Weekly Roundup Friday 7 March 2014

Will United's new crackdown on carry-on bags actually be implemented any more thoroughly than any past attempts to do the same?
Will United’s new crackdown on carry-on bags actually be implemented any more thoroughly than any past attempts to do the same?

Good morning

More weather problems this last week.  Has this been the worst winter, ever, for weather disruptions?  It sure seems so, and of course begs the question – why aren’t modern-day airports and airplanes and air navigation systems better able to more robustly handle bad weather?

But, enough of that question.  It has been asked pretty much every Friday all year so far, and alas, no answers are forthcoming.  This is just another measure, perhaps, of how the US and its former ‘best practice’ service standards is slipping further and further behind the rest of the world.

In that context, news came out yesterday about how the US now struggles to be the 31st country in the world when it comes to average internet download speeds.  And, believe it or not, that’s the good news.  When it comes to measuring average upload speeds, we’re slower than countries such as Belarus and Lesotho, in 42nd place.  Details here.

Whether it was in any part due to Al Gore or not, it is undeniable that the US invented the internet, and while there are some cases where being first is a problem, because you become locked into first generation technologies while subsequent entrants can base their systems on newer technologies (think both television and cell phones as two examples where American innovation was a problem rather than a positive) that is absolutely not the case with the internet, where the entire world is on the tenth or twentieth or whatever generation of broadband transmission systems already.

You can form your own opinions as to the reasons for this disappointing showing.  But disappointing it is.  We’ve become immune to the travails of having some of the worst airlines in the world, and have long ago stopped looking for our carriers and our airports to appear in lists of ‘the world’s best’.  We’ve managed to develop selective blindness to the fact that almost every manufactured good we buy in any store comes from China (and that we drive to the store in a Japanese car), and it no longer even seems strange to see brands such as ‘Sony Pictures’ when we’re watching movies, and we don’t even know that much of what we read comes from a German publishing house.

But when we connect to the internet, it is Amtrak vs the rest of the world all over again.  The collapse of what was once the world’s largest passenger railroad network is something we no longer think twice about, but how about the modern-day ‘collapse’ of our internet, too?

I’ve nothing against Lesotho, Belarus, or any of the other 41 countries with faster upload speeds than we have, but it sure feels funny to acknowledge their technological superiority.  It also puts lie to the plans by Netflix to start streaming 4K quality video – at present, although my fiber internet connection is rated at 35 Mbps, a regular definition Netflix video struggles to be streamed with any type of reasonable bitrate at all.  What is the point of coming out with even more bandwidth demanding video streams when it can’t reliably stream standard definition video currently?

Maybe someone should compile a list of things in which the US still leads the rest of the world.  It certainly isn’t the most affluent (per head of population) or the longest lived or the best educated.  Neither is it economic freedom (we’re number 10) and, appallingly, we do even worse at press freedom (we’re number 47).

So what are we best at (other than having the highest incarceration rate of any country)?  Here’s an interesting article to make us proud.  Or not, as the case may be.

Phew.  On a happier and positive note, below the week’s roundup, you’ll see a short review of a clever new gadget, an inexpensive and great additional to your ‘road warrior’ kits.

Continuing a theme of true excellence, can you guess which country’s wine is sold at the highest prices around the world?  No, not France (and not the US either).  It might also be one of the rarest wine providers, too, because at least 600 of the country’s 700 wineries are too small to seriously consider exporting their products, and in total this country accounts for less than 1% of the world’s wine production.

The country is of course New Zealand, and the excellence of its wines is a well-kept secret.  See the article that is introduced below for more on this topic, and please note our conclusion that the best – indeed, almost only – way to truly sample a broad range of NZ’s wonderful wines is to travel there and do it yourself.

Of course, you could do so on your own, but we hope you might consider joining us for our October New Zealand tour, where you’ll have a chance to encounter some of the truly very best wines NZ produces.

Also below, please enjoy :

  • United Gets Semi-Tough with Carry-on Bag Rules
  • Some Interesting Bag Stats
  • Death, and Air Fares
  • Unlocking Phones – Almost Legal Again
  • My New Fast Computer – How to Experience the Same Yourself
  • Virgin Cruises
  • Game Changing Electric Car Battery Breakthrough?
  • And Lastly This Week….

United Gets Semi-Tough with Carry-on Bag Rules

United surprised everyone by rolling out new enforcement policies about its carry-on allowances with little or no advance notice.  They’re even deploying sizing templates, and are not only saying they’ll enforce maximum size limits on the main carry-on we can take on board but on the second more vaguely defined ‘personal item’ as well.

