Weekly Roundup Friday 22 June 2012

Traveling to the moon might no longer be reserved for comic book heroes alone. A company promises commercial moon trips commencing in 2015.

Good morning

Well, the summer solstice has already been and gone (it was Wednesday) and the days are getting shorter once more.

I’m always flummoxed by the way that summer commences on the longest day and immediately starts giving us shorter and shorter days – although happier, also warmer and warmer ones.  Fortunately, the way the sunrise and sunset times work means the shortening days are obscured for a while with time first coming off the sunrise time rather than the sunset time.

A lot happened on Monday, so much so I was tempted to send out a special edition of the weekly newsletter, giving you a first report on the new Microsoft ‘Surface’ tablet that was announced then.

But after quickly writing a 3000+ word analysis, I realized there was no urgency in sharing it with you, because one of the several missing things from Microsoft’s strangely empty launch event was any information on when the units would be available for pre-order.  We also were not given specifics about pricing or delivery dates, and many of the critical specifications for the units were also not provided (such as battery life).

All in all, a strange and seemingly unnecessary non-event.  My full report is included in today’s newsletter, together with not just one or two but four other good solid articles.  Do be sure to have a look at everything in this week’s roundup.

And in the newsletter, we also have lots for your Friday reading pleasure :

  • BA’s New Advertising Campaign Sure to be a Winner – It Says ‘Don’t Fly’
  • JetBlue’s Four Hour Flight From Hell
  • The Grandma of All Fuel Surcharges?
  • The World’s Safest Airline – Now a Little Less Safe?
  • So Much for Roomy A380s
  • 787 Electronic Window Shades Not Dark Enough
  • Boeing 747-8 to be Almost as Good as First Promised – but not until 2014
  • Fly You to the Moon?  Yes, for only $160 million, and in 2015.
  • Something You Don’t Really Want to Know About Your Hotel Room
  • Cheapest (Major) Cities to Visit
  • Those Annoying Distorted Words You Need to Type Have a Second Purpose, Too
  • Sorry – Your Brand New Windows Phone is Now Obsolete
  • The Woes of the International Road Warrior
  • Snake Oil and Special Cables
  • Careful What You Say.  ‘They’ Might Be Listening.
  • And Lastly This Week…..

 BA’s New Advertising Campaign Sure to be a Winner – It Says ‘Don’t Fly’

It is true the British have a slightly different sense of humor, and also sometimes offer advertising that is subtler and more cerebral than much American advertising.

Nonetheless, we can’t help wondering at BA’s new advertising campaign in Britain, which suggests people do not fly during the London Olympics.  More details here.

There might actually be underlying reality and hope on the part of BA that people indeed don’t fly.  By all accounts, it will be gridlock at Heathrow on some of the days during the Olympics.

JetBlue’s Four Hour Flight From Hell

One group of passengers who’ll be particularly receptive to BA’s new advertising campaign will be the 155 passengers stuck on a JetBlue flight from Las Vegas.

The plane developed a problem in two of its hydraulic control systems shortly after take-off.  This caused the plane to go into steep turns and changes of pitch up and down, so the pilot understandably decided to abort the flight and land back at McCarran.

But there was one problem.  The plane was too heavy, and apparently the only way to get its weight down to an acceptable point was to fly around and around, burning up jet fuel (rather than dumping the fuel).

So, for four hours, the plane flew like a crazy possessed demon, while passengers tried not to panic – and also tried not to vomit; with, alas, only partial degrees of success on both points.

More details here.

The Grandma of All Fuel Surcharges?

I wrote last week, as I often do, about the inequities of airline fuel and other surcharges – in particular, how at present the airlines are ramping up a range of different charges, including fuel surcharges, even though the cost of jet fuel is dropping.

