Computer challenges saw us silent last week. We switched blog hosting services as our own Christmas present to ourselves, migrating from GoDaddy to In Motion Hosting. The reason for this was that In Motion Hosting serves pages a full second or more faster than does GoDaddy, making the blog seem much more responsive to visitors.
But while IMH is definitely faster, we’ve been plagued with problems with their service. The last two weeks have seen a mere 95% uptime from their service, plus on top of that they twice changed our IP assignment on us – once without even telling us. That’s a bit like the phone company changing your phone number, without telling you, and its only when you notice no-one is calling you that you discover that’s because your number changed.
Anyway, IMH sincerely promises all problems are now behind us. and we sincerely hope so! Time will tell.
Perhaps it is appropriate to now segue into wishing the internet happy birthday. Depending on what event you take as representing the birth of the internet, it could be said that the internet as we know it started on 1 January 1983. Here’s a brief story that explains what happened then; about the only thing missing from the story being Al Gore’s pivotal role….
The US Still Misunderstands Modern Credit Card Standards
The last week also saw my latest experience of credit card fraud. I noticed an unrecognized charge for $650 to Sprint, a company I don’t deal with.
I called Sprint at the billing enquiry number associated with the charge, and after wading through a frustrating series of phone menus all designed only for people with accounts, and with no apparent ‘or 0 for the operator’ options, I eventually spoke to a man who couldn’t have been less interested in the issue, and upon learning I didn’t have an account, told me to just go complain to my Visa card issuer. I guess that means someone gets to keep their $650 Sprint purchase (almost certainly an iPad at that price).
So I’ve had to change credit card numbers and am now going through and updating/changing all the places that automatically charge my Visa card for things, which is always a huge hassle. But there is one sliver of silver lining to the experience.
I prevailed upon Bank of America to not just issue me a regular replacement card, but one of their new Chip
and PIN cards – you know, the sort that almost everyone in the rest of the world has. A reader had kindly mentioned late last year that BofA were starting to issue them, and so I managed to get one myself.
But note I crossed out the ‘and PIN’ part of the typical descriptive name of the new style of credit card. Not only is the US a good twenty years or more late to the party when it comes to implementing these more advanced cards – cards which incidentally would massively reduce the current level of credit card fraud – but now they are finally starting to reluctantly roll out a release of the cards, they are not doing it properly.
The proper process with a Chip and PIN card is that you insert your card into a reader which takes the card details from the encrypted chip embedded in the card. Then instead of printing out a charge form and you signing it, you instead enter a PIN into the card reader as a more unique way of confirming you are the authorized card holder.
But BofA, while adding a chip to the card, have not implemented its matching PIN capability. They told me that in Europe or elsewhere, I’d still have to sign a charge form. So how will that work, I wonder, at the classic places where people get stuck with US old-fashioned mag-stripe cards – places with auto vending machines such as ticket machines at railway stations. The ticket machine won’t print out a charge slip and monitor me signing it. It will ask me to enter a PIN and nothing I enter will be accepted.
This begs the enormous question to BofA : Where is your head at? What are you thinking of, to implement a half-functional Chip and PIN card that is as useless as no Chip and PIN card at all? Why not make it properly work? The present card with disabled PIN is no better than a plain mag-stripe card, and I fear may be even harder to use. Try telling a store clerk that your Chip and PIN card doesn’t have a PIN – what will they do to then validate and process the Chip and PIN card transaction? I’m sure there’s a way, but I’m also sure that your average store clerk will have no idea what to do.
One also wonders how it is that the US lags behind the rest of the world on yet another type of technology. Aren’t we supposed to be a first world leading nation, and good at technology things? Didn’t we use to, like, ummm, invent things first? Why are we 20+ years behind most of the rest of the world – particularly because it has uniformly been the overwhelming experience of other countries that these new cards massively cut down on credit card fraud losses and massively more than pay for themselves.
