Weekly Roundup, Friday 25 July, 2014

A new luxurious train, to start service in Japan in 2017.
A new luxurious train, to start service in Japan in 2017.

Good morning

A week after the MH 17 crash last Thursday, and only now are investigators starting to get access to the crash remains, and only a day ago were most (but not all) the bodies sent to the Netherlands for forensic matching/identification and handing on to next of kin.

Meanwhile the war of words between the west and Russia/the Ukrainian rebels has somewhat intensified, but two things remain starkly absent.  The first missing piece is a clear consensus on who/what caused the plane crash, and the second is for the west to switch from empty bellicose rhetoric to actual firm actions and sanctions against the culpable parties.

On the first point, it is unthinkable that US intelligence sources don’t have a fully detailed understanding of each and every part of the missile launch – where it came from, and more to the point, who launched it.  But their unwillingness to make a clear case and backed up with evidence rather than assertions has muddied the waters, caused a ‘he said/she said’ argument with the ‘other side’ and with the very short attention span of the media and indeed of most people, the issue is becoming ‘too hard’ and very soon it will have become ‘yesterday’s news’ and the initial horror and outrage will have faded away.

Strangely, this may be exactly what the US and western powers are hoping for.  It seems that each western country hopes the other western countries will take stern action against Russia while being unwilling to accept the unavoidable reciprocal costs of imposing any trade restrictions themselves.  So everyone is waiting for other countries to do something, while not being willing to do something directly.  The guffaws of triumph from the Kremlin can be clearly heard.

It is a curious paradox however, to note not only the widely adopted flight paths over eastern Ukraine by many airlines prior to the MH 17 shootdown, but also the continued overflight of Syria, another nation in the middle of an ugly civil war.

But, on the other hand, the accounts of a Hamas missile landing somewhere in the Tel Aviv area was enough for the FAA and other national regulatory bodies to urgently declare Israeli airspace off-limits to all flights for two days.  To understand the ridiculousness of this, it is important to understand that the Hamas forces have no surface to air missiles, and/or if they do have any small portable missiles, they are far from Tel Aviv and way out of range of any western passenger planes.

The missiles that they have been firing in the hundreds into Israel are not surface to air missiles.  They are surface to surface missiles.  They arc up into the sky, then fall down again, to explode on the ground (assuming they get through the Israeli Iron Dome missile defense systems, which to date seem to have protected all Israeli citizens everywhere from the missiles).

Planes are at greater risk of lightning strikes than they are of being hit by a surface to surface missile.

The puzzling thing is both the FAA’s decision to ban flights earlier in the week and then its decision to lift the ban on Thursday.  What changed to make it safe for flights again?  There’s surely no cessation in hostilities between Hamas and the Israelis.

Could it be that someone in the FAA simply realized the idiocy of their earlier ban, albeit taking two days to come to their senses?

It has been a bad week for air travel.  In addition to the MH 17 tragedy, a TransAsia ATR-72 crashed in Taiwan, and on Thursday, breaking news is emerging of a crash in central Africa of an MD83 belonging to Air Algerie.  The initial explanation that it crashed due to bad weather sounded astonishingly unlikely, and now the matter is simply being referred to as a mystery.

What else this week?  Two items follow on below, one on a good deal and the other on a not so good deal.  The not-so-good deal is Amazon’s new Kindle Unlimited program – it isn’t as unlimited as it suggests, and while $10/month for all you can read sounds good, my article points out a wide range of even better deals, ranging to as great as fully free.

The good deal is a new travel vest from Scottevest.  It has a stunning 26 different pockets in it (well, that’s what they say – I could only identify 22 in my review jacket), including an RFID blocking pocket, and also comes with a ‘can’t be pickpocketed guarantee’.  Some people use their Scottevests to hold everything for their journey, avoiding the need to pay any fees for checking or carrying bags!  I’ve not done that, but if you travel light to start with, maybe you can.

I have to also mention, with delight, a small personal matter.  On Thursday the surgeon who did my ankle surgery announced that I can now start the arduous process back to walking again.  This has already proven to be dismayingly non-trivial, but I definitely see my glass as half full and am delighted to now take this next step forward on the road to full recovery.

For still more this week, please read, below :

  • The Mystery of the Famous MH 17 Picture
  • The 777 Security Vulnerability the Airlines are Trying to Keep Under the Carpet (Literally)
  • Airport and Hotel Wi-Fi Speeds
  • Amtrak, Eat Your Heart Out
  • Does the Rest of the World Really Hate Us This Much?
  • 40 Tourist Scams to Avoid
  • And Lastly This Week….

The Mystery of the Famous MH 17 Picture

One of the passengers on the MH 17 flight famously took a picture of the plane at the airport in Amsterdam shortly before boarding, and posted the picture along with the joke comment ‘Should it disappear, this is what it looks like’ onto his Facebook page.  The comment was clearly referring to the still missing MH 370 plane.

