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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).

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Vacation Rental Sites Are Usually Fine... Other Than AirBnB

Vacation rental in rural Bali

At one time, most of my travel including sleeping in my VW van. Eventually I switched to hotels but in recent years I've tended to rent homes through sites like HomeAway and VRBO. I tried AirBnB once and the quality was astounding bad and I never used them again. The pictures and description didn't match the slum in New York they rented me and the level of service they provided was... basically non-existent. I've never had a bad experience with HomeAway or VRBO and I've rented places in Indonesia, Turkey, Italy, Mexico, Morocco... I just remembered that I used a local site in Buenos Aires, BytArgentina, and that was really bad and I was ripped off by the landlady. But that was a rare exception. None of these rentals though seemed like mass commercial enterprises (except for BytArgentina). AirBnB is definitely that and my friend Denise Sullivan wrote about it in terms of the electoral decision that will be made this coming Tuesday.

Vacation Rental Sites Could Go Belly-Up If Forced To Pay Like The Rest Of Us

by Denise Sullivan

It hasn't been a great month in public relations for the so-called "sharing economy," at least here at the industry's ground zero, not-so-affectionately known as San Francisco 2.0. Here, even regular citizens-- and not even particularly politicized ones-- are starting to get hip to what unfettered capitalism and unregulated business looks like in their town now that the umpteenth Uber driver was accused of threatening a female passenger with sexual violence, followed by Airbnb's appallingly tone-deaf ad campaign calling out public works and employees. The home-sharing app stirred further controversy as its misguided billboard and bus shelter ads sparked questions of the financing of the No on F measure they fiscally sponsored. Going to vote next Tuesday, if F passes, it could  result in tightening existing regulations on the books by actually enforcing them, which would mean a new dawn for vacation rentals, and a bummer for the pure profit margin of Airbnb.

The No people, meaning Airbnb, believe that registration of units and thus, regular payments into the hotel tax pool, will open the door to neighbors "spying" on neighbors. In a classic case of employing scare tactics, Airbnb's rhetoric is the kind that has long had people voting against their own best interests and contributed to the nation's slow drift to the right. Taking this matter to the ballot has fooled only some of the people, though so far it's been totally successful in another regard: At pitting neighbor against neighbor, and generally turning otherwise rational humans into stark raving monsters; Facebook friends are officially becoming frenemies and mere mention of Airbnb in town has pretty much been grounds for cooling out and winding down longstanding relations. As of today, the ballot recommendations of venture capitalist Ron Conway are making the rounds: He's voting No on F. Now if it were me, that would be enough to swing my Yes vote, but sadly, even  the most educated and engaged among us are still waffling and think No is a go.

Yes on F voters are rightly irritated and concerned: They want to limit rentals and track hosts according to the regulations on the books already in place. They see unregulated vacation rentals tying-up precious housing stock, driving rents upward, and keeping our town more friendly for tourists while it grows increasingly hostile to residents and everyday workers and people. Add to that, our normally quiet and tight-knit neighborhoods are turning into hotel zones, with faceless parades of daily newcomers wheeling suitcases in and out of units that could more effectively be put to use as permanent housing for an expanding as well as aging workforce. Last Spring the City of Santa Monica successfully voted to enforce pre-existing vacation rental regulations, and guess what: It has not destroyed the influx of tech businesses, workers, vacation renters or new residents. At all.
Santa Monica, Calif., is cracking down on Airbnb and the rest of the short-term rental industry. Tuesday night, the Santa Monica City Council adopted its home-sharing ordinance, which bans the rental of an entire unit for less than 30 days and requires those who take part in allowable home-sharing to obtain a business license from the city and pay a 14% hotel tax. The law takes effect June 15. The city says proceeds from the hotel tax will help pay for enforcement officers and an analyst to find illegal rentals online.

