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Friday, June 14, 2019

Waiting to Exhale


-by Skip Kaltenheuser

I find myself in the center of a massive pit, surrounded by thousands of rigid warriors tall enough to look down on me. Posture perfect despite their years-- twenty-two centuries-- they stand in defiant battle formation. Overwhelmed, I back up to photograph a wiseacre standing behind a warrior who is missing his head. I accidentally bump against the warrior behind me. Down he goes. Then down go a hundred, like dominos. Thousands of warriors turn to face me, their expressions uniform in anger. Calvary horses paw the earth and tug at chariots. Crossbows lock and load. I leap from the pit and only quit running when I’m in Kazakhstan, refrains from Traffic’s Forty Thousand Headmen playing in my head.

They may have feet of clay, but these mystery men still intimidate my dreams. Fierce terracotta warriors have transformed an impoverished Chinese countryside-- some people still dwell in caves-- into a tourist Mecca. Beijing may have the Olympics spotlight, but it is the ancient capital, Xi’an, in central China, one of the great ancient cities, where Chinese history really built its foundations. Peasant farmers digging a well discovered the first terracotta warriors in 1974. The more archaeologists dug, the more stunned they were. Here the world awakened anew to the former splendor and mystery of China. Now encased by a world class museum, the warriors are part of a vanguard supporting the prediction that by 2020, China will be the world’s number one tourist destination.

Hard to believe the museum, still a work in progress, began in 1976, the last year of Mao’s life. Some communist somewhere was thinking tourism. Perhaps Mao-- China’s last emperor, loosely defined, and ruthless-- felt some kinship to Qin. So how did eight thousand warriors with armor and weapons, with cavalry and horses, congregate here, six thousand in the largest pit, now shielded by a protective hanger structure large enough to house an aircraft factory?

One of the most ruthless of emperors, Qin, had his successes, including launching the endless project of the Great Wall. Qin created the first feudal and centralized empire in China, the Qin Dynasty (221 BC – 206 BC), by subjugating the various states. But it was a bloody business and many tried to assassinate Qin. He must have anticipated the need for an army to protect him in the afterlife from angry spirits lining up from the scholars he murdered, opposing armies he slaughtered, and his forced labor pool, many of the latter buried alive to maintain tomb secrets. Never mind the 3,000 barren wives and concubines – some revered, some tortured for pleasure – many entombed to keep Qin company. One could assume that he had earned his nightmares. And Qin began earning them young. Becoming king while still twelve, he started building his own tomb in a mausoleum complex spreading over two square kilometers, constructed by 720,000 workers and craftsmen who eventually labored nearly four decades at what was for most of them, the ultimate thankless task.

Embarking on such an endeavor instead of honoring Confucian customs of respecting his late father with a grand memorial brought him the disapproval of 460 Confucian scholars. And because Qin was not keen on critics, he executed them, burning many of them alive. About this time, critics began to see the brilliance in the young emperor’s plan. Qin’s as yet unopened tomb is said to have pearls in the ceiling for stars, and small rivers and lakes filled with mercury.



One distant dig, labeled pit “number five”, surrounded by an orchard, is filled with fragments of armor, like an upended Scrabble game. It is the tip of a huge pit, mostly unexcavated, and thought to contain only armor suits, perhaps tens of thousands of them. As thousands of chariot warriors, infantrymen, cavalrymen and horses were created-- as well as dancers, musicians and acrobats-- Qin’s theory was rather simple: the armor honors those fallen in battle and not properly buried, so the spirits of the dead and dismembered would be less likely to track him down for vengeance.

Today, the museum is visited by over two million people every year, nearly a quarter of them foreigners. Commerce related to the warriors already generates nearly a fifth of the province’s income, not counting what the surviving peasants who discovered them, local heroes, make autographing museum books. Warrior knockoffs of every size are available for sale everywhere, including gas stations and roadside attractions.