Reader Walter wrote in with what he says is an even more egregious example of unfair surcharges :

Hi David-

These ‘temporary’ fuel surcharges have gotten out of hand.  The EU should go after that rather than the ridiculous carbon tax.  The surcharges are nothing more than a price increase, particularly with fuel costs dropping, that are NOT taxable, unlike if the increases were simple fare increases.

All those billions of dollars of airline fees represent hundreds of millions of lost tax revenue to the US government.

The grandma of all fuel surcharges is the ‘temporary’ tanker fee that dates back to, I think, 1969?  It was allowed on flights to Puerto Rico when there was a short lived strike there and aircraft had to ‘tanker’ in a full load of fuel.  As best I know, it is still in place now, 40+ years later.

How much has that $2.20 raised for the airlines over the years (and cheated the government out of tax)?

The World’s Safest Airline – Now a Little Less Safe?

Poor old Qantas – it continues to do things which – at least on the face of them – damage their brand and future.

The airline, which used to pride itself on a safety culture second to none, now talks about following ‘industry best practices’ which a cynic might point out are seldom the best, and definitely a huge step backwards for an airline that formerly was much better than the industry average in all respects.

Its latest apparent backwards step has ended in a public dispute with its engineers, and has caused Qantas to seek a restraining order preventing its engineers from carrying out airplane pre-flight safety checks such as they formerly would do.  Say what?

The engineers’ union points to the interesting statistic that only 11.7% of airplane defects are found when a pre-flight safety check is done by a pilot by himself, compared to 88.3% when the safety check involves a licensed airplane engineer too.  They believe continuing these checks are an important safety issue.

Qantas says that changes in airplane design have made safety checks unnecessary.  That’s an interesting claim to make – and even if true (and we see that as a very big ‘if’) Qantas fails to also point out that many of its planes are 15+ years old and so presumably don’t have these magical changes in design.

It also begs the question as to how it is these planes all apparently needed engineer safety checks last month, last year, and five years ago, and ten and fifteen years ago too; but now, notwithstanding their advancing age and all the potential issues associated with that, suddenly, the need for engineer inspections has evaporated.

More details here.

So Much for Roomy A380s

When the A380 was first announced, both Airbus and some airlines came up with fanciful conceptualizations, visualizing on-board shopping malls, gyms, lounges, and other space-consuming features.

There’s nothing new in this – many new airplane designs have started out with such concepts, only to have airlines make the startling discovery that the space could be used instead for more seats, to cram more passengers into the plane.

It was a pleasant surprise to note the first few A380s that were delivered had moderately low seat densities – typically in the range of 450 – 490 seats.  But since then, the numbers have been inching up, and Qantas has now announced it will be reconfiguring its fleet of twelve A380s, increasing capacity from 450 up to 484 seats.

How is it managing this?  Mainly by taking out toilets and self-serve bars, and cutting out eight of the 72 business class seats, while increasing Premium economy (by three) and coach class by 39 extra seats.  Details here.

Only an airline would think that if you add a net 34 extra seats to a plane, it is acceptable to simultaneously take out three toilets.

787 Electronic Window Shades Not Dark Enough

It is hardly a life and death critical safety matter, but it was one of the few remaining ‘big deals’ associated with Boeing’s new 787 ‘Dreamliner’ – perhaps so-called because many of the initial claims about the plane have faded away into dreamland.

As well as having 20% larger windows, the plane also boasted an electronic LCD panel in the windows that could be set to darken as an alternative to those oh-so-old-fashioned window shades you have to slide up and down by hand.

Airlines also liked it because they could remotely control the LCDs and darken or lighten the cabin whenever they wished to, no matter what the people in the seats might actually want.

But Boeing has now been approached by its 787 launch customer ANA, who are apparently might be complaining that the LCD screens don’t block out enough light, and take too long to transition from light to dark (two minutes, we believe).  ANA might be asking for the LCD panels to be made darker, to transition faster, and/or for the retrofitting of regular shades – we say ‘might’ because contradictory stories are coming out about this – probably there is some face saving going on.

