Weekly Roundup, Friday 9 January 2015

Google Earth's view of the unlikely location of the start of California's High Speed Rail Project.
Google Earth’s view of the unlikely location of the start of California’s High Speed Rail Project.

Good morning

I hope your 2015 is off to a great start, and your new year resolutions remain intact, at least thus far into the year.

This is CES week – the annual Consumer Electronics mega-show in Vegas.  I have a write-up of some of the show’s highlights, in the roundup below, and also attach an article engendered by the continued moves toward fully autonomous self-driving cars, looking at one of the perhaps unexpected possible outcomes as these amazing abilities become more commonplace.

The year is off to a great start, with the US dollar firming and showing reasonably positive signs of strength for at least the next several months ahead.  Best of all, the exchange rate between the dollar and pound has moved so much that I’ve been able to reduce the price of our Scotland tour in June.  So if you’ve been thinking about joining us for this lovely tour around Scotland’s Islands and Highlands, the deal just got better.

And – wait – there’s still more.  Alas, one of our single travelers can’t now make it, and so I’m offering half his deposit to any other single or couple who might like to take advantage of it and come in his place.  So the first person or couple who respond can get another $250 discount.

Talking about great deals, I’ve managed to get Poseidon to keep our special pricing on the May Poseidon Arctic Expedition in place for a bit longer.  Their official early booking discount has vanished off their website, but our special price still remains, so our values are now extraordinarily appealing.

Don’t forget, we also have another unique exclusive on this cruise – a free extension of one, two or three days at the beginning, and we also have some combo deals with the cruise and the almost-immediately following Scotland tour, too!  And we’ll be offering an optional day tour from Amsterdam down to Rotterdam and Antwerp during our bonus time in Amsterdam, making the total experience even more varied.

So if you have decided this is your year for traveling, these are two wonderful ways to make your resolution a reality.  And now, please keep reading for a great deal more material :

  • A Special Request from David
  • AirAsia 8501 Crash Update
  • Fearful Flight Attendants Refuse to Fly, so are Fired
  • Does Using ‘Hidden City’ Tickets Harm Us?
  • Trying to Fight Against Computer Fare Trickery
  • New Musical Instrument Carry-on Rules
  • 2015 So Far :  Oil Prices at Record Lows, Air Fares at Record Highs
  • CES Roundup
  • California’s High Speed Rail Project Lurches Slightly Forward
  • Banks Imply Americans Are the Stupidest Race in the World
  • A Former TSA Officer Confesses
  • Homeland Security’s Drones a Waste of Money
  • More on Hotel Anti-Wi-Fi Trickery
  • A Truly Stupid Solution to a Nonexistent Problem
  • And Lastly This Week….

A Special Request from David

If you’ve not already done so, can I ask you to please consider sharing your advice and opinions about the new internet service I’m evaluating and looking to launch later in 2015.

Simply click this link to send me an empty email that will indicate your willingness to answer the short survey, and I’ll send you back an email explaining what the service is and pointing you to the survey questions.

The information from kind readers who have helped out so far has truly been very useful, and it would be great to get some more responses to further affirm the trends that are appearing.  It doesn’t take long to answer the survey and everything is fully anonymous.

Thank you.

AirAsia 8501 Crash Update

The disappearance/crash of this A320 flight from Surabaya in Indonesia, and heading to Singapore, occurred back on 28 December.  No emergency messages were received from the plane, it just suddenly disappeared from the radar screens.

Unlike the still unresolved mystery and mistruths surrounding the flight of MH 370 (it being now ten months since it disappeared with absolutely nothing found) surface debris and then underwater plane wreckage was quickly located for the AirAsia (QZ) plane, which lies in relatively shallow water.  44 bodies have now been retrieved, from a total of 162 people on the plane.

Some major parts of the plane have been located and photographed underwater, but frustratingly, the black boxes have not been located.  More puzzlingly, the auto-locator pinging has not been detected from either black box, which might possibly suggest they broke free of the plane and ended up being buried in the sand/silt/whatever on the bottom of the sea.  (Update just in – possibly pings may have now been detected.)

Divers have been hampered in their efforts to explore the wreckage, and in particular the aft fuselage and tail section, which is where the black boxes would be if they remained in their normal location, and a workaround to this might be to raise the entire tail section.

