Handwarmers – Helping Keep You Warm in Wintry Destinations

We recommend the 7+ hour Grabber brand hand warmers as being the best for most purposes.

We recommend the 7+ hour Grabber brand hand warmers as being the best for most purposes.

Some of us are blessed with living in climates that remain warm all year, and the thought of traveling to a cold destination can be off-putting and interfere with what might otherwise be a wonderful travel experience.

Speaking as one who has enjoyed considerable time in Russia over many mid-winter seasons, the happy reality is that there are only a very few truly extreme locations in the world where extreme cold needs to be a consideration in your travel planning (and, perhaps surprisingly, Russia is not one of those few places to be worried about).

Most of Europe – at least the types of places commonly visited by tourists – seldom or never get ‘too cold’, assuming you exercise a reasonable amount of prudence with what you wear.

This issue particularly came to light when a couple cancelled off our Christmas Cruise this year, because of concerns about the weather being impossibly cold for them.  I checked – the average temperatures in their home city were only 5° F (2.8° C) warmer than the truly moderate and above freezing average temperatures of the places they decided not to visit in Europe.  That’s hardly a compelling reason to cancel an otherwise wondrous and reasonably mild late fall travel experience.

Perhaps that points to the first aspect of keeping warm when traveling – do some research and understand what the temperatures are actually likely to be.

How Cold Will it Actually Be?

This great chart shows daily high/low temperatures, and a range from likely to extreme.

This great chart shows daily high/low temperatures, and a range from likely to extreme.

It is either an unusually wise man – or, more commonly, a fool – who claims to be able to predict the weather more than a few days out.  But we can see historical averages for most medium and larger sized cities, and while they don’t guarantee that the temperature at the same time this year will be the same as these averages, it gives us a range of temperatures to plan around.

Better weather sites tell you more than just an overly simplistic average temperature per month.  They might tell you, day by day, not just the average temperature but also the range of temperatures for each day – average daily high, average daily low, and also extreme daily high and extreme daily low.  Some sites even show temperature bands for different percentile ranges of temperature, giving you a huge amount of temperature information.

In addition, you might also want to know about snow and or rain – both in terms of total amount of precipitation and also the number of days on which it occurs – there’s clearly a big difference between a month with 6″ of rain, all of which occurs on one day only in a single brief massive downpour, and a month with 6″ of rain but spread over 24 days, each with an annoying ¼” of rain.

Another factor in cold weather can be wind – stronger winds make the felt temperature and cooling effect much worse than gentle or no winds, so it is helpful to understand about wind as well.

Here’s an example of a great set of data – this for Prague in December.  The only possible ‘trap’ on this site is to always be aware of the chart scales – they don’t go from 0 – 100 or whatever, but tend to focus in on just a relevant section of the scale, and so you might see two similar seeming charts, but with different temperature ranges on the scale which means the results, while looking pictorially the same, are actually very different!

In addition to browsing this Weatherspark site, and in particular, loading their Dashboard, you can readily find weather information just by searching in Google for the city or region name and then something like ‘weather averages for (month)’ or ‘average temperatures for (month), or a similar phrase, for example :  Prague average weather for December.

Don’t forget, also, to match this data up against similar data for your home city.  You know what it feels like and what to expect, but you might be surprised at how it is reported on these sites, and this helps you better understand the ‘apples for apples’ comparison.

Fighting the Cold in General

Now, for a very important thing to ensure your comfort.  Keep yourself warm and anticipate the cold.  Please do not wait until you feel cold before adding another layer.  If you wait until you start to feel cold, you’ve placed yourself ‘behind the eight ball’ and your body now has to both keep up and catch up – that’s a lot harder than merely needing to keep up, all the time.

So, anticipate the cold by adding extra clothing before you get cold, and leave it on until you’ve warmed up when you go into buildings or into other heated areas.  Try to never start feeling cold, because once the cold sets in, it is very hard to shake it off again.

If at all possible, put your outer layers on before leaving a warm place.  That way, you’re trapping warm air between your clothing layers, rather than cold air.  It is easier to keep this air at its present temperature than it is to trap cold air once you get outside, and need to then expend energy warming it up.

We’re not going to discuss the types of warm clothing available to you, other than to mention three important items you might not automatically consider.  Hat, scarf and gloves.

You might have heard stories about how the body loses 40% – 50% of all its heat through your head.  Actually, although popularly cited, the statistic is wrong.  It is true to say ‘a fully dressed in warm clothes person loses 40% of their heat through their head’ but that is different to saying that 40% of all your heat goes out your head.  This article (and plenty of others) rebuts this old wives’ tale and explains how it arose back in the 1950s.

But, even so, you do lose some heat through your head and neck, and it is a very simple thing to stick a hat on top and to wrap a scarf around your neck.  This will greatly improve your feeling of comfort and will reduce your overall heat loss.  Neither a scarf nor a hat needs to be particularly bulky or heavy, so they are good things to be sure to travel with.

Gloves are also close to essential, both to keep you warm and also to keep your fine motor skills in your hands rather than becoming cold and clumsy (then the next thing you know, you’ve dropped your expensive camera or phone (not sure which is worse these days!) and either damaged or lost it.  So do keep your hands warm and functioning well.

Hand Warmers

And now for hand warmers.  They can be a great comfort on a cold day – and don’t forget there are also toe warmers and even ‘body warmers’ too.  Why be unnecessarily cold when you can conveniently bring your own portable micro-heater with you, wherever you go?

There are four types of hand warmer commonly found.  They are each very different to the other, so let’s consider each of them in turn.

Reusable Hand Warmers

For many people, the idea of a reusable hand warmer has an intuitive appeal, because of the ability to reuse them time and time again.

These devices typically work by means of a chemical reaction which releases heat when a substance changes from liquid to solid.  A metal clicker type device inside the pack is snapped to initiate the reaction, and then for the next 15 – 60 minutes (usually in this time range) the unit gives off heat while converting from a liquid to a hard solid.

To reuse, you place the device in boiling water for 5 – 15 minutes (or sometimes even microwave it) and it converts back to a liquid.

The units can remain in their liquid form for an extended time, awaiting activation.

That’s the good news part.  The not so good news is that their heat emitting properties are moderate rather than strong, and they only give out heat for 15 – 45 minutes.  That’s too short for most of the situations most people would want hand warmers for.  And, for many people, when traveling it may not be convenient to find a source of boiling water in which to reactivate the units.

So while these are good for ‘around the house’ type use if you’re going to pottering out in the yard for a while, they’re perhaps not as practical for people traveling away from home.

Electric Hand Warmers

Electric hand warmers are available both with rechargeable batteries or powered by single use (typically AA) batteries.

Two of the better brands for rechargeable hand warmers seem to be Sunpentown and Sanyo Eneloop.  But, as best we can tell from carefully reading through a broad range of user reviews, you’ll probably get between one and three hours of moderate heat emitting from these units per charge.  That is definitely better than the reusable chemical units mentioned above, but it is unlikely to be sufficient for a tourist doing a half day or longer sightseeing tour of a city somewhere.

They are also moderately expensive up front – $30 – $40 each (and of course you want two – one for each hand).

There are also some electric hand warmers that use one, two or three AA batteries (and possibly other models using AAA batteries too) to provide a source of heat.  It seems these give out not much heat, and for not much more than an hour or so, at the end of which, you’ve of course drained your battery and need to put in a new one to keep the heat flowing.

Maybe that is acceptable, but in such a case, it begs the question – if you’re now using single use rather than multi use devices, why not keep it low tech and buy regular single use hand warmers instead?  They’ll give you more heat, for longer and for less money than battery-powered electric warmers.

Which brings us to :

Single Use Hand Warmers

For most people, these will probably be the best approach.  While it seems regrettable to use something once then throw it away, they are inexpensive and effective and present as a great solution for most people and situations.

A typical single use hand warmer is a small little fabric type packet of iron granules mixed together with several other chemicals that essentially serve to cause the iron to rust at an accelerated rate, giving off heat during its rusting process.  They are kept in airtight barrier pouches, and when you open the pouch, the oxygen in the air provides the missing ingredient to enable the rust (ie oxidization) process to occur.

Different formulations provide heat output for varying amounts of time, and most commonly, you’ll find they provide 5 – 10 hours of warmth.

The little packet/pouch is usually about 1.5″ across, about 3″ long, and about 1/3rd of an inch thick.  It weighs typically 0.5 – 1.0 ounces.  One of the good things of these packets is because they have granules inside, they will conform to the size and shape of your hand, enabling you to clutch them tightly and get maximum heat transfer from them.

A set of two hand warmers (ie one for each hand) typically sells from 75c to $1 or so on places such as Amazon, depending on the product and the quantity you buy.

Our sense is that the best brand is the Grabbers brand, and generally we prefer their 7+ hour to their 10+ hour product, because most of the time, seven hours is enough, and our sense is that the seven hour product gives slightly more heat, which makes sense because its reaction is occurring slightly more quickly.  The ten-hour warmers are also slightly more expensive.

Testing done by a reader suggested that the 7+ hour Grabber hand warmers continued to give appreciable heat for up to about 8.5 hours and possibly longer.  I tested some Little Hottie units, rated at ‘Up to 8 hours’, but which dropped down to insignificant heat levels at about the 5.5 hour point.  While these are subjective measurements, the enormous difference between 8.5 hours for the Grabber units and 5.5 hours for the Little Hottie means that even after allowing for the imprecision of subjective measurements, clearly the Grabber units are superior.  At the same time the Grabber units were still providing heat, the Little Hotties had become inert and were cool to the touch.

Other reviews by people who have tried multiple brands tend to bear this out.

Liquid Fuel Hand Warmers

We really wanted to like the Zippo hand warmer, but in the end were forced to give in to rational analysis and admit its weaknesses.

