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David Rowell

David Rowell

You can see an extensive mini-bio about me here http://www.thetravelinsider.info/info/about.htm And here's a Google Plus link : Google

Sep 012017

A sight to gladden a champagne lover’s heart, in one of Emirates’ seven Dubai lounges. See story, below.

Good morning

Labor Weekend looms large on our horizon, the end of summer, and apparently also, one week into this year’s hurricane season.  I do hope if you are in TX, or if you have friends/family in TX, that you are okay and have managed to endure this week’s challenges.

We had another couple join next year’s Grand Expedition of Great Britain, bringing us now to the exciting point where, with 17 people participating, the tour price per person has dropped $100.  As soon as we reach 20 people, it will drop again, so if you are thinking about this great experience, why not choose to come, now that we’re well past the minimum number needed, and now the value is improving steadily.

I interrupted the plan for my multi-part article series this week to bring you something else instead – it is one of the many articles that I write as much for myself, as I do for you.  In this case, I’ve always been a bit confused about issues to do with how long my passport needs to remain valid after the end of any travels I plan to do, and have always bemoaned the strangeness of countries refusing to accept a valid passport just because it is due to expire at some relatively soon but still future date.

There is no simple answer to this simple seeming question.  So, I’ve put together a 3500 word article for my benefit, as well as for yours.  Plus, if that’s not enough, there’s also a two page downloadable PDF setting out the passport validity policies of 48 different countries, as they apply to Americans, Canadians, Brits and Europeans.  See the article that follows this morning’s newsletter.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • Beware of an Airline’s Math
  • Emirates Shows Other Airlines How to Do an Airline Lounge Properly
  • An Unintuitive But Sensible Way to Travel from the US to Australia
  • D-Day for the iPhone (8)
  • Did You Win $300?
  • More on Germany’s Struggles with their Nazi Past
  • Interesting Aviation Trivia
  • And Lastly This Week….

Beware of an Airline’s Math

We occasionally see stories of how misbehaving passengers are subsequently fined and made to reimburse the airline for the costs incurred if the flight has to divert and make an ’emergency landing’ so as to offload the misbehaving passenger.

But who assesses the cost of the emergency landing?  The airline.  Who checks the airline’s calculation?  Probably no-one.

You might think that this is fair enough, the misbehaving passenger deserves all the cost the airline seeks to recover as a penalty for their egregious actions.  But let’s look at the most recent case, and see just how fair this was.  (In case it needs to be said, the guy was aggressively drunk and disrupting the peace and comfort of passengers around him.  Something probably needed to be done.)

A Hawaiian Airlines flight was traveling from Honolulu to New York.  Slightly more than two hours into its journey, the problems being caused by disruptive passenger James August were such that the captain decided he needed to divert the plane, land, and off-load the passenger.

So, there’s the first subjective point.  Did he really need to divert the plane?  Couldn’t they just have strapped the passenger to a seat, such as is sometimes done?  The right and wrong of that is unclear, but remember that the airline probably had the better part of 250 people on the A330, and it not only had an obligation to give them the least offensive travel experience possible, it also had an obligation to get its passengers to New York on time or as close to that as possible, plus of course, it then would turn around and fly back to Honolulu with a fresh load of another about 250 passengers, also expecting an ontime departure and arrival.

So, that’s a grey area, isn’t it.

Now for the second subjective point.  Let’s say we agree that indeed it did make sense to divert the flight and offload the passenger.  To where would you do that?  Essentially, you have two main choices.  The first choice would be to turn around, and fly just over two hours back to Honolulu, offload the passenger, plus then spend more time refueling the plane (because you’ve flown for four hours but gone nowhere!), reprovision the plane with food and drink and water, and probably have problems with crew exceeding their duty hours, and best case scenario, end up with the flight arriving into New York five or six hours late, which also probably means leaving New York 4 – 5 hours late, and getting back to Honolulu 3 1/2 – 4 1/2 hours late.  Not only does this grossly inconvenience 250 people and moderately inconvenience another 250, but all the backtracking and extra flying time costs a lot of extra money.

The second choice is to keep flying forwards for about 2 1/2 – 3 hours and land in San Francisco or Oakland (the flight path from Honolulu to New York flies closely past these two airports and almost exactly overhead of Sacramento).  Spend ten minutes on the ground while the passenger is unloaded, then take off again immediately, and land in New York perhaps 30 – 45 minutes late, leave New York 15 minute late for the flight back to Honolulu, and arrive in Honolulu on time, back to the normal schedule.  There’d probably be no need to load more fuel, more food, and no problem with duty hours for the crew.  Sure, the people close to the wayward passenger (why not move them a few rows away) might have to suffer his ranting and raving for another half hour or so, but most of the people on the plane won’t even know what is going on.  No-one is appreciably delayed, and only minimal extra costs are incurred.

So, guess which choice the pilot made.  Yes, that’s right.  He flew back to Honolulu.  What a surprising choice!

Unfortunately, while perhaps an idiot, the pilot wears a uniform and earns a salary most of us would envy, so he is above reproach.  His actions, of dubious sense, resulted in a huge cost to his employer and another huge inconvenience to his customers.

Except that, Hawaiian Airlines added up all their costs, and claimed restitution of $97,817 from the passenger.  A federal judge predictably found in the airline’s favor, and the passenger now has to pay this almost $100,000 sum, due to the pilot making a bad decision.

Does it really cost $100,000 for an A330 to fly four hours?  Well, let’s think about that.  If it does, that would suggest the 9 1/2 hour flight in total costs around the $200,000 mark.  So, if there are 250 passengers on board, that is a cost of $400 per passenger, or $800 roundtrip as the average fare per passenger for flights between New York and Hawaii and back.  A quick check shows fares available for as low as $588, including all taxes and fees.  So, let’s be polite and just say that this $100,000 cost struggles to pass the ‘smell test’.

However, perhaps the wayward passenger should count his blessings.  Reports of the court verdict note that he was not required to reimburse HA another $46,900 worth of meal vouchers paid to the delayed passengers while they waited for their flights.  Let’s say there were 500 delayed passengers.  We guess the passengers would have received probably a dinner voucher for the passengers in Hawaii and a lunch voucher for the New York passengers.  But the $46,900 total cost suggests $94 per passenger in meal vouchers.  How is that possible?

Have you ever had an airline give you a $94 meal voucher while waiting for a delayed flight?  The last delayed flight I was on (a Delta flight a couple of months ago) resulted in a cart being brought into the gate area with some wrapped sandwiches and small bottles of water, both of which vanished within seconds leaving most of us hungry, and no sign of any vouchers being dished out at all.  The expenditure per passenger was more like 94 cents rather than 94 dollars.

In all cases where one party suffers a loss due to the actions of another party, the party suffering the loss has a duty to act prudently to minimize the extent of their loss.  How can HA claim that flying the plane back to Honolulu was a prudent act, and how can it in anything resembling fairness get a $100,000 recovery from this stupid drunk passenger?  And what’s with the (not reimbursed) $46,900 worth of meal vouchers?

Details here.

If you ever find yourself on the wrong side of this sort of situation, have your attorney call me.

Emirates Shows Other Airlines How to Do an Airline Lounge Properly

Another part of airline math I’ve never accepted is how an airline can charge its business and first class passengers many thousands of dollars more than coach fares for a ten-hour flight, and then say it can’t afford to provide a full choice of meal items on board, or to provide a truly spacious departure lounge with adequate seating for all.

In the good old days, particularly in first class, airlines would load a complete set of every menu item, so as to guarantee every first class passenger would be assured to have their choice of food items.  These days, that is much less common, and while I’ve never paid full price for a first class ticket, I can sort of comprehend – even if airline service managers can not – how incandescent with rage I’d be if I paid $10,000 more than a coach class passenger, only to be told that the meal choice in first class I wished to eat was not available, due to the airline economising on the food costs.  (Those meal entrees probably cost about $5 each, which is an interesting contrast to the $10,000 ticket price premium.)

Another thing that has annoyed me is being told that the airline no longer will serve champagne for their pre-take-off drink service.  This is invariably blamed as due to ‘Customs regulations’ but I’ve never understood how the same Customs regulations that apparently forbid French champagne will simultaneously allow a cheaper generic Thunderbird style fizzy yellow liquid to be offered in place of the champagne.  Sadly, the airlines lie to their First Class passengers as eagerly as they do to their coach passengers.

The penny-pinching is also increasingly apparent in airline lounges.  Invariably, I find most airline lounges to now be cramped and crowded, and the food and drink items to be more and more limited and basic.  But I’ve also noticed there seems to be some sort of inverse relationship – the more US-aligned a carrier, the shabbier their lounges, the less US-aligned, the better.

So when it comes to a carrier like Emirates, untainted by any close associations with US carriers, and happily avoiding all three of the global alliances, you can still be assured of a premium experience every step of your journey, from arriving at the airport to leaving it at the other end.  For example, they have a fleet of A380s, in comparison to the US carriers, none of which has yet to order a single one (even though passenger surveys clearly show that passengers love the A380 and will change schedules and carriers to enjoy that lovely place).

This excellence is also apparent in their lounges, except for the unfortunate locations where they share a lounge with other carriers and have to settle for the ‘lowest common denominator’ approach imposed on them.  You too may have noted that the one-time free-flowing and self-pourable bottles of champagne that used to be a fixture of airport lounges are now a rarity, and possibly offered on request only, in very small-sized glasses.

Not so in Dubai, where Emirates have just opened a new Moët Champagne lounge.  The airline goes through 150,000 bottles of Moët & Chandon a year.

Yes, I know, it is perfectly possible to travel without needing an ever-full glass of champagne alongside one.  Indeed, I seldom drink on flights, myself.  But if you’re going to pay thousands of dollars extra for the promise of deluxe service, ultra-comfort, haute cuisine and a top-rate wine list, it is fair to expect what is promised.

Emirates reliably delivers.  Our ‘big three’ – AA, DL, UA – not so much.

An Unintuitive But Sensible Way to Travel from the US to Australia

We all know how to fly to Australia, right?  First you fly to Los Angeles, then from there on to Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane.  There are also some outlier flights from San Francisco and Dallas, and the excellent Hawaiian Airline flights through Honolulu, but for most US residents, figure on going through Los Angeles, most of the time.

But have you ever thought of flying to Australia via Canada?  “No, of course not, are you crazy” is probably going to be your response.  But Air Canada would like you to reconsider, particularly if you’re coming from destinations such as Boston.  Their nonstop flights between Vancouver and (sometimes) Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane can offer better/easier connections not only to destinations in Canada but also to northern and eastern US destinations as well.  Details here.

D-Day for the iPhone (8)

Houston, we now have a date for the iPhone 8 launch.  It seems Apple will announce their latest range of iPhones – what will be the tenth generation of iPhones, and thought to include possibly three models, with the high-end phone clocking in somewhere above $1000 – on Tuesday 12 September.  It is possible that a new version of their lack-luster watch product may also be announced at the event.

Typical timing would see the phones become available for pre-order at the end of the week, and deliveries start a few weeks later, along with the usual theatrical exclamations about orders exceeding expectations, and shortage of supply, etc etc.

We’ll know more on 12th, and I’ll of course come up with some realtime commentary so you know if you should urgently order one yourself.

As an advance guess, there are probably few of us who really need to spend $1000+ on a new phone.  Am I the only one to note that whereas most electronic items steadily reduce in price, phones seem to steadily increase.  Sure, we get more capabilities in today’s phone than that of five years ago, but we’re also paying more for it, too.  But at the same time that high-end phones are grazing the $1000 price point, there are ‘nearly as good’ phones for under $200, and with the lower priced phones having features that just a couple of years ago were only to be found on the highest end phones, there is less and less reason to pay top dollar for almost no improvement over the second level of smartphones.  I’ll update my phone report as needed when the new iPhone is announced.

Did You Win $300?

I mentioned in last week’s newsletter the class action law suit that is offering $300 per robocall you may have received from telemarketers selling cruises between July 2009 and March 2014.  You can simply plug your phone numbers into the claim settlement website to see if you are on the list of phone numbers called.

Alas, none of my numbers came up.  But a surprising number of readers did write in to say they have struck it lucky.  So, if you thought it wasn’t worth checking, maybe think again, and for the sake of a mere minute or two, perhaps you too will find yourselves with a lovely little $300 (or $600 or so on) settlement that you weren’t expecting.

More on Germany’s Struggles with their Nazi Past

As you may recall, I’ve been riffing on the topic of Germany’s approach to its Nazi past over the last several weeks, and before any more readers write in to rather rudely tell me I know nothing about the topic, I will again make very clear that this is part of the fascination to me – that no-one really understands how the Germans really truly in their heart-of-hearts feel on the subject.

Their attempt to criminalize and ban all but the most aseptically politically correct expressions of horror about their past doesn’t really tell the whole story.  A reader suggested I should watch an interesting video, called “Look Who’s Back” because, he said :

David – I’ve lived in Germany for more than a decade, and I don’t understand it either.  I think perhaps the ‘truth that dare not speak its name’ is that they are both appalled and fascinated, and also fearful that there lurks within them, even now, a darkness that might allow a new version of Nazidom to rise up once more.

Watch the movie ‘Look Who’s Back’ – it seems the only way they could get away with this movie is by depicting it as a parody and adding on the politically correct conclusion.   But see what happens in the unscripted scenes that actually made it into the movie.  Draw your own conclusions.

The movie suggests that Hitler magically reappears in modern-day, 2015, Germany, and after some culture shock, starts to rebuild a new power-base and movement.  He proves very popular in Germany, but people mistake him for a comedian and think he is just a normal person, parodying Hitler, not the real genuine article.

The point the reader makes is that the movie also contains within it a series of ‘Borat’ style scenes where the Hitler actor goes around Germany, playing his role in public, with hidden cameras filming how people reacted to him.  While of course, we’ve no idea how representative the scenes that made it into the movie are, there was plenty of support being shown by ordinary German people to the sight of a Hitler impersonator.

The real ‘message’ in the movie, I suggest, comes at the end in the climax of the ‘movie within a movie’ where Hitler tells another main character that he can never be truly vanquished, because he lives on, inside all German people.  Then the movie ‘pays penance’ by suggesting that all the anti-immigration anti-Muslim protestors in Germany today are modern-day Nazis – that was probably what bought the movie its permission to be filmed and screened.

The movie can be streamed on Netflix.  It can also be purchased from Amazon.  If you have Netflix, it might be an interesting way to spend 1 hr 56 minutes of your long weekend.  Here’s a review of the movie and some comments on how the Hitler actor says he was shocked by the warm welcome he received during his ‘public appearances’.

Interesting Aviation Trivia

I was roaming around the Quora website this week, which always ends up taking more time to break free from than expected, and came across a fascinating bit of trivia.

Do you know the world record for the longest time a plane has remained continuously airborne, and can you also guess as to how this was achieved and when?

There are some hints in this picture, and for the astonishing answer and the incredible way it was achieved, here’s the interesting story.

And Lastly This Week….

Do you suffer from prosopagnosia?  Do you even know what it is!  As you’ll already know if you’ve traveled with me before, a feature of Travel Insider tours are the deluxe name badges all tour members are presented with.  But as you might not know, while I ostensibly offer them up so all tour members quickly get to recognise each other, their primary purpose is to help me, because I’ve a terrible memory for names and faces.

I not only struggle to recognise people I should know well (I unwittingly walked past an ex-wife in the supermarket a few months back until Anna pointed her out to me) but struggle all the more to recognise people I meet briefly.  I find it difficult in movies and television shows to remember/recognise who the different characters are.  One time I was asked by the police to identify some felons in a line-up; much as I wished to, I couldn’t.

I now discover there’s a name for this, for the inability of being able to recognise names and faces as well as most people, and apparently there’s a special part of the brain that specifically works on this function.  Yes, that is what prosopagnosia is, and if you think you might be officially a prosopagnosia sufferer too, here’s a self-assessment you can give yourself.

The coming of our Labor Day Weekend also presages the coming of another annual event – the fall colors that pervade much of the northern parts of the country.  Here’s a great interactive/predictive map showing you how the colors will progress, week by week, around the country.

One of the games writers and journalists play is to try and slip naughty or funny things into their stories that aren’t noticed and changed by the sub-editors as the stories go through the process of making it eventually into print.  Double entendres galore are offered up, and invariably a few slip through when a sleepy over-worked sub-editor fails to notice the alternate meaning of a phrase or heading.

I found myself risking brain-rot by taking one of the ‘click bait’ quizzes on the internet this week; this one being a test of one’s French skill.  But as I worked through the various questions and suggested answers, I noticed that in some of the questions, the people writing the quiz were being slightly naughty in some of the multi-choice answers they were offering, especially in French.  If you’re seeking something relaxing to do over the long weekend, and if you already know some French, why not give it a try.

Do you like sushi?  I often notice the sushi chefs hard at work, chopping stuff up, laying it out, rolling it up, and cutting sushi pieces out lovingly by hand, and it reassures me that in this age of growing automation, one thing remains certain – gourmet cooking and food preparation/presentation is sure to remain something only humans can do.  Precious few other jobs are truly resistant to the relentless march of automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics, but surely high quality cooking is?

Perhaps not.  That sushi you’re eating – especially if you’re in the home of sushi, Japan – may have been made largely or even entirely by a robot.  Details here.

Talking about progress and the future, and lastly this week, how comfortable are you flying on an old plane?  As in, really old?  Here’s an interesting article that includes a list of the ten oldest passenger planes still in service, seven of them being 737s, two 747s, and an A300.  None being flown by US carriers, though.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels and have a great long weekend





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Aug 312017

Your passport shows an expiry date on it. So why do some ‘experts’ say it can’t be used during the last six months of its life?

Don’t you find it frustrating to have a theoretically valid and unexpired passport, but to be told by airlines and potentially by foreign countries that you can’t use your passport if it is due to expire maybe as much as six months after you’ve finished your travels.  Perhaps you’re traveling for 3 or 4 weeks, and if you have to allow a month or two to get a passport renewal, that extends the period of ‘non-valid validity’ out to nine months or even more.

Some countries issue five-year passports – and that’s the case for child passports in the US too – which means that the expensive and hassle filled passport loses 15% of its validity.  A five-year passport becomes good for only 4 1/4 years.  Ugh!

On the other hand, many countries will allow you to travel, even if your passport is due to expire very shortly after the planned completion of your travels, and some seem happy to let you into the country, just so long as your passport is valid on the day you enter, even if it expires the next day!

But we’ve several times heard horror stories of airlines refusing to transport passengers due to their passport expiring ‘too soon’ even though the destination country’s regulations indicate the passport had plenty of acceptable validity.  Because the airlines are liable to substantial fines if they fly people with non-compliant passports/visas to a foreign country, they tend to be very risk averse and may choose to impose a blanket rule requiring more ‘spare time’ on a passport than do the countries.

And if you think arguing that point is a battle you’re going to win while checking in for a flight, please think again.  That reminds me of the time I was told, when trying to fly from Seattle to Vienna, that I would not be allowed to travel to Austria, because I didn’t have a valid Austrian visa in my US passport.  It was only after I managed to get a supervisor to come and assist that it transpired the check-in desk woman was confusing Australia with Austria!

