Weekly Roundup Friday 31 August 2012

Some of us remember, on six occasions now 40+ years ago, looking up at the moon and thinking ‘there are men on that’; while at the same time, they may have been looking back at the earth, as in this picture.

Good morning

Farewell this week to Neil Armstrong, an unassuming gentleman who was so un-self-centered that he never thought to take (or have taken) a picture of himself during his history making time on the moon.

The only records we have of his participation in this event are a photo where his shadow is accidentally seen in the foreground, and a wideshot by Buzz Aldrin that includes the back of Armstrong on one side.

Here’s a very thoughtful commentary on not only the passing of Armstrong but of our manned space program in general.

Talking about passings, it seems I merely blinked, and summer passed by.  Certainly here in the Seattle area the summer has been short and mild, and now we are preparing for Labor Day weekend, the traditional end of the summer season.

And what more emphatic way to mark the end of summer than by the passage of Hurricane Isaac, with United’s computer ‘system’ (if one can dignify such a shambles with the word ‘system’) doubling down on the weather hassles to make things even harder for the people who still choose United as their carrier of choice.

A gift of hope and change to you all, being as how we’ve been receiving insufficient of it elsewhere.  I hope I’ve managed to change the formatting to enable website links to appear more clearly in the newsletter.  Let me know if they still are obscured.

I had the pleasure of participating in Rudy Maxa’s radio travel show last weekend, talking about California’s disastrous high speed rail project.  Based on the material I put researched for this, I put together a summary of the seven different areas where its reality and truth is proving to be very much at odds with the initial promises and expectations.  It is the second piece today, following on from the newsletter itself.

And in the newsletter we have :

  • Total Instrument Failure in Plane Cockpit, FAA Yawns
  • Computer Viruses in Cars Next?
  • When Frequent Flier Miles Have a Negative Value
  • Can You Pass Your Digital Property Rights On In Your Will?
  • Protest Against Britain’s Exorbitant Air Passenger Duty
  • Hidden Hotel Pricing Add-Ons – The New Consumer Battleground?
  • AAA Does Its Bit to Penalize Hotels Too
  • More Exposures Of Fraudulent Reviews
  • FAA to Reconsider Inflight Electronics Bans?
  • TSA Doesn’t Recognize its Own DHS IDs
  • Dangerous Airport X-ray Scanners Fail Ten Times Every Day
  • Am I Crazy?  Will I Be Locked Up?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Total Instrument Failure in Plane Cockpit, FAA Yawns

On at least 50 occasions Airbus A320 planes have experienced total power failure in their cockpits, meaning all their instrumentation switches off.

That not only requires the pilots to suddenly sharpen their flying skills, but it can also put the frighteners up people on the ground – a plane that suddenly changes course (ie to urgently land at the nearest airport) and which doesn’t respond to any radio communication (the radios die, too) could be a plane taken over by terrorists.  We’re lucky both that none of these planes have crashed and also that none of them have been shot down.

The FAA in 2010 finally stirred itself sufficiently to require airlines to modify their cockpit systems so that the planes wouldn’t suffer power loss in the future.  But the fix costs $6,000 a plane, and of course it would be unfair to require airlines that turn over billions of dollars in revenue a year to suddenly have to rush out and spend $6,000 a plane for maybe 50 – 200 planes.  So the FAA has given the airlines four years to make the upgrade.

Imagine a wire or something was loose in your car so that occasionally, at night, the headlights and dash lights would all suddenly go out.  And let’s say the cost to repair the problem is $600.  How long would you continue to drive the car at night before getting it fixed – and how long would you continue to allow your teenagers to drive the car at night, too?

Now admittedly this is a rare event on the A320s, and all the times it has happened so far, the planes have landed safely.  But for only $6,000 a plane to fix the problem?  Seems to me the FAA is too forgiving of the airlines.

Details – and some interesting comments – in the link.

Computer Viruses in Cars Next?

