Weekly Roundup Friday 11 August 2011

The consummate beauty of the Jaguar E type has seldom been equaled and never surpassed.

Good morning

A couple of weeks ago we were celebrating the 50th birthday of the IBM Selectric typewriter.  There’s another 50th birthday this week, this time for the Jaguar E-Type.

Although only 70,000 cars were produced during its 14 year life, the E-type quickly became an iconic symbol of grace and style, in Britain and everywhere else in the world, a status it maintains to this very day, 50 years later.  It was described, when first released, as ‘The most beautiful car ever made‘ – a clearly sincere compliment because it was offered by none other than Enzo Ferrari.

The E-type is one of only six cars to be featured in the NY Museum of Modern Art’s permanent design collection, and it has won, and continues to win, awards for being so special in all sorts of different ways, including most recently just now when it won an award in Britain, based on public voting, as the best British sportscar of all time.

The E-type was replaced by the XJS, which had an even longer 21 year model life, but alas, not nearly as much panache, and the XJS successor cars are coming increasingly generic.

A 1963 E-type Roadster is this week’s featured image – but the chances are you already know that!

Happy birthday also to the world wide web.  It is now 20 years since CERN’s introduction of the first web browser, although it is 22 years since Sir Tim Berners-Lee first proposed (and then subsequently developed) the http protocol, the html language, the world’s first web server, and the world’s first browser.  Oh – and, necessarily, the world’s first website, too – info.cern.ch.  Yes, he was a very busy man back then.

Just like the ambiguity over who was responsible for inventing the internet (shades of Al Gore’s famous claim come to mind), there is some doubt as to what date should mark its official birth – at least in the public form we all know it as, rather than its original closed academic and defense network.

Another notable date was February 1993 when the University of Illinoi at Urbana-Champaign released the Mosaic web browser; the basic browser on which almost every subsequent browser has been based.

The internet has certainly changed my life.  I’d not be writing this – and you’d not be reading it, either – without the internet.  So, whether the internet is truly 22, 20, or 18, let’s wish it a very happy birthday and many happy returns, too.

As mentioned in last week’s newsletter, the FAA has now been temporarily restored to operation (until 16 September), and so the airlines essentially returned their prices back to what they were before, with the balance of the total fare we pay now going on to the government yet again.  So the net effect to us as passengers was largely very minimal, while the net effect to the airlines and the government during the two week lapse was a transfer of about $400 million out of the government’s pocket and into the airlines’ pockets.

That’s quite a penalty our politicians foisted onto the FAA, and the thousands of employees who were laid off for two weeks.

Unhappily, the IRS has now reversed itself and decided that you won’t get any refund from the taxes you prepaid on tickets that related to travel during the tax-free two weeks.  Although it had earlier indicated that refunds would be due to you, it has now decided this will not be the case.  I guess now that we’ve lifted the government’s total debt ceiling, it needs every extra penny it can get.

Oh well, it could be worse – they could have decided instead (or, as well) that you now have to pay taxes for tickets purchased during the close-down but for travel subsequent to the restoration of the FAA’s taxing authority.  Fortunately, that’s not going to happen.

Talking about taxes, there’s a small storm brewing over in Britain – no, nothing to do with their rioting.  A consumer group, the Air Travel Advisory Bureau, has said it will coordinate lawsuits against airlines that don’t refund the UK Air Passenger Duty tax on tickets that people book/buy but don’t then fly on.

The airlines are obliged to refund this tax if you don’t travel, but – can you believe this – they are not very cooperative at doing so.  Some airlines apparently will charge an administrative fee greater than the tax amount due to be refunded.

Let’s hope the Air Travel Advisory Bureau will have the collective will and funding to knock airline heads together as necessary to get such refunds processed more quickly and properly.

Maybe when the ATAB has finished that battle, there’s another one it could join in on – making airline staff liable in cases where they file fictitious and fraudulent and false criminal complaints against passengers.  See the article after this in tonight’s newsletter compilation for a fuller discussion of this outrageous behavior.

Still talking about naughty airlines, both United Airlines and Air Canada have received fines from the Department of Transportation.  Air Canada was stung $50,000 for advertising airfares that didn’t prominently disclose extra taxes and fees that would be payable on top of the advertised fare.