Many websites mindlessly recommend you should always have at least six months of remaining validity on your passport.  Others even refer to it as a rule, while saying some countries don’t enforce the rule, as if suggesting we should be appreciative of the special waiver.  It is not a universal rule at all – and, as you’ll see below, it isn’t even a common requirement!

Oh – one more frustration.  We’ve also seen some countries that appear to have conflicting or unclear information on their websites and on other websites reporting on their policies; worst of all being references to ‘…. at the discretion of the immigration officer’.  What does that mean?  What should you do?  Which advice can you trust?

Is there a more thoughtful way, and which gives you more effective life on your passport, to plan your travels?

Why Does This Problem Arise?

Well, if you can answer that question, please share it with the rest of us!

The reality is that almost always, any country will allow their citizens to return home on a passport that expired while their citizen was traveling.  The further reality is that most countries can arrange emergency passports for their citizens if their passports are lost while traveling abroad, and can extend or renew passports for their citizens while they are away from home as well.

So the need to always have at least six months of remaining validity on a passport is a totally unnecessary requirement, no matter how you look at it.  There isn’t a country in the world that renounces the citizenship of its people because their passport has expired – if that were true, what would be the status of the majority of citizens of every country who either have never had passports or who let them expire?

Furthermore, with all the security sharing of information around the world these days, most countries already know very much more about us than the limited information contained in our passports.  Now we have to share our name and date of birth, and possibly address, email, phone numbers, credit card numbers, and frequent flier memberships, plus link our data to that of other people traveling with us, all as part of any international airline booking.  We also have to enter our passport number, where it was issued, and expiry date.  Actually handing our passport over as we go in and out of countries is merely the tip of the knowledge iceberg (or, to use the parlance beloved by the TSA, ‘just one of the many layers of security’).

A cogent case could be argued that in many cases, and for many countries, all we need to do is show any sort of official photo ID to confirm we are the person we claim to be.  Even the need for photo ID is dubious, because the data sharing between countries, and the information in many visa applications, extends to photos.  When the immigration official’s screen is already showing him your picture, plus your physical description such as height and eye color, does he even need to see any photo ID at all?

But security is as mindless as it is pervasive, so it is unlikely common sense will ever prevail; instead, we see more and more unnecessary and duplicative paperwork surrounding our every move, as witness the need to now show a passport when traveling to and from Canada.

Two Terrible Examples of This Nonsense

If you go to Singapore, you will be allowed to stay for up to 90 days without needing to apply for a visa.  That is the good news, and a lovely convenience (similar to that in most other countries, of course).  But, unlike most other countries, Singapore demands that your passport not expire until six months after your arrival.

With all due respect to Singapore, why should they care what happens to your passport for the three (or probably many more) months after you have left Singapore?

It could be worse.  Singapore only gives a one month stay to Canadians but still insists on six month validity, meaning five mystery months they shouldn’t be worrying about.

The second example is with Taiwan.  Great news for US citizens – just turn up with your passport and a smile on your face, and you’ll be welcomed into the country.  But if you live in Canada, your passport must remain valid for at least six months after your arrival.  Why can a US citizen arrive without needing extra validity, but the Canadian citizen is required to have the extra six months of validity?  Where is the sense or consistency in this?

Is Passport Expiry Calculated Based On When You Arrive or Depart the Foreign Country?

It would seem logical to assume that your passport expiry most relates to when you leave a foreign country, not when you arrive.  So, if that is the logical way of looking at things – yes, you guessed it.  Many countries tend to focus on the date you arrive rather than the date you depart.

Perhaps the most complex requirement comes from Turkey.  That country, as best we can understand, requires both five months of passport validity after your arrival date and also two months of remaining validity after your departure date.  No, we don’t know why.

Passport Expiry and Visa Expiry

First of all, it is necessary to clarify what a visa is – many people misunderstand.

A visa is generally a written indication that you have been pre-screened and deemed to be probably suitable to be admitted to a country.  A visa might say the number of times you can visit, and the period the visa remains valid for.  Some visas are for one only visit, some are for two or three, and some are ‘multiple’ and good for any number of visits during the validity of the visa.

But (in general, with rare exceptions) there are two things a visa does not do.  First, it does not guarantee you will be allowed to enter the country that granted you the visa – that is a decision the Immigration Officer will make when interviewing you upon arrival.  Secondly, it does not guarantee how long you will be allowed to stay if you are admitted to enter the country – that is another decision the officer will make when you arrive in the country.  For example, a ‘one year visa’ does not mean you can visit the country and stay there for one year, it simply means that during the one year validity of the visa, you may go to that country for whatever normal or special period of time is granted to you when you arrive.

Now for the problem with some (but not all) visas.  Maybe you wish to be issued a three-year visa, because you have several journeys planned to the foreign country over the next several years.  Some countries will insist that your passport is valid for six months longer than the visa validity period.  So there you are, applying for a three-year visa, and you would only be able to get it if your ten-year passport was no older than 6.5 years.  That is a massive reduction in potential passport validity, isn’t it.

A related problem is that if the foreign country gives you a visa for an extended period, and your passport expires during the period of the visa, does that mean you have lost the validity of the visa for the rest of its time?  For example, Russia says that if/when your passport expires, then so too will their visa.  (Obviously, if you are paying extra for a longer visa validity period, make sure you can actually benefit from its full validity!)

Some countries don’t care if your passport expires before their visa expires, figuring that when your passport expires, so too does your visa.  Other countries will recognize and accept their earlier and still current visa in a now expired passport, and either copy the visa over to your new passport, or allow you to travel with both your old and new passports, so as to show both a current visa and a (separate) current passport (for example, China allows this).

How to Determine Each Country’s Policies

This is of course important, but also, alas, extremely difficult.  We have seen conflicting information on sites that would normally be thought to be authoritative, and perhaps the various statements from various sources is why some people throw their hands up in despair and simply say ‘make sure you always have six months remaining on your passport’, because, no matter what the reality of the requirements, having six months remaining validity is probably going to always be acceptable.

Even countries as seemingly friendly and transparent as New Zealand have a conflict of information.  According to the airlines’ IATA maintained Timatic database, which is generally the ultimate and very best source of information about passport and visa requirements, NZ requires you to have at least one month of remaining validity on your passport beyond your anticipated departure out of New Zealand (although adjacent Australia doesn’t care about any remaining passport validity at all).  But both the US State Department and New Zealand’s own Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims you need to have three months of validity from the date of your arrival in New Zealand.  That’s quite a significant difference for people who are probably only going to NZ for a couple of weeks.

Which is correct?  The airlines will probably insist you observe the Timatic requirement, but what about the guy in the immigration booth at Auckland Airport?  What will he say?

(Actually, I asked the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  They advised that it is indeed one month for citizens of countries with consular representation in NZ, but three months for others.  So Timatic is correct, and NZ’s own website is misleading and incomplete!)

So, with this as introduction to this vexed problem, there are several sources you can use :

Our favorite source has always been the Timatic database used by the airlines.  This is a feature of all airline computer reservation systems, and sometimes can be found on public websites too.  Currently, it can be accessed through the Emirates website (thank you, Emirates).

Another ‘pathway’ into the Timatic data is this site.  It requires more data to be entered by you, but if you’re just doing a single check of a single country for yourself, maybe that isn’t too bothersome a task, and it gives you a clearer (although simpler) response than the slightly terse responses directly through Timatic.

You can and should ask the airline you are flying on what their policies are, too.  Their policy will probably be identical to what Timatic says, but you want to make sure it isn’t more restrictive.  And be sure to understand the difference between someone mindlessly saying ‘we recommend you should have at least six months of validity’ and the actual official policy and reality of what is needed.

US citizens can get information about passport validity requirements through the US State Department website.  This includes the useless recommendation that you should have six months of validity on your passport, even in cases where there is no need whatsoever (for example, when visiting Britain).  And in some cases, its information is not only wrong, but also contradicted by information on other pages on its own website.

For example, its advice about travel to Italy says

PASSPORT VALIDITY: Must have at least six months vaidity [sic] beyond your planned date of departure from the Schengen area.

That seems very clear and simple and mandatory, doesn’t it – ‘must have’.  But now go to its general page about travel to all European Schengen countries, where it says

Entry into any of the 26 European countries in the Schengen area for short-term tourism, a business trip, or in transit to a non-Schengen destination, requires that your passport be valid for at least three months beyond your intended date of departure.

Even when it goes on to say that some countries will assume you are staying for three months, and so calculate a date based on three months of stay plus three months of extra validity – six months total requirement from the date of entry, that is different from saying, as the State Dept it, six months validity after the date of departure.

Citizens of other countries could of course also look at the US State Dept information, but it may not apply to other nationals.  In some cases, countries are more permissive of other nationals than they are of Americans; but in some cases, they are more restrictive.  If you’re not American, you should see if your country offers a similar resource.

Getting closer to the direct source of information, you could look up the destination country’s relevant website(s) for information.  Often a good start is to look for the country’s embassy in your home country and see what it says there.  If that is silent on the point, you could look at the country’s State Department, however it is called.

You might think you could rely upon the various commercial visa issuing services to give accurate advice.  But we have noticed problems and errors on such sites, for example, this site ridiculously says, for travel to Britain :

You must hold a passport valid for at least six months beyond your date of country exit and with one blank visa page

Both points are wrong.  You don’t need a blank visa page (this only applies if a country is going to affix a full-page visa into your passport), and your passport is fine, even if it expires on the day you return home.

Here is a PDF with information from Timatic about the passport validity policies of 48 countries – the 26 European Schengen nations and 22 other popularly visited countries.  The most shocking revelation in the table is that no countries require you to have a passport that doesn’t expire until at least six months after you leave their country!

There are four countries in this table that require your passport to be valid for at least six months after you arrive (Dubai, Egypt, Singapore and Taiwan), but none requiring six months validity after you depart.  So where did this almost universal rule come from?

The other astonishing revelation is that, certainly for Americans, 40 of the 47 other countries listed don’t require any additional passport validity at all.  In some cases it even seems the country allowing you to visit wouldn’t care if your passport expired during your visit!

Again – why has it become an almost universal ‘rule’ that your passport must have at least six months validity on it?

Beware of ‘Hidden’ Country Rules in the Middle of Your Travel (in particular, the US!)

One possible trap is that if you will be simply changing planes in another country – or not even changing planes, but briefly stopping, en route – as part of your journey, then there is a possibility that the passport validity policies of that country might also have to be considered.  Fortunately, very few countries in the world are as asinine as to insist that even people simply changing planes and never even leaving the secure part of their airport and going through immigration to officially ‘enter the country’ need to have a visa.  Unfortunately, for people traveling via the US, the US does require visas even for people simply changing flights.

In some respects, the US seems the least friendly country in the world when it comes to international travel – indeed, the US also demands to know the passenger details of passengers on all flights that ever enter its airspace, even if the flight never actually lands in the US at all!  A flight from Canada to the Caribbean, for example, has to get all passengers cleared by the US before it is allowed to fly over the country, even though the plane is always more than seven miles above it.

So, What to Do?

Should you just mindlessly give in, and make sure your passport is valid for at least six months after your intended return back to the US, every time you travel?  That’s what many people suggest.  But it only takes an easy phone call to your airline or a quick visit to the Timatic website to check what is really required, and if your passport will be compliant with the reality of what is needed, and if you don’t otherwise need to renew your passport, why not get as much use out of your passport as possible and delay renewing it as long as possible.

For Americans, you can renew your passport, as long as it has not expired more than five years ago, online (the process becomes more complicated for passports that expired further back).  Some other countries require fresh full new passport applications every time you get a passport, whether it is your first passport or your fifth, and whether your previous passport is current or expired.

So unless you’re in a job or personal situation where you might need to suddenly make an unexpected international journey, use up the full validity of your passport and let it sit, expired, until you are starting to plan your next journey.  With a passport renewal costing $110 plus probably an extra $25 acceptance fee, and if you’re traveling with a partner, you might save yourselves, well, more than the cost of a few cups of coffee, by only renewing your passport(s) as and when needed.

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Aug 252017

‘What do you mean, your breakfast roll is stale!?’ No, this is probably not a scene from a hitherto secret Frontier Airlines flight attendant training film on how to deal with passengers if they dare to complain about anything.

Good morning

Did you see the eclipse?  If you did, I hope you weren’t as underwhelmed as I was – we had a 94% occlusion here in the Seattle area, and my daughter and I went to watch it in a local park.  A 94% occlusion actually meant almost no detectable change in levels of daylight whatsoever.  Fortunately, the park was only five minutes away, so we’d not invested nearly as much into the experience as many people did.

I’ve been working this week on an article that has been growing every day.  Originally it was going to be a quick overview of the topic, but then it became a bit more detailed, then it became a two page article, then three, and on Thursday it grew some more to four.  Regular readers will know this is far from the first time this has happened!

But the result is that while now of almost encyclopedic length and nature, it is still incomplete, so I’ll hold it over until next week.  I’d also started work on two other articles of miscellaneous interest, but they got pushed to one side as the main story grew, so I’m instead sending out just a newsletter and nothing else.

So here’s the newsletter, longer than usual at 5090 words, and here also are implied promises for more goodies, next week.  Some things to load you up with reading for the long weekend, perhaps!

  • WOW – Another Low Cost Carrier
  • Qantas Offers Up Some Fake News
  • Aeroflot Sued by Flight Attendant
  • Flight Attendants Wield Frontier Justice on Frontier Flights
  • Check-In Agents Wield Frontier Justice on Frontier Flights
  • Reader Hints for Luggage Labels
  • Stunning German Hypocrisy
  • Did the US Navy Hire the Pilots’ Union PR Firm?
  • Class Action Cruise Sales Settlement Might Bring You $300 or More
  • Amazon Discounts Fire Tablets and Echo Units
  • China Regains Title for ‘World’s Fastest Train’
  • And Lastly This Week….

WOW – Another Low Cost Carrier

Wow, as in Wow Air, that is.  Wow is an Icelandic based carrier that is aggressively exploiting the benefit of its home base (Reykjavik) as being ideally suited as a hub, feeding in/out flights variously from Europe and the US.  If you plot ‘great circle’ paths between Europe and the US, much of the time these shortest distance ‘great circles’ go very close to Iceland, making it not much of a detour at all, and so a sensible place to change planes.

I’ve always felt it a bit backwards – quite literally – to fly all the way east to Frankfurt or Amsterdam or Paris, only to then turn around and fly west back to an airport in Britain.  Such routing inefficiencies are less prevalent with Wow.

By operating smaller Airbus A321 planes, and hubbing, they are bringing service to ‘second level’ cities in the US (and in Europe too) – cities that might not offer nonstop flights and sometimes, at present, might require three flights (ie US city to US hub, US hub to European hub, European hub to European small city) instead of Wow’s two.  This is a very sensible strategy, competing in a part of the market where the dinosaurs can’t so effectively operate.

This week they announced plans to add four more cities to the eight they already serve in the US, with the flights starting next April and May.

They offer flights for as little as $100 each way – and that includes taxes, which might be as much as $45 of the $100 each way.

But beware of Wow’s low fares.  You don’t even get a free glass of water for their lowest fares – something which surely sets a new low-water mark for airline disservice.  And you don’t get to check any bags, or even take a regular sized carry-on onto the flight.  If you want to bring a carry-on and a checked bag with you, you’ve just added another $90 each way.  Plus of course, a fee to assign a seat ($9).  And of course, the food and drink on the flight ($3 for a non-alcoholic drink).  So the $100 just became $200.  Each way.

Nonetheless, we are delighted to see the growth in Wow’s services.  Details here.

I’ve not flown Wow, but I’ve enjoyed Icelandair flights and the very easy connections in the nice small airport at Reykjavik.  It is indeed a good way to travel to Europe, and I wish Wow flew from Seattle and both airlines offered more flights to more destinations in Europe.  Icelandair seems to have reasonably good fares and more inclusions than Wow, including seat assignments, drinks, carry-ons and even one checked bag too.

Qantas Offers Up Some Fake News

From time to time, I poke fun of Ryanair’s CEO, Michael O’Leary.  He likes to promise that he will start operating flights across the Atlantic in about ten years time, just as soon as Boeing sell him a plane that would make the flights economic.  Other airlines of course have been profitably flying Boeing planes for decades, and Ryanair makes huge amounts of money flying Boeings around Europe, but O’Leary is demanding some sort of mythical plane from Boeing, and using its non-existence as a reason to continue delaying his promise to fly to the US.

Qantas got some undeserved news this week when it announced it planned to start operating the world’s longest flight – between Sydney and London, a distance of about 10,600 miles, and a flight time of 20 hours.  Their CEO Alan Joyce, coincidentally an Irishman, just like Mr O’Leary, said they would do this as soon as either Airbus or Boeing could deliver a plane able to make the journey with a full passenger load.  Apparently being an expert at blarney aircraft engineering, he said he believes that advances in technology will make such flights a possibility in the next few years, and they plan to operate the flights by 2022.

This would be great for Qantas, and might enable the airline to reduce its strange dependence on Emirates that it gratuitously created a few years ago (while breaking away from its former close partner and Oneworld stablemate, British Airways).  But there’s a small problem with this plan for nonstop flights in five years time, one which I’m sure Alan Joyce is in the middle of helping Boeing and Airbus with at present.

Neither airplane manufacturer has planes that can fly this length of journey at present, and neither do either of them have any plans to develop such planes in the future.  This lack of interest on the part of both Airbus and Boeing is particularly due to there being almost no commercial demand for such long-range capabilities, because you’re well into the vicious spiral where you need to load more fuel and burn more fuel to carry the extra fuel to carry the fuel to fly the journey – keep reciting that a few more times to get a measure for just how much fuel is needed on ultra-long flights, and how much of the fuel is simply being used to fly the rest of the fuel, rather than to actually fly the plane and its commercial payload.

So, Qantas got some happy headlines about its aggressive futuristic plans for lovely nonstop service between Sydney and London, and when it never comes to pass, Qantas gets to blame Airbus and Boeing.

Aeroflot Sued by Flight Attendant

Let’s briefly depart the politically correct zone that is being increasingly imposed on us all (this week’s most extreme example surely being ESPN laying off reporter Robert Lee – a Chinese gentleman – for fear his name would offend the new waves of people implacably opposed to anything that reminds them of our Civil War).  Free thinkers that we are, can we quietly agree, just between ourselves, that one of the reasons we like certain foreign airlines so much, and one of the things we miss on US carriers, are the attractive and personable young ladies employed as flight attendants.  Airlines as varied as Singapore Airlines and – back in the day – Southwest, Braniff and National – have and had policies to selectively recruit and retain only the most appealing of staff.

Aeroflot has been aggressively continuing to improve its services and its image, both literally and figuratively, and when faced between the two stereotypes of Russian womenkind – the battle-axe/babushka or the arm-candy doll – decided they’d prefer to fill their planes with the latter category.

However, showing that even Russia is now becoming more politically correct, a flight attendant who felt this policy was disadvantaging her is now suing the airline.

Details (and a discreetly small photo) here.

Flight Attendants Wield Frontier Justice on Frontier Flights

It is a funny old world, isn’t it, when Aeroflot – for decades, the butt of ‘superior’ western jokes about their legendary bad service and unsafe planes (‘legendary’ primarily in the sense of it actually being an airline with a good safety record) is now trying to raise its game (and very successfully, based on the various times I’ve enjoyed flying with them), but US airlines are now sinking to service levels such as Aeroflot probably never threatened its passengers with, even in the worst of Stalinist times.