Talking about car problems, cars are slowly but steadily moving away from being directly and mechanically controlled by us, to now being given ‘requests’ by us to a computer, which interprets our requests and then passes them on to the engine, brakes, and other controls.

The two most important controls in a car are probably the steering wheel and the brakes, with the gas pedal next on the list.  The gas pedal was the first to go digital – in the past it was linked by a series of rods or a cable to the valves on your carburetor.  Now the gas pedal is some type of rheostat that sends signals to a computer, which then talks to various parts of the engine, including the fuel injection system, and tells it to develop more or less power.

We’ve all heard of ‘unintended acceleration’ issues in the past, and the more that the engine is controlled by computer, the more possible such events have to be in the future.

We are now seeing our brakes being increasingly computerized, too.  First it was add-on functions such as ABS and stability control, and then it was auto cruise-control and collision avoidance systems, and one has to wonder how long will it be before stomping on the brake does nothing, due to a computer glitch – a glitch that will become a lot more serious when you can’t slow down or stop for the corner just up ahead.

I guess you could always turn off the ignition and haul on the emergency brake.  Unless, of course, the emergency brake is also electronic, and the ignition too (as is the case in many modern cars).

How long before steering also loses its direct correspondence between our twisting the steering wheel and the wheels turning under the car?

Never mind about computer glitches and bugs (although that is plenty to worry about).  How about deliberately introduced computer viruses, too?  How is that possible, you might ask?  It isn’t as though a car is connected to the internet, is it?

Unfortunately, there are lots of ‘vectors’ via which computer viruses could be introduced into auto computers, starting off with infection at the factory where the cars were first made and programmed (this is a dismayingly common source of viruses for regular computing devices).  Beyond that first risk point, cars are regularly connected up to other computers these days for diagnostic and monitoring purposes, and apparently, even playing a CD through the CD player can in some cases enable viruses to be introduced into the car (how amazing is that!).

Here’s an interesting article which chooses to accept the positive side of the story – the work that Intel and others are doing in the hopes of minimizing the risk of computer viruses lethally interfering with the vehicles we drive.  But if these researchers can truly make cars virus-proof and resistant to external attack/infection, they’ll have succeeded in a task that no-one has managed to do with ‘real’ computers.

When Frequent Flier Miles Have a Negative Value

I wrote last week in reasonable length about how much frequent flier miles are worth these days – the executive summary being ‘not as much as they used to be’ – color us all unsurprised at that revelation.

However, even a minimal positive value is better than a negative value.  What is a negative value?  I’ll let reader Mcat explain – he wrote in to say, in reply to last week’s comments :

David, it seems Lufthansa Miles and More miles now have a negative value, ie, it will cost you more to use them than buying a full price ticket.

I tried to book a return flight from Heathrow to Munich of Lufthansa and was quoted 30k miles + £132 “taxes”. The exact same flight can be fully purchased on the Lufthansa website for £123 including taxes.

This means the Lufthansa miles are not only worthless, they actually cost you to use them!!!

Lufthansa must have the most useless frequent flyer scheme out of all airlines. Can any other airline top this?

To answer Mcat’s rhetorical question, BA sometimes gets close to zeroing out and negativizing (consider that your new word for the week, I just invented it) their miles, by virtue of the totally unfair surcharges they add to their ‘free’ tickets.

It probably isn’t breaking any rules, but it sure doesn’t feel very good when your ‘award’ (rather than free) ticket ends up costing you more than a regular ticket.  And Mcat didn’t point out that if he bought his ticket, he’d also earn more miles when flying the roundtrip, too, pushing the disparity in overall net cost/benefit even further apart.

Can You Pass Your Digital Property Rights On In Your Will?

One of the things about frequent flier and other loyalty programs is what happens when you die or divorce (assuming you believe them to be of any value at all these days – probably not an issue if your miles are with the Lufthansa program!)?

