Friday, 24 October 2014

The Amazing Race 25, Episode 5

Copenhagen (Denmark) - Marrakesh (Morocco)

Former bike messengers Alli and Kym finished first again in this leg of The Amazing Race 25 after yet another task that required making deliveries by bicycle.

This week each racer had to secure several bundles of freshly-tanned goatskins with bungee cords on top of the rear rack of a bike, and then make their way through the narrow lanes of the old city of Marrakesh to a designated workshop to deliver the load of leather. All of the racers had difficulty with this task.

The racers were unprepared for the traffic on the narrow lanes of the old city, which are too narrow for cars, trucks, or buses but heavily congested with a complex traffic mix of pedestrians with pushcarts, loaded cargo bicycles, motorcycles, scooters, horse and donkey carts, stray goats, and other surprises.

In the USA, we associate "traffic" exclusively with motorized vehicles. Except on sidewalks in the downtown areas of a few cities, and on even fewer bike paths -- mainly in some of those same cities and some college campuses and university towns -- "car-free" in the USA means largely "traffic-free". So it's tempting for people in the USA to infer from this, incorrectly, that separated bicycle or pedestrian infrastructure is inherently less congested and therefore safer than rights-of-way which bicyclists share with larger motorized vehicles. That can be a dangerous mistake: We saw the racers colliding repeatedly with each other and with other vehicles (fortunately, without apparent serious injury) when they stopped or turned without warning.

Many bicyclists and pedestrians in the USA don't think of bike paths or sidewalks as rights-of-way on which one has to pay attention to other traffic. People on such paths routinely stop without warning, hold conversations, or make U-turns in the middle of the path -- just as drivers of motorized vehicles do on lightly-trafficked roads in much of the rest of world.

In places where urban transportation is less dominated by motorized vehicles, "pedestrianized" downtown areas can be difficult for any vehicle, including a bicycle, to penetrate. Don't be surprised if you have to dismount to proceed safely, or can't proceed safely with a bike at any speed. And it can be as difficult, and takes as much care to find a place where you can safely pull over and consult a map, or pass a slower-moving cyclist, on a bike path in a Dutch city with a steady stream of two-wheeled traffic as to do the same in a car on a freeway in Los Angeles. You need to look, then signal, then pull out of the path of traffic before you stop.

Even those of the racers who were able to pedal and steer their bikes, or who realized that they ought to get off and walk their bikes, had trouble finding their destination.

In the USA, essentially all occupied residential or business premises have addresses including a sequential building number and a street name, and most intersections are signed with those street names. Rural roads in most of the USA are usually signed with the same names as appear on maps, and both city streets and country roads tend to be oriented North-South or East-West and signed with those cardinal directions. (New England and some other regions are exceptions. New England streets and roads tend to wander, and are often signed with the name of the next town, village, or neighborhood rather than with the name of the street or road.)

Systems of building identifiers, street and road signage, and "wayfinding" methodologies vary greatly in other parts of the world. Streets and roads may not follow straight lines or be oriented or signed according to cardinal directions or in the same ways as in the USA.

In the U.K., for example, many houses and office buildings are identified by name rather than by street number. The numeric identifier typically entered into a GPS or smartphone to find a location in the U.K. is not the street address but the postcode, which identifies the location as precisely as the little used nine digit "ZIP+4" code in the USA.

Building numbers in Japan are not in sequence along the street, while in many cities in Japan as well as some in other countries the primary location indicator is a block or quadrant rather than a street. There are often multiple streets in the same city with the same name. They might have some modifier to distinguish them, like the Washington Street and Washington Road that one finds in many a New England town. But they might not, and even if they do the prefix or suffix might not be obvious, or might not always be used.

In France, which we found even more bicycle-friendly than Scotland on our trip this summer, despite having even less bicycle-specific infrastructure, there's a single national road numbering system (unlike the multiple overlays of interstate, federal, state, county, and city street numbering in the USA). Even tertiary rural roads in France, like through rural roads in most of the USA, are typically signed by number if they are signed at all. And since bicyclists in France use the same roads as motorized vehicles, that means they can also use the same maps and signage -- an often overlooked but enormously significant advantage, since where there are more motorized vehicles than bicycles, motoring maps are easier to find than cycle-specific maps.

Not so in some other countries. In the U.K. and Germany, even numbered roads aren't necessarily well signed by number. Signs at rural intersections typically indicate either the name of the next major town or city in that direction (helpful, although still potentially ambiguous if more than one branch might take you to the same city), or, more often, the name of the next village -- useless unless you have a sufficiently detailed map to show every village.

In the Netherlands and the Flemish portion of Belgium, there's an extensive network of separate bikeways that bicyclists are expected to use. Since bicyclists are in practice required to use this separate route system, not all of which closely parallels motor roads, they can make only limited use of signage or maps for motorists. Most signage on the bikeways in these regions either follows the "next village" system of wayfinding (problematic for travellers unfamiliar with the locality, as previously discussed), or relies on a system of numbered waypoints ("knooppunten"). With a printed or electronic knooppunt map, you can define a route by a sequence of these marked intersection points. But they are useless without such a detailed bicycle-specific map, and it can be extremely difficult -- as I learned the hard way -- to find your way back onto a planned route of this type if you miss a single sign or make a single wrong turn.

The canonical method for finding your way through an unsigned maze of small streets or alleys in a city, village, or souk is to hire a local pedrson, typically a student or other young person, to lead the way. This is especially appropriate where you can't speak the language or read the local alphabet or writing system. The racers kept asking directions of passers-by, and then going on. But none of them appeared to be recruiting, or offering to pay for, an impromptu guide to go with them.

Many of the signs signs we saw on streets and shops in this episode of the race were at least partially bilingual. The street-food stalls the racers had to help assemble in the central market square of Marrakesh, for example, had their menus posted in French as well as Arabic.

One of the racers, who learned Spanish in the Air Force, and now gets to practice her Spanish regularly in her job as a flight attendant, was shown haggling with their taxi driver in Spanish. Morocco is in one of those parts of the world where most prices are negotiated rather than fixed. But why in Spanish? Isn't Morocco a former French colony where the second language is French?

Yes, but Spanish is the second most-common foreign language in Morocco, after French and ahead of English. Many Moroccans in tourism and service industries speak Spanish to accommodate tourists from Spain, which is just across the straits of Gibraltar. Morocco is closer to Spain than to France, and accessible by ferry from Spain even on a day trip.

There are even two small enclaves of Spanish territory, the towns of Ceuta and Melilla, on the African coast accessible only from the Mediterranean Sea or through Morocco. These have been a focus of contention as points of entry for immigrants from Africa to Europe, and have been encircled by increasingly high fences reminiscent of those between the USA and Mexico.

Regardless of how they make their way from Morocco across to Europe, with or without government permission, there are huge numbers of Moroccans -- perhaps as many as a million-- living in Spain. Moroccans dominate the seasonal agricultural "guest worker" labor force in Spain the way Turks dominate "guest worker" occupations in service industries inGermany and Austria. Just as you can find people everywhere in Turkey who speak some German from having lived in Europe, so you can find Moroccans who learned some Spanish while living and working the fields in Spain.

