Weekly Roundup Friday 12 July 2013

It is incredible that all but two people survived both the crash and the fire on Asiana flt 214.
It is incredible that all but two people survived both the crash and the fire on Asiana flt 214.

Good morning

I’m ‘on the road’ at present – well, actually, I’m writing this in a small motel in a tiny town in rural Montana, but I’ve been traveling all week, so there’s not a lot of items for you, although – strangely enough – the newsletter is also much longer than normal (5050 words).

As road warriors know, after a day of high energy traveling and activities, it is difficult to then do a second day’s work in the hotel room in the evening, and while I had valiant plans to round off the newsletter triumphantly on Thursday night, technology – in the form of the internet access in the motel being down – failed, so I finished this off as best I could while parked outside the Public Library, using their free internet.

I did write a piece earlier in the week reporting on the Asiana accident at SFO on Saturday and that is attached.  Mercifully, the passing of time hasn’t embarrassed my analysis written on Monday morning.

Much of the discussion since that time has been not so much on if the pilot made a mistake, but rather, taking that as assumed, the focus instead has been on why the other pilots in the cockpit didn’t draw the mistake to his attention.  This article delicately raises a known and widespread problem in Asian airlines – the great deal of deference that junior employees give to their seniors, whether deserved or not.

I know that any time I’m in a cockpit, I monitor the key instrumentation without being asked to do so, and without saying I am doing it, but simply being another set of eyes and ears, ready to notice anything less than optimum, and most pilots I know do the same, particularly in critical phases of flight.  When coming in to land, for sure any pilot would be fixated on speed and height and landing point; it beggars belief that none of the other pilots noticed the plane bleed off speed, indeed, most airlines that I know of have a protocol whereby the co-pilot calls out heights and speeds as the plane approaches the runway, so the pilot flying the plane can concentrate on flying the plane and staring out the windshield at his ‘aiming point’ on the runway without needing to glance at the instrumentation.  Was the Asiana co-pilot not calling out airspeeds and heights?

Now, the big question – why did the plane lose speed?  It seems likely that the auto-throttle was disengaged a bit earlier in the descent (referred to in this article) and the pilots forgot to re-engage it (see this article).

The auto-throttle is an amazing device but it also destroys much of the intuitive nature of flying.  Intuitively, you know that if you push the plane’s nose down to descend, the plane will go faster, and if you pull it up to climb, the plane will slow down.  But the auto-throttle compensates for these things and keeps the speed steady at whatever you’ve set it for, meaning that if you pull back on the stick to make the plane climb (or reduce its rate of descent) the auto-throttle will give more power to the engines.  But if the auto-throttle is off, then when you pull back, the plane slows down.

A new explanation about things appeared for the first time on Wednesday.  It appears the pilot just then remembered, or got around to telling, that he was ‘blinded by a bright flash’ when the plane was at 500 ft from the ground.  No-one has any idea what the flash was (and, no, it is extremely unlikely it was a laser pointer) and not only is this only-now-remembered flash a mystery, so too is any understanding of how a bright flash at 500 ft would have caused the plane to already be too low and too slow at that point.

One thing which has been truly astonishing about this accident is how fast the NTSB has been releasing data.  Within 24 hours of them getting the black boxes, they were releasing information about what they’d found so far, and so this has been an investigation conducted very much in full public view.  We have the black boxes, video, photos, we have eye witnesses, and happily, we have a plane load of survivors too.  Add the internet to the mix, so everyone can get their stories out, and we’ve had a flood of data about the crash from every imaginable source.

The NTSB has been careful not to interpret the facts it has revealed, and merely has stated what it has found out.  Other people, including myself, have been quick to interpret the facts, and this has massively upset the US Air Line Pilots Association.  Although the Korean pilots don’t belong to ALPA, any mention of any possible pilot error anywhere in the world has ALPA snarling a fast and automatic response.

As ALPA views the world, it would seem that pilots are the most sainted creatures ever to walk the planet.  Incredibly, ALPA is now calling for a less open and transparent investigation!  It is concerned that someone somewhere might delicately hint at the merest possibility of the pilots not performing perfectly.  Details here.

