Americans Shouldn’t Be Afraid To Travel

Obama is a Muslim. The Moon landings were faked. The South should have won the Civil War.

People believe a lot of stupid things, and one of the stupidest is that Americans are somehow at much higher risk than other nationalities when traveling. Many Americans I know won’t travel to foreign countries, and I’ve even seen Americans wearing Canadian flags in the hope that it will make them safe. Many Americans seem to think they’re targets, especially in Muslim areas. My own personal experience says otherwise.

Although I’m Canadian, I lived in the States a long time and have an American accent. Most people assume I’m American, so I know what it’s like to travel as one. I’ve been to lots of places that my American friends think I’m crazy to visit, like Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Palestine and Somaliland. Instead of being threatened or insulted, I’ve been welcomed.

Again and again I’ve told my American friends how surprisingly safe it is to adventure travel around the world, yet they persist in the belief that what I do is crazy or brave or just plain stupid, when in reality the only real threat I face is from the microbes. Oh yes, foreign microbes have kicked my Western ass on numerous occasions. Damn foreign microbes. The people have been much nicer. Here are two examples of “exotic” locations where I was assumed to be American and treated well.In Isfahan, Iran, I got into a conversation with a religious teacher at a madrasa. This guy decided to give me a driving tour of his city. I hopped into his car and we zipped around Isfahan to see the sights, including the many beautiful blue-tiled mosques.

At one point he asked, “Do you have mosques like this in America?” He seemed surprised when I told him I wasn’t American. His treatment of me after he found out I was Canadian was no better or worse than it was when he thought I was from the Great Satan. While he probably wasn’t terribly fond of the U.S. government, like most people he could distinguish between people and governments. Yes, I’ve said that before, but it bears repeating.

In the predominantly Muslim city of Harar, Ethiopia, I was a regular member of a daily qat chewing session. One of the younger guys there talked to me every day in order to improve his English. The Arab Revolution was all over the TV so we had plenty to talk about. Several weeks into my stay he asked, “You are a Jew, yes?”

“No, I’m not,” I replied.

“But you are American. Ninety percent of Americans are Jews.”

“Actually it’s more like two percent, and I’m not American anyway.”

So this Muslim guy not only thought I was an American, but a Jewish American and still had no problem hanging out with me.

That’s not to say that I’ve never had problems while abroad. I live part time in Spain, and four or five times I’ve had Spaniards start bitching to me about “damn Yankees” needing to go home. Every single time they’ve been lone, older drunk guys – losers, in other words.

And are you really going to shut yourself off from the world just because of a few losers?

For a slightly different take on this from a real American, check out Dave Seminara’s post on National Pride While Abroad.

Photo courtesy flickr user Cali4beach. One of these ladies is actually Australian. Appearances can be deceiving!

Times Square’s Courtyard Marriott Accused of Bugging Your Internet

Justin Watt, a web developer, is accusing the Courtyard Marriott in New York’s Times Square of bugging his Internet, injecting ads into each page he viewed while logged into the hotel’s Wi-Fi network.

After some digging (and complex code you can read more about on his website), Watt found that Marriott’s Internet provider injected CSS and JavaScript code into each page to run a “Revenue eXtraction Gateway” for the purpose of putting targeted ads on each page.

Chris Rill, a software engineer and entrepreneur familiar with web application development told Gadling:

“This is much different from a typical ad pixel because the Internet provider (the hotel in this case) is injecting the ad, not the content provider (website).

This is a key issue in the net neutrality debate. The “network” is looking for a way to increase revenue and this is an example of how the network can modify the content to monetize the user.”

In modifying the code, YouTube was also disabled in the browser – another fact that didn’t make Mr. Watt particularly happy.

A Boston-based digital media expert, familiar with the industry but not with this particular case said,

“I think it’s safe to say that this is not a Marriott-wide, or even Courtyard-wide effort. This is a single hotel (or particular HSA provider) doing their own thing.”

“It’s unclear to me if something that crosses the line is actually happening,” He adds. “From where I sit, [Watt] is using a free service, and in this day and age when we are using a service for free we should expect to have advertisements shown to us. Heck, even when services are not free, we should expect to have ads shown to us.”

Watt is angry – as are most of the commenters on his blog post and other places it has been shared. Many feel as if they are being spied on by the hotel.

While users are understandably outraged by what they see as spying, displaying contextual ads following a user’s visit is fairly common practice. At question here, as Mr. Rill points out, is whether the network or the hotel is actually profiting off of the user by placing targeted ads.

Still, if you wish to guard your privacy, Watt suggests that you BYO connectivity or connect through a VPN so that a public network can’t detect your traffic.