Visitors wouldn't necessarily know this in advance, but you can never anticipate where and with whom any foreign language will prove to be useful. I've found myself speaking French in Uzbekistan and Spanish in Ethiopia. In a pinch, try any language(s) you know.

Link | Posted by Edward, 24 October 2014, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Kashmir, self-determination, and human rights

Presentation as part of a panel on
"Kashmiris: A Forgotten People"
(Cornell University, 2 October 2014)

Who am I to talk about Kashmir?

I'm an activist for peace and justice, and a travel journalist. I think that part of the ethical responsibility of travellers is to speak up about what we see, not just go home and forget about the places we've visited – especially when we visit places with few foreign observers other than tourists. Tourists play an increasingly important role as citizen human rights observers.

The focus of my human rights activism is the USA, although that's not today's topic. And I don't claim to be a historian or an expert on current events in Kashmir.

What I can offer is a perspective on Kashmir in terms of contemporary norms of human rights, democracy, and self-determination, rather than explanations of contemporary polices rooted in what I think is irrelevant ancient history.

The big picture, about which we'll hear more from some of tonight's other speakers, is that since 1989, India has maintained a military occupation of the Kashmir Valley by more than half a million soldiers, police, paramilitaries, and other armed "security" forces brought in from outside Kashmir.

This occupation has had all the typical attributes of any military occupation, in unusually intense and prolonged form. For most of the last 25 years, the Kashmir Valley has been under various flavors of de facto or de jure martial law, with soldiers everywhere, army camps next to every village, checkpoints on every city block, curfews, house to house searches, legalized arrest and detention without trial, and official suspension of many of the norms of democratic governance and civil liberties.

Since the departure of the principal non-Muslim population group, the Hindu Pandits, in the 1990s, essentially all of the remaining population in the Kashmir Valley -- other than the occupation forces -- has been Muslim. That has allowed the Indian forces to define the entire valley as a free-fire zone in which the Kashmiri Muslim population is considered and treated as the enemy: presumed to be either "militants" or their sympathizers, and fair game for summary killing. Military and paramilitary forces have effectively complete impunity for any actions against civilians, which have come to include systematic torture of detainees, rape of civilian women, collective reprisals (against families, neighborhoods, and villages), shooting to death of children who throw stones at soldiers, and attacks targeting medical personnel, human rights activists, and journalists.

To put the death toll in perspective, this month the Kashmir Valley has suffered from its worst natural disaster in a century: a 100-year flood that has killed perhaps 500 people. But on average, several times this many Kashmiris have been killed by Indian "security" forces in Kashmir every year for the last 25 years -- a total of at least 50,000 out of a population of around 7 million people in the valley.

What has not happened, throughout this time, and still isn't happening, is any plebiscite, referendum or negotiations on self-determination for Kashmiris or any change in Kashmir's status.

Fundamentally, as I see it,

  1. What is going on in Kashmir is best understood as a Kashmiri nationalist struggle for self-determination (despite efforts to frame it as a dispute about history, as a dispute about "terrorism", as a dispute between secularism and religious fundamentalism, as a dispute between Hindus and Muslims, as a dispute between India and Pakistan, and so forth); and
  2. Self-determination is a human rights issue.

Self-determination is itself one of the most widely recognized and fundamental human rights. "The principle of … self-determination of peoples" is recognized in Article 1 of the U.N. Charter. Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (to which the USA, India, and Pakistan are all parties) provides that, "All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status.... The States Parties to the present Covenant... shall promote the realization of the right of self-determination, and shall respect that right, in conformity with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations."

There are "liberals" and "reformers" within India, and some foreign human rights activists, who want to separate self-determination from (other) human rights. But that's not possible. You can't have a velvet-gloved occupation. Maintaining power by force, over popular opposition, requires brute, and brutal, use of force -- regardless of whether that opposition is itself violent, nonviolent, or a mix of both. Some say that self-determination is a "political question" on which human rights activists should remain "neutral". But that denies the status of self-determination as itself a human right. The (other) human rights issues in Kashmir cannot be resolved without addressing the human rights issue of self-determination.

The central demand of Kashmiri nationalist movement is "Azaadi", often translated as "Freedom". But what exactly does that mean? While some outsiders profess confusion, Kashmiris themselves have been remarkably precise, consistent, and coherent: Their central unifying demand for decades has been for a plebiscite on the status of Kashmir, as was promised by the government of India (including in repeated statements by its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru), by the government of Pakistan, and by resolution of the U.N. Security Council supported by India, Pakistan, and all of the Permanent Members including the USA.

Neither "azaadi" nor self-determination necessarily means independence for Kashmir. To demand the right to decide is not to presume what that decision would be, only that the decision should be made (1) by Kashmiris themselves and (2) at the ballot box through electoral means. To put it another way, the question is not how Kashmiris should vote, but whether they should have the right to vote on this specific question.

If the central Kashmiri demand is for the holding of an election, what are the circumstances in which human rights, including the right to self-determination, require that such an election be held?

Continue reading "Kashmir, self-determination, and human rights"
Link | Posted by Edward, 18 October 2014, 07:55 ( 7:55 AM) | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, 17 October 2014

The Amazing Race 25, Episode 4

Shetland Islands, Scotland (U.K.) - Aberdeen, Scotland (U.K.) - Copenhagen (Denmark) - Malmö (Sweden) - Copenhagen (Denmark)

This week's episode of The Amazing Race 25 focused on "sustainable" and "environmental" travel and transportation, with former bicycle messengers Alli and Kym each winning a (product placement) plug-in hybrid car after finishing first in a series of tasks including driving similar cars as fuel-efficiently as possible across the bridge between Copenhagen and Malmö, and making deliveries in Copenhagen on a cargo bike.

This isn't the first time that The Amazing Race has had tasks that appear to have been tailor-made for a specific team, but it was one of the most unfair in pitting bicycle delivery professionals against amateurs. Any long wheelbase or heavily loaded bicycle or tricycle -- a tandem, a long wheelbase recumbent, a cargo bike, or even a heavily loaded touring bicycle -- handles very differently from a conventional single-rider diamond-frame bicycle without a load.

Some years ago, I left my garage door open and my long wheelbase recumbent bicycle was stolen. A neighbor called the next morning to ask what my bike was doing in the bushes in front of their house: The thief or thieves had been unable to ride it, and had abandoned it less than a block away. They kept my partner's less valuable conventional diamond-frame bike that they had stolen at the same time.

The alternative task for the teams of racers (for those of you who don't watch the TV show, the challenges are sometimes a single task, but in other cases offer the racers a choice between two tasks) also highlighted the extent to which Copenhagen has been trying to de-prioritize private cars in the competition for scarce public space on city streets: The racers had to furnish and decorate a "parklet", or car parking space on the street re-purposed as a mini-park or extension of a sidewalk seating and lounging area. I believe that parklets originated in Copenhagen, and eventually spread to San Francisco and other U.S. cities first as unauthorized guerrilla art installations and eventually as permitted uses of designated spaces along city streets.