The ordinance makes a clear distinction between what Santa Monica officials term "home-sharing" and "vacation rentals." Home-sharing requires the primary resident of the space to live "on-site during the visitor's stay." Vacation rentals, as defined by Santa Monica are any rentals 30 days or less in which the guest "enjoys the exclusive private use of the unit." The new ordinance deems vacation rentals illegal if the property is only approved for permanent residence.

Around 100 protesters organized by Airbnb gathered outside Santa Monica City Hall Tuesday afternoon before the vote, according to the Los Angeles Times. Arlene Rosenblatt, a Santa Monica homeowner who lists her apartment on Airbnb told the paper, "It's such a blessing for us to have this money... We need to have these regulations changed."

But in an interview with NPR, Santa Monica Mayor Kevin McKeown said vacation rentals aren't good for his city. "When a landlord or other property owner takes a unit off the housing market and uses it for vacation rental, there is no permanent resident on the site, we've lost that part of the fabric of our community," McKeown said. "And the people who are coming to stay are not directly supervised, so they, being on vacation may, in total innocence, may be coming and going at two or three in the morning. They may be not aware of the noise they're making for the neighbors. The neighbors aren't sure who the people are. You end up with somebody you don't know who has the keys to the building, to the parking garage. You don't who they're going to bring in with them. And you don't have that connection."

Santa Monica isn't the only city to push back against Airbnb and others in the short-term rental industry. We previously reported that New York's attorney general found that almost three-quarters of New York City bookings break the law, and that the state is owed $33 million in hotel taxes. An increasing number of cities across the country are starting to institute hotel taxes on Airbnb rentals. The pushback has even gone international, with Spain fining Airbnb $40,000 and threatening to block its website.
Opponents would have you believe they need to rent out their rooms and in-law apartments to supplement their incomes in an increasingly expensive San Francisco which is of course a point well-taken, BUT: If they aren't already registered and reporting, they are likely among the one in 10 hosts presently operating illegally. Only a fraction of San Francisco's approximately 10,000 rentals are currently registered with the City and yet Airbnb claims a share from those rentals-- without penalty. The fact that they have poured more than a reported $8- $10 million into the No on F campaign should again be enough to make doubters understand: a No vote on F stands to further benefit Airbnb-- a company with a $10 billion valuation-- while robbing city coffers and services of income. If that's not enough to persuade people to vote Yes, there's really no reasoning with anyone. Check back with us next Wednesday for results on this and other matters pending in San Francisco where the style of "sharing" is likely coming to a charming and beloved city in your state or country soon-- if it hasn't already.

UPDATE: Occupy!

Tomorrow is election day in San Francisco and do or die for AIrBnB's efforts to keep their business model in that city.

Dozens of housing and homeless activists stormed the Airbnb headquarters at 888 Brannan Street around noon today. A day before San Francisco voters will decide whether to regulate "home-sharing" more strictly, the activists sought to show the short-term rental company what "sharing" is all about.

The protesters entered Airbnb's office and released paper houses lofted by helium-filled balloons into the four-story atrium. The houses bore messages referencing the corporation's ill-fated passive aggressive ad campaign, which took the form of "letters" to various public agencies boasting of the hotel tax revenue the company generates for San Francisco:
Evictions. Love, AirBnB
Homelessness. Love, AirBnB
Deregulation. Love, AirBnB
Pay-to-Play Politics. Love, AirBnB
"There are over 3,000 homeless children in San Francisco," said activist Maria Zamudio, an organizer with Causa Justa. "Airbnb's practice of turning homes into hotels is exacerbating those conditions."

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back To Egypt...

18 years ago I finally got to fulfill a childhood dream-- visiting Egypt. We planned to spend about a week in Cairo and a couple weeks roaming the country (including a Nile cruise to Aswan). Although it didn't seem so at the moment, some real misfortune for everyone else turned into a break for me and Roland. Just as we were leaving L.A. in November a bunch of religionist fanatics slaughtered a busload of tourists from Switzerland, Japan and the U.K. It was really a spectacular horror show with scimitar-wielding terrorists chasing unarmed tourists around the Temple of Hatshepsut across the river from Luxor and mercilessly slashing them to death. It was a bloody slaughter that went on for almost an hour; 5 dozen were murdered. Egypt, one of the world's biggest tourist destinations, immediately emptied of tourists. And they stopped coming (at for a couple weeks). I feel terrible for the Swiss and Japanese, of course; I mean what a way to go! But... well, Roland and I pretty much had Egypt to ourselves. I mean it was just us and the Egyptians, who, except for the scimitar-wielders, are an extremely generous, friendly and gracious people.