If you pause for a moment, when did it become acceptable to tell fare paying passengers ‘Stop complaining or else we’ll call the police’?  But that is the new norm for US carriers, isn’t it.  ‘The customer is always wrong’ is the new motto of US airlines.

But there is more.  How about the story of the Frontier flight attendants who threw two passengers off a flight, because the passengers were allegedly talking to each other and venting their mutual displeasure about the eight hours of delay the flight was suffering.  Apparently these days our only response should be “Yes Sir”, “Thank You Sir” and “Please May I Have Another Delay, Sir”.

Details here.

Check-In Agents Wield Frontier Justice on Frontier Flights

Frontier has been in the news quite a lot in the last few weeks, and it is hard to know which is the worst story.  But surely this is right up there at the top – Frontier bumped a 12-year-old boy off his flight because, they claimed, there was an unpaid ‘Unaccompanied Minor’ fee related to his travel.

This is a strange situation.  How could the ticket be issued without the UM fee being included in the ticket price?  And, even stranger, how is it Frontier transported the kid on his outbound journey without complaint, and only decided to refuse to accept him on his return journey (and after giving him a boarding pass)?

But, to look at the accounting inconsistencies is to overlook the real story.  Frontier turned away the 12-year-old boy at the gate, after his grandmother had dropped him at the airport and checked him in and then left him in the airline’s care.  The boy was alone at the airport for two hours before his grandmother returned to collect him.

Details here.

How much longer will we passively accept these types of attitude and behavior from the airlines?

Reader Hints for Luggage Labels

Reader Irv sent in some interesting comments this week.  He was motivated to write in response to my article about using white noise to mask out hotel room sounds, but in doing so, identified an interesting multi-purpose item which airlines give us for free, and which we often unthinkingly rush to throw away.

Irv writes

We all know to remove old airline destination tags off our luggage before checking in for the next flight.  But leave them on until repacking, because they can be pulled apart to yield about a foot of very sticky tape.  Might be useful for toning down a fluttering A/C vent.  Or to tape a piece of paper over a portion of the vent to deflect the wind otherwise blowing annoyingly on the bad.  Or to tape together curtains that won’t quite close.

There are two types of labels in general use, ones that have a release tape on their entire back (often blue) and others where you just peel a bit off to expose an adhesive on one side of the label that can be used to fix it to the other side.  Both can be used for Irv’s suggestions, and potentially assorted other uses, too.  Best of all, sometimes you can cut the used tag off your bag while still preserving a reasonable amount of sticky tape that can be stored in your suitcase without having had its adhesive activated, and pressed into service when/if needed in the future.

So who says we never get anything free from the airlines these days?  Certainly not Irv!

They forgot the mustache in their Photoshopped fantasy.  With friends like the Germans, do we really need enemies?

Stunning German Hypocrisy

I’ve been mentioning, the last couple of weeks, how in Germany you can get arrested and sent to jail, or beaten up on the streets, for giving a Nazi style salute.  I thought that ridiculous, but if that’s the way they want to be, it is their country, so good luck to them.

But shouldn’t they at least be consistent about this?  Apparently, while these things are dangerous and illegal, it is perfectly okay for a leading German magazine, ‘Stern’, to fake a picture of our President, draped in our flag, giving one of their Nazi salutes on the cover of their magazine.  The wording on the cover includes the headline ‘Sein Kampf’ – a play on the title of Hitler’s book, ‘Mein Kampf’, and then promises “His fight. Neo-Nazis, Ku-Klux-Klan, Racism: How Donald Trump fuels the Hate in America.”

What would happen to the magazine if they accused their own dear leader, Ms Merkel, of such things, and doctored a picture of her and placed it on the cover?  Or perhaps if they chose to put a picture of Mohammed on their cover – in any guise at all!

Meantime, one of the two candidates for Germany’s Chancellorship is decrying Mr Trump for daring to suggest that Germany should make good on its promised share of NATO’s costs and assuring Germany that if he is elected, he’ll make sure that Germany never honors its commitment.

Let’s not wait for their election outcome.  Let’s simply withdraw every American soldier from Germany, today.  Even though WW2 ended over 70 years ago, and the cold war over 25 years ago, there are still 34,805 US troops in Germany at present.  We’re probably gratuitously pouring $5 – $10 billion into the German economy, as well as saving them the need to spend on building up an adequate military of their own.  In response, they mock us.

Let’s stop making our enemies wealthy, and spend that money at home.

Perhaps the money could be spent on our Navy, instead.  It seems they’re running up quite a body shop repair bill at present.  Which leads to….

Did the US Navy Hire the Pilots’ Union PR Firm?

Many different people have been attributed as first saying ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’, including Rahm Emmanuel, Winston Churchill and Niccolo Machiavelli (how often do you see these three names sharing equal billing for anything!).  Perhaps the reason it is so widely attributed is because it is also widely adopted, and we’re seeing the results of US Navy’s attempts to use their unfortunate inability to avoid self-harm at the hands of other ships being directed this way.

So what is the reason for the US Navy no longer being able to safely steer its ships?  Who is to blame?  Well, how much time do you have?  Let’s see, cited as reasons include the ultra predictable ‘budget cuts’, ‘not enough ships’ and ‘our men are being worked too hard’.  Just like the pilots will pivot any pilot-induced disaster into seeming evidence that pilots need to be paid more and work less, the Navy PR people are working overtime at blaming everyone but themselves for their lack of basic seamanship skills (aka ‘don’t hit or be hit by other ships’).

They are even offering up ‘conspiracy theory’ type excuses – possible electronic jamming of their navigation systems; something that has the benefit of being hard to disprove, but which totally fails to explain how the good old-fashioned Mark 1 Human Eyeball, in the form of fore, aft, port and starboard lookouts also all failed to observe huge big slow-moving ships on collision courses.  Plus, if there are indeed successful jamming actions, that should be cause for total alarm and massive response.

And for those who see it as a crisis of leadership, the Navy has taken decisive action.  Even before the Search and Rescue operations had given up searching for the missing seamen this week, they’d fired the Admiral heading up the Seventh Fleet.  Never mind that he was due to retire in three weeks and perhaps agreed good-naturedly to ‘take one for the team’.  But is a rush to judgment appropriate, prior to the facts being identified and understood?  Imagine if a large airline with a fleet of 350 planes finds itself having four of its planes in minor accidents in the course of a relatively short period of time.  Does the Board of Directors, before even seeing the damage report on the fourth plane accident or reading the pilots’ statements and the NTSB report, fire their Chief Pilot?

There’s another parallel with pilots, too.  I’ve expressed astonishment at how some of the recent fatal crashes have been due to pilots not remembering how to do the most basic of flying actions – recovering from stalls.  And now, speaking as one who has served in the merchant marine and even briefly had a boat of my own, I must express identical astonishment at how state-of-the-art ships with more radars and other sensors on them than we can count or guess at, with the ability to track birds in the air 100 miles away; to track and engage 100 targets simultaneously; ships which can accelerate (and turn and come to a stop) at truly stunning rates (90 seconds to go from stopped to flank speed of about 40 mph, 600 yards of travel from full ahead to stopped according to this article), and which have hundreds of people on board, somehow manage to get into collisions with tankers and container ships that are probably lumbering along at much slower speeds (and let’s not forget the ship that ran aground, in effect a collision with an unmoving island!) – how can these ships and their crews get into collisions with other ships?  Not colliding with other ships is the most basic element of seamanship.

The rate of closure between the two ships would probably have been in the order of 20 – 40 feet per second.  You can pick a number, any number, for how far away the other ship would have appeared on radar, and with the track-extrapolating AIS information being broadcast by merchant ships showing their course, plus of course the track-extrapolating capabilities of the warship radars, there shouldn’t have been any surprises, and any surprises which did happen would have allowed for a timely response.  Even if ‘panic stations’ were only called when the oncoming vessel was a mere quarter-mile away, that would still have allowed for 30 seconds of maneuvering, and all it would have required was a small shift in heading and/or a small change in speed to avoid a collision.  In congested waters such as off the Singapore coast, and particularly after earlier recent collisions, you’d think the ship’s crew would be ultra-alert rather that apparently the opposite.

There are ‘rules of the road’ at sea, just like in the air and on real roads.  These – the ‘Colregs’ – are a bit more complicated, but they work to determine which ship has right-of-way and which ship has to yield and maneuver away in any possible scenario where two ships are getting close to each other.  As best it seems to date, in both the recent collisions it was the US Navy ship that had the duty to yield, and clearly failed to do so.

Some people dispute that saying that ‘obviously’ the civilian ships were at fault because they collided into the US ships, not vice versa, but there’s an easy analogy to explain that.  You’re driving your car through an intersection.  The intersecting road has a stop sign, and you have right of way.  As you enter the intersection, a car from the side road fails to stop and cuts in front of you, while you with your ongoing forward momentum end up going into the side of him.  Who is at fault?  The guy who failed to stop and give way, even though the way the two cars collided makes it seem that you hit him.

As a very unskilled pilot, the first thing I learned was how to recover from stalls and then how to recover from spins.  As a very unskilled sailor, the first thing I learned was to never trust your instruments, navigation gear and radar, and always to back up the electronics of all types with independent confirmation, and most of all, always to be looking around the boat and to be aware of other objects in the water.

Here is an interesting article that is utterly wrong when it suggests one of the reasons for these accidents might be that the Japan-based ships aren’t getting enough training.  Why is that wrong?  Because the best form of training is when you’re at sea ‘for real’.  Crews don’t stop learning when they’re on a real deployment, quite the opposite.  Every minute of every watch is still full of learning opportunities and teaching moments, as well as still including plenty of training exercises, even while deployed on a mission.  In peacetime most missions are of the ‘hurry up and wait’ variety and involve huge amounts of training.

Plus the ‘on the job training’ is all the more valuable because it isn’t in the form of artificial exercises that you are expecting and half-discounting, and which are graded/evaluated by theoretical rather than real-world standards.  If the article said ‘the ships and their crews aren’t getting enough sea time’ that would be a concern, but to say that two-thirds of the time, the ships are undertaking line operations – that is brilliant training, and those crews should be more capable and skilled than a ship/crew that worked 100% training exercises.

Here is another article which offers up a pot pourri of excuses.  Its publisher is necessarily a fairly military-friendly outlet, and so makes a reasonably big thing of the need for more ships and too much duty time on present ships.  While I agree the US Navy is stretched very thin, the reality is that in non-wartime conditions, the crews aren’t worked nearly as hard as they are when engaged in active ‘kinetic’ operations, and while for sure there are personal/quality-of-life sacrifices on extended deployments and spending time away from friends and family, operationally a ship should be as effective and possibly even more effective towards the end of an extended tour as at the beginning.

What is most interesting in this article though are the reader comments offered up by ex-navy sailors; I’ll not go through the dozens/hundreds of them and either amplify or rebut them individually, but suffice it to say some are nonsense, some are exaggerations, but within many of them are some important kernels of truth.

There’s also a story suggesting that the latest casualty suffered a mysterious loss of steering capability shortly before the collision, and regained steering again shortly after.  Excuse me for opining that this sounds spookily like pilots saying ‘No, we weren’t asleep in the cockpit while you were trying to call us on the radio, we had a radio problem’.  Besides which, if your ship has a steering problem, don’t you make yourself obvious to surrounding ships, sound sirens, turn on your lights, radio distress calls, shoot off flares, and do everything you possibly can in a congested waterway to make your presence known?  As I understand it, warships like the John S McCain have as many as seven different steering systems offering multiple redundant ways to remain under control and under way.

This is a good article that explains some of the operational complexities, but then chickens out with a surprising conclusion at the end.

There is one more comment that few people are making (which is why you read me, too!).  Do the four recent collision events actually prove there is any sort of problem at all?  Maybe not.

Again, there’s an airplane analogy.  Sometimes, things just go inexplicably wrong, in the air, on the ground, and at sea.  You can have multiple layers of systems and procedures and backups, and still Mr Murphy manages to gate-crash the party and cause problems.  That’s why we have accidents, after all.  It is possible that what we’ve seen is merely random chance; a bit like if you shuffle a deck of cards, cut it, and the card you randomly select is the Ace of Spaces.  Then you shuffle, cut, and select the same Ace of Spades a second time.  Then you go through the process a third time.  And a fourth time.  That is extremely unlikely, and if it happened in a casino, you know the casino would be looking for cheating every which way.  But sometimes, random chance actually does randomly create what seem to be significant patterns, but which are indeed nothing but chance.

Class Action Cruise Sales Settlement Might Bring You $300 or More

Don’t you hate telemarketers.  Not only are they intrusive, but invariably they seem to be selling worthless junk.  Particularly galling are the ones that fake a caller ID that tricks you into answering the call, and particularly if you’ve placed your various phone numbers on the Do Not Call list, there’s a huge sense of annoyance engendered by their unwelcome invasion into your peace and quiet.

Great news.  If you received a ‘robocall’ about a free cruise trip between 23 July 2009 and 8 March 2014, you might be able to claim $300 per such call as part of a class action settlement, up to a maximum of $900 per phone line.

Even better, you don’t need any receipts or records or anything.  Just go to the settlement website and enter your phone number(s) and see if your number is on the list of numbers they called.  If it is, you’ve scored a minor victory and a $300 settlement.

Here’s some more information about the settlement, and this is the page where you can check your phone numbers.

Amazon Discounts Fire Tablets and Echo Units

I see Amazon currently has a $20 discount on its 8″ Fire tablets, reducing the price from $79.99 to $59.99.  It has also discounted the less capable 7″ Fire tablet from $49.99 to $39.99.

Ever since they released their latest 8″ tablet at a massively reduced $80 regular price (the previous model was $150), I’ve turned away from the $50 7″ tablet.  The 7″ tablet is good, but the extra $30 is definitely worth it for the much better performing and larger screened 8″ tablet, and with the $20 bringing it down to a penny less than $60, it is a great value proposition.

I notice they’ve silently discontinued their 10″ screen device.  I’m hoping they’ll be releasing a new updated version of that, with a new updated price, too, but the rumor mill is totally silent on that point.  Maybe in time for this year’s Black Friday/Christmas season.

They also have a deep discount on their full size Echo voice control units, with the price dropped from $179.99 to $99.99.  That seems compelling, but the reality is I’ve never felt $180 to be at all a sensible or fair price, and even at $100, it is hard to see a lot of value.  Happily, they have also dropped the price on their smaller but high value Echo Dot unit, down from $49.99 to $44.99 – not exactly the most exciting deal out there, but if you’re getting to the point where you’d like to have a play with an Echo Dot, maybe connect it to some intelligent lights or thermostat or something, then here’s a small incentive to do so now.

I’ve written about the Echo Dot several times before, here’s the most recent major article, with a link within it to the previous major article.  I continue to feel ambivalent about the units and frustrated by some of their limitations, but on balance I’m happier with them than without them, and indeed was just this week considering getting a couple more – one of their recent new features is a convenient intercom or remote monitoring capability and it might be a convenient way to communicate from room to room at home.  Mind you, Anna and I will sometimes text each other messages from one side of the room to the other, so I’m not sure we need too many more alternates to simply talking the ‘old fashioned way’.

China Regains Title for ‘World’s Fastest Train’

China not only has more high-speed rail track in operation than the rest of the world put together, and not only has more that twice as much additional HSR track under construction as the rest of the world, but is also about to again operate the world’s fastest trains, too.

New trains will start service in September, operating at speeds of up to 400 km/hr (248 mph).  That is as fast as many commuter turbo-prop airplanes.  Our sense is that much of the time, the trains will be limited to 350 km/hr (217 mph) but will be capable of and may sometimes operate at the faster speed.  Details here.

Oh, of the 22 countries in the world with high-speed rail, either in service or being constructed, guess which country has the least amount of track?  Yes, the US, with a mere 28 miles of true high-speed track. Even Uzbekistan (370 miles) beats us by a convincing margin.

And Lastly This Week….

Something I hate are so-called voice recognition systems when calling customer support numbers.  ‘In a few words, tell us why you are calling’; but whatever words I use are never recognized or appropriately responded to.  Having an accent of sorts probably makes matters worse.

So it is with a great measure of sympathy that I can relate to the plight of these two poor Scottish gentlemen, stuck in an elevator.

On the other hand, it is with a great measure of mirth – and admiration for the language skills of the two torturers – that I enjoy this video.  I am embarrassed to confess I ended up watching the entire clip.  Twice.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels and don’t get stuck in fancy elevators





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Aug 182017

A view of the Yarra River, running through the world’s most livable city, having just been awarded that honor for the seventh year in a row. Guess where – see article, below.

Good morning

The searing heat of midsummer seems to be softening, and the traditional end of summer – Labor Day – is just around the corner.  How quickly the summer passed, although for sure, my garden is gasping for water.

We had another two people join next year’s Grand Expedition of Great Britain this week.  We’re almost at the point where the tour price starts dropping to match the increasing group size, and the UK exchange rate is trending favorably again after a few weeks of strengthening.

The Travel Insider cognoscenti are flocking to the Grand Expedition.  The average member of next year’s group will be on their third Travel Insider tour, and we have one lady on her sixth, another on her fifth, and only one person on her first ever Travel Insider tour.  Whether this would be your first, your sixth, or any other number Travel Insider tour, please do consider joining what promises to be both a Grand Expedition and a Great Experience!  Full details here.

If you can’t wait until next June to enjoy a Travel Insider tour, there are still a very few cabins available on our lovely Danube Christmas cruise.  Two of the AB cabins and a few more of the AA cabins, AA+ cabins and suites.  Remember, no single supplement or $750 per person saving, plus a bunch of other inclusions and goodies, all on one of my all-time favorite cruises, and with a lovely group of currently 18 Travel Insiders.

I’m thinking of offering a different cruise next year.  One option would be a Portugal cruise along the Douro, with time in Lisbon and Porto before or after the cruise.  The other would be a Russian cruise – either between Moscow and St Petersburg, or possibly from Moscow down the Volga River, and perhaps with a post-cruise option on to Astana, the exotic and extravagant capital of Kazakhstan.  This would be, I think, late summer.

I’d written about Kazakhstan a few weeks back, noting

I’m always casting around for new places to offer on Travel Insider tours.  Apparently, the new ‘hot’ destination (as in popular rather than temperature) is a rather unlikely one, but perhaps that is all the more reason for it to be featured in a Travel Insider tour.  The destination – Astana, the newish capital city of Kazakhstan, a country now better known than before, albeit perhaps unfairly, as a result of the Borat movie.

Here’s an article about Astana’s new popularity, some interesting background on Kazakhstan, and a concept which would seem to be more at home in Dubai than Astana.

Do either of these tours appeal?  If either (or both!) could be something you’d like to do, please let me know (no-one would be making any commitments, I’m asking for a ‘show of hands’ now to guess at the level of interest).

What else this week?  I have been receiving a steady flow of ‘pitch’ emails from a PR agency asking me to write about a device that broadcasts white noise, to help you sleep.  Depending on your perspective (how much is a good night’s sleep worth to you!) the $40 device is either the best deal out there or ridiculously expensive.  Eventually I responded to the PR agency, and asked them why anyone would choose to spend $40 on the device they were touting, when there were plenty of free apps that anyone could simply install on their smart phone or tablet.