You can see the picture, here (and many other places, too).

Now for the mystery.  Please look at the open door through which the nose gear (landing wheels) protrudes.  Do you see the two letters printed on the door – these are the last two letters of the airplane’s registration.

The picture is unclear, and it is hard to make out the letters exactly, but would you agree that the second letter is probably a C?

Now for the mystery.  The plane that crashed in Ukraine had the registration 9M-MRD.  It would seem that the plane in the Facebook picture, the plane the passenger was about to board and understood to be MH 17, shows the registration on the nose gear of RC.  Whatever that second letter is, and it does look like a C, it sure doesn’t look like a D.

This would, on the face of it, seem to imply that the plane people boarded in Amsterdam was not the plane they were on when it crashed, a couple of hours later.

How to explain that?  It wasn’t as though there were two MH planes side by side at AMS, and according to flight records, the last time that the 9M-MRC plane was in Amsterdam was a week earlier, on 7/11.

I have no answers and no theories.  But I am curious.

The 777 Security Vulnerability the Airlines are Trying to Keep Under the Carpet (Literally)

The mysterious disappearance of the 777 operated as MH 370 remains very mysterious, and the plane remains very disappeared.  There have been an enormous range of quite inventive guesses for what might have happened to the plane, and one of these involves a known vulnerability that neither Boeing nor the airlines have done much to address.

Indeed, this vulnerability would allow for the mysterious events of MH 370 to be almost exactly recreated.  The electronics compartment in the plane can be accessed by an unlocked hatch in the floor of the passenger compartment, and the electronics compartment has an additional entry/exit into the cockpit, too.

This page explains a bit more about the vulnerability, and links to a Youtube video where a pilot on a 777 that is clearly in mid-flight takes the videographer down into the electronics bay and proudly shows where key equipment is.  He discreetly refers to three entrances/exits to the space – the one in the passenger section of the plane, an external hatch, and thirdly, one he simply says as ‘up forward’ – this opens into the cockpit.

The video was posted before MH 370 disappeared, so you’ll get chills when the pilot cheerfully points out the various transponders and comms equipment racks, and the plane’s master computer, and even shows a portable unit that can be used to reprogram the master computer.

The access vulnerability exists on the 777 and some models of the 747 and 767 too.  The 787 also has an access door in the passenger compartment, but the hatch has some sort of lock on it – hardly the most resilient of security measures, one suspects.  Most other planes have their accessways to the electronics bay through the secure cockpit area and so don’t have the same vulnerability.

Airport and Hotel Wi-Fi Speeds

These days, internet access involves more than just being able to get a connection.  The speed of the connection has become a key consideration, and never more so than for when we’re traveling.  At such times our spare time is short, and we need fast rather than slow internet connections.

But with the astonishing growth in bandwidth, it is becoming increasingly difficult for public internet providers, such as in hotels and airports, to provide sufficient bandwidth to keep everyone happy.  Just think about it – in a 100 room hotel with maybe 150 guests, who have between them maybe 250 internet devices, and if half the guests all want to watch a Netflix movie at the same time, and half the others are either using Skype for a phone (or video) call or doing who knows what else, it is easy to see how the hotel could need as much as 200 Mbits/sec of data.

If you remember back to when a single T1 (1.54 Mbits/sec) connection was considered an extraordinarily fast data line, we’re suggesting that for good service, a 100 room hotel now needs the equivalent of 60 T1 lines of bandwidth.  Just as well that it no longer costs $3000+/month for a single T1 connection!

In all seriousness, in the past I used to begrudge paying a fee to access the internet when traveling, because the cost to the hotel was trivial.  These days I can understand how a hotel or other provider actually has to make a massive investment in routers and other infrastructure, and has to pay a considerable monthly sum to provide the necessary bandwidth, as well as likely incurring considerable support costs from guests calling with connection problems.

In return for a fair fee, however, it is reasonable to expect – to insist upon – decent bandwidth in return.  I’m not sure if it is fair to expect to be able to stream HD videos from Netflix without any buffering pauses, but certainly one should get reasonably fast and consistent bandwidth.

Here are the results of a fascinating study done by Wefi – a network management company.  They published a list of the best hotels, airports and beaches in terms of average bandwidth available.  Faster hotels had twice the bandwidth of slower hotels, and faster airports similarly offered twice the bandwidth of slower ones.

DTW, DEN and FLL were the fastest three airports, the slowest three were MSP, LAS and SFO.  As for hotel chains, the fastest three hotel chains were Red Roof Inns, Sleep Inn and Ramada, with the three slowest being Radisson, Clarion and Doubletree.