I think Luxor-- ancient Thebes, with goes back to about 3,000 BC-- and its environs (basically the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens) are the biggest tourist attractions in Egypt after the Pyramids. Tourism in Egypt brings in around 10 million visitors a year and accounts for about 10% of the economy. It was devastated by what happened in Luxor and devastated by subsequent acts of terrorism since then. Friday was a biggie, although American media has been pretty quiet about it. ISIS terrorists planted a bomb at an intersection close to the Hotel Medidien where many tourists visiting the Pyramids-- about a mile away-- stay. The bomb was found around 6AM, before it killed anyone but 4 Egyptians (2 policemen and two hotel security guards) were wounded, one critically, trying to defuse it with a water canon.

Last week Morgan Freeman was working at the Pyramids filming part of a #ThisIsEgypt tourism campaign meant to persuade western tourists that tourism is completely safe again. And, yes, he also visited lovely Luxor. It all looks safe to me:

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Maybe the best reason to spread word of Nancy Reagan's first home is that she doesn't seem to like people knowing

Justin's caption: "Though this modest 2-story frame house with yellow siding at 149-14 Roosevelt Avenue, between 149th Street and 149th Place, remains unmarked by a plaque or medallion of any kind, this is the home where former First Lady Nancy Reagan spent the first two years of her life."

by Ken

The other day I promised to return to what sounds like a fairly routine question: Where was Nancy Reagan born? What makes the question rather more interesting is that it seems to be a touchy subject for Mrs. Reagan, and suggests in turn that Mrs. R has a relationship to reality reminiscent of that of her late husband, the sainted Ronnie, whose most enduring legacy to the country seems to me the lesson, now totally absorbed by the Right, that reality is whatever you want it to be -- or, to put it another way, whatever makes you feel best.

Now of course "feeling best" doesn't necessarily mean "feeling contented." For right-wingers, in fact, it often means what seems like the opposite: feeling mad as hell. We just need to remember that one of the things they like best in life is feeling outraged, aggrieved, betrayed, and so on. And of course the people who treat the unwashed rubes like brainless puppets know this better than anyone, and know how much return there is to be gotten from getting the pathetic, otherwsie-useless, doody-kicking legions of right-wing saps hopping mad at the usual targets. Thus the ease of spreading psychotic delusions about, say, Hillary Clinton, or Planned Parenthood, or indeed anyone with a working brain and an ounce of decency or humanity.


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Urban Gadabout: Return to Queens's historic First Calvary Cemetery

Plus: Where was Nancy Reagan born?

In Calvary Cemetery, Long Island City (Queens), with a familiar skyline in the distance. Photo by Mitch Waxman (click to enlarge).
All I need is an angle, an angle, an angle.
And some timing, timing.
All I need is an angle, an angle, an angle.
It's the angles and the timing that count.
-- Hubie Cram, in "Take a Job," from Do-Re-Mi (lyrics by
Betty Comden and Adolph Green, music by Jule Styne)

Nancy Walker (Kay Cram), Phil Silvers (Hubie Cram); Original Broadway Cast recording, Lehman Engel, cond. RCA, recorded December 1960

by Ken

Forget the angles. Just now my timing is, shall we say, off.