UPDATE: 5:30 PM, April 6, 2012:
A Marriott spokesperson says “This is not a Marriott-endorsed protocol and we are working to investigate the issue.”

[Flickr via StreetFlyJZ]

The best way to fight terrorism is to ignore it

Last week, the global intelligence company Stratfor finished a series about terrorism. Their final article, “Keeping Terrorism in Perspective” is especially important for travelers. The entire series is fascinating and enlightening and I recommend it highly.

In a nutshell, the analysts at Stratfor say terrorism is not going to go away and can never be entirely defeated. No government, even the most authoritarian, can keep its people and property entirely safe. Also, public and official reaction can often be more harmful than the attack itself.

To take an example from history, at the turn of the last century in Barcelona there was a wave of anarchist bombings. While most of the bombs were small and did little damage, they caused a general panic. Sidewalk urinals became popular targets. It was a public place where a man could be alone for a few moments to plant a bomb. After several explosions in urinals, the city got rid of them. The anarchists moved on to other targets and the entire male population became burdened with a major inconvenience.

A modern example of how terrorism can have an effect far beyond its ability to do damage is the case of shoe bomber Richard Reid. After Reid failed to ignite his shoe bomb on a flight, airport security responded by forcing everyone to take off their shoes. The authors of “Superfreakonomics” did some interesting math on this, “Let’s say it takes an average of one minute to remove and replace your shoes in the airport security line. In the United States alone, this procedure happens roughly 560 million times per year. . .Five hundred and sixty million minutes equals more than 1,065 years — which, divided by 77.8 years (the average U.S. life expectancy at birth), yields a total of nearly 14 person-lives. So even though Richard Reid failed to kill a single person, he levied a tax that is the time equivalent of 14 lives per year.”Terrorism is used by groups that are not powerful enough to attain their goals politically or militarily. While terrorist attacks can be deadly, they don’t pose a fatal threat to states or economies except by consent. Terrorists rely on public reaction to increase their effectiveness. Media hype, Internet rumors and finger-pointing politicians accusing their opponents of being “soft on terrorism” all act as, what Stratfor terms, “terror magnifiers.” As Stratfor says, “A target population responding to a terrorist attack with panic and hysteria allows the perpetrators to obtain a maximum return on their physical effort.”

In a very real way, a panicky public becomes the terrorists’ ally. Stratfor points to the massive economic upheaval and paranoia after 9/11 as a bad public reaction that increased the terrorists’ success. Less successful were the London bombings of 2005, which saw Londoners back on public transport and going to work the next day. This minimized the economic damage the terrorists had hoped to achieve.

So, will ignoring terror attacks make the terrorists go away? Sadly no, but it will lessen the damage they do. Of course travelers should be cautious and practice situational awareness. Beyond that they shouldn’t change their behavior at all, since that plays into the terrorists’ hands.

To use a personal example, the recent terrorist attack on tourists in Ethiopia will not stop my plans to return there this year. With the increased security in Ethiopia in the wake of the attacks, Ethiopia is probably safer than when I was there in 2011, and to change my plans would only give the terrorists what they want — undercutting the nation’s tourist economy and dividing people with fear.

Terrorist attacks are like other types of violent crime in that they can happen anywhere. I’ll be careful when I’m in Ethiopia just like I was the last two times, but no more careful than I am anywhere else. I’m more nervous walking the streets of London on a Saturday night than traveling in Ethiopia. I’ve had my life threatened in London. That’s never happened in Ethiopia.

There are already experts taking active steps to fight terrorism. Western governments have foiled numerous plots and the Navy Seals tagged Bin Laden. You can help them by chilling out and enjoy your vacation. Doing otherwise only encourages our enemies.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Gadling gear review: Pick-Pocket Proof Pants from Clothing Arts

Few things can ruin a trip more quickly than losing your wallet to local thieves who make it a habit of preying on unsuspecting travelers. In the blink of an eye, your cash, ID, passport, credit cars and other valuable items, can be gone, leaving you scrambling to recover. To prevent these types of situations from ever occurring, the designers at a company called Clothing Arts, who happen to be travelers themselves, have created a line of pick pocket proof pants that make it nearly impossible for you to lose your important items.

Dubbed the P^cubed travel pants, Clothing Arts makes these garments for both adventure travelers and businessmen and women who frequently visit areas that pose a high risk for pick pockets. These pants (and shorts!) resemble typical cargo pants, with pockets in the usual places, namely the front and back, as well as additional pockets on the legs. But these aren’t your typical pockets, as you soon find out when put the pants on. Security is central to the design of the P^cubed line, and as a result each of those pockets can be sealed with both zippers and cloth covers. When sealed up tight, it would take a very talented pick-pocket indeed to gain access to your valuables.