It’s an interesting contrast to the technical industries that have gained a presence not very far away-- China’s first satellite and first integrated chip were created in Xi’an, and there are scores of state run laboratories digesting and applying technologies absorbed from around the world. The city itself has contrasts of modernity and the old walled city within it, all of which struggles against the dust and sand blowing in from the advancing Gobi desert. Indeed, the Xi’an sky is as much a signpost of global warming as the world’s defeated glaciers or blanched coral that more often catches the public eye. The sky can be a brilliant blue, but in the morning it can be hard to tell if the dim globe is the sun rising, or the moon. The warriors’ stoic gaze that seems to underpin China’s permanence is mitigated by China firing up a new dirty coal-burning power plant each week.



The sky has the feel of an empire reaching its limits, as empires inevitably do, just as the coal polluted air assaults the terracotta flesh.

At the Shanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeological Research, fragments are assembled in restoration laboratories by German and Chinese scientists who exchange preservation expertise. Fragile artifacts, such as a bronze goose neck and head or sword, are X-rayed and studied to determine weaknesses and original designs. Some are tenderly and meticulously labored over within a sealed glass chamber, the scientists’ arms in long rubber gloves, as if herding renegade microbes. The warriors’ fragility is underscored by the nine or so different moulds that attack the terracotta, said to originate from shifting humidity and tourist breath. Despite the economic boom the warriors generated, funding remains a tough quest. The entire process of putting a single warrior back together can take up to a year.

The Qin Dynasty didn’t last long. Five years after Qin’s burial in 210 BC, a vengeful general Xiang Yu raided the tomb, stealing the real weapons the warriors held, and set a fire in the necropolis that burned for months. Many of the warriors are as shattered as egg shells. They now inspire craftsmanship of a different sort. Today, selected tour operators provide special access for travelers, who photograph themselves with the six and a half foot figures as if they were old chums. Up close and personal, visitors study faces that convey personality, faces that, millenniums ago, would have studied theirs.

It’s the faces that most linger in this writer’s mind, knowing that each, though a notch larger than life, represents a person who walked the earth, fighting in battles that seem otherworldly. We have often seen the idealized faces of emperors across different cultures. We seldom see the faces of Everyman. Their faces speak volumes about the warrior vanities of the day-- the moustaches and goatees, the hair buns. Facial features reveal that many hailed from minority populations to the northwest, likely conscripted from conquered populations. The drama behind their searching faces is enhanced by pondering the armies of craftsmen who gave birth to the clay warriors, and the hardships endured. Perhaps it is respect for these toiling workers, not for the emperor, that the warriors most convey, as thousands of them patiently await their chance to shock and awe.


Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Exploring The Surreal Skeleton Coast

Photo courtesy of Edward Bohen

-by Skip Kaltenheuser

The Skeleton Coast is one of the most appropriately named stretches of land in the world, a place where many hapless sailors of centuries past have mingled their bones with whale ribs and shipwrecks.

There was at one time no margin for error for sailors rounding the Horn of Africa and heading north through rough seas past this vast expanse, which stretches along the northern third of Namibia’s coast. The region borders more vast expanses, among them the world’s oldest desert, the Namib. One wonders whether whalers and sailors who somehow made it ashore after reefs had thrashed their ships found a moment to appreciate landscapes that would have challenged even the surreal imagination of Salvador Dali.



Along the coastline are immense flat plains, broken in places by lines of small cones denoting abandoned diamond mines. The plains yield to giant, orange-yellow sand dunes. The wind etches geometric patterns on their long curves and slopes.

Photos courtesy of Skip Kaltenheuser


Walking across a flat plain from our vehicle-- a Land Rover with old airplane chairs strapped to the roof-- my companions and I step in each other’s footprints to minimize the impact on the tiny blades of vegetation that suck moisture from the ocean fog.

After hiking up a dune’s long backside, we slide down its steep interior slope. Suddenly, the sound of the wind is drowned out by the eerie monotone crescendo of a double bass. But there are no double bass players in sight.

Photos courtesy of Skip Kaltenheuser


The musicians, in fact, are us. The dunes’ uniquely shaped sand grains emit a deep roar as they grind together. Delighted, some of us take long leaps down the slope, adding staccato notes.

