Weekly Roundup Friday 9 September 2011


Not quite a balcony cabin on a luxury liner.

Good morning

Welcome back from wherever you may have traveled to over the long weekend.  Oh – you’re probably wondering what this squalid picture depicts.  Sorry, you’ll have to read all the way down to the bottom before reaching the explanation.

I wrote disparagingly about Hewlett Packard a couple of weeks ago, so to balance things out, may I wish happy birthday this week to the only calculator I ever use, and one I have always had close to my side for, oh, more years than I care to count.  I’m referring to Hewlett Packard’s consummate masterpiece, the HP12C, which is now turning 30.

There are very few other pieces of electronic equipment that have not been changed at all in 30 years of continuous production – indeed, I can’t think of a single one (can you?).  It is a testament to the exquisite perfection of this calculator that it has not needed a single change in thirty years.  It still looks (and truly is) as fresh and functional today as it was 30 years ago.

Combining extreme processing power with batteries that last for years (and years and years) with a compact shirt-pocket size and a brilliant way of entering calculations, the HP12C is the thinking man’s calculator.  If you don’t have one, you should.  A special limited 30th Anniversary edition is about to be released by HP for $80, while the regular HP12C lists for $70 and is available for $59.49 on HP’s site.

There are also software emulators for both Android and iOS smartphones that create the look and feel of the calculator on your touch screen – not as good as the real thing, but will do in an emergency.

One amusing aspect of the HP12C.  It has no equals key on it.  I always grin when someone, unfamiliar with the distinctive Reverse Polish Notation method of entering calculations says ‘Can I borrow your calculator’ and then surreptitiously watch to see what the person does upon receiving it.  Some people ask for help, but others are too proud and just give up.

The good news – no-one wants to steal my calculator – the only people who would wish to steal it will already have one.

Here’s a little more about this wonderful device.  You’re obviously a nerd if you instantly recognize the number on its display (shown in the linked article).  And if you realize that the final digit represents a rounding up rather than a truncation, because you know the number is actually 3.14159265358979323846264 (and if you know the number off by heart to more places than this) then I’ve truly met my match.

One last comment, obliquely still about the HP12C.  After researching the calculator on HP’s site, I went to Amazon to offer you a link to what I expected would be a lower price to buy it from.  Now, on HP’s site, which surely is as authoritative as it comes, the calculator is shown with a list price of $69.99 and a discounted price of $59.49.

But on Amazon’s site, it is shown as having a list price of $95.19, and a discounted price of $61.19.

Now – don’t get me wrong.  I like Amazon very much, and buy a great deal from them, usually at very good prices.  But every so often I become aware of things like this – things which are hard to describe as other than outright lies intended to deceive purchasers into thinking they’re getting a great deal when in reality the deal is not so special.

I’ll give Amazon some leeway when they are simply acting as an outlet for some third party retailer, but in the case of the HP12C, their page clearly says ‘ships from and sold by Amazon.com’.  So it is their responsibility to truly show us the retail price, a responsibility they have miserably failed at discharging.

As it turns out, their discounted price seems to be the cheapest price out there (other than directly from HP – but you can get it with free shipping on Amazon), which makes their efforts to cheat all the more regrettable.  Shame on Amazon for trying to cheat the system this way.

Two more events of note this week.  First, the passing of one of the internet’s pioneers – Michael Hart.  Chances are you haven’t heard of him.  He is credited with being the originator of the concept of eBooks, and is also the founder of Project Gutenberg, an organization dedicated to digitizing and publishing online, for free, as many of the world’s books as is possible with their limited resources and copyright constraints.

Project Gutenberg these days has over 36,000 free books available in your choice of several different eBook formats, plus another 100,000 or so more through affiliate and partner sites.  With a typical week seeing only 50 or so new titles added, it is clear that it is falling behind rather than catching up with all the books being published every day, and to be brutal, these days it is of less relevance due to massive investments in similar concepts by Google, Amazon, and others.

But it was the first, and it was Hart’s vision, dating back to 1971 when he first typed the Declaration of Independence text into a Xerox mainframe, that represented the first step towards eBooks as we know them today.  We are all indebted to him.

Oh – and the other event of note this week?  I’m actually going to be uncharacteristically silent on the topic, because just about everyone else is rushing into print with commentaries to mark, on Sunday, the tenth anniversary of 9/11/2001.  There is little more to add that hasn’t already been said.

But when it comes to topics with a lot more to add, the subject of tipping hotel housemaids continues to excite additional responses.

