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Saturday, June 18, 2016

Guest Post From Sally Fensome: Drugs Tourism-- Is It Worth It?

Amsterdam-- not as unique as it once was in one way

Vacations are times of hedonism, when we aim to expand our minds and to enjoy ourselves. If we’re heading to somewhere where drugs are more readily available and/or legal than here, then we may decide to push our boundaries a bit by experimenting with some of the local substances. Some people even travel expressly for this purpose. But is it a good idea? Is drugs tourism just harmless fun, or can it take a nasty, dark turn? As with everything, it all depends on what you do, what you do it for, and how deep you go.

Different Rules

If you want to experiment with substances, the USA is not the best place to do so. Our notorious ‘war on drugs’ means that you could face hefty sentences for even minor misdemeanors. The legalization of cannabis in certain states does, in all fairness, mean that you can take a road trip or an internal flight to get stoned without having to get a visa, but in general we’re still pretty strict. Far easier to head somewhere where certain drugs laws are not as tight, or where substance use is less policed. In many European nations, the use of recreational marijuana is either completely legal or barely policed, and attitudes towards it are far different to those we might find here. The same applies to many other ‘soft’ drugs in many parts of the world. If you spend a lot of time in these places, and make friends with the locals, you will almost inevitably find yourself adopting their way of thinking about what back home would be considered deviant drugs. It can be surprising when you head home and speak of your experiences to find your American friends bringing all of their homegrown prejudices to bear upon your drug use while abroad. However, in some cases, they may be justified. While there’s probably little risk from the free and easy use of things like marijuana, experimenting too deeply with harder drugs could leave you with some serious problems. Just because it’s legal (or easy to get away with) doesn’t mean that it’s safe.

Benefits Of Drug Tourism

We know what we’re meant to say-- ‘DRUGS ARE BAD, KIDS!’ And they are. But let’s not pretend that there aren’t some silver linings to the (blue) cloud. Heading out on a vacation and doing some relatively harmless drugs can be a great way for kids to learn that drugs aren’t really that great. It’s a good way to get experimental urges out of one’s system without landing oneself with a criminal record. It’s also a great way to make those crucial mistakes you need to make in order to learn. When you’re on a vacation, you’re typically in a reasonably safe social environment, surrounded by friends and family who’ll look after you. What’s more, if you’re somewhere where the drugs you want to try are legal, you’re likely to be sold them in a controlled location which will have absolutely no desire to see you in danger (or they could lose their licence). So it’s a safe way in which to learn by experience the joys and the downfalls of recreational drug use. However, this assumes that you’re sensible about it, don’t purchase from dodgy vendors, and don’t go near the really hard stuff. There are other reasons why people may benefit from drugs tourism. People with medical conditions may travel to experience the therapeutic effects of medical marijuana, and those with mental health problems are increasingly travelling to South America for the purportedly curative (but controversial) powers of ayahuasca.

Dangers Of Drug Tourism

Let’s start with the obvious: travelling abroad to do drugs could get you killed. Anything which messes with your mind and body as much as some of the substances out there is really, really dangerous. Particularly if you don’t know what you’re doing, and don’t understand enough of the local language to listen to instructions. If you’re not killed, you could end up with a nasty habit. So stay away from anything which is known to have addictive or life-threatening qualities! No matter how ‘normal’ it seems to use these substances in the area you’re travelling to! Oh, and speaking of ‘life threatening’, it’s worth noting that you can be executed in many nations for drugs offences. Moving down the scale, drugs tourism could see you arrested, and subjected to some pretty nasty penal regimes. While illegal drugs may be relatively easy to come by in certain parts of the world, their usage is deeply frowned upon. Some governments try to discourage drugs tourism by imposing harsh penalties upon foreigners caught using or smuggling drugs on their shores. We already mentioned execution. If you’re found ‘trafficking’ (which can mean anything from ‘smuggling through the airport’ to ‘holding in your hand’) drugs in Malaysia, the authorities will have no hesitation in sentencing you to death. And, yes, they really can do that to a foreign citizen. It’s not just Malaysia that you need to watch out for, either. Plenty of nations will drop on you like a ton of bricks for drugs tourism. If you’re lucky, you might just end up in prison for 30 odd years.

Think Of The Locals

If you’re considering a spot of drugs tourism, it pays to be considerate of the locals. Places like Amsterdam have been forced to consider putting restrictions on foreigners consuming marijuana there, as drugs tourists often a) can’t really handle it properly, and b) don’t have any respect for the locals. Drugs tourists all too often make the mistake of treating the nation they’re in as their own personal playground, and forgetting that real humans live, work, and belong to this place. The idea that any location is a ‘party town’ for you to go wild in risks you putting some local backs up in a serious manner. Not to mention the fact that drugs tourism can be exploitative and damaging to fragile local cultures. So, if you’re going to go off an experiment with substances in a foreign land, be as respectful as you can possibly manage!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Trump Name Is Too Toxic For Azerbaijan, One Of The World's Most Corrupt Countries

I just got back from my first visit to Azerbaijan. I never expected to find such a wonderful place but it reminded me of a wealthier and more modern/Western Turkey. It's a little smaller than Maine and a little bigger than South Carolina with just over ten million inhabitants, more than New Jersey or Michigan and just about the same number as North Carolina. The rap on the country is that it's very wealthy but that all the wealth is concentrated in a few families' hands, cronies of the forever president, Ilham Aliyev, who first came to power in 2003 when his pop, Heydar Aliyev died. The elder Aliyev had been a former First Secretary of the Azerbaijani Communist Party, a member of the Soviet Politburo and of the KGB before deposing Azerbaijan's first Democratically-elected president Abulfaz Elchibey.

Before that unpleasantness, Azerbaijan was the world's first Muslim-majority secular state and parliamentary democracy before being overrun by the Soviets in 1920, Lenin saying he was sorry but the Soviets needed the oil. Azerbaijan lived under the Soviet yoke until it declared independence in 1991. Now it's a rich little country and Baku, the modern, bustling capital, looks-- architecturally-- like a cross between Paris and Dubai. And into this mix waddled Donald Trump a couple years ago.