Struggling back up the huge half-bowl slope, the solitude of the coast hits home. Despite a huge concession set aside for the Skeleton Coast Camp-- which is where we are staying-- it is limited to 12 visitors at a time.

Photos courtesy of Ship Kaltenheuser


I keep imagining the challenges shipwrecked sailors would have faced. If I were in their shoes, would I have been able to overcome fear and march up the coast, giving my skeleton a run for its money?

Photos courtesy of Skip Kaltenheuser


Yet there are those that survive in this environment. The wildlife is fascinating in how it has adapted to the desert conditions. Up on a ridge facing the ocean breeze are several gemsbok, or oryx, weighing nearly 230 kilograms each. A type of antelope, they hyperventilate in the ocean air in order to cool their body temperatures. Their horns are like scimitars, forcing the region’s desert-adapted lions to think twice. Fresh lion tracks in a river bed make me think twice when, separated from the only other vehicle, I collect flat rocks to jam under tires bogged down in dry sand. A bit inland, amid arid canyons and valleys, are ostriches, jackals, mountain zebras, baboons and foxes.

Even the bugs are amazing. I saw a beetle that satiates its thirst by using grooves in its back to build up a drop of water from condensed fog.

Photo courtesy of Namibia Ministry of Environment


Desert elephants sometimes venture to the coast and surf the dunes, creating their own symphonies. We track the elephants on foot-- they’re always just around the bend, judging by the fresh elephant dung-- but the sun reflecting off the walls of a clay canyon beat us back. Our vehicles cause us to throw in the towel as well, as an unexplored river bed that might leave a vehicle stuck becomes too forbidding near sunset. There are no tow trucks here.

Photo courtesy of face2faceafrika.com


But the greatest survivors are the members of the Himba tribe, some of whom reside just outside the park. Scattered across northern Namibia, they make up less than 1 per cent of the population. They haven’t changed their nomadic lifestyle in centuries, raising cattle and living in huts of dung and sand.

The women are particularly striking, wearing only goat skin aprons and jewellery that glows red from a mixture of ochre and rancid butter, rubbed daily over every square inch.

Photos courtesy of Only Tribal


With their braided hair coated with mud and hardened like a helmet, these women work hard while the men count their cattle. The women’s true beauty is rooted in their physical strength and a meticulously tended traditional appearance that, according to anthropologists, maintains their cultural identity and protects them against the vagaries of modern life. Their refined beauty is framed by the harsher beauty around them.

Horrors such as the diamond wars farther north in Angola, the heartbreak of AIDS orphans, tribal conflicts and deprivation magnified by an envy of wealth have missed the Himba in this neck of Namibia. The elements of their neighbourhood are so tough no one hungers for their land-- it’s safety in lack of numbers.

A couple of decades ago, a drought – the term is relative here-- killed enough cattle to drive some Himba into the towns. They didn’t fare well-- alcoholism and prostitution were often the byproducts of poverty and culture shock. Much farther east, a proposed dam threatens the Himba way of life. But on the Skeleton Coast, it’s likely that in 50 years, the headman’s progeny will still be tending the holy fire, a smoldering log that is said to help departed paternal ancestors bring good fortune to the tribe.

Photos courtesy of Skip Kaltenheuser


At night, I stand watching the sky, stealing glances at the silhouette of a jackal slipping around my tent, which by Himba standards is as luxurious as the Taj Mahal. Before the morning fog, the night is moonless but bright. The stars are the brightest and most numerous I’ve seen, and shooting stars abound.

None of the hemisphere’s constellations are familiar. It’s an alien world, beautiful as long as I know a prop-driven aircraft will eventually alight on our desert runway with ample provisions.


GETTING THERE: Tour operators such as Wilderness Safaris, which operates the Skeleton Coast Camp, offer flights into the park in small bush planes from various points in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Malawi, Namibia and South Africa, and Skeleton Coast Camp for a four-day, three-night safari package.

For more visitor information, visit the Namibia Ministry of Environment.

Note: Skip wrote this piece some time ago, so be sure to check up before making your travel plans.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Trepangs In China-- Yummy, Yummy


Yum?