One reader pointed out the curious contradiction that seems to exist in most hotels, whereby even if you don’t follow the complicated procedures to request fresh towels, you seem to get them anyway :

I don’t tip because it should be part of our room rate and I usually stay in Hilton, Sheraton, Marriott, etc. Also, despite putting out the card that says it’s OK to NOT change towels/sheets, and I hang up my towels, mine are ALWAYS changed. I am tired of having to tip to subsidize wages, it’s another “nickel and dime”.

On the other hand, another reader is a very enthusiastic tipper and goes to a great deal of trouble in doing so :

We tip daily while staying in hotels and have always noticed better service when we do this.  First of all, I always write a note with the tip, thanking the housekeeper for his/her efforts. When travelling where a different language is spoken, I learn how to write Thank You in the native language for my note.  I usually get a response saying Thank You, often with a smiley face!

We always get little extras when we tip daily, including things like:  extra chocolates on our pillows, additional bottles of water, extra soaps, extra towels, our toiletries nicely laid out on a facecloth, etc.  The main reason we tip daily is because, as mentioned in your article, different people often clean the same room during our stay. 

Providing an interesting commentary on the fact that tipping is not universally expected, this reader says :

When recently traveling with a group in Taiwan, we were trying to establish a level of tipping for staff with hotel management, (as a group, we did place a larger-than-normal strain on their daily operations). The management simply didn’t understand the concept. It made no sense to them at all.

Another reader – who only tips on multi-night stays, makes a comment about hotel cleanliness :

Some hotels should pay us to stay there!  I never walk bare footed in a hotel, be 30 or 300 whatever a night.

A couple of readers also wrote in with a completely different approach to room servicing in hotels.  They specifically request their room not be serviced at all.  One reader pointed out that we manage at home with sheets that aren’t changed every morning and with towels that we reuse for several days before washing – why can’t we do the same in hotels?

There is also the school of thought that says you should always have a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign outside your door, even when you’re not in your room, because the sign implies that there is someone in the room and may discourage burglars from picking your room to break into.

Here’s another nauseating example of a self appointed ‘expert’ enthusiastically advocating over-tipping.

Her suggestion is to always tip a minimum of 20% in restaurants – even if the service is bad!

Lastly on the subject of tipping (well, at least for this week) here’s an interesting article about one possible negative consequence of tipping a waitress insufficiently – having her pass your credit card information on to scammers and fraudsters.

But the article loses the plot when it struggles to come up with five bullet points about ‘safe credit card habits’.  The first three are nonsense, and the last two are obvious/trivial/unnecessary to repeat.

How can you decide if a merchant is ‘reputable’ or not?  And in the example in the article, the problem wasn’t the restaurant, it was an employee.

If in doubt pay cash?  Who carries much cash with them these days, and how to quantify the concept of ‘doubt’?  We have benefits and protections and records if we use a credit card to pay for things – most of us want to avoid needing to use cash these days.

And as for watching out for ‘red flags’ such as a credit card being taken out of sight for a too-long period of time, when does a ‘normal’ delay become a ‘too-long’ one, particularly in a restaurant with busy waitresses?  It seems to me that the payment processing is invariably the slowest part of any meal.

This whole problem points to another area where the US trails way behind almost the entire rest of the civilized world.  Although you might reasonably expect the US to be one of the most enlightened and progressive countries when it comes to things such as ecommerce and payment methodologies, the sad truth is we are one of the most backward.

Most other countries have two layers of protection to prevent this type of credit card fraud.  The first is a ‘Chip and PIN’ intelligent credit card that requires you to enter a secret PIN to validate each charge, rather than merely to sign a transaction slip, and which is harder to clone.

The second is that rather than abscond out of your sight with your credit card, waitresses and all others seeking to charge your card bring a credit card reader to you and process it in front of you.  Your credit card never leaves your sight – indeed, most of the time, they never even get to touch your card.

The report last week of a survey on how long it took to get through to airline customer service departments also brought some responses.  A travel agent said :

I have to respond to the information given by STELLAService.  No matter what phone number I dialed for US Airways(except Chairman’s preferred line), Continental, or United I was on hold for at least 2 1/2 hours each time I called.  This was not just me having issues, I have spoken to numerous agents and clients and everyone was on hold for over 2 hours.

Stella must have some other top secret phone number that they dialed for those numbers.  I don’t believe them for a minute.

We even had people calling us that weren’t our clients asking us if we could help, because they couldn’t get through to the airlines.