Retrieving the black boxes is close to essential to enable investigators to determine what caused the plane to crash.  Currently the guesses that are circulating out there are nothing more than guesses, and there’s no consensus at all among the guessers as to what happened.

Let’s hope the black boxes are quickly located and retrieved, and the data on them is retrievable and relevant.

Fearful Flight Attendants Refuse to Fly, so are Fired

Someone wrote ‘Bye Bye’ and drew a couple of smiley faces on the back of a plane, sort of a bit like how people write ‘Clean me’ on dirty cars.

But the brave coterie of flight attendants on the United plane were panicked by this, deeming one of the smiley faces to be ‘menacing’ and so, en masse, refused to fly on the plane, even after a security check of that part of the plane showed nothing of concern.

United fired all 13 of them (well done, United) and they are now suing United, claiming they were protected ‘whistle blowers’!

Details here.

Does Using ‘Hidden City’ Tickets Harm Us?

One of the long-time nonsecrets in the airline/travel industry has been the presence of ‘hidden city’ fares.  I wrote about this back in 2002 as part of a three part series on tips and tricks to save money on airfares, and it was old-hat then.

In case you’re not familiar with the name, it uses one of the airlines’ airfare idiocies – the fact that sometimes it is cheaper to fly further away than to fly to a closer destination.  If you’re flying from Los Angeles to Denver, for example, you might find it is cheaper to buy a ticket to Colorado Springs or somewhere else than it is to buy a ticket to Denver, even though the flight/fare to Denver is a single flight, and the flight/fare to somewhere else includes the flight to Denver, plus adds another flight, but gives you both flights for less than the price of the fare to Denver only.

So a person might decide to buy a ticket to Colorado Springs (or wherever) but to get off the plane in Denver and not use the rest of the ticket on to COS.  This of course only works if you don’t have checked bags, and won’t work for the return journey, because if you don’t board the flight in COS, your second flight from DEN back to your home will be automatically canceled.

There are not a lot of cases when a hidden city fare is a good choice, but it occasionally can be.  As people say, sometimes in a supermarket, you’ll get a ‘twofer’ deal that might sell you two items for less than the cost of the one item you really want, and for sure, there are no ‘supermarket police’ standing aggressively around the supermarket insisting you eat both food items and threatening you with legal action if you don’t do so.  The airlines, however, insist that you are obligated to fly every sector on a ticket you buy, even though it would seem to save them money if you don’t (but not only do the airlines sometimes charge you more money to take fewer flights, they also might charge you more money to fly one way rather than round trip!).  It is the airlines themselves who have created these ‘hidden city’ pricing anomalies in the first place – if they are a problem, there’s an obvious solution – eliminate them.

Recently a 22 year old in Brooklyn started a website, offering to help people find hidden city fares.  Big deal – who cares.  Or so we thought.  Our rhetorical question was answered by dear old United Airlines and their ally Orbitz, who brought a lawsuit against the guy and forced him to take his site down.

This web page has a fairly decent summary of the situation, but suffers from an unfortunate choice of headline – ‘How an Airline Fare Loophole Could Hurt Passengers’.  In support of its surprising assertion that passengers would be hurt, it trots out the predictable airline claim ‘If some passengers pay less than others for their travel, we’ll have to increase the fare to law-abiding passengers, who are in effect subsidizing those who break our airfare rules’.

The airlines may as well say ‘If more passengers don’t start buying full fare tickets and stop buying advance purchase tickets, we’ll have to increase our prices on advance purchase tickets so we can maintain our record levels of profit’.

The notion that it is our obligation, as passengers, to pay any more than the least amount possible, so as to either help other passengers or the airlines, is a ridiculous one and unfortunately one the article accepts without comment.

The reality is that the only time an airline is disadvantaged is when a low fare paying passenger displaces a passenger who would have otherwise paid a higher fare.  As long as a flight isn’t totally full, that’s clearly not the case – the lower fare paying passenger is extra revenue rather than opportunity cost, and with their ever-more-sophisticated yield-management computer systems in place, the number of times that airlines accidentally sell seats for less than they could is reducing all the time.

No-one is forcing the airlines to adopt any type of fare structure at all.  It is for them to set their pricing, and it is for us to then optimize how we buy our tickets and use them.