-by Reese Erlich

[Reese Erlich is on assignment in Moscow. He offers this humorous memory about a long ago visit to that famed city. His current reporting from Russia will appear in two weeks.]

I was only 19 when I visited the USSR with my parents and sister in 1966. It was quite exotic for Americans to visit Moscow in those days and nothing was more exotic than eating at the Peking Restaurant at the Peking Hotel. It was an enormous dining hall with high ceilings, representing the best of Stalinesque architecture.

We perused the menu, which was written in four languages. One item stumped us: trepangs. My father suggested I consult the French version as I was the resident expert, having recently completed two years of high school French. The French menu had the same item, trepangs, although it sounded better pronounced with a French accent.

We asked our waiter, who consulted the Russian menu, and declared that the dish was called trepanskis, or some such Russian transliteration of the mysterious dish.

We never did order trepangs, but the word took on an almost mythic character in our family lore. For years it was synonymous with any profoundly unknowable concept. For example, Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman created gripping dramas full of deep trepang.

In 1980 I made my first of many reporting trips to the People's Republic of China. In those days, workers road to work every day on bicycles, wearing unisex Mao jackets. Bicycles outnumbered cars on the streets by about 100-1. And government officials held elaborate, 15-course meals for special guests. And I was one such special guest.

"Mr. Erlich," intoned our host, who was dressed in a Mao jacket just a bit too tight around the middle. "We have a specialty dish for tonight's dinner, trepangs."

My throat went dry. My hands began to shake. Could it be that after all these years, I was about to learn the secret of the trepang?

I calmed myself and with a steady voice I replied, "Ah yes, trepangs, a dish often discussed by my family."

"I would like one or two of them," I said cautiously.

Our host brimmed with great delight. "Most westerners aren't fond of trepangs," he said. But since they are your family's favorite, you cannot order one or two. We'll have an extra plate."

I nodded reluctantly, not knowing what I was getting into. I knew enough about Chinese customs not to refuse a host's offer and feared an international incident if the food was inedible.

This far into the story, you might be expecting some culturally inappropriate description of a disgusting food eaten by the Chinese, something like the apocryphal stories about monkey brains served from live monkeys in Hong Kong.

It's worse.

The trepangs arrived. They are sea slugs, marine animals with a slippery, gelatinous texture. Trepangs are also translated as sea cucumbers, a name that gives them a certain panache. Wikileaks notes, "In some cultural contexts the sea cucumber is thought to have medicinal value. Most cultures in East and Southeast Asia regard sea cucumbers as a delicacy."

And to tell you the truth, after 14 years of mystery, they weren't so bad. The best that can be said is that trepangs have no flavor of their own. They absorb the sauce in which they are immersed. And my Beijing hosts ordered hot, spicy trepangs. I actually enjoyed them, although I had some trouble eating the second plate.

So what did I learn from all these foreign adventures? If you want to know the name of a particular Chinese dish, ask someone who speaks Chinese.


Sunday, April 14, 2019

Are The Airlines Spying On Us Yet?


At one point, a couple decades ago, some of the high-end airlines introduced a privacy feature for first class travelers: enclosed cabins. A flight attendant could stand oh his or her toes and took over the wall, but otherwise you could do whatever you wanted in privacy. Apparently, too many people did and they seem to have abolished them. Now it looks like they're introducing the opposite: tiny cameras that can watch you during the flight. Do you think that's a little intrusive? You're watching a move and "someone" is watching you-- an airline employee? a government entity?

Last month, CNN reported that Singapore admits they have embedded cameras in their newer inflight entertainment systems but claim they're deactivated. "Deactivated?" Why are they there then-- in order to be activated next week or the week after?
The fact that some aircraft seats have built-in cameras is not new knowledge. Singapore Airlines' inflight entertainment system is manufactured by Panasonic Avionics, a US-based company that supplies IFE for many of the major airlines and French company Thales. Panasonic announced a while back that it's added cameras onto seat backs.

And in 2017, Panasonic Avionics announced a partnership with Tascent-- a biometrics and identity innovation company.