Amtrak, Eat Your Heart Out

It is sometimes easy, when surrounded either by drab uncomfortable commuter trains or decaying old Amtrak carriages, to forget how rail once was, and again could be, on the leading edge of luxury travel experiences.

On the continent, Eurostar is about to get new train-sets.  The original Eurostar trainsets, which date back to the start of service in 1994, will be replaced with new faster trains offering more space per passenger (are you listening, airlines?), with capacity for more passengers, and traveling at up to 200 mph.

Eurostar has already revolutionized travel between London and Paris; these new trainsets promise to bring the two cities even closer together than before.

And in Japan, plans have been announced for a futuristic ultra-luxury train.  The ten carriage train is for a mere 34 passengers (compare that to Eurostar where each new 16-carriage train will carry 900 passengers).  This webpage has amazing illustrations of what the train is expected to look like when it enters service in 2017.

Talking about Amtrak, here’s an interesting update on the state of California’s ambitious attempts to build a high-speed rail line linking San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento.

I liked the second comment – a suggestion that the future of transportation lies in self-driving cars rather than high-speed trains.  There’s more than a measure of truth in that, and also we are probably the last generation who will be both self-driving and using gasoline powered cars.

It astonishes me that Tesla seems to uniquely be the only car company offering a high quality/no-compromise long-range electric car, and unfortunately its high price is a barrier for most of us (but even so, Tesla continues to enjoy a three month waiting list of orders for its vehicles).  The new Tesla III model, perhaps to appear in 2017, promises to be almost as much car as the current Model S, but at half the price.  That would make it a much easier proposition for many of us.

Why have the major auto-makers not copied Tesla?  In reality, the Tesla car isn’t all that extraordinarily high-tech.  It uses industry standard Lithium-ion batteries, and very mature electric motors.  In addition to which, Tesla recently agreed to license, for free, any/all its technologies to any other companies who wished to use them.

There should be a stampede of auto makers all trying to one-up each other with new electric cars.  If a tiny company like Tesla can become an auto maker with no background in auto design/manufacturing, surely the ‘Big Three’ – and the even bigger Japanese car makers – can do the same and better?

Does the Rest of the World Really Hate Us This Much?

The number of people in the US government’s terrorist database continues to grow at an accelerating rate.

In 2009, 228,000 names were added to the list.  In 2010, 251,000 were added.  I don’t have information for 2011, but in 2012, a further substantial increase to 337,000 new names being added occurred, and last year, another huge increase saw 469,000 names added.

This begs the question :  Are there really that many terrorists in the world?  Are they all active risks against us here in the United States?  Or, just possibly, is this officialdom run amok with no controls, constraints, or common sense?

Details here.

40 Tourist Scams to Avoid

Here’s a well presented and well explained list of 40 different scams, even showing the parts of the world where they are most common.

I’ve certainly been pickpocketed, but only once (on the metro in St Petersburg) and I’ve also fallen victim to the shoe shine scam in Istanbul (and know others who have, too).  Some of the others though are ones I’ve never seen before and could well imagine myself being tricked by.

Definitely worth reading over before your next trip.

And Lastly This Week….

Chances are you’ve seen couples and groups who dine together in a restaurant but spend the entire meal on their respective phones, and doing little or no direct talking with each other.  Maybe, ahem, you’ve even done this yourself.

Normally we look at this and roll our eyes, but have never considered the impact on the restaurant of such behavior.  At least, not until now and reading this fascinating account.

Talking about cellphones and their impact on so much of our modern lives, here’s one of those lists that you either love or hate – a list of 20 gadgets that changed the world.  There are some interesting choices on the list, but it doesn’t mention really old things that, in their time, truly changed the world.  You know, old things like, well, the wheel!

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels








Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top
Scroll to Top

Free Weekly Emailed Newsletter

Usually weekly, since 2001, we publish a roundup of travel and travel related technology developments, and often a feature article too.

You’ll stay up to date with the latest and greatest (and cautioned about the worst) developments.  You’ll get information to help you choose and become a better informed traveler and consumer, how to best use new technologies, and at times, will learn of things that might entertain, amuse, annoy or even outrage you.

We’re very politically incorrect and love to point out the unrebutted hypocrisies and unfairnesses out there.

This is all entirely free (but you’re welcome to voluntarily contribute!), and should you wish to, easy to cancel.

We’re not about to spam you any which way and as you can see, we don’t ask for any information except your email address and how often you want to receive our newsletters.

Newsletter Signup - Welcome!

Thanks for choosing to receive our newsletters.  We hope you’ll enjoy them and become a long-term reader, and maybe on occasion, add comments and thoughts of your own to the newsletters and articles we publish.

We’ll send you a confirmation email some time in the next few days to confirm your email address, and when you reply to that, you’ll then be on the list.

All the very best for now, and welcome to the growing “Travel Insider family”.