We really wanted to like the Zippo hand warmer, but in the end were forced to give in to rational analysis and admit its weaknesses.

Until researching this article, I’ve sometimes encountered advertisements for the Zippo Hand Warmer, a device that looks like an oversize Zippo lighter, and rolled my eyes at the thought of putting a device with a burning flame in one’s pocket.  Maybe you’ve seen the product too and thought the same.

I was mistaken.  The Zippo product uses a catalytic conversion process to flamelessly and therefore safely convert its lighter fluid fuel into heat.  Yes, you could say the fuel still ‘burns’ inasmuch as it oxidizes and produces heat, but it doesn’t create a dangerous/dirty flame as part of this process.

Thus corrected, I ordered one from Amazon to test.  The good news – you can get long-lasting heat from the unit (up to about 12 hours), and usually the heat is greater than from any of the other types of hand warming product.  Plus, it is re-usable – just add lighter fluid to recharge it, and off you go again.

So, what’s not to like?  Alas, quite a lot.

The first challenge is that the unit is surprisingly big.  Remember the single use sachets that measure about 1.5″ across, about 3″ long, and about 1/3rd of an inch thick?  Well, the Zippo device is more like  2.6″  by 4.0″ and 0.6″ thick at its thickest part.  Much more than twice the size, and while you might think ‘What’s wrong with that – more warmth to savor on a cold day’, that’s not quite the way it works in practice.

Firstly, only about half the Zippo heats up.  The bottom half is its fuel reservoir and stays reasonably cool, only the top half is the burner.

Secondly, its large and solid shape doesn’t fit in most people’s hands as conveniently as the moldable packets of granules do, making for less effective heat transfer.  This would particularly be an issue for women with smaller hands, not quite such an issue for men with larger hands.

Thirdly, while on the face of it, the unit should be cheaper to use than disposable hand warmers, that’s not necessarily the case.  Although the upfront cost is minimal (about $12 – $15 each on Amazon) it consumes lighter fluid (just under half an ounce for about 6 hours in my testing), which, if you’re buying regular Zippo lighter fluid means about 40c per use.  You also need to replace the catalyst every 70 – 80 uses, and that’s about another 12c or so per use.  Which means you’re now spending about 50c per use of the Zippo, and you need two (one for each hand) which brings the cost up to a dollar, which compares quite closely to the typical 75c – $1 cost of a pair of disposable hand warmers.

Of course, the main issue here is not cost but effectiveness, and the Zippo does give off more heat, and – if you fill it all the way – will do so reliably for a longer time, although it is not as easy to ‘use’ the heat.

There are two more considerations.  The first is that you are not allowed to fly with lighter fluid in either your checked or carry on baggage (although if you were to fill a perfume bottle with it and put it in your checked bag, that might slip under the TSA radar), and finding lighter fluid at your destination may prove to be a non-trivial task.  Fewer people smoke, and fewer of the remaining smokers use ‘old fashioned’ lighter fluid type lighters.  Furthermore, you may need quite a lot – a standard 4 ounce can of fluid will only last maybe four days, depending on how much of a fill you give your warmers each day.

The second consideration is that filling and lighting the device is slightly awkward.  You need to hold a match or lighter to the unit for 15 – 30 seconds continuously in order to start the catalytic process.  That’s too long for a single match, so you need a regular Zippo lighter or a disposable gas lighter or something else with you too.

Don’t get us wrong.  We like the Zippo units, but they are far from a perfect solution and also have no cost benefits compared to ultra-convenient disposable single use warmers.

So for most people and most purposes, you’ll probably not get a Zippo lighter and will instead get single use Grabber products.

Using a Single Use Hand Warmer

There are several things to consider when using the single use hand warmers.  The first is to check the expiry date on the hand warmer before buying it.  We guess the units slowly oxidize over time anyway, and while there’s no sharp sudden end of functionality on their expiry date, the closer you get to (or beyond) its expiry, the less heat it will give, and for a shorter time period.

The units activate as soon as you open the plastic carry bags they come in.  Within a minute or so they are warm, and they seem to continue producing heat at the maximum rate for at least half their rated life, then at some point beyond that, the heat output starts to gradually decline until reaching a point where they no longer provide useful heat any more.

When you first activate the units, knead them in your hand a bit to break up any clumping of the chemicals inside them.  While it is generating heat, you’ll probably find an additional kneadings every hour or two will break up clumpings that seem to occur during the chemical reaction.

It is common to find people holding the hand warmers, while wearing gloves, with the hand warmers on the outside of the gloves.  That is okay, but for a stronger ‘hit’ of heat, put the hand warmers into your gloves, between your palms and the glove lining.  That will make a big difference.

As well as hand warmers, manufacturers also make foot/toe warmers to stick in your shoes.  These can be wonderfully warming.  There are also various body warmer type products, too.

In theory, once you activate a hand warmer you can’t then pause it, but we have noticed some Grabber packs come with a sealable barrier bag.  In theory you can put your hand warmers into this bag, squish out as much air as possible and seal it, and so with no oxygen, the hand warmers stop generating heat, and will restart again when you take them out of the bag.  That is largely true, and can be a great idea if, for example, your day comprises two or three hours mainly outdoors, then a couple of hours indoors for lunch, then two or three more hours outdoors again after lunch.  By slowing the hand warmers down during the two hours indoors, that will help ensure they last all the way through your afternoon activities.

We’d not bother doing this for 15 – 30 minutes of indoor time, but for more than an hour, it may be worthwhile if later in the day, you might be approaching the end of the hand warmers’ lives.


Being cold arouses a less rational concern in some people than does being hot.  The perhaps surprising reality is that in our travels we’ve seen many more people suffer from heat exhaustion and dehydration, to the point of requiring hospitalization, than we’ve seen people requiring hospitalization for the effects of cold weather.  Indeed, we’ve never had or seen any experience of any severe ill effects from being too cold.  Okay, so we’ve yet to journey up to the top of Mt Everest or to the North Pole – when we’ve done that, we might have to revise this claim.

Don’t let a concern about being cold interfere with your enjoyment of winter traveling.  The world is a very different place in winter, with a very different beauty to that in summer.

The best supplement to warm clothing are disposable hand warmers, and the best disposable hand warmers are made by Grabber.  Amazon sell them in a range of different pack sizes, for as little as 75c per two hand pair.

Weekly Roundup Friday 4 October 2013

That blob, obscured by the flames from its burning batteries, was a Tesla.

That blob, obscured by the flames from its burning batteries, was a Tesla.

Good morning

October 1 not only saw our government slightly shrink in size, but also marked the 71st anniversary of the first jet flight in the US, back in 1942 as described on this page.

Perhaps as a side-effect of being slow into World War 2, the US lagged behind both Germany and Britain in the development of jet technology, but few could argue that we’ve subsequently caught up (although let’s not overlook the ongoing presence of Rolls-Royce in Britain and the much smaller participation of German company MTU in the IAE consortium).

Still on the manufacturing front, the last week also saw the anniversary of the first production line Model T leave Ford’s Piquette Plant in Detroit, back on 27 September, 1908.  I wonder if Henry Ford ever guessed at the robot driven assembly lines of today, and the computerized cars they produce?  Of using aluminum as a material (back then it was more expensive than silver)?  And as for modern thermo-plastics, they were yet to be invented.

This last week also saw the unexpected passing of Tom Clancy, an author who probably single-handedly did more to define and popularize the ‘techno-thriller’ genre than anyone before or since.

A decade or so ago I sort of zoned out with the ongoing profusion of formulistic books bearing his name in big letters although largely written by others, but I still remember the excitement and rush to read his books during his first half-dozen or so releases.

Strangely, it still seems that his first work – The Hunt for Red October – was one of his best works.  And so, as a tribute to Mr Clancy, I uncovered this parody of the book, written by a group of real CIA employees, and full of insider jokes – if nothing else, it gives us an unintended glimpse of what life might really truly be like as a CIA staffer.

Surely the CIA isn’t that bureaucratic?  Or is it?

The other momentous event of the last week was Amawaterways giving us four more cabins for the Christmas cruise, after another group cancelled.  Two couples urgently grabbed two of the cabins, but two remain, both ultra-value D cabins.  If you’d like to take one of these steals of a deal and come along too, the note I sent out on Friday night is repeated, below.

Also below is a review of another business/travel type backpack.  By that I mean not a capacious outdoor camping one, but a medium-sized one that looks demure and discreet.  I’d reviewed a similar backpack in May, and now have two for side by side comparisons.

I’m definitely a convert to the concept of traveling with a backpack rather than a hand carry tote/briefcase/bag, but it seems that the perfect backpack for travelers has yet to be designed.  We’re close, but both products lack some simple but important features.  Meantime, and noting that ‘the excellent is the enemy of the good’, either of the two reviewed products would make a great improvement over most carry bags.

Our continually updated news site continues to get the latest and greatest travel related news out there in a timely manner (last week saw over 70 items added).  I’m enjoying it as much as anyone, because the team of ‘docents’ who are selecting news items to list on the site often uncover great pieces I’ve not seen myself.  Chances are there are plenty of pieces you’d enjoy reading, too.

It is also my sense that the nightly newsletter listing of each day’s new stories is proving popular.  It is getting a very high percentage of ‘opens’ and of clicks on to some of the featured stories.  If you’d like to get each day’s news pushed to you, then by all means sign up for the free news newsletter (the ‘Free Daily Newsletter’ option at the top of the News page).

And now that you might be getting a feeling for what the site is and what it does, if you’d like to become one of our elite team of volunteer docents, please do let me know.

And now, items on :

  • Survey Results – Tipping Flight Attendants
  • Frontier Airlines Sold
  • Another Spectacular Battery Fire – But This Time Not on a 787
  • More Cross-Channel Rail Service
  • Interesting New Travel/Cruise Blog
  • Chinese Touring Costs to Rise
  • Travel Implications of the Government Shutdown
  • More Reasons to Doubt the Success of Apple’s Latest iPhone Launch
  • Exciting Android News
  • And Lastly This Week….