ALPA is probably already delighted that the Korean pilots were not asked to submit to any alcohol or drug testing.  Although all US pilots would have to be tested after an accident, and indeed, in this case, even ground crews were tested after the accident (as part of the investigation into possibly running over one of the two girls who died); because the Korean pilots were Korean, they were not tested.

Question to whoever made that decision :  If a Korean drives a car and has a ‘single vehicle’ crash in the US, would he be tested for alcohol impairment, or would the fact that he is not a US citizen absolve him of any need to be subject to that – and perhaps any other – US law?  Alternatively, if Korean motor vehicle drivers are subject to US law while driving in the US (and indeed they fully and completely are) why are airplane pilots also not subject to US law when landing – and crashing – at US airports?  Details here.

One thing we’ve been thankfully spared is any claim that the pilots were heroes.  But I’ll certainly agree that the flight attendants were heroes (and heroines).  The airplane evacuation got off to a bumpy start (ooops – bad metaphor) because when the plane came to a halt, the pilot ordered the flight attendants not to evacuate the plane and so a cabin announcement was made telling passengers to remain seated!  It was only after one of the flight attendants called the pilot back and said ‘Uh, the plane’s on fire’ that the pilot agreed to allow people to disembark (details here).

It seems the last person off the plane was a flight attendant, and most of the flight attendants did an excellent job of helping passengers get off the plane.  The temptation to jump down a slide themselves must have been great, and very well done to them for putting their own safety at risk to help get the passengers off.  Details here.

What would you do if the plane you were on had just had a crash landing, finally came to rest, and an announcement was made to stay in your seat?

One would be tempted to do as one was told, in the desperate hope that whoever made the announcement knew what they were doing.  But, after a crash such as that one, there is nothing more important or more urgent than evacuating the plane.  It wasn’t as though the plane landed in the middle of nowhere in extreme weather such that passengers would risk dying of exposure, it was a warm day at almost noon, on the runway at SFO.

Perhaps the pilots were trying to determine which would be the safest side to evacuate the plane from.  But that shouldn’t have taken 90 seconds, and required the further prompting of a flight attendant, to decide.  Time 90 seconds while doing something unpleasant/uncomfortable, to get an appreciation for how long it is and how much can happen.  That is appalling.

Not only was there this incredible 90 second delay in initiating the plane’s evacuation (perhaps due to another bright flash?) but the rescue services were slow to approach the plane, for fear it might blow up.  It was so bad that several passengers felt forced to dial 911 and request aid to be dispatched to the plane; one 911 recording going the rounds of the tv news shows on Thursday morning had the passenger calling 911, and the 911 operator insisting on knowing what runway the plane had crashed on before he could send help.

To be fair to the 911 operator, it was not clear to him that it was a big plane.  Having a person dial 911 to say ‘my plane crashed’ sounds a lot more like what you’d expect from a tiny single engine private plane event, not from a massive 777 blazing flames and smoke.

You should read this article for the dismaying reality of how long it takes for ‘first responders’ to respond.  The article quotes a SF Fire Dept spokeswoman as proudly saying

Within 18 minutes of receiving word of the crash, five ambulances and more than a dozen other rescue vehicles were at the scene or en route

Excuse me for being churlish, but within eighteen minutes?  Why not eight minutes?  Indeed, why not within 7/6/5/4/3/2/1 minutes?  People can die a dozen times over in 18 minutes.

Plus, there’s a world of difference between being ‘en route’, or ‘at the scene’ (but at a staging point) and actually mixing it in with the injured passengers.

Phew.  What else, this week?  Below, please find pieces on :

  • Better Seat Belts Needed on Planes?
  • Salk’s Airport Transit Guide now Available on Android
  • Travel Between San Francisco and Los Angeles in Under 30 Minutes?
  • The Biggest Building in the World – But Does it Have Air Filtration?
  • TSA by the Numbers
  • More on Dogs at Security
  • TSA Randomizer
  • The Shifting Sands of the eBook Marketplace
  • Better in a Pocket than on a 787!
  • And Lastly This Week….