Copenhagen is generally thought of as "bicycle friendly" according to the infrastructure-centric criteria I discussed last week. A high percentage (by European standards) of travel within the city is by bicycle, and the percentage of Copenhagen residents who own cars is low.

But in this episode of the race, we also saw some of the problems with trying not just to provide separate sections of the right-of-way for pedestrians and wheeled vehicles, but to provide a third division of the right-of-way for two-wheeled vehicles separate from those for pedestrians and for larger vehicles.

Some of the racers were surprised to be overtaken by motorcycles in the bike lane, but motorized two-wheelers are permitted in such two-wheeler lanes in many countries. There is no international road "standard" as to whether a "bike lane" is reserved for non-motorized vehicles, or is reserved for all two-wheeled vehicles, motorized or not..

There's a similar lack of standardization as to which portion of the right-of-way bicycles are expected or required to use where there are two divisions. In most of the USA bicycles are required to share the portion of the roadway used by all other (motorized) vehicles, and the sidewalk is legally reserved for pedestrians. But in many other countries (and in some places in the USA) bicycles are required to share side paths, where they exist, with pedestrians, and leave the main portion of the roadway for the exclusive use of motorized vehicles.

To make matters worse, common practices are often at odds with the law. There are many places in the USA, and for that matter in England and elsewhere, where bicyclists are expected by motorists and even the police to ride on the sidewalk, wherever there is a sidewalk, even where that's illegal. Rarely is there any clear notice to a visiting bicyclist as to either the local law or local behavioral norms or expectations.

Expected lines for bicycles to follow through intersections are even less standardized, confusing, and consequently often dangerous. That's especially true where there are sometimes two and sometimes three divisions of the right-of-way, and bicyclists constantly have to be trying to figure out whether they are supposed to be on the sidewalk, in the street, or following some third way (and if so, where that third way is).

Despite what I presume were the the good intentions of the TV show's producers. something was missing from the discussion of sustainability on "The Amazing Race", as from most discussion of responsible travel or "ecotourism": There was no mention of the environmental impact of air travel.

As I said earlier this month at the SXSW Eco conference in a presentation on Peak Travel: Envisioning a post-air-travel age:

Definitions of "ecotourism" have excluded transportation to and from the destination, so that a resort or a tour can be certified as "green" even if all the guests are flying in from thousands of miles away, and even if air travel is the largest component of the carbon footprint of the tour or visit.

The lead news story from SXSW Eco was the contrast between my talk and the keynote by a spokesperson for Boeing. This was also a topic of discussion (although not as much of one as I would have liked) at the TBEX travel bloggers conference I attended in September.

I don't intend to claim any moral superiority here -- only a degree of consciousness and public acknowledgment of my moral qualms -- or to tell you what to do. I don't know if I'm a moderate, a hypocrite, or merely conflicted in my ambivalence about continuing to fly. After my talk, I was flamed on Twitter by climate-change deniers calling me "unspeakably evil" for flying if I think doing so contributes to global warming. One could say the same thing about any use of fossil fuels. But the trolls have a point: I have no children, I live in the city and get around mainly by bicycle and public transit, and I've never owned a motor vehicle. Air travel is the largest "discretionary" (although essential to my current livelihood) component of my carbon footprint.

What can I, and what can you, do about the environmental impact of our air travel? As I concluded my talk on "Peak Travel":

If you think that travel can have a positive impact -- on global consciousness and tolerance for diversity, on environmental awareness, on community development, on wildlife conservation -- and if you want yourself and your children and grandchildren to continue to be able to travel the world, you should take the lead in raising these issues, figuring out what a more sustainable and less air travel dependent ecology and economy of travel might be like, and getting the necessary infrastructure and policies in place to enable that -- before the oil runs out and the era of air travel ends.

Link | Posted by Edward, 17 October 2014, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

"Travelers, say bon voyage to privacy"

I talked at length with Watchdog investigative reporter Dave Lieber for his column in today's Dallas Morning News: Travelers, say bon voyage to privacy.

Lieber hits the nail on the head by calling out how few travellers realize that the U.S. government is keeping a permanent file of complete mirror copies of their reservations:

Did you know that when you buy an airline ticket and make other travel reservations, the government keeps a record of the details?

If airlines don’t comply, they can’t fly in the U.S., explains Ed Hasbrouck, a privacy expert with the Identity Project who has studied the records for years and is considered the nation’s top expert.

Before each trip, the system creates a travel score for you.... Before an airline can issue you a boarding pass, the system must approve your passage, Hasbrouck explains....

The idea behind extensive use of PNRs [Passenger Name Records], he says, is not necessarily to watch known suspects but to find new ones.

Want to appeal? "It’s a secret administrative process based on the score you don’t know, based on files you haven’t seen," Hasbrouck says....

Hasbrouck says: "You can’t keep files on everybody in case you want some dirt on them. That’s what J. Edgar Hoover did. We’ve been through this before in this country. Think of all the ways those files targeted innocent people and were misused. People’s lives were destroyed on the basis of unfounded allegations.

"Do we want to go back to that?"

For those whose curiosity has been piqued, here are links to more about this issue:

My FAQ, What's in a Passenger Name Record (PNR)?, includes links to examples of PNR data, templates to request your travel history and PNR files from DHS, and information about my lawsuit against DHS to try to find out what files it had about me and how it had used and "shared" them.

Requirements for airlines to send passenger data to the government, and receive individualized (per-passenger, per-flight) permission from the government before issuing a boarding pass, are contained in two separate sets of DHS regulations: Secure Flight for domestic flights and the Advance Passenger Information System (APIS) for international flights. (More about the APIS regulations.)

The system of "pre-crime" profiling and assigning scores to all air travelers was discussed in recent government audit reports and at a Congressional hearing last month, and in a front-page story in the New York Times, in which I was quoted, last year.

There's a good overview of the government's travel surveillance and control process in a talk I gave that was broadcast on C-SPAN last year. The slides from that talk include diagrams of the system and examples of PNR data and other government files about myself and travellers.

Link | Posted by Edward, 17 October 2014, 00:12 (12:12 AM) | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, 10 October 2014

The Amazing Race 25, Episode 3

Oxford, England (U.K.) - Aberdeen, Scotland (U.K.) - Shetland Islands, Scotland (U.K.)

The first clue given to the teams in this leg of The Amazing Race 25 sent them north on an all-day train ride from Oxford, England, to Aberdeen, Scotland, and then on an overnight ferry to Lerwick on the main island ("the Mainland") of the Shetlands.