One of the mainstays of the kleptocratic regime, Transportation Minister, Ziya Mammadov, who went from a lowly railway worker to a billionaire/Mafioso owns a lot of Azerbaijan. His son, Anar, is a shady character and a perfect fit for The Donald. It was only a matter of time before they found each other, which they did when Anar decided to rent Trump's name for his glitzy new hotel. He paid Trump between $2.5 and $2.8 million for the right to slap "Trump Tower" on his building and to get some consultations from Ivanka. In November, 2014, the Trump Organization announced that Trump Tower Baku was part of it's hotel empire and The Donald himself boasted that "Trump International Hotel & Tower Baku represents the unwavering standard of excellence of The Trump Organization and our involvement in only the best global development projects. When we open in 2015, visitors and residents will experience a luxurious property unlike anything else in Baku-- it will be among the finest in the world." Ivanka added that "This incredible building reflects the highest level of luxury and refinement, with extraordinary architecture inspired by the Caspian Sea and sophisticated interiors that seamlessly blend contemporary style with timeless appeal. We are looking forward to bringing our unparalleled Trump services and amenities to Azerbaijan.”

It sort of opened. Trump's partner, Anar, has been described by U.S. diplomats as "notoriously corrupt" and as working to launder money for the Iranian military. They hired a full staff and started renting rooms but never had a promised grand opening.
Trump often talks of hiring the best people and surrounding himself with people he can trust. In practice, however, he and his executives have at times appeared to overlook details about the background of people he has chosen as business partners, such as whether they had dubious associations, had been convicted of crimes, faced extradition or inflated their resumes.

...In the Azerbaijani case, Garten said the Trump Organization had performed meticulous due diligence on the company's partners, but hadn't researched the allegations against the Baku partner's father because he wasn't a party to the deal.

"I've never heard that before," Garten said, when first asked about allegations of Iranian money laundering by the partner's father, which appeared in U.S. diplomatic cables widely available since they were leaked in 2010.

Garten subsequently said he was confident the minister alleged to be laundering Iranian funds, Ziya Mammadov, had no involvement in his son's holding company, even though some of the son's major businesses regularly partnered with the transportation ministry and were founded while the son was in college overseas. Ziya Mammadov did not respond to a telephone message the AP left with his ministry in Baku or to emails to the Azerbaijan Embassy in Washington.

Garten told the AP that Trump's company uses a third-party investigative firm, which he did not identify, that specializes in background intelligence gathering and searches global watch lists, warrant lists and sanctions lists maintained by the United Nations, Interpol and others.

...Any American contemplating a business venture in Azerbaijan faces a risk: "endemic public corruption," as the State Department puts it. Much of that money flows from the oil and gas industries, but the State Department also considers the country to be a waypoint for terrorist financiers, Iranian sanctions-busters and Afghan drug lords.

The environment is a risky one for any business venture seeking to avoid violating U.S. penalties imposed against Iran or anti-bribery laws under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

...Garten said the Trump Organization had performed background screening on all those involved in the deal and was confident Mammadov's father played no role in the project.

Experts on Azerbaijan were mystified that Trump or anyone else could reach that conclusion.

Anar Mammadov is widely viewed by diplomats and nongovernmental organizations as a transparent stand-in for the business interests of his father. Anar's business has boomed with regular help from his father's ministry, receiving exclusive government contracts, a near monopoly on Baku's taxi business and even a free fleet of autobuses.

"These are not business people acting on their own — you're dealing with daddy," said Richard Kauzlarich, a U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s who went on to work under the Director of National Intelligence during the George W. Bush administration.

"Whatever the Trump people thought they were doing, that wasn't reality," Kauzlarich said.

Anar Mammadov, who is believed to be 35, has said in a series of interviews that he founded Garant Holdings' predecessor-- which has arms in transportation, construction, banking, telecommunications and manufacturing-- in 2000, when he would have been 19. Anar received his bachelor's degree in 2003 and a master's in business administration in 2005-- both from a university in London.

Mammadov's statement that he founded the business in 2000 appeared in a magazine produced by a research firm in partnership with the Azerbaijani government. In other forums, he has said he started the business in 2005, though several of its key subsidiaries predate that period.
Now all the employees have been laid off and everyone around Baku says they want to wait a little while for people to forget the Trump taint before they re-brand the building and re-open it as something else-- anything else. even a Motel 6 would be a better bet than something related to Trump at this moment.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Are The U.S. Frequent Flyer Programs Operating Systemic Frauds? Just The Big Ones

The member of Congress who figures out a way to actually prevent telemarketers from bothering people-- if the Do Not Call list ever functioned, that's now a distant memory-- should get a bonus... or a Senate seat or a job as Vice President or something. I guess it's not as important as figuring out how to un-rig the system to lessen income inequality and institute Medicare For All but, let's face it, conservatives will never allow any of that so let's find something everyone can agree on-- like the death penalty for telemarketers. Or more accountable frequent flyer programs. Actually one member of Congress, did take some time to try to sort out the frequent flyer morass.

Florida Congressman Alan Grayson, a Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is the most well-traveled Member of Congress. He serves on the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa and on the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. He's racked up something like ten million frequent flyer miles. So it shouldn't surprise anyone that he's paid attention to some of the shenanigans perpetrated by the airlines who systematically mislead consumers-- in 2011 when he started working on it, Delta was the worst-- and misrepresent their offerings to the public. That year Grayson introduced legislation to regulate the programs and keep the airlines from cheating the flying public. A crafty spokesperson for the airline industry trade organization claims that "Carriers are completely transparent regarding loyalty programs both on their websites and in direct communication with their customers." Do you know any travelers who would agree?
In the 33 years since American Airlines (AAL) launched the mileage craze with its AAdvantage program, frequent-flyer miles have become a critical revenue source for U.S. carriers. The airlines sell billions of dollars worth of miles each year to banks, retailers, and other marketers that use them to entice customers. Today, more miles are earned from credit cards and other loyalty programs than from actual flying. Millions of people who rarely fly are keenly attuned to boosting their mileage balances.

The top frustration of frequent-flyer program members is needing more miles than they expected for an award, followed by sudden rule changes, according to a survey of 1,600 miles collectors earlier this year by, a credit card comparison site.