Not surprisingly, this question proved too much for them, but at least they’ve stopped pestering me!  However, the conjunction of their emails and a very noisy hotel room that I was recently in caused me to write an article that I hope you’ll find helpful, all about noisy hotel rooms and what to do about them.  You’ll find it after this newsletter.

What else?  The usual sorts of things :

  • Air Berlin Blames Everyone Else for Their Bankruptcy
  • BA’s Greed
  • MH370 Closer to Being Found?  Maybe, but…..
  • The World’s Most Livable City
  • Cameras – Who Needs a Big and Expensive One?
  • Not Just Fake News.  Modern Day Claques Enhance Restaurants and Other Events
  • Solar Eclipse Misery
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Berlin Blames Everyone Else for Their Bankruptcy

Air Berlin announced what seems to be the German equivalent of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy this week.  They received an emergency injection of funds from the German government so they can keep flying until after the German general elections in September, and probably lasting through November, but if I were you, I’d think twice before booking any flights on them, even in the near future.

The bankruptcy was precipitated when major investor Etihad (owning 29% of Air Berlin) apparently surprised them by saying they would not invest further money into the loss-making airline, contradicting what seemed to be an earlier commitment to do so.

Etihad has had a change of CEO, and also, it seems, is no longer as eager to maintain losing positions in other airlines.  While the obvious story is Air Berlin’s bankruptcy, there’s another story lurking here as well – Etihad is now batting two for two in terms of failed major investments in large European carriers.  Its other big failure is Alitalia, also in bankruptcy, and which Etihad has/had a 49% shareholding.

Etihad also has 24% of Indian carrier Jet Airways, 20% of Australian airline Virgin Australia, 49% of Air Serbia, 33% of Swiss carrier Darwin Airlines (now known as Etihad Regional) and 40% of Air Seychelles.

As for Air Berlin, their CEO says that the reason they went bankrupt is due to delays in the opening of the long-awaited and long-delayed new Berlin International Airport.  While it is easy to sympathize with the CEO’s excuse – he points out that the limited flights they can operate from Tegel are preventing efficient network operations – the reality is that in 2017 they are doing worse than in 2016, even though in both years they were stuck with Tegel.  If they’d improved from 2016 to 2017, it is possible Etihad might have continued to fund them, but with all the airline’s vital signs trending the wrong way – fewer flights, fewer passengers, less income, lighter loads, higher operating costs, and a soaring loss – there was little room for optimism, no matter which airports the airline was flying from.

Good analysis here.  I particularly enjoyed this comment at the end of the article, which attempts to summarize the complicated nature of the various German airlines.  And we thought the US was incestuous!

BA’s Greed

This shouldn’t really come as a surprise – we instinctively know the airlines are our enemies and are out to screw us at every turn, just because they can.  But every so often, the major carriers set new standards for disgusting policies, and here’s an example, with the added bonus of again showing up the misery inflicted semi-randomly by US visa issuing policies.

Backstory – a guy wanted his children to fly from the US to where he was in the UK.  He arranged for a family friend to escort them, due to their young age.  The family friend lives in Indonesia, so she was to fly to Los Angeles, collect the children, then fly with them to London.

Easy, right?

Now for the first beyond-stupid requirement, with the blame fully on the US visa issuing policies.  To qualify for a US visa, for the brief flash of time the friend would be collecting the children prior to taking them on to London, she had to already have an airline ticket booked for her travel on out of the US.  No worries, the father booked the ticket for her, on BA.

But then the US consulate, somewhere in Indonesia, refused to issue a visa for the woman.

Get that – you have to buy the airline ticket, first, in the hope you’ll get your visa.  That’s a great arrangement, isn’t it, when you end up with an airline ticket the US govt has insisted you buy, but then doesn’t allow you to actually use.

Which brings us now to the meat of the story.  What happens when you’ve bought a ticket on this type of basis, and then get your visa application refused?  Back when I used to sell international airline tickets, hundreds every week, all the tickets I sold had a special exception provision whereby if the passenger was refused their visa, then the ticket would be fully refundable.  This was specifically to cover such situations, although in truth I’ve never encountered such an indignity being foisted by other governments on American citizens.

The father arranged for another friend – an American, so no visa problems – to take his children over to London.  He then asked BA to simply change the name on the ticket.  That was great for BA – it wasn’t losing any money at all, it just needed someone to type in a dozen keystrokes to change the name, and everything would be perfect.

But, yes – you guessed it, BA is refusing to do that.  Which brings up the really greedy part.  That ‘refund shall be permitted in the event of visa refusal’ provision doesn’t seem to apply to BA tickets.

What does BA say about this?  It says, without a single giggle

We always do everything we can to help customers when their travel plans change.

They always do everything they can?  Their statement went on to proudly point out they can correct spelling mistakes in passenger names, and sometimes even change dates and times of flights, too.

But apparently ‘everything’ doesn’t mean much to BA.  Changing the passenger name, or refunding a person prohibited from traveling?  No, they can’t do that, because they’re too busy laughing all the way to the bank with the £1200 they took from the father, and the second £1200 he now has to pay for a second person’s second ticket, too.

Details here.

MH370 Closer to Being Found?  Maybe, but…..

The good news?  Well, according to this headline, “Explosive new report virtually pinpoints location of missing flight MH370”, we now know almost exactly where the mysteriously disappeared plane is.  The 777 disappeared on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, more than three years ago.

But the not so good news?  A ‘virtual pinpoint’ is actually an area of 5,000 sq km, or about 2,000 square miles.  Sure, that’s the equivalent of a 45 mile per side square, or 50 mile diameter circle, but it is also at the bottom of a very deep ocean, with close to zero visibility.

And the really bad news?  The Australian government, after searching 120,000 sq km already and spending A$160 million in the process, called the search off earlier this year.  They say they’ll only resume the search if they know where the plane is – logic that only a politician would fully comprehend, I think.

So don’t go expecting any revelatory finds, any time soon.  Alas.

The World’s Most Livable City

This is getting boring.  For the seventh year in a row, Melbourne has been anointed as the world’s most livable city, out of a field of 140 cities.  The award is by the Economist Magazine’s Intelligence Unit, and looks at a huge range of factors.  Vienna and Vancouver took the 2nd and 3rd places, followed by Toronto, and then Adelaide  (also Australia) and Calgary tying for fifth place.

I’ve never liked Melbourne nearly as much as Sydney, but Sydney is a more expensive place to live, so perhaps that weakens its placing.  Details here.

Cameras – Who Needs a Big and Expensive One?

I got a note from a reader in reply to my article last week.  He wrote

David   I am a retired commercial photographer.  I get people asking me about purchasing a DSLR.  I tell them to forget it.

Pocket cameras are inexpensive, of high-resolution, easy to carry, and produce most acceptable photos.   I bought an Olympus pocket camera some years ago for $140.  It does everything but take out the trash.  Why would I need anything else?  (I still have my pro cameras which I use for pro assignments.)

I don’t necessarily disagree with his comments.  My way of comparing things is that with the compact camera I have, I can do 95% of everything I want to do (maybe more depending on how ambitious and creative one wishes to be) and the other 5% is not worth paying thousands of dollars for and becoming a slave to a heavy camera bag once more.  I suspect that some ‘true enthusiasts’ see the bulging camera bag as a badge of honor rather than as something to be avoided!

On the other hand, depending on how old the reader’s Olympus is (and the same for you too if you’re in a similar situation), you might be surprised at how much better newer cameras have become, particularly if you upgrade the sensor size from the very small sensor in most compacts to something larger, such as in the Sony RX100 series such as I have.  A slightly better lens, and a much better sensor, plus a few more fancy functions (but the trash still remains untaken out); I was thrilled with the move from my older Casio to the Sony.  Much better in low light, and for that matter, much better in all light.

Having said that, I am utterly astonished at how good camera phones are becoming.  Surprisingly, one of their seeming weaknesses is actually a strength.  Optically speaking, the ideal lens is simply a tiny pinhole, so they have the benefit of that, but against that ‘benefit’, there are so many design challenges that are being successfully overcome, it is truly amazing.  How long before compact cameras become obsolete – currently they sort of bridge the gap between phone cameras and high-end cameras, but with phone cameras getting steadily better, that gap is getting smaller.

Might this also see DSLR cameras get smaller?

The reality is there’s precious little value in the single lens reflex concept with a DSLR as compared to a regular digital camera.  Most regular digital cameras are showing the same image the sensor captures anyway, and with the additional processing between analog image coming in the lens and digital image being captured, one can argue now as to whether an analog image through a prism is more or less helpful than a digital image on a screen.

The main relevant thing a DSLR offers is a better/bigger sensor and better lenses that allow more light (yes, I know I said, just above, that the best lens is a tiny pin-prick of a pinhole.  It is complicated….).  Perhaps the Sony Alpha series of cameras (big sensors and lenses, small non-DSLR body) represents the wave of the future.

Not Just Fake News.  Modern Day Claques Enhance Restaurants and Other Events

A claque is a group of people, paid to attend an event – commonly a theatrical performance – and enthusiastically applaud the performer who paid them.  More darkly, there are also claques who will boo a designated performer, perhaps because the performer refused to buy the claque’s services to applaud them.

The concept is far from new, indeed, it is timelessly old.  It was particularly common in the 19th century in Europe, but our own Metropolitan Opera in NY also had (maybe even still has) a claque.  Claques, while rarely acknowledged in public, still endure, and here’s a fascinating 2013 article about them.  Most recently, there have been articles about claques in a modern form supporting political meetings, and it is hard to know where vetting who can attend passes over into creating a claque (perhaps a defining point being that claquers – ie the people participating – get paid).

Even such an old-fashioned concept as a claque can be updated and evolve to reflect today’s times, and there’s an app – Surkus – that allows modern-day promoters to ‘rent a crowd’ of enthusiastic supporters.  The article suggests that the next time you see a crowd of people lined up outside a restaurant, you might be seeing modern-day claquers who have been hired based on their appearance conforming to the social demographics the restaurant wishes to appeal to, and who are being paid to seem excited and eager to get into the restaurant and enjoy their food.

The pay can be quite good, especially if the meal is free, too!

Solar Eclipse Misery

I’ve had the good fortune to see an almost complete solar eclipse some decades back in New Zealand.  It was interesting for all of two or three minutes, and then I went back inside the office and continued working the rest of the day.  So I’m not planning anything special for the eclipse that is about to happen, here.

But millions of other people seem to be planning to do something, and there are some scary predictions of regions being overloaded with visitors rushing in to see the eclipse, overloading roads and all other types of infrastructure and causing chaos.  Portland OR, just down the road from here, is expecting one million people to travel in to the city for the event.

One small added element of chaos is being offered up by Hertz.  Here is an utterly shameful story of how they accepted and confirmed hundreds of reservations for rental cars in affected areas, but now are calling people up to cancel the confirmed confirmations.  Even more shameful is that Hertz is apparently still accepting reservations for cars on their website, but at prices ten times higher (ie $3000 for the weekend instead of $300).

Hertz has always been my first choice among the ‘top tier’ rental car brands, but this behavior is beyond the pale.

And Lastly This Week….

I mentioned last week about the two Chinese tourists being arrested for giving Nazi style salutes in Berlin.  This week, it was the turn of an American tourist, but instead of being arrested, he was beaten up by a German who saw him.  Yes, there’s a bucket-load of irony in the situation where Germans beat up people for reminding them of their intolerant past, but because I’m off to Germany in December, and don’t want to risk also being beaten up, perhaps I’ll not ponder that further.

It is hard being a man.  We’re expected to be stoic and stolid.  But, apparently, we too sometimes cry when watching a movie, and according to a new survey by Virgin Atlantic, 41% of their male passengers admit to crying during/after watching a movie on one of their flights.  So as to avoid public shame, the most popular strategy is apparently to bury one’s head in a blanket.

I’m not sure if this reflects most on Virgin’s passengers, their movie choices, or possibly their blankets.  Another study suggests that people are more likely to cry on planes than elsewhere, and for sure, the entire flying experience, from start to stop, would reduce many a grown man to tears, movie or not.  The ever-present Sir Richard Branson, astonishingly, had no comment to offer.  Details here.

Until next week, assuming the end of the world doesn’t come along with the total eclipse, please enjoy safe travels





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Aug 172017

Probably nothing will block this right outside your open hotel room window, but there are ways to make less aggressive sounds become much less bothersome.

It can sometimes be hard to sleep in a hotel room (or anywhere else for that matter).  The stress of changing time zones, unfamiliar surroundings, and unexpected sounds and noises, all aggravated by sometimes the urgent need to sleep due to your alarm set for too early the next morning, can see you unable to sleep in an uncontrolled environment with a frustrating mix of noises keeping you awake.

Even if you do manage to drop off to sleep, studies show that our brain is still working overtime processing and then discarding all the nuisance noises while we sleep, and that means we wake less rested and less alert for the day ahead.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, studies also show that our blood pressure rises due to the noises we’ve suffered.

Earplugs might help solve the problem (keep the ones you get in airline amenity kits), but many people find them uncomfortable.  There is another solution.

This solution is to quietly play some other sort of neutral soothing sound in the background.  This will mask other sounds, and while you’re not then in a totally silent room, you are in a room where there are no annoying sounds, merely a neutral background sound.

In its purest form, this would be what is called white or pink noise – just a sort of hissing rushing sound.  This is easily created – these days, apps that run on our phones and tablets give you a wide range of choices – wind in the trees, surf on a beach, and many others.  Simply choose the sound that you find least annoying and most conducive to quickly falling asleep.

Or select a mix of sounds and blend them together.  Do you want to recreate the sound palette of a crackling open fire while outside wind blows through the trees, birds and crickets chirp, and, oh yes, you’re by a lake or ocean with waves breaking on the shore, plus it is raining?  Then dial up the sound levels on all these commonly found sound options, and you’ve exactly that coming out of your device.

Best of all, you have a choice of free apps on both Apple/iOS devices and Android devices, as well as other apps that cost $5 or less (giving you a largely unnecessary but wider range of sounds and perhaps the ability to edit/adjust the sounds even more than the free apps).

We tried several of the free apps to see if they fulfilled the potential they appear to promise.  In brief – we were encouraged and impressed.

Android Apps

Relaxio White Noise Generator :  Create a mix of sounds from a selection of 16 different sounds.  You can set the relative volume levels of each of the different sounds.  There are choices such as waves, rain, fans, wind and leaves, crowds talking, traffic, and even a bit of thunder and lightning (not sure how that helps you nod off!).  You can save your own preferred mixes of sounds so you can recall them the next time you start the app.  You can have it play for ever (or at least until you stop the app or the batteries die) or for a choice of different time periods before stopping.

It is easy and simple to set up, and you can’t beat the price (free).  If you are playing the app, the phone’s screen will turn off but the phone won’t, itself, go to sleep so it keeps playing.  While there are other apps with more features, this seems to do anything and everything you’d need and is very easy to understand and use.

TMSOFT White Noise :  This comes in three versions, a free, a paid, and a Pro (more expensive) version.  We of course looked at the free version and saw no reason to consider upgrading.

Some of the samples were – at least to a person easily annoyed such as myself – annoying.  Who would want to listen to a dripping tap sound?  And some of them had me listening obsessively to detect the point where the sample looped around and started repeating again – it is easier to notice this when there are a series of distinctive sounds as part of the sample than it is when it is something steady like the sound of unchanging rain.

You can create mixes of up to five sounds, and each of the five sounds can be edited – not just its volume, but also its pitch, its ‘variance’ (think of for example the rise and fall of waves crashing on a beach), the speed at which the sound varies, and where on a stereo soundstage the sound is heard (if you’re perhaps playing the sound through some Bluetooth speakers, I guess).

The app had all the other usual features, and if the 40 or so built-in sounds aren’t enough, you can apparently download more from their website.  Trust me, 40 should be more than enough.

It is more feature rich than the Relaxio app, but slightly harder to master.

Neither of the two iOS apps we review next had Android versions available.

iOS Apps

iLBSoft Relax Melodies :  This might be a more powerful app than some of the others, or it might just be an over-engineered example of rampant featuritis taking a simple concept and running too far with it.  I rarely need to turn to help files with any app, but I did with this, and – alas – even the help files proved too complicated to access.  You had to log in to something online to access the help files, it seemed, which is not only a ridiculous requirement (why should anyone need to create an account to access help files), but a potential problem if you’re traveling internationally and have no access to international data services.

The sounds it offered ranged from the usual (rivers and oceans) to the unusual (a flute) and the not very relaxing (various melodies).  Generally the sounds tended to be ‘brighter’ and so they felt less relaxing to me.  There was a very wide range of sounds (54) that could be mixed/blended together, and if that wasn’t enough, there were more that could be purchased by upgrading to a ‘Pro’ version.

I found the app frustrating and ‘too clever’, requiring mental efforts at a time when I was simply wanting to go to sleep.  Not recommended.

Phase4 Mobile White Noise HQ :  This app immediately suggested I should get a companion app, ‘Rain Sounds HQ’.  I decided to stick with the White Noise app.

This was a much easier app to set up and use than the iLBSoft app, but not as easy as Relaxio on Android.  We might slightly prefer the iOS version of TMSOFT White Noise, but it is close, and you might like to try both, because they are of course all free.

The Android TMSOFT White Noise app is also available on iOS.  Relaxio is not.

Using the Ambient Noise Around You

If for some reason you find yourself without your phone or tablet, there are probably (hopefully) ways you could create your own ’emergency’ ambient noise.  The air-conditioning unit, for example – set the fan control to high and have it always on, whether the unit is actually heating or cooling or ‘in the middle’ and not needing to do either.  A similar noise source could be a bathroom fan if there is one (and the bathroom fan has the added benefit of not creating any draughts of air blowing over you in the night).

Another approach might be to find a television channel or an empty bit of space on a radio band and just have the static from that playing.

I’d certainly not recommend flouting the desperate pleas to save water by reusing hotels and instead running taps in the bathroom.  But in an emergency, and where the hotel has failed in its express or implied promise to provide you with a peaceful quiet environment to sleep in, well, maybe all bets are off.  Just be sure, in such a case, that the basin or bath drains adequately!

Battery Usage

One possible downside of using your phone or tablet is you’re going to be draining its battery, unless of course you have the device plugged into a charger at the same time.

It is hard to say how much battery the apps use, because the louder you play the sounds, the faster you’ll use up battery.  It also depends on the amount of charge your battery can hold and what other drains your phone imposes on it.  But we suggest choosing a low level of sound, sufficient to drown out the worst of the background noises, and be sure to have your phone either connected to a charger or with a reasonably full charge at the start.

We did some testing on a couple of phones, which suggested that these apps were using anywhere from 1% – 4% of charge per hour (in addition to the other battery drains, of course).

Positioning Your Phone’s Speakers

Noting our battery comments, you don’t want to use any more battery than you must to drive the sounds.  In addition, you don’t want to have such a loud background noise generator as to be creating problems for the guests in rooms around you.  So, we recommend you point the speaker directly at you, and have the phone reasonably nearby.

Note that phones have speakers in different places.  Sometimes at the top, sometimes at the bottom, perhaps facing forwards or even facing backwards.  Work out where the sound is coming from on your phone, and direct that part of the phone to you in your bed.