Survey Results – Tipping Flight Attendants

Last week I asked your opinion on tipping flight attendants.  Unsurprisingly, most of you responded that you’ll never tip flight attendants, ever.  But do you see the surprising part of the results?



To me, the surprising part of the results is the 20% of people who don’t currently tip, but would do so in the future to conform to peer pressure.

Or maybe it isn’t really surprising at all – I think all of us, even the most strong-willed, tip as much to conform to social expectations as we do in a voluntary and unplanned act expressing surprise and appreciation at an unusual level of service.

So if the flight attendants can persuade enough of the 68% who adamantly refuse to tip, they’ll get another 20% of passengers tipping as a bonus.

As a quick comparison, here are the results from our survey, a couple of years ago, of tipping hotel maids.  Clearly, Travel Insiders are potentially – but selectively – generous.



Frontier Airlines Sold

After having had a ‘For Sale’ sign dangling out their corporate office window for an embarrassingly long time, it seems that Frontier (currently owned by Republic) is finally getting a new owner.

The new owner is Indigo Partners, and if that’s not a name that immediately signifies anything to you, it might help to explain that Indigo Partners is the investment firm largely belonging to  Bill Franke.  And if his name is not known to you, let me explain that he was, until immediately prior to buying Frontier, the Chairman of Spirit, which he bought in 2006 and transformed into a very low-cost (and very high fee) airline.

Franke was the CEO of America West from 1993 – 2001, and was also an early investor in Ryanair.  His other airline interests include holdings in Tiger Air (Singapore), Volaris (Mexico), Mandala Airlines (Indonesia) and the indelicately named Wizz Air (Hungary).  So he’s far from an airline industry novice.

The expectation is that he now plans to out-Spirit Spirit with his new airline, probably going closer to the Ryanair model of almost throwaway fares and massive fees for everything – but without the (in)famous Ryanair attitude.

Frontier and Spirit are similar in size (each has about 1.5% of the US market) and have few overlapping routes.  The really surprising thing is that Franke wasn’t able to arrange things so the two airlines merged, which would create a carrier of more significant size with a greatly expanded route network.

Frontier under its new ownership can be expected to become a more active player in the industry than it has been of late.  Frontier is almost exclusively a Denver hubbed airline – approximately 93% of all its flights either start or end in Denver.

It will be interesting to see if giant United will choose to use its dominance of Denver (40% share) to squish Frontier (22% share) before it becomes too big to squish, now that it may start to show some resurgent signs of being a bother to United.

And the other always wildcard in that equation is the number two airline at Denver, which you might be surprised (if you don’t live in Denver) to learn is Southwest, which has quickly amassed a 25% market share.

Here’s some more about Franke and the sale.

Another Spectacular Battery Fire – But This Time Not on a 787

During Boeing’s battery crisis earlier this year, wunderkind Elon Musk, founder of the Tesla company, offered to help Boeing with their battery problems.  He claimed his company had considerable expertize and a great deal of success and assured safety with its Lithium-ion battery-powered electric cars.

He also didn’t hesitate to tell Boeing in public what he thought their problems were, and to suggest that the solution would be to build batteries the same way Tesla does in its cars.

Anyway, that was then.  And as for now, well, an embarrassing incident occurred on Tuesday evening this week, here in the Seattle area, when a Tesla’s battery caught on fire and made a spectacular blaze.  And, this being 2013, another passing motorist caught it on video, and immediately shared it on YouTube for the rest of the world to see.

Amazingly, the fire department was on the scene within three minutes.  They soon discovered that using fire hoses and water made the fire worse, not better!  It took them 2½ hours on the scene to be sure they had the fire contained and controlled.

It is interesting to note the comment of the video taker, as heard on his video.  From the far side of the four lane road, he said ‘Wow, I can feel the heat in here’.  Lithium fueled fires burn hotter than the surface of the sun.

The cause of the fire isn’t yet clear.  The driver says he heard a noise and thinks he must had hit some debris on the road, which somehow was flung up by the tires and initiated the battery fire.  That’s a possibility, although no likely debris was found; another possibility is that the noise and slight judder/impact he thought was coming from debris hitting the car’s underside was actually one of the cells in the battery exploding.

But there’s no right answer to what caused the fire.  A spontaneous explosion is really bad, but to have batteries that can burst into flames whenever a car hits some piece of road debris – a far from unique occurrence for us all – is equally bad.

While this was in a car, not in a plane, there’s a chilling lesson that we should take from it.  These lithium-ion batteries are enormously dangerous, and even the ‘best practices’ of Tesla – battery cooling, and having lots of tiny cells, separated from each other, in the hope of preventing a ‘domino’ effect of one battery’s conflagration causing a chain reaction of surrounding batteries then bursting into fire too – failed to prevent a fire that was very hard to put out and burned very hotly for up to 2½ hours.

To extinguish the fire, fire fighters had to tip the vehicle on its side and cut into the battery compartment so they could access the batteries and somehow extinguish the fire.

None of this could be done on a plane in mid-flight.  It seems to have only taken a minute or two from the first indication of something being wrong to flames leaping out of the car – if this was on a plane, there’s no way the plane could land in time, even if it was happily flying over an airport at the time of the event.  And, yes, the intense heat would definitely not just melt plastic but also set it (and also aluminum) on fire.

While it was Tesla with egg all over its face on Tuesday night (and a falling stock price the next days as a result), the implications for Boeing and its 787 are obvious and surely of the greatest concern.  Just how safe can their new battery boxes possibly be, with so much energy that could suddenly let loose from the batteries.

This article discusses the matter some more.

More Cross-Channel Rail Service

Earlier this year, Deutsche Bahn – the German rail operator – announced it would be the first external railroad to access the Eurostar track between London, through the Chunnel, and to the continent.  Its service is expected to start in 2016, and is thought to involve trains between London and several European cities – almost certainly Frankfurt, and perhaps Cologne and even Amsterdam.

Not to be outdone, Eurostar, the current exclusive passenger train operator through the Chunnel, has said that it will add service between London and Amsterdam too (with stops in Antwerp, Rotterdam and Schiphol on the way).  Total journey time between London and Amsterdam is expected to be about four hours, which is comparable to what it takes to fly.

The London-Amsterdam city pair is the most flown one of all London-Europe city pairs, with about 3 million passengers a year.  That’s a lot of plane loads (probably at least 40 a day) and if even only half that switches to trains, well, it will be a few more opened slots at Heathrow if nothing else.

The service is not expected to get underway until December 2016.  More details here.

Interesting New Travel/Cruise Blog

One of our Travel Insider Super Supporters, Steve Wellmeier, has recently ‘gone out on his own’ and is now providing a range of marketing and other services to small cruise ship lines and other niche travel companies; indeed in his first month I see he has already picked up five clients.  As a ‘loss leader’ he shares some of his expertise, analysis, and advice on a new blog; the pieces are of special interest to people within the travel industry, but of general interest to everyone else as well.

He is also our most prolific docent on the new News site, too.  Not sure how he fits it all into each day, but clearly he does.

You might want to visit his blog, especially if you’re in the travel industry.

Chinese Touring Costs to Rise

Anyone who has ever gone to China knows to expect a constant barrage of ‘opportunities’ to buy things – a typical day of touring always seems to involve copious time at a jade or silk or art or other store.

The reason for this is fairly transparently obvious – the tour company, and/or the individual tour guide, gets a kickback from the store based on the value of goods sold to the people in the group.  The kickback can be 30% and possibly even more, depending on the store and the goods it is selling.

Indeed, when I put together tours that include China, it is a struggle to explain to the tour companies that I’ll pay extra for the tour so as to avoid the tourist traps.

This doesn’t just occur in China, of course.  There used to be – and for all I know still are – companies in Japan that would send Japanese people to Australia to spend a week around Brisbane, almost completely for free; they made all the money they needed to cover the costs of the travel they were giving away, plus to make a good profit besides, from the commissions/kickbacks they got from the stores they aggressively shuffled the visitors through.

And before you start to feel too superior, it happens in this country too.  Free flights or coach tours to casinos, for example.

Personally, I think it is not a bad thing at all.  The fools who spend sometimes astonishing amounts of money on overpriced junk subsidize the sensible people who don’t buy a thing but get to enjoy a cheap tour.  Where’s the harm in that?

But China has now come out with a new law making it illegal to reduce the price of a tour based on the anticipated receipt of ancillary income.  This has made the cost of tours skyrocket, sometimes by more than 50%.  Details here.

But do you think that people won’t still be marched through the tourist traps?  Of course they will, but instead of a share of the money the shoppers waste going to subsidize the cost of the tour for the entire group, now that money just goes to the tour company as pure profit.

Meanwhile, the much higher upfront costs of tours is reducing the number of people who travel.  That’s bad for everyone – the tour companies, the airlines/hotels, and the stores who hope to be visited by the now non-travelers.

So who wins as a result of the new law?  No-one.  Perhaps the Chinese government should shut down, too.

Travel Implications of the Government Shutdown

Talking about government shutdowns, the possibly good news is that most of the ways in which we’re forced to interact with our government, whether we wish to or not, at least while traveling, are continuing unabated.

But don’t think for one minute this is the government being magnanimous.  Oh no, not at all.  Instead, it is the government reluctantly doing what it is supposed to do – applying funds directly levied and received to the purposes for which they are intended.  The TSA, the CBP, the ATC and suchlike are all paid for from user fees, not general taxation, and so are removed from shutdown.

But what about people wanting to travel and see public sights, monuments, and the like?  Although in past shutdowns these types of places remained open, inexplicably this time the government is ‘closing’ things like some of the DC memorials.