More details here.

Airbus meanwhile is crowing that it has an amazing device that lightens or darkens the windows on its competing A350 within a second – a traditional window shade.  Progress can be a fickle thing, can’t it.

On the other hand, an unkind person might point out to Airbus that a possible issue with the window shades isn’t quite of the same order of magnitude as the cracking on their A380 wing ribs.  Emirates has revealed that its costs incurred as a result of needing to repair six of its A380 fleet have totaled almost $100 million.

Presumably the other A380 operators have been incurring similar costs.  Ouch.

Boeing 747-8 to be Almost as Good as First Promised – but not until 2014

When Boeing was first launching its latest version of the essentially obsolete 747 airplane in 2006 (the 747-8), it of course offered various specifications about the plane’s promised performance.

For different reasons, the conventionally constructed 747-8 suffered almost as many delays as its ‘plastic’ cousin, the 787.  And when it was finally released in freighter form in October last year and in passenger form just a couple of weeks ago (launch – and almost only – customer being Lufthansa) the plane – ooops – failed to meet those promises.

Here’s an article that shows the brilliance of good public relations, especially when combined with uncritical editors.  It quotes at length various Boeing executives talking excitedly about how the 747-8 will be almost as good as originally promised – but in two years time.  With a determined effort not to look at the flipside of that statement – that even in 2014, the plane will still be slightly less than what was promised eight years earlier, the article also reveals, without saying exactly so, that the performance catch-ups that occur are largely to do with improvements to the plane’s GE engines – not really a Boeing improvement at all.

The net result, we are told, will be a plane that is comparable in operating costs to a 777-300ER, a plane that was first delivered in 2004.  So in 2014, Boeing’s latest/greatest 747-8 will finally become comparable to a plane first flown ten years before.  Bravo?  (Cue the sound of enthusiastic one-handed clapping).

Fly You to the Moon?  Yes, for only $160 million, and in 2015.

This article in Britain’s august Financial Times is strangely lacking in detail, but provides a sketchy outline of yet another private startup space flight company, this one planning to offer flights to the moon, starting in 2015.

It hardly sounds credible.  NASA has essentially said flying to the moon is now too expensive (and ‘too expensive’ in NASA’s terms is an impressively huge number) and even if NASA were to attempt to do so, a new program would take ten years or more to get off the ground.  Other private space companies, like the ambitiously named Virgin Galactic, promise to provide little more than sub-orbital brief excursions to a very high altitude above the earth rather than ‘real’ space flight.

The moon missions would have three people flying together, as both passengers and crew – they would be given extensive training prior to the flight, and much of the flight control would be computerized.  The flights do not extend to a moon landing, merely (if one can use such a word as ‘merely’ in this context) a flight to the moon and back again.  In round figures, a half million mile journey.

The company offering these new flights – Excalibur Almaz – had earlier said, in 2009, that it would begin flights this year with revenue flights in 2013.

Here’s a slightly more detailed article, and this links to the company’s own website, written and formatted in a strange slightly foreign form of English which is at odds with its apparently US operations.

Although we are skeptical about the company’s revised projection of providing commercial moon flights a mere three years from now, we do see this as another interesting transition point where the initiative for future space flights is shifting from governments to commercial companies.

That’s not to say that our 40+ year NASA operation was a mistake – the new commercial companies are now feasible as a result of the research and development already done by NASA and the Soviet/Russian space equivalent; indeed, a large part of the business plan and financial feasibility of Excalibur Almaz seems to be in buying and re-using/repurposing existing Russian/Soviet equipment, probably paying only pennies on the dollar of what the ‘real’ costs would otherwise be.

We are sure there are people, corporations, and countries who would contract with third party service providers such as Excalibur Almaz.  The company also plans to generate more revenue by selling advertising on the outside of its space station!  But we’re not so confident that Excalibur Almaz will meet its latest timetable.