Better Seat Belts Needed on Planes?

We’re seeing an interesting split between the ‘glass half full’ and the ‘glass half empty’ commentators in the aftermath and analysis of the Asiana 777 crash.

The glass half full people are delighted at the low casualty count, which they are claiming is the result of the superior design of the 777, better seats (ie now resistant to 16G of deceleration rather than 9G as was formerly the case), improved firefighting techniques and (don’t ask me how they can say this with a straight face when you see images of the plane burning) flame retardant materials used in the plane’s construction.

There is some truth in some of those statements, but the ultimate truth is that the crash was a survivable one simply because of the type of crash that it was.  It was a ‘nice’ crash with ‘gradual’ deceleration from a slow speed to start with, and with no substantial vertical velocity component, mainly horizontal velocity.

The glass half empty people are seizing on this as demonstrating the need for better seat belts on planes, with shoulder belts as well as lap belts.

Here’s a slightly muddly article which can’t seem to quite decide if it agrees or disagrees with the claimed benefits of ‘better’ seat belts on planes.  Perhaps the most interesting ‘take away’ point from it is that it is wrong to automatically assume that just because shoulder belts are safer in cars (and now mandatory) they would be safer in planes, too.

Here’s another article which is also slightly muddly in both its pro and con statements.

Salk’s Airport Transit Guide now Available on Android

I’ve written several times about Ron Salk’s wonderful Airport Transit Guide, and every time I enthusiastically endorse it as a must-have travel companion when you’re going to unfamiliar destinations.

Formerly a printed book, he switched to eBook format a few years ago, initially only for iOS – iPhones and iPads.  The most recent version of the eBook came out just a month ago, and I reviewed it here.

And now, at long last, it is available for Android powered devices, too.  You can now get it through the Google Store (it is an App, not a Book) and hopefully perhaps even already today, through the Amazon Marketplace too.

You’ll find it $5 very well spent.

Travel Between San Francisco and Los Angeles in Under 30 Minutes?

I wrote about this technology a month or two back, when it was being described as a way to travel from coast to coast in less than an hour, and was a bit dismissive at the time.

But another article has now appeared which provides some more detail about the ‘Evacuated Tube Transport’ concept, and it quotes some startling claims which if true would be truly exciting, including a suggestion that it would be cheaper this new type of transport than to build the current planned high-speed rail line between the two cities (which is probably about a $100 billion project).

The concept also has the backing of Elon Musk, head of Tesla Motors and SpaceX.  That’s not to say his support guarantees the project will proceed or succeed, but it does suggest that there is a bit more solid sense behind it.

I’m still very skeptical about everything to do with the idea of sending people in pods through vacuum tubes at speeds of up to 4,000 mph, but I’d love to see it actually happen.

A test track is planned to be in operation by the end of this year, but it will be only 3 miles from end to end, so one doubts the pods will get to travel very fast at all, making the test of dubious value.  However, let’s all hope that a solution to airline travel is being developed.  More details here.

The Biggest Building in the World – But Does it Have Air Filtration?

There was a time when the biggest of anything and everything was to be found somewhere in the US.  But those days are rapidly receding, and the latest example of that is a new building opening in Chengdu, China.  It claims to be the biggest building in the world, but that’s a surprisingly nuanced claim, depending on whether you measure the building by volume, by footprint, or by usable square footage.

In this case, the building’s prime claim to fame is in terms of square footage – 19 million square feet in total, only slightly more than the number two building (Dubai Airport’s Terminal 3, 18.5 million sq ft) and number three (Abraj al bait in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, 17 million sq ft).

By other measures, the Wikipedia site claims the building has a 500m x 400m footprint, ie 200,000 sq m in total.  I think this is wrong, because it would require the building to have ten floors to then total the sq footage claimed, and much of the building is open from ground to ceiling. So it probably has more like 500,000 sq m of footprint, which would make it rank first or second for the footprint measure.