...Grayson maintains that airline competition kept the programs relatively unchanged for mileage collectors throughout the 1980s and ’90s, with most award travel seats offered at starting rates of 25,000 miles. In recent years, especially as airlines have gone bankrupt and restructured, the carriers’ push for profitability has made the programs far less generous to consumers than they once were.

Irate members of Delta Air Lines’ (DAL) SkyMiles program began calling those miles “SkyPesos” several years ago, owing to difficult redemptions and their perceived lack of value. Delta has announced several changes for 2015, including offering more seats at lower mileage levels, to try to make SkyMiles more competitive with the programs at United Airlines (UAL) and American.

Next year, Delta and United will begin considering annual spending in their rewards calculation, not just the distances that travelers cover, so customers who spend more money will get more miles. Awards for most international business- and first-class seats on partners of the Big Three U.S. carriers have also soared within the past year. Those changes and others in recent years have caused many miles collectors to rethink the value of trying to amass miles for free airline travel.

Regardless of how much consumer irritation airline miles generate, the Transportation Department probably lacks a “leverage point” to delve too deeply into new regulations for the programs, says Tim Winship, editor of But he says the department will be able to push airlines to offer more advance notice of program changes that are negative for consumers.

Grayson says many of the recent program changes have been made with little or no warning, which often requires travelers to spend more miles for an award trip. American made such a change on June 1. “Announcing a program change today that takes effect today sticks in the craw of most consumers, and rightfully so,” Winship says. Eric Fraser, a miles collector and Phoenix attorney who specializes in federal regulatory issues, says the department is likely to be most interested in whether airlines properly notify program members of pending changes. “This is an area where the DOT sniffing around could just have an immediate benefit, even if they don’t start to write rules,” Fraser says.

Ideally, Grayson says, the airlines should be forced to give at least one year’s notice of major program changes and to offer at least one seat on every flight available at the lowest mileage level. “If you’re going to have a program like this at all, it’s got to be an honest program,” he says. “Every human being comes with a built-in cheat detector. They know when they’re being cheated; they know when they’re being deceived.”
This month the Wall Street Journal's annual best and worst frequent-flyer rewards programs for 2016 was released. They assert that "there's good news for frequent fliers: Airlines are slowly, cautiously increasing availability of hard-to-find frequent-flier award tickets."

Really? I wanted to fly to Paris. A few months ago I called the American Airlines Gold Desk and said I will fly any day, any time from any Southern California airport to any airport remotely near Paris. "Sorry, nothing is available," the operator replied. I stopped flying on American and switched my main credit card from Visa to American Express so I could accrue miles on a different airline. But even the business-friendly Journal admits there's bad news in the skies-- especially for Americans. "Much of the improvement is happening abroad and the largest frequent-flier program, from American Airlines, appears to have gotten stingier with loyalty benefits, according to an annual survey of award availability. The price of awards is going up, too.
[C]ustomers often find it difficult to use their miles at peak season and get frustrated when airlines force them into more expensive redemption levels. Delta Air Lines doesn’t even publish an award chart anymore-- prices fluctuate for awards much as ticket prices do. And even though the survey gauges availability on each airline’s busiest routes, where award seats should be easiest to find, nearly one of four queries showed no saver-level seats available.

Southwest Airlines and Air Berlin had seats available on every request. It was the fifth year Southwest has topped the survey at 100% availability. Value airlines like Southwest and JetBlue , which had seats available on 93% of booking queries, do well in the survey because they let customers earn points based on fare rather than distance. Then they let customers pay for any seat with either cash or points. The payback works out well for customers. Last year, 12% of Southwest’s passenger traffic was award travel.

American was among the stingiest of the 25 airlines surveyed, with saver-level seats available on only 56% of booking queries made. That was down from 67% in the 2015 survey, and put American ahead of only South America’s Avianca and LAN in terms of availability.

With skimpy redemption availability and award prices rising, American’s AAdvantage program is falling behind rivals in terms of value to customers, Mr. Sorensen says. “Their loyalty program needs attention,” he says.

American says AAdvantage program is keeping pace with competitors and last year the number of MileSAAver awards redeemed increased. “We made no changes to our approach to MileSAAver awards,” says Bridget Blaise-Shamai, American’s managing director of customer loyalty.

[Denial is a bad thing in the corporate world and I need to make sure I don't own any American Airline stock in my portfolio.]

At American, as at many airlines, award availability is largely controlled by the pricing department and what kind of demand for seats the airline estimates, so high demand can reduce the number of free seats available, she says.

United and Delta ended up with similar award availability in the lower half of the pack, even after a big jump this year at Delta.

Delta says it is trying to improve availability after several years near the bottom of the survey. Over the past year it had more than 10 sales on award tickets, discounting the number of miles needed, and marketed them aggressively to members via email and the airline’s website, says Karen Zachary, SkyMiles managing director. The airline has also opened up availability of saver-level seats earlier. Previously Delta held back more seats at lower redemption levels to see how fast seats were selling.

“We’re really committed to investing in the program and making it more rewarding,” she says.

Delta recently started letting members buy drinks with miles in airport clubs. A bottle of Dom PĂ©rignon champagne costs 25,000. Beers and spirits range from 600 to 800 miles.

The number of miles redeemed at Delta in 2015 was up 5.4%, according to the company’s 10-K annual report, and the number of awards rose 6.4%. This indicates customers were taking advantage of some of the lower-priced awards Delta made available. Ms. Zachary says the pace is quickening: In the first quarter this year, Delta issued a record number of award tickets at 2.2 million, and the average redemption price was down 10%.

The survey made 7,000 booking queries in March asking for two seats for 280 trips at each airline on dates spread from June through October. The 10 busiest long routes and the 10 busiest medium-length routes for each airline were chosen, based on total seats offered for sale over a 12-month period.

As any traveler looking for tickets to Paris in July knows, availability is seasonal. Overall reward availability hit nearly 85% for trips in October, but only 63% in July. There has been some improvement since 2010, when the survey began. That year July availability was only 53%.

Mr. Sorensen says the survey found improved availability for long trips of 2,500 miles or more, often the prizes travelers most want for their miles. This year’s survey found saver-level seats on 61% of queries for long trips, up significantly from 54.5% last year and a much skimpier 43.9% in 2010. He notes that the prices of those saver awards have also increased over the past seven years, especially in the last couple of years at U.S. airlines.