We all know the tired old rule about ‘a carry-on and a personal item’ and the requirement the carry-on typically not measure more than 22″ x 14″ x 9″, and we also almost all know that most people’s carry-on bags exceed these dimensions (especially when allowing for wheels and handles) and the ‘personal item’ second piece sometimes is as big as the first item.

I’m all in favor of enforcing carry-on rules, and get very frustrated at the extraordinary selfishness some people display and the willingness of gate staff and flight attendants to ignore some egregious examples of passengers taking way more onto the plane than they should.  Simple math tells us that we each have about ten linear inches of overhead space – with each row of three seats in a single aisle jet taking up about 30″ of linear space, and with three seats per row, that means 10″ each.  So the person who puts their 22″ or larger carry-on into the overhead the long way rather than ‘head first’ has taken up more than twice their space, and used up a bit of the third person’s space too.  Indeed, each row can’t even fit in three carry-ons head first (notionally 42″ in total vs the 30″ or so of total length for that row).

United has said it will allow personal items of up to 17″ x 10″ x 9″ in addition to the up to 22″ x 14″ x 9″ main carry-on.  Their new templates have spaces to test the sizes of both the larger and the smaller item.

If you are caught carrying something too large, United says you’ll have to check it, and they’ll charge you the full fee for a checked bag, too.

Needless to say, United says this new ‘get tough’ policy is for our benefit.  Somehow they think that pulling people out of line and having arguments with passengers during the boarding process will speed things up.

Will it be applied evenly and consistently, or will it fade away, like all past attempts at policing carry on bag limits?  We’ll have to wait and see about that.

There’s one thing they’re mercifully not doing, however.  Some of the template devices that some airlines have are not just size checking devices, but they have a set of scales in them too and check the weight of the bag.  Although I never go over the size limits with my carryon items, I regularly go way over the weight limits imposed by some airlines – indeed, it can be impossible not to.  Five to ten pounds for a carryon bag, as much again for a laptop, add extra weight for power supply and ‘road warrior kit’ of cables and stuff, plus some more for a tablet, maybe a book or some paperwork, and you’re at 20 lbs with a minimum collection of stuff.  Some airlines have weight limits as low as 12lbs for a carry-on item, and that is totally impossible to comply with.

Some Interesting Bag Stats

This item quotes a couple of interesting statistics.  In 2013, the average passenger on a domestic US flight checked 0.677 bags (slightly more than the year before) and airlines ‘mishandled’ (ie lost or delayed) 3.22 bags per 1,000 passengers (a significant 11% rise from the year before.

In other words, on a typical flight with perhaps 175 passengers, there’s a 50/50 chance that one person on board will have problems with one of their bags.  Or, to put it another way, you can expect a problem yourself once every 300 flights.

We had a group member on our Sri Lanka tour as one of the unlucky few, a problem made worse by the reluctance of the airline to admit the bag was missing or lost.  Perhaps it is time for you to do a quick refresher on what your rights are when your bags are delayed and maybe subsequently declared lost.  Here’s a link to the first part of a two-part article we wrote on the topic a few years back, and still relevant today.

Death, and Air Fares

American Airlines ruffled a few feathers last week when it said it was eliminating bereavement fares.  In the past, they – and other airlines – have offered varying degrees of assistance when people were needing to travel at zero notice for ‘bad’ rather than ‘business’ reasons – ie, due to deaths and grave illnesses in the family.

Unfortunately, bereavement fares have long been appallingly abused by some people, and in response the airlines have become less and less willing to be taken advantage of, erecting more and more hurdles and hassles that people have to surmount to qualify for a fare that in reality has been less and less discounted.

Indeed, I know in the past when I had blanket waivers and unlimited favors for the asking from my preferred airline partner, I could ring them up at any time and ask for advance purchase waivers, just because I wanted them, without any need or reason required.  One time I was doing this, and in the course of making small chit-chat with the airline agent, I said ‘You know, this is really helpful this time, the passenger is a very nice person and their father just died’.  The agent suddenly went all chilly and said ‘Oh, I wish you hadn’t told me that.  We have a blanket ban on bereavement fares these days’.  So, they’d give me anything I asked for, if it was me asking for it, but if I said it was to help a bereaved passenger, the automatic happy ‘yes’ became a snarling ‘no’.

If you need last-minute travel, check out Priceline, Kayak, and your local travel agent and see what they can come up with.  Chances are that the disappearance of bereavement fares won’t much disadvantage you, anyway, and spares you the bother of having to get official letters from doctors and funeral directors and death certificates and other unpleasant stuff.

On a similar note, perhaps, one of our less passenger-friendly airlines, Allegiant, ruffled some feathers this week when it refused to refund a man the price of the roundtrip air tickets he’d bought for himself and his wife – the man cancelled after his wife died.