United was hit up for $20,000 due to providing outdated information about their liability for lost or delayed baggage.  Way back in November 2009, the liability limits were increased under the Montreal Convention, but in January this year, United ticket jackets were still citing the earlier (lower) limits as applicable.

Enough of naughty airlines.  What about naughty pilots?  Here’s an interesting article about how prevalent ‘tipsy’ pilots are in India.

My comments last week about the awful Air France crash and what seems to be clear pilot culpability caused some push-back from professional pilots, who said, among other things, that we don’t know what was said in the cockpit during the fateful (and fatal) 4.5 minutes between when the first alarm sounded and the plane crashed.

Well, actually, we do.  Here’s an article that includes much of the dialog between the three pilots.

Vatican City scored a 14.3% failure/reject rate, similar to that of Vanuatu (13.3%) and Venezuela (17.6%).  Andorra scored a full 100% failure rate, although Argentina got a nearly perfect 3.1% and the Federated States of Micronesia got a fully perfect 0.0% failure rate.

Can you guess what these statistics are measuring?  Here’s another clue – China scored a 13.3% failure rate, and Russia a 10.1% failure rate, while Libya scored 14.3% fail and Lithuania a 31.9% failure rate.

These scores are the percentage of people who were refused tourist or business visas to come to the US in 2010.

If you’re puzzled why people from Hungary were failed 34.5% of the time, while people from Syria were failed only 28.4% of the time, and why people from Peru were failed 26.0% of the time while people from Turkey were failed only 9.1% of the time, then you’re not alone in your puzzlement.

Here’s the full list that shows, country by country, how many people we turned away.  (Note – 36 countries have so-called ‘visa waiver’ status – mainly the major western European countries; their apparently high refusal rates are only for ‘problematic’ people or people with special travel requests such as wanting to stay an extended time who were denied a visa-waiver status – so, for example, we didn’t really refuse 57.1% of all Canadians, only that percent of the very few Canadians who needed to get a visa due to some past problems with Immigration matters).

Nonetheless, there’s a huge number of people represented by these percentages, most of whom would probably have happily spent lots of money while visiting the US, and who would have then equally happily returned back to their homeland at the expiry of their stay.

For some time now, ScotteVest has made a name for themselves promoting their multi-pocketed (up to as many as 37) jackets and coats.  Founder Scott Jordan advocates people use one of his jackets to avoid excess baggage charges – fill up all the pockets in the ScotteVest jacket, he suggests, and save on overweight luggage fees – indeed, save on the need to check a bag at all.

I have a ScotteVest jacket myself and find it both useful and truly endowed with capacious pockets.  On the other hand, it isn’t exactly give-away priced – from memory, I think my jacket (its current equivalent is their Revolution product) is/was a $175 item.  You can browse around all their different products on their website, here.

They now have a competitor which goes by the name of Rufus Roo.  It is a vest rather than jacket, and claims to be able to hold 44 lbs of stuff in its pockets, including laptop computers, books, and possibly kitchen sinks too.

The company has one of the ugliest most awful websites I’ve seen, but the vests sell for only $49.  You might want to at least briefly glance at their website; I’ve not actually seen one of their vests in real life, so I can’t comment on their quality, whereas I can tell you the ScotteVest is definitely a well made product that I’ve been happy with for close on two years now.

Whether you choose the Rufus Roo or the ScotteVest, you’ll probably be delighted with your ability to reduce the weight in your suitcase and to take more onto the plane with you for free.  It doesn’t take too many saved check bag fees to pay for either product.

Something for nothing is an appealing concept at any time, whether it is carrying extra weight onto a plane or anything else.  Solar energy is often touted as a ‘something for nothing’ concept – after all, the sun’s rays are free, and if we stick a solar cell on our roof, it isn’t as though the sun’s rays are being ‘wasted’ in any way.

Because of this, short sighted people have made a big thing out of solar energy, and there’s been no shortage of suppliers of solar cell devices available to people who are appropriately gullible.