That leaves the matter of volume as the third measure.  We know some parts of it are 100 m tall, so there is up to 50 million sq m of volume, which likely makes it number one by that measure too.

So what do you do with a building this size?  You not only fill it with hotel suites and shopping, you also add its own slice of ocean and seaside and sandy sunny beach.  Details here.

The article mentions it uses a special technique to make the sun look bright and the sky look clear – necessary due to the endemic pollution that pervades so much of China these days.  But do they also filter the air?  There’s a reason for asking – and for hoping they do.  This article makes the sadly unsurprising claim that people who live in the northern half of China have their lives reduced by an average of 5.5 years due to air pollution.

The real kicker in the article isn’t actually mentioned.  The reduction of 5.5 years is in comparison to people in the southern half of China.  I’ve got to believe that people in the south of China also experience some reduction of life due to the pollution that is present there, too.

TSA by the Numbers

In 2001 prior to the 9/11 attacks, our airports in total had 16,500 screeners.  Today the TSA employs almost 15,000 staff, spread over the 457 airports it provides coverage at.

So, at first blush, it would seem the TSA is more efficient.  But – those staff?  This article points out, they’re just the bureaucratic administrators!  In total, the TSA has almost 50,000 full-time employees (it is limited by Congress to 46,000 full-time employees, but there is no limit on employing part timers), and of course, not all airports are manned by TSA staff.  Some still have private screeners.

One could also point out that prior to the TSA coming along, the private security contractors had to screen a lot more people than the TSA do now, because back then, anyone could go to an airport gate – airplane enthusiasts, family and friends wanting to farewell people or meet them upon arrival, and so on.  I’ll guess that back then, for every ten passengers, maybe there were another five non-passengers going to the gate as well (remember if a person has a friend go to the gate to say goodbye, and a second friend meet them, that is two visitors through screening and only one passenger).

It is common to sneer superciliously at the previous type of security screening in the good old days, but I’ve no idea why people do that.  Some people justify their low opinion by pointing out that previous security screeners weren’t paid much.  It is true that TSA employees are paid massively more, but does that mean they are more skilled?  There is absolutely no reason to believe that, and the TSA’s own testing shows that training guns/bombs still get by their screeners at about the same rate as was the case prior to the TSA taking over the screening duties.

Other people mistakenly blame the 9/11 hijackings on the screening procedures in place, but the truth is that back then, box cutters were not illegal.  They were allowed to be taken on planes.  If that was wrong, the fault lies with the government officials who decreed that box cutters were safe, not with the screeners who passed them through security.

Although we now have three times as many screeners, three times as much delay (remember when you could arrive at an airport terminal less than 30 minutes prior to departure and easily make your flight?), and massively more than three times as much hassle and massively more than three times the cost, are we also three times safer?  As long as the chances of a gun or bomb slipping through security remain around about 20%, the answer is ‘No, we’re not’.

More on Dogs at Security

I wrote last week about the TSA testing dogs at several airports as a way to speed passengers through security, and expressed my doubt about the efficacy of that.

I’m a dog lover myself, and some influential people have urged the TSA to use dogs.  Most notably, Rep Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) claimed ‘The single best way to find a bomb-making device or bomb-making materials is the canine’.  When told that dogs are expensive to deploy, he added ‘Alpo only costs so much.  I challenge you to verify that number’.

So an industry group responded to his challenge and did exactly that.  Apparently, and according to the detailed analysis, not only are dogs bad at finding explosives and other dangerous things, they are also extremely costly.  This study makes compelling reading, and will open your eyes to the reality and limitations of using dogs.

I hope Rep Chaffetz has read it, too.

TSA Randomizer

The TSA like to make a big thing out of how their security procedures are unpredictable.  Cynics would point out that ‘unpredictable’ is dangerously similar to ‘unreliable’ and part of the TSA’s implementation of ‘unpredictability’ seems to be to sometimes have not so much different security procedures, but rather to simply have substandard or ridiculous procedures.