Anyway, enough of unanswerable questions for now. There are three other articles being sent to you along with this newsletter today, all on a very similar topic.
Lots of Travel Goodies This Week
I surprised even myself by managing to get an amazing deal – truly, the best deal ever – on this year’s Christmas Markets cruise. I was amazed not just because it was the best deal ever (40% discount!), but also that it was given to us now, in January, and, another huge bonus – it is on my first choice for what I think to be the best ship (one of the new ‘super’ ships), the best itinerary, and the best dates. Wow.
So you’ll read about that in one of the pieces that follows.
As I was writing up the notes for the tour, I realized that the new super-ships have made choosing a cabin type much more complex than was formerly the case. Complex in a good way, of course, with more selections to choose from. So I decided to write a quick note on the different cabin choices and implications thereof, and the next thing I knew, it was a 4100 word article!
Fortunately the article is of use not just for this one Christmas cruise, but for pretty much any river cruise, anywhere, so I hope it is helpful.
The third piece now offered to you is a – even if I do say so myself – amazingly impressive summary of the four different Travel Insider touring options offered to you over the next fourteen months.
The Balkan and Baltic Bucket List tour already has ten people wanting to participate; we only need twelve for that to become a firm tour, so that is looking very good for June. Now we want to get the numbers up some more so that the per person cost drops!
This year’s North Korean tour gives you a chance to emulate the recent somewhat puzzling visit by Eric Schmidt of Google and NM ex-Gov Bill Richardson, then there is the Christmas Markets tour (my very most favorite tour of all), and – a surprise new tour – Sri Lanka in February 2014.
The Sri Lanka tour was suggested by one of last year’s North Korean tour members, and makes sense because the country, formerly torn apart by a nasty civil war, has now been at peace for over three years, and is rapidly becoming very much a popular destination, and with good reason.
It has been an interesting experience putting together a good itinerary for Sri Lanka though, and clearly they remain somewhat unsophisticated when it comes to tourism issues. I’m dealing with what seem to be the two leading tour operators. One of them put together their version of an ideal tour – lots of time on beaches, and no time at any of the wildlife parks! The other put together their version of an ideal tour which completely omitted any time in the capital city, Colombo. Strange. I’ve been working on this for almost a month, and think I’m close to now having a definitive itinerary – and a good price – that includes everything we’re likely to want to see, but it has been a more difficult challenge than I’d first expected.
So, if your New Year Resolution includes an intention to travel some more in 2013, I think there is a tour (or two!) for everyone’s taste here. I hope we’ll meet up, somewhere in the world, sometime this year.
What else? Let’s see, pieces on :
- A Bad Week for Boeing’s Nightmareliner 787
- 787 Reliability – Only a Factor for the Europeans and Nigerians, Not the Chinese and Japanese?
- 2012 Was a Safe – and Good – Year for Aviation
- Airline Fees Go Up and Up, But No-one Really Knows the Details
- A New Airport Lounge Trend?
- CES 2013 Trends
- A Puzzling Device from CES
- An Unfortunate Trend?
- A Very Stupid – and a Very Sensible – Court Ruling
- Justice Remains Fair and Public, For Now
- And Lastly This Week……
A Bad Week for Boeing’s Nightmareliner 787
Although there are only 49 787 ‘Dreamliners’ currently in the hands of airlines, three of them managed to give problems this week. You can decide if your glass is half full or half empty upon learning that the three problems were each very different from the other.
The most recent problem is still being explained – something to do with the brakes. That is usually not a problem when the plane takes off, and no problem at all in the air, but it could be a very big problem when the plane chooses to land again. ANA had to cancel a flight and replace parts on the plane’s braking system before it was allowed to return to service. Details here.
The second problem was slightly more serious. An open fuel valve caused fuel to be ‘spewing’ out of the left wing of a 787 as it made its take-off roll at Boston. Another plane noticed the fuel streaming out, advised the 787, and the flight was aborted and the plane towed back to the gate.
