Weekly Roundup, Friday 12 September, 2014

Good morning

(apologies, can’t get images into today’s newsletter.  A new version of the WordPress publishing software seems to come complete with some glitches….)

Have you pre-ordered a new iPhone 6 or 6 Plus yet?  The new model iPhones were announced on Tuesday and went on sale this morning.  I’m hoping to put my name down for a 6 Plus with 64 GB of memory, and hope I’ll be able to get it next Friday when they start becoming available, but this is proving difficult because currently (just after midnight) the Apple website is consistently overloaded and refusing additional connections, and/or when I connect, is showing its store as unavailable.

I’m predicting supply shortages, so it might pay to quickly put your name down if you want one (or, of course, camp outside your local Apple store for several days prior to next Friday).

As promised, I published an article about the new phones very shortly after Apple’s announcement on Tuesday, and you’ll find hopefully most/all your questions answered therein about the two new phones, and the new ‘Watch’ product too.  It follows the newsletter, below.

One point of note.  Until now, AT&T has been my main wireless service provider, although increasingly I use T-Mobile, especially when traveling.  I would use T-Mobile more, but their coverage has always been bad in my house, and until recently, they used unusual frequencies for their fast data services in North America that tended to make T-Mobile phones much less useful in the rest of the world.

One of the great things about the new iPhone is that it apparently has even more frequency bands built into it than previous models (unfortunately, Apple has now gone a bit vague about this on their website) which I think reduces the impact of T-Mobile’s nonstandard North American frequencies.  And on Wednesday, T-Mobile announced a great new initiative that resolves problems anyone might have formerly had with poor home or work coverage.

Now it is possible to place and receive phone calls that will automatically route over Wi-Fi if there is a Wi-Fi signal available.  So if you have a poor phone signal, but also have a good Wi-Fi signal, your phone will start using your Wi-Fi service for voice calls as well as data.

Even better, T-Mobile is giving away free state of the art dual-band routers (Asus routers that sell on Amazon for $200), so even if you already have Wi-Fi, you can upgrade/replace it with one of these to ensure both that your phone has the best quality of service available to it and also that the rest of your house/office is optimally provisioned with Wi-Fi too.

I particularly like that these routers offer 5 GHz service as well as the standard 2.4 GHZ service.  In places with lots of people, offices, stores, and/or residences, the common/standard 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi can get congested and start to suffer from interference, but – at least at present – the 5 GHz remains relatively uncongested.  If I’m in a hotel, I always preferentially search out the 5 Ghz service (if it is available) and often get better bandwidth as a result.

So, these two developments have removed the ‘problems’ I formerly had with T-Mobile, and I’ve been very impressed at their ‘Un-Carrier’ promotions over the last year or so.  If your wireless bill has dropped or added new features over the last year or so, no matter which carrier you are signed up with, you probably have T-Mobile to thank for this improvement.  T-Mobile has been shaking up the complacent wireless carrier marketplace, and eliminating many of the extra fees that used to creep into our monthly bills, plus doing other things such as offering free data plans for tablets.  I found it impossible to believe that you could get a free data plan from T-Mobile, but signed up for one and yes, it truly is free and costs me not a penny a month for my daughter and I to both have our iPads wirelessly connected to the internet, everywhere we are in the US.

Way to go, T-Mobile.  I wish they’d start an airline, too!

At least for now, they seem to be the best of the wireless services in terms of value and inclusions, and they keep ‘pushing the envelope’ every few months, offering more goodies at even better rates.  I’m looking forward to giving them all my business.

Thank you to everyone who answered my survey last week about matters to do with managing all the stuff to do with death.  I was surprised to see that over 50% more people answered this survey than those who answered the survey, a couple of weeks earlier, asking if you’d like to see The Travel Insider in a weekly podcast format.  But perhaps this tells us that while podcasts are a small part of our lives, death and funerals are an unavoidable and inescapable part of everyone’s lives.