Why does a granite or other type of stone memorial, in the middle of a piece of public land, need to be barricaded off in this shutdown, but not in past shutdowns?  And how about the foreign graveyards in other countries – why on earth do those need to be cordoned off?

The same goes for national parks.  The only government presence I see in most national parks are the wardens at the entrance booths, taking $20 per car that drives in.  Indeed, in winter, many times the booths aren’t manned and everything operates on an honesty system.  Why couldn’t the same arrangement be extended for what is likely to be a short rather than long shutdown.  Alternatively, if they stayed open, how many staff would the fees thereby collected cover?

This isn’t our friendly government doing all it possibly can to minimize the effects of its shutdown on the citizens it serves.  This is a vengeful government deliberately doing all it can to inflict harm on us.  The government no longer serves us, and no longer pretends to serve us.  (This is not a criticism of the non-policy making federal employees, many of whom read this newsletter, and who are as much innocent victims of the government shutdown as are the rest of us.)

One also reads of the government threatening the annual Army-Navy Football Game.  Sure, that’s not a big part of my annual sports watching (assuming I actually watch any sports at all, of course….), but one has to admire United Airlines for stepping in and offering to fly the Navy team to where the game would be played, rather than let the government ‘punish’ us all by preventing the game from occurring.

There’s been some anguished hand-wringing in public that – gasp – we are having to rely on the airlines to police themselves and their safety standards at present, without FAA inspectors every which where to keep an eagle eye on them.  But that’s a lot of nonsense being put out by people with vested interests.  The truth is that most inspection is ‘self inspection’ already, and furthermore, safety is simply good business sense for the airlines.  They don’t do it for altruistic reasons, they do it for reasons of selfish self-interest.

More Reasons to Doubt the Success of Apple’s Latest iPhone Launch

The basic ‘facts’ appeared to be overwhelmingly positive.  In the first weekend of sales for last year’s iPhone 5 sale, 5 million phones were sold.  In the first weekend of sales for this year’s launch, 9 million phones were sold – a stunning 80% leap upwards from last year’s figure.

Apple was certainly crowing with delight at these figures after revealing them last week, and most reports faithfully echoed Apple’s enthusiasm.

It felt wrong to me.  At street level, and from what insiders were telling me, there just wasn’t as much excitement as last year.  But, hey, 9 million sure beats 5 million, right?

Well, actually, possibly not.

I commented last week about two obvious differences that invalidated the comparison.  Two new models were launched this year, rather than one last year, and into two additional launch markets this year (11 countries rather than 9) including, ahem, the largest country in the world, China.  I said I wanted to see same-store sales to get a better understanding of how the phones were truly selling.

But there is another factor as well.  The number reported for ‘sales’ is not retail sales.  It is sales from Apple to distributors/wholesalers/stores, not the number actually sold by the stores themselves to end users.

In all past years, every last iPhone has been sold out by the end of the weekend, making the number of phones sold to the public the same as the number of phones sold by Apple to distributors, etc.  But this year, for the first time every, some millions of phones remained unsold at the end of the weekend.  So the 9 million needs to be adjusted down to truly count the actual retail sales, not the wholesale sales ‘into the channel’.

According to this article, only 5.5 million phones were actually sold to the public, the other 3.5 million went into channel filling and remained unsold at the end of the weekend.

So – this year, even with two models instead of one, and even with 11 countries instead of 9 (now including China for the first time), and even after allowing for the general growth in the smart phone market as a whole (probably about 20% for that alone) Apple barely managed to lift its sales from 5 million to 5.5 million – a 10% increase.  They had twice as many phone models, 22% more countries (and massively more than 22% increase in population covered) and the market as a whole had grown by 20% or more in the year since the last launch, and with all those boosts, they only got a 10% increase in sales.

Tell that to the Apple fanboys.  The iPhone launch this year wasn’t an extraordinary triumph.  It was a dismal disaster.

Exciting Android News

In exciting good phone news this week, the rumors are getting stronger, telling us to expect Google to announce its new Nexus 5 probably around October 20.

And we’re starting to see a raft of really exciting Android tablets – Dell is bringing some out, and even French company Archos, that always seems to be a day late and dollar short, is bringing out some exciting new models too; all priced way way below the iPad and also all outperforming the iPad on specs.

Meanwhile, at the truly bottom end of the market, Walmart is selling an 8″ screen sized Android tablet from Ematic (model EGP008)  that sells for only $130.  That is a stunning value point for a reasonably good tablet.  Apple’s smaller screened but otherwise comparable iPad Mini costs almost three times that.

Apple’s response to its ongoing huge loss of tablet market share?  Oh, information leaked this week that it was having problems getting new improved screens it desperately needs to release a new improved iPad Mini.  The current iPad Mini has been hugely outgunned by Android tablets right from when it was launched last year, and the latest generation of Android tablets are way ahead of the iPad in terms of value, performance, and market share too.  It now seems possible Apple may not be able to get a new iPad Mini into the market in time for Christmas sales this year.  Ouch.

In not quite so exciting news, it seems that the otherwise appealing Samsung Galaxy Note 3 may have been designed to ‘cheat’ on the standard industry speed tests that are used to rate and compare all smartphones.  Naughty Samsung.

And Lastly This Week….

We sometimes write of pilots being caught napping at the controls.  Well, not only naps.  Sometimes deep sleeps, taking them an hour or more past their destination, followed by some staggeringly implausible excuses as to how they forgot to land at the airport and instead fly over it, while ignoring increasingly anguished and urgent radio messages.

But this article points out that no plane has ever crashed or otherwise been harmed due to having its pilots asleep.  Clearly then, and this is also the article’s conclusion (but for more serious reasons), you are never safer than when both pilots are asleep in the cockpit!

Talking about pilots, here’s a fascinating article that writes about a little known feature of how pilots used to navigate their way across the country in the ‘good old days’.

Not such a joke is the inauguration of Obamacare this week.  My private personal health insurance is being cancelled as a result, and no-one can currently tell me what it will cost to replace it, other than ‘much more’.  So I’m a loser on the deal.  As is everyone else I know – either finding their work hours cut back, or their health insurance gone, or finding a new 1.78% tax on the house they were selling to go towards the costs of Obamacare.

I really don’t know who benefits from this costly new system, but it sure isn’t anyone I know, rich or poor, currently insured or not.

So, whether it be due to parlous health care coverage or just because, until next week, please enjoy safe travels







Weekly Roundup Friday 23 August 2013

My daughter Anna struggling to stay awake on the Qantas night flight to Sydney.

My daughter Anna struggling to stay awake on the Qantas night flight to Sydney.

Good morning

A very quick newsletter this week.  As advised last week, I’m on the road currently, and had not expected to be able to get anything to you, but I managed to write a couple of things.

First, I neglected to mention the incipient price rise of our Sri Lanka tour last week.  Having neglected to do that, I was guilted into allowing another person to ‘slip under the wire’ and it seems only fair to extend that offer to anyone else who is close to choosing to come.

You probably know a lot about the tour from my general comments so far, and here’s the main tour detail page, with a link from that to a daily detailed itinerary that shows the cornucopia of delights in this wonderful tour.  To take advantage of the current price, and to join 28 of your fellow Travel Insiders on what promises to be a lovely experience in an ‘up and coming’ travel destination, please send in your application to join by the end of this weekend.

Our travels on Tues/Wed/Thu/Fri were unavoidably lengthy, with the most boring part of the entire experience being the ten-hour layover at LAX on Tuesday.  This was made worse by spending three hours shivering in front of the a/c outlets in the Intl Terminal – you’ve probably not had to spend three hours in the public area of that terminal, but if you have, you’ll know there is almost no seating anywhere, other than for an area that does double duty as a mezzanine level food court.  Perhaps to discourage people from staying too long there, the terminal’s a/c ducting blows cold air directly at the seating.

We’d not have had to stay three hours there, if it weren’t for Alaska Airlines claiming they were unable to issue boarding passes all the way to Sydney.  So we had to wait three miserable hours until the Qantas counters opened at LAX allowing us to get boarding passes to go through security and on to the Oneworld lounge.

The Oneworld business class lounge in Los Angeles was okay, but nothing extraordinary.  There were 11 Apple computers for people to use, and another six places for people to use their own computers, but all these places suffered from a privacy problem – the screens faced directly into the main area and walk-ways.  Some other lounges have more private little study cubicle type spaces; which also provide some sound privacy – as I type this in the lounge, I’m struggling not to listen to one side of an interminable rambling conversation between an Australian guy, six spaces over from me, and someone else on the other end of his Skype connection.

I’m impressed he could maintain a conversation.  The Wi-Fi bandwidth in the lounge varied between inadequate and non-existent.  A test using speedtest.net at a particularly slow point revealed a 969 msec latency (30 or more times slower than what you’d hope for), a download speed of 0.07 Mbits/sec and an upload speed of 0.06 Mbits/sec – 500 times slower than my data line at home.  It seemed (and no surprise here) that as the lounge filled up, and more people started using the Wi-Fi for everything (a lot of people Skyping, probably because most people in this lounge were international rather than domestic travelers) the Wi-Fi got worse and worse.

Come on, please, Oneworld.  Give us some decent bandwidth.

There was some reasonable hot food and a bit of cold food, plus a coffee machine, soda fountain (out-of-order), generic ordinary beers and sodas, and a very limited range of well drinks, of only generic types (eg no single malt whisky at all).  There were a couple of white wines, three red wines, and some sparkling wine too, but alas, unlike ‘the good old days’ no champagne to be found anywhere (and, yes, I did look most assiduously!).

We also spent some time in the Qantas lounge at Sydney.  I was expecting great things, because Sydney is Qantas’ headquarters and flagship lounge.  Unfortunately, I hated it.  Not just disliked, but actively hated  it.