This could have been a problem, particularly if it meant the plane ended up low on fuel somewhere over an ocean. Details here.
The first problem wins the prize for scariest, however. It seems one of the plane’s standby batteries caught fire and it or another battery subsequently exploded. Fortunately this happened shortly after the plane had landed and all passengers and crew had deplaned.
Although some reports non-specifically talk about ‘a small fire’ other reports talk of flames two feet high and explosions; one doesn’t know what would have happened if this had occurred at cruising altitude, or whether it may have threatened the integrity/safety of the plane, but explosions and two foot high flames, in a carbon fiber built plane’s electronic control compartments, surely don’t sound like the sort of thing many of us would enjoy experiencing while we are three or four hours away from the nearest bit of dry land or airport to land at. Details here.
Boeing’s apologists and cheerleaders are going through contortions trying to maintain their party line that all these problems are normal and nothing to worry about. For example, at the end of this article, notice the meaningless distinction that safety experts are now ‘concerned but not alarmed’. What does it take for concern to become alarm?
The continued statements (eg here) that these are normal growing pains are starting to sound a bit strained.
Don’t get me wrong – all planes do indeed have growing pains. But it seems that with the 787, the growing pains are happening after it has been released to airlines, rather than on the test planes and testing procedures that surely were supposed to identify and resolve these growing pains before they took to the air carrying commercial passengers on long haul over-the-water routes.
Which brings me to the biggest issue of all. How is it possible to give the plane the gold seal stamp of approval and give it maximum extended ETOPS certification when it is concurrently experiencing ‘normal growing pains’. Shouldn’t planes only be allowed to operate three and four hours away from the nearest emergency airport when their growing pains have totally been resolved and completed? How many more ‘growing pains’ must the plane have before its ETOPS certification is suspended?
Those of us longer in the tooth will remember how the DC-10, early on in its model life, suffered a very bad (and largely undeserved) reputation for being an unreliable/unsafe/unlucky plane. It was one of the factors that finished off McDonnell Douglas as a company, and airlines that had been loyal MD customers for years/decades started switching to Boeing planes, just because of the bad reputation and passenger aversion to the DC-10.
But where is any sign of any passenger pushback against the 787? Sure, you’ll not get me on a 787 until long after the growing pains have been settled, but am I the only one? Who here would be happy on a 787 in (perhaps better to say, hopefully above rather than in!) the middle of the Pacific Ocean?
787 Reliability – Only a Factor for the Europeans and Nigerians, Not the Chinese and Japanese?
One of the apparently stranger responses to the ‘teething problems’ of the 787 is United’s decision not to operate its new 787s on services between Houston and variously London, Lagos and Amsterdam, but instead to operate them on Los Angeles to Shanghai and Narita services.
United says it is doing this due to reliability issues. And kudos to United – if you look at the routes it has chosen not to operate, they have much more extended over the water sections with no nearby airports to divert to than do the routes to Asia. It would seem United doesn’t trust the 787’s ETOPS certification.
2012 Was a Safe – and Good – Year for Aviation
Notwithstanding the various 787 scares, 2012 ended up being a very safe year for aviation – the best year since 1945, according to the heading of this article.
This article reports on a survey that claims to have established that Finnair is the world’s safest airline, followed by Air New Zealand and then Cathay Pacific in number three.
You can see the complete results here, and it is – to be polite – a bit difficult to understand exactly how the rankings were established. All the top nine airlines have had no fatalities either since 1983 or when they were founded (whichever is the more recent), but the claimed to be ninth safest airline has a safety index twice as bad as the most safe airline.
Other airlines also with a perfect safety record over the last 30 years appear massively further down the list – Qantas at number 13, for example, and El Al at number 24.
The top US carrier is Jetblue, ranked at number 14, then Southwest at 21 and Delta at 28.