I got all excited last month when my pal Mitch Waxman mentioned, during a walking tour around the Dutch Kills tributary of his beloved Newtown Creek, that he was going to be doing a walk in First Calvary Cemetery, the original section of the now-mammoth Calvary Cemetery, on the northern shore of the Creek, in the Blissville neighborhood of Long Island City, Queens. Mitch had been enthusing mightily about First Calvary on his Newtown Pentacle blog, in a post called "ordinary interpretation" (with subsequent posts: "sepulchral adorations" and "obvious empiricism). As he's written:
It's the largest chunk of 'green infrastructure' found along the Newtown Creek as well as serving as the final resting place of literally millions of Roman Catholic New Yorkers. It's part of the firmament of LIC, and a significant touchstone for the history of 19th century NYC.
So I was gung-ho for the tour. But as soon as I was able to check my calendar, I discovered that I was conflicted out. Rats! But that's old business, which I wrote about (at the above link). Subsequently, even before Mitch announced it himself on the blog, I got excited all over to see that he was doing Calvary again -- this coming Saturday, October 3, at 11am -- for New York Obscura Society (the local arm of Atlas Obscura), with whom he does periodic tours, as he does with Brooklyn Brainery. (It was on account of Mitch, in fact, that I first learned about both outfits. I've now done a bunch of events with both.)

This time I approached my calendar gingerly, and found what I thought would be a tight fit but a perfect match: That same day I was already registered for a Municipal Art Society tour of Transmitter Brewing -- located under the Pulaski Bridge over Newtown Creek, on the Queens side. That's not exactly a stone's throw from Calvary up the creek, but it's about as neat a pairing as you could hope for. The timing might be a little tight getting from one to the other, but it was certainly workable, based on the 2pm start time I had entered on my calendar.

Unfortunately I had entered the Transmitter Brewing time wrong, as I discovered right after I registered for the Calvary tour. It starts at noon, not 2pm. The Obscura Society folks have been kind enough to refund my registration, and I'll have to wait for another opportunity to do Calvary with Mitch. But if you're free Saturday, you don't have to wait:

Flanked by the concrete devastations of western Queens’ industrial zone and backdropped by an omnipresent Manhattan skyline, Calvary Cemetery is a historical smorgasbord and aesthetic wonderland of sculptural monuments.

Founded in 1848 by the Roman Catholic Church, Calvary Cemetery is the resting place of over six million dead, among them Senators, Governors, Businessmen, Mafiosos, most of Tammany Hall in fact - and on a certain hill - an heir to the throne of Ireland. The Roman Catholic Church continues to upkeep and maintain its administration over the cemetery to this day. In addition to its original purpose, Calvary also serves the City of New York as a significant parcel of Green Infrastructure, a green oasis in the middle of the Newtown Creek's industrial zone which drinks up billions of gallons of water during storms.

Join Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman for a walk upon the rolling hills of what was once known to Queens as Laurel Hill. We'll visit the 300 year old headstones of the colonial era Alsop cemetery - which is uniquely a Protestant cemetery encapsulated by a Catholic one - see the memorial to NYC's Civil War soldiers laid down by Boss Tweed and the Tammany elite, and one dedicated to the "fighting 69th."

Meeting Place: North east corner of Greenpoint and Review Avenue, nearby the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge in Blissville.

Details: We will be exiting the Cemetery through the main gates at Greenpoint and Gale Avenue, nearby Borden Avenue and the Long Island Expressway. Afterwards, discussion will continue informally over food and drinks at the Botany Bay Publick House, a bar and restaurant at the corner of Greenpoint and Bradley Avenues.

Dress and pack appropriately for hiking and the weather. Closed-toe shoes are highly recommended. Bathroom opportunities will be found only at the end of the walk.

The price is $30. For information and to ticket purchases, go here.


I thought I was going to get to this in tonight's post, but perhaps it's better to deal with it separately (perhaps tomorrow, perhaps not). It's not a trick question, and if you look it up, you'll probably get an answer that's correct as far as it goes but that doesn't go quite as far as one might have reason to expect. It's kind of as if Mrs. R has been hiding something all these years. (Speaking of which, just how many years has it been? This is another Nancy Reagan question that's just a little tricky.)

Stay tuned.