Here’s an example that combines not only the hype of solar energy but also the hype of electric vehicles – a solar powered recharger for your electric vehicle, being offered by Ford in conjunction with Sunpower.  It is a rooftop unit that is said to be able to provide enough energy to charge a typical electric vehicle sufficiently for 30 miles of driving, every day.

On the face of it, you don’t need $4/gallon gas to understand how great it would be to get 30 ‘free’ miles of driving every day.

But let’s study how accurate the concept of ‘free’ really is here.  The unit is said to be suitable for 30 free miles of driving a day, or 3,000 kWh of electricity a year.  How much are these two things worth to us?

If our car does 30 mpg, then we’re getting 365 free gallons of petrol a year, which ostensibly could save us $1000 or more a year, right?  But – wait.  It is an electric vehicle, so we are not saving gas, we’re saving electricity.  How much is 3,000 kWh of electricity worth to us?

Well, let’s say you pay 10c per kWh.  This means your saving is $300/year.  Still, $300 saved is still $300 saved, right?

Yes – but how much did you have to pay, up front, to get your rooftop solar charging system in the first place?  Oooops – that’s a $10,000 item.

Now think about this.  If you’ve got a rooftop solar system, you’re going to be needing to clean them once or twice every year, and their total lifespan is probably 30 years or so before they need to be replaced.  How much would you pay to have someone clamber about on your roof and somehow – without walking on the cells – clean them, twice a year?  Let’s say that you manage to get someone to do this for a ridiculously low $50/clean, or $100 total each year.  So now your saving is $200/year.  I’m not even going to think about the possibility of needing an occasional repair to the electronic circuitry that controls it, or anything else going wrong with the unit.

Say you finance your $10,000 unit at 5% interest, and somehow manage to get a matching 30 year loan on the unit.  How much a year will you be paying for the cost of the unit?  $650.

So – tell me where the free part of this equation is :  You pay $650 a year for a solar cell system that gets you – best case scenario – a $200 a year saving in electricity.  Seems to me that rather than being free, you’ve ended up paying more than twice as much for your energy as you needed to, along with all the hassles of owning the solar cell system.

Another example – the internet lit up with reports of a ‘self charging’ cell phone earlier this week.  Here’s one such example.

But let’s think about the claim.  The idea seems clever – putting a semi-clear solar-cell type of thing on the front of a cell phone’s display, so the light from the cell phone display is then used to drive the solar cell and create more energy for the phone.  And, if the phone is off, the solar-cell will continue charging from the regular sunlight that falls on it.

Where to start with this ridiculous claim?  Firstly, when you’re using your phone, only a small part of the total battery drain relates to lighting up its display (much less than the 80-90% claimed in the article).  Much is used to power the radio receivers and transmitters, and a bunch more is used to power the CPU and other electronic doo-dads inside.

And then, of the power that is used to power the display, only some is captured by the solar-cell, and only some of that power (probably about 10% – 20%) is converted back to battery power.

And when you’re not using your phone, what are the chances that it is lying in direct sunlight?  If you’re like me, most of the time it is in your pocket or somewhere dark, not resting in strong sunlight.

So does this new technology give us any chance of a phone that never needs charging, as the various articles imply?  Alas, no.  Not even close.

One similar concept to the last two.  A new type of railroad locomotive is being developed – a hybrid train loco.  Just like a hybrid car, it will have a battery pack, and in low load conditions, it will draw power from its battery pack, and when braking, some of the braking energy will be used to recharge its battery pack.

Sounds like a good idea?  Actually, not very good at all.  Car battery packs store very little energy and as you’ll know if you’ve driven a hybrid, any sort of measurable throttle pressure or moderate speed and the regular gas engine kicks in to supplement the battery.  Now whereas our car engine generally is developing much less than 100 hp, the diesel loco at the front of a train is typically developing thousands of horsepower.  How big a battery pack is needed for that?

Furthermore, overhead electrification is normally the better procedure.  That way the loco doesn’t have to carry a heavy bulky battery at all.  It can simply feed power back into the overhead wire when braking.

Talking about technology that doesn’t always live up to its promises, is your glass half full or half empty?  Here’s an article that expresses shock at some scales at airport checkin counters giving incorrect weights.