Nothing was said about Aberdeen on the reality-TV show, and the racers spent only a few hours in Aberdeen before catching the ferry to the Shetland Islands. Aberdeen is actually a disproportionately important little city as the center of one of Scotland's most important industries: It's the jumping off point for helicopters and ships servicing and carrying workers to and from the offshore oil drilling rigs and platforms in the North Sea.

Even tourists who might be interested in spending more time in Aberdeen tend not to linger. There's a shortage of hotels in and around Aberdeen, and nondiscretionary demand for hotel rooms by oil workers and other business travellers has driven hotel prices in Aberdeen even higher than those in most of the rest of Scotland. Hotel room rates throughout Scotland are typically higher than those in most of England, at least in the summer tourist season. With the U.K. pound high relative to the Euro, hotel prices in Scotland were among the highest we encountered last summer anywhere we travelled in Europe except in Switzerland).

Lerwick is itself a secondary service port for the offshore oil industry, which is the second-largest component of the Shetland Islands economy after commercial fishing and ahead of agriculture (including the ubiquitous sheep pasturing that was featured in the racers' tasks) and tourism.

Tourists tend to think of Scotland in terms of castles and kilts, glens and green hills, and grazing sheep. But like New England, which is mostly wooded but where much of the land is steep and rocky and agriculture and forestry are mostly secondary to the economy, Scotland has had a predominately knowledge-based economy driven by leadership in technology and education since the Industrial Revolution. The most characteristic Scottish perspective on the world, like that of the New Englander of "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court", may be that of an engineer.

In the background of every conversation in Scotland this summer, when The Amazing Race 25 was being filmed in June and when we were there in July, was the impending September 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. Perhaps the producers of The Amazing Race wanted to avoid being perceived as taking sides in a political campaign, but I'm amazed that they managed to edit out any on-screen appearance of blue-and-white "Yes" yard or window signs. (The "No" campaign, although it prevailed in the vote, was much less visible.)

Two things were especially interesting to me about travelling in Scotland during the run-up to the independence referendum.

The first was that questions I always want to ask when I travel, but that local people sometimes haven't thought about or are taken aback by, were already at the center of both public and private conversation in pubs and at breakfast tables, in the newspapers, on radio and television, in best-selling books, and on city and village streets.

How do people here see yourselves as a people, a community, a country? What is your national identity, and what defines it? How is this place different from all others? What is your relationship to the rest of the world, and what do you want to be? What are your values? What is your vision? What future do you want for yourselves? How will you get there?

It couldn't have been more exciting for me to than to get to listen in on such a national self-exploration -- and better still, one conducted in English.

Second, I found a fascinating case study and comparison, in both the referendum process and the arguments being used in the referendum campaign, for the possibility of an eventual referendum on the status of Kashmir. The talk I gave earlier this month at Cornell University on "Kashmir, self-determination, and human rights" brings out some of the lessons I see for Kashmir in the Scottish example, in addition to other aspects of the underappreciated and generally misunderstood Kashmir issue.

The Shetland Islands are administratively and politically an integral part of Scotland and of the U.K. The majority in the Shetlands, like the majority in Scotland as a whole, voted "No" to Scottish independence. There had been some speculation, however, that if Scotland became independent, the Shetlands might seek some sort of quasi-autonomous status, like the U.K.-affiliated Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, in order to be able to become an offshore but Scottish-affiliated banking, insurance, incorporation, and/or tax haven.

We didn't get as far north as the Shetland Islands or even Aberdeen, but we spent less time in England and more time in Scotland this summer -- in Glascow, in Edinburgh, in the highlands along the Great Glen as far as Inverness, and in eastern Scotland and the (English-Scottish) border country -- then we had planned.

A major reason for our choice (although not the only one) was that we were travelling by bicycle, and Scotland proved to be much more bicycle-friendly than England.

That's not what you would conclude if you used the criteria that are typically used to assess the "bicycle-friendliness" of communities and regions in the USA, the U.K., and many other countries.

"Friendliness" is an attitudinal and behavioral attribute, and the "friendliness" that matters most to bicycle travellers is that of motorists: Are drivers of motor vehicles "friendly" to bicyclists they encounter on streets and roads, and respectful of bicyclists' rights and safety? Or do motorists treat bicyclists as childish, as a nuisance, as an impediment to motorized traffic, or as fair game for motorized vehicular assault?

When I first heard of ratings and awards for "bicycle-friendly" communities, I assumed that they were based on surveys of bicyclists about whether local motorists were friendly to them. But I was wrong. Motorists' attitudes aren't even considered in "bicycle-friendly" designations, which instead are based entirely on the existence of bicycle-specific infrastructure and policies.

Travelling by bicycle in Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and the U.K. for two months this summer, we saw wide variations in national and regional cycling cultures and styles, the nature and extent of bicycle-specific infrastructure, and motorists' attitudes toward cyclists. Overall, there was little correlation between the amount of bicycle-specific infrastructure and the quality or safety of the experience of bicycle travel in different places, and much greater correlation with how motorists think about and interact with bicycles and bicyclists on the roads.

England has an extensive National Cycle Network of routes designated by the nonprofit sustainable travel and transport organization Sustrans. But Sustrans is mainly focused on recreational walking and hiking routes, rather than on bicycling or on routes that are actually efficient for transportation. Once Sustrans designates a route, it gets shown on every sort of map as "the route that cyclists are supposed to follow", regardless of its suitability for bicycle travel. No further effort to provide for bicycles is thought to be necessary. And English motorists, like those in Germany and some other countries I've visited, expect that where there is a designated bicycle route, bicycles should be on it -- no matter how inferior or unsuitable it is -- and not trying to share the roads that are used by motor vehicles.

Even in the USA, where many "bike paths" are poorly surfaced, signed, or maintained, I've seen few designated bike routes that are as bad as many sections of the U.K.'s National Cycle Route Network. The design criteria are "scenic", "fun", and "avoiding any road shared with motorized traffic. "Efficient", "direct", and "easy" are not among those criteria.

Sustrans designates routes that go miles out of the way, high up insanely steep hills, and along "paths" that are barely passable on a mountain bike much less a loaded touring bike with wide panniers, for the sake of a scenic detour (without bothering to designate any alternate route for through travellers or commuters) or to avoid even the shortest stretch of road shared with motorized traffic.

On various parts of U.K. National Cycle Network Route 1, we found ourselves directed off motor vehicle roads onto muddy singletrack through sheep pasture with gates we had to stop and dismount to open and close after ourselves every mile or less, and paths too narrow for bicycles in opposite directions to pass each other, where our legs were brushing against thickly overgrown hedges of stinging nettles on both sides at once. Rather than being the best or easiest through routes for inexperienced bicycle travellers, many of the cycling routes designated by Sustrans are suitable only for skilled, well-prepared cyclists who are looking for a seriously difficult challenge.

By contrast to England, there are far fewer designated long-distance cycle routes in Scotland. Scottish roads are as narrow as English roads, and outside of towns typically lack any shoulder, sidewalk, or side path.