Too much sound and it will change from being a quiet background ‘fill’ to an intrusive noise in the foreground, so set the sound as quiet as possible while still drowning out most of the background noise.  If you’re in a hotel room on the second floor, overlooking a city street, and with tall buildings on the other side to reflect sounds from the street directly into your windows, and you’re sleeping with the windows open, you will never drown out emergency vehicles going past with sirens blaring, but if you can at least muffle the general cacophony of traffic sounds, that is a valuable achievement.

Configuring Your Phone

Some people leave their phone on 24/7.  I usually turn mine off at night, because otherwise, I will get various advertising type text messages, have the phone beep every time an email comes in, and (particularly if traveling into other time zones) further risk having phone calls wake me up at ridiculous times.

Of course you can’t turn your phone off while also having it play white noise, but you can do the next best thing.  Turn on its Airplane Mode  This does two important things.  First, it prevents any incoming events that might create distractions and wake you up.  Secondly, by turning off all the phone’s transmitters and receivers, it greatly reduces the battery load and means you’ll wake up in the morning not only refreshed but with much more battery life remaining, too.

Dedicated Devices

If you don’t want to use your phone or tablet to generate white noise, you could always buy a dedicated device.

Needless to say, Amazon has a bunch of different white noise generators; if you are going to buy one, you might want to get one that can be battery-powered (with a rechargeable battery) so that you won’t have problems with plugs and socket placements in hotel rooms, and so it can work internationally with varying voltages and plug types.

Prices start from a very reasonable $20 or so.  They’re not necessarily bulky or heavy, but they are another gadget to pack and manage, so our preference is to add a free app to a phone or tablet.

Choosing Sounds

As I mentioned in the TMSOFT White Noise review above, I like my sounds to have no clearly identifiable elements in them at all, just a blur of background noise.  If there are specific sounds, then I start listening for a pattern and repeat in those specific sounds, and then I start noting the passing of time each time the sound repeats.

Hopefully you’re not as obsessive about these things as I am, but remember the object of this is to create a bland neutral sound ‘barrier’ that blocks out annoying sounds without creating any new potentially annoying sounds in the process.


When you’re away from home and your regular sleep environment and sleep times, it can simultaneously be difficult to go to sleep but also more important to do so.  Even if you don’t wake up, noises during the night interrupt your sleep patterns, and even raise your blood pressure.

Adding some form of inoffensive background noise can mask other more distracting sounds, and help you better sleep.  Free apps can be added to your smart phone or tablet, dedicated devices are available, and if all else fails, maybe you can run a fan in your room or tune the television or radio to an unused frequency and just have static playing.

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Aug 112017

This picture nearly got me arrested. Can you guess why? See ‘Don’t Mention the War’, below.

Good morning

I hope your summer is proving as wonderful as mine is here.  At times like this, it is hard to think of living anywhere else in the world, but think about it, I did, after noting an article on Forbes suggesting I could quit my job and live in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, for US$850 a month.

Kota Kinabalu is a curious mix of a booming industrial town and tourist resort on the island of Borneo.  It has a year-round temperature almost not varying at all from the mid/high 80s, and some beautiful tropical beaches and islands off its coast.  Who wouldn’t enjoy a tropical paradise type lifestyle, albeit awkwardly juxtaposed against possibly Malaysia’s fastest growing conurbation, and all at a cost of only $850/month.

Wait – please don’t sell your house and pack your bags just yet.  There is some fine print, alas – not particularly disclosed in the $850/month claim, but present, nonetheless.  I explain more in the first of two articles which follow.

Two articles today!?  Yes, indeed.  Which brings me to the second.  I don’t mean to be more cynical than I always am, but I have noticed, at times, a strange disconnect between the size/cost of a person’s camera and the quality of the pictures they take.  I suspect there are some people who view a large ostentatious camera as a ‘badge of honor’, and some who hope that by getting the best camera in the shop, they’re more likely to take good pictures.

Our most recent Travel Insider tour to Scotland was notable for more camera enthusiasts being present than normal, and so I’ve been thinking about travel photography topics more than I have for a while.

I’m a lapsed enthusiast – since my early teens I’ve been dabbling in photography, dark-room processing, enlarging, a/v ganged multi-projector slide presentations, commercial video production, and other related matters.  My grandfather was a professional photographer with honors received in both Britain and New Zealand, and I got to play with some of his gear (still have a couple of his items in a cupboard).  So it was sort of in the blood, and I went through phases where I’d probably have more weight and bulk in my suitcase for camera gear when traveling than I did for clothes (and don’t get me started on the almost literally crippling burden imposed on one by old shoulder-mounted video cameras!).  These days, not so much.  A pocket camera and little else, if that.  But after watching all the photographers in Scotland, I’m thinking of becoming a more active photographer again.

I last wrote about photography almost three and a half years ago, when recommending my latest camera purchase (a Sony DSC-RX100 II) as being a ‘best in class’ choice for people who wanted something better than a pocket compact camera or a phone camera, but who didn’t want to be burdened by a huge DSLR type camera, complete with the necessary camera bag full of heavy bulky lenses, etc.

The once rapid pace of digital camera evolution has slowed considerably, although three new models of the DSC-RX100 have been released in the last three years, albeit none with much significantly improved over my still-lovely RX100 II (which remains for sale as a current model, too).  If your digital camera is also three or fewer years old, there is probably no pressing reason to replace it, unless you wish to upgrade to a higher level of equipment.  But if your camera is starting to age past five or so years, and you didn’t get a high-end camera back then, maybe it is time to tempt yourself, and perhaps I might generate another buyer’s guide in the next few weeks.

There are, however, some simple techniques and inexpensive accessories that can have a significant and positive impact on the quality of photos you are taking, no matter what camera you are using.  And so, after that long-winded introduction, this week’s feature article both imparts an invaluable tip for how you can possibly take better pictures without any extra equipment, and suggests a $15 or less accessory that may make a huge difference to your picture quality.

We had another couple of Travel Insiders choose to join us on our Christmas Markets Cruise this week – a mother and daughter.  To the disappointment of my 13 yr old daughter, the other daughter is, alas, a ‘grownup’.  We still have a few more cabins available with the great discounts and extra inclusions, so whether you bring your daughter, son, spouse, parent, or no-one at all (no single supplement!), and no matter what their age, there is still time to decide to join us.  Amawaterways are continuing to surprise and delight with some great value airfares to magnify the saving still further.

Next year’s Grand Expedition is also making progress, and we’re now at 15 people, including Anna and myself.  While still ten months out, I need to get hotel rooms set aside, so please do let me know if you can join this ‘epic journey’ across the length and breadth of Great Britain.

What else this week?  Well – –

  • Not All Airlines Agree With the Big Three
  • More on Pilotless Planes
  • We Have Met the Enemy.  It is Us.
  • Avoiding Infections on Planes – This Week’s Least Surprising Story
  • Don’t Mention the War – It’s the Law
  • Watch Out for the Pirates
  • Italy – Planes Out, Trains In
  • More Leaks About the Leaf
  • Justice Delayed – Justice Denied?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Not All Airlines Agree With the Big Three

American, Delta and United hope the new administration might be more receptive to their largely specious and spurious complaints about the three Gulf carriers – Etihad, Emirates, and Qatar – than was the previous administration.

But this last week, getting their pitch in first, saw other airlines and US airports meeting with US Secretary of State Tillerson, explaining they thought the operations of the three Gulf airlines actually provided a substantial benefit to the country.  Present at the meeting were representatives of JetBlue and various other airlines and air freight carriers, including Fedex, airport representatives and the CEO of the US Travel Association.

Underscoring the interconnectedness of the airlines today, JetBlue must have felt awkward arguing against United.  Lufthansa has a 19% shareholding in JetBlue, and is of course joined at the hip with United across the Atlantic.  So even the strongest of competitors – as weak as the competition truly is – are sort of ‘kissing cousins’.

It is expected the Big Three airlines hope to meet with Tillerson and/or Trump in the near future.  Might this become the moment when AA CEO Doug Parker gets to regret his refusal to accept President Trump’s invitation to meet with him earlier in the year?  You might recall he alone didn’t attend, due to a vague unspecified alternate engagement.

More on Pilotless Planes

Never mind the greater safety we would enjoy from pilotless planes.  Studies show the traveling public remain slow to warm to the idea of no-one up front, and you can bet the pilots’ unions are doing all they can to misdirect the fears of passengers and cause them to be reassured rather than worried by the sight of ‘old fashioned fallible humans’ in the cockpit.

But what will surely see the inexorable shift to pilotless commercial planes is the money the airlines can save.  Pilots cost the airlines $35 billion a year at present, plus it seems there’s a growing shortage of pilots.  In the US, the cost of the pilot represents about 11% of the ticket price you pay, and that’s impactful not so much to us as passengers, but to the airlines, who you can be sure aren’t seeing this as an opportunity to make flying more affordable, but as an opportunity to boost their profits.  Getting rid of pilots would triple AA’s pretax profit and double United’s.  How long do you think they will ignore those numbers?

An interesting independent confirmation of the improved safety of pilotless planes is a UBS Aerospace study which projects that airlines would save $3 billion a year in insurance premiums, due to the assessed lower risk of automated planes compared to piloted planes.

My guess is we’ll see air freighters as the first pilotless planes, and after some years of accident free operations, and at the same time becoming more comfortable with cars and buses that drive themselves, it will then become an easier sell for the airlines to convince us of the benefit of removing the pilots.  But I’ll wager there will be pilotless passenger planes within ten years.  Let’s hope we’re all here to see if I prove to be correct or not!

Another way to get us to welcome pilotless planes – convert the cockpit into a view lounge where passengers can congregate and look out the front of the plane.  How amazing would that be!

Details here.

We Have Met the Enemy.  It is Us.

Airline seats seem to be getting more and more uncomfortable, smaller and smaller, and squashed closer together.  It is so bad that three federal Court of Appeals judges have asked the FAA to see if the ever-smaller seats are becoming a safety issue, interfering with the requirement for fast emergency exits from planes.

We all hate the airlines in general, and middle seats on planes in particular.  How can they be so uncaring and inflict such indignities on us, we all howl.  If only someone would do something about it.

But let’s be careful with that last statement.  Just like we get the politicians we deserve and vote for, we get the airline seats we deserve and pay for.  Results of a Reuters/Ipsos survey were announced this week, showing that when asked the question ‘Are you willing to pay more for a seat that isn’t a middle seat’, 60% of fliers said ‘No’ and another 12% didn’t know if they would or not.  The remainder who are willing to pay presumably already do so.

That is why the airlines continue to degrade our flight experiences.  Because, when push comes to shove, the vast majority of fliers will always choose a cheaper flight over a better flight.  Until we show we’re willing to pay for better seating and everything else, airlines will go where the market pushes them – to ever more basic flights with less and less included and more and more charged as extra options.  Details here.

Avoiding Infections on Planes – This Week’s Least Surprising Story

I’ve seen reports suggesting passengers have something like a ten-fold increase in catching coughs and colds and other common omnipresent infections if they go on a flight somewhere.  No-one I know likes to come down with something like that a couple of days into their expensive and eagerly anticipated vacation.

So when one sees an article aggressively headed “Here’s How We Can Stop Planes From Becoming Total Cesspools of Infection” one tends to rush to read it.

The article’s astonishing suggestions?  Uh – don’t crowd people together when they’re boarding the plane.  And fly on a smaller plane with fewer people.

One wonders how many millions of research dollars were spent to come up with these stunningly banal suggestions.

Don’t Mention the War – It’s the Law

Those of us who had relatives who fought in – and died in – the Second World War; the struggle to bring freedom back to Germany and its subjected nations, are doubtless very disappointed at how freedom has only been partially restored.

Who can forget the hilarious episode of Fawlty Towers, ‘The Germans’, and Basil’s admonition to his staff ‘Don’t mention the war’, along with the rider ‘I mentioned it once but I think I got away with it’, before ending up goosestepping around the hotel and bellowing out insults to the German guests himself.

That’s all very good and funny for those of us in free countries, but in Germany it is a crime to refer to WW2 and the Nazis in other than tones of politically correct shocked horror and amazement at how such a lovely peace-loving nation allowed itself to be tricked by a madman for 12 long years.  I nearly found this out dramatically a decade ago on a Christmas markets cruise when our coach driver mistook an innocent ‘stretching’ action on my part, while in the Nuremberg Party Rally Grounds, as being a Nazi salute.  Some people wish to do that not to glorify the Nazi regime but to poke fun at it – ‘You weren’t so great after all, were you, Mr Hitler and your 1000 year Reich, because here I am now, a country boy from NZ, in the ruins of your party rally grounds, freely poking fun at your silly salute without fear of any consequence.’

Well, the last part of that sentence is sadly completely wrong.  For whatever the reason, the Germans don’t like people referring to that time in their history much at all, and this last week saw two Chinese tourists arrested for filming each other in front of the Reichstag in Berlin making mock Hitler salutes.

It almost makes you wonder if the Nazis were ever vanquished, doesn’t it.  Details here.

Watch Out for the Pirates

Passengers on the Sea Princess, sailing from Australia to Dubai, had an unexpected frisson of excitement.  For ten days and nights, the ship was on pirate alert, meaning that at night all lights had to be out, and there could be no entertainment on board.  Apparently, the lure of a cruise ship show would have attracted pirates like flies to honey.

No enjoying the sun set on one’s pricey balcony-equipped cabin.  No pretense of enjoying ‘the good life’.  No pool parties or outdoor bar hopping.  Instead, sober quietness was the rule.  For ten long nights.  About the only bonus experience was a ‘pirate drill’ where passengers learned what to do if the ship was attacked – moves that were reminiscent of the 1950s/60s suggestions to get underneath your desks if a nuclear attack was underway.

Assuming the cruise ship was operating at its rated cruising speed of 22 knots/25 mph, during those ten days/nights the ship could have covered 6,000 miles, but it seems like it struggled to do much more than 2300 miles (between Colombo and Dubai), gratuitously doubling the unpleasantness and risk.  Not only was the ship going at less than half its normal cruise speed, but by traveling so slowly it made it more than twice as easy for pirates to respond to its presence, intercept the ship, and board it.

Very little of this makes sense, and surely isn’t what the passengers expected.  Other than an empty ‘out of an abundance of caution’ non-response, no further explanation has been received from Princess Cruises as to why they chose to extend the risk and unpleasantness for their passengers.

Details here.

Italy – Planes Out, Trains In

Alitalia is in its death throes and up for sale to anyone as unwise as to wish to buy it.  Well, in truth there’s nothing wrong with Alitalia, except for its unions and their insistence on crippling the airline with uncompetitive work conditions and pay rates.  Until the unions agree to accept adjustments and allow greater productivity, Alitalia remains an impossible airline to resurrect.

The Italian government appears to have turned its back on the Italian flag carrier, and instead is looking at investing up to €400 million to bolster its domestic rail network, increasing the trains that serve 200 cities in Italy (200?  That’s what this article says).  In addition, the Lombardy region announced plans to invest over €1.6 billion in new trains for suburban and regional services.  Then there’s the mooted privatisation of the Trenitalia fleet of long-distance high-speed trains as part of a ten year €94 billion plan announced last September that will also see a growth in high-speed lines in Italy.

So now the US is even being beaten by Italy when it comes to investments in high-speed rail.  Sigh.

More Leaks About the Leaf

My favorite car blog revealed, 18 months ago, that the 2018 model Nissan Leaf electric car would double its range to 300 miles.

This is now becoming more broadly confirmed, with an interesting article this week suggesting it might have a range in excess of 340 miles, a more powerful electric motor and greater self drive capabilities.  Not only does this range knock both the Chevy Bolt and the entry-level Tesla Model 3 (should it ever appear) for a six, but the price is another home run – it is projected to come in at $29,990.  The Bolt is priced at $37,500, and the Tesla’s real world price remains a guess, but probably somewhere in the mid $40 thousands.

What is truly astonishing is that the new Leaf’s 340 mile range is said to be powered by a 40 kWhr battery pack.  If correct, this might explain Elon Musk’s reluctance, a week ago, to reveal the battery packs in his Model 3 cars (he said it would confuse his customers).

Musk has now been forced to reveal that the Model 3 comes with either a 50 or 70 kWhr battery pack – and here’s the thing.  His Model 3 is rated for 220 miles from its 50 kWhr pack and 340 miles from its 70 kWhr pack.  But the Leaf might get 340 miles, from a 40 kWhr pack.  That is nearly twice as fuel-efficient as the Tesla.

Yes, that is indeed confusing.  Why is the Tesla nearly twice the battery hog that the Leaf promises to be?

Justice Delayed – Justice Denied?

In 2004 a US border guard tackled a Chinese lady visitor to the US, pepper sprayed her, and drove her head into the ground.  Although it is true she panicked and ran away from the officer, after she was detained, she was adjudged to be an innocent ordinary person and not charged with any crimes.

Thirteen years later, just now, she has finally been awarded  $461,000 as settlement for false arrest, medical expenses, pain and suffering, and lost earnings.

Thirteen years?  Really!?  Is that the best we can do in this country?  What happened to the right to a speedy trial?  Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Have you noticed how web pages are getting more and more hyperbolic in their headlines.  Like, for example, this one – 12 Shocking Things I Learned by Working as a Butler at the Plaza Hotel; You’ll never look at hotel staff the same way again.

Actually, none of the 12 ‘shocking things’ were very shocking, and few of them were new disclosures.  But it is an interesting quick read for the envious voyeur that lurks within us all.

Whether a butler to the ultra-rich, or anything else, are there some days when you wake up and wish to make a total change in your job?  Have you ever wondered what the exact opposite to your job might be?  Well, there is of course an answer to that question these days.  This page will analyse your job and suggest the exact opposite job.  Me – I’m apparently the absolute opposite of an ‘Agricultural Grader’.  Or possibly, to my immense disappointment (or possibly relief), the opposite of a lumberjack.

Truly lastly this week, there were stories of a self driving car making its way around Arlington, VA.  What was truly surprising was that it was indeed a fully self-driving car – there was no-one inside the vehicle at all.  Or so it seemed, until a sharp-eyed person uncovered the truth.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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Aug 102017

You can certainly enjoy a lovely lifestyle in lower cost international destinations (but note these admittedly very nice condos in Kota Kinabalu rent for $2200 a month).  On the other hand, there is a stark choice between ‘spending the same a month and living better’ and ‘saving money but living worse’.

A recent article in Forbes Online had the appealing headline “Quit Your Job And Live Abroad: 8 Places So Cheap You Might Not Need To Work“.  What’s not to like about that (although the web article is one of those ultra-annoying click-bait type articles that results in endless clicks onto new pages, each with minimal content and maximum advertisements – the Forbes online website isn’t nearly as selective in terms of what it offers as is the print magazine.)

Adding an element of semi-science to the article were mini-profiles on eight locations, including their costs of living, showing how it is possible to live – complete with internet, cable tv and phone, for as little as US$850 per month per person.  That certainly would allow most of us to quit our jobs and live abroad, wouldn’t it.  Sign me up!

But are these claims realistic?  There is certainly a substantial industry of sites and services offering information on low-cost expat living, including the somewhat well-known International Living magazine, as well as dozens of articles similar to this week’s Forbes article.