But when you read through it and discover that only six of 144 scales at LAX failed the test (which requires the scales to give a reading within half an ounce of the exact weight, which on a 50 lb bag means it has to be within a 0.06% accuracy – a stunningly high accuracy for a commercial scale).

Furthermore, let’s also appreciate that 138 of the 144 scales actually passed this demanding test.  And in Atlanta, only two of the 264 scales tested failed their tests.

All in all, I think it is a commendable set of results, don’t you?

The new whole body imaging scanners being increasingly used at all US airports are being justified as being essential in the next chapter of the war on terror, giving the TSA the ability to see underneath our clothes and detecting anything we might have hidden underneath.  For this we are supposed to happily accept receiving a possibly dangerous dose of X-rays.

Well, maybe the scanners will detect some things underneath our clothing (although I’ve written in the past about techniques to successfully smuggle bombs and other forbidden items through them), but unfortunately, the scanners aren’t very discriminatory about what they detect.  Multiple layers of clothing can confuse them, as can pleats or folds in a single layer of clothing.  Zips are a worry, and even sweat from underneath your arms can send the devices into an alarmed state.

This report reveals that seven out of every ten alarms given by the machines in a German test were determined to be capriciously false.  And even when the thing that was thought to have caused the alarm was addressed, half these people would cause an alarm to sound the second time they went through the scanner.

Now, you might think that a few false alarms are a small price to pay for safety/security, but there’s a subtle problem with this.

If seven out of every ten alarms are nothing at all (and another one out of ten apparently relates to a person not being in the right position or place when they are scanned), and if nearly all the other two out of ten alarms are benign non-threatening things, the problem becomes that the TSA screeners become conditioned to false alarms, and cease being as vigilant each time the machine beeps.

Are we safer?  Not measurably so.  Are we more inconvenienced?  Definitely.  Are we at risk of gratuitous extra X-ray exposure?  Absolutely.

Here’s a disquieting article about how something like 10% of the airport employee ID badges that have been issued have been issued on the basis of faulty or improperly checked application data.  96,000 approved applications were discovered to have basic errors or omissions in them, and it is not known how many extra had other mistakes that a simply check of the application form would not reveal.

So, think about it.  96,000 people who have submitted incomplete or inaccurate information about themselves now have access to the ‘secure’ parts of our airports.  We have to be dosed with X-rays every time we pass through an airport, but these people just use a card to swipe their way through a door and into the ‘secure’ part of the terminal.

Two thoughts about this :  First, the obvious thought.  What sort of security is this when 96,000 incorrect applications have been accepted and the people submitting them have been approved for access to airport ‘secure’ facilities?

Second, another obvious thought.  In total there are over a million people with access to the secure parts of airports.  Why can’t anyone else (like you and me) fill out the same application and, if approved, be given the same access, and therefore, be able to avoid the X-rays and security nonsense when we travel?

Let’s be blunt about this and totally non-politically correct.  Why should a minimum wage airport employee who improperly fills out a form be trusted more than a frequent flying ‘captain of industry’?

Here’s a really strange story about how most Americans would like to have a new national holiday each year, ‘National Relaxation Day‘ (officially set for 15 August, in case you don’t already know).

The strange part about this is that, according to a survey commissioned by Princess Cruises, people want a ‘National Relaxation Day’ holiday so much that they would be willing to give up another holiday such as Columbus Day or Labor Day so as to get their National Relaxation Day holiday.

Am I wrong in thinking that if we take a new holiday and add it to the calendar, and simultaneously give a previous holiday back, we end up with the same number of breaks as before?

Lastly this week, do you remember back when airline movies were usually preceded by a message advising they had been edited so as to make them suitable for airplane audiences (ie no plane crashes!).  My sense was that the editing also made R rated movies into a much more G level of entertainment.  Less swearing and all that other sort of stuff.

How times have changed.  Qantas now helpfully offers a movie on all its longhaul flights which can perhaps best be described as a training movie, recommended to people to view prior to attempting to join the mile high club.  The documentary is proving to be very popular.  More details here.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

Davidsig265 David.