I have to say I support Allegiant on this one.  We all know the rules up front – there are expensive and refundable fares, and there are inexpensive but non-refundable fares – oh yes, and there is also trip insurance.  So if we decide to gamble with the inexpensive but non refundable fare, and if we don’t buy trip insurance, surely we then have to accept the consequences if our gamble fails to pay off.

The man formally wrote to Allegiant asking for a refund.  Allegiant has said it will reply – in about two months time.

Unlocking Cell Phones – Almost Legal Again

There was considerable outrage that followed the ruling last year that it was a breach of copyright to remove the artificial restriction most wireless companies place on the phones we buy from them, and to allow our phones to work as intended by their manufacturers, with any SIM from any wireless service company.

Congress is acting to clarify this one of the many draconian provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and to allow us to again unlock our own phones, just the way you’d think you should be allowed to, in a perfect world where common sense prevails.

Unfortunately, special interests saw the original bill amended at the last-minute to massively reduce its scope, but it is still a good thing, and let’s hope the Senate might make the bill more all-encompassing again.

Details here.

My New Fast Computer – How to Experience the Same Yourself

Although it is less than a year since I last upgraded my computer, it developed some strange behaviors and to my extremely appreciative delight, Dell decided the best way to solve the problems was simply to replace the computer in its entirety – and to replace it not just with another identical unit, but with the newest and bestest unit.

The new (laptop) computer duly arrived, and I then enhanced it still further, growing its memory to 16GB and replacing its hard drive with a Solid State Drive, and that’s what I wanted to particularly draw to your attention for the next time you’re considering a computer upgrade.

The technology and cost issues that formerly limited the practicality of Solid State Drives (SSDs) have largely been resolved.  New SSD drives claim to have similar service lives to that of traditional drives, and while they still remain very much more expensive than regular hard drives, the extra cost of a SSD is perhaps now at an acceptable point.  For example, Amazon shows you can get 1TB SSDs for under $500 and 500GB SSDs for about $250.  I chose a Samsung EVO, they have been well reviewed in several different places.

The SSD type devices are much more physically robust than old-fashioned spinning drives, and they use much less power, too, meaning if you are placing one in a laptop, you will probably have its battery life extended by at least 30 minutes and maybe longer.

But none of this is all that exciting.  The absolute compelling reason to get a SSD and to throw away your older hard drive is because they are F * A * S * T.  Not just fast, Fast, or even FAST.  They are F * A * S * T.

My laptop was taking close on 10 minutes to boot up, and nearly all of that time was due to the hard drive being overtasked, loading programs into memory.  Now, from hitting the power button to having the desktop displayed and all programs loaded, I’m looking at about one minute.  If I need to switch programs, or load new programs, it is almost instantaneous.  If I have to do a disk based task such as compressing an email file or building a new index or something – things that formerly would take 30 minutes or more, they are now done at least ten times more quickly.

So far, and it has only been a week, I have never had to wait for the computer to do anything.  It truly is instantaneously fast, no matter what I assign to it.  (Of course, its state of the art i7 CPU and separate GPU doesn’t hurt, either!).

My point is simply this.  If you’re starting to feel your computer is getting slow, consider a SSD as a key part of your upgrade approach.  Either replace your former hard drive completely with a SSD, or if you prefer, you can supplement your old hard drive with a smaller SSD.  Put your OS and programs on the SSD and the data files on the old hard drive, and that will be almost as good.

Note that when you do get a SSD, there are some things you should do so as to get the maximum life from it.  The life of a SSD is determined by how many times data is written to it, so you want to minimize some of the background data writing activities.  Many of these things relate to services that aren’t needed on a SSD anyway, because they are designed to help compensate for the slow speed of traditional hard drives.  Here’s an excellent article that gives you a series of easily done tweaks to maximize the life of your SSD.

Virgin Cruises

Although his Virgin Galactic venture is way behind the eight ball in terms of actually starting to fly passengers on pseudo ‘space flights’, Sir Richard Branson has now announced his plans to set up a cruise line.

The cruise line would be headquartered in the US, placing it closest to the world’s largest cruise market (ie the US).  While we’re often rather skeptical about Sir Richard’s announcements, we hope this one might come to pass.  The cruise industry is as uncompetitive as the airline industry – sure, there are lots of different brands, but three companies control 80% of the market between them (Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian).

So – for example – next time you’re trying to choose between a Holland America Line cruise, a Seabourn cruise, a Cunard cruise, a Princess cruise or a Carnival cruise (to name just a few), remember that in reality you’re not making choices at all – these are just some of the eleven Carnival owned brands.

We’d love to see a game changing rule breaking cruise line appear.  There have been other notable failures to do things differently – for example, Easycruise tried to copy from Easyjet and offer no frills cruises, but nothing has been particularly successful and, for all their much vaunted differences, most cruises are more alike than different.