"The companies will combine Tascent's biometric identity devices, software and services with Panasonic Avionic Corporation's in-flight entertainment and communications systems to provide streamlined, easy-to-use identity recognition before departure, during flight and upon arrival," read the corresponding press release.

The idea was seat-back cameras could facilitate onboard immigration, skipping lines when you land. It was also suggested that a seat-back camera could aid payment processing for onboard shopping.

At the 2017 Dubai Airshow, Panasonic Avionics announced the latest incarnation of Emirates' IFE in First Class and Economy-- specifying it featured a camera, plus a microphone and speaker.

In the age of the smartphone, everyone holds a tiny cinema in their hand, so there's certainly an expectation that airlines will have exciting entertainment options-- a screen simply showing movies won't cut it anymore.

But has Emirates ever done anything with its on-board cameras?

"Some of our 777 aircraft have cameras that came pre-installed with the inflight entertainment hardware that we had purchased from the manufacturer (Panasonic)," a spokeperson for the Dubai-based airline told CNN Travel. "It was originally meant for seat-to-seat video calls, however Emirates has never activated it."

This echoes Singapore Airlines' comment on the issue.

"These cameras have been intended by the manufacturers for future developments," the airline says. "These cameras are permanently disabled on our aircraft and cannot be activated on board. We have no plans to enable or develop any features using the cameras."

Meanwhile, American Airlines told CNN Travel that cameras are "a standard feature," but are not activated and the carrier has no plans to use them.

A spokesperson for Aussie carrier Qantas also told CNN Travel that IFE manufacturers include inbuilt cameras as standard-- and said the airline couldn't activate the cameras, even if they wanted to.

"The feature would require software in order to be activated, which Qantas doesn't have and doesn't plan to install."

Air New Zealand and British Airways told CNN Travel there were no cameras on board any of their aircraft.

Two images obtained by CNN Travel of an IFE system on a British Airways airplane depict what looks like a lens of some kind. BA describes it as an infrared environmental sensor rather than a camera.

But are airplane seat cameras a bad idea? Some aviation experts think they could improve the onboard, inflight experience.

Joe Leader, CEO of aviation trade body Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) think there's several handy usages for these cameras.

As well as facilitating video chat between passengers, the cameras could look out for passengers becoming unwell or monitor cabins for suspicious behavior.

The cameras could also be used to spot human trafficking or assault-- acting as an extension of the air steward's eyes.

As for the privacy concern, APEX points out the ubiquity of cameras in 21st century society.

"Today, airline passengers are typically tracked outside the aircraft dozens of times on a typical journey through stores, security, roadways, and airports by cameras without any permission," APEX says in a statement.

"In contrast, airlines only want to use cameras in the future with permission when technology has advanced to offer personalized service improvements that passengers desire."

Hacking fears, suggests APEX, are "misplaced."

"The greatest risk to airline passenger privacy breaches come from their own smartphones, tablets, cameras, computers, and smart devices used in private settings, " says APEX.

The concern for some fliers is that even if the existence of these seat-back cameras aren't a secret-- and even if they could facilitate some cool features-- it feels disingenuous that their presence isn't advertised.

When contacted by CNN Travel, Panasonic Avionics stressed that it was committed to the privacy of passengers.

"Panasonic Avionics will never activate any feature or functionality within an IFE system without explicit direction from an airline customer," the company said in a statement to CNN.

"Prior to the use of any camera on a Panasonic Avionics' system that would affect passenger privacy, Panasonic Avionics would work closely with its airline customer to educate passengers about how the system works and to certify compliance with all appropriate privacy laws and regulations, such as [The EU's data privacy regulation] GDPR."

But although Panasonic Avionics and the airlines say the cameras are currently deactivated-- they're not physically covered up and passengers remain worried about hacking.
These systems are expensive and they're not just there so they could be not used. The airlines should stop bullshitting their customers for a change. One consumer advocacy group pointed out that "Air travel is already fraught with ineffective and invasive breaches of our personal privacy. But now the airlines themselves have gone even further with cameras and microphones pointed at passengers as they watch movies, eat snacks, or just sleep. And the implications of in-flight cameras are even bigger than the discomfort of the airline watching you sleep on a red-eye. It’s still unknown to what extent the federal government could be able to acquire that data, without a warrant or probable cause, or process the camera footage through faulty facial recognition programs that misidentify women and people of color."