It was also interesting to get an update on the type of people who read the newsletter – or, more to the point, the type of people who answer the surveys.  You are astonishingly well-educated, with 86% being college graduates, with more than half the graduates having post-graduate degrees.  You’re also, ummm, older than average (as am I, myself).  Only 4% of replies came from people under 50, whereas 5% came from people over 80 (and the other 91% from people between 50 – 79).  Clearly this ‘proves’ that reading The Travel Insider is good for your health!

As for the survey itself, it confirms my perception that there is a need for a new type of service to make the whole ugly funeral arranging and death procedural management processes easier to do appropriately, and for all involved.  When you think about it, there are really three semi-represented groups in such cases – the deceased and his wishes, in absentia; the immediate family, definitely in person; and then, the least well represented group – other friends and family, spread around the world, and, according to your survey answers, having less than one chance in five of ever finding out of the passing of their friend/colleague.  Ugh.

That’s a terrible shame, as is a related ambiguity we all occasionally encounter.  Most recently for me, on Wednesday, a friend and I were comparing notes about a mutual acquaintance who had become unresponsive to emails and phone calls.  The unstated subtext that hang silently in the air was ‘Do you think he is still alive?’ and neither of us were quite sure how to ascertain that important point.

Would you be surprised to learn I’m developing a solution that addresses all these issues?  I’ve already had one of the most respected ‘elder statesmen’ of the industry ask for a shareholding and agree to serve on the Advisory Panel.  If you’d like to know more about this, I’d be pleased to give you a sneak preview.  Let me know.

What else this week?  Please read on for :

  • MH 17 Preliminary Crash Report Released
  • Old Wine in New Bottles
  • 787 Controversy Anew
  • When Is a Flight Late?
  • Self Driving Cars – and Robots in General
  • TSA Demands Full Body Patdown – On Arriving Passenger
  • Ebola Update
  • SS US Again Under Threat
  • And Lastly This Week….

MH 17 Preliminary Crash Report Released

As expected, this week the Dutch authorities released their peculiar preliminary report into the MH17 crash over Ukraine.

The most peculiar part of this report has gone largely uncommented on.  This is an accident report, but it seems universally accepted that what happened to the plane and flight was not an accident, but rather a criminal act.  Accident reports are not normally created for criminal acts that cause airplane losses.

The report steered well clear of any controversy, and its revelations were oblique rather than obvious.  It contented itself to observing that the pattern of damage observed in certain fuselage panels was ‘consistent with the damage that would be expected from a large number of high-energy objects that penetrated the aircraft from the outside’ and further deduced that the plane broke up in mid-air.

For those of you interested in the last words of fatal flights, on this occasion it was ‘Romeo November Delta, Malaysian One Seven’.  Romeo November Delta was the name of a navigational way point that the flight was being directed to, and this transmission was simply a ‘readback’ of the instructions to show that the pilot had understood and would comply with the instruction correctly.

I was very interested to learn of the information contained on the two ‘black box’ data recorders.  Unfortunately, the plane was not in compliance with the most recently updated specification for its cockpit voice recorder (CVR).  Planes are now required to have a self-powered CVR that will continue recording for ten more minutes after the end of any external power.  This plane did not have that, and it seems that the very first thing that happened from the presumed missile strike was that power was lost to both the CVR and the flight data recorder (FDR), meaning there were no recorded anomalies on either recorder.

I’d first wondered if, during the time the two data recorders were not under secure custody, they might have been ‘wiped clean’ of any damning evidence, but ‘people who know’ assured me that the total absence of any information at all was not surprising, and indeed, was what they would have expected (assuming no extended recording on the CVR).

However, even the absence of data presents as a significant factor.  One of the theories that had been promulgated was that the plane was shot up by fighter planes, and if that were the case, it is massively more likely that the pilots would have observed and been heard to comment on the act.  But not only is there no trace of unexplained aircraft on the radar tracks, there is also nothing on either data recorder to show sudden movements or expostulations by the pilots.

This adds credibility, should it be needed, to the more generally accepted theory that it was a SAM that burst through the clouds and exploded close to the plane, showering it with missile pieces and causing the plane’s destruction.  But as to where the SAM came from and who fired it, that remains an opaque and unresolved mystery that now seems to have ceased to be of interest.

