as "culture shock". So much is clamoring for our attention that we don't know what is significant and what to ignore, and can't focus our attention on a task without distraction.
How can travellers avoid this sort of paralyzing culture shock? Here are a few of the things you can do:
Travel slowly. Don't rush into trying to get things done in a new place. Don't plan on accomplishing much right away, or make schedule commitments that will force you to try to do so. After a few days, as your mind adapts to a new culture, the jumble of confusing new sensations will begin to organize themselves into manageable patterns.
Come in through the back door. If you can, arrange your itinerary so that your gateway to a strange country or region is a smaller city, a rural place, or a border crossing with less traffic. The more unfamiliar a place is, and the more different from places where you have travelled before, the more important this is. The main airport serving the largest city is often the cheapest and seemingly easiest point of entry, but equally often the worst. I've never regretted spending extra money on airfare to fly into a "secondary" city or airport, or dealing with extra logistical or visa hassles in order to arrive through the provinces and leave from the capital, rather than vice versa. Think about how much easier it would be for a foreigner to cope with New York City or Los Angeles after spending some time in smaller US cities, rather than on their first day in the USA.
Stay aware of what's happening. Just as it's important to know when you are under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, it's useful to be conscious of when your thinking is impaired by an overload of sensations that you can't (yet) filter or process. If you have a sense of where you are in relation to your limits, you can retreat to a calmer space before you reach the point of panic attack or mental paralysis.
Slow and steady wins the race. Some people prefer cultural baptism by total immersion, for the intense rush of that "travel drug" I mentioned earlier. Others hide in hotel rooms or tour buses or other sheltered and standardized, "What continent are we on?" environments at the first sign of disorientation, and as a result never really adapt to where they are. Most people are better off with a gradual but steady process of cultural engagement. Whenever things begin to seem familiar, you are ready to push your limits a bit further.
Monday, 23 February 2015
Andrew Patner and I in Chicago
I learned today of the sudden death earlier this month of Andrew Patner, longtime Chicago music and culture critic and commentator with WFMT radio and various print publications, whom I had known as a classmate at the College of the University of Chicago in the late 1970s.
I've been remembering the time that Andrew and I (and 23 other people) were arrested together on the U. of C. campus on May 22, 1979.Continue reading "Andrew Patner and I in Chicago"
Tuesday, 17 February 2015
Government subsidies to airlines, revisited
An editiorial in the New York Times today discusses demands by the dominant troika of USA-based airlines (American, Delta, and United) that the US government should intervene in their behalf to renegotiate international aviation treaties with countries such as the UAE and Qatar which, the US-based airlines allege, are subsidizing airlines based in those countries (Etihad in Abu Dhabi, Emirates in Dubai, and Qatar Airways) more than the US government is subsidizing US-based airlines.
The Times is right to be skeptical of US-based airlines' claims to need even more protection from the US government for their oligopoly and against potential foreign competion.
But the Times is dead wrong to point to airline alliances as beneficial to travellers. And the Times fails to mention any of the more significant ways that US-based airlines benefit from government subsidies.
A true "open skies" policy would allow foreign ownership of US-based airlines and the operation of flights within the USA by foreign airlines, just as airlines owned and based anywhere in the European Union are now allowed to operate flights within or between any EU member states. Current so-called "open skies" agreements between the USA and other countries that deny foreign carriers access to the US domestic market are protectionist and misleadingly labelled
As I pointed out in a letter to the editor published by the Times almost 20 years ago, and in more detail in an article in my newsletter and blog a decade later, "Americans who can afford to fly rarely ... are subsidizing the frequent-flying elite." That's as true today as it was when I wrote it in 1996.
Frequent flyers and airlines grumble about taxes, but US aviation tax policy remains profoundly regressive.
Wednesday, 11 February 2015
Open letter to members of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition
I'm a candidate for the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Bicycle Colation
Candidates' statements and election info
More about the issues and why I'm running
I'm writing to my fellow members of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, to let you know about some important issues related to our interests as members and the recent election for the SFBC Board of Directors, in which I was a candidate.
Did you know that the membership of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has fallen by more than 20 percent in the last two years?
The cover of the Winter 2013 "Tube Times" had the tagline "12,000 members strong". By November 2014, there were only 9,315 members on our rolls!
Why has our membership gone down? Why so dramatically? And why now?
It's obvious that the number of bicyclists on the streets of San Francisco has been increasing. And it's not as though we've been so successful that cyclists no longer feel the need for an advocacy group like the SFBC: During the last two years, there has been a groundswell of outrage against killings of bicyclists and pedestrians by negligent motorists.
Some people may have joined the SFBC for member discounts that are no longer available, but that doesn't account for such a dramatic decline in member numbers (although it does highlight the danger of depending on commercial partnerships or other outside sources of funding).
If thousands more San Franciscans have chosen not to renew their SFBC memberships than have been replaced by new members, we should take it as a sign that many SF bicyclists may not see the SFBC as having effectively represented or advocated for their interests.
SFBC staff and members of the Board of Direction have made commendable efforts to increase the demographic diversity of our organization. But it's not enough for our membership to present the image of a rainbow coalition. If our membership is to grow, we need to make sure that the policies for which we advocate reflect the diversity within our membership not just of demographics but of opinions on the issues.
The more successful we are in broadening and diversifying our membership, the more we should_expect_ to find differences of opinion within our coalition -- and the more we need to develop and institutionalize democratic, participatory mechanisms for internal discussion, debate, and decision-making.