There were three reasons for such a passionate dislike.  First, its location, with a gratuitous amount of unnecessary walking to access the lounge – not something that normally matters to me, still blessed with good perambulatory abilities; but for Anna, proudly hobbling along on her first pair of high heel shoes (or for older less mobile passengers) it was an unneeded extra inconvenience.

Secondly, the lounge is filled with nonstop ‘elevator music’ – new world, spacy, and simultaneously offensively bland but also surprisingly prominent music.  In particular, as people with even an ounce of skill at programming background music would know, you don’t use voices for ‘quiet background music’, you stick to instrumental.  Oh, and go easy on the drums and trombones too, please.  But this music was mainly vocal and often with an aggressive rhythm section and prominent brass sections, and while trying to concentrate on work, the ugly music really interfered.  And that’s before one has to also experience the loud flight departure announcements too.

Thirdly, and in common with LAX, there were no workstations, just a long bench for people to work on their laptops.  And instead of chairs – indeed, Qantas used to have height adjustable swivel/tilt chairs in its lounge – you now have circular squabs.  The squabs are too low or the counter is too high (maybe both) and the result is an ergonomic nightmare.

Oh, one more thing that came to light – quite literally.  The early morning sun rose almost directly in front of the window which the bench for computer workers faces.  There are no blinds or shades, so I’m typing this with the near blinding light of the early morning sun streaming in my face.  The things I do for you, dear reader!

How can an airline mess up so spectacularly with its lounge design?

But to switch now from the very disappointing SYD lounge to the flight experiences, it was almost eight years since I’d last flown in a Qantas business class cabin (and only did so this time by way of frequent flier award tickets).  I wasn’t sure what to expect – Qantas has been imploding and destroying itself over the last decade, ceding its one-time primacy on international routes out of Australia and hollowing out its core routes almost to the point of non-existence.

But to my delight, the old 747-400 we flew LAX-SYD was immaculately maintained inside, the seat/bed comfortable, the food excellent, the drink selection varied, and the service wonderful.  I might write in greater length subsequently, but for now, suffice it to say that it was as good a flight as I’ve ever enjoyed on Qantas.  Sure, I could see areas where cost cutting was intruding, but if one overlooks those issues, it was close to a perfect flight, complete with ontime departure and early arrival.

Talking about frequent flier awards, it is interesting to notice the latest perfidy involved in redeeming awards.  I’ve noticed this creeping in for the last few years, and saw it very starkly while trying to book my flights this time.  With many airlines, if you look for coach class award availability, you’ll see no seats available.  So you instead look for business class award availability, and you find good availability, but upon examining the availability further, it turns out that most of the ‘business class’ flights are actually in the coach class cabin!

But even if 75% or more of the total miles flown end up in coach class, you don’t get any discount off the full business class award mileage cost.

Just another little way the airlines have reduced the value of their ‘loyalty’ programs.

We’re now in Christchurch, New Zealand.  Amazingly, the country has had 3,000 earthquakes over the last month, and while most of them have been very minor, some have been more considerable in strength.  Anna is hoping she’ll get to experience her first felt earthquake.  Hopefully she’ll accept a jetboat ride, a luge ride, and a few other activities in Queenstown as an acceptable second best.  :)

I should add that I’m in the early stages of devising a New Zealand tour, for Oct/Nov 2014.  Keep some time free if you’d like to enjoy a visit to my home country with me then.

There’s also a freestanding item about the alleged danger of lasers shining at pilots, and, below, items on :

  • A Shameful Response to the SFO FD’s Killing of a Passenger
  • This Week’s 787 Problem
  • Hey BA – What About AA?
  • Probably a Naughty Thing to Do; But International Terrorism?
  • Keeping Abreast of the Latest Airline Security Threat
  • The Dangers of Train Travel
  • A Solution to My Seven Internet Connections Problem
  • TSA to Buy 3.454 million rounds of Pistol Ammo
  • And Lastly This Week….

A Shameful Response to the SF FD’s Killing of a Passenger

In among the fury of focus on Asiana’s pilots (and indeed, all Korean pilots and pretty much all Asian pilots in general) there has been only a very muted commentary when the story eventually emerged that one of the passengers who died subsequent to the 777 crash at SFO did so as a result of being run over by a fire truck rather than because of any injuries actually received in the crash itself.  Don’t you think this is something that deserves some commentary – have you ever heard of other airport fire departments running over evacuating passengers before?  Of all the unusual and unnecessary ways to die in a plane crash, surely beneath the wheels of an airport fire truck is the worst of all.

Indeed, there’s also been very little commentary about what seems to have been a surprisingly long time from the plane crashing to the first fire trucks and aid units arriving on the scene and starting to fight the fire and assist the passengers.  There was a bit of eyeball rolling at passengers on the flight trying to call for help on their cell phones, but little discussion on why it was it took so long for ‘first’ responders to arrive; indeed I noticed  but can’t now find one article which suggested that the ‘first’ responders on the scene held back approaching the plane until they had been joined by second and third waves of support.

How did we find out about the 16 yr old Chinese student being run over by a fire truck?  Helmet camera video footage was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle.  Yet another example of the omnipresence of video cameras these days and the benefits of having them everywhere.

So what does the SF Fire Department do in response?  Yes, it does change one of its policies/procedures, but alas, the change will do nothing to protect future evacuating passengers.  Instead, it doubles down on an earlier ban on the use of helmet video cameras, ostensibly due to concerns about privacy.

In truth it is indeed all about privacy – hoping to keep their actions and mistakes private.  This is a doubly-shameful response.  First, it removes an important element of accountability, and second, it impairs the efficiency and the safety of the firemen.  The helmet cameras are not only for offline recording purposes, they can also be used to broadcast realtime video to a command post and other firemen, so that there is a better awareness of what is happening and where the problems are in any situation they are responding to.

More details of the self-serving excuses for removing helmet video here.

This Week’s 787 Problem

Boeing has now determined that the 787 engine extinguisher wiring problem discovered last week isn’t its fault.  Oh no, Boeing says it is blameless – it is the fault of one of its suppliers.

Apparently Boeing does not feel that as the final assembler of the planes, and as the company who brands the plane, that it should quality control or test or accept liability for anything that it hasn’t 100% made itself.  And when one considers just how precious little of the 787 Boeing actually did make itself, that’s a fairly sweeping exemption it is claiming.

This article touches on Boeing’s ‘not our fault’ claim and also mentions in passing that during the course of checking for the fire extinguisher wiring problem, United found a different ‘pinched wire’ problem elsewhere on one of its six 787s.

Another ‘teething problem’ and not Boeing’s fault, of course.

How many more problems are airlines continuing to find with their 787s, and how many more will they continue to find in the future?

Hey BA – What About AA?

The BA/AA link-up over the Atlantic, and their more general cooperation as founding and key members of the Oneworld alliance, is nothing new.  The ability of each airline to codeshare on the other airline’s flights is also nothing new.

So how can we now understand BA’s decision to now work more closely with an AA competitor – Jetblue?  BA and Jetblue announced their intention to interline on 18 BA flights and more than 50 Jetblue routes (we are presuming that ‘interline’ means primarily the act of checking bags through without a need to get them off the carousel and recheck them when changing airlines).

While we’re delighted to see cooperation that makes it easier for passengers to mix and match the airlines they fly, it is curious why BA is helping an AA competitor, indeed, an airline that not only competes with its US partner, but also an airline which is minority owned by its own competitor, Lufthansa.

More details here.

Talking about code shares, while gazing at the departure board in the Intl Terminal at LAX, I noticed a flight shared among six different airlines.  Air India, Air New Zealand, Austrian Air, Brussels Air, Lufthansa and United, all sharing the same plane bound for Frankfurt.

That seems like a lot, of course, but it also begs the question.  If you’re sharing a flight six different ways, why stop there?  Why not give it a flight number for every airline in your alliance?

Probably a Naughty Thing to Do; But International Terrorism?

A full-time Task Force Officer in the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force is investigating the actions of a gentleman on a flight from MSP to SLC, presumably out of concern that what no-one seems to be taking too seriously at present (ie no charges yet filed and no dramatic airport arrests and imprisonment) and which apparently would be no more than a misdemeanor if prosecuted and convicted may have obscured an incipient act of international terrorism.

If you really want to know about the gentleman’s problem, you can read more about it here.  Oh, and in an update, the gentleman is now being prosecuted for ‘lewd and obscene behavior’.

Surely, a curious thing for the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force to be investigating?

Keeping Abreast of the Latest Airline Security Threats

We’ve speculated before about the potential for hell-bent and hell-bound terrorists to secrete explosives inside their body, and it seems that in addition to the obvious ‘cavities’ (such as they are) terrorists are now considering a new means of getting bombs on board – using them in lieu of breast implants.

I was going to look up details of how big a typical and large size breast implant may be in terms of how many ounces of liquid they contain, but I’m hesitant to do it while sitting in a very public position at the Oneworld lounge at LAX.  Apart from doubtless generating some slightly inappropriate pictures, the search topic might alarm some of the more paranoid people about me, so if you really want to know more about this, you’ll have to go research it yourself.

But I’ll guess it is not impossible for an implant to contain a pint and possibly even a quart of material.  What would the effect of that be if detonated on a plane?

Well, for sure, it would make a terrible mess, with quite literally blood and guts flying all around the place, but the force of the blast would be absorbed in significant measure by the terrorist’s body, and if anything, the typical shape of an implant might cause the blast to focus more inwards rather than outwards.

Perhaps if a terrorist pressed herself tightly against a window and then blew herself up, she might succeed in blowing a window out, but that’s not going to cause the plane to fall out of the sky.

As this article points out, breast implant explosives would not be detectable by any current means.  Not metal detectors, not explosives detectors, and not whole body imaging machines either.