In a way, that is an unavoidable part of unpredictability.  If there’s a best possible procedure, then any variations from it will be less than best possible.

The TSA has now decided to add an element of science to its pursuit of randomness.  Again, a cynic would say that the TSA has decided to replace common sense with expensive gadgetry, but we’re none of us cynics, are we.

The TSA has been worried that some passengers have been choosing which screening line to go in, all by themselves (you know, after the document checker has checked your ticket and ID).  That is very true – I’m guilty of it every time I go through security myself.  My first choice is a metal detector rather than radiation machine line, and my second choice is a short fast moving rather than long slow moving line.

But the TSA doesn’t like this small element of personal choice remaining, and so they have requested information from prospective suppliers of scientific randomizer devices that will assign each person to a specific line after their documents have been checked.

We’ve no idea how much these devices will cost (but we know they’ll be expensive), and we’ve further no idea how the TSA will enforce and ensure that people then go to the random line they were assigned, rather than (randomly) choosing to go to a different line because it is shorter or whatever.

You can read their formal preliminary specification here.  While sequestration is making our lines longer, it surely isn’t affecting the TSA’s ability to buy more gadgets, whether they are needed or not.

The Shifting Sands of the eBook Marketplace

A couple of interesting events occurred this week which impact on the eBook world.

Firstly, Apple has been found guilty of conspiring with (eBook) publishers to raise the prices of eBooks.  Until Apple approached the publishers, retailers could sell books and eBooks for any price they wished.  This meant that Amazon decided to set a maximum price for an eBook of $9.99, and would sell eBooks at this price no matter what its cost price from a publisher was.  They would do this even if it meant making a loss on the sale, something they justified as being part of their effort to make eBooks more broadly accepted by readers – a strategy that by any measure that has proven to have been brilliantly successful.

But Apple persuaded publishers to switch to an ‘agency’ model where the publisher would set the retail price and then pay a ‘commission’ to the retailer.  This allowed the publishers to set the selling price, and greedy fools that they are, they thought setting higher prices would be more beneficial to them.

Why did Apple do this?  Simply because it simultaneously realized that if it were to successfully sell eBooks, it would need to offer the same pricing as Amazon, and at the same time, it had no wish to sell anything at a loss.  So it seems Apple persuaded the publishers to change the rules for eBook pricing (while still allowing anyone to sell print books at any price).  The DoJ anti-trust division brought suit against Apple for engaging in a price-fixing conspiracy together with five major publishers.  The publishers all settled, but Apple fought it out in court, a battle it has now deservedly lost.  Details here.

But will this mean we’ll see a retreat in the sometimes astronomical pricing of eBooks – I regularly see eBooks selling for the same price or more than a hardcover book.  I fear it is unlikely that we’ll see a major reduction in eBook pricing now.  If nothing else, it seems Amazon has now succeeded at getting eBooks into the mainstream, and perhaps no longer feels it should subsidize the publishers and the reading public when it comes to eBook pricing.

Note that although I object in the strongest terms to unfair eBook pricing, I don’t blame Amazon for this at all.  It is the greedy publishers who seem to consider eBooks a threat rather than a massive life-saver to their increasingly obsolete business who are at fault.

Oh – and as for the success of Apple’s attempt to dominate, or at least become a significant participant in the eBook marketplace?  By market share measures, it would seem to have massively failed.  Yay.

The article linked above quotes statistics showing that Amazon has a 65% share, Barnes & Noble about 20%, and Apple a mere ‘single digit’ share.  Another source (in the article linked below) gives ‘close to 25%’ to B&N, making Apple’s ‘single digit’ share even less.

Talking about Barnes & Noble, their latest financial figures have shown the company to continue hemorrhaging cash from its Nook eBook reader division, and it seems the company may be about to completely withdraw from making its own readers, and its CEO, who had been the driving force is now out.  The Board Chairman is currently running the company, and he’s much more a traditional retail/bricks and mortar kinda guy.