Something You Don’t Really Want to Know About Your Hotel Room

81% of the hotel room surfaces tested by University of Houston researchers had fecal E coli bacteria lurking on them.

It is thought one reason for this may be how the housemaids clean the rooms – possibly using the same cloths to clean inside the bedroom that they’ve previously used to clean inside the bathroom.  Details here.

This is far from new news.  Here’s a Youtube video clip from four years ago that shows maids in three different hotels and how they ‘clean’ the glassware in hotel rooms, with the worst of the three being the third one shown.

We all need to be very careful at what we use in hotel rooms, and washing our hands frequently because anything – everything – we touch in the hotel room is likely to be contaminated with harmful fecal material.

Cheapest (Major) Cities to Visit

Talking about hotels, it is common to see surveys announcing the most expensive cities in the world.  But – for many of us – it is more helpful to know not about the most expensive cities to visit/avoid, but rather to know about the best value cities that are more affordable.

TripAdvisor’s annual TripIndex has just been announced, and winning the award for least expensive US city (out of 15 major cities surveyed) is Las Vegas, with a $263 cost for a hotel for a night and a dinner and drinks for two.  Dallas and New Orleans came second and third; at the other end of the scale, New York was most expensive ($456) followed by Boston and San Francisco.

Interestingly, the major difference in costing was all to do with the hotel stay.  Meals, drinks, and taxi fares were all very closely bunched together.

Internationally, the best value city was Hanoi ($141) followed by Beijing and Bangkok.  The most expensive were London ($518) followed by Oslo and Zurich.

Some of the numbers in the survey look surprising, but go see for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

Those Annoying Distorted Words You Need to Type Have a Second Purpose, Too

If you are like me, you absolutely hate filling out a form on a website somewhere only to be confronted with one or two fuzzy distorted words that you then have to type into a box to prove you are a real person.

It isn’t just your imagination (or, in my case, failing eyesight!).  The words have indeed truly become harder to read, primarily because the ugly secret of the whole ordeal is that computerized scam/spam programs can read the words almost as well as people can, so as the computerized bots get cleverer, the words get harder.  A bit like airport security, these procedures inconvenience ordinary people, while not deterring determined hackers.

But, did you know that in typing the words, you’re also doing a social good work?  These days the latest version of the Captcha verification program combines a randomly generated image of a word plus a scanned word from an old book.  If you correctly type the known (computer generated) image, Captcha assumes you probably correctly typed in the scanned image too, and matches it up with a number of other people’s typed versions of the scanned word until it is sure the word is correctly transcribed, at which point it adds it to the slowly building computerized version of the entire scanned book.  You are helping transcribe old books into computer form.

These days Captcha is owned by Google, and it is using this ‘crowd sourcing’ to build up its library of electronic versions of old books online.

Here’s a fascinating article telling you more about this.  I still hate the Captcha process, but at least now I feel slightly better about it.

Sorry – Your Brand New Windows Phone is Now Obsolete

I’ve never understood why some people – admittedly extremely few – have chosen to buy a not-so-smart phone that uses the Windows Phone 7 operating system (instead of an iPhone or Android phone).

Notwithstanding the number 7, WP7 was essentially a completely redone operating system with little in common with the preceding Microsoft phone operating systems (and earlier phones could not be upgraded to WP7).

Following on the heels of Microsoft’s semi-launch of its new Surface tablets on Monday, Microsoft has now announced the eventual release of Windows Phone 8, the next version of its phone OS.

But there’s one big problem.  The new WP8 operating system can not be loaded onto current phones running WP7.

While Android has had a series of non-backwards compatibility issues too, it is rare to see such a complete abandonment of an earlier generation of hardware, and to have the latest phones, on sale today, not capable of being upgraded to a pre-announced new version of software due to be released tomorrow.  The first Android phones got all new releases for several years, and the same with the first iPhones too.