In the USA, even what we think of as "narrow" roads typically have at least some pavement width beyond the edge of the vehicle traffic lane. But many roads in the U.K. have absolutely no shoulders at all, and many of them have hedgerows -- eight-foot-high vertical walls of dense shrubbery spiked with the ends of trimmed-off branches -- extending all the way to the edge of the traffic lane.

We encountered some inconsiderate and reckless motorists in Scotland, as one does everywhere. Once when we had to go a few miles on an "A" road (a narrow two-lane road with heavy traffic and few pull-outs or places to pass safely), a tour bus driver, possibly not from Scotland, ran us off into a narrow ditch alongside a rock wall.

But despite this, and despite the near-complete lack of bicycle-specific infrastructure or alternatives to sharing the roads with motorized traffic, I found Scotland much more genuinely bicycle-friendly than England. In general, Scottish drivers didn't seem surprised to encounter bicycles sharing the roads, even where there were side paths, and didn't seem to begrudge us our place on the roads any more than they would wide, slow, agricultural implements.

The defining experience for me of bicycle-friendly Scotland came when we were going up a long steep grade in the Highlands at about three miles an hour. A series of loaded tandem logging trucks overtaking us slowed down to match our speed a safe distance behind us, and waited -- not honking, not revving their engines, not tailgating us -- for us to crawl as far up the hill as necessary, sometimes half a mile or more, until we got to gaps in the hedgerow where we could pull over to let them pass.

That's nothing about bicycle-friendly infrastructure, and everything about attitude.

Link | Posted by Edward, 10 October 2014, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Peak Travel: Envisioning a post-air-travel age

One of the more disruptive consequences of peak oil is likely to be peak air travel.

What does peak air travel mean? Why is it likely? Why haven't you already heard more about it? And what business and investment opportunities does this coming disruption create?

I've been writing about the unsustainability of air travel for more than 20 years, and I'm pleased that this year it's on the SXSW Eco conference agenda.

But let me make one thing perfectly clear from the start: I am not here to tell you that you shouldn't fly.

Some people do make that argument, and it's a legitimate question, but that's not what I'm saying.

I came to Austin by plane, and I think very few people who can afford to fly will choose to fly significantly less for reasons of ethics or sustainability.

People like me who travel by air should pay more than we do: our decision-making is distorted by the fact that air travel is artificially cheap. Air transport is, and always has been, more heavily subsidized than almost any other mode of transport, in many non-obvious ways. I would support much higher taxes on my own air travel, and the elimination of the current subsidies.

But flying is too attractive for voluntary reductions to have much effect. If we want people to fly less, we're going to have to persuade them through their pocketbook by making flying more expensive.

My point today is that -- ethics aside -- peak oil is likely to make air travel much more expensive, both in absolute terms and relative to the cost of surface transportation.

Air transport is different from surface transport in two key respects: (1) Airplanes can't be connected to the grid, and (2) keeping them up in the air requires a fuel with an energy density that batteries or other alternatives can't provide, and aren't likely to be able to provide. For air travel as we know it, there is no substitute for liquid fuel – as the aviation industry itself freely admits.

Fuel is already a higher percentage of the cost of air transport than of the cost of most modes of surface transport, making airline ticket prices more sensitive to fuel costs than surface transit prices.

Fracking seems to have postponed peak oil for a few years. But when peak oil's day of reckoning arrives, some of its earliest and most severe impacts on end-user prices are likely to be on air travel.

Obviously, the aviation industry doesn't want to talk about its impending contraction, since that would not only scare off investors but could cause governments to cut back their current aviation subsidies.

In addition, higher costs for air travel are as much of a threat to the so-called "ecotourism" industry as to the aviation industry. Definitions of "ecotourism" have excluded transportation to and from the destination, so that a resort or a tour can be certified as "green" even if all the guests are flying in from thousands of miles away, and even if air travel is the largest component of the carbon footprint of the tour or visit. Many "ecotourism" businesses and destinations are almost entirely dependent on airborne guests. That creates pressure on those who support fair trade, community development, and wildlife and ecosystem conservation funded by "ecotourism" to also support continued cheap air travel. As a result, many of those who are regarded as ecotourism experts and spokespeople have been part of the conspiracy of silence with the aviation industry about the environmental impact of airborne tourism.

What's harder to understand is why private investors have drunk the propaganda Kool-aid that airlines and aircraft manufacturers have cooked up about a future of "sustainable" infinite growth in air travel.

We heard some of this in yesterday's keynote here at SXSW Eco 2014, in which the top Boeing executive for "sustainability" showed us, not a graph of air traffic leveling off at some sustainable level, but a growth curve accelerating upward off the chart into the future at an increasing rate of growth.

It's hard to imagine any other industry putting forward that kind of projection at a conference like this, or expecting to get away with calling it "sustainable". But this is exactly the sort of taken-for-granted exceptionalism that has characterized aviation, and government policy towards aviation, from its earliest years. The Chicago Convention international treaty has been interpreted as exempting fuel for international airline flights from taxes. The USA is vigorously opposing inclusion of airlines in the European Union emissions trading scheme. And there are no global controls or caps or taxes on aviation emissions.

The aviation industry has succeeded in separating aviation from the rest of the discussion of climate change at the United Nations, and has gotten global policy on aircraft emissions moved to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a sector-specific revolving-door UN agency largely if not entirely captured by aviation industry interests. Any action on climate change by ICAO has been indefinitely postponed, despite vigorous but little-reported protests from the International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation, the one environmental group (and virtually the only civil society organization of any sort) with an observer seat at ICAO.

As we heard in yesterday's keynote here at SXSW Eco 2014, the aviation industry's claim is that sometime, years or more likely decades in the future, airlines and aircraft manufacturers hope to replace fossil fuel with biofuels. "We hope to find a way to clean up our own act, someday," aviation industry spokespeople say, "So in the meantime we should continue to be exempt from the climate change and fossil fuel conservation regimes you are putting in place for all other industries."

But how realistic is the prospect for "sustainable" biofuels, on which the aviation industry has staked its hopes?

With enough resource inputs, organic chemistry can turn almost any feedstock into any other organic compound. But to meet the needs of aviation, sustainably, biofuels must be:

  1. A high energy density drop-in liquid replacement for kerosene;
  2. Produced in quantities many times those of current jet fuel extraction and refining (to support air traffic many times present volumes, as the industry projects, driven largely by growth in air travel and air cargo transport in China and other developing countries);
  3. At prices comparable to current kerosene prices;
  4. Without contributing more to climate change – through energy inputs and the production and refining process – than it saves compared to fossil fuel;
  5. Without diverting land, water, or human labor from food production (i.e. burning food for jet fuel); and
  6. Available at full scale soon, before we run out of oil or pass the climate change tipping point.

That's a tall order. It might turn out to be possible, but I don't think it's likely.