Leaving aside the divorce issue (which is more about how you assign a value to the miles for purpose of property division) what about when you die?  A study this week showed that almost half of Americans leave behind only about a $10,000 estate when they die, but we know that some of us or our friends have many millions of miles and points.

It seems fair that our lifetime status awards can’t be inherited.  But what about the accrued miles in a loyalty account?  While alive, we can usually give away or transfer miles (sometimes for a fee) and we can gift awards to pretty much anyone we choose – surely the act of dying allows us, through our will and estate, to gift the miles/awards on too?  The outcome of this seems to depend on the frequent flier program you’re dealing with – some refuse, others bluff, and some allow them to be willed on to someone else.

A related topic that is growing in relevance is that of our digital ‘property’, or perhaps better described as our digital ‘rights’.  It used to be we’d amass hundreds, even thousands, of books, records, movies, board games, and other types of entertainment material and media, and there was no question that of course not only could we give away, sell or loan them during our lifetimes, but when we died, we didn’t have to have our executors bundle everything up and ship it back to the stores they were bought from, receiving nothing in return.

But these days people are spending way more on digital media.  iTunes songs rather than records, tapes, and CDs.  Similarly, digital movie copies rather than VHS tapes, laser disks, DVDs and Blurays.  Computer games rather than board games.  And, of course, eBooks rather than printed books.

As the shift from hardcopy to digital copy – often stored ‘in the cloud’ rather than even on our own computers – becomes more and more prevalent, the value of such things in our estates can be expected to increase, too.

What happens to all of that when we die?

Almost without exception, our ‘rights’ (better thought of as ‘lack of rights’!) expire when we expire.  They can’t be willed on to someone else.  They can’t even be cashed in at a big estate sale, and neither will the sellers of these ‘lack of rights’ issue refunds for things such as, for example, partially read or entirely unread books.

Here’s an article that talks about these concepts some more.  The current situation is blatantly unfair.

Protest Against Britain’s Exorbitant Air Passenger Duty

Talking about blatantly unfair, in the last six years, Britain’s Air Passenger Duty (APD) fee,  levied on all people flying out of a UK airport, has increased three-fold on many routes, and now can be as much as $300 per person.

Not content with a 300% increase at a time when inflation moved by 20%, the government plans to continue raising this fee each year through 2017.  When is enough too much?

Indeed, let’s not just look at the last six years.  When the tax was first introduced in 1994, it was originally either £5 for short or £10 for long flights.  Now it ranges up all the way to £184 – nearly 19 times more than what it was in 1994.

Has anything else in your life gone up in price nineteen-fold between 1994 and now?

For us as Americans, it is becoming appreciably more expensive to include Britain in a visit to Europe (although flying in to Britain, taking the Eurostar train to Europe, and flying out of Europe is one way around that and much less expensive than flying in to Europe, then to Britain, then home).

Studies suggest that the APD is actually costing Britain more money overall than what it is raising in government taxes, but the government’s approach seems to be to respond by increasing the tax still further, rather than by backing off.  This tax is killing the golden goose – the tourists that travel to Britain.

British Airways is coordinating a protest – clearly it is feeling the negative impacts of this tax more than most other airlines, and would love you to join in.  It costs nothing, and is very easy – go to this website – http://www.afairtaxonflying.org/ – and click on the right hand side option for ‘Not a UK Resident’ then fill out the simple short form that follows to generate a letter that will be sent to Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer.

I did it on Monday; he has yet to write back.  But, whether he writes back or not, why not send him a note too.

 Hidden Hotel Pricing Add-Ons – The New Consumer Battleground?

The industry term ‘drip pricing’ refers to hotels that will lower their published rates, but then make up the difference with mandatory fees.

The most common ones are ‘resort’ fees, ‘energy surcharges’, ‘in-room safe’, and so on.  Others may be optional rather than mandatory and some  are things that perhaps one can understand extra being charged for, even though you wish they were free (parking and internet access, for example).