Old Wine in New Bottles

A couple of airlines announced new liveries this week.  Southwest’s new look was apparently leaked ahead of their official schedule, and is more predominantly blue than before, whereas Frontier is going green.

We do wonder, however – when was the last time you chose your flights based on the color scheme on the plane?

Southwest has sometimes taken a very perfunctory approach to liveries in the past.  Here’s an interesting article that illustrates this.  And it has had some interesting one-off planes, too.

In unrelated Southwest news, there is speculation the airline might be considering spreading its wings north of the border, and adding service to Canada.  Cross-border traffic is substantial and would seem ripe for a Southwest incursion.

787 Controversy Anew

Not a news source one typically associates with investigative aviation reporting, but Al Gore’s former tv network, now rebranded as Al Jazeera, dropped a floater in Boeing’s pool earlier this week with a documentary alleging a number of concerning issues about the quality standards on the 787 assembly line and the safety of the planes.

Boeing of course disputes and denies the allegations, and for an even-handed discussion that puts the Al Jazeera show into perspective, this is a good analysis.

In other Boeing news, it scored a lovely big order for 100 of its new 737 MAX 200 planes, to Ryanair.  Boeing agreed to stuff 11 more seats into the plane, and that made it a deal that Ryanair couldn’t refuse to accept.

Here’s a slightly oblique but interesting report on the sale (and when is anything about Ryanair ever dull?).

When Is a Flight Late?

There you are, looking at your flight timetable, and you see your flight shows departure at 4pm and arrival at 6pm.  And there you are, having been at the airport since 3pm, and now racing to get to the gate at 3.30pm because the airline ‘closes the gate’ at 3.40pm and so you’re wondering exactly what the 4pm departure means, when associated with the ‘must be on the plane by 3.40pm requirement.

Now flash forward a couple of hours, and there you are at your destination, with the plane touching down onto the runway at 5.55pm.  The pilot goes on the PA to smugly welcome you to the destination and notes the flight’s arrival ‘five minutes ahead of schedule’.

The plane then proceeds to taxi for ten minutes on the ground, then waits five minutes for another plane to move away from its assigned gate, then by the time it gets to the gate, the jetway comes alongside, and the plane starts emptying, and finally you get off the plane – only to spend 15 minutes getting to the baggage carousel, 10 more minutes waiting for your bag, and 10 further minutes to get out the terminal’s main door, and your watch now shows the time to be 7.05pm.

Question – was this flight actually early or late?  What is the unambiguous event that is deemed to be the point at which the plane has arrived?

Would you be unsurprised to learn that the answer to this question has been a very grey area, and of course, one exploited by the airlines to maximum advantage.  Indeed, it is very difficult to work out what reference point is used, here in the US, to ascertain if a flight is ontime or late.  The DoT has a lot of information on delays, and additional travel consumer information about on-time performance, but you have to really dig to see that it uses ‘gate arrival time’ to determine a flight’s on time performance.

But even ‘gate arrival time’ is ambiguous, isn’t it.  How about if the plane gets to the gate, but has to hold, waiting for another aircraft to push back and vacate the gate.  At what point has the plane ‘arrived’?

And what if, upon getting to the gate, there is a delay with the jetway?  I’ve sometimes suffered what seems like extraordinary delays due to waits for ground staff to man the jetway, strange inabilities to mate the jetway to the plane, and so on.

The good news is that – at least for European flights – we now have a clear ruling on how to deem a flight’s official arrival time.  The European Court of Justice has ruled on the matter, and says that a flight has officially arrived when it opens at least one of its doors, with the assumption being, at that moment, the passengers are permitted to leave the aircraft.

This ruling does not bind the US, but could be considered influential, particularly if there was an unusual delay between what was being construed as ‘gate arrival’ and the actual point at which passengers could get up and leave, which has to be the most direct and relevant measure – the point at which passengers can start leaving the plane.

One less game the airlines can play with us, at least in Europe.

Of course, this is more meaningful in Europe, because airlines are subject to more regulatory oversight and penalties when they delay us in our travel.  It would be nice to see some similar compelled performance here, too.

