Weekly Roundup Friday 11 April 2014

A low-res sample of the picture quality from my new camera - see below for a link to a higher res version of the same.
A low-res sample of the picture quality from my new camera – see below for a link to a higher res version of the same.

Good morning

Happy birthday to the internal combustion engine.  This is one of those inventions that are hard to pin down to a specific point in time, due to being a series of evolving and improving things, but the patent filed on 3 April 1885 by Otto Gottlieb is perhaps one of the pivotal points of what is now the amazing thing under the hoods of our vehicles.

Interestingly though, not everything to do with automobiles can be considered a consistent forward march of progress.  Also an anniversary this week is the 9 April 1971 issuance of the first ever NHTSA bumper standard, requiring bumpers to be able to withstand a 5 mph forward impact and a 2 mph rear impact.

But, today, the bumper standards are less demanding than they were then.  If you manage to read through this page of obfuscated details, you’ll see that the new underlying requirement isn’t for bumpers to protect cars, but rather for the cost of improved bumpers to be less than the savings created from them.

You might think that sensible – why spend $1000 in bumper strengthening if, on average, a stronger bumper only saves a typical driver $500 in crash damage?  The answer is that if we were to require stronger bumpers, don’t you think there’d be a focus of R&D into making better bumpers on a more cost-effective basis?  There have been amazing improvements and enhancements to materials technologies over the intervening 40+ years, but precious little of this has flowed through to making cars more resilient to minor dents and dings.

We definitely agree that cars are much safer today, especially for substantially higher speed impacts, than they were back in 1971, so overall we’re improving our game.  But we’d sure like to see them more robustly resistant to ‘fender benders’, and we’d definitely love to see the cost of repairing fender benders to be less than it is at present.  It seems you can’t ever visit a body shop without spending at least $1000 to replace bumper components – a cost that is all the more aggravating when you consider the enormous profit that the overpriced components bring to their manufacturers.

For most of us, we happily go our entire lives without a major car accident and insurance claim, but we do suffer a number of fender benders.

Currently there’s no substantial financial incentive for car manufacturers to reduce the cost of their vehicle repairs.  We think there should be.  If we can impose massive requirements on manufacturers when it comes to meeting fuel economy levels, why not also require them to make their vehicles more repairable?  One could credibly argue the same ‘enviro-conscious’ issues apply in both cases – the ‘carbon releases’ or whatever else you want to measure associated with each new car’s production are enormous; if we can extend the life of present automobiles, we are ‘saving the planet’.  Sort of.

There are two additional articles appended to today’s newsletter.  The first calls your attention to an invidious attempt by the airlines to sneak very bad new legislation through the system without allowing for fair review and debate.  I’m not sure which is the more egregious aspect of this – the refusal of the Congressional committee to allow submissions and debate, or the underlying lie which the legislation is based on.  Read it and decide for yourself, then please let your congresscritter know of your disapproval.

The second article responds to several comments I received about my camera article a couple of weeks back.  Readers asked for recommendations for lower priced and/or smaller cameras than the one I recommended, and it is true my preferred camera is at the higher end of the ‘affordable’ scale.  So here now is a table listing more than 20 highly rated cameras at lower prices, including a couple of good cameras in the under $300 category – less than half the price of the Sony camera I recommended two weeks ago.

I was also asked for some samples of pictures from my new Sony camera, and that is something I’d avoided doing, because pictures often reflect more on the skill of the photographer than on the camera itself, and a full appreciation of the camera requires seeing many pictures and appreciating the differences between how they appear with one camera and a different camera used similarly.

But I was visiting the tulip fields just north of Seattle earlier this week, and decided to offer you one picture now – you can see it in small preview size above, and if you click this link here, you’ll see a cropped part of the complete image, at full size.  Note the glorious colors, the very clear definition, and lots of detail in both the highlights and shadows (rather than just dark blobs and burned out bright parts).

It is the best of the dozen or so tulip pictures I took, but it was taken with all settings on automatic and without any special adjustments.  Anyone can take pictures this good, without any special knowledge or skill, when using this camera.  If I’d messed around with some settings, I could have made it even better, but I want you to appreciate how good the camera is, not how good I may (or, more likely, may not) be.

Truly, my new Sony camera is marvelous.

Below, please read on for articles about :

  • MH 370 Update
  • This Week’s Round in the AS vs DL Fight
  • Airline ‘Competition’ – Good or Bad?
  • My Suggestion to Alaska Airlines
  • More on Hawaiian Airlines
  • Pity the Poor Airlines and Their Desperate Cost-Saving Measures
  • Airbus A350 Testing
  • Windows XP Transitions to a Well Earned Retirement
  • Another Amazing Photo/Video Technology
  • TSA Bans Stroke Victim From Flight
  • And Lastly This Week….