The article also mentions a new type of undetectable explosive that can be soaked onto a person’s clothing.

One doesn’t want to think too carefully about the type of security countermeasures and responses needed to combat these new threats.  It is a good job that we are winning the war on terrorism, isn’t it.

Meantime, this article complaining about silly security measures at Paris/CDG seems to suggest that business class passengers get less scrutiny than coach class passengers.  Let’s hope the terrorists can’t afford business class tickets.

My daughter and I were selected for extra security checks as we were about to board our flight down to Los Angeles from Seattle.  A TSA agent pulled us to one side and asked to see our ID.  After giving our passports the most cursory of glances, he then waved us on to the plane.  What exactly was the point of that, one wonders?

On the other hand, Anna was given a ‘free ride’ – sort of – through security at LAX.  She was told ‘Oh, you are under 12, so you don’t need to take your shoes off’.  Apparently children under 12 are not a security risk, and would never be duped by adults to unwittingly carry explosives through security?

So, although she had already taken her shoes off, she put them back on again, but when going through the metal detector (children also get to go through the metal detector rather than whole body imager) she beeped.  A TSA agent said ‘Oh, it will be her shoes’ and instructed her to take them off.

So what exactly was the point of not having to take her shoes off – indeed, being told to put them back on – if, when they beeped due to metal inserts, she then had to take them off?

The Dangers of Train Travel

Remember the curious one week closing of 19 American Embassies around the Middle East and Africa a couple of weeks ago?

It seems that part of the reason for this was the NSA having listened in on an Al-Qaeda conference call, but now that the experts have decided it is safe to open our embassies again, it is being suggested that after we ‘foiled’ their possible attack on our embassies  by cleverly closing them for a week, the terrorists have shifted their target, and now have Europe’s high-speed rail network in their sights.

You might think that the appropriate response would therefore be to stop operating ‘high risk’ trains for a week.  But apparently the Europeans are not quite so easily panicked, although in truth, high-speed trains do have appreciable vulnerabilities with the potential for bombs either on trains or on the thousands of miles of largely unprotected tracks.  Imagine the mess if one had to start going through TSA style security to board a train.

More details here.

Turning now to slow speed rail, it seems there are dangers a plenty, even with the slowest trains, albeit different sorts of dangers.  Can you guess how many people a day die on the Indian rail network?  The answer is higher than you might have thought, as you’ll see in this article.

A Solution to My Seven Internet Connections Problem

So, my eight nine year old daughter (she turns nine ‘today’ – 24 Aug in New Zealand, but still 23 Aug in the US) and I have seven devices between us that ‘need’ internet connectivity.  A laptop each, an iPad each, and a 7″ Android tablet each, too.  Plus I have a phone; Anna grudgingly agreed to leave hers behind.  While that sounds like a lot of devices, it is far from unique these days and the chances are you often have multiple devices needing internet connections with you on your travels too.

The problem arises in some of the hotels we’re staying at, which charge a fee per day – per device.  It is bad enough paying $15/day to access the internet, but imagine the extra pain when that is multiplied seven-fold and becomes $105/day.

Fortunately, there’s a solution.  Connectify, an ingenious piece of software that runs on any Windows 7 or 8 computer.  It takes any internet feed into my laptop (either Wi-Fi or Ethernet) and rebroadcasts it as a new Wi-Fi LAN – its greatest cleverness is in being able to use the Wi-Fi unit in the laptop simultaneously to connect to the hotel’s Wi-Fi source and also to connect to other devices as the internet source, itself.  So the hotel sees only the single device connection, while we get connectivity on all our devices.

This is an excellent product – an essential product in times like this.  It is available in both a free and a paid form; both work well, but of course the paid version works slightly better.

I reviewed it a few years back, and it remains as excellent now as it was then.  Highly recommended.

TSA to Buy 3.454 million rounds of Pistol Ammo

TSA ‘officers’ don’t carry weapons, at least not at present.

So how to understand their tender proposal to buy 3.454 million rounds of pistol ammunition?  What could they possibly do with so much ammunition, when their officers aren’t armed?

There’s also an amusing typo in the proposal – they ask for quotes to buy .347 SIG ammo.  It should be .357 SIG (which is also an unusual choice of caliber in any event and a totally different cartridge to the famous ’357 magnum’ revolver round).

Some studies have suggested that the Homeland Security Dept in general is now using more ammunition per employee per year than the army, and the HSD isn’t actually fighting any wars.

Someone really has to explain what the TSA needs with 3.454 million rounds of unusual caliber pistol ammunition.

And Lastly This Week….

If you’ve ever wondered how much a new plane costs, here’s an interesting series of price comparisons between similar Boeing and Airbus models.

Two things to keep in mind.  The first is that the purchase price is, in many ways, the least important part of an airline’s evaluation of potential planes to purchase.  All sorts of other things are also important – the plane’s range, its fuel efficiency, its ability to carry both passengers and cargo, its maintenance costs, and how it can be integrated into the airline’s fleet, for example.  Other issues also apply to new planes, the same as new cars – financing terms and discounts.

Both Airbus and Boeing will readily discount their new planes by about 30%, and sometimes by close to 50%.  And Boeing has a major plus when it comes to financing, due to the assistance of the US Export-Import bank, but only when the purchaser is a foreign airline rather than a US airline.  The US carriers consider it unfair that their airline competitors are being financed by the US government, and therefore indirectly from the taxes they themselves pay.

So, this simple set of price comparisons isn’t extremely useful, but it makes for an interesting quick overview.

Something often talked about – more commonly in a joking/resigned manner of ‘They’d never do it but I wish they would’ is actually being timidly rolled out on some airlines.  Child-free zones.  It does raise an interesting question, though – with almost no child discounts ever offered anymore, how can an airline fairly restrict where a child sits?  Details here.

Lastly this week, public conveniences in China are not always of world-class standard (although that’s a rather vague sort of measurement, isn’t it!).  So perhaps any measures adopted to improve their cleanliness are to be welcomed, even if sometimes the actual measure somewhat misses the mark of what is sensible and prudent.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







Hyperloops, Ion Drives and Other Fanciful Creatures

The new Hyperloop transportation system is a re-imagined application of an earlier concept, hopefully in a more perfect and practical form.

The new Hyperloop transportation system is a re-imagined application of an earlier concept, hopefully in a more perfect and practical form.

There have been a number of ‘teaser’ pre-releases over the last several months about a revolutionary new transportation technology that Elon Musk (of Tesla and SpaceX fame) is supporting, and this week saw his official and detailed release.

The earlier concepts suggested passenger pods swishing through vacuum tubes at speeds twice that of airplanes.  The ‘vision’ released this week – and now termed the Hyperloop -  is more practical.  The tubes will no longer be vacuums, and the speed is now up to about 760 mph, but Musk says that will still get people between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 35 minutes, and with a total cost to build the system between the two cities of about $6 billion.  He suggests his system could be up and running in as little as ten years.

This contrasts with California’s high-speed rail concept, which will cost more than $60 billion and more likely more than $100 billion, with journey times vaguely referred to as ‘under three hours’ – in other words, four or five times slower, and completion currently not expected until almost two decades from now (a date that will inevitably slip).  Oh – one more thing.  Although apparently pressing ahead with the $60 – $100 billion extravaganza, California has no money to pay for it and no idea where the money will all come from.

Rather than welcoming the concept and suspending the ridiculous high-speed rail boondoggle while reviewing Musk’s admittedly far from ‘shovel ready’ concept, the powers that be in California are preferring to ridicule it and stick with what they know and apparently/inexplicably love – ridiculously expensive and disappointingly slow traditional trains.

We’re not endorsing the Hyperloop without reservation ourselves, and we quite like the somewhat cynical tone of this piece, which also provides the clearest explanation we’ve seen of the project.  But Musk could be wrong by a cost factor of ten and a speed factor of four and still have a better system; we think it deserves serious study rather than eyeball rolling ridicule.

Musk is, after all, the only person to provide a commercial private industry space craft service to the space station, and the only man to get a high quality high performance electric car successfully to market.  That’s not to say anything he touches is assured of outstanding success, and quite likely his numbers will prove to be as optimistic as his earlier projections for both his electric cars and space capabilities have proven to be.

But he does get things done which others initially derided as impossible and impractical, and we think his latest project deserves attention and support.

We would also point out one negative comment we feel to be grossly unfair.  The article we linked to above asks ‘who would want giant tubes running through their community’?  I guess the writer has only ever seen a sedate 79 mph Amtrak train.

The answer to his question is ‘any and all communities would vastly prefer a relatively quiet and unobtrusive, safe, closed tube system as compared to the massively noisier and more obtrusive high-speed rail system, together with the massively larger swatch of land taken for two lanes of high-speed rail track’.  The writer really needs to experience the disruptive effects of a 200+ mph passenger train exploding past to understand what that is like before he condemns the concept of nice quiet contained tubes!

So we are cautiously supportive of the Hyperloop.  Just because something is totally different to other things doesn’t mean it should be rejected.

While talking about fanciful and futuristic forms of transport, here’s another interesting concept, but this time much further away from becoming a practical reality – an ion drive airplane.  To give you the ‘money pitch’ first, this new type of ‘no moving part’ thrust technology promises a greatly more efficient form of propulsion than present jet engines.

A regular jet engine gives about 2 newtons of thrust per kilowatt of power; an ionic wind thruster would give about 110 newtons per kilowatt.  No need to fuss over what newtons are, the key point is an ion drive gives you at least 50 times more of them.  This would be similar to your car, maybe currently with 20 mpg, now being able to provide 1,000 mpg.

The technology is also quiet and non-polluting (other than for whatever process is used to generate the electricity to power the drive), and, as we said above, has essentially no moving parts.  But it is rife with current challenges and is a huge way from appearing on any airplane, any time soon.