At American, the number of miles issued in 2015 rose nearly 10%, according to the company’s 10-K filing. American had 853.6 billion award miles outstanding at Dec. 31, up 5.5% from a year earlier. The number of award redemptions rose, but accounted for only 6.5% of total passenger miles. By comparison, award travel, which includes upgrades, totaled 7.2% of passenger miles at Delta in 2015, 7.5% of passenger miles at United and 12% at Southwest, according to their annual 10-K filings. (A passenger mile is one customer flown one mile—the basic measure of traffic in the airline industry.)

The survey also looked at reward payback-- how much value you get for flying trips on an airline, exclusive of credit-card rewards and other ways to earn miles. For example, a $249 base fare trip on United would earn 1,247 miles in United’s MileagePlus program, which now gives nonelite program members 5 miles for every dollar spent. That means it would take 20 trips to earn a 25,000 saver-level award, so the payback for the traveler is 5%.

Elite status results in greater payback, since you earn more miles. Using miles for more expensive tickets, such as upgrades to first-class and international business-class tickets, can increase the payback. But at the basic level, Mr. Sorensen found JetBlue’s program had the richest payback at 7.9%, while American had the lowest at 3.1%. (This was based on the change American will make later this year to revenue-based mileage accrual instead of distance flown, following Delta and United.)

Monday, January 18, 2016

Iran-- Time To Start Thinking About Tourism?

I've been to Iran twice, both times before Khomeini's revolution. The first time was in 1969 and I was driving to Nepal and had limited interest in modern Iran. But I immediately took to the country, the food, the music and the people. I loved the place. I remember writing a letter home that the Iranians were the most pro-American people I had ever come across. I was impressed by the good roads, a relief after the nightmare of eastern Turkey where there were just rutted tracks. I drove to into a large old town, Dogubayazit, in the shadow of Mt Ararat, and crossed over into Iran at a small town called Bazargan and immediately headed towards Tabriz, one of Iran's biggest cities. It was pretty modern compared to the countryside we had been in in Turkey for the 2 or 3 weeks before we got there. There was a good highway to Zanjan and Tehran, where I decided to spend a couple weeks before heading up to the Caspian Sea and then across to Gorgan and Mashad, where I stayed with a family of Bahai people for a few weeks before heading off towards Afghanistan, where we crossed at Taybad into Islam Qala, on the way to Herat, a city of gardens and Afghanistan's 3rd largest city.

All my experiences in Iran were good and I walked away with a fondness for the country and the people. I was happy to go back a couple years later on my way back to Europe and I certainly thought I would be back again to explore other parts of the country I had missed. But in 1978 serious unrest started and by 1979 the Shah fled and Khomeini abolished the monarchy and declared an Islamic Republic. Americans have been unwelcome, at least officially, for 37 years. But now that's changing. With the international sanctions lifted, Iran wants to open up to tourism again. Iran's neighbors, Russia, will be the first big source of tourists as Russians look for an alternative to Egypt and Turkey.

I suspect Europeans will be enjoying Iran for many years before Americans start coming back in any significant numbers. But, that does't mean you can't go. Roland and I are thinking about it. In fact, now it's looking like it's just a matter of time before there will be direct flights between the U.S. and Iran. This video shows some of the attractions Iran has to offer:

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Mali Is So Totally Unsafe To Visit-- Don't Even Think About It

When I worked at Warner Bros, I visited our French company as often as I could and I usually would go see a band at the now infamous Bataclan Theatre. I saw some of our French bands play there-- like Les Negresses Vertes-- but once to see the Queens of the Stone Age, who were the progenitor of the Eagles of Death Metal. I wanted to see them play live because they covered a Romeo Void song I had an interest in (above).

Even when I went to Mali a few years ago there was a music component-- a trip out to Quizambougou to watch Bassekou Kouyate finish recording his second album. We were staying in Bamako, where I saw Bassekou play a live show at the French Cultural Center, and where, most recently a group of Daesh-related terrorists shot up the Radisson Blu Hotel and took over 100 guests hostage, killing 18 of them as well as a security guard.
The attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in the Malian capital Bamako, which killed 19 people, is the latest terrorist act on an African continent now stricken daily by fundamentalist horror and obscurantism.

Despite billions of dollars pledged to address this scourge, terrorism thrives in Africa due to the failure of states, the plundering of resources, and endemic corruption. Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and more recently the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have engaged in deadly and constant destabilization in the hope of extending their power.

...The recently released Global Terrorism Index confirms this increase in violence. Boko Haram is ranked the deadliest organization with 6,644 deaths in 2014, compared with 6,073 for ISIS. Even as it loses ground to the Nigerian army, Boko Haram has multiplied its attacks, primarily against markets and public gatherings. Regular attacks in Mali and Kenya suggest that Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab will continue contributing to this violent one-upmanship.

Opening the second Dakar International Forum on Security in Africa on Nov. 9, Senegalese President Macky Sall reiterated his call for more resources. However, addressing terrorism in Africa demands more than financial means. According to him, the framework of intervention based on U.N. peacekeeping operations, to which his country is a major contributor, needs to adapt. The urgency of the situation requires fighting rather than simply maintaining peace.
Above and beyond the State Department's warning to Americans about travel, Mali was singled out even before this latest attack as a place to stay away from, a real shame in light of what an incredibly unique and fascinating place it is for American tourists. (That Radisson Blu, didn't have tourists but business people staying there.)
The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the risks of travel to Mali. We especially warn against travel to the northern parts of the country and along the border with Mauritania because of ongoing military operations and threats of attacks and kidnappings targeting westerners. Mali faces significant security challenges because of the presence in northern Mali of extremists and militant factions. The potential for attacks throughout the country, including in Bamako, remains. This Travel Warning replaces the Travel Warning dated January 13, 2015.

Violent extremist and militant elements, including al- Qaeda in the Lands of Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar al-Dine, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad (MUJAO), and al-Murabitun are present in northern Mali. While these extremist elements have been mostly dislodged from the major population centers of Gao and Timbuktu, they continue to conduct attacks targeting security forces in and around these locations.