Our political influence with city officials and the public derives from the credibility of our claim to speak for a large, diverse membership representative of SF bicyclists. If our "coalition" lacks internal democracy, we will lose our political legitimacy, and become vulnerable to criticism that we don't really speak for many SF bicyclists.
The SFBC was founded as a participatory "do-ocracy" in which the work was done by volunteer members and decisions were made by the people who were doing the work. It was eventually incorporated as a membership organization governed by the members ourselves, through membership meetings at which members could make, debate, and vote on proposals, and a Board of Directors elected by the members.
That's still our formal structure, but in practice essentially all decisions are now in the hands of an effectively self-perpetuating Board of Directors, or are delegated to staff. Decisions on issues on which SF bicyclists, including SFBC members, have had differing opinions have been announced without any opportunity for discussion or consensus-building within our organization.
There hasn't been a quorum at an SFBC membership meeting in years. Even the most important questions about our political platform have not been submitted to a vote of the members. There is no established process for members to propose actions or policy positions, or discuss them with our fellow members. To the extent there has been any discussion of substantive political issues by the Board of Directors, it has occurred entirely in Executive Sessions from which members are excluded.
Our coalition seems to have been moving in the direction of the statewide California Bicycle Coalition, which abolished members' voting rights in 2011, and transferred all decision-making power to a Board of Directors that selects its own successors. And the new Executive Director of the SF Bicycle Coalition comes to us from a position on the staff of another organization controlled entirely by a small, self-perpetuating Board of Directors, rather than a member-controlled organization.
Even the best intentions of leaders and experts are no substitute for internal democracy. Different bicyclists have different ideas about what needs to be done to improve conditions for bicycling in our city. The interests of our members, and our political credibility as a grassroots organization, would best be served by restoring a greater role for members in initiating, determining, and carrying out our political program.
I decided to run for the Board of Directors after trying unsuccessfully to make concrete proposals for SFBC activities and policy positions, and being rebuffed or -- perhaps worse -- met with complete incomprehension as to why a member would be making proposals for what our organization should be doing in the name of our members.
Elections for the Board of Directors are the only vestige of internal democracy in the governance of our "coalition". But there hasn't been a contested Board election in many years, and the slate of candidates nominated by the incumbent Board has always been been elected.
I was the only candidate who chose to run this year despite not being endorsed by the incumbent Board members. In announcing my candidacy, I said that I would bring to the 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. (There's more about why I ran for the Board here.)
This is neither a dispute over specific policies or decisions nor, so far as I know, a personal conflict. I've been a member and supporter of the SFBC for almost 20 years, and I ran for the Board because I care about the future of our organization. Yet rather than being welcomed as an attempt to address the causes of our loss of membership, to better connect the SFBC and our advocacy positions to our grassroots base, or to develop internal processes for coping with the growing diversity of opinions within our membership, my candidacy was treated by the staff and the incumbent Board members as a hostile threat to the organization.
SFBC membership numbers haven't been included in annual reports to members. I discovered the membership decline when I was finally provided -- after the scheduled election was over -- with the list of members eligible to vote in the election for the SFBC Board of Directors.
The SFBC Bylaws and California law provide specific procedures for access to the membership list, but the staff and the current Board of Directors -- including the members of the Board running for re-election -- flatly refused to comply with our own rules or state law, or to provide any alternate way for candidates or other members to communicate with each other, until after the scheduled election was over.
After the scheduled election period was over, voting was extended for another week, without warning. Many members received no notice at all of this extended voting period, and most members were sent notice of the extended voting only after it was underway, despite our Bylaws requiring 30-days advance notice to all members of election dates.
More than two months after the close of voting, the SFBC Board and staff are still refusing to tell me how many votes I or any of the Board-endorsed candidates received. But I have finally been told that, although the Board has not yet met to consider whether the election was valid, the slate nominated by the incumbents (including those members running for re-election) have all been deemed elected.
The November 2014 voting for the SFBC Board of Directors was irrevocably tainted by (1) the violations of the SFBC Bylaws and state law in denying me access to the membership list or any alternate way of communicating with fellow members about my candidacy until after the scheduled election was over, and (2) the violation of the Bylaws in extending the voting without giving all members 30 days notice. This voting did not constitute a valid election. The Board of Directors should schedule new voting, in accordance with our Bylaws. And the number of votes received by each candidate should, of course, be disclosed to all candidates and members.
More fundamentally, the SFBC needs to revive, or create anew, mechanisms for effective participatory and democratic internal discussion, debate, and decision-making, so that our policy advocacy positions and program of activities genuinely reflect the full diversity of opinions of an increasing diverse (and hopefully once again growing) membership.
The next SFBC Board of Directors meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, February 24th, from 6:30-8:30 pm. at the SFBC office, 833 Market St., 10th floor. Board meetings are open to SFBC members, and I encourage you to attend. You can also e-mail the Board at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tell SFBC Board members that they need to schedule new, proper voting to elect the new Board. Tell the Board that internal democracy is vital to our growth and our ability to speak for the diversity of SF bicyclists.
And consider nominating yourself or other SFBC members for the Board of Directors. You can nominate yourself or any other SFBC member in good standing by sending an e-mail message to email@example.com.
I look forward to working with you and all other SFBC members to revitalize and re-democratize the SFBC as a voice for all San Francisco bicyclists.
Feel free to contact me with your ideas, feedback, questions, concerns, criticism, support, or suggestions.
1130 Treat Ave.
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.