Others are testaments to the extraordinary creativity some hotel managers have when it comes to dreaming up with new ways to justify charges – a bell desk fee, or a housekeeping fee, or other such fees that are imposed whether you use them or not, and other fees for things that used to be free (some hotels now charge if you use the formerly complimentary in-room pack of coffee).  How long before we’ll be charged for the tiny thing of shampoo, or per sheet of toilet paper?

A slightly strange assortment of industry opinion leaders – a self appointed triad of industry commentators (well respected writer Ed Perkins, newly appointed DoT advisory council member Charlie Leocha, and Kevin Mitchell of the Business Travel Coalition) are now calling on the FTC to ‘aggressively address the practice’ of hotels using drip pricing strategies.

They say that now the DoT is requiring airlines to be more open and transparent about the fees they charge, the FTC should do the same with hotels.  Their main point is that hotel pricing at present obscures the extra fees, making it hard for travelers to comparison price shop between different hotels, with the outcome being that hotels are rewarded for bad behavior and good hotels penalized for being honest.

By this, I (and they) mean that if one hotel sells rooms for, eg, $180 a night, including free internet and free parking, and the hotel across the street sells rooms for $150 a night, but then adds a $25 parking fee, a $15 internet access fee, a $10 resort fee, a $2 in-room safe fee, and a $5 energy surcharge, it would seem, by simply looking at both hotels on a price comparison website like kayak.com, that the $150/night hotel rate was a much better deal than the $180 rate (even though the ultimate cost is higher), giving the ‘cheating’ hotel more business than the honest hotel.

It certainly annoys me to encounter unexpected fees when checking out; including even where you confront the front desk staffer and they simply shrug and take it off – in other words, no matter how it is described, it is a fee for being a passive enabler.

Here’s a copy of the letter they sent to the FCC.

AAA Does Its Bit to Penalize Hotels Too

In an apparently unrelated – but welcome – move, the AAA is adjusting the rating process for how it awards diamonds to hotels.  It will now penalize hotels that charge resort and internet access fees.

The AAA’s director of tourism information, Michael Petrone, very appropriately said

Members want all-inclusive, published room rates with no surprises at checkout.

Let’s hope other rating agencies will follow the AAA’s lead.

More Exposures Of Fraudulent Reviews

Talking about hotel ratings makes me think of online hotel reviews.  We’ve all come to realize that the reviews on TripAdvisor are sometimes genuine, credible, and helpful; but sometimes, while still genuine, are ridiculous and not at all helpful.  Hopefully we also realize that some of the reviews are complete and utter works of fiction, either designed to inflate the positive ratings on a hotel, or to attack the hotel with scurrilous untruths.

If you’re like me, you probably do a lot of your buying on Amazon, and even if not buying direct from Amazon, you may rely on the user product reviews that Amazon publishes for guidance if something is as good in reality as its brochure and promotional materials imply.  This is as true for a book you’re thinking of buying as it is for home electronics or any of the many other things Amazon sells.

But did you know there’s a thriving and shadowy industry flourishing that writes fake reviews for Amazon and just about any/every other type of website featuring product reviews as well?  You’ve got to treat these reviews with a grain of salt too, alas – even the ones which are shown as being written by people who truly bought the products in the first place – some sellers will happily accept the extra cost of people buying the product from Amazon as part of the process to give more credibility to the review which follows, and some sellers seem to set five figure sized budgets for buying fake reviews to give their product a marketing boost.

Here’s an interesting piece reporting on this.

As one who of course also reviews products, I have to say there’s something terribly wrong with the world when a person can make $28,000 a month writing fake reviews, whereas I struggle to make that much a year writing real reviews!

And you’ve got to love the irony of John Locke, the author who became a self-published best-selling sensation on Amazon, so much so that he then wrote a book claiming to tell the secrets of his success at how to become a successful self published author.  As the article points out, his biggest secret for his success is the one he doesn’t disclose in the book he sells; he too paid for reviews.