And perhaps unsurprisingly, North Korea’s Air Koryo, which I believe may have never had an accident, ever, isn’t listed anywhere. A shame, I’m curious where it would have been ranked – if I’m correct, surely it should be number one.
This article also says it was a good year for US air travel and US travelers, with ontime arrivals up and lost bags down.
Of the seven major airlines in the US, the article rates Delta the best and United the worst.
But this article predicts that air travel numbers will drop about 1.5% – 2.0% in 2013. Of course, fewer people traveling and fewer flights is good for those of us who do travel, with resulting less congested airports and airspace and fewer hassles and delays.
But don’t expect the planes to start emptying out. Nearly full flights are probably here to stay for ever into the future. Alas.
Airline Fees Go Up and Up, But No-one Really Knows the Details
We all understand and accept that airlines must be profitable. That’s not a problem. But we also generally expect the airlines to earn their profit honorably and honestly, and there’s more than a whiff of a stench that is neither honest nor honorable about many of the fees airlines charge today.
This article points out that in 2012, airlines raked in over $6 billion in baggage fees and cancel/change fees. We don’t even know how much more they made in fees for every other thing, ranging from early boarding to better seating to meals to whatever else they can imaginatively dream up (the airlines don’t need to report on these other miscellaneous fees to the DoT).
Some airlines now generate more than a third of their revenue from fees.
I mentioned that no-one really knows the details of the fees we may be charged. Do you? Here’s a quiz on various fee issues – issues which in some cases are relevant to deciding which airline/airfare is the best deal for your varying travel needs.
How many of the questions did you get right?
Summing it all up, here’s an excellent commentary from The Economist that is well worth reading.
Meanwhile, the DoT does little other than dither and delay the introduction of mandatory disclosure requirements that would force the airlines to give easily understood and easily accessed disclosure on all the fees they might sting us with.
A New Airport Lounge Trend?
Airport/airline lounges have been slowly evolving over time, with a big change being the ability to buy one day passes rather than being forced to pay some hundreds of dollars for an annual membership. Then we saw third party companies selling generic types of lounge memberships that would get you into various lounges at various airports (most notably Priority Pass), and we of course saw, as part of the airline alliances, the pooling of lounge facilities so that one lounge would be shared by multiple airlines.
A further trend is revealed in this article about a new lounge at San Jose (SJC in CA). It seems to offer a fairly up-market lounge experience, complete with free drinks and showers, and for a reasonably fair $35 per visit fee, an amount similar to, or often lower than, the day pass rate charged by airlines. (But note that some airline day passes allow you access to all the lounges on the airline’s network – so if you are flying a multi-hop itinerary you can get into perhaps two or even three lounges on the same day for one price.)
Generic – and high quality – lounges are a great thing to welcome to airports. Let’s hope the company that opened this (as well as four other lounges around the country) continues to open more (and also emulates the concept of a single fee buying access to all lounges for the day).
CES 2013 Trends
The gigantic Consumer Electronic Show has been running in Las Vegas this week. What can we predict we’ll be seeing in the year ahead?
If the industry had its way, we’d be seeing Ultra-HD televisions (the ‘4K’ sets) but this article does a good job of explaining some of the limitations of the new technology – ie, there is essentially no material available that has been recorded in that format, and even if there was, there’s no way to get it from wherever it is to your television. Ooops. Oh yes, it is also ridiculously expensive, too.
Meanwhile, the 3D television concept that was all the rage the last couple of years seems to be quietly dying, unloved. 3D television was clearly a case of the industry creating a solution to something that wasn’t a problem as part of their ever-present need to encourage people to ‘upgrade’ their electronics. Happily, in this case, few people succumbed to the lure of gimmicky 3D televisions.
One other television technology that may come to market soon – OLED displays. These give better quality images, particularly in the shadows, but remain pricy at present, and are not sufficiently better than current HD displays to create a need to upgrade one’s set ahead of one’s normal upgrade schedule.