Among all its other benefits and impacts, the internet is making it possible to live just about anywhere and still remain ‘close’ (in a virtual/electronic form) to friends and the places and events wherever you moved from, and so encourages more people to disconnect from their present location and live wherever they wish.

How Realistic is the Forbes Article?

Yes, it is possible to live less expensively than the US by moving to another country.  But ‘the devil is in the details’ and the key question is just how much you’d save, and what you’d have to sacrifice in the process.

So let’s look at the Forbes article and their suggestion that you could live for $850 a month in their lowest cost location, Kota Kinabalu on the island of Borneo and part of Malaysia and see if that proves to be a realistic claim.  Clearly, if that is your objective, you’ll not be renting the $2200/month condo pictured above; leastways, not unless you’re planning on filling it up with multiple families.

The narrative talks about it having affordable health care, which is probably a good thing, because – ooops – there is no allowance in the $850 a month for any healthcare costs at all!  If you let your US health insurance expire, you’d be in a world of hurt trying to restart it again subsequently, so for some of us, we’ve instantly doubled our $850 a month cost, while simultaneously still having no healthcare coverage in our place of chosen exile.  Finding an insurance solution for foreign healthcare can be a challenge and definitely is not something to take for granted, like this article does.

Oh, still talking about healthcare, and Kota Kinabalu, did we also mention that the Zika virus is an issue in Malaysia, and there’s also a low but measurable risk of malaria, a possible risk of Japanese encephalitis, and maybe even, as a surprise bonus, a bit of cholera floating around.  Then there’s rabies, which is described as ‘not a major risk to most travelers’ which isn’t actually the most positively reassuring statement, is it.  Here’s the complete CDC page on Malaysia.

The article says the city is small and you can walk around it.  Again, a good thing, because there is no allowance for you to own a car, and a total monthly budget of about $20 for all transportation related costs.  Looking at the picture below, it seems that you’d be traveling quite a distance when walking.  I guess they expect you to stay at home a lot of the time.

On the other hand, they tell us it is a lovely place to live,

Life revolves around the water and is lived out-of-doors.  At home, you can fill your days snorkeling, diving, boating and ferry hopping from the city center to neighboring islands.

Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it.  But there’s no allowance for the cost of these days filled with snorkeling, diving, and boating, unless that is covered by the $55/month allowance for entertainment, which is utterly improbable.

The downtown/city area of Kota Kinabalu is fairly modern and has a westernized ‘resorty’ feel to it.

Talking about entertainment, after you’ve spent your day snorkeling, diving, and boating, what would be more appropriate than a relaxing fruity drink somewhere, complete with umbrella in it, while enjoying a nice meal, perhaps of fresh fish and seafood?  Ooops again – yes, you guessed it.  Unless this too is to be included in the $55 per whole month for entertainment, there’s no allowance for eating and drinking out (and talking about drink, the predominantly Muslim culture means that drinks, while still available, tend to be expensive rather than cheap).

Your total groceries allowance (there’s no separate allowance for drink) of $120 seems fairly parsimonious, so let’s hope your meal of lovely fresh fish is taking advantage of the fish you caught yourself, earlier in the day.

There are other items also mysteriously excluded from the $850 a month figure.  Clothing.  Travel.  And perhaps most alarming of all, an item innocently described as ‘other costs’, but a potential financial black hole you could vanish into and disappear without trace.

And, most extraordinary of all, we are told that in some of their calculations, they don’t bother including the cost of electricity because it is either included in the cost of rent, or is unnecessary.  Electricity – unnecessary?  Not in my world!  (It is also relevant to note that the US has some of the cheapest electricity of anywhere in the world.)  Tell me a country, anywhere, that doesn’t need electricity for lighting, for appliances and electronics, for water heating and cooking, and, at least some of the year, for either heating or cooling?

One could pick apart every part of the $850 budget in the article, and the similar budgets for the other destinations they also enthusiastically advocate we should move to.  But even if we decide to accept these ridiculous numbers, there’s an unstated assumption that needs to be revealed and considered.

Living Cheaply is Not the Same as Living Well

Yes, you can live cheaply in other countries.  There’s nothing magic about living at lower cost, and you don’t need to uproot yourself and move thousands of miles away.  You could live more cheaply in the US too, if you are willing to compromise and reduce your current standard of living.  But if you wish to enjoy the same quality of life as you have at present, you’re going to be paying the same amount per month or more in most other countries.  I know this from personal experience.

When I was spending large amounts of time in Russia, I would have three choices for food – it is the same in most other countries and for most other people.  The first choice was to buy food from the local markets and cook it at home, myself.  This involved buying ‘mystery meat’ in cuts quite unlike any I’d seen in the US, fish that was clearly a day or two past its sell-by date, and vegetables of dubious provenance and unknown amounts of heavy metal and radiation poisoning within them.  The good news – the cost of such food was commensurately low, to match its low quality.

The second choice involved going to a western style supermarket, where all the food items, many of them western brands, were at least as expensive and often more expensive than in the west.  Plus, particularly in the summer, you could never trust the frozen food items, because it was dismayingly common that the frozen items had been left out on the loading dock in the searing sun for hours before being taken inside, and had thoroughly warmed up before being refrozen in the freezer cases.  However, overall, the food quality was almost as good as in the west, but the costs were higher.

The third choice was eating out, with either cheap restaurants where you are eating the mystery foods from the markets, along with the added excitement of possibly enjoying a dose of food poisoning and dealing with staff who didn’t speak English, or at the expensive restaurants where the food quality and preparation was better, but the costs were high.

So to eat food like a Russian peasant would have indeed been less costly than eating ‘normal’ food in the US, but it wasn’t a lifestyle I wanted to enjoy.  Eating food to a standard I felt comfortable with was more expensive, not less expensive, and that same dynamic is generally true, everywhere in the world.  It is unavoidable – you’re getting imported food items rather than local food items, and you’re going through an inefficient and expensive distribution system, nowhere the equal of the extraordinary efficiencies enjoyed back home.

A similar comment can be made for housing.  Do you want to live in a semi-slum apartment, or do you want to live somewhere ‘nice’ like you have at home?  Do you want to have a quiet peaceful environment, or one marred by noisy neighbors and the menagerie of animals they keep in their apartments – some as pets, and some for food?

I’ll wager that every person reading this could halve their accommodation costs here, too, by shifting from their present hopefully pleasant abode to somewhere in a cheap part of town, much smaller in size, and lacking the same standard of finish and amenities.  There’s no need to go to a foreign country to live uncomfortably – you can do that here, too!

The same can be true of healthcare too.  Do you want the local standard of healthcare, or do you want a western standard?  Sometimes there is little difference between the one and the other, but other times there are significant differences in quality of care/experience and associated costs.  The differences even spill over to medications – do you want a locally made product, which may or may not be fake, or a generic western product (possibly also fake) or a name brand western product (and still possibly fake)?  Yes, the full-on western standard of healthcare will probably still be appreciably less expensive than in the US, but it might also be much more costly than quoted costs that may be based on local standards of healthcare as provided to ordinary local people.

Walking Around With a ‘Kick Me’ Sign on Your Back

There’s another thing to consider as well.  When you move to a foreign country, you’re running the risk of having a huge big ‘kick me’ sign on your back, flashing in dazzling neon to all the locals, but invisible to yourself.  You’re a foreigner, you possibly don’t speak the locals’ language (and they possibly don’t speak English), you probably don’t conform to their customs (Kota Kinabalu is in Muslim Malaysia, for example) and you’ll be perceived as a person with more money than sense, as a person to exploit.

You’ll find the price to rent even the dingiest hovel will double as soon as it is known that a foreigner wants to live there.  If you need any work done on anything, it will take longer and cost more than for the locals.  And, no, you can’t hope to be ‘clever’ and hide your foreignness by getting third-party locals to arrange things on your behalf.  Remember also you’re going to places where ‘the sanctity of contract’ is as foreign a notion as is the enforceability of contracts, and as soon as your landlord sees you’re not a local, he’ll be annoyed at your clumsy efforts to trick him, and will double your rent, no matter what sort of lease agreement you signed.

In addition, how will you find a local who decides to trick their fellow local citizens so as to benefit you?  This is something I’ve often seen – where one’s interpreter/guide is actually working against you in conversations rather than merely translating and/or perhaps giving you ‘helpful’ advice.  Everyone will want a piece of your pocketbook.

It is a bit like the saying – ‘If you’re in a game of poker, look around you at the other players.  If you can’t spot the sucker, then it is you’.  You might think that everything is being done to a comparable level of probity and fairness as in the US, but if you don’t detect the rip-offs that you’re suffering at every turn, then they are probably even bigger than you guessed.

Immigration Issues

It is wonderful to read about these eight ‘low-priced’ places to live in the Forbes article.  But the article is utterly silent about the process by which you can legally be allowed to live in your chosen new home.  For example, several of the recommended inexpensive places are in the EU – not what one would immediately associate with low-cost places to live.  Assuming they are indeed appealing from an economic point of view, how are you going to get a permanent residency visa to live in the EU, short of pretending to be a penniless refugee muslim from North Africa?

Other places involve no end of complications (yes, ‘complications’ is often a polite way of saying ‘bribery’), and the need to regularly leave the country and re-enter so as to extend/renew a short-stay type visa.  Each time you do that, you’re gambling that the immigration officer won’t notice that for 35 of the last 36 months or whatever, you’ve been in his country, and choose to make the obvious inference that you’re actually living permanently there rather than simply visiting as a temporary tourist, at which the inconvenience (bribe) will get massively larger.

Getting a Job

So maybe, after moving to your ‘tropical paradise’, you’ve discovered that your days are too bland and empty, or that your costs are so much higher than you’d expected, and for whatever reason, you decide it would be nice to get a part-time job – to give you an interest, and some extra spending money.

The chances are that your visa won’t allow you to work, lawfully.  So you’ll need to find somewhere that will hire you ‘under the table’.  Now you know what it feels like to be an illegal alien in the US!  Except that, the other side of the ‘low cost’ coin is that casual jobs in such places also pay at very low rates.  You might find yourself lucky to be getting $1/hour.

Oh – one last consideration, but uniquely, only for Americans (as far as we are aware).  Maybe some of the costs of living are reduced in your new domicile.  But one cost will never go down, and might even go up.  Although citizens of most countries are only taxed in their home country if they are living there as a permanent resident, American citizens are taxed on their world-wide earnings for as long as they are a US citizen, even if they don’t spend a single day in the US over an entire decade or longer.

Other Considerations

If you’re going to live in another country, then, as we hint at in the section about your new ‘kick me’ sign, we suggest you choose a country that ranks as highly as possible in terms of lack of corruption (see the annual corruption index published by Transparency International).  You also want a stable country with a stable government (here’s an interesting chart, although we’re not sure we’d rank Samoa as being more stable a government than many of the lower ranked countries).

It would also be preferable if it was a country in which you, as a foreigner, could own property and shares – that would reduce your exploitation and risk when renting, and give you access to local investment opportunities and local investment income.

This site has many other interesting rankings too – crime, particularly petty crime, is another factor to consider.  You can probably avoid becoming a statistic on the murder or incarceration tables, but the petty crime rate is definitely a factor to keep in mind.  But the published table seems to be quite counter-intuitive – is Sweden really the country with the greatest theft rate in the world?  And are the countries with the lowest reported theft rates really truly that safe?  Or is the table instead merely showing the accuracy and completeness of theft reporting, rather than actual theft occurrences?  This issue – the validity of the data being reported – is often a huge factor to keep in mind when evaluating third world countries.

Currency issues are another variable – hard to predict and so almost a random but important factor.  If you’re receiving a retirement income in US dollars (or any other foreign currency, of course), its value in the local currency where you live, and the adjusted cost of living, is of course going to depend on the currency exchange rate.  It is entirely likely that this exchange rate might change substantially, and possibly either increasing or decreasing the cost of living as a result.

It is hard to guess the future of currency exchange rates, but you should at least understand the basic drivers of the country’s economy and understand if it is likely to be a reasonably stable and possibly positive economy, or one that could collapse at any moment.  Have a look also at historical exchange rates – that will at least give you an understanding as to how volatile the currency has been in the past.  This site has lots of historical data on it.

You should also double-check the claims about low costs of living.  We like two sites in particular – this site and this site, and there are several others that also have good information on them – particularly sites that have more of a perspective of ‘what does it cost to live a western type lifestyle in other cities/countries’ rather than ‘what does it cost to live a spartan lifestyle like the locals’ sites.

Spending Money Tactically

It is quite likely that some items will be cheaper in your new home region, but other items might be more expensive.  If the more expensive items are ‘discretionary’ items that you only need to (or choose to) buy occasionally, why not wait until you are wherever in the world that they are less expensive.  Or, if/when you have friends visiting you, ask them to bring such items with them.

For example, some types of clothing and apparel are much less expensive in some countries than others.  The classic truth of Levi jeans and Nike sneakers being cheapest in the US still seems to hold true in many other countries.

You’ll also sometimes find yourself in the ridiculous seeming situation where it is cheaper to buy a locally made item in the US than it is in the country it was originally manufactured in.  Inexplicably, electronic goods are consistently less expensive in the US than China, plus you’ve a higher chance of getting a genuine rather than fake version of whatever you’re buying in the US.

It isn’t just ‘third world’ countries with these pricing discrepancies.  I’ve found NZ lamb less expensive in Costco than in NZ supermarkets, and the same for NZ wine.

In some exciting good news for expats, Amazon is extending and improving its world shipping services and rates.  While this is far from yet fully optimized, it is becoming easier to order from Amazon and get the items quickly and inexpensively delivered to you in other countries.

But, ooops – we’re trespassing way away from the initial concept of ‘living cheaply and well’ aren’t we.  Accepting one to two weeks waiting and some delivery fee on top of the regular US price is in no way a lower cost or higher quality-of-life experience than having Amazon deliver, for free, in a day or two to your US home!


If you really do want to consider living somewhere else in the world ‘cheaply’, and if we’ve not disabused you of that notion, here are some other recent articles and suggested locations.

Business Insider – World’s 13 Cheapest Countries, January 2017  (strange methodology which involves local residents rating their own perception of their cost of living and life style, gives top spot to Ukraine, followed by Thailand, Taiwan and Vietnam – definitely some surprises on this list)

International Living – World’s Best Places to Retire, January 2017  (scores Mexico as best, followed by Panama, Ecuador and Costa Rica – a very traditional list with clearly a strong focus on )

Escape Here – The 10 Cheapest Cities for Expats to Live Around the World, undated  (Bishkek comes first, followed by Windhoek, Karachi, Tunis, Skopje and Banjul – you’ll need to get out your map to see where some of these unappealing places are located)

Cheapest Destinations – The Cheapest Places to Live in the World – 2017, November 2016  (more sensible than some lists, recommends Mexico then Nicaragua and Colombia in the Americas, Portugal, Bulgaria and Hungary in Europe, and Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia in Asia)

Bankrate – Six Surprisingly Inexpensive Places to Retire Abroad, January 2017  (Chiang Mai, then Guam and Valencia)

Time – These Are the 50 Cheapest Countries to Live, Feb 2016  (somewhat useless because it contrasts living costs with income, which makes South Africa cheapest, then India, Kosovo and Saudi Arabia in fourth place – definitely not a cheap place, and utterly an impossible place to consider living in)

The Independent – The 17 Countries Where Expats Live the Happiest Lives, Feb 2017  (Being happy isn’t the same as cheap, but is still important and relevant.  You’d be happiest, perhaps, in Costa Rica, followed by Malta, Mexico and the Philippines)

Huffpost – 11 Incredible Cities Where Living Abroad Is Cheap, June 2016  (Lyon came first, followed by Lisbon then Wellington New Zealand and Riga.  No-one could consider Lyon or Wellington to be cheap cities, but maybe their high scores on the ‘incredible’ scale counter their probable low scores on the cost scale)


Do we accept the Forbes’ article’s claim that you could quit your job and live for $850 a month in Kota Kinabalu.  For the reasons described above, absolutely not!  But some savings are possible with little compromise in life style, and more savings are of course possible with greater compromises.

If you want to enjoy the life style you currently experience and appreciate, staying exactly where you are is probably the best option.  There are ways to reduce your costs by moving elsewhere – and don’t forget the other 49 states in the US, as well as far away foreign countries, if you’re keen to make a change.

Our unscientific feeling is that in terms of overall quality of life and value, the US is right up there near the top.  Whether it is or not, be very careful before changing your life based on largely spurious claims that you could live elsewhere in the world for as little as $850/month.

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Aug 092017

An illustration of a monopod, and an example both of a monopod that is too short and also how not to use it (these points are of course explained below). It is surprising that the photographer (or at least the artistic director) has no idea how a monopod is used.

A regular tripod is a wonderful tool that professional photographers are seldom seen without.  But they are also cumbersome and take up space and weight in your suitcase, and during your days traveling around, they are another bulky item to have with you all the time.

Talking about time, when you choose to use a tripod, it takes time to extend it, to place it somewhere (it also takes up a lot of space making it impractical in a crowd) and is difficult to move around, and then of course, requires more time and hassle to eventually collapse it and stow it away again.

Don’t get us wrong.  We love tripods.  But we seldom/never travel with one.

What we do have, though, is a monopod (sometimes referred to as a unipod).  This is a telescoping device a bit like a single tripod leg, and while you might think that a single legged device would not make much of a difference to camera stability, it actually works stunningly well.

The Need For and Benefits Of a Monopod

A monopod/unipod gives you an enormous improvement in stability, allowing you to take much clearer pictures.

The need for a monopod is not too pressing when you’re filming in bright light (ie with a fast shutter speed) and when the subjects are relatively close rather than distant (so the effects of camera movements aren’t magnified).

But as soon as the distance opens out, and/or the shutter speed slows due to diminished light, a monopod starts to prove its worth.

Monopods are great for travelers.  They can be used almost anywhere, including usually in places such as museums that might forbid tripod photography.  They are quick and easy to deploy, and comparatively light and compact to carry.

It is much easier, when on uneven ground, to set up a monopod than a tripod, where you need to adjust leg lengths to reflect the uneven nature of where it is standing.

You can also use a monopod as a ‘selfie stick on steroids’ – they are typically twice the length of a standard selfie stick, and you can use them to shoot from over the tops of crowds to get an unobstructed view of whatever is in front of the crowds, or out the side of vehicles (with caution!) or (with equal caution) to film over the edge of a precipice, or from a hotel room window, and generally to get unusual and impossible shots that you couldn’t otherwise get without the almost six feet of extra positioning.

Talking about crowds, you could never hope to set up a tripod in a crowd of people, but a monopod can easily be used.

Monopods can also help if you’re filming video, allowing for smoother panning and steadier fixed shots.

Another use for monopods is often seen on the sports field, where photographers simply use their monopods as a support, to hold up the weight of their camera and telephoto lens.

Let’s also keep in mind that a monopod is much less expensive than a tripod.  Our recommended two monopods cost either $13 or  $15, whereas good tripods will cost ten times that amount (and potentially much more).

Let’s start by looking at the often under-appreciated need and benefit of taking pictures (and video) from a steady/stable position, then see how monopods – even though seemingly not nearly as good as a three-legged tripod – are actually very helpful.

Keeping Your Pictures Sharp

A sharp clear picture is what we all hope for, unless we’re trying to deliberately create some sort of dreamy blur effect.  Even in that case, sometimes it is better to start with a sharp picture and then add a blur in Photoshop.