During the past year, there has been an increase in attacks targeting the United Nations peacekeepers of the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). Rocket attacks targeting MINUSMA camps in various northern locations were reported. In addition, separate violent incidents involving suicide bombings, explosives, and land mines have occurred. The majority of these incidents resulted in numerous injuries and casualties.

Terrorist groups have increased their rhetoric calling for additional attacks or kidnapping attempts on westerners and others, particularly those linked to support for international military intervention.

While the security situation in Bamako and southern Mali has been relatively stable, on March 7, there was an armed attack on La Terrasse, a nightclub in the Hippodrome area of Bamako, in which a French citizen, a Belgian citizen, and three Malian citizens were killed. The Government of Mali has increased security in the capital, but the potential for additional attacks targeting Westerners in the capital city and throughout the country remains. Police harassment and violent crime in Bamako persist, including several armed carjacking incidents, one of which resulted in the death of a French citizen.

...The U.S. Embassy reminds U.S. citizens of the potential for terrorist activity throughout Mali. U.S. citizens are urged to exercise caution, be alert to their surroundings, and avoid crowds, demonstrations, or any other form of public gatherings when visiting locations frequented by westerners, in and around Bamako. Periodic public demonstrations occur throughout Mali. While most demonstrations are peaceful, a few have become confrontational. U.S. citizens throughout Mali should develop a personal security plan. We recommend you vary your daily routine, and travel only on main roads to the extent this is possible. Malian security forces regularly update security safeguards, including checkpoints and other movement control measures, without prior notice.
They also warn about unsafe domestic air flights and Ebola.

Bamako doesn't have much to offer, other than a good restaurant-- if it's still open (which I doubt). But the really great things to see in Mali are accessed through Bamako via insecure roads. As much as I loved Djenne, Timbuktu, the Dogon country and experiencing the birthplace of the blues, there's nothing that would get me there at this point. In fact, today there was another terrorist attack, this one up north in Kidal, where UN peacekeepers were targeted and several were killed by mortar shells.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Democracy Returns To Myanmar

I was living, briefly, in West Berlin before the Wall came down. There were already holes in the Wall and the border guards weren't generally taking it that seriously any longer, so my German friends used to go over into East Berlin whenever they felt like it. It wasn't as safe for Americans but I had to do it, right? It gave me an eerier feeling than anything I had felt in the more relaxed Communist bloc countries I had spent time in-- basically Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria. And the next time I got that same eery feeling-- well actually it was a Stalinist feeling was when I visited Myanmar in 2007-08. I just checked and I was making the comparison between East Berlin and Yangon almost a decade ago! East Berlin, I wrote in 2007, "didn't look free and romantic; the oppression, tyranny and decrepitude were apparent and tangible... and chilling. It scared and repulsed me. I was happy to get back to West Berlin."
A few hours ago, decades later, I just returned from a place like that, a place you read about in books by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley: Myanmar.

Myanmar was Burma when I was a small boy (and avid stamp collector). I remember there were military coups when I was in elementary school. It was one of those closed off places-- exotic, mysterious, impenetrable, vaguely dangerous, like Albania, Mongolia, North Korea... places no one ever went. In the 80s the military junta took the name SLORC (an unfortunate-sounding acronym for State Law and Order Restoration Council). It sounds like something from a James Bond movie. For the people there, I just discovered, it doesn't feel like a movie. It feels like a nightmare that never ends. Paid Republican lobbyists and operatives in DC got the military dictators to ditch the SLORC moniker for SPDC (State Peace and Development Council, which sounds far less ominous-- like Bush's Clear Skies Act).

One of the first things I noticed is that the oppressive, paranoid tyranny in Myanmar exists in a parallel world next to a beautiful traditional Buddhist culture. The gentle people, predisposed to kindness, seem a little nervous-- hundreds of beloved and revered monks were brutally and ruthlessly murdered by the regime a few weeks ago after peaceful demonstrations-- but when you shoot anyone (except some of the soldiers) a mengalaba (hello) their wariness invariably breaks down and they smile. They are friendly and the reserve often vanishes quickly and, at least in Yangon, more of them spoke English than anywhere else in Southeast Asia I've ever been.

The whole city seems to be rotting and breaking down, although it may also be a work in progress of sorts. The city is immense-- but kind of slow and quiet... kind of left behind as the rest of the region rushes headlong into the 21st Century and globalization. Roland says Yangon reminds him of Havana in many ways.
I'm happy to report now that in their first ostensibly free elections in many years, November 8, the Burmese have chosen to go down the path of democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy seems to have won a clear majority-- perhaps as much as 80% of the vote-- and the military-backed politicians failed in an election that picked 168 of the 224 representatives in the upper house of the national parliament (the remaining quarter of seats to be appointed by the military) and 325 of the 440 seats in the lower house (with 110 appointed by the military). The military's party only won 41 of the 478 seats that have been declared so far. Aung San Suu Kyi's party has won 387 of them and the military has said they will abide by the results of the election.

Reuters reported that the dictatorship conceded defeat early Monday "as the opposition led by democracy figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi appeared on course for a landslide victory that would ensure it can form the next government."
"We lost," Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) acting chairman Htay Oo told Reuters in an interview a day after the Southeast Asian country's first free nationwide election in a quarter of a century.

The election commission later began announcing constituency-by-constituency results from Sunday's poll. All of the first 12 announced were won by Suu Kyi's National League of Democracy (NLD).

The NLD said its own tally of results from polling stations around the country showed it on track to win more than 70 percent of the seats being contested in parliament, more than the two-thirds it needs to form Myanmar's first democratically elected government since the early 1960s.

"They must accept the results, even though they don't want to," NLD spokesman Win Htein told Reuters, adding that in the highly populated central region the Nobel peace laureate's party looked set to win more than 90 percent of seats.

Earlier a smiling Suu Kyi appeared on the balcony of the NLD's headquarters in Yangon and in a brief address urged supporters to be patient and wait for the official results.

The election was a landmark in the country's unsteady journey to democracy from the military dictatorship that made it a pariah state for so long. It is also a moment that Suu Kyi will relish after spending years under house arrest.