Rumors are becoming stronger about a cheaper iPhone, perhaps with a smaller screen. That runs contrary to a clear CES trend towards ever larger screens on phones and what are now being called ‘phablets’ – devices that are bigger than most phones but smaller than most tablets.
Car automation is continuing to expand, along with voice control (for both car and non-car products). I dislike voice control, because it never seems to work – a limitation strangely overlooked by most reviewers.
My Landrover has voice control, but it requires specific exact phrases, which I can never remember, and when I do remember them, the car never recognizes what I’m saying. A noisy car is not a good environment for speech recognition at the best of times, and one wishes the manufacturers would improve the technology some more before releasing to the public.
Other than these points, and the obvious things such as more tablets, ‘better’ smartphones, and other unsurprising extensions of current clear trends, I’m wondering if we’re getting closer to the point where the oft cited in past years prediction of ‘every household appliance will have its own IP address’ may become at least partially a reality.
Home automation has had a disappointing history to date, but my sense is that it is getting closer to becoming ‘the next big thing’; especially in the context of energy management and perhaps also security.
You read it here first. 🙂
A Puzzling Device from CES
One of the great things about CES is that mixed in with the mega-companies and their mega-products and mega-budgets are some fascinating tiny companies with close to zero budgets, but some clever products. Few of these products ever make it from their CES display stage to actually appearing in stores, but often that lack of success is simply due to the company not having enough money to get its product noticed and appreciated, and sometimes they’ll reappear, made and marketed by a giant brand, several years later.
One of the fascinating miscellaneous products that was announced at this year’s CES is a device that on the face of it sounds brilliant. It is some type of a cell phone based signal transmitter, to be placed in your suitcase and used as a lost luggage locator. So when you get to your destination and your suitcase doesn’t, and when the airline lost luggage staff either lie to you about where your bag is, or simply say they’ve no idea at all but not to worry (I’m not sure which is the worse experience), you’re no longer helpless. The device in your lost bag ‘phones home’ to tell you where in the world it is, using cell tower triangulation to at least identify the airport it is at, and maybe even the terminal.
How cool is that? So when you’re told ‘Oh, sorry, your bag was left behind, but it will be on the next flight (from Los Angeles to Chicago), why don’t you wait a couple of hours and it should appear on the baggage carousel’ you can say ‘If my bag was left behind at LAX and will be on the next flight to ORD, how come it is currently reporting its location as being Dallas?’
But, there’s one small thing. You know, that thing about having to turn off all electronics before the plane will push back from the gate, and having to turn them off again for landing at the other end. How does the FAA feel about having perhaps a hundred or more of these luggage locator transmitters, all beeping away merrily in the plane’s cargo hold?
I asked that question of the manufacturer’s PR reps. I was told this was not a problem, because the device automatically switches off when it senses the plane is going faster than 100 mph (ie on its take-off run).
This caused me to ask the obvious two follow-up questions. The first being ‘How does it turn on again? Or does it not truly/fully turn itself off?’. The second being ‘How is it your device is allowed to stay on until seconds before the plane leaves the ground, but I have to turn my electronics off before the plane even pushes back from the gate?’.
I’ve heard nothing further. Form your own conclusion accordingly. Oh – other stories in the press have faithfully done nothing more than regurgitate the press release, without wondering about the legality of the device. But that’s why you’re reading this, isn’t it!
An Unfortunate Trend?
I’ve been predicting this for several years now, and am delighted that I’ve largely (but not completely) been wrong so far. But my sense is that corporate greed is sure to see internet data usage charges become more prevalent in the next year or so.
This is particularly an issue/problem for people who enjoy internet video streaming, something which requires sizeable chunks of data to be downloaded for each movie you watch.
This article talks about how those monopoly operators – the cable companies – which in many areas are also becoming virtually monopoly internet service providers too – are looking lovingly at the concept of charging more for heavy internet use, particularly because heavy internet use is often matched with decreased cable use and subscribers reducing their monthly spend on cable services.