The fourth quarter of last year saw the Nook division lose $177 million before Ebitda, more than double the loss a year earlier, while total sales fell 34% to only $108 million.

This does beg the question – if B&N withdraws from the Nook, and possibly from eBooks too, what happens to people who invested in a Nook and eBooks which are only compatible with Nook eReaders?

I’d try to feel a pang of sympathy for such people, but it has always been starkly clear to me that the Nook was doomed to failure.  Although occasionally the equal or even better than comparable Kindle eReader devices, it has been painfully plain right from day one that the huge juggernaut that is Amazon would triumph and there has never been any clear guarantee that the market would be big enough for two hardware devices and incompatible systems.

Perhaps the saving grace for Barnes & Noble, and for people saddled with Nook eReaders, is the shrinking market for dedicated eReaders of all brands and types.  A dedicated eReader today seems almost as quaint as a dedicated ‘personal organizer’ – the latter is now of course integrated into our phone, and the former (eReader) is now a part of any tablet or computer we own.

Amazon is still fighting a battle to keep its Kindle hardware relevant – in particular its strategy of allowing Kindle owners to rent eBooks for free.  But that battle seems one Amazon is unlikely to win – why buy an eReader with limited potential when for the same price you can buy a tablet that has all the same identical eReader functionality plus many more things, besides?

Maybe there’ll remain a market for e-Ink type eReaders – tiny portable devices with massively long battery life and very low cost, but the days of dedicated eReaders costing hundreds of dollars have disappeared forever.

Talking about the future, what about the future of Barnes & Noble?  Incredibly, these days they are the only remaining major retail storefront type bookselling company in the US (with about 700 retail stores).  It seems its retail stores remain profitable, and if it can free itself of its Nook disaster, the company might be able to return to financial good health.  Details here.  We wish it well.

One last comment about eBooks.  It is fascinating how the recording companies resisted electronic distribution of music – something that has proven to be a saving grace rather than a threat, and similarly, the movie studios have done everything they can to interfere with first VCRs and subsequently other forms of electronic storage and distribution of movies, only to reluctantly find that this has been the savior of the studios.

And now we have book publishers doing all they can against eBooks.  When will they realize that eBooks will save their obsolete tree-killing approach to reading, the same way MP3s have saved recording studios and DVDs and streaming have saved movie studios?

Most of all, when will we see something like a Netflix model for books – you pay a flat fee a month and can read as many books as you like.

Barnes & Noble would be better off using its remaining massive leverage with book publishers to come up with a new distribution model, rather than trying to copy Amazon’s model.

Better in a Pocket than on a 787!

The plain truth is that even small lithium ion batteries store a huge amount of energy in them.  We’ve seen what larger sized Li-ion batteries can do to a 787, and now here’s an article about what a tiny phone sized battery can do to the person carrying it.  ‘Flames reached her shoulders’ (the phone was in a trouser pocket).

Scary stuff.

And Lastly This Week….

My question about why hotels don’t provide toothpaste provoked a range of interesting replies.  I particularly liked reader Art’s reply :

Most of the high-class items named don’t get used – a second soap, sewing kit, shoe mitt, shoe horn, nail file, etc.  Thus, they are “re-offered”  6-8-10 times before I get there.  As noted, toothpaste is a higher-demand, must-use item, and more likely to be used if offered.  Thus it becomes almost a fixed cost rather than an occasional “maybe”.

As for me, I stash the soap, mouthwash, shampoos and conditioners every day – come home with 3-4-5 of each.  After a few trips, I have a decent sized bag-full for the homeless shelter  –  they particularly enjoy fantasizing about the ones with labels in Arabic, French, etc.

Here’s a great airline complaint letter.  No word as to what sort of response the writer received from the airline, however.

Yet another theory about the Loch Ness monster – and this time the theory doesn’t even survive to the end of the article before being roundly debunked.

Talking about monsters, what to make of this type of monster, apparently sighted in a flight attendant’s pantyhose?

And truly lastly this week, surely this is the worst idea of the year (so far).

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







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