So – that fancy new Nokia Lumia or other WP7 based phone you just bought?  Doesn’t seem so fancy now, does it!  Although Nokia rushed to reassure potential purchasers that their phone is still worth ‘recommending’.

As for me, I’m getting a new iPhone 5 as soon as they come out.

The Woes of the International Road Warrior

Well known travel writer Ed Perkins set off on an extensive international journey with what he thought were four very useful technological aids to assist him in his travels.  An international SIM for his cell phone, a notebook computer, a Kindle, and one of the new ‘chip and pin’ type credit cards that work with all international credit card terminals.

One of the four never worked.  Two of the others failed, and the fourth didn’t work as well as he’d hoped.  Guess which was which.  Here’s a link to his interesting story.

Snake Oil and Special Cables

One of the more eye-rolling things I sometimes encounter are ridiculously hyped claims for magical transformations in sound quality in special types of audio cable – these claims apply to both the low current cables between components in a stereo stack and also the high current cables for connecting speakers to the amplifier.

The extravagant hyperbole of the claims of miraculous improvements in sound quality are matched only by the extravagant prices being charged for the wiring.

I’ve never been able to hear any different in sound quality at all as between the best and the worst cables I own.  And now, it turns out, neither can a group of audiophiles, who were asked if they could tell the difference between an esoteric form of speaker cable and coat hangers.

Details here.

Careful What You Say.  ‘They’ Might Be Listening.

An interesting story broke this week about plans to add audio monitoring and recording to the already in place video monitoring and recording at Ottawa airport.

Big deal?  You might think not – they are already getting video of whatever you’re doing, and if you’re saying something particularly interesting, lip-readers can be brought in to do a reasonably good job of figuring out what you’re saying.

But something about the story touched a nerve and our gentle Canadian cousins got up in arms about the matter – including the union representing the Canada Border Services Agency employees.  They were worried that what they say to each other would get recorded too.  Details here.

Let’s just pause for a moment to dwell on the hypocrisy of how the people doing the recording don’t want to be themselves also recorded.

Anyway, within a few days, a second story came out saying that the audio monitoring plans had been ‘suspended’.  While hailed as a victory by those opposed to the monitoring, may I rain on their parade two different ways.

Firstly, there’s a world of difference between something being suspended and terminated.  Indeed, the careful choice of the word ‘suspended’ strongly implies that the program will be back on track within a very short period of time.

Secondly, buried in the original article is a reference to the fact that audio monitoring is already being carried out at a number of other border posts.  Why is there no outrage about the ongoing and pre-existing monitoring programs elsewhere?  What is so special about Ottawa airport?

It seems reasonable to assume that any agency really serious about monitoring the people in an area would not only be recording the conversations but also feeding them through real time analyzers, checking variously for voice-prints from people of interest and for key-words being used in conversations.  In other words, don’t only never joke about bombs to the TSA staff, but don’t even joke about it to friends, for fear of being overheard.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s a holiday idea with a difference for those of you who haven’t yet made summer plans, and who are seeking something a bit more active than lying on a tropical beach reading a book Kindle and sipping on a tropical fruity drink with an umbrella in it.

Truly lastly this week, as a New Zealander, I am used to driving along the open road and suddenly coming across a flock of sheep or a herd of cattle being shepherded along the road.  Driving through them can be difficult (particularly if they are going in the same direction).

But here is a totally different type of traffic obstruction, quite unlike sheep and cows.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels.






1 thought on “Weekly Roundup Friday 22 June 2012”

  1. This comment has to do with this article;
    “On the other hand, an unkind person might point out to Airbus that a possible issue with the window shades isn’t quite of the same order of magnitude as the cracking on their A380 wing ribs.
    When QANTAS first received the Jumbo’s (200 series) in 1971 they had to go back to Boeing for wing mods, that is fly from Australia to Seattle for repair, so I guess wing mod’s aren’t new with either company.

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