However, it is an exciting glimpse into a possible future that we may or may not live to see.  More details here.

Both these new technologies are speculative.  And not all future visions come to pass.  Such as, for example, most of the fascinating visions of the future showcased in this retrospective pictorial.

It is interesting, isn’t it, how the future, as it unfolds, simultaneously excites, surprises and disappoints us.

Lastly, maybe we don’t need ion drives and hyperloops to enjoy truly high-speed travel.  Why not nothing more fanciful than a diesel truck?  Here’s a valedictory piece about one that can travel at 285 mph.

Weekly Roundup Friday 9 August 2013

Rock paintings in the Golden Temple of Dambulla, Sri Lanka - one of the six World Heritage sites we'll visit on our tour next February.

Rock paintings in the Golden Temple of Dambulla, Sri Lanka – one of the six World Heritage sites we’ll visit on our tour next February.

Good morning

We seem to now be firmly ensconced in the ‘dog days’ of summer (a term originally derived from the time when the ‘dog star’ Sirius is prominent in the sky, 24 July – 24 August), and it is great to have a series of lovely warm days unfolding, each after the other.

Talking about lovely warm days unfolding (artful segue here!), my mention of our Sri Lanka tour last week encouraged another couple to join, and also uncovered an embarrassing problem.  The signup form on the webpage wasn’t working.  Ooops!  That is now fixed.  :)

So if you tried to join last week and were frustrated, please try again now.  And if you’re still thinking, perhaps I can tell you some more about it now.

Our tour is a very complete opportunity to see and experience Sri Lanka’s key sights and attractions.  In particular, we take you to all six of the World Heritage sites of outstanding cultural significance, giving you a a wonderful appreciation of the country’s rich and varied past – in the case of the Golden Temple of Dambulla, dating back over 22 centuries.

Of course, not everything we see and do will be that old.  We’ll also get to see the new energized Colombo, while staying at some of the country’s best hotels.  Full details of our great tour can be found here, and the (now working!) form to join the tour is near the bottom of that page.

What else this week?  There’s a feature article about how, notwithstanding the airlines having their best quarter since 2000, apologists are suggesting there’s no room in US skies for any more airline competitors.  Unbelievable.  Plus, below, articles on :

  • A Couple of Thoughts About the 787
  • 15 Minutes?  Or 3 Hours?
  • The NTSB Makes a Non-Statement About the Southwest 737 Crash
  • JetBlue Going Up Market
  • Air Canada Going Down Market
  • Beware the Fire Fighters
  • China’s Airplane Manufacturing Ascendancy Not Yet A Sure Thing
  • And the Same for Russia, Too
  • Pssst – Hey, Buddy.  Wanna Buy An Airport?  Almost Never Used, Real Cheap.
  • Epic Netflix Fail in New Zealand
  • Senator Durbin Attempts to Kill the US Cruise Industry – Again
  • Disrupting and Energizing
  • And Lastly This Week….

A Couple of Thoughts About the 787

Several readers, over the last few weeks, have written in and theorized that some of the 787 problems may be the result of deliberate sabotage by disaffected union employees at Boeing’s Everett plant.

While it sure wouldn’t be the first time that a union has ‘cut off its nose to spite its face’ I truly don’t think this is the issue here.  If Boeing saw a preponderance of problems with Everett-assembled planes, it would be on its union workers like white on rice.  As best I’m aware, there is nothing to suggest that there are more problems on the Everett assembled planes than the SC assembled planes.

Furthermore, I don’t get any sort of sense, locally (and I live more or less halfway between Boeing’s plants in Renton and Everett) that the union employees would ever consider doing something like that.  The union employees are very concerned at Boeing’s continued steady shift of work out of this area – either outsourcing to another country entirely, or alternatively shifting work to South Carolina or other ‘right to work’ locations in the US.  The union employees are in a quandary – how to keep their good paying jobs?  The answer to that – and I think they have enough awareness to appreciate this – lies more in a positive process of showing the value-add that union members bring to Boeing, compared to the non-union employees in SC.

I don’t even think that many of the problems are to do with assembly issues.  I think they are much broader, and more serious, design issues.

There is also more than meets the eye about the suggestion that the ELT was the source of the fire on the 787 at Heathrow a few weeks back.  Honeywell has now politely cleared its throat and pointed out that its ELTs have special safety features designed to prevent runaway overheating leading to a fire.  Maybe that’s part of the reason why ELTs have never before been implicated in any on-plane fires on any of the other thousands/tens of thousands of planes they are installed on….

In other words, we still don’t really know why the 787 caught fire.  Details here.

15 Minutes?  Or 3 Hours?

Talking about the 787′s propensity to catch fire for various assorted and generally unknown reasons, the plane continues to be certified as safe to fly as far as three hours away from the nearest emergency landing spot.

Does that mean that if a 787 catches fire in the air, it will officially still be safe and flyable for at least three hours?

Unfortunately, no, its ‘ETOPS’ three hour certification does not mean that at all.  Although a slight over-simplification, the largest part of an ETOPS certification is the implication that bad things are unlikely to happen, rather than that they will be survivable for three hours.

So how long is normal for a plane to remain safe after an onboard fire?  Opinions differ on this, and here’s an interesting article that considers the issue (free registration required to read it).  The article’s two conclusions?  Its headline reveals its first finding – the risk of fire in a plane is increasing rather than decreasing.  To support its second conclusion, it points to a new training video recently released jointly by both the FAA and its UK counterpart (the CAA) which claims that an out of control fire (either out of control due to its location or its intensity) will result in the loss of the plane within an average of 15 minutes.

Ummm – yes.  That’s 165 minutes before an ETOPS 180 certified plane might arrive at a landing place.  Putting the urgency of getting the plane on the ground in the event of a fire in even clearer focus, the FAA said that a delay of as little as two minutes is likely to make the difference between a successful landing and a complete loss of the aircraft and its occupants.

So what are the airlines and airplane manufacturers doing about this?  Nothing, and some experts worry that the new carbon fiber planes are more vulnerable to fires than older aluminum ones.  The only place in a plane with smoke detectors are the toilets, and there is no way to fight fires behind the plane’s wall/ceiling/floor panels.

To be fair, the risk is not new to the 787.  The growing traffic in devices with high energy density (ie lithium type) batteries – variously as battery freight, as devices containing batteries as freight, and as devices passengers bring in either their checked or carry-on luggage, is expected to lead directly to more and more battery initiated fires that are nothing to do with any airplane’s wiring or the plane’s own batteries.  The article, by a highly respected aviation writer, is a good read and worth going through the registration process to access.

Do you still feel good about being three hours from anywhere to land?

The NTSB Makes a Non-Statement About the Southwest 737 Crash

Perhaps responding to various criticisms that it was being unusually silent (in contrast to the Asiana 777 crash), the NTSB issued an update about its investigation into the 737 crash at LGA.

But, if you read their release, all it contains are some trivial statements of didactic fact.  Most people would not realize, by reading it, that it is unusual for a switch in roles between which pilot is flying and which pilot is monitoring the flight when the plane is somewhere less than 400 ft above the runway and mere seconds from landing.

Furthermore, we’re not told about any of the conversations from the cockpit voice recorder.  What did the pilots say at that point?  Why did they switch?  Has the NTSB interviewed the pilots and what did they say in explanation?  Enquiring minds would like to know.

It is curious how everyone was so quick to vilify not just the hapless pilots of the Asiana 777 but also every other Korean pilot, and most other Asian pilots in general, after the Asiana crash.  But now we have an inexplicable accident of an American piloted plane, everyone is politely looking the other way and avoiding any similar commentaries about the standard of US pilots in general, or these two pilots in particular.

Another part of this double-standard is the horror expressed by many ‘talking heads’ (or should I say, ‘empty heads’ that the Asiana pilots had little experience landing in San Francisco.  Guess how many times the Southwest pilot had flown into LGA before?  No, not one thousand times.  Not one hundred.  Not even ten.  Just once before, and that one previous time, he was not the pilot on the controls, he was the ‘monitoring’ pilot.  Where are the shrieks of indignation?  Who will be the first to demand there is a law prohibiting pilots from landing a plane at an airport until they’ve landed a plane at the airport a hundred times before (yes, I know the contradiction present in that suggested law!)?

Don’t get me wrong.  I believe there are indeed valid points of general concern about the approach to cockpit management in Korean jets.  But I’d like to see our own airlines and pilots held to the same public standard and scrutiny as is the case of foreign pilots.

Bottom line for now?  The NTSB’s ‘investigative update’ notwithstanding, the public is no closer to any understanding of what went wrong or why, and the media remain passively uncurious.

JetBlue Going Up Market

The battle for premium traffic on the coast to coast routes continues to heat up, with the latest shot being fired by Jetblue.

Until now a one-cabin all-economy airline, early next year will see Jetblue adding four private ‘suites’ and 12 lie-flat seats on its flights between New York and both Los Angeles and San Francisco.  Eleven new A321s will be configured with these new accommodations.

Sounds wonderful – and so it should.  Premium class tickets can cost $2000 each way.

Jetblue’s A321s will reduce from their standard 190 coach seat capacity to 159 seats due to the extra space taken up by the first class seats and suites.  But – and there’s always a but, isn’t there.  The space for the first class cabin comes not only from the reduced number of seats, but also, alas, by a tighter seat pitch in coach class, reduced down from the previously generous 34″ to a lesser but still decent 33″.  The new coach seats will be slightly thinner too, so your leg room should remain similar to at present.

American, Delta and United are also adding lie-flat beds into selected trans-con flights.

Details here.

Air Canada Going Down Market

Remember, if you can, the totally inexplicable objections to the A380 as being so huge, and carrying so many passengers that it would overwhelm airports?  We were told to fear massive checkin lines, security lines, boarding delays, and inexorable waits for luggage at the other end.  None of this has come to pass, indeed with three jetways onto an A380, and four aisles on two decks on board, it can load and unload faster than most 737s.