Self Driving Cars – and Robots in General

As you may know from comments in recent newsletters, I am astonished at what I am seeing as an extraordinarily rapid rate of adoption of self-driving technology in cars.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted by this, and see a myriad of benefits flowing from automating the driving process.  It will make car travel safer, quicker and cheaper, and most of us will be doing most of our vehicle travel on an automated basis before this decade is over.

Here’s an interesting transitional step by GM between what we have at present and what we’ll get, and here’s a self driving car from Honda that is being well reviewed.

I attended a public lecture last weekend on robots.  It was presented as a ‘curiosity’ – a robot that looked extraordinarily human, constructed by a movie modelmaker/special effects expert, and made to look like himself.  His favorite party trick is to sit beside his robot and have people do a double take when they see what looks like identical twins.

I’d considered this little more than an amusing novelty, but by the end of the presentation, and noting the extraordinary interest and enthusiasm in the crowd gathered for the presentation, I realized that we’re at the very start of an enormous social transition in our society.  It won’t be long before robots displace people in ways we haven’t yet started to imagine, and particularly in many (dare I say, ‘most’) customer service roles.  We already have to suffer that in simple form when we struggle through an automated phone system with its imperfect speech recognition system – but we also have hints at what better systems can do when we speak to Siri on our iPhone.  In other fields, we are seeing what seem currently like fun and amusing examples of robot technology such as automating bartending and fast food cooking and serving.

These are not isolated standalone cases to look at and laugh about, even though they look like little more than other familiar machinery such as vending machines.  They are (in my opinion) forerunners of an extraordinary change in our society.  We’ve already seen our manufacturing base eviscerated, either in the form of moving jobs offshore, or – and attracting less criticism – in the form of automating the remaining production processes here in the US (and now, increasingly so in the offshore manufacturing locations too).  Keep in mind that ‘automation’ and robotics are two sides of the same coin, and robotics threatens one of the few remaining types of employment that has until now seemed safe from off-shoring – the ‘high touch’ personal service industry.

One of the points that came out of this meeting was how robots will speedily move into ‘high touch’ aspects of the service industry as well – a move that was welcomed by the attendees and which would likely be received positively by the beneficiaries of such robotified services in general.  It is a glib throwaway comment, but the server at McDonalds is many times imbued with a personality no more sparkling than a robot would have anyway, and clearly is a prime contender to be replaced.  But that’s merely the start of where robots can replace people, and in particular, most customer service roles which involve a person more or less slavishly following a script with very little flexibility as to how they respond to the situation, are clearly contenders for automation.

Don’t stop there.  How about things like healthcare?  I’d never thought of robot nurses, but after my recent near-total incapacitation for a number of weeks, I can see many elements of caring for patients that are ideally suited for robots.  Making sure I take my medicine, fetching and carrying things for me, preparing and serving food, and so on.  For the growing percentage of people who live alone, a robot ‘companion’ starts to become almost literally a lifesaver.

Moving forward to the slightly ‘creepy’ type of applications, there are robots that are designed to meet people’s emotional needs, and a similar product developed by a company now taken over by Google.  But why should this be creepy?  Why is it acceptable to have a cat or dog, or for that matter, a bird or even a fish or hamster or rat, and value that as a companion, but not acceptable to seek the same sort of personal bonding and interaction with a high level functioning robot?  And why is it semi-acceptable to seek ‘relief’ through, ahem, inexpensive battery-powered devices, but not acceptable to seek similar relief via some type of robot?

Maybe I’ve been slow to see all this as coming towards us at a million miles an hour, but I had an epiphany on Sunday in the Bellevue Public Library.  If you’ve had selective blindness about robots too, it is time to remove the blinkers.  Imagine the most fanciful science-fiction type robot filled future, and then realize that half of what you are imagining is possible now, and the other half is probably no more than ten years out, and as soon as these capabilities move to mainstream, they will explode into our society with all sorts of extreme changes to our employment base, our life, our interactions with each other, and everything else you can think of.