There are two types of blur that interfere with sharpness – focus-related blur, and motion-related blur.

Resolving focus-related blur involves focusing correctly on the desired objects and selecting the appropriate depth of field.  That’s a topic for another time, perhaps.

This article is about motion-related blur, and its solution involves two techniques.  The first is to minimize the camera’s motion, and the second is to select the appropriate shutter speed.  While the two approaches overlap, the best results will see you optimizing both issues.

Let’s start of with a really important skill you should master.  It requires no additional equipment, and will massively improve the sharpness of your photos.

Holding Your Camera Steady, and Pressing the Release Button Correctly

‘Shooting’ a good sharp picture uses the same skills – and even equipment – as the other type of shooting.

Shooting a clear image with a minimum of motion-related blur is a bit like the other sort of shooting – accurate target shooting with a firearm.

In both cases, you greatly improve your results by using two strategies – supporting your camera/rifle in a stable position rather than holding it unsupported; and steadily/slowly squeezing the trigger/shutter release in a smooth gentle motion rather than jerking the camera/rifle with a sudden spasm to initiate the shot.

Certainly, it is fairly intuitive to understand that the more steadily we can hold our camera, the better the image will be.  As much as the dynamics of taking each picture allows, use both hands, try to lean your body against something to keep your body – and camera – still, keep the camera close to your body, and so on.

But even people who understand this, still risk messing up with a poor action to take each picture due to jerking when pressing the shutter release button.

We urge you to work on your shutter press technique.  We’ve seen some people, particularly with camera phones, who stab aggressively at the shutter release control when taking a picture, and we see the entire phone/camera move significantly, right at the point it is taking its image.  A person who was holding their camera device reasonably steady ruins its steadiness with a bad shutter release action, at the moment it is most critical to hold it steady!

Another marksman type analogy – just like, if you’re shooting at a very close-up target, you don’t need to be quite as fastidious as if you’re aiming at a bulls-eye 100 or even 1000 yards distant, it is the same with a camera.  Close-ups aren’t quite as critical as telephoto type images.  This leads to an interesting rule of thumb that is sometimes used, which we’ll discuss next.

When Do You Need to Stabilize Your Images?

Clearly, most of us often take good pictures without needing a tripod or monopod.  But at what point does such an external device start to become worth the extra hassle of using it?

For decades, there has been an interesting rule of thumb known to photography professionals.

Assuming a good stable shooting platform and technique, the minimum shutter speed should be the same as the effective focal length of your lens, when expressed in 35mm focal length equivalents.

So, a standard 35mm equivalent focal length of about 50mm – 55mm would equate to an acceptable shutter speed of 1/60th of a second (or faster), and if you’re using a longer lens, say, a 250 mm lens, then you’re going to want to have a 1/250th of a second exposure (or less).

This rule of thumb of course assumes that you’re holding your camera as steady as possible and are carefully squeezing the shutter release with the minimum of induced motion as you do so.

A Stable Camera Isn’t Always the Complete Answer

Note that – of course – stabilizing your camera will allow for sharper pictures at slower shutter speeds, but only if the subject of your picture is still.

If the subject is moving, then you need to set the appropriate shutter speed to capture the subject without its motion-blur, which is an entirely different concept.  But, to lightly touch on that, here is a related point.

Optimum Shutter Speed

In theory, you might think that ‘fast is always better than slow’.  Simplistically, that is correct, but there are (at least) two exceptions to this.

For example, maybe you deliberately want a slow shutter speed to blur something that is moving, while of course wanting the stationary background to remain sharp and unblurred.  Or, vice versa, maybe you have a fast-moving subject you want to be able to freeze clearly, requiring a higher than theoretically normal shutter speed.

For example also, sometimes you ‘need’ a slower exposure speed simply due to the lighting conditions.  Or a faster one (if there is too much light/brightness).  Maybe you have a specific depth of field requirement that narrows your available range of shutter speeds.

Note also that modern digital cameras ‘cheat’ – they will ‘know’ if you need faster shutter speeds, and will give you the necessary shutter speed if at all possible, even if that risks reducing image quality in other respects (ie by increasing the ISO speed and forcing the camera to make do the best it can with too little light, which results in much greater picture noise and lower contrast).

For that reason, we generally recommend you do not allow your camera to automatically adjust its ISO sensitivity, but leave it fixed at a relatively slow speed (ie 100 – 160), and only adjust up when you absolutely must.

Optical and Electronic Image Stabilization

Some cameras and many/most camcorders feature some sort of image stabilization built-in to the device these days (unwanted camera movements are of course much more noticeable in video and are a classic hallmark of amateur video clips).

Generally, optical/mechanical stabilization is enormously better than electronic.

A good optical stabilization system can allow you to take pictures with shutter speeds one half, one quarter, possibly even one eighth the speed that would otherwise be the slowest you could ‘safely’ consider.  Modern state of the art image stabilization claims to allow for even 1/16th the previous speed.

It is worth paying more money to get a camera (or lens) that includes optical image stabilization.  Imagine being able to take reasonably good images with a 1/8th second shutter speed!  This is what optical image stabilization can do for you.

How a Monopod Works

A monopod acts to reduce camera shake in most of the six forms in which it can occur.  There are a lot of different ways that ‘camera shake’ can happen, resulting in potentially blurry pictures.

The most benign form of camera ‘shake’ and least noticeable is when you move the camera straight up and down, or straight from side to side, or straight forwards/backwards (the classical three axes of motion).  But these types of movements are not commonly the type of motion that occurs.  Instead, the problem comes from twisting type motion, where even a very slight twist (in any of the three axes) causes a large shift in where the camera lens is pointing.

A monopod essentially zeroes out all three forms of the benign motion, and also most of the problematic twisting.  With the anchoring effect of the leg, two of the three twisting motions are reduced to almost zero, and the third one (from left to right) is greatly reduced.

This means you can take better pictures in low light, and you can take better pictures of distant objects in any light.

You can get clear sharp pictures at much slower shutter speeds.  If you do low light or telephoto pictures, a monopod is worth its weight in gold.

Simply mount the camera to the monopod platform on the top of the monopod, using the threaded screw in the monopod and the almost certainly standard threaded hole in the base of your camera (a ¼” thread is standard).  And then, off you go.  Well, almost – don’t stop reading just yet!


Using a Monopod

You might be forgiven for thinking this is an unnecessary part of our article.  You simply screw the camera onto the mount at the top of the monopod, extend the monopod, and start taking pictures, right?


While that is simplistically true of a tripod, you’ll get best results from a monopod if you appreciate that a monopod has only one leg, and then give some thought to your stance and position, relative to the monopod, so as to compensate for its single leg.

In this context, having the monopod in a vertical ‘unstressed’ position – such as modeled at the top of the page – is actually the worst way of using it.  This doesn’t ‘lock’ the monopod into one steady position – it can wobble backwards and forwards, and side to side.  Instead, you want it on an angle and ‘stressed’ whereby it is leaning into you in some way, so that the ‘stress’ acts to lock up the position between you and the tripod, ideally forming some sort of triangular structure and perhaps emulating a tripod, with your two feet forming the other two legs.

The most common two approaches is to have the monopod angling forwards and down, so that its foot is on the ground directly in front of you, or angling back so its foot is perhaps close to one of your feet.  You would lean into the monopod if it is angled forward, and be pulling it back if its leg was going behind you.  Usually you have one of your feet in front of the other, rather than both side by side.

This enormously increases the monopod’s stability, locking one of its two planes of remaining motion.  You’ve gone from six planes of motion to only one.

Another approach is to either rest the monopod against a fence or wall or other solid object, or to tie it to something, giving it more stability.  A set of Velcro ties (this pack includes two or four lovely long 24” ties) is a great thing to have in your camera bag in any case, and can help binding your monopod in this situation.

Monopod Height

When choosing a monopod, it is important to get one that is tall enough for you.  Ideally of course you want your camera at eye height, rather than to have to stoop over and crouch.

In addition, if you are angling your camera up, that makes it even more beneficial to have the ability to position your camera at eye level or even slightly above.  The image at the top of the page not only shows how not to use a monopod, but also does a good job of showing a monopod that is too short for convenience!

If you can’t get a good ergonomic and comfortable position with your monopod, it won’t be as stable, so its height is an important consideration.  Regrettably, many monopods are too short for taller people.  Most monopods can be partially or fully extended, so there’s no such thing as too long a monopod, but, dismayingly, there is definitely such a thing as too short.

If you are about 6’ tall, then that suggests your eye level is at about 5’8”, and with maybe 2” between the monopod platform on which you mount your camera, and the camera viewfinder, that means you want a monopod that is at least 66” tall.  We’ve seen some that are 67” – 72” tall, but we’ve also seen some that are way too short, such as Amazon’s fancy expensive carbon fiber monopod that is only 61”.

The need for increased length becomes even greater if you have your monopod on an angle (as you should).  Even a modest angle might require another 3″ or 4″ in length, and if your monopod is already at the short end of ideal, having it ‘shrink’ still further is really unfortunate.

Bottom line – be willing to pay extra for a longer monopod.  There’s no point in being ‘penny wise and pound foolish’ such that you end up with a too-short monopod that is so awkward to use that it doesn’t give optimized stability and you end up never using it.

Monopod Accessories

It might seem ridiculous that a camera accessory should, in turn, have accessories too.  But indeed there is an accessory or two to consider when buying a monopod.

The first is a quick release head.  What this does is it makes it much easier to mount your camera onto or off the monopod.  Instead of needing to carefully mate it to the monopod platform and screw in the mounting screw, you add a special base to the bottom of your camera and a matching socket to the monopod’s mounting platform.  You can quickly snap the camera in and out of the socket on the monopod, which is a convenience you’ll quickly come to value.

The second is some type of tilt/swivel or miniball head.  In theory, you could simply place your camera on your monopod, and the monopod goes down directly in front of you, perfectly perpendicular to the ground and horizon, and thereby ensuring the camera is not only stable but also level in all axes when taking a picture.

More realistically, you will be adopting one of the suggested strategies for using a monopod and they tend to have the monopod at an angle.  Or maybe, sometimes, directly in front of you might be something unsuitable for basing the monopod on, and you’ll want to have the monopod leg going off on an angle.  That is fine, but if you have your camera immutably affixed to the platform at the top of the monopod, it will now be on a strange angle.

Another of the small things that distinguishes high quality photos from lower quality photos is being level.  While it is usually possible to correct this in Photoshop, doing so loses you some image and some quality, so it is best to get it as optimized as possible before taking the shot (this is true for everything – while Photoshop can help ‘save the day’ in many amazing ways, the better the image you start off with, the better the final version of it will be).

Adding a tilt/swivel head of some type will give you much greater flexibility for how your monopod is angled down.  But please remember, once you’ve aligned your camera with the tilt/swivel adjustable head, be sure to then lock the head in place, because if you don’t do that, you’ve lost much/most of the stability the monopod was designed to provide.

Note that some monopods have a built-in quick release but not a tilt/swivel feature.  This is not very useful, because the tilt/swivel is best placed first, and the quick release second.

We have seen some monopods that have miniature tripod type legs at their base.  We view this as a dangerously useless gimmick.  They don’t provide appreciable extra stability, they are usually weak, and we view them primarily as unwanted weight and complexity, another thing to break, and/or something for someone to trip over.

How Much Benefit Does a Monopod Provide?

We gave some numbers, above, about the benefit of optical image stabilization systems, in terms of how much slower an exposure you could take with a stabilized camera or lens.  In actuality, these were not our calculations – they are the claims of camera and lens manufacturers, which we’ve slightly moderated to err on the side of caution.

What about using a ‘low tech’ monopod instead of a high-tech image stabilization system?  What sort of benefit will you get from a monopod?

There are two variables at play here – first, how well you were holding your camera before and how well you were activating its shutter release.  Secondly, how well you are now using a monopod – monopods require a bit of skill to use properly, as we mention in the preceding sections.

Our guess is that you can expect to be able to reduce your shutter speed by between two and four times and still have comparable sharpness.  If you are getting an eight-fold improvement, probably you were being too lackadaisical with your hand-held technique, and if you’re not getting more than a two-fold improvement, you’re not using your monopod properly.

Although you can get a great reduction in random movement/jitter/shake by using a monopod, you don’t zero it out entirely.  Only a tripod, with care, can completely eliminate any shake or jitter.

Depending on distance and your technique, you can perhaps safely take monopod-aided pictures with two to four times slower shutter speeds, but only down to perhaps as slow as 1/8th or 1/15th of a second.  After that point, you’re almost certainly and unavoidably into tripod territory.  But don’t sneer at the achievement a monopod offers you.  Instead of struggling to get short-range sharp pictures at 1/60th of a second, you can now get better pictures at 1/30th, and maybe even at 1/15th exposures.  That means you can reduce your ISO speed, giving you not just a sharper picture, but also less picture noise and greater picture contrast.

This is the more obscured additional benefit of monopods – the ability to reduce your ISO.  In general, you always want to keep your camera close to its ‘sweet spot’ ISO rating, which is usually around 100 – 160.  This is much more achievable with a monopod.

Choosing a Monopod

There are dozens of monopods for sale, maybe even over 100 at some specialty stores.  But before you get overwhelmed, there are some simple considerations to use to filter out the monopod choices.

First, its length.  Unless you are short in stature, we urge you to seek out longer monopods in preference to shorter ones.  At least 65” should be a starting point.

Second, does it have a built-in swivel/tilt and quick-release head, or does it end in a simple platform?  If it ends as a simple platform, you should buy these additional two accessories (or possibly a single unit combining both functions), so that will add further to the total cost, and weight, and bulk of the unit.  On the plus side, it will also slightly increase its total height.

Third, what is the weight (including the weight of extra head accessories if needed)?  There’s no need to spend hundreds of dollars extra for fancy carbon fiber if it only saves you a couple of ounces, but as long distance walkers know, every ounce you can save is precious.  Do give priority to lighter weight units.

Fourth, how many sections does the unit telescope down into?  Fewer units probably imply the unit will be more rigid when extended, but the rigidity when extended also depends on the quality of design and construction.  This is an area where being able to test out a selection of units is beneficial.

Talking about rigidity, as mentioned above, we don’t like monopods with a miniature base of unfolding legs that give the pretense of some sort of tripod or quadpod at the base.  This is just wasted weight in our opinion; steer clear of this.

Another construction related consideration is how the telescoping sections are locked into place.  We’ve seen three common methods.  The first is where each section is rotated to ‘lock’ it into the section above/below.  We don’t like this – we’ve heard stories of the sections subsequently unlocking, particularly if you are rotating the camera at the top.  The second is with screwable ferrule type locks, which seem to provide stable secure locking, but which take a bit of time to screw and unscrew.  The third is with fold-over clamp levers.  These generally seem to give a good lock as well, and are quick and easy to set and release, so they are our preferred system.

Fifth is cost.  You can get units for under $15, or for over $300.  Clearly you don’t want to go wild and crazy with your money, but equally clearly, a monopod that doesn’t work well is only slightly better than no monopod at all.

Perhaps lastly – are there any additional accessories included?  A carry-bag of some sort?  An extended warranty or a satisfaction guarantee?

We roamed far and wide on Amazon to see what we liked and disliked.  Although they had an enormous number of choices, we decided to insist on at least a 65” height for a monopod, and that caused the number of potential choices to plummet.

Astonishingly, one of the best remaining monopods was actually the cheapest – the Amazon Basics monopod.  It extends to 67”, seems to have no negative issues, and costs $12.99.

There is also a ‘Pro Series’ monopod that is five inches longer when fully extended, and about the same size when collapsed, and costs only another couple of dollars.  This has a quick release but not a tilt/swivel mount on its top.  Our sense is that while the extra 5” is good, the fact that it collapses to about the same length and with the same number of elements might imply it is a bit less rigid in use, but we’ve not tried the two units alongside each other.

We like this unit, and ones like it, that don’t require too many knobs to be adjusted.

You would probably choose to add a quick release tilt/swivel head to the top of this, and there are plenty to choose from – pretty much any of these and ideally one that has both the tilt/swivel and quick release function in a single unit.  The head adapter has the further benefit of adding another couple of inches to the total effective height of the monopod.

One point to keep in mind – you don’t want to be tempted by an ‘over-engineered’ tilt/swivel unit.  We’ve seen some with an impressive number of adjusting knobs, but it seems it makes what should be a quick and simply case of getting the camera leveled and then locked in place into quite a major procedure.

Make sure the tilt/swivel head does allow the camera to be flipped on its side it you want to take a ‘portrait’ mode rather than ‘landscape’ model picture.  All the ones we’ve seen seem to allow this – the illustrated unit on the left shows it in the very front.

Note that some tilt/swivel units require a 3/8” mounting screw in their base, and most monopods have a 1/4” screw, because they’re expecting to be mated to a camera, not a tilt/swivel head.

That isn’t a problem, because you can get adapters to increase the screw size to 3/8” – either screw thread/sleeves such as these, or a nice bushing adapter such as this.  There’s every chance you can get an adapter at your local Home Depot, too.

We also like units that have a bubble level in them, but this is probably not essential.


Well, who would have thought one could write and read so much about something that seems so simple!

The simple summary is that you should have a monopod, and you should use it as a standard part of almost every photo you take.  You will definitely see the improvement in the quality of your photos.

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Aug 042017

The world’s biggest doodle? A 787 flight path covering 18 states. See article, below.

Good morning

We’re having a ‘heat wave’ here in the Seattle area, with temperatures in the mid-90s.  That’s a problem for two-thirds of the population – the two-thirds who don’t have a/c.  Making things much worse is an astonishing amount of smoke everywhere, massively reducing visibility, and threatening the practicality of a Blue Angels display this weekend.  The smoke is from the huge forest fires in Western Canada – and I’m sure there’s some way I should be able to work a ‘build a wall’ statement into those facts, but it is a bit too hot to do so!

Following the newsletter is what I hope you’ll find an interesting travel story.  The concept of road trips might seem to be a uniquely American one, and certainly the magic of Route 66 has been acknowledged for some time.  But 150 years ago, and probably considerably longer, there was – and still is – a very special road trip of even greater national importance in Britain – the ‘End to End’ journey.  And whereas there is little debate as to how to experience a road trip here (ie in a car), the Brits – always eager to encourage eccentricity – have a much broader view of how to enjoy the notional 874 miles of their national road trip.  Walking, running, riding an animal or bicycle, skateboarding, and many more methods of travel of increasing levels of ‘innovativeness’ (my polite word for today) have all been featured, and continue to be enjoyed.

And it is enjoyment that occasioned the article.  This road trip is an integral part of next year’s Grand Expedition tour of Great Britain.  Perhaps after reading the article you’ll have a broader understanding of the special aspirational nature of this journey, and hopefully you’ll choose to join us and participate in our version of the road trip (in a comfortable luxury coach, you’ll be relieved to learn!).

Talking about our amazing British tour next June, we still have a few cabins available for this year’s Christmas cruise.  We continue getting great deals on air with Amawaterways – yesterday a couple saved $140 each on their airfares, in addition to the $750 each cabin saving, and the other various Travel Insider special inclusions and benefits.  Maybe you can, too.