Although the election appears to have dealt a decisive defeat to the USDP, a period of uncertainty still looms over the country because it is not clear how Suu Kyi will share power with the still-dominant military.

The military-drafted constitution guarantees one-quarter of parliament's seats to unelected members of the armed forces.

Even if the NLD gets the majority it needs, Suu Kyi is barred from taking the presidency herself under the constitution written by the junta to preserve its power. Suu Kyi has said she would be the power behind the new president regardless of a charter she has derided as "very silly."

The military will, however, remain a dominant force. It is guaranteed key ministerial positions, the constitution gives it the right to take over government under certain circumstances, and it also has a grip on the economy through holding companies.

Incomplete vote counts showed some of the most powerful politicians of the USDP trailing in their bids for parliamentary seats, indicating a heavy loss for the party created by the former junta and led by retired military officers.

Among the losers was USDP chief Htay Oo, who told Reuters from the rural delta heartlands that are a bastion of support for his party he was "surprised" by his own defeat.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Vive La France! Nov. 13, 2015

UPDATE: What Is That?

A lot of people have asked me where I found the graphic posted above and who did it. I found it online, on Twitter, I think and I had no idea who had done it when I posted it right after the terrorist attacks in Paris. Think Progress had the whole story a few days later.
It looks like something he made in a rush. Like something he scribbled on a cocktail napkin. Something he could have drawn in four strokes. Circle, upside-down V, cross. Black ink on a white background. The image-- the marriage of the peace sign and the Eiffel tower-- is the product of French graphic designer Jean Jullien. He posted his work, titled “Peace for Paris,” on Twitter and Instagram near midnight on November 13, just hours after the massive terrorist attacks on six separate locations in the city left hundreds wounded and over 120 dead.

Jullien created the image only a minute after learning about the attacks. “It was done on my lap, on a very loose sketchbook, with a brush and ink,” he told Wired. He didn’t think it out beforehand or go to the page with a plan. “It was more an instinctive, human reaction than an illustrator’s reaction.”

The image went viral. Jullien’s original tweet has been retweeted almost 60,000 times; his original Instagram has over 163,000 likes. Earlier today, he posted another image on Instagram thanking his followers “for your messages of support for Paris… I just want to say that I did it in the most spontaneous and sincere way, as a heartfelt reaction to what was happening. It’s a drawing for Paris, for all the victims and their families.” He emphasized that he does not seek any “benefit” from it. “It’s a sign for everybody to share and show their support and solidarity.” (Jullien did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment as of publication.)

The concept seems so simple — the Eiffel tower’s structure so obviously aligned with the innards of the peace sign-- it’s almost amazing that no one has ever thought of it before. The Eiffel tower is a spry 126 years old, and the peace sign has been bopping around the public consciousness since Easter of 1958. Gerald Holtom designed the symbol for the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War to plaster on placards for a march from London to Aldermaston, site of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment. Holtom later described the image as being reflective of his inner state, which was one of “an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards in the manner of Goya’s peasant before the firing squad. I formalized the drawing into a line and put a circle round it. It was ridiculous at first and such a puny thing.”

So why did Jullien’s image catch on? What makes something so simple so special?

An effective symbol is “something that usually connects to someone’s preexisting knowledge about something,” said John Caserta, head of the graphic design department at the Rhode Island School of Design. “So to combine the Eiffel tower and the peace symbol, it’s a two-for-one.” An image like this “is like a phrase, or a simple piece of text, a title, a catchphrase. It’s a visual version of that. It’s something that is already connecting or resonating with people, so it works immediately. It doesn’t ask them to work very hard.”

“In this context, any messages of peace are especially moving, because they exist in a landscape of so much violence, xenophobic noise,” said Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics. Jullien’s drawing is “so eloquently simple, it also conveys a sense of timelessness and strength,” said McCloud. “You see something like that and it has the ring of truth about it. It feels like something that won’t blow away in the wind. It doesn’t feel ephemeral.”

The fact that it is so obviously drawn by hand adds to its emotional punch, said McCloud, especially considering how it stands out against the usual photoshopped offerings on Instagram. “I think that sometimes, that slightly sloppy, rapidly drawn quality… can strengthen the symbol, because the abstract nature of the symbol shines through despite that imperfect rendering. I think that can often be a lot more persuasive than something done in, say, Adobe Illustrator. This was made by the hand of a human being, you know?”

“That it’s made by hand makes sense, because it’s a tragedy that’s on a very human scale,” said Caserta. “It’s not childlike at all, but I think whenever you have something handmade, there is something kind of naive and pure and simple, and it brings your guard down a bit and makes you realize some of the basics. Peace is one of those. Without it, we don’t have much.”

“It doesn’t feel mass produced,” McCloud said. “But it feels like it’s for the masses, nevertheless.”

Caserta agreed. “Just looking a it, it feels immediate, and when something happens of this sort, it makes sense that it wouldn’t be highly polished or corporate. That it is someone there responding right away.”

Monday, November 09, 2015

Is The World's Foremost Egyptologist, Dr. Zahi Hawass, Laughing At GOP Crackpot Ben Carson?

The first I remember hearing about the pyramids was when I was just 10. "You Belong To Me," the song with the lyrics, "See the pyramids along the Nile," was first released in 1952 by Sue Thompson, Patti Page, Jo Stafford and Dean Martin. It's been covered by Patsy Cline, Bing Crosby, Gene Vincent and even Bob Dylan, but the 1958 version by The Duprees was the one that stuck in my mind and made me dream about the pyramids. I finally got to see them in 1997. A few years later I wrote about the experience for my travel blog.

In Cairo the biggest deal is, of course, the Pyramids. And were we in luck on that score! You know the guy always on CNN whenever they do a story on mummies or anything old in Egypt-- Dr. Zahi Hawass? Well, one of the musicians, Andy Paley, in a band on Sire Records, where I used to work, was friends with some well-known American Egyptologist, a Rockefeller no less, and through this guy we had an introduction to Dr. Hawass, then Governor of the Pyramids (now Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities). This turned out to be a golden key to the most amazing visit to the Pyramids imaginable.