I’m not necessarily welcoming all of this.  But I now realize that it is inevitably going to occur, much sooner than any of us ever expected.  And I have to say that, at a narrow personal level, thinking back to my time incapacitated a couple of months ago, I’d truly have valued a robotic caregiver at my beck and call, 24/7, always helpful and never complaining, someone (something!) I’d never have to feel awkward about ‘imposing’ on and could be as selfish and demanding with as I wished.

Robots.  Look for them in your future.  Soon.  You’ve been advised.

TSA Demands Full Body Patdown – On Arriving Passenger

The TSA, as gloriously incompetent as ever, overlooked giving extra screening to a passenger who got one of the dreaded ‘SSSS’ markers on his boarding pass.  Okay, that probably happens from time to time.

Surprisingly, somehow the TSA realized their oversight, but by that time, the passenger was on his plane and the flight was halfway to the destination.

Never having heard of the expression ‘locking the stable door after the horse has bolted’, rubber gloved TSA agents met the flight when it safely arrived in Denver, had the passenger specially taken off the flight before all the other passengers, and then demanded he submit to an invasive personal screening in a private screening room.

What happened next has to be seen to be believed, and fortunately, we can indeed see it, because the passenger filmed his interaction with the TSA.  The passenger refused to comply, and while the TSA threatened to get the Denver airport police to arrest him, the passenger called their bluff and confidently walked away.  Nothing happened.

Apparently the concept of searching passengers after they have traveled peaceably, lawfully and safely has yet to secure the full support of the law.

Ebola Update

The CDC continues to languish behind current events with its Ebola updates.  It has now updated its website to show data as of 31 August, and reports 1848 suspected deaths (suspected as in the cause of death is thought to be Ebola).

Wikipedia is reporting that Ebola is now in five countries (Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone) plus an unrelated (?) outbreak now in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Their latest total count of fatalities is 2331, which contrasts with their count of 1848 a week ago.  The increase of 483 deaths is substantially more than in previous weeks.

But let’s put that figure in context.  We’re guessing that about 400 people died in the last week, in the US alone, from MRSA infections (using this report as a source).

Bill Gates announced he’s donating $50 million from his foundation to help fight Ebola in Africa.  We wonder why Ebola in Africa attracts more attention than MRSA in your local hospital.  The people who made all the money for Bill Gates are much more likely to confront MRSA than Ebola.

Oh yes – you could substitute MRSA for any one of dozens of other diseases and ailments.  But it is Ebola that has our focus at present.  Why?

SS US Again Under Threat

We love classic old cruise liners.  So we really feel for the ignominious and undignified struggles of the SS United States and the people attempting to preserve her.

The aluminum speedster of a ship (she may have reached 44 mph on her trials and crossed the Atlantic at an average speed of 41 mph in 3 days 10 hours 40 minutes) has been putting off a date with a scrap yard for most of the time since her withdrawal from regular service in 1969, and with a series of tantalizing last-minute reprieves alternating with the successive failures of each grand vision to secure the ship’s future.

Unfortunately, it seems that each ‘reprieve’ is underfunded and unable to implement their plans for the ship, and now we are, yet again, reaching the possible end of the line.

The ship is currently moored on the Delaware River, but the public can’t get close to it, due to Homeland Security restrictions (who knew that the Homeland Security Department can restrict access to inactive inoperable hulks).  However, as this article points out, good views can be had from a nearby Ikea’s cafeteria.  One can ponder on the luxurious meals formerly enjoyed on the ship while wolfing down a quick dozen Swedish Meatballs.

And Lastly This Week….

Can you guess where the biggest and busiest airport in the world is likely to be in ten years time?  It sure won’t be Atlanta, nor will it be Heathrow.  Chances are it won’t even be in China.  Here’s the answer.

We all enjoy being indulged and pampered, and if we’re very fortunate, we occasionally find ourselves in a situation where we can ask for and expect some such luxury.  But there’s indulgence and then there’s Indulgence, and we all have a very long way to go before we can expect to emulate these travelers.

Here also is an article offering an interesting glimpse behind the scenes of the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, even if not quite so luxurious


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