MH 370 Update

It seems the plane’s black boxes may be found.  Pings from the black boxes have almost certainly now been detected on several bearings on several different days this last week (in total, there have been, as of late Thursday, five probable detections), and with each new detection, the approximate location of the black boxes becomes more readily determined.

Currently the likely location of the black boxes is somewhere in a 500 sq mile patch of ocean floor – an area about the same size as the city of Los Angeles.  Imagine trying to find two boxes lying around, somewhere in Los Angeles.  When you’re dealing with extreme depths and an uneven ocean floor, trying to find the black boxes is much the same sort of almost impossible task.

The likely depth at which the black boxes are located is appreciably below the depth at which the AF 447 black boxes were retrieved, and slightly below the maximum operating depth of the Bluefin 21 submersible that is on location to be used to hunt and find them.  There are submersibles capable of deeper operations, but they are not currently on-site and would have to be shipped in, delaying things while they were dismantled, shipped, and then rebuilt.

Here’s a fascinating chart that puts the depth of water into great perspective.

I was asked ‘Why are the black boxes still pinging if the batteries were only rated for 30 days?’.  The answer to that question is because the battery rating is for a minimum of 30 days, not for a maximum of 30 days.  It is normal for the manufacturer to use a battery with a much greater than 30 days life when first installed for two reasons.  The first is so that, as time passes and the battery life slowly diminishes, the black box doesn’t need to be maintained as frequently or the batteries replaced as often.  The second reason is recognizing the variable life of each individual battery – if the batteries have a generic average life of, eg, 40 days, then that means some will last longer than 40 days but others might struggle to make even 30 days.  So, to guarantee 30 days of life, the manufacturers start off with batteries that will probably have much more than 30 days of life.

It is our good fortune that the batteries inside at least one of these two black boxes have been performing beyond their minimum specification, although a lowering in ping frequency suggests a diminished vitality in the battery.

One more thing about the black boxes.  Malaysia Airlines doesn’t have a perfect record when it comes to black boxes and the preservation of the data on them, as this article points out.

It is surprising there has still been no floating debris sighted.

This Week’s Round in the AS vs DL Fight

Anyone who ever argued against the benefits of competition in the airline industry should look at the fevered pitch of things in the Seattle market at present – although it is a mixed blessing, as I observe below.

This week Alaska Airlines has introduced new baggage tags that you can print yourself at home – they print onto plain paper which you then insert into a robust ‘tag carrier’ on your bags.  Apparently this is supposed to be more convenient than printing baggage tags at the airport – a claim which begs the question ‘More convenient for who – the airline or its passengers?’.  But it will doubtless appeal to a few ‘do-it-yourself’ enthusiasts, as well as, in time, opening up a new potential revenue stream for some of the more rapacious airlines – a fee levied on people who don’t pre-print their own bag tags prior to arriving at the airport.

Alaska also announced a plan to allow passengers to stream movies, television shows, and audio tracks directly to their own portable devices such as laptops, tablets, and phones.  Again, this new feature begs the question as to who benefits more from this – the customers, for being able to watch content on their own device, or the airline, for saving the cost and weight of outfitting their planes with individual seatback screens and controllers.

Personally, there’s no way I’d ever want to watch anything on my phone screen instead of on an airplane seatback screen, and while the screen quality is much better on my tablets, I would have to also dig out some type of charger to power the device for a long flight, and need some way of holding the screen at a convenient viewing angle and position too, so this is another subtle rather than obvious benefit.

There’s no apparent cost saving to the passengers, either.  Alaska says it will charge ‘under $6 for movies and under $3 for television content’.  Typical airline – it saves a huge amount of money itself, while passing little or none of the saving on to its passengers.

In addition to these two new service ‘enhancements’, Alaska Airlines also deployed a very very traditional weapon in such market-share battles – its frequent flier program.  For flights between now and the end of the year, to eight destinations (all of which just so happen to also have competing Delta flights either to the same airport or a very nearby one), Alaska will give its frequent flier members double mileage.  The cities are ANC, LAS, LAX, OAK, SAN, SFO, SJC and YVR.

Delta meanwhile continues to talk up its future plans and to justify its clash with Alaska Airlines, while also sending out promotional mailings exclusively to ‘its friends in Seattle’ encouraging people to sign up for its branded Amex card, offering bonus miles and Amex statement credits for those who do so and then use their cards to buy DL flights.

Delta’s justification – ‘we need to operate more domestic flights to/from Seattle, so as to provide passengers onto our new international flights from SEA to other countries’ is of course paper-thin in credibility.

There’s no clear reason why it couldn’t have worked with Alaska Airlines to bolster the AS code share flights to/from Seattle, and if some of its new international routes were not viable on their own, maybe they shouldn’t have been activated in the first place.

Make no mistake.  This is a cold calculated grab for market share from Alaska Airlines.  One imagines that Delta’s executives carefully looked at a map of the US and identified the Pacific Northwest as an area where neither of its two major competitors had a strong presence, but rather an anomalous area with a small and possibly vulnerable regional carrier dominating.  This would of course encourage Delta to move in and replace the regional carrier with itself, while avoiding a ‘fight to the finish’ with either of the only two other major US international carriers in the process, and its former close working relationship with Alaska actually gives it an advantage by gleaning some insight into the markets from Seattle and what works, how and why.

Airline ‘Competition’ – Good or Bad?

You might wonder why someone like myself – such a keen supporter of airline competition – is now unhappy when being presented with a clear example of such activity.  To answer that question requires a distinction to be drawn between good and bad competition.

Good competition are sustainable and sustained activities by one company to either grow the market or win more market share.  An example of good competition would be a car manufacturer announcing that next year’s models will have improved fuel economy and included back-up video systems.  Good competition sees other companies matching or even beating the moves of their competitors, while all companies remain profitable.

Bad competition occurs when a company engages in unsustainable and unsupportable (ie unprofitable) activities – activities which might short-term boost market size or market share, but which are designed primarily (and secretly) to destroy competitors, so that, in the fairly near-term future, the market becomes less competitive, allowing the bad competitor to then discontinue their promotions and raise their prices, unchallenged by its former competitors.

My concern is that – the same as almost every other occasion when airlines butt heads – the competition we are seeing in the Seattle market will quickly degenerate into ‘bad’ rather than ‘good’ competition, and the net result will be the loss of a great high quality airline, and Seattle becoming a fortress-hub dominated by Delta and subsequently suffering high fares on all Delta’s key protected routes as a result.

My Suggestion to Alaska Airlines

What should Alaska do, if (when) the competition becomes ‘bad’ and unsustainable?

The never-far-from-the-surface ‘predictions’ that Alaska should/will merge with a dinosaur airline are of course being trotted out again, but rather than merge with a dinosaur, there’s another option that might ‘kill two birds with one stone’ – or, in this case, save two airlines by merging them into one.  There is another nonaligned and fairly small airline that might nicely complement Alaska’s route network and high quality ethos – JetBlue.

Merging these two carriers would take an airline with a strong west coast base and fingers of traffic into the east and match it with an airline with a strong east coast base and fingers of traffic into the west.  With a bit of imagination, they could even do a wonderful ‘sweetheart’ type deal with an almost abandoned midwest airport with lots of spare gates and capacity that had formerly been a hub for a now disappeared airline – there are plenty of such places to choose from – and quickly come up with a complete national network almost the equal to any of the majors.  Rather than losing two of the minor airlines, we’d gain another major national player.

Sure, there are all sorts of integrative issues that would be involved – not the least of which would be the Airbus/Embraer fleet operated by JetBlue and the Boeing/Bombardier fleet operated by Alaska (and its subsidiary, Horizon), but these are details to be resolved rather than impossible hurdles to shy away from.

Alaska Airlines and JetBlue Airways.  That’s my pick for an airline merger that actually would benefit us all.

Or – at the risk of over-reaching, why not make it a three-way merger and bring in that other excellent and non-aligned airline and its growing international routes – Hawaiian Airlines too.  That would give us an airline with an international as well as domestic footprint, and positioning it well to then consider adding international operations from the east coast to Europe as well as its current Pacific rim focus.

More on Hawaiian Airlines

Talking about my new favorite airline, on the face of it, this week’s announcement from Hawaiian Airlines about a drop in passenger numbers in March might seem like bad news.  Passenger numbers were down 3.1%, year-on-year, and total miles flown by fare-paying passengers were down even more, a 5.3% drop.

But it isn’t as bad as it seems, because March 2013 included the boost to traffic provided by Easter vacationers.  This year, Easter isn’t for another week, which should see 2014’s April catch-up and the year to date numbers look much more positive when the results come out after April ends.

Also this week was a release of the latest on-time statistics, showing HA to yet again be appreciably the best of all airlines for their on-time arrival results.

Pity the Poor Airlines and Their Desperate Cost-Saving Measures

From time to time, we learn of a stunning cost saving measure implemented by the airlines in their desperate attempts to consistently make money.  There have been, in the past, such sterling measures as the removal of olives from salads, and the reduction of lettuce leaves too.

Apparently the airlines have yet to get all the blood from their cost cutting stone.  We now learn that the latest cost saving measure, by some airlines, is to remove lime slices from drinks where you’d otherwise expect to find them.  The cost of limes has increased of late – we’re told in this perhaps too sympathetic article that the retail cost of a lime has increased from 31 cents each a year ago to 56 cents last week, although somehow I don’t think that the airlines go to their local Safeway stores and buy limes, one by one, from the fruit aisle ( in other words, the cost to the airline is probably no more than half the retail price and perhaps even less).

The article tells us Alaska Airlines formerly used 900 limes every day.  If we say that one half of the limes are now being substituted for by lemons (and I’ve no idea how much lemons cost compared to limes, but let’s agree the price is not wildly different) then the 450 limes remaining represented an increase of about $56 a day compared to the cost of limes last year.  In annual terms, that $56/day comes to $20,500.  Alaska Airlines received $4.96 billion of gross revenue in 2013, making the $20,500 saving a 0.0004% share of total revenues.

We expect similar numbers would proportionally apply to the other airlines.

Oh – and one more thing.  Did we forget to mention that most airlines are enjoying record-breaking profits, often the best profits they have ever made in their entire history.  But they can no longer afford to include a slice of lime in the cocktail they sell us for $6+.

Airbus A350 Testing

There are some fascinating pictures with this article about Airbus testing its new A350 plane, due to enter service late this year.  The water pipes you see help the airline understand the heating and cooling needs of the plane.  Maybe that means that this new plane might become the first plane in history with a truly functional heating/cooling system – I’ve never understood how it is that planes costing hundreds of millions of dollars and jam-packed full of high-tech computerized systems have not been able to maintain a consistent comfortable cabin temperature.  I can do it at home with a single furnace and thermostat, surely it isn’t rocket science.

(Answer to the above pondering – the systems are probably working as designed, but the crew on the planes set the climate controls incorrectly in the air, and the airlines save money by not operating the units sufficiently while on the ground.)

Like Boeing and its 787, Airbus is making some interesting claims about how comfortable the new A350 will be, including how the near vertical sides give a more spacious feeling to the plane.  That’s the good news.

The bad news is that – even before the first plane has carried its first passenger – there is way too much talk about the extra ‘savings’ available to the airlines if they replace the recommended nine-across seating with ten-across seating instead.  Ooops – all of a sudden, an almost acceptable seat width would be replaced with another too-narrow seat width.

Windows XP Transitions to a Well Earned Retirement

A happy retirement wish to Windows XP.  First released more than twelve years ago (Oct 25, 2001), Microsoft this week finally ended its support for the operating system.

There was a time when we all were caught up in a whirlwind of computer innovation, with regular refreshes of both hardware and software.  Twelve years was an unthinkable span in any part of the computer industry.  Windows was coming out with major updates, typically once every two years, and most application software had annual releases.  Our hardware too required regular changing.

But as one of the starkest indications of the slowdown of everything in the computer industry,  28% of all Windows-based computers today are still running Windows XP, notwithstanding the releases of newer operating systems in 2006 (the generally poorly reviewed Vista), 2009 (the very positively reviewed Windows 7) and the disgrace that is and remains Windows 8 in 2012 and its update, 8.1 in 2013.

It is interesting to note that whereas XP retains a 28% share of all desktop operating systems, Vista has only a 3% share.  Windows 7 has a huge 49% share, Windows 8 has 6% and Windows 8.1 has 5%.

While some people have claimed that Apple’s Mac computers have enjoyed a resurgence in market share, the Mac OX X 10.9 operating system has a mere 4% share.  (You can find lots of interesting market share rankings on this site.)

As an interesting aside, many doomsayers have been predicting the end of the PC, due to diminished sales of new PCs.  But they are totally wrong in this claim.  There are two reasons for a reduction in the rate of PC shipments/sales.  The first reason is that the market is now mature and close to saturated.  Most people who are likely to buy/own a PC already have one.

So most PC sales now are to replace existing PCs, rather than to add to a person or business’s total collection of PCs.  And even those sales are declining because (second reason) we are keeping our PCs for longer.

There is no longer any technological need to replace our PC every couple of years.  In the past, new operating system or application software requirements (and particularly computer games) tended to push us into new, faster, ‘bigger’ PCs, but these days, the slowing in software development and the massively powerful PCs that we already have mean there’s less need to upgrade.

Self-evidently, most of the XP computers out there today are at least five or more years old and some may be as much as ten years old.

Interestingly though, the flipside of that is a blip and sudden upspurt in PC sales – apparently caused by people recognizing the need to finally replace their XP operating system, and realizing that to do this, they also need to upgrade their computer hardware.

One last comment.  If you have a modern PC, you should definitely consider Windows 8.  Yes, it is burdened by a beyond-stupid interface redesign, but the operating system – in my experience – is extraordinarily stable and well-rounded, and the interface idiocy can be quickly removed by spending a mere $5 to download the Stardock program that restores the interface back to ‘normal’ Windows style.

A bit of tweaking with the Stardock product and you can avoid almost all of the new interface problems, and in return, you get a very powerful and very reliable operating system.  It is well worth suffering the hassles of working around and eliminating Microsoft’s new interface design to get to the core functionality.

Another Amazing Photo/Video Technology

I wrote a couple of articles a month ago about how new technologies are making high-end movie making possible for us all, even if we only have tiny budgets.  A new product announcement this week provides a further case in point.

I had been evaluating the need for some aerial imagery for a project I was involved with recently, and the traditional approach – a helicopter, its pilot, and a camera operator – would have quickly progressed from a four figure cost to probably five figures.

But as an alternative, it is now possible to buy a four rotor ‘quadcopter’ with a built-in stabilized 1080p video/still camera that can be remotely operated by anyone (no helicopter skills required), and with the ability to fly up to 2300 ft away from the remote controller.  If you want to do an extended tracking shot, that means you can film almost a one mile long sequence before needing to cut to a second scene and shot.

The cost of this?  A mere $1300.  That might sound like a lot, but to put it into perspective, the last camcorder I bought cost more than that – and that was for a regular handheld camcorder alone, without any fancy quadcopter mount, without even a regular Steadicam mount either.  Now you can get a high-end camcorder on a quadcopter mount for the same money.

Many of us think nothing of spending this sort of money on a camera or video recorder.  Now we can get the camera/video recorder and the helicopter mount, too, giving us an enormous new dimension to our filming abilities.

Here’s an article explaining this amazing new device, and with sample video at the bottom.  Home movies will never be the same again.

Lastly on this point, we all know that if this year, such devices are costing $1300, next year they will be less, and before too long, you’ll probably see them for less than $500.

TSA Bans Stroke Victim From Flight

A stroke left Heidi Wright unable to speak.  She tried to take a flight with her sister, and it turned out her driver’s license that she was wanting to use as ID had expired.

Normally, this would not be a problem – not many people realize this, but the TSA will allow people to travel with expired IDs and even with no ID at all.

But, unfortunately, it was not to be a normal day for Ms Wright.  The TSA agent at LAX demanded that Ms Wright speak, and upon learning that she could not speak, refused to allow her on the flight to Phoenix, turning Ms Wright’s journey – what would have/should have been a 1 hr 20 minute flight, into an 8 hr bus ride instead.

The TSA, while conceding ‘it could have been handled differently’ blames Ms Wright and her sister for the incident, saying

….. it probably could have been handled differently by the family, and hopefully moving forward the family won’t have this problem again, because they know about the programs that we have in place.

Yes, let’s blame the incorrect refusal by the TSA agent to follow official TSA policies and procedures on the stroke victim and her sister.

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s a lengthy video, but you only need to watch the first minute or less to get the sense of it.  A Westjet 737 is blown away from its jetway while parked (on ice) in Halifax last week.  And, as a bonus, if you scroll down past that video, there’s another video, this time of a parked 747 lifting up its nose in the face of an oncoming wind.

How’s your ear for regional accents?  It used to be claimed by some people that they could place a person from Britain, almost to the exact town or village or suburb, after hearing the person speak only a very few words.  My sense is this is less the case these days – national (and international) language influences (such as movies, radio and television) are moderating all accents, in Britain and elsewhere, and the more frequent moves by people from one place to another further blur things.

But here’s an interesting example of the still present differences between a number of the more obvious (?) regional accents from the British Isles.

Something we all wish we could be or become, these days, is an infrequent flyer.  And now, never mind all the increasingly worthless inducements airlines offer their long-suffering frequent flyers.  Low cost carrier Tiger Air has a special program for such privileged infrequent flyers too.

And truly lastly this week, there are lots of events that can cause a pilot to make an emergency landing.  But ‘overheating’ cows?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







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