Dr. Hawass treated us to a tour usually reserved for heads of state. He literally closed down the Great Pyramid and made everyone else wait while we had it to ourselves! It's pretty awesome. Most things don't live up to expectations; that one did. He said we could sleep in it if we wanted to. We didn't at the time but now I'm sorry we didn't take him up on it. We didn't climb any pyramids... We didn't because a U.S. marine climbed up and fell off and died; so it's forbidden now. Afterwards he showed us a small, locked up pyramid that no one is allowed in except Charles De Gaulle and other people they wanted to impress. They don't want general traffic in there because of breathing. Next door they had a little museum with an ancient ship with a bunch of mummified pharaoh's servants on it. The Sphinx, on the other hand, was covered in scaffolding and seemed to be crumbling into the sand. Roland claims they were injecting silicon into it.

Well, thanks to Republican crank Ben Carson the pyramids have been in the news this week... and so has Doctor Hawass, explaining how Carson is "completely wrong" about his crackpot theory that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain (which, of course, Carson is standing by). Todd Zwillich of PRI called Dr. Hawass yesterday and interviewed him
Dr. Hawass, have you heard the statements about the pyramids being used to store grain and the controversy here in the United States?

Yes I have.

What Ben Carson said is completely wrong. There is plenty of evidence that it is wrong, and it is wrong for the following reasons:

1. The Canaanites did not come to Egypt until the Middle Kingdom. They have nothing… not one thing… to do with the Old Kingdom.

2. We as Egyptologists and archaeologists have all the evidence that the pyramids were made as tombs, simply because there are pieces of the bodies of the dynastic Kings named Zoser (Djoser) and Menkaure, the builder of the first pyramids, at Giza. The pieces from their bodies-- from their mummies-- were found in those pyramids.

3. If you look at the Valley of the Kings and you look at the tombs of pyramids from the New Kingdoms, you find extensive, exhaustive writing that says plainly what they were for. They were tombs.

If the pyramids were made to store grain, why do we have in Egypt 123 pyramids for kings and queens? If they were used for grain, Egyptologists and archaeologists would have excavated this at least once. They have not.

What about claims that the pyramid builders were Canaanite or Hebrew slaves?

I discovered the tombs of the pyramid builders at Giza that showed that the builders were Egyptians. The builders were not slaves. They were buried near the pyramids themselves, and of all the many names of builders that were found inside the tombs of the builders, there is not one name of a Canaanite, not one at all.

Have you heard Dr. Carson’s theory before?

The theory from this man is not new it has been said before. Almost every time I walk through the pyramids I meet a visitor who wants to talk about this theory. A Canadian director came once to make a film to prove the grain theory.

There are hundreds of theories about the function of the pyramids in America. Some people believe aliens. Some people believe Atlantis. All of these are completely wrong. We have excavated around the sites and in the sites and it proves that what this man says is completely wrong. I want to say: There is not one piece of evidence to show that it is correct.

The pyramids were solely to represent the power and the dignity of the Pharaohs. And there is every piece of evidence to prove it.

Does it frustrate you when you hear theories like this from well known people?

No. I’ve written hundreds of books. I hear theories like this all the time. When I hear them, I just laugh. This man wants to use it for publicity in his campaign because it references the Bible and people will believe it. But what happens in the Bible and in the Old Testament happened in the Middle Kingdom. It had nothing at all to do with the Old Kingdom and nothing to do with the pyramids.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

$43 Million Gas Station In A Remote Part Of Afghanistan-- Paid For With American Tax Dollars

I'm not in the least bit mechanically inclined. I came to terms with it before I even went to high school. Not too many years after high school, though, I was driving a brand new VW van down the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to Katmandu. A few days ago I mentioned how when my friends checked into the Kabul InterContinental just outside town-- I slept in the van nearby-- they were among the very first guests at the largely empty, just-completed, first luxury hotel in Afghanistan. Before we got there, though, there was, basically, the whole country to cross. There are no railroads in Afghanistan, with the exception of about 10 miles built in the early 1980s, connecting Mazar-i-Sharif to the small Uzbek city of Termez, last heard from when it was conquered by Alexander the Great in 329 BC. Before the Russians built a 2 lane paved highway from Kabul to Mazar to Herat (the northern part of the "ring road") and the U.S. built a 2 lane paved highway from Herat to Kandahar to Kabul (the southern part of the "ring road"), the only way people went to Afghanistan was on horseback, usually as part of an army. I was driving my nice new VW van along that just-built highway.

I had befriended a U.S. consul in Tehran-- a relatively lonely outpost-- and he gave me all kinds of useful tips about the trip east to Afghanistan, the two most important being that all water had it be boiled twice if one hopes to survive and that under no circumstances could a motor vehicle be on the road at night if one hopes to survive. The water thing is probably clear enough; the night-driving had to do with bandits, a quaint term that would be called "terrorists" in modern parlance. The gas stations in Afghanistan at the time were few and far between-- how far? Basically they were spaced so that you were just about to run out of gas as you pulled into one. Long story short, I didn't run out of gas between the station in Herat and the station in Kandahar... but my van broke down. I'm the mechanically dis-inclined American, but none the European or Canadian passengers knew any more about fixing a car than I did. An hour went by and no other vehicle passed. I could tell it would be dark soon. Dark = bandits = car-stripping murderers. So I taught myself how to fix the car, at least fix it enough to get to the next gas station as we were running out of gas. (The 1969 VW engine was incredibly simple and trial and error worked incredibly well in this instance.)

Eventually the decades of war destroyed the roads and they were rebuilt a few times, the most recent by the U.S.... or the U.S. taxpayers to be more precise. And that includes gas stations, one of which has come to the attention of the public as a huge waste of money. Short version: this gas station in Sheberghan, capital of Jowzjan province way up north in the Russian sphere of influence, west of Mazar-i-Sharif and Balkh, cost $43 million to build. NBC reported that the The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) is flipping out because the Department of Defense can't or won't explain why it cost that much.
"Even considering security costs associated with construction and operation in Afghanistan, this level of expenditure appears gratuitous and extreme," SIGAR said in a report issued Monday.

The agency's top official went further.

"It's an outrageous waste of money that raises suspicions that there is something more there than just stupidity," John Sopko, the special inspector general, told NBC News. "There may be fraud. There may be corruption. But I cannot currently find out more about this because of the lack of cooperation."