Will Branson make a difference, other than using too much purple paint and loudly playing crass modern music ship-wide?  Let’s hope so.  More details here.

In related Virgin news, the airline, Virgin America, hopes to get the two gates at Love Field that will be relinquished by American Airlines and use it to expand their Dallas area footprint.

They’re sure sticking their head in the lion’s den (or noose?) by trying that.  Southwest Airlines has a 97% market share at Love Field currently.  We can’t see them passively allowing Virgin American to come in and eat their lunch.  But it might make for fun times if the two airlines duke it out with ever lower fares and ever better mileage bonuses.

Details here.

Game Changing Electric Car Battery Breakthrough?

I hate the fuel economy that I don’t get with my lovely Landrover.  Around town I get maybe 13 mpg, on the open road, perhaps 17 mpg.  There are plenty of cars offering twice this fuel economy and some offering three times this, and while I dislike shoving $75 worth of gas into the car all too regularly, what is the alternative?

Let’s say I drive 9,000 miles a year, and at an average of 15 mpg, and compare that to if I drove 9,000 at 30 mpg.  Let’s also assume gas is $3.50/gallon.  So that means I currently spend $2,100 a year on gas, and with a more fuel-efficient car, I could save $1,050.  That’s great – although it is also overstating the likely savings, because as studies have shown, when people migrate to a more fuel-efficient car, they either drive it more often or harder (or both).  But, accepting the $1,050 as a best case, how much money would I have to spend up front in order to shave $1,050 off the annual driving cost?

That’s the sticking point every time I do the calculation.  It is better to keep paying over the odds for fuel into the Landrover than to change to a more fuel efficent car.

A related calculation, for when I sooner or later do need to buy a replacement car, is ‘how much extra should I pay for a more economical car to drive?’.  Keeping the same 9,000 miles a year and $3.50/gallon, if I’m choosing between, say, a car that averages 20 mpg and one that averages 25 mpg, the annual amount saved with the more economical car is only $315.  Say I keep the car eight years, and that shows a total fuel bill difference of almost exactly $2,500.  That’s not a huge amount, and certainly nowhere near the premiums that are attached to many hybrid and plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles.

Here’s an interesting article on how long people keep cars for – on average, people keep a new car for 6 years and a used car for 4 years, so the upfront extra cost for more fuel-efficient vehicles, for most people, has to be paid back in only 6 years (and/or translate into appreciably higher used car values when reselling the car).

That’s a large part of the reason why hybrid type cars remain poor sellers.  Their extra cost is seldom recouped in the form of fuel savings by a typical owner during their typical period of owning the car.

Fully electric vehicles are also very disappointing, due to their limited range.  A Chevrolet Volt has a range of only about 35 miles before it needs recharging or to start its petrol engine.  Sure, you can go over 200 miles with a Tesla, but who can justify its $90,000+ price tag?

The lithium ion battery technology in such vehicles has little changed over the last five or ten years.  There have been small incremental improvements in battery capacity and ‘charge density’ – ie how much power can be stored in what weight of battery, but nothing truly game changing.

So it is with a great deal of excitement I read about a new form of Li-ion battery under development at Volkswagen, promising three to four times the energy density of current Li-ion batteries.  Imagine if the Chevy Volt could now go 120 miles electrically at a time (and the Tesla up to almost 1,000 miles per charge).  That starts to massively resolve the convenience compromises that are currently such a key part of electric vehicle technology.

Unfortunately, this article doesn’t tell us either when the new technology might start to appear in production cars, or what the associated cost would be.  But does that mean we should all wait until the new technology appears?

Perhaps not.  It seems reasonable to assume that if/when it is finally commercially available, there’s no reason why current electric vehicles couldn’t simply swap their present-technology battery packs for new technology battery packs and then continue to operate exactly as before, albeit with new super-batteries

And Lastly This Week….

Bird strikes are a worry for planes at low altitude, particularly during the critical first few moments of a flight when the plane has no spare power and no spare altitude and little or nowhere to go in an emergency.  The amazing flight from La Guardia that ended up in the Hudson River just a few minutes after takeoff due to both engines being taken out by birdstrikes is a clear case in point.

Actually, some birds fly surprisingly high, but most bird strikes seem to occur under 10,000 ft.

Okay, so ‘be on alert for birds’ seems to be a sensible strategy.  But fish?

AirBnB is attempting to upend the dominance of traditional hotels.  But can you guess what AirPnP is trying to achieve?  And, if you consider yourself an ‘entrepeeneur’, you too could list on their site.

My goodness me, daylight saving starts this weekend.  Already.  Are we that far into the year already?  Apparently so!

Until next week please enjoy safe travels







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