Another reader said :

Nice wait times for Southwest on Friday, but Saturday was a different story. Certain that my Sunday morning flight would be cancelled from Albany, I tried to change it to Monday. The website promised no penalty, but would not make the change, forcing me to phone them.

I waited 45 minutes, and then went ahead and booked a new ticket for Monday at $20 more than Sunday, and cancelled Sunday (without penalty).

I guessed right that Sunday would be cancelled, and I was fortunate to fly on Monday. Just don’t pat them on the back for a bearable wait time.

Another reader reported no delays calling on AA’s Platinum member number.  But she had an extraordinary response when trying to sort out a problem with a KLM reservation she had made and wanted to pay for.  She writes :

I had a wait of 1 hour 15 minutes and then the agent said I had to call their UK office to pay for the ticket I booked online!  At that point, I let my rez fall-away and I instead booked and paid online with BA.

KLM didn’t just lose the $600 fare (for travel from London to Amsterdam) but have lost me as a future customer too.  How can they realistically expect me to call to Britain to pay for the fare I booked, online, in the US?

One of the interesting failures subsequent to the widespread San Diego power outage on Thursday evening was that there is no apparent backup power at the airport to power the TSA security screening equipment.  And so, with this equipment non-functional, the airport has had to close ‘for the duration’ – or at least until such time as someone drives to Costco and buys half a dozen emergency generators.

With outdoor temperatures in the mid 100s and peaking at 111 degrees, one can imagine the lack of air conditioning will be sorely felt by people in the region.

To be polite, it is surprising that neither San Diego airport nor the TSA has insufficient backup power resources to provide power to the security screening equipment, with the result being the complete closure of outbound flights.

I’ll guess that no more than an additional 2% – 4% of the cost of their screening equipment would be required to provide a sophisticated standby power generation system.

The airlines have started another fare increase, with increases of $6 – $10 roundtrip, primarily on last minute (ie already expensive and targeted at business traveler) fares.  US Airways started the latest increase, it has yet to be seen if it will stick.

The proposed slot swap between Delta and US Airways at LaGuardia and Washington National seems to be now going ahead, and provoked an interesting article on the concept of slots in general.

The article asks the question ‘Who should slots belong to – are they the property of the airlines who use them, the airports where the flights are operated from, or are they a public good to be allocated and shared on some equitable basis?’ and builds on that by attempting to determine if the current airline ownership of slots has worked to the advantage of us, the traveling public, or not.

No prizes for guessing their finding, but it is an interesting read nonetheless.

Poor pilots.  Literally.  Here’s a sympathetic story that is shocked to discover that a brand new first officer flying on a regional airline earns less than the captain of a harbor ferry (someone who probably has 20+ years of seniority under his belt).

On the other hand, some junior co-pilots on regional airlines also earn less than airport window washers.

My eyes are remarkably dry and free of tears upon reading such numbers.  Being a regional airline co-pilot is the lowest rung on a ladder that stretches up a long way indeed.  How about comparing the window washer or the ferry captain with a senior 747 or A380 pilot?

And, quite apart from a salary and benefit package that still might reach close to a quarter million dollars a year, which would you prefer as a job benefit – free travel, all around the world, much of the time in first class or a cockpit jump seat; or a free ferry pass?

The article then predictably deteriorates into spouting the pilots’ unions line (or should that be ‘lie’) that poorly paid pilots are unsafe pilots, and that the industry is now struggling to recruit good pilots.

I don’t believe a word of it.  Sure, if $35,000 a year was the maximum a pilot would ever make, there might be a problem, although some people would still be eager for the job due to simply enjoying flying and the attendant benefits.  Regional airline employment is viewed by most as a stepping stone on the road to bigger and better things with a major airline that pays a major salary to its pilots.

That is not to say that all pilots are perfectly skilled and competent, however.  But, interestingly, there’s little or no correlation between pilot experience (ie hours of flying time logged) and the likelihood of the pilot crashing his plane.  Here’s a good article I wrote on the subject last year.

There seems to be a shadowy new factor that might be interfering with pilots and their ability to fly competently – one that has nothing to do with the size of their salary.  I’ll make what is, for me, a relatively rare disclaimer up front and say I don’t know enough about this to be sure.

But I’m increasingly coming across articles that hint at problems with pilot skill levels, particularly when it comes to really basic things such as stall recovery.  Improper stall recovery was the root cause of both the Air France crash into the Atlantic last year and the Colgan Air crash in upstate New York the year before.

Here’s an interesting article headed ‘Are airline pilots forgetting how to fly‘.  I’ve come across other similar articles over the last year or two.  I also have a strange personal experience that I’ll relate as well.

