Weekly Roundup Friday 28 March 2014

One of the more unusual sights on the lake at Queenstown - a man riding on top of a jet of water.
One of the more unusual sights on the lake at Queenstown – a man riding on top of a jet of water.

Good morning

It is another truly wonderful day here in Queenstown, New Zealand.  Clear blue sky, warm sun, calm lake, and lots of people out and about, relaxing and enjoying themselves, taking advantage of all the wonderful things to see and do in and around Queenstown.

You too can be among these holidaymakers by choosing to join our October Epicurean Extravaganza tour of New Zealand.  Please do check out the detailed explanation of everything this tour offers, and – perhaps equally important – how you can vary and adjust the tour to exactly suit your own wishes and interests.  It would be great to have you join us.

Last week I included a brief piece about selecting a new camera; this week I ‘drop the other shoe’ – but instead of a second brief piece, this time it is a 6,000+ word very detailed discussion of what is involved when selecting a new moderate priced small-sized digital camera – something convenient to travel with.

I know that high-end camera enthusiasts will be horrified to see this analysis overlooks various esoteric issues, but my intention was not to have a guide to buying a high-end camera, but rather a guide to buying a ‘good enough’ camera that remains reasonably small, ultra-convenient and easy to operate, and also reasonably affordable.

I wrote this article as a result of being almost overwhelmed by choices when deciding it was finally time to retire and replace my 2006 digital camera.  I’m glad I took the effort to research all the variables, and I’m beyond delighted with the final result – a camera that takes pictures of stunning brilliance and sharpness, a camera that can ‘see things’ better than I can unaided.

Unsurprisingly, technology has improved an enormous amount between 2006 and 2014!

And what of MH 370 this week?  Well, maybe satellites have spotted plane wreckage, and maybe they haven’t.  New analysis of the engine data transmissions to the overhead satellite has suggested the plane flew south rather than north, and some university professors in Australia claim the lack of floating wreckage (assuming that the stuff spotted by satellites is not plane related stuff) proves the plane landed on the water more or less intact.

In other words, another week has passed (now three in total), and we’re no closer to the truth, or anything closely resembling the truth.  After a week, we can’t even ascertain if the wreckage in the water south-west of Australia is a collection of plane bits or not.

Other ‘experts’ remain equally divided as to if the plane was deliberately piloted to its doom, or if some unexpected catastrophe on board incapacitated the pilots and the plane just flew on auto pilot until running out of fuel.  Those experts who believe it was deliberately flown are unable to agree on whether it was the pilot, the co-pilot, or other unknown people who were the perpetrators.  As I said above, we’re no closer to the truth in any respect.

Most distressingly of all (perhaps), it seems that while the ‘black box’ that contains flight data retains many hours of information, the cockpit voice recorder stores only either 30 minutes or two hours of voice recording.  Of course, the really relevant pieces of the puzzle are many hours prior to the end of the flight – when it first diverted from its planned flightpath and turned off its transponder and stopped answering radio calls.  The voice records of that time would be invaluable.

So why is it that while the data recorder can store any number of hours of data, the voice recorder only stores a maximum of two hours?  It isn’t due to any capacity limitations – a single tiny microSD card with 64GB of storage could hold many weeks of sound recordings from multiple microphones.  The problem is social rather than technical.

The pilots don’t want us to store this information and have insisted on limiting the amount of data stored.  Indeed, on US planes, the pilots also have the ability to erase the voice recordings once they’ve safely landed each flight.

Interestingly, while some pressure groups are expressing outrage that there wasn’t a non-stop data feed from the black boxes to a satellite and on to some monitoring station, they are strangely silent about the fact that if/when we do find the black boxes, the voice recorder may be useless.

As for the nonstop data feed idea, there’s a lot to recommend the idea, but it should not replace the traditional black boxes.  Many events could interfere with the data feed, whereas the ‘hard wired’ link in to the black box might continue to record data.  And what would the pilots think about being continually monitored, all flight long?

A shorter newsletter this week due to traveling.  Below are a few more items on :

  • Alaska Airlines vs Delta Airlines
  • The Trouble With Software Controlled Airplanes
  • How to Travel in Style
  • Cruising Wi-Fi by the Megabyte – a Deal or a Steal?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Alaska Airlines vs Delta Airlines

I’ve mentioned in previous weeks about how the close cooperation and apparently win-win partnership between Alaska and Delta is eroding, due to Delta building up its own flights in/out of Seattle on routes formerly code-shared with Alaska.

There have been two further shots fired in this growing war between the carriers.

Delta Airlines is starting new service from Seattle to Heathrow.  That’s of course not a route on which it competes with Alaska Airlines at all, which makes the ‘message’ all the clearer.  AS has announced that it will give double miles when its frequent flier members fly on the BA flights between SEA and LHR between 24 March and 24 June, and includes a paean to the wonders of the BA service between the two cities.

Whereas one would have expected AS to join with DL in a promotion to get the DL flights supported, it has instead chosen to go support DL’s direct route competitor, BA.