FAA to Reconsider Inflight Electronics Bans?

Winning the prize for ‘most misleading headline of the week’ is this article and its heading ‘The FAA Rethinking That Whole Ban On Smartphone Usage In Flight Thing, Finally’.

If you actually read the article, you’ll see the FAA is very gently taking the first steps towards a rethink of how/where/when electronic devices can be used and not used on airplanes, as well as some of the testing protocols to determine if they are safe or dangerous.

But the FAA does not even regulate cell phone use.  That is the purview of the FCC, which has no plans to remove its ban on inflight use of phones.

TSA Doesn’t Recognize its Own DHS IDs

You know the deal – as part of the whole security nonsense, you first have a TSA agent check your ID and make sure it matches the name on your ticket.  Then you move on to get shot full of probably dangerous X-rays, and so on else.

The type of ID you can submit is fairly broad – a ‘government issued photo ID’ seems to be the prime requirement.  We’ve all used drivers licenses, sometimes passports, and I’ve also used things like a Nexus pass and even assorted state concealed weapons permits.  Military and law enforcement IDs also work.

As you know, the TSA is part of the DHS.  A reader wrote in last week

I work for a different division of DHS, and every flight is an experience.  I try to drive whenever I can, no matter the distance!

For example: a co-worker had a hard time recently when the TSA agent that views your boarding pass and ID, didn’t know how to validate her DHS ID – identical to his own – as being phony or not.  She ended up digging out her driver’s license.

We are told to not use our DHS badges as ID when travelling.  Maybe DHS realizes how dumb these people can be….  Ya gotta love it….

Dangerous Airport X-ray Scanners Fail Ten Times Every Day

The X-ray scanners the TSA insists we walk through at airports these days are of little use when it comes to detecting dangerous things people might be trying to smuggle through, but they are of possibly appreciable danger to us, the 99.999999+% of totally innocent passengers.  Many countries, like for example the EU, have decided that the concept of using an ineffective and potentially dangerous of scanner makes no sense whatsoever, and so have banned them from their airports.

The TSA maintains the units are safe, but refuses to allow independent testing to measure and verify their claims.  But even the TSA, in their most wildly optimistic moments, has to agree that the units can fail in some form or another, with such failures possibly making the units more dangerous than normal.  The units have moving mechanical parts within them, and it goes without saying that anything with moving parts needs maintenance and will occasionally give problems.

How often do these problems occur?  A study over the last year reported 3,778 known mechanical malfunctions among the X-ray machines at US airports – just over ten problems every day.  It is entirely possible that other errors may not have been reported, and it is not known how long elapsed between the onset of each problem, its detection, and its subsequent fix.

What is also not known is the safety implications of each of these failures.  Radiation safety surveys were only conducted on one in every 50 of the service calls reported.

With approximately 250 of these machines in service, each machine is failing, on average, 15 times a year.  Would you be comfortable owning/operating a dangerous device that fails at least once and sometimes twice every month?

Here’s an article about this, and here’s an excellent roundup of issues in general relating to the scanners.

Oh – one helpful bit of advice.  If you’re going to opt out of the X-ray scanning process (which I urge you to do) – wait until the very last minute before doing so.  There’s always a chance that at the last minute, you’ll be switched over to a good old-fashioned and safe metal detector instead, but as soon as you utter the fateful words ‘I opt out’ then you’re for sure going to get an intimate feel up/pat down.

And one other bit of advice.  It seems that if you have a medical condition that prevents you from raising your hands above your head, the TSA will accept your statement and redirect you to a metal detector too.

Perhaps a helpful physician could tell us about a type of condition that might make it hard for us to raise our hands above our heads.

Am I Crazy?  Will I Be Locked Up?