I'm not sure how many people in the aviation industry really believe it's likely that biofuels will meet all these challenges. Perhaps the best public indication of what industry insiders really think is contained in their reports to those to whom they are accountable: their stockholders. I know of no airline or aircraft manufacturer that bases its financial projections on biofuel rather than fossil fuel costs. Either they think that biofuel prices will somehow magically end up exactly equal to fossil fuel prices, or – more likely – they have no real expectation that biofuels will constitute any meaningful fraction of the fuel used by airliners in any financially foreseeable future.

Would I bet on aviation biofuels myself? At most, it's the sort of highly speculative investment on which I would risk a small portion of the capital I could afford to lose, if I were a venture capitalist who could afford to invest in many such high-risk ventures in the hope that the one winner that pays out, pays out big enough to cover the losses on the majority of losers.

But by planning for continued cheap air transport, unsuspecting investors and business people in seemingly unrelated industries that depend on air travel have staked their fortunes, often without realizing it, on a risky bet on future production of large quantities of cheap, sustainable biofuels for aviation – when the more conservative strategy would be to plan and prepare for the greater likelihood that air travel will, in fact, get much more expensive.

If peak oil is coming, and it's likely to bring a dramatic increase in the cost of air travel, what does this imply?

Continue reading "Peak Travel: Envisioning a post-air-travel age"
Link | Posted by Edward, 9 October 2014, 21:42 ( 9:42 PM) | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, 3 October 2014

The Amazing Race 25, Episode 2

St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands (USA) - London, England (U.K.) - Oxford, England (U.K.)

Once again, as has often been the case on The Amazing Race, the potentially decisive choice in this episode was the one that none of the teams of racers made: taking the Heathrow Express train from the airport to central London (and then changing to a taxi to the location of their next clue on Tower Bridge), rather than than taking a taxi all the way from Heathrow.

Given that several of the racers said that they had been in London before, and the pervasiveness of advertising for the Heathrow Express ("Heathrow to [central] London in 15 minutes, every 15 minutes"), it's surprising that all of the racers chose to take taxis.

It's actually hard to figure out in what circumstances a taxi to central London would make sense for anyone arriving at Heathrow, even if price is no object. Best case, with no traffic, a taxi would take about as long as the worst case (just missing one Heathrow Express and having to wait for the next) for the express train and then a taxi across central London to your final destination. A taxi is neither the fastest nor the cheapest way to get from or to any of the London airports except London City Airport.

Most budget-conscious travellers dismiss the Heathrow Express as grossly overpriced -- which it is -- and take the "Underground" or "tube". (In the USA we would call it a "subway" despite the fact that most of the line between Heathrow and downtown is at or above ground level.) The Underground is cheap but slow, subject to unpredictable delays (although not as much so, of course, as a taxi that can get stuck in traffic) that mean you need to allow extra time to catch a departing flight, and can be quite cramped if you have luggage -- there are no luggage racks.

Travel time on the London Underground between central London and LHR is comparable to travel time on the New Yorki City subway between midtown Manhattan and JFK airport on the E train. (Yes, I said the E train. The better known A train makes many more stops and takes much longer to get to or from midtown.)

What few visitors to either London or New York realize is that there is another, poorly-advertised option in each of these cities: commuter train service that connects the airports to downtown much more quickly than the subway and even in the worst case almost as fast as a cab (and often faster), for a fare that's a fraction of the cost of a cab or the Heathrow Express.

Heathrow Connect trains follow the same route as the Heathrow Express, but make a couple of intermediate stops that add only about 10 minutes to the journey time of the express. For the equivalent of about US$7 more than the price of the Tube for a single (one-way) ticket, Heathrow Connect saves between 30 minutes and an hour.

In New York, the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) has direct trains between Penn Station and the same Jamaica station on the JFK "Airlink" people mover as the subway. Even paying the peak rush-hour LIRR fare, it's only US$8 more than the subway, one-way, to save 30 minutes or more and have a much quieter, more comfortable ride than on the subway. This (finally) provides a decent connection between JFK and Amtrak's main line as well as other commuter trains serving southern Connecticut, the Hudson River valley, etc.

For what it's worth, the LIRR also has direct service between the JFK Airlink terminus and the Atlantic Terminal in downtown Brooklyn. And there's also a new inexpensive express bus service, the Q70 Limited, that links another LIRR station at Woodside, as well as the Jackson Heights (Roosevelt Rd.) subway station, to LaGuardia Airport -- the first fast or reliable mass transit service to LGA.

The only drawback to Heathrow Connect or the LIRR is that each serves only one downtown station (Paddington in London, Penn Station in Manhattan, the Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn), so you may need to use a cab or the subway for the first or last few miles. But these trains still save substantial time compared to taking the subway all the way to or from the airport. Using these commuter trains is at least as fast, door to door, as taking a cab all the way, and substantially faster if traffic on the roads is bad.

The racers continued on from London to Oxford by train from Paddington station. There are direct busses between Heathrow and Oxford, which I used leaving Oxford for a flight to Berlin during a European speaking tour a few years ago. But there are no direct trains between Heathrow and anywhere outside greater London. Heathrow is like JFK and a growing number of other airports in the USA, and unlike a growing number of other European airports, in being served by local trains to and from the city, but not having any direct mainline rail services to or from places outside the metropolitan area.

That's unfortunate because far more airlines serve JFK in the USA, and LHR in the U.K., than any other airports in those respective countries. Many people passing through these airports are actually coming from or to other cities, and could make their connections to the international gateway by train if there were better connections.

In the USA, the best airport connections to and from points served by Amtrak or regional rail north and west of New York are via the LIRR between JFK and Penn Station, as described above. For Amtrak or New Jersey Transit destinations to the south, the better alternative to JFK is sometimes Newark Airport (EWR). There's a Newark Airport station on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor mainline, connected to the airport terminals by a monorail "people mover". But only certain Amtrak trains, not including any of the Acela expresses, stop at the Newark Airport station.

In the U.K., the best mainline rail connections to the widest range of destinations are at Manchester Airport (MAN), which also has more flights to more destinations than any U.K. airport other than those serving greater London. If you don't need or want to spend time in London, and you are going to anywhere in central or northern England or in Scotland, Manchester Airport is likely to be substantially more convenient than Heathrow or the other London airports.

There are other provincial U.K. airports, but none of them have anything close to Manchester's range of scheduled airline flight frequencies and destinations. This official list is a bit misleading, because it includes seasonal and charter flights. This crowd-sourced Wikipedia list is unofficial and can't be relied on, but is easier to parse. There are few direct flights between Manchester and the USA. But there are connections between MAN and the USA via all major continental European hubs. Significantly, there are year-round scheduled nonstop services between MAN and West and East Asian hubs for long-haul destinations including Singapore, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Hong Kong. Manchester Airport is a surprisingly good air gateway to Scotland, with direct trains to the main downtown stations in Glascow and Edinburgh and significantly more flights to and from more places than any airport in Scotland.

Link | Posted by Edward, 3 October 2014, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Is Google monopolizing flight and airfare search?