Trying to Fight Against Computer Fare Trickery

Talking about airline fare issues, my thanks to the excellent people at ARTA (the Association of Retail Travel Agents for a heads-up about an interesting report that studied the pricing practices of various online travel agency sites.

The report found some stunning differences in price quoted for the identical hotel or other travel product (sometimes more than 10%), apparently being based on what the computer site knew about you, how you were connected to the site, and so on.  It makes for dense reading and has not a great deal of bottom line action items, but ARTA summarizes it nicely by urging you to always check prices both when logged on to the website and as a guest, and on a mobile device and on a computer, and before and after deleting cookies (in Chrome, type this into the address bar to access the cookie manager chrome://settings/cookies#cookies).

With potential differences of as much as 10%, and no clear consistent preference for giving higher or lower prices to members or non-members, to past visitors or to new visitors, and to people on mobile or desktop devices, but possibly random albeit significant variations, if you have the time to check several different ways, it could make a big difference.

There’s no law against offering different prices, and we’re sure that some of the time it is a relatively ‘benign’ sort of thing, where the sites are semi-randomly experimenting with pricing to see what prices win them the most business.  But if there’s a chance of saving 5% or even 10% on your next hotel booking, maybe it is worth checking the prices on two different devices, two different ways.

New Musical Instrument Carry-on Rules

The DoT has issued a new rule to do with airlines allowing their passengers to take musical instruments onto planes.  The rule manages to end up ‘having its cake and eating it too’ – it simultaneously requires airlines to allow musical instruments as carry-on items, but does not require the airlines to provide suitably sized spaces for the items to be stored, and also does not require the airlines to accept them if the carry-on bins are already filled.

So if you’re one of the early boarders, and have a reasonably sized instrument, you’re probably okay.  But if you’re not, and you don’t, well, situation normal.  Can you say ‘gate check’…..

If you’d like to see the rule, here it is in all its glorious official obtuseness, spanning 5 1/2 pages.  Notwithstanding its extraordinary length (or perhaps because of it!) it is far from clear if this new ‘rule’ has actually created any obligation on the airlines or any new right for us as passengers.

2015 So Far :  Oil Prices at Record Lows, Air Fares at Record Highs

Talking about airfares, oil prices have continued their fall and are now exploring the $50/barrel price point – the lowest price in five years – and thinking about possibly going still lower.  The cost of gas at the pump has come down, and jet fuel prices are now half what they were in April 2011.

So, how about air fares and fees?  To match their ever lower jet fuel prices, and the lowest oil prices in five years, air fares and fees are at their highest over the same approximate time frame.

CES Roundup

From what I can gather, this year’s predominant theming revolves around several key developments.  One is that the ‘new’ 4K format for video and television screens has clearly come of age, and we’re starting to see some 8K units on offer.  When does video resolution become unnecessarily high, ‘too good’, and no longer visible?  (We touch on some of these issues in a piece written after last year’s CES.)

That’s a question that has of course also become of increasing relevance not only to large screened devices but also to small screened devices.  Traditional phone screen resolution used to be in the range of 120 – 180 dpi, but now the new standard is 300+ dpi, and sometimes exceeding 400 dpi.  For larger screens, which are meant to be viewed from a greater distance, the dpi resolution can reduce, and to answer the question about when the extra resolution ceases to be of any visible value, the best thing to do is go to your local Costco or Best Buy or other store and look at a 4K resolution screen alongside a 1080P screen.  The chances are you’ll only notice any picture quality improvement if you stand closer to the screen than you’re likely to if the screen was in your home (there’s a reason some stores have screens in narrow aisles, forcing you closer to them and exaggerating therefore the difference in quality).  At normal viewing differences, there’s little or any difference.

That also points to the real value of the higher resolution screens.  A 4k (or 8K) screen doesn’t really give you any visible improvement in a normal living room environment, but what it does do is enable you to have a bigger sized screen, or to sit closer to the same sized screen, and so have the picture occupy more of your field of view while still remaining clear, clean and unpixelated.

So, if you already have a 1080P screen, you should only consider upgrading to 4K if you want to replace it with a much larger sized screen, or if you want to re-arrange your living room so that you can sit closer to the screen.

One of the new twists to screens – well, it is more a curve than a twist – is to have curved rather than flat screens.  It is sort of amusing to