4 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup Friday 11 August 2011”

  1. Apparently, the U.S. isn’t the only country that has a visa system that is less than clear, when it comes to rejections. My wife’s has a direct report in India. He plays on the company cricket team, and both he and the team are very good.
    He got the chance to play cricket for several months in the U.K. However, his visa application was rejected. So, he won’t be going with the office team this fall. The U.K. Foreign Ministry’s website doesn’t spell out the requirements for a visa clearly, and the people at the British Embassy weren’t all that helpful.
    What has people at the office scratching their heads is the fact that India was a British colony. Everyone thought that any country that was a former colony, a current member of the Commonwealth or otherwise, had a easy time getting a visa.
    So, it appears that the U.K. isn’t much better than the U.S. in terms of granting visas.
    As for the scanners, you are absolutely right. When flying ORD-SEA for our cruise, I got to go through the body scanner, only to have one leg groped. He’s my theory. I think the seam on the trouser leg wound up rolled over due to a hurried job of ironing on my part. When the screener was groping, I could feel the place where the seam rolled over.
    Here’s what I don’t understand. Every time I’ve been sent through the body scanner, my wife and son just go through the metal detector. While watching the screening process at ORD, it seems that mostly men get sent through the body scanner. Now, if there aren’t many women screeners to do the groping, that’s understandable. TSA, however, should schedule enough women screeners on any given shift.
    And wouldn’t you think that the 8-year old who doesn’t want to stay in line may be hiding something?
    Lastly, my pilot friend at AA was in a situation where a passenger was removed from his plane. The flight was departing ORD for LAX. A man and his son were assigned seats that weren’t next to each other. The man asked a passenger if he would mind moving. The passenger declined, saying that having undergone recent shoulder surgery, he needed an aisle seat. That’s when the man got abusive, threatening to beat the passenger with the bad shoulder. Three other passengers pulled the F/A call buttons immediately.
    When the situation was explained to my friend by a CSA supervisor, she gave him make the call as to whether the man was going to LAX on his plane. He said no, because he had a concern that the man would eventually try to take his frustrations out on the passenger with the bad shoulder or one of the F/As. Depending on where that happened, it might mean diverting.
    Long story short. The CSA supervisor gave the man the option of getting off the plane and taking a later flight after he cooled off, or he could be arrested by the Chicago Police Department for assault and other charges. The man got off, along with his son, and his wife, and their two daughters. The women in the travel party had been sitting in First.
    And yes, the man with the bad shoulder was upgraded to First.
    And despite the financial woes at AA, my friend was able to pull up the report form on his Android and complete it on line, rather than filling out the form by hand in the Operations office at LAX.

  2. Quote:
    “Where to start with this ridiculous claim? Firstly, when you’re using your phone, only a small part of the total battery drain relates to lighting up its display (much less than the 80-90% claimed in the article).”
    That is blatantly wrong. The device manufacturers have admitted many times that they are still working toward better technology that will prevent smartphone displays from drinking so battery life. This has been a known issue for as long as there have been smartphones and is not news.
    Anyone that knows anything about smartphones (particularly the newer phones with larger displays) knows that these displays are extremely power-hungry. As an example, all Android-powered phones have a menu option that will show you what has been drinking what percentage of your battery since you last unplugged the device from a charger – and ‘Display’ is almost always at the top of that list. The only thing that will usually knock it down to second place will be ‘Voice Calls’ – assuming you’ve had the display turned off and have been on the phone for a long period of time.
    There is a reason why “Turn the brightness of your display down!” is, 95% of the time, one of the very first things people will learn when they start researching how to get better battery life out of their smartphone.
    Three of the countless examples found through a Google Image search:

  3. Hi, Matt
    I said ‘much less than 80% – 90%’. The three examples show 45% – 70%. That sounds like ‘much less’ to me.
    I don’t understand the point you’re making.

  4. Most travellers who don’t use their airline ticket do not realise that they are entitled to a FULL Air Passenger Duty Refund of Government taxes and surcharges. The tax on your ticket is ONLY paid to the Government when you actually board the plane and fly. But airlines are making millions by NOT refunding these taxes to you if you don’t take your flight for whatever reason.

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