It isn’t just us who must be fearing usage based internet pricing. What would happen to the Netflix streaming business model if we not only had to pay $8 a month to Netflix but also another $1 or so for every movie we then watched? And what about all the fancy ‘in the cloud’ services that automatically back up our data, store our data, share our data, and so on. That’s great when all we need to do is pay some minimal fee to the cloud service provider, but what if we also start having to pay a cent or two every time we access our cloud services?
It isn’t just Netflix. It is giants such as Google and Amazon and Apple, all of which are building their future business plans on cloud service concepts. We already see Google getting involved in providing internet connectivity to residences in some trials; maybe we’ll be saved at the last-minute from seeing our cable company internet connectivity charges soar, by Google or one of the other behemoths ‘coming to our rescue’.
A Very Stupid – and a Very Sensible – Court Ruling
There’s something about driving a car that can bring out the worst in us. In particular, when we’re confronted with some sort of automated speed camera, it can seem like a very unfair battle between us and technology. Some people have come up with very innovative defenses against auto speed/red light cameras, and to be fair, the technology is far from 100% accurate (stories exist of speed cameras issuing citations to clearly parked cars that were allegedly proceeding at improbable speeds) and it seems that in their law-enforcement zeal (or do I mean ‘revenue raising greed’) some jurisdictions have done things like tweak timings at lights to trap motorists.
There was an intersection close to me, here in Redmond, where I’d see the flash of the red light cameras going regularly, capturing images of vehicles perfectly legally going through the intersection on regular green lights. Perhaps that was part of the reason why the city took down their entire red light camera network last year.
But, with all of that as lengthy preamble, here’s a shameful story of a shameless motorist (a police officer, no less) who appealed his speeding camera ticket, on the grounds that he was being charged with exceeding 45 mph in a place where there was a temporary speed restriction lowering the speed limit to 40 mph. Although that made his speeding offense worse rather than better, the judge agreed and dismissed the charge.
If that isn’t beyond stupid, then I shudder at the thought of what is.
However, to end on a positive note, here’s a happier story of another shameless motorist who failed in his attempts to get out of his car pool violation ticket.
Justice Remains Fair and Public, For Now
The US Government wanted to be able to make secret arguments to a court to support its case that it need not disclose details of who is on its No-Fly List or why they are on it.
Not only does the government wish to make its arguments in secret, but it wishes to exclude these arguments from the plaintiffs and their attorneys. And its arguments were so secretive that the government even refused to disclose past case-law and precedents on which it was building its defense!
It is certainly difficult when state secrets are involved, and the government needs some way to avoid being maneuvered into unwillingly revealing sensitive information to hostile interests. On this case, currently being heard in Federal District Court in San Francisco, the court ruled that there have to be unusual and special circumstances before the government can argue in secret, and that such circumstances have not been shown to be present in this case.
Justice needs public scrutiny. We need to be able to poke fun at stupid cases and stupid decisions, as in the preceding article. Secrecy is the enemy of justice. Let’s hope the government can’t hide the enormous inequities and total lack of due process and natural justice which make up its No Fly list from judicial and public gaze any further. Details here.
And Lastly This Week……
Here’s an interesting story about travelers who cheated at complaining about the place they stayed at in an effort to win a refund. They apparently used pictures of past problems at the hotel that were shown on Tripadvisor and claimed they had taken the photos themselves, as a record of current problems they had with their stay.
Don’t try this at home – here’s a fascinating Youtube video of an iPhone in its case being dropped from 100,000 ft. There were two cameras attached to the package to record the ascent and then plunging fall of the iPhone.
The phone survived the fall.
A closing thought – have you ever noticed how we define a ‘good’ flight by negatives – we didn’t get hijacked, we didn’t crash, the kid next to you didn’t throw up, the flight wasn’t late, and your bag wasn’t lost or destroyed.
Until next week, may you not experience not-safe travels