Last year I was the privileged guest of a major international airline, and spent some time in their main base’s training facility, interviewing one of their trainer pilots and having the tremendous pleasure of ‘flying’ one of their multi-million dollar full-motion flight simulators.  Doing so really is the ultimate video game experience, and close to indistinguishable from the real world experience.  I’d flown a simulator nearly 30 years earlier, and was amazed at how much the technology had improved, particularly in terms of the graphics and imagery that one saw outside the ‘windows’.

But some things were missing from the experience and appeared to be missing from the training regimen as well.  And I always instinctively cringe when I’m assured that a flight simulator experience is exactly the same as the real thing, because whereas the real thing is, well, the real thing and beyond question in terms of its reality, a flight simulator is only as good as the programming and assumptions built in to it.  I’ve been way too long in the computer industry and associated with way too many program bugs to ever comfortably trust my life to a computer program.

My understanding with this airline was that I’d write a fair, detailed (of course!) and probably positive article reporting on the experience and the high training standards which the airline undoubtedly has.  But when I started probing and asking questions about the validity of flight simulator training and asking for responses to some industry criticisms about basing too much training on flight simulators, they switched from eagerly and responsively helping me with an article they wanted to see published, and stopped answering their emails, even though I sent them regularly and repeatedly.

My unavoidable conclusion?  I was touching on delicate topics they did not want to even admit existed, let alone address head on.

I’m not going to embarrass the airline, but I am happy to embarrass the broader industry by observing that I sense there are some issues and problems in flight simulator training at present.  I can’t tell you exactly what they are, but I can tell you that things are not perfect.

Read the linked article above, and note in particular the key statistics from an FAA study.  This study found that in more than 60% of air accidents and 30% of major incidents, pilots had trouble manually flying the plane or made mistakes with automated flight controls.

There were a number of pilot errors that included not recognizing that either the autopilot or the auto-throttle had disconnected.  Other pilots in the study failed to take the proper steps to recover from a stall in flight, or to monitor and maintain airspeed.  Airlines are also seeing increasing numbers of smaller incidents in which pilots waste precious time repeatedly trying to restart an aircraft’s autopilot or fix other automated systems when they should be taking over control and flying the airplane.

As one who struggles to fly a sailplane, and that’s about the extent of my flying competence, I can’t comment further, other than to again express my disbelief that any skilled pilot would not know how to recover from a stall.  That is a bit like a regular driver of a passenger car forgetting what to do when the car is going too fast approaching a corner (ie, brake).

How could this happen?  My guess – automatic systems have made stalls so rare that when they do occur, pilots have either forgotten what a stall is, or are so busy thinking of really complicated alternate problems and their complex solutions that they overlook that the problem could be something as simple as a bog standard stall.

So, after that slightly anxious news, perhaps it is time to switch topics.  How about discussing, instead, the world’s safest airlines.  An organization calling itself the ‘Air Transport Rating Agency’ in Switzerland has released its ‘Holistic Safety Rating 2011’ listing the world’s ten safest airlines.  The organization claims to have culled publically available data about the airlines, their fleets, and their safety records (in total, 15 different sets of data) from which it identified the ten best of a selection of 100 of the world’s major airlines.

The organization coyly released the top ten list in alphabetical order without indicating relative rankings.  This is perhaps commendable, because the ratings are semi-pseudo-qualitative rather than quantitative, and some of the rating parameters can be argued as to how relevant they are in assessing safety (such as, to stray back into the previous topic, the number of flight simulators operated by the airline – is this actually a good thing or not?).

So, in alphabetical order, the world’s ten safest airlines, according to this organization, are Air France-KLM; AMR Corporation ie American Airlines and American Eagle; British Airways; Continental Airlines; Delta Airlines; Japan Airlines; Lufthansa; Southwest Airlines; United Airlines; US Airways.

I’d not place too much importance on this list, and not draw any conclusions if your preferred airline either is or is not on the list.

Here’s an interesting list of the top fifty routes in terms of the number of seats on flight scheduled per route.  The busiest airline route in the world is a domestic route between Tokyo’s Haneda airport and Sapporo’s Chitose airport, a relatively short distance of about 520 miles.  The next busiest is in South Korea, between Jeju and Seoul, an even shorter distance of 280 miles (but Jeju is on an island which gives air travel a definite advantage).  Fukuoka/Tokyo comes third, followed by Sydney/Melbourne in Australia – this latter being a route often fantasized over by high speed rail enthusiasts, but one which is very unlikely ever to be developed due to the massive cost involved).