As I’d hoped, last week’s article about the pending restrictions on travel to North Korea drew several excellent comments.  Thank you.  If you missed it last week, here it is, and please feel welcome of course to add your thoughts, too.

The official ban was announced a couple of days ago.  In a rather backwards way, articles such as this chose to lede the story with the four categories of exemptions that the State Department will allow, rather than the otherwise totality of the ban as it will apply to almost all of us.  The four exempt categories are journalists, Red Cross employees on official business, other aid workers with ‘compelling humanitarian considerations’ and others with a trip that is ‘otherwise in the national interest’.  Alas, that definitely excludes me and probably you, too.

If you naughtily do go to North Korea, you’ll be charged with a felony.  Not a tiny little misdemeanor, not a ‘let off with a warning’, but a real massive go-to-jail felony.

I expect not everyone agrees with my belief that the State Dept shouldn’t be restricting our travel rights in the first place, but does anyone feel that going to spend a few days in North Korea as a tourist is a crime worthy of felony charges?  No wonder that we have the highest percentage of our citizens incarcerated of any country in the world (693 per 100,000), eclipsed only by a statistically insignificant count in Seychelles.  North Korea is estimated by the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea to have an incarceration rate very similar to our own, around 600 – 800.  Is this a case of ‘the pot calling the kettle black’?

In addition, please keep reading for the following items to enjoy with your hot or possibly iced coffee this morning :

  • Reader Survey Results – The Right to Film on Planes
  • Hero Pilot?  Or Weak Link?
  • Flying a Plane is Child’s Play.  But if You Show Proof of This, You’ll be Fired
  • What’s Wrong With This Picture?
  • Boeing Draws a Picture.  A Big One.
  • New Air Force One Planes Were Originally Ordered by Russian Carrier
  • Elon Musk Thinks His Customers Are Stupid
  • A New Airplane Terror Threat
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey Results – The Right to Film on Planes

I asked last week if you thought we should be allowed to film while onboard airplanes.  You had three choices – you could say you thought passengers should have an unrestricted right to film on planes, or a limited right only while being granted permission by the flight attendants, or if there should be a total ban on filming.

The results were about as starkly one-sided as one ever sees about anything.

95% of respondents advocated for unrestricted filming.

I’m curious why the handful of people who advocated a total ban feel that way – please feel free to explain (but of course, you’re under no obligation to do so).  It is just that while I can usually see both sides of issues, even when having a clear preference one way or the other, I struggle to see any countervailing good to us as passengers if we’re never allowed to film on flights.

May I also politely but cynically comment to the people who believe that flight attendants should have the authority to regulate when we may or may not film – what do you think will happen as soon as there’s an altercation or incident on board?  Will flight attendants call out ‘Quick everyone, please film this’?  Or will they try to block off the event, and announce that filming is banned for the duration?  My money is on the latter outcome, and I’ll wager every penny I have and a few I don’t have that in cases where the flight attendants themselves are the ‘bad actors’ in any drama, there is no way they’d allow any filming that might risk showing up their misbehavior and subsequent lies.

Hero Pilot?  Or Weak Link?

Here’s a gushy article anointing another ordinary pilot as a hero.  The pilot in question simply landed his plane without crashing or killing anyone on board.  Color me underwhelmed.

To explain the situation, an A320 flew through a hail storm, and the hail stones caused its windshield to be shattered and become difficult/impossible to see through.  So, landing a plane with no visibility – easy or hard?  Is the pilot truly a hero and deserving of the medal awarded him by the Ukrainian Government?

Well, the article sort of gives the show away at the bottom of the story, by reporting that all that happened was the pilot changed from making a visual approach and landing to instead conducting an instrument approach and landing.  What the article doesn’t say is that the pilot could have (and may well have) simply programmed the approach and landing into his autopilot, then sat back, enjoyed a nice cup of tea, and read a book while the plane did the rest, all by itself, the same as pilots do all day every day, with or without perfect visibility out the cockpit front windows.

Additionally, the needless concern about the pilots not being able to see?  If we didn’t have pilots, just sensors, we’d no longer have to worry about pilot visibility at all.  Yes, I know sensors can be disabled, but clearly they weren’t in this case, and bizarrely, the pilot who proved he didn’t need to be able to look out the front of the plane in order to land it got a medal for showing that the plane could land itself.

Flying a Plane is Child’s Play.  But if You Show Proof of This, You’ll be Fired

Continuing what is indeed one of my favorite topics – the over-valued nature of pilots – two pilots of an Air Algerie plane allowed a 10 yr old boy to sit in the pilot’s seat and to ‘fly’ the plane for part of a regular passenger flight.  The pilots subsequently posted a video of the boy’s experience onto social media, and when the video made its way back to the airline’s executives, they instantly suspended the pilots pending an investigation into the matter.

Goodness only knows what there is to investigate.

But the pilots don’t deserve the suspension.  There is almost zero danger of anything going wrong to a passenger plane during the cruise portion of its flight at altitude.  If anyone in the cockpit ‘pushes the wrong button’, you’ve so much time to resolve the issue before things become fraught – even the incompetent pilots of AF447 had 3 1/2 minutes to correct their mistakes before the plane finally finished its descent and crashed into the ocean, killing all on board.

Plus, in this case, the boy was an orphan who dreamed of becoming a pilot and his flight was being sponsored by a local charity.  There was no danger, no risk, the boy was closely supervised, and it was a public relations treat that earned the appreciation of the local community.

Details here.

Purportedly a new 737 flying over Greenland.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

According to this article, this is a picture of a new Norwegian Air 737 MAX flying over Greenland.  Here’s a link to a larger size image.

The article is interesting, although it does seem that in return for a free flight, the reporter wrote a very gushingly positive article.  On the other hand, as one who has also flown on delivery flights, I can understand the reporter’s excitement and enjoyment of the experience.  Yes, there indeed truly is a new plane smell when you first step on board!

It could also be fairly said that Norwegian is an airline worthy of praise, and if you have a chance to fly it yourself, you definitely should do so.

Surprisingly, Norwegian missed a trick by flying the plane empty – they should do what Qantas used to do on delivery flights – sell all the seats to paying passengers.

If you look closely at the picture, you might see some clues that suggest the photo isn’t exactly what its caption suggests it to be.  Answer at the bottom.

Boeing Draws a Picture.  A Big One.

Talking about Boeing and pictures, Boeing is currently testing the use of 3D printed parts on its airplanes.  You may have heard sailors complain about how the cost of any part doubles (or quadruples) when it changes from being a ‘regular’ part to a ‘marine’ part, even if the part itself appears to be indistinguishable from its landlubber twin.

Well, when a part transitions further to becoming an aviation certified part, you can expect another doubling or quadrupling in cost, due as much to the compliance costs of tracking and tracing every last washer and screw.  All parts on a plane have their own unique serial numbers, and have a service history stored.  This is great if something goes wrong with a part – it isn’t like the recall notices you might see at the local supermarket, saying ‘If you bought some Bush Baked Beans in the last some while, please check to see if they are this batch number XYZ123456, because if they are, there might be a problem with them’.  If something goes wrong with an aviation part, it is possible to almost instantly know everything about that part, its service life, where and when it was made, and which other planes also have parts from the same batch/supplier.  And that’s how a washer costing under a penny at Home Depot becomes a dollar part (more or less).

Boeing is hoping to be able to lessen the complexity of its spare parts systems and to reduce its inventories, by instead being able to 3D print parts on demand, as and where needed.  Instead of a huge warehouse full of spare parts at service centers all around the world, there’ll be a 3D printer sitting on a bench, quietly humming to itself as it makes parts as needed.

This benefit wouldn’t just apply to spares.  As this article reports, printing parts to order could reduce the cost of building new planes by $3 million or more per plane.  Maybe that doesn’t sound much on a $200 million plane, but Boeing delivers about 700 planes a year, so that is potentially $2 billion in extra profit, every year.

3D parts are already being used in jet engines.  The current ‘big deal’ is that now 3D parts are being tested for use as structural components as well as smaller bits and pieces.

So why am I telling you this?  For the last week or so, Boeing has been test flying a 787-8 with some of the these 3D parts, primarily on 3 – 4 hour flights around Curacao.  It then flew the plane ‘back home’ to Seattle, and on Wednesday afternoon, took it on an extended flight that ended up taking exactly, to the minute 18 hours prior to landing back at Boeing Field in Seattle.

So where do you fly your plane if you’re on an 18 hour flight to nowhere?  Because it is a test plane, you probably don’t want to be an enormous distance from an airport, just in case those 3D printed parts give problems.  But imagine how boring it would be, just flying a racetrack pattern in an empty bit of sky in Washington State.

So, the pilots instead programmed a kinda neat flight path into their flight management computer system, then probably made themselves comfortable, choose a movie or two (or three or four or five or six or even more) and waited for the 18 hours to tick over.  The kinda neat flight path can be seen in the image at the top of the newsletter.

A nice touch, even to the extent of having the plane pointing directly at Seattle.  And would that be its tail, pointing directly at Boeing’s other 787 assembly plant, in SC – a union-free venue loathed by Boeing’s Seattle union members.

It is interesting, but only mildly so, to note the flight covered 9,896 miles.  The official range of a 787-8 is in the order of 8,450 miles, but that assumes that an appreciable amount of the plane’s weight involves carrying passengers and baggage.  When empty, it can of course fly further.   You can see more statistics to do with the flight here.

New Air Force One Planes Were Originally Ordered by Russian Carrier

There’s something slightly amusing about this.  News emerged this week that the Air Force has negotiated a discount price on two 747-8 planes originally ordered by former Russian airline, Transaero, but which were cancelled as part of Transaero’s collapse and merger into Aeroflot in 2015.

Boeing finally got around to cancelling the order (which was for three planes) just last month; it had optimistically been on its order books for the last two years although no-one considered it to be anything other than an example of monumental optimism on Boeing’s part, and the planes have been sitting unloved and unwanted in storage in California.

We are told that the two planes – never delivered to Russia – were secured at a substantial discount off list price, and that their acquisition will likely allow their modification and delivery to proceed ahead of the original schedule, which would have seen them entering service in 2023.

So it seems more probable that President Trump will get to fly on them before he finishes his second term (ducking for cover after making that statement!).

Elon Musk Thinks His Customers Are Stupid

Last Friday evening saw the bizarre ‘delivery ceremony’ when Tesla triumphantly delivered the first 30 of their new Model 3 cars, to their first 30 ‘customers’.

I put quotes around the word ‘customers’ because it turns out that the 30 lucky people were actually Tesla employees.  Far from being on schedule and now delivering real cars to real customers, you still can’t yet order a Tesla on their website, or even see a price list or configurator.  Sure, apparently close on 500,000 people have plunked down $1,000 refundable deposits to reserve a place in line for a car, but how can you truly order and buy a car when there are no published details of the car, its price, its options and prices, or even the color choices you have.  In Tesla’s alternate reality, it seems that deliveries are preceding orders!

We have been told snippets of information about the new car, and given disjointed bits of data; for example, there is a $5,000 premium options package that includes an all-glass roof, open-pore wood decor, premium sound, heated seats, and premium seat materials.   But what exactly is the premium sound or premium seat materials and what are the standard versions?  Don’t know.

We are told that to choose any color other than black will add $1,000 to the price, but what are the color choices?  We are told that only a $49,000 model car will be available until some time in early 2018, but what exactly do you get for the $49,000 (a steep increase over the $35,000 anticipated standard model price)?  What color will it be?  And so on.

While you might think there’s a bit of desperate hope in all of this, by Musk and his company, that their devoted fans won’t notice the strange lack of specifics about a car that in theory is now being sold and also delivered to customers, that isn’t why Musk is of the opinion his customers are stupid.  Well, it might be one of the reasons, but there’s a bigger one.

Maybe it is Musk himself who is stupid, but he has decided that Tesla will no longer disclose the battery capacity in their cars, because his customers might find that confusing.

Until now, Tesla (and other manufacturers) have disclosed how much charge can be stored in their cars’ batteries. That is the same as a regular car manufacturer telling us the capacity of the gas tank.

Tesla (and all other companies) have also converted the charge capacity into an estimated range figure – so many miles of driving.  From those two numbers, we can reach a third very important number – the fuel efficiency of the car.  In the case of regular cars, we are usually told the fuel efficiency (ie miles per gallon) up front, and then work out from that the range.  With electric cars, we are more likely to do the sum differently – we know the capacity and range, and from that can work out the fuel efficiency.

But whether gas or electricity powered, the fuel efficiency is an essential data point when evaluating cars – and perhaps therein lies part of Tesla’s decision.  Until now, they’ve had few/no competitors, so who cares what their fuel efficiency is – it is way better than petrol in terms of the cost to drive each mile, and that was enough for everyone.  But now that competitors are springing up everywhere, an increasingly sophisticated (or, as Musk views it, ‘stupid’) customer will want to understand both an electric vehicle’s range and also its efficiency, and perhaps Musk now wishes to deliberately hide that, so as to make it harder for a Tesla to be compared to any of the other electric vehicles slated to appear over the next short while.

Who reading this doesn’t care what it costs per mile to ‘fill the tank’, whether you be filling the tank with petrol, diesel, or electricity?  Isn’t that, and the cost per mile in fuel, an essential part of working out total costs of ownership?

It is actually maybe even more important to know this for an electric car, because unlike regular cars, where you never need to replace the fuel tank, sooner or later with an electric car, you’ll need to replace its battery pack, and a higher capacity pack will of course cost more to replace than a lower capacity pack.

However, for the Model 3, and in the future, even for the Models S and X, the battery pack capacity will not be disclosed.  We know there will be two battery pack options with the Model 3, and that in some combination of temperature, speed, and everything else, they will give about 220 and 310 miles respectively.  But are these 50 kWhr packs?  100 kWhr packs?  Or something bigger or smaller?  Tesla won’t tell us, because, they say, we would find this confusing.  Because, they imply, we are stupid.

So, there you have it, from Mr Musk himself.  He is designing his cars for stupid people.  I guess he also hopes we won’t notice that with all the artificial excitement about his artificial deliveries, no-one will notice that his promise to have a $35,000 car being delivered this year is not being honored.  But what is another $14,000 to a stupid person?

Meanwhile, the Chevrolet Bolt – a car that was delivered on time, and at the promised price point, outsold both the Tesla Model S and the Tesla  Model X last month, with steadily increasing monthly sales as it is rolled out to more and more states (also ahead of schedule).

A New Airplane Terror Threat

There was a curious item in the news last weekend, about how Australian authorities had thwarted a planned terrorist attack in a plane, perhaps to be mounted at Sydney airport.  I was interested to learn more about it, because until now, Australia (and New Zealand) have seemed to be safely removed from the main terror zones in the world, and also because I always view such claims with cynicism.  Just how real are these plots?  Is it a couple of teenage boys fantasizing over the internet in their respective parents’ basements?  Or, also quite common, is it some dreamers who are actually egged on and encouraged to do something by intelligence service agents running something perilously close to entrapment?  Or is it a well equipped, well-funded, and well-trained group of dedicated experts, seconds away from staging a genuine and likely to be successful event?

We have now been told a little more about it.  It seems the plan may have involved smuggling a canister of gas onto the plane, with a view to gas everyone on the plane (possibly to make them simply unconscious, maybe to kill them).  Then, the (presumably gas-masked) terrorists could simply stroll up to the cockpit, kick the door open, dislodge the sleeping/dead pilots from their controls, and take over the plane.  During the gas release, the plane would almost certainly be on auto-pilot, as any typical flight invariably is for 99% of any journey these days, so there would be no risk or danger, as we see in the movies, of the pilot slumping over the control column, pushing it forward, and the plane plunging down in a dive to the ground.  Although probably that would be the terrorists’ plan, sooner or later, somewhere, in any event.  Flight safety isn’t exactly high on a terrorist’s priority list.

The clever thing about a gas attack is that the gas could be taken on the plane in a very hard to detect form (not so sure about gas masks, though!).  An X-ray machine would just see what it thinks to be an empty container.  This article describes some more about the Australian incident, but it also has some strange claims – for example, the suggestion that it would be complicated to make a device to ’emit the gas’.  Seems to me that a screw top would be not too impossibly complex!

On the other hand, effectively ‘gassing’ everyone on a plane would not be simple, because the air in an airplane is being constantly replaced, at a higher rate than in a typical building, even at a higher rate than hospitals.  Depending on the plane and its cabin management settings, the air is being changed every two to six minutes.  So unless you had a very substantial quantity of gas and a high volume delivery system, and unless the gas quickly took effect in small quantities, and had a long period of effectiveness, a gas attack would be useless.

The gas would have to be odorless and fast acting, too.  If the pilots in the cockpit detected the gas, they’d switch to oxygen masks and be protected from any cabin zone contamination.  Indeed, the air flows in a plane are such that little air from the cabin goes back into the cockpit (some does via recirculated air that is mixed with fresh air on each cycle), primarily the air flows from the cockpit and into the cabin, rather than vice versa.

So perhaps not the most serious of threats.  Unless of course, the gas is poisonous, and you’re sitting right next to the canister when it is opened.

And Lastly This Week….

If you’re a tall big man – over 6’2″ and 225 lbs, and with a 40″ or larger waistline, lets hope you don’t enjoy roller coasters.  Similarly, if you’re a 200lb+ lady wearing a size 18 or larger, bad news for you too.

A new amusement park in Alabama are setting these – what appear to be quite distinctively low – size/weight restrictions on some of their new rides.  I guess it is cheaper to build less-strong rides than to build more robustly engineered ones, and my advice would be not to argue the toss if you’re told you’re too tall/heavy/rotund for the ride.  The life you save might be your own!

A new approach to joint tourism promotion that promises to be all about Dull, Boring, and Bland has been excitedly announced this week.  What is the excitement?  Well, how else would you feel, other than excited, if you lived and worked in the tourism industries of Dull in Scotland, Boring in OR, and Bland in Australia?

Oh – the problem with the picture?  Here’s a key to the anomalies.

From left to right, it first seems that, astonishingly for a plane allegedly at 35,000 ft and flying at 550 mph over Greenland, there are a couple of safety cones flying in formation with it.

Now, notice the little orange light.  Admittedly, the two pilots are too happily chatting with the third person to give it a second thought, but it is an important light.  The ‘Master Caution’ light – there’s a second one on the far right as well.

Perhaps the reason for the Master Caution would be that the pilots seem to have forgotten to raise the landing gear.  In the oval, you’ll see the lever is in the lowered rather than raised position, and the three indicator lights are happily green, indicating the gear is down and locked, and that’s certainly not something you’d normally do while cruising.

But maybe there’s another reason for the Master Caution indicator.  It is hard to see in this sized picture, but the indicators in the rectangle, easier to see in the full-sized picture in the article, suggests the engines aren’t running.

So – a picture in midair over Greenland?  Or a picture on the ground at Paine Field in Everett, WA?

Truly lastly this week, there’s a big variation in the hotels that air crew get to stay in when they’re overnighting away from home.  Some crew, in some cities, get treated to amazingly luxurious hotels.  Other crew, and in other cities, get to stay in very basic hotels.

Some Air India crew are very unhappy with the hotel they are assigned in Chicago, and are even asking not to be placed on that route because of the hotel.  The problem with the hotel?  It is haunted.  Sadly, the article doesn’t disclose the hotel’s name.  But does feature an image purporting to be of a ghost.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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