Remember the tales we were told as young children – stories guaranteed to frighten us.  Stories about how, in the terrible nasty evil Soviet Union, dissenters and protesters were locked up in mental asylums – perhaps on the basis that you’d have to be crazy to go on record as opposing the government and its policies – a basis that was grimly a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Thank goodness, we’d reassure ourselves, such things would never happen here.  We’ve got a whole raft of amendments in the Bill of Rights to guarantee our freedoms.  Right?

Wrong.  Please read this story, and then be both very frightened and very upset.

A former Marine apparently posted lyrics from songs, and expressed political thoughts that were critical of the US government on his Facebook page.  As a result, he was arrested by FBI agents and police officers and after spending time at a local police station, incarcerated in a mental hospital for psychiatric evaluation.

He had done nothing wrong.  He had simply and lawfully posted comments critical of the government to his Facebook page.  He did not act in any suspicious way, he did not associate with ‘bad’ people, he did not make specific threats against people, places, or things, he did not buy explosives or anything like that at all.  All he did was criticize the government, and for that, he was locked up in a mental hospital.

But wait, it gets worse.

You might think this was the lamentable act of some over-zealous police officer who meant well but got carried away.  Not so.  First, remember it was both the FBI and local police who acted in concert to detain the former Marine.  And then in a court hearing seeking his release, the presiding judge sentenced the ex Marine to a further 30 days of psychiatric evaluation, based on no evidence other than his Facebook postings.

Only on appeal was the Marine released, with the reviewing judge sternly scolding the state, saying that their petition for involuntary commitment

is so devoid of any factual allegations that it could not be reasonably expected to give rise to a case or controversy

How did the police and FBI choose to so extraordinarily exceed their authority, and how did the first judge roll over and allow them to get away with it?

As one who regularly criticizes the government – see the several articles preceding this for examples – do I now have to be terrified that I too will be arrested and detained involuntarily in a series of court approved 30 day extensions, perhaps even indefinitely?

This is a really scary example of how aggressive the government is getting at infringing on our right to criticize.  I really hope we’ll see some changes in this.

And Lastly This Week….

My brother and I had fun writing some articles about Bigfoot/Sasquatch a few years back (mine here, his here).  We even went hunting to find one, but alas came back empty handed.

In the news this week was the tragic tale of the gentleman who volunteered to do his bit to try and help the Pacific Northwest’s reputation as being the center of such sightings and creatures.  I’m sure he meant well.

Talking about meaning well, last year a lady passenger opened up her suitcase after getting to her hotel after her flight and found that one of the TSA baggage inspectors had opened up her suitcase and had written a note ‘You go, girl’ and attached it to her, ahem, battery operated intimate device.  The TSA erupted in a fit of moral outrage and within literally 48 hours, had identified and fired the baggage inspector in question.  I thought that to be a bit of an over-reaction, but the TSA and I seldom see eye to eye about much.

This week, presumably it was another TSA baggage inspector who noticed another ‘intimate device’, but this time rather than write a note and attach it to the device, they took the device out of the suitcase and taped it to the outside of the suitcase, causing variously consternation and amusement to everyone assembled around the baggage carousel (it was quite a large thing).  More details here and, should you feel the need, a picture too – here.

While I don’t share the owner’s belief that this was done specifically because he was gay, I do definitely think this is much more a firing offense than the earlier event.

And with those thoughts in mind, I better turn to packing my own suitcase.  I’m off to South Korea on Sunday for the start of our North Korea tour, and next week’s newsletter will be brief, sent to you from Beijing.

Many of you, of course, will be traveling closer to home for this Labor Day weekend.  The people who predict such things tell us there’ll be more road traffic than any of the last five years; and – oh yes, we’ll have the highest Labor Day gas prices ever, too.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





1 thought on “Weekly Roundup Friday 31 August 2012”

  1. Actually, David, you say
    “And Mcat didn’t point out that if he bought his ticket, he’d also earn more miles when flying the roundtrip, too, pushing the disparity in overall net cost/benefit even further apart.”
    Not really so, if those miles have a negative value …. merely earning you the opportunity to spend more money in the future :-)

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