Not yet. But as the Washington Post quotes me today:

“I don’t think that [Google] Fare Search has had much impact on consumers,” says Edward Hasbrouck, a critic of the ITA purchase. But he thinks that we’re not out of the woods yet. After the Justice Department’s consent decree expires in October 2016, Google will be able to do what it pleases with ITA, and that makes people like Hasbrouck nervous. “The real danger is of Google dominance of personalized pricing,” he says. “Imagine Google being able to incorporate everything it knows about you from your use of all Google services into decisions about what price to put on each airline ticket. Airlines or services with less info on which to base such price personalization would have a hard time competing with Google.”

Follow the links above for more on the background to my comments.

Link | Posted by Edward, 2 October 2014, 23:31 (11:31 PM) | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, 26 September 2014

The Amazing Race 25, Episode 1

New York, NY (USA) - St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands (USA)

["Hey mister customs man, there's a flea in my passport!"]

I got a new personal radio tracking beacon this month. I'll be carrying it with me, wherever I go, whenever I leave the USA for the next ten years.

Almost ten years ago, the USA began issuing passports that contain radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips, each of which broadcasts a globally unique personal identification number that anyone, not just government agencies, can receive and use to track the passport. (I like the connotations of the French word for an RFID or similar electronic micro-chip, "puce", which translates literally as, "flea".)

You can tell if your passport has an RFID chip by whether it has the international standard e-passport logo on the cover.

The more I learned about the technical capabilities of the "e-passport" system, the more I came to see it as a threat to personal safety, security, and privacy. E-passports are intended to be used by governments, and can also be used by businesses or criminals, for surveillance, tracking, and the construction of ID-linked movement and event logs. E-passports make it possible to build bombs triggered by the proximity of passports of a specified nationality or nationalities -- or of a specific target person or persons. (Targets of domestic violence, have I gotten your attention?) And "skimming" or interception of communications with "legitimate" e-passport readers -- by the person behind you in line at the check-in counter or kiosk at the airport, for example -- facilitates touchless digitally-perfect remote passport cloning by identity thieves.

Like many of my readers and other savvy travellers, I tried to delay getting a chipped passport as long as possible: I renewed my passport in early 2005, the last year before the State Department began issuing RFID-chipped passports to ordinary citizens.

It turned out to be more difficult than the State Department had expected to embed an RFID transceiver chip and attached antenna into the cover of a passport and get them to work reliably enough for the ten-year validity period of a standard passport.

To protect the RFID chip and antenna, the State Department eventually decided to embed them in a thicker passport-book cover, and print the photo and other personal information on a separate inside page of the passport book. This violates the ICAO standards that the State Department had falsely claimed "required" adding RFID chips to passports in the first place. ICAO standards don't require RFID chips in passports at all, but do specify that, if a passport has an RFID chip, the chip should be embedded in the same sheet that has the personal information printed on it, to reduce the risk of separation and tampering.

The transition to RFID-chipped passports went more slowly than had originally been planned. Some unchipped 10-year USA passports were issued as late as 2007. But so far as I can tell, no unchipped standard 10-year USA passports have been issued since then.

To cover the additional cost of adding RFID chips to passports, the State Department dramatically increased the fees for passport issuance and other passport-related services.

And far more USA citizens need passports than a decade ago, as a result of other changes to State Department and DHS regulations and practices that now require passports for all crossings of USA borders, even for land travel by USA citizens to and from Mexico and Canada.

Over the next couple of years, the last of the unchipped USA passports will be expiring. People like me who've put it off as long as possible will be forced to decide whether we are willing to carry government-issued radio tracking devices whenever and wherever we travel outside the USA.

In practice, frequent international travellers like me will have to decide six months or more before our passports expire, over the next year or so. Many countries won't admit visitors unless their passports are valid for at least six months after their intended departure from the country. This rule is intended to reduce the risk to the destination country that your passport will expire while you are in their country, you won't be able to obtain a new passport, and they will be unable to deport you because you have become stateless, and as a result they will be forced to allow you to stay, perhaps indefinitely, as an unwanted and undocumented immigrant.

Airlines sometimes won't allow you to board an international flight if your passport expires in less than six months, regardless of the actual requirements of the country to which you are travelling.

A passport that is about to expire is thus of limited usefulness, and renewing a USA passport by mail takes an unpredictable amount of time from a couple of weeks to several months. As a rule of thumb, therefore, you should start thinking about renewing your passport as soon as it has less than a year of validity remaining.

Sending your passport in for renewal by mail is risky if you might need to travel abroad in less than about six months. You might get your passport back in days if you pay for both expedited processing and round-trip Express Mail shipping. But even if you pay for expedited service, it might take weeks or months.

If you can, the best way to get or renew a USA passport is to go to one of the State Department's dedicated passport issuance offices. There used to be only a handful of these, but in response to the need generated by the passport requirement for crossing the Mexican and Canadian borders, many more have opened. You have to pay the "expedited processing" fee to apply for a passport at one of these offices, but you save the cost of round-trip Express Mail, you find out immediately if your application is approved or if you are going to be asked to fill out the long form in addition to the standard short application form. If you apply in person, and have evidence of imminent departure, you can pick up your new passport at the same office later the same day if necessary.

You need to make an appointment by phone in advance, but you can usually get an appointment at most of the passport offices within a few days. With an appointment, you can expect to be in and out in less than hour, unless there's a problem with your application. You'll be given a receipt and a time to pick up your new passport, most often a day or two later unless you are leaving sooner. You have to apply in person, and if you are applying for passports for several family members, they all need to show up for the initial appointment. But you can sign the receipt to authorize someone else to pick up your new pasport for you.

I was headed to Cancún, Mexico, for the TBEX travel bloggers' conference earlier this this month, and my old passport had slightly less than six months of validity remaining. I called the passport office appointment phone line on Wednesday evening, got an appointment at the San Francisco passport office for Thursday morning, and picked up my new, RFID-chipped passport at noon Friday. It could have been quicker than that if necessary.

If you can't get an appointment at a passport office before your planned departure, don't despair. Go to a passport office anyway, as early as possible, with a copy of your airline ticket or e-ticket confirmation. Be prepared to spend all day waiting if you don't have an appointment. In practice, applicants without appointments but with evidence of imminent departure are usually accommodated as space permits, although you wouldn't know that from anything the State Department says publicly. It's possible to get a same-day passport even without an appointment.

Do yourself a favor and check the box at the top of the application form to request a new passport with extra visa pages, which currently means 52 pages for visas and entry and exit stamps rather than the standard 28. One trip around the world can fill up a standard passport book. As a rule of thumb, you'll need a full page for each visa, plus half a page per country for quarter-page entry and exit stamps. There's no extra charge for the extra-thick passport book, if you request it when you apply.

It used to be possible to have blank pages added to a USA passport for free. But it's harder to add pages to an RFID-chipped passport (the number of pages is coded into the chip, to make it harder to tamper with the passport), and having pages added to your passport now costs almost as much and takes just as much time and hassle as getting your passport renewed. "We see too many people who come in to get extra pages in their passports," the passport examiner who processed my renewal said. "They should have asked for the bigger book when they first applied."