The first US route doesn’t come until the 18th position (Los Angeles/San Francisco).  The next is between JFK and LAX (at position 27) then between ORD and LGA at position 35.  Canada’s busiest route is in position 47 (Vancouver-Toronto).

I wrote, yet again, last week about the US’s dysfunctional approach to issuing (better to say, not issuing) visas to would-be visitors.  A constant point of contrast is how welcoming the country is to illegal immigrants from Mexico – whether you think we should allow Mexicans to immigrate here or not, you have to agree that it is curiously inconsistent to allow Mexicans to illegally immigrant here en masse, while making it so difficult for lawful tourists to briefly visit.

Out of curiosity, I researched what it takes for a Mexican to visit the US legally.  They must be officially fingerprinted and photographed at one of eleven visa application service centers, pay a $140 fee, and potentially attend a visa interview too, with no guarantee of a visa being issued.

Oh – and the wait time for an interview appointment?  At the main Mexico city consular office, it is currently 37 days.

What is the point of locking our front door if we leave our back door wide open and with the welcome mat stretched out in front of it?

Mr Obama regrettably made no mention of any change in how the US issues visas in his Thursday night address.  He could have created more jobs, at zero cost, by changing this policy, than he now hopes to create with the dubious expenditure of $450 billion, more than half of which is in the form of temporarily reducing our social security contributions – a reduction that will harm us when we eventually retire.

As part of my self imposed 9/11 silence, there will be no security horror stories this week.

We all know that airline food is awful, but did you perceive it as actively dangerous?  This article is ostensibly about a man choking to death on an airline meal, but read on to the next part of the story.

The man’s dead body was appropriately moved to a more discreet curtained off crew rest area for the remaining 8 1/2 hours of the flight from Singapore to Auckland, – but keep reading – his girlfriend was then required to sit next to his dead body all the way!

The fashion police have struck again, and, as often seems to be the case, they were on a Southwest flight where they took a passenger off the flight for having saggy pants.

I disapprove of saggy pants myself, but I disapprove of these random inconsistent attacks by the fashion police even more.  Details here.

Norwegian Cruise Lines recently held a competition to choose the names of two new ships.  230,000 entries were received during the four week contest duration, and five finalists were selected.

The cruise line says these five finalists were selected because :

they reflect the innovation of the brand and the freedom and flexibility of Freestyle Cruising, while also conveying the feeling that the new ships provide a break from the stress of everyday life

Doesn’t that sound inspirational and wonderful (or, if you’re as cynical as me, glib and sickening)?  So what sort of innovative names did they choose, to match the ‘innovation’ of their Freestyle cruising?  Amazing mellifluous names that roll off your tongue?  Exotic names with a vaguely Norse ring to them?  Inspirational and aspirational names?

The five finalists are Norwegian Bliss, Norwegian Breakaway, Norwegian Escape, Norwegian Getaway, and Norwegian Journey.

You’d think this a joke if it weren’t true.  The only thing amazing about these names is how amazingly ordinary they are – they sound the same as a dozen other cruise ship names already out there.

And now for the part you’ve been waiting for since seeing the image at the top.  A new cruise line and its first new ship have proudly debuted, offering five day/four night cruises in what the cruise operator doubtless hopes will become a new hot region for cruising, and what is definitely a very under-served part of the world by cruise lines at the present.

The ship also has a name which I’d love to see NCL describe.  The ship is the Mangyongbong 92, a former ferry cum freighter and now somewhat converted to a sort of cruise ship, probably holding about 200 passengers.  Its name is taken from that of a hill near Pyongyang, and it was built in 1992 by North Korea to celebrate Kim Il Sung’s 80th birthday.  Yes, a North Korean cruise ship (and yes, this is indeed an oxymoron).

It is alleged to have formerly been used to transport missile components, but these days its purposes are primarily peaceful.  You see one of the cabins in the picture at the top of the page, with what look to be five mattresses thrown on the floor for the passengers to sleep on.

Other cabins also offer bunk beds, and some of the ‘deluxe suites’ actually do have their own bathrooms, and some of the bathrooms even have water that comes out of the taps – but this is only a good thing if you like brown rather than clear water.  Journalists on the first cruise reported that many of the bathrooms had no running water at all.

An all-inclusive price for the five day cruise is expected to be in the order of $300.  No word on tipping policies, yet.

More details here.

And now, truly lastly for the week, one faces different types of road hazards when driving in Australia.  (120kg = 265lb)

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

Davidsig265 David.


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