I'm old enough to remember when flying was a treat. That was a long, long, long time ago. Are you thinking I'm being too alarmist here? If so, take a look at this. "German Chancellor Angela Merkel has introduced a bill that would allow German spy agencies to hack into nearly any computer and conduct espionage on a wide swath of citizens and foreigners. Drawn up by Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, the bill greatly expands the espionage powers of Germany’s intelligence service, the bnd. Although Seehofer has been notorious for opposing the chancellor on many occasions, he seems to have persuaded her to support this latest bill. This time, opposition is coming from Merkel’s coalition ally, the Social Democratic Party (spd). The spd justice minister has expressed outrage at one clause in particular, which would allow spies to collect information on children under 14 years old. The justification for this clause rests on the 2016 case of a 12-year-old who was involved in a plot to bomb a Christmas market.
Many Germans are critical of the bill. “This amounts to a massive extension of intrusive surveillance,” said Sven Herpig, a researcher from the New Responsibility Foundation. Germany’s Left Party also condemned the bill, calling it a “catalogue of Orwellian fantasies.”

In the recent past, however, many similar “fantasies” have become reality.

In 2017, Germany proposed an “unprecedented spate of new surveillance and security laws.” Most of these were passed and are in force today, yet they are rarely discussed.

The biggest concern is currently the government’s State Trojan spyware law. This allows government spyware to be covertly installed on a target’s mobile phone. The spyware can lie dormant for a set period of time, remaining undetected for years, before being activated to collect data on the user’s calls, chats and Internet activity. And this isn’t limited to phones; the spyware can also be used to spy on people through smart devices, like speakers or fridges that can connect to the Internet, greatly infringing upon privacy rights.

Before the State Trojan law was passed, only the federal Criminal Office had the power to employ this method of espionage. Now this power is in the hands of the state itself.

The new law also grants permission for the bnd to use this spyware against foreigners. Both the Criminal Office and bnd have expressed a desire to “cooperate more effectively against ‘transnational’ threats, such as terrorism and organized crime.”

Airlines in Germany are bound to collect and retain the contact details of their passengers, means of booking, payment, and even seat choice, for up to five years. Although presented as an EU requirement, critics have said that this law goes well beyond what is required by Brussels.

Other laws passed in 2017 regulate increased video surveillance of public areas and more detailed research into the background of migrants, both of which came in the aftermath of the 2016 Christmas market terrorist attacks.
Last month, Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and John Kennedy (R-LA) sent a joint letter to Delta, Southwest, Frontier, United, Spirit, American, JetBlue, and Alaska, noting their concern about a possible "serious breach of privacy."
While Americans have an expectation that they are monitored in airports as a necessary security measure, the notion that in-flight cameras may monitor passengers while they sleep, eat, or have private conversations is troubling. Further, in light of data breaches that have impacted many major airlines, we have misgivings that cameras or sensors may not employ the necessary security measures to prevent them from being targeted by cybercriminals.

For these reasons, we respectfully request that the following information be provided regarding the cameras on in-flight entertainment systems:
1- Does your airline currently use, or has ever used, cameras or sensors to monitor passengers;
2- If yes, what purpose do the cameras serve and in what circumstances may the cameras be activated;
3- If you have or currently do utilize cameras or sensors to monitor passengers, please provide details on how passengers are informed of this practice;
4- Please provide comprehensive data on the number of cameras and sensors used by your fleet, and the type of information that is collected or recorded, how it is stored, and who within your airline is responsible for the review and safekeeping of this information;
5- Further to the above, please confirm what security measures you have in place to prevent data breaches of this information, or hacking of the cameras themselves; and
6- Are the cameras used in any biometric identity capacity, and if so, under what authority?
We look forward to learning more about these practices and request a response within 30 days.