Also this week, both DL and AS have become slightly more estranged, by weakening the reciprocal benefits that formerly flowed from being an elite level of one airline’s mileage program while flying on the other airline.  In other words, both DL and AS are trying to force the issue with their most frequent fliers, requiring them to not only focus their miles but also their flights on only one or the other of the two airlines.

Although this is being presented as a mutual thing, one wonders which airline triggered the dropping of the reciprocal benefits.

The Trouble With Software Controlled Airplanes

When was the last time you had to reboot your computer?  When did you last have a program freeze on you, or do something unexpected?

Now tell me, if you can, how comfortable you are in the knowledge that your next airplane ride might be controlled by a computer all the way from the pre-take-off end of the departure runway to the post-landing-roll end of the arrival runway.

Of course, we still have real humans sitting alongside the computers in the cockpit, and if the computers have a conniption fit, in theory the pilots can solve the problem before it becomes too late.  Of course, also, that was notably not the case with the AF 447 flight that crashed into the South Atlantic, even though the problems developed when the plane was plenty high and plenty fast, giving the pilots something like 7 minutes to resolve the issue.  But apparently due to their lack of flying skill – having been too trusting of the computers for too long – they were unable to rectify an eminently solvable problem.

The case when pilots are much less likely to be able to save the day is when the plane is low and slow – ie when first taking off (this is the worst case scenario – it is low, slow and heavy) and landing.

So the FAA’s recent discovery that the new Boeing 747-8 has a bug in its control software which might cause the computer to misdirect the plane’s engines so they lose power when in the final stages of coming in for a landing – a time when the engine power needs to be totally responsive and predictable – is truly cause for concern.

The FAA is requiring an immediate fix.  One wonders how it is this was noticed now.

How to Travel in Style

For most of us it is merely an unattainable fancy to travel in an ultra-luxury elite manner, in truly ‘better than first class’ private planes, and commandeering entire hotels for our personal enjoyment.

Some people get close to achieving this, but still don’t quite attain the giddy heights of ultimate indulgence.

But some other people not only attain the ultimate, but perhaps even exceed it.

One has to wonder – when British Prime Ministers can travel with only one support car or sometimes two, and similarly the German chancellor can do the same, does our President really truly need 900 people, 45 vehicles and three planes for his brief visit to Brussels?

Cruising Wi-Fi by the Megabyte – a Deal or a Steal?

One of the unfortunate aspects of cruising is becoming ‘disconnected’ from the internet, and/or an expensive cost associated with buying internet access on the cruise ship.

Disney Cruises has announced a new plan where instead of buying internet access by the minute/hour/day/week/cruise,  as is currently normal on most cruiselines, you buy it by the megabyte.  On the face of it, that sounds fair – you pay for what you use, and not for what you don’t use, right?

Their prices also appear moderate.  You pay 25c per megabyte, or if you buy it ‘in bulk’ you can get 100 MB for $19 and ranging up to $89 for a gigabyte (ie 8.9c/MB).

Which now begs the question – how many MB do you need a day?  That’s a bit like asking the question ‘how high is up’, of course.  If you just send and receive a very few, very small, emails, then you only need a few MB, maybe a few tens of MBs a day.  If you are trying to watch Netflix movies though, you could use several GB each day.  In between these two extremes, if you’re uploading some photos to a sharing or storage website, and visiting a few websites, it is easy for your usage to climb appreciably above 100MB/day.

There’s another interesting issue as well.  If you have a PC, be very careful – I note with my PC that it is all the time sending and receiving data to and from the internet, any time it is connected, even when I’m unaware of it actually doing any internet related task.  Indeed, have a look at this example, taken just now, showing my computer consuming the better part of 1 Mb/sec, and with over 100 different TCP/IP connections, while I’m doing nothing more than typing this newsletter.


Disney hint at this, but in the opposite way, when they say you can now stay logged onto the internet all the time, but only pay for the data you use.  They fail to point out that every time your computer talks to something/somewhere on the internet, you are paying money.  Every time your computer checks for new email, it costs you money this way.  Every time your Skype or other chat service polls all your contacts to update their online statuses, it costs you money.  And so on.

I’ve been staying in a motel in Queenstown for exactly six days and during that time I have used 3.7 GB (I know this because they are charging me by the MB too).  In other words, about 600 MB/day (normally it would be much more but the internet access here is appalling and much of the time I just give up rather than try to do the things I usually do).

If I was on a Disney cruise, and paying at their lowest rate, that would be $53.40 a day for internet access.  Ouch!

A cynic would note that the words ‘value’ and Disney are seldom comfortable sharing the same sentence.

And Lastly This Week….

Chances are you’ve occasionally stayed in some small hotel rooms.  I certainly have.  But hopefully you’ve seldom subjected yourself to rooms as small as these.

This week marks the 175th anniversary of the most popular word in the English language – that is, it is 175 years since the first known example of the word appearing in print.

It seems that the title of ‘most popular word’ excludes pronouns and conjunctions and other common ‘functional’ words.  Can you guess what this wondrous word may be?

Okay, so I’ll tell you.  Click here…..

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







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