...[A] contract for just under $3 million was awarded to a company called Central Asian Engineering in 2011. According to SIGAR, an economic impact assessment found the task force spent well beyond that-- $42,718,730-- between 2011 and 2014 to fund the station's construction and supervise its initial operation.

A CNG filling station "would have cost no more than $500,000 in neighboring Pakistan," the report noted, calculating the "exorbitant cost to U.S. taxpayers" at 140 times higher than it should have been.

Sopko told NBC News it appeared that "nobody was minding the store."

"This is one of the worst examples of poor planning and just sheer stupidity," Sopko told NBC News. "It's outrageous."

He called the cost "indicative of a real serious mismanagement" but said perhaps the "more serious" issue was how the Department of Defense had failed to offer documentation or records on the project.

"I'm suspicious when I see something that cost 140 times more than it did and I find people trying to withhold or not cooperate with me," Sopko said. "It raises my suspicions."
Thank God someone is suspicious. This is certainly part of the so-called "fog of war" and it may be inevitable, another reason to pull all U.S. forces out of that hellhole and to completely oppose expanding the U.S. Middle East wars into Syria. I asked Alan Grayson what he thought about it today and he replied that he never knew Shelley meant that those “vast and trunkless legs of stone” actually were a gas station. You a Breaking Bad fan?

Monday, November 02, 2015

No... Still Not Safe To Travel To Mogadishu Or Anywhere Else In Somalia... Nor Afghanistan

I was surprised by this New York Times headline Sunday night: Popular Hotel In Somalia Is Bombed By Militants. How is it possible that Mogadishu has a popular hotel? I mean who goes to Somalia and stays in a hotel? Sunday terrorists blew up the front gate of the Sahafi Hotel and then started shooting guests and workers, at least 14 of them.
If there is one hotel everyone knows in Mogadishu, it is the Sahafi. Warlords and militants alike used to hang out and plot schemes in the lounge and courtyard while sipping grapefruit juice and pulling apart camel meat steaks.

Sahafi means journalist in Arabic, and for years the hotel has served as the gateway to one of the world’s most dangerous countries for foreign journalists, aid workers and the rare brave businessman. Even in the hardest times, the staff managed to provide clean rooms and good food. Lobster was one of the house specialties, served alongside mountains of French fries. Recently, the hotel was a popular rendezvous spot for officials from Somalia’s fledgling government.

Mogadishu may be safer than it used to be, but it is still not safe. The Shabab once controlled much of the city, bullwhipping women and terrorizing the population by enforcing a harsh version of Islamic law. But even after being pushed out by African Union troops, Shabab fighters have shown they can strike anywhere at any time.

Somalia’s government tried to play down some of the concerns stirred up by the attack. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud of Somalia said on Sunday, “We want to confirm that such terrorist acts does not mean Shabab’s revival, but in the contrary shows clear signs that they are in desperate situation.”
This is the warning posted on the top of the Wikitravel site for Mogadishu: "There is a high threat from terrorism, including kidnapping, throughout Somalia, excluding Somaliland. Terrorist groups have made threats against Westerners and those working for Western organizations. It is known that there is a constant threat of terrorist attacks in Mogadishu. The city also remains in great danger of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks carried out by extremists who manage to get past security checkpoints around the city. Walking the streets of Mogadishu remains very dangerous, even with armed guards. Tourists are emphatically discouraged from visiting Mogadishu for the time being, while business travelers should take extreme caution and make thorough plans for any trips. Travel outside Mogadishu remains extremely dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. Those working for aid agencies should consult the security plans or advice of your organization."

5 airlines fly into Aden Adde International Airport a few miles from Mogadishu: Somalia's own Jubba Airways, African Express Airways, which flies to Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Nairobi, Daallo Airlines, which flies to Hargeisa (with a stop in Djibouti), East African, which lies to Nairobi on Sundays and Turkish Air, which flies twice a week to Istanbul via Khartoum or Djibouti. What's to see? "Sightseeing is obviously extremely dangerous in Mogadishu, and is strongly discouraged. However, some interesting sites include the historic Mogadishu old town and the Mogadishu mosque." OK, what's to do? "Visitors are encouraged to stay inside for the duration of their stay. The chances of theft and/or assault are extremely high while walking around the city." And to buy? "The Bakaara Market (Suuqa Bakaaraha) is an open market and the largest of its kind in Somalia. Created in late 1972 during the reign of Siad Barre, its original purpose was to allow proprietors to sell daily essentials, but the civil war subsequently created demand for arms and ammunition. Everything from pistols to anti-aircraft weapons are being sold here. Falsified documents are also readily available, such as forged Somali, Ethiopian and Kenyan passports. This illicit submarket is known as Cabdalle Shideeye after one of its first proprietors. Most markets and are a focus of ongoing arms control efforts for the disarmament of Somalia. Marketplaces should be considered hazardous not only because of their content and the presence of unsavory characters, but also due to the fact that they have caught fire several times in the last few years." The food is rumored to be safe to eat at the Sahafi Hotel, the one that just got blown up.

Trip Advisor has no reviews but gives it a nice 4.5 stars and ranks it #2 in Mogadishu.

I remember when I first got to Afghanistan in 1969, 2 of my passengers, Canadians Nate and... I want to say Nate and Al, but that's a deli in Beverly Hills... maybe it was Nate and Kevin. 45 years a long time. Anyway, I slept in my VW van but they settled into the posh-- for Afghanistan-- Intercontinental Hotel just outside town. They went to local pharmacy near the royal palace, bough a huge bag of pharmaceutical cocaine and settled into the Intercontinental, which had just opened a month before we got there-- the first luxury hotel in the country-- and was pretty empty. 200 rooms but I never ran into anyone in the living quarter floors but Kevin and... let's say Kevin.

Eventually it was taken over by Russian military officers when they invaded. Then it was used for target practice by the Taliban, leaving only 85 habitable rooms. Once the U.S. invaded the country, Western Journalists started staying there. In 2011 there was a suicide bombing and a few dozen people were killed. Today there are 13 Trip Advisor reviews giving it an average rating of 3.5 stars (although just 2.5 stars for value).