These security measures mean that you can put your wallet in a pocket and without the fear of it being lifted. The pockets are spacious enough to accommodate most small items that you would want to carry with you, and the cargo pockets even expand for extra storage. Even cell phones and small cameras can comfortably be carried without worrying about them finding their way into unwelcome hands.

While we can all appreciate having an added sense of security while we’re traveling, the bottom line with any piece of clothing that we take with us is that it has to be comfortable. The P^cubed pants excel in that area as well, using a blend of nylon and cotton to offer up a relaxed fit that doesn’t hamper movement, even when taking part in active pursuits such as hiking or climbing. I found the pants were just as comfortable to wear around town as they were on the trail, which makes them a versatile piece of gear that can be used just about anywhere. That versatility is a big plus for travelers who like going as light as possible and don’t always want to carry a lot of items with them.
I put the Adventure Traveler Pants through their paces and was impressed with how well they resisted wear and tear, while also managing to stay clean. The materials used in making these pants are designed to resist the stains and dirt marks that come from typical travel situations, while not scuffing or tearing either. As a result, you end up with a pair of pants that you can take with you on a round-the-world trip that will look as good upon your return home as they did when you first set out. The fact that they are also quick drying is appreciated both while wearing them after a surprise rainstorm, and while cleaning the pants back in your hotel room.

If you’re like me, you probably have a few pieces of clothing that seem to always find their way into your bag no matter where you’re headed. They tend to be comfortable, versatile, and still manage to look good too. The P^cubed pants now fit into that category for me and are likely to be a regular companion on future excursions. I appreciate their comfort and fit first and foremost, and the fact that they have plenty of big pockets for storage is a major plus as well. Throw in the fact that they provide a level of security for your valuables that you won’t find elsewhere, and you just might have the perfect travel pants.

The Adventure Traveler Pants cost $109.95 on the Clothing Arts website, which is a bit on the expensive side when compared to other options. But when you consider what they bring to the table, you’ll realize that it is actually a very reasonable price. Not only will they keep the pick-pockets at bay, but they’ll also last for years, making them a wise investment for any traveler.

TSA talks travel security in advance holidays

This coming weekend marks the beginning of the holiday travel season and travel security is in the spotlight. With more than 23 million passengers expected at the nation’s airports, the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is showcasing some major changes to airline security.

“TSA has implemented risk-based procedures to further strengthen security while improving the passenger experience whenever possible,” said TSA Administrator John S. Pistole in a statement. “We are prepared this holiday season to keep passengers safe as they travel to see their loved ones.”

Bringing Baby On Board gets easier
Already in place, kids 12 and younger won’t need to take off their shoes at the screening check points.

“Children themselves, of course, are not terrorists. But we also know that they can be used by terrorists to do bad things, which we’ve seen overseas,” TSA chief John Pistole told Fox News.

Should there be a problem scanning a child, they will be allowed to pass through several times or be checked with trace detection methods, all in consultation with a parent or guardian.

“This is all about risk mitigation, risk management. It’s not risk elimination,” Pistole emphasized, noting that kids are low risk compared adults like the shoe bomber who tried to bring down a jet over the Atlantic a decade ago.

No more peeping TSA officers
Also in place now, in anticipation of the holiday season and in response to complaints, half of the full body scanners are now using new software that replaces the detailed outline of the body with a generic image. Called Advance Imaging Technology (AIT), the technology increases the efficiency of the screening process, is safe for all travelers, and passengers see the same image TSA officers see.

Be careful who you complain to though
In a pilot program at Boston Logan International and Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County airports, Behavior Detection Officers have casual conversations with travelers to determine if the traveler should be referred for additional screening at the checkpoint.

Nothing to hide? You might pass through security quicker
Another pilot program prescreens travelers who volunteer information about themselves prior to flying in order to potentially expedite the screening experience. Currently being tested in Atlanta, Detroit, Miami and Dallas/Fort Worth, TSA plans to expand this program to McCarran International, Minneapolis St. Paul International and Los Angeles International airports in the coming months.

Along the same lines but a bit more intense, TSA has designed a new program to expedite screening for airline pilots through positive identification verification, which is currently being tested at Seattle-Tacoma International, Minneapolis-St. Paul International, Chicago O’Hare International, Miami International and Washington Dulles International airports.

“If You See Something, Say Something.”
Not a change but important, TSA reminds travelers to be on guard during the holiday travel season by reporting suspicious activity.

Flickr photo by Inha Leex Hale