The sooner you are leaving, the more quickly your new passport will be produced. It's a crime to lie to a any Federal employee, and a felony to lie on a passport application. But it's not a crime to change or cancel your international travel plans. The USA Department of Transportation requires airlines to allow you to cancel a ticket purchase and receive a full refund if you do so within 24 hours. So it's possible to buy a ticket today to leave the country tomorrow, show the passport office a bona fide purchase receipt and valid e-ticket confirmation, and cancel your purchase for a full refund as soon as you leave the passport office -- as long as you don't make any false statements on your application or to the passport office staff.

Most USA passport applicants still pay to have "professional" passport photos taken. At a typical price of US$10-15 for two passport photos, this is an unnecessary and excessive expense. You can take perfectly adequate photos with your digital camera or smartphone, and have them printed for pennies at a local drugstore or other photo processor. The State Department doesn't know or care if they were taken digitally, or by whom, as long as they are properly focused, framed, and cropped. The only difficulty is getting the portrait properly scaled, framed, and cropped.

I had my friend take some face-on digital photos of me against a plain white wall, picked one I liked, and used the free online tool from to scale, frame, and crop the image to satisfy passport requirements. generates a 4" × 6" image with 4 passport photos, and the other third of the sheet taken up with an ad for their service. There's no need to waste photo paper on their ads or use their overpriced printing service, though. I used the free irfanview image editor to cut and paste 2 of the passport images over the ad, giving me a 4" × 6" image with 6 passport photos. Then I sent them to Walgreens like any other digital photos, and picked them up at a local Walgreens store an hour later. Each sheet cost me 30 cents, or 5 cents per passport photo. You only need one photo for a USA passport application, but I always get extra prints for future visa applications -- especially when it's so cheap to do so.

The teams on The Amazing Race 25 didn't even need their U.S. passports for this first leg of the race. They went only as far as the U.S. Virgin Islands, a U.S. colony under the authority of the Office of Insular Areas of the Department of the Interior. Yes, these are discontiguous external island colonies, but in its Orwellian imperial majesty the USA calls its non-self-governing territories "insular" and "interior". Anyway, it's the first time a season of of The Amazing Race other than the Family Edition hasn't left the territories of the USA in its first episode, or that the racers haven't yet needed their passports.

The tourism industry in the USVI makes a virtue of necessity with respect to the islands' status as a U.S. colony. The fact about the USVI most prominently advertised to potential visitors is that no passport is required for U.S. citizens.

Tourism to the USVI has benefited from U.S. rules that now require U.S. citizens to have a passport for all international travel, even within the Americas where most Caribbean countries want U.S. tourists and their money enough to let them in without passports. The requirement for U.S. citizens to have passports to visit any Caribbean islands except the U.S. colonies of Puerto Rico and the USVI comes from the U.S. government, not other countries. And it leaves the USVI tourism industry little choice but to look to the U.S. as a source of visitors from outside the islands: Because the USVI is a U.S. colony, non-U.S. citizens need permission from the USA (visas or the electronic equivalent) to visit the USVI. That makes it much harder and more expensive for Europeans or Latin Americans to get permission to visit the USVI or Puerto Rico than any other Caribbean Islands. I've heard "never again" stories from Europeans about the hassles and humiliating fingerprinting and mug shots they had to go through, as ordinary tourists, to take their Caribbean vacation on a U.S.-governed island. Instead, most tourists to the Caribbean other than from the USA go to Cancún, Cuba, or other islands.

Link | Posted by Edward, 26 September 2014, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (13) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, 25 September 2014

"Kashmiris: A Forgotten People", Oct. 2nd at Cornell University

I'll be part of a discussion about Kashmir [calendar listing, event poster, Facebook event page] a week from today at Cornell University, initiated by the Islamic Alliance for Justice and co-sponsored by an unuusally wide range of Cornell academic departments and student and community organizations. I'll be joined by an other panelists including people much more knowledgeable than I am about current events on the ground in Kashmir and with important stories and perspectives to share. I hope to see some of you there!

Kashmiris: A Forgotten People

panel discussion followed by a Q&A session

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014, 5:30 - 7:00 p.m.
228 Malott Hall - Bache Auditorium
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA

Kashmir -- a conflicted state between Pakistan and India -- has been the center of military and political battles since 1947. Beyond the politics and the national interests of the two countries, this panel discussion aims to go deeper into the black box and highlight the human experience of Kashmiris. Despite evidence of massive human rights abuses, the immense suffering of the civilian population has failed to receive due attention from political and activist circles as well as mainstream media. International organizations, including Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross, have documented numerous violations of fundamental rights, including mass killings, forced disappearances, political repression, torture and sexual abuse.

Featured Panelists:

Edward Hasbrouck is an award-winning travel journalist, author of the "Practical Nomad" series of travel how-to books, and longtime activist for peace, justice, and human rights in the US and around the world. Since visiting Kashmir in 1989, he has followed events in Kashmir, written about Kashmir in movement journals, and worked to raise awareness and understanding of Kashmir in the US. As an engaged observer from afar, Mr. Hasbrouck offers a holistic perspective that reframes the "the Kashmir question" in the context of contemporary geopolitical dynamics and activist concerns, both in the region and in the US.

Saiba Varma is a lecturing fellow at Duke University, having recently earned her Ph.D. in anthropology from Cornell. She has written extensively on anthropological aspects of the conflict in Kashmir as it is experienced by Kashmiris. Her research focuses on the mental health costs of the conflict and the emergence of medical and humanitarian initiatives in the region.

Ahmad Rafiqi is a Kashmiri Ph.D. student in Mathematics at Cornell University. Mr. Rafiqi was born in Srinagar, the capital of the Indian-administered Kashmir, where he spent the first 18 years of his life. From a young age, he participated in protests and marches against the Indian administration. An advocate for Kashmiri self-determination, he offers an important indigenous perspective based on personal experience.

Arnav Sahu is a senior undergraduate student at Cornell University majoring in Economics. Mr. Sahu was born in New Delhi, the capital of India. Arnav has a keen interest in South-east Asian geo-politics and offers the Indian perspective on the issue.

Moderator: Durba Ghosh is an Associate Professor in the History Department at Cornell University. Her teaching and research interests focus on understanding the history of colonialism on the Indian subcontinent. Her current research focuses on popular and radical political movements in early and mid-twentieth century India as well as the role of political violence in popular historical narratives.

This event is FREE and open to the public.

Cosponsored by:

  • Islamic Alliance for Justice
  • History Department
  • Government Department
  • South Asia Council
  • Cornell Progressive
  • Cornell Asian Pacific Islander Student Union
  • Native American Students at Cornell
  • Amnesty International Group 73 Ithaca Chapter
  • Comparative Muslim Societies Program
  • Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies
Link | Posted by Edward, 25 September 2014, 06:25 ( 6:25 AM) | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)