I could never understand why people made such claims, because they were and still are risible nonsense of the worst kind.  It is true that the double-decker A380 is magnificently enormous, but it is not true that it has a disruptive number of seats on board.  A typical A380 has somewhere between 400 and 500 seats in it, a typical 747-400 has about 400 seats.

But now, underscoring still further the moderate passenger capacity of the huge A380, Air Canada deserves congratulations for squeezing 50 more passengers into a 777 (458) than Korean Airlines (407) or Singapore Airlines (409) have in their A380s.

Consider yourself starkly warned.  Avoid Air Canada’s new sardine can 777s, because you would be the sardine.

Details here.

Beware the Fire Fighters

What is the worst thing that can happen to you (apparently) if you have a major fire in Nairobi?  It is the arrival of the fire brigade.

There was a fire at Nairobi airport earlier this week, and the fire brigade’s arrival did little to improve things, according to this article.  Alas, things got even worse when the police arrived.

China’s Airplane Manufacturing Ascendancy Not Yet A Sure Thing

I occasionally predict a future where China starts building its own airplanes and selling them successfully around the world.  Currently its ‘flagship’ new plane project is the C-919, a mid-size single aisle plane that will hold 158-174 seats (the same plane, just different cabin layouts).  They project adding larger twin aisle planes with about 300 and 400 seat capacities further into the future, giving them a broader range of planes analogous to those offered by either Airbus or Boeing.

To date, the plane has received a reasonably encouraging number of orders (about 380, all but 20 from Chinese airlines, and the other 20 from GE’s leasing unit, probably to help sell its engines onto the planes).  But China has now announced just over a year push back in the timing of the C-919′s first flight, although officials are not calling it a delay.  They say that the plane is still proceeding on schedule, but that the schedule was calculated wrongly!

In doing so, China shows that it has already mastered one critical part of being an airline manufacturer – the ability to obfuscate when it comes to describing delays.  Details here.

However, whatever the background and term used to describe the change in flight date from some time in 2014 to now the end of 2015, it is clear that Airbus and Boeing have won at least another year’s reprieve before any Chinese planes become credible competitors to their sales everywhere else in the world.  But they should not relax.  The threat to both of them remains as ultimately strong as ever, just delayed by a year or so.

And the Same for Russia, Too

Whereas China hopes to build a new aviation industry from scratch, Russia hopes to revive its formerly ‘successful’ industry that used to make many planes in Soviet times.

But Russia’s regularly trotted out promises about being about to break into the passenger airplane market again continue to fail to be realized.  Its latest shining hope on the horizon, the Sukhoi Superjet 100, has been met with disinterest in the marketplace and apparently few ‘real’ sales.

Interestingly, while the 787 seems able to suffer any number of near-disastrous events without any impact on the desire of airlines to buy the plane, the Superjet 100 has suffered two incidents, one almost certainly pilot rather than plane error, and the other of uncertain underlying cause, and that has been enough to dampen interest in the plane.

Here’s an article that explains the current failures and disappointments in the Russian aerospace industry.

Pssst – Hey, Buddy.  Wanna Buy An Airport?  Almost Never Used, Real Cheap.

Perhaps suffering from runway length envy, the city of Ciudad Real in Spain built itself a huge airport.  The city has a population of about 75,000, and is well served with transportation, having a high-speed rail link with Madrid, about 100 miles to the north (45 minutes by train), and is close to major motorways and toll-roads.

Nonetheless, any city with any aspirations of course wants to have its own full-size international airport, and so local developers proceeded to raise money and build an airport capable of landing A380s.  Very impressive, and the airport cost €1 billion to develop.

There was a small problem.  Although the developers doubtless studied the potential for self-enrichment very closely, no-one seems to have bothered to investigate the viability of the airport itself.  A ‘Field of Dreams’ airport?  Alas, that was not the way it turned out.

After minimal service to/from the airport for a while, the airport ended up with no airlines flying to/from it at all.  It has now fully closed.  Creditors hope to auction it off, perhaps for €100 million plus an assumption of the project’s debts, but if that doesn’t happen in the present round of reserve-priced auctions, it will end up going to the highest bidder with no floor price at all.

So, a wonderful airport, almost unspoiled by passengers or planes.  If you’re tempted, you can read more details here..

Epic Netflix Fail in New Zealand

I occasionally express gloomy concern about the viability of the Netflix ‘all you can watch for $8/month’ video streaming service.  Sure, I love the service and use it myself all the time, but there’s a huge vulnerability lurking just around the corner, ready to spring out and destroy Netflix.

I am referring to the cost of receiving the streamed movies – data charges that might be levied by our ISPs if we start to ‘abuse’ our ‘unlimited fair use’ monthly streaming accounts.

With the slowly rolling out Netflix enhanced HD video stream, watching video can now consume up to 2.3GB per hour of movie.  That will move us much more quickly towards triggering ‘excessive use’ penalties.

The situation is already bad in NZ.  It seems that in New Zealand, it is common to be charged for data used, and in particular, if you are staying in a NZ hotel, you might find yourself being charged by the GB rather than by the night for your internet data use.

So, there you are, staying in a NZ hotel, and you decide to watch a standard two-hour movie on Netflix.  At the (not very) Good setting, that would be 0.6 GB of data.  At the Better setting, it would be 1.4 GB.  At Best, it would be 2 GB, and at the new HD setting, it would be 4.6GB.  How much would it cost to watch?

I’m shortly to be staying in a NZ motel that charges $25/GB.  That’s maybe an okay price to pay for normal internet access, downloading emails, etc.  But to watch that movie?  It would cost NZ$15/35/50/115 to watch a single movie (ie from US$11.50 – $90).  I’m sure not going to be watching much Netflix during my time in NZ!

The ‘good’ news, such as it is, is that the $25/GB rate is the motel’s rapacious over-charging.  Most residential customers in NZ pay 50c – $1 per GB of data over their initial allowance, dropping the cost of a two-hour movie down to no more than NZ$4.60.  But even that becomes appreciable, and discourages people from watching videos whenever they wish.

As we add more and more data-hungry devices into our lives, and consume more and more data, and as the earlier massive unused bandwidth carrying capacity around the nation starts to fill up, it seems almost inevitable that we’ll start being charged for data usage on our home internet connections, just the same way we’ve seen ‘unlimited’ data plans on phones disappear.

Senator Durbin Attempts to Kill the US Cruise Industry – Again

Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) is at it again, trying to kill our cruise industry.  He has re-introduced his ‘Clean Cruise Ship Act’ – an act that would prohibit cruise ships from discharging any wastewater, no matter what degree of treatment it had received, within 12 miles of the coast, and restrict the discharging of wastewater all the way to 200 miles from the coastline.

Peculiarly, the standards he would have imposed on cruise ships are appreciably more stringent than the standards imposed on shore based enterprises that discharge waste water into the sea.  If passed, the impact on the Alaskan cruise industry in particular could be somewhere between massively harmful and fatal.

He has tried this before, unsuccessfully, in 2004, 2005, 2008 and 2009.  To date, he has yet to amass any co-sponsors or measurable support for his latest go-round.

Oh – the strangest thing about Durbin’s obsession with killing a profitable industry that employs a large number of Americans, both on the ships and ashore?  The Democrat senator hails from Illinois, and his state is at least 1,000 miles in every direction from any ocean or cruise port.

Disrupting and Energizing

I was having a pleasant chat with a member of the local police department’s bomb squad this week, and learned a couple of delightful new terms.  They don’t ‘blow up’ or even ‘detonate’ bombs.  They either ‘energize’ or ‘disrupt’ them.  The guy said, only half-joking, that it was easier to get approval to disrupt a bomb than to detonate it, to energize it rather than to blow it up.

Two floors of Palm Beach Intl Airport were closed for 2.5 hours on Sunday while police decided if they needed to, ahem, disrupt or energize a suspicious package that started beeping in the terminal building.  Apparently the authorities have been watching too many cartoons, where of course, bombs always beep before exploding, and so the local bomb squad came and investigated the package (with an alarm clock inside) before deeming it safe.

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

The camera never lies?  Well, that’s nowadays more a joke than a truth, but at least we understand that a photocopy of a document is, to the limits of the copy quality, an exact ‘photograph’ of the original document, right?

No.  Wrong.  Some particularly ‘clever’ photocopiers, with a digital rather than analog system for taking the image off the platen and transferring it to a sheet of paper, now do some ‘helpful’ things to ‘improve’ the image quality.  Like, for example, using OCR to read the text and then using built-in fonts to print the text onto the copy for better quality.

Unsurprisingly, the result is that some Xerox model photocopiers are being too ‘helpful’ and are ‘correcting’ numbers and changing them from what they truly are to what it thinks they should be.

I’m a Notary Public and one of the things I occasionally do is certify documents as being true copies of originals.  To date I’ve done that by scanning the documents and making sure they look the same in general terms; and maybe overseeing the photocopying myself.  But now I’ll have to line by line, character by character, proof read the original and the copy.  Or refuse to certify photocopies any more.  Thanks, Xerox.

Most of us have a vague understanding of what computer hacking is, right.  It is something we read about, perhaps while seated on our ‘throne’ in the smallest room in our house.  Thank goodness at least some places in this high-tech society remain sacred and inviolate, safe from all these new high-tech problems.

But – wait.  Maybe nothing now is safe?  Details here.

Truly lastly this week, they might be having problems building airplanes, but they sure can build buildings.  Here is a set of stunning before and after photos of the world’s fastest growing city – growing at a rate of 10% each year for the last 20 years and now home to 23.5 million people.  Shanghai.  Whether you simply admire the photographic skill in matching up the shots, or whether you are stunned at the transformation, it is well worth a look.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels