Weekly Roundup, Friday 2 May 2014

Kayak.com does a reasonable job of trying to guess if your airfare cost might rise or fall.  See item, below.
Kayak.com does a reasonable job of trying to guess if your airfare cost might rise or fall. See item, below.

Good morning

Happy birthday to BASIC.

BASIC – the acronym for ‘Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code’ – was far from the world’s first programming language (you could have a lengthy argument about that because the concept of ‘programming’ is far from a black and white concept, although for modern high level compiled and widely used languages, perhaps Fortran, dating to the mid-1950s, might win the prize) but BASIC is nonetheless extraordinary for being a language that was created way back when computers took up large rooms and used paper tape and punched cards (and 4kB was a lot of memory), and still being in use today in recognizably similar form to what it was back on 1 May, 1964.

BASIC was developed at Dartmouth, with the concept of making computers and programming more approachable to everyone.  Depending on your perspective, it has been either a massive success or failure in that endeavour (how are your basic BASIC skills?).  Here’s Dartmouth’s retrospective, and another one from Engadget.

As an aside, I’ve recently started doing a bit of programming for fun and as a hobby.  Have I gone completely crazy?  Those who know me also know I hate programming, and have nothing like the temperament for it.  But I’ve bought a new toy – an Arduino computer/controller, and a bunch of accessories and sensors for it, and am delighting in how easy and fun it is to wire it up and then program it to do simple tasks.  My nine-year old daughter likes it too, making it a fun father/daughter shared activity.  Possibly you might, also.  (I bought this starter kit and this book, and subsequently have been adding additional sensors, books, and so on).

Talking about 50 year anniversaries, it astonishes and delights me to find that many of the electronic components I used to buy very nearly 50 years ago cost the same – or less – today than they did back then.  I vaguely remember paying 5c or 10c each for resistors back then, and now on Amazon, I bought a box of 860 assorted resistors for $18 – 2c each (and instead of being 10% tolerance resistors, they are 1% resistors).  I didn’t really need them, but at that price I bought them just because it was something I’d always wanted to have lots of as a child, but they were prohibitively expensive back then, and now, well, cost little more than a couple of cups of coffee.  The same for capacitors – 645 pieces for $20, including tiny electrolytics scarcely a tenth the size they used to be (and, if I remember rightly, probably less than 1/10th the price, too).  Amazing.

We all know that transistors, etc, have got ‘better’ over the years (don’t get me started on the box of 320 transistors and diodes for $30….), but who would have thought something as low tech as a resistor would also plunge in price.  (Note – you don’t really need all these resistors and capacitors, etc, for most Arduino projects.)

Now to switch from amazing technology and amazing technology to apparently something involving neither.  Another week, and it seems we’re still no closer to finding any MH 370 wreckage.  If anything, quite the opposite.  The ocean-bottom search in the most likely zone where the black boxes were thought to be located, based on bearings from four sets of pings that were believed to have come from the black boxes, has now been completed, with nothing found.  This was a 123 sq mile area.

More on what is (and is not) happening with the MH 370 search below.

I excitedly sent out an item earlier this week about Amazon discounting its Kindle eBook readers.  Its regular monochrome Kindles have $20 taken off them, its Kindle Fire color tablets have $30 off them, and as of Thursday evening, the short-term sale is still open.

$20 might not sound like a lot, but when it sees a $69 item drop down to just under $50, then the affordability of a Kindle is surely starting to register about as compelling as it ever can go; and if you don’t yet have a Kindle, maybe now is a good time to think about getting one.  There’s a short item about this after the newsletter roundup.  (Oh yes, and I’m continuing to luxuriate in more free eBooks coming to me, every day, seemingly with no end ever in sight – see my article last week about this.)

There’d be more this week, but after an increasingly troubled last week or two, I literally had my computer down, inoperable, for 24 hours – I say ‘literally’ because most of those 24 hours had me beside it, nursing it through intensive care in a desperate attempt to return it to life.  It wasn’t only me, I made good use of Dell’s 24/7 technical support, with the longest of the many calls lasting 110 minutes.  Tragically, although the computer is operational at present, the underlying problem remains unresolved.  Oh well, that’s what Friday is for, right?  Oh yes, and I spent way too much time on Thursday afternoon and evening (at least, that’s probably what my daughter thinks) coaching her for a spelling bee on Friday.  With spell check built into just about every program these days, do we even still nede too no howe to spel?

Or, maybe there wouldn’t be more.  When I add it all up, there’s 3670 words – not a bad morning’s read!  Please see below for items on :

  • MH 370 Update
  • MH 370 Preliminary Accident Report ‘Shockingly Deficient’
  • Comparing Our MH 370 Commentary with the Associated Press
  • Frontier’s Unsurprising Fare/Fee Policy Changes
  • This Week’s Alaska vs Delta Story
  • How Far in Advance Should You Buy Your Airline Ticket?
  • Latest Smartphone and Tablet Market Shares
  • Attention :  iPhone 5 Owners
  • And Lastly This Week….

MH 370 Update

The Australians have now said their searching is entering a ‘new phase’ and while that sounds good, the reality is that the new phase means cancelling the airborne search for any floating debris from the plane, and a much more speculative search for anything on the ocean floor over a much wider area than before.

Am I the only one to be astonished at how hard it has proved to be to detect and locate the black box ‘pingers’?  Weren’t these specifically designed to be as strident as possible, and to be detectable at great distances?  But, after perhaps 35 – 40 days of pinging, all that happened was that four brief periods of pinging were detected, and when those were triangulated and the area searched, it proved to be a false alarm.

Now, you might be wondering, ‘so how far can sound carry underwater?’ and that’s a very sensible question to ask.  The answer of course is not clear-cut – it depends on the frequency of the sounds, the depth (and even the temperature) of the water, and of course, how sensitive a listening device is being used and where it is, too.

But, here’s a 1995 report that indicates that, way back then (ie almost 20 years ago) there was technology that could detect Russian nuclear submarines, running quietly, more than 1,000 km away (625 miles).  If we could detect enemy subs at distances greater than 625 miles 20 years ago, how far away, today, can we detect either the sound of black box pings or the enormous noise and shock waves associated with an almost 300 tonne plane crashing into the ocean and sinking to the bottom?

American submariners like to boast that they can hear a whale, ahem, pass wind, an ocean away.  One has to wonder, with such sensitivity, how is it that neither the sounds of the plane crashing into the water, nor the sounds of the pingers, were picked up.  For weeks.  And weeks.

Meanwhile a private company has been trying to show off its prowess at locating minerals and stuff, and claims to have used its techniques to find the plane, in the Bay of Bengal.  But neither the Australians nor the Malaysians are paying them any attention – indeed, it appears that the company quietly told the authorities of their ‘discovery’ over a month ago, and were completely ignored, so this week they went public, only to be dismissed by both governments as not being credible.

All the ‘credible’ reports have come to nothing.  Isn’t it about time someone started investigating incredible reports?

MH 370 Preliminary Accident Report ‘Shockingly Deficient’

After first deeming it to be confidential, then deciding to release the report, but only after ‘review’ (and, one suspects, possible censorship) we can now see exactly what the Malaysian government believes it currently does know about the events surrounding the plane’s mysterious disappearance eight weeks ago.

I’ll let Australian commentator Ben Sandilands do the talking for me, when he writes, in the start of an article on this topic :

Considering all the things that Malaysia officials have said on the record in the first 30 days of the search for missing flight MH370 the interim report released last night is shockingly deficient in detail.

It doesn’t, for example, cast any light on the altitude changes that occurred after the flight suddenly turned away from its course from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing early on the morning of 8 March while over the Gulf of Thailand.

Yet at the then regular KL briefings after the embarrassing spectacle of Malaysia officials denying they knew anything about a turnback, and then confirming one a day later, it was revealed that the last military radar trace of the Boeing 777 with 239 people on board was at precisely 29,500 feet off shore from Phuket, compared to being at 35,000 feet when its transponder went off-line rendering it invisible to the secondary radar systems used by air traffic control systems.

This interim report can only fuel the anger in China at the chaotic, inconsistent and evasive conduct of the Malaysia authorities in relation to telling the truth about MH370 in the 30 day period in which it had to file a report into its disappearance with ICAO, which it apparently did, but refused to make public until last night KL time.

There’s more – very much more – in Ben’s analysis and critique; and it is fair to say that not only has the Malaysian mishandling of the matter exceeded belief, but so too now is its report on the matter a similarly beyond-disappointing document.

Comparing Our MH 370 Commentary with the Associated Press

It is perhaps an interesting reminder of why you choose to read The Travel Insider to compare our various articles and commentaries on the MH 370 mystery, and in particular – well, of course, they are largely Ben Sandilands’ words – the comments about the Malaysian interim accident report above, with this totally bland and vanilla article from the Associated Press.

To read the AP article, you’d think all was being well-managed and everything is in order.  I hope you’ll continue to choose to get information and commentary from The Travel Insider!

Frontier’s Unsurprising Fare/Fee Policy Changes

As you may know, Frontier Airlines was bought in December last year by Indigo Partners, a private equity firm that specializes in turning around struggling airlines by ‘changing their business model’.  One of their most recent ‘successes’ has been with Spirit Airlines, the airline that became (in)famous for charging for carry-on bags.

It has been widely expected that Indigo would attempt to transform Frontier into a similar sort of low lead price, but charge extra for everything, airline.  Well, it took a few months, but this week they have now announced new policies that will do exactly that, including copying the Spirit concept of charging for carry-on bags (can bring one small item on for free, another larger item costs $25 online or $35 at the airport).

The airline predictably enough says that most people will benefit more from the new lower fares, and only a few will pay extra due to the new higher fees.  Of course, if that is true, it makes one wonder why the airline would make these changes.  Details here.

One wonders how long before the charging for carry-on bags will transition from ‘out of the ordinary’ and become mainstream.  It has been a while since the dinosaur airlines have come up with any new fees – they’re probably watching what happens with Frontier’s new fare/fee strategy very carefully.

This Week’s Alaska vs Delta Story

It really is very enjoyable watching the two airlines duking it out for market share in Seattle, even though they’re both still trying to be gentlemanly about it.

I noticed this week advertising from Delta boasting about having the most nonstop flights from Seattle of any airline – oh yes, with the modifying word ‘international’ tossed into the sentence.  A bit later in the week, I saw an ad from Alaska Airlines boasting the most flights out of Seattle, without any modifier included.

As for me, I’m eagerly awaiting a breakdown of the gentlemanliness.  When will we start seeing $99 roundtrips anywhere either airline flies!?  Or triple mileage bonuses.  Bring it on….

How Far in Advance Should You Buy Your Airline Ticket?

Talking about $99 roundtrips, something everyone wished they knew the answer to is when should they buy their airline tickets.  Way in advance?  Or at the last-minute?  Or is there a sweet spot, somewhere in the middle?

Kayak tries to provide some sort of semi-scientific statement of what might happen, anytime you ask it for fare and flight details, but that information is puzzling at best, and ‘too late’ as often as it is timely.

Another air booking service, Cheapair.com, has now released an interesting study that suggests the best time to book most domestic tickets is 54 days in advance.  But this varies depending on destination and time of year, with a broader ‘window’ of time being between 29 and 104 days prior to your travel starting.  The big surprise of this might be that it is not correct to automatically assume that the longer in advance, the cheaper, and those of you who rush to buy their tickets as soon as you’ve planned a trip may not be doing yourself a service.

A couple of related interesting tips and tricks.  The first is to consider splitting your travel, going one way with one airline and the other way with another airline, perhaps.  Many online services will check that automatically these days, but be sure it is being done for you.  The second is to remember you have 24 hours to cancel most bookings with no penalty these days, so when you do take the plunge, be sure to check back the next day to see if the truth has changed overnight.

Here’s a good article with a few other reasonably sensible suggestions too.

Latest Smartphone and Tablet Market Shares

Interesting results have been announced for how the major phone operating systems have done in the first quarter this year, with an event of note being the last report by Nokia on its sales, now that its phone handset business has become a part of Microsoft.  One has to wonder how happy the new team at Microsoft feel about the $7.2 billion purchase of Nokia’s ‘Devices and Services’ division by their predecessors, announced in September last year, particularly when one of the reasons advanced in support of why it was such a good deal was due to Nokia outselling Blackberry in more than 34 markets around the world.  That’s hardly the most impressive of statistics, not now, and not then, either.

Anyway, Nokia admitted to a 30% drop in sales between the first quarter this year and the same quarter last year.  Nokia did poorly in both high-end and low-end phones, leaving no apparent morsels of good news to be seized upon at all.

Samsung also had a slightly difficult quarter, but when Samsung talks about ‘difficult’ it doesn’t mean the same sort of difficulty as applies to Nokia.  Samsung saw its market share drop from 32% in the first quarter last year to 31% this year.

But while Samsung had difficulties maintaining its market leading position, Android phones as a whole had no such problem.  In the US, where Android is ‘weaker’ than most other major markets, its market share increased from 49.3% in 2013 to 57.6% in 2014 – which is a great result, but pales compared to China, where Android has an 80% market share.

Most of Android’s growth has come from a loss of market share by Apple, which dropped from 43.7% down to 35.9% in the US.  Windows-based phones slightly eased back from 5.6% to 5.3%, and Blackberry – remember them – the benchmark by which Nokia was judged last year – went from 0.9% to 0.7%.

More details here.

As for tablets, here’s an interesting article that laments the possibility that the tablet market is starting to get saturated.  Has everyone who is going to buy a tablet now bought one?  The article also hints at another issue – perhaps people are keeping their tablets for longer than they keep their phones.  Intuitively, that seems very likely.

Although Apple still retains marketplace supremacy in terms of being the single largest seller of tablets, it no longer has the market sewn up, and the last year has seen its market share drop down from 40.2% to 32.5%.  With just about every other tablet of note being Android (did/does anyone have any of the ridiculous Windows Surface devices?) it seems that Apple is seeing ‘the same old same old’ happen to it in tablets, the same as has already happened to them in phones, and which happened long ago to them in computers.  (That’s not to say the company isn’t also wildly profitable, of course, and maybe it is a smart strategy, but one wonders how Steve Jobs would have felt about the lackluster iPhone 5S and 5C, and the loss of tablet market share and Apple being out-maneuvered by other companies that are proving more innovative and coming out with better phones and tablets, at better prices.)

Attention :  iPhone 5 Owners

Talking about iPhone 5S and 5Cs, If you have an iPhone 5 (not the 5C or the 5S), and if you – like me – have been having problems with its Sleep/Power button, good news.  Although people have been complaining about problems with the button (it can be very hard to press it so that it actually switches the phone on/off) since perhaps the middle of last year, Apple has only now grudgingly admitted there is a problem, which it says may affect a small percentage of iPhone 5 owners (ie if your phone was made prior to April 2013).

But – and well done to Apple for this – it has announced a type of recall program.  If your phone is one of the affected phones, they’ll repair your phone for free, and – best of all – will give you a loaner phone while fixing your actual phone.

Full details of how it works are here.

I took my phone into a local Apple store last Sunday to get it repaired.  Although Apple predictably says this is a problem affecting only a small percentage of phones, there must have been one person arriving every five or six minutes wanting to get their phone swapped over – I know that, because it took an hour from arriving at the store to leaving again, after a chaotic and very slow process to get my phone checked into their system and to be issued a loaner phone.

Now I don’t need to feel quite so desperate for the release of the new larger screened iPhone 6 this fall!  But I am still looking forward to it impatiently.

Or maybe not.  Perhaps I’ll get a new Amazon phone instead when it is announced (probably in the next month or so).

Actually, almost certainly, no I won’t.  I already have an Android phone (a Nexus 5) which I’m disappointed in (in terms of ease/convenience/sophistication of interface compared to Apple), and if Amazon’s approach to phones is similar to their approach to tablets (ie crippling the device so it will only allow a limited number of apps to be installed rather than all Android apps to work on it) then you too should ignore it also, no matter if it truly does end up with six cameras included.  See the item above about tablet market shares to see how well that policy is working for Amazon – it seems people are now appreciating that while the Kindle Fire series of products are great eBook readers, they are lousy tablets.

And Lastly This Week….

A pilot explained/apologized to passengers when they finally got on board their three-day (!) delayed flight that the delay was essential to allow for repairs that, if not completed, could have caused them all to crash into a ‘watery grave’.

So, what did the passengers – or at least some of them – do?  They wrote and complained to the airline, upset that the pilot used scary words to describe the plane’s problem.  No-one is denying the accuracy of the pilot’s description.  But the airline is now apologizing to passengers for the pilot’s ‘inappropriate choice of words’.

A question :  How exactly else would you describe a problem that could potentially cause the plane to flip over and plunge out of the sky into the sea, the same way as happened to an earlier flight, with all 213 people on board being killed?  ‘If not solved, the fault could have potentially caused us to experience a flight inversion followed by a negative rate of climb to flight level minus ten’.

Or – more likely, would the airline have preferred the pilot to go all vague and technical and simply lie :’Some paperwork needed to be corrected, an indicator light that is probably faulty, nothing to worry about folks’.

Details here.

Some people are starting to anticipate the World Cup match in Sao Paolo (scheduled to be held in two months time), and if you’re going there, don’t be surprised if you see a surprisingly familiar seeming figure working behind a bar.

Truly lastly this week, here in the Seattle area we are very proud of our coffee, and some people have very fancy and expensive coffee makers.  But I’m not sure how extensive the market will be – in Seattle, or many other places – for a $13,000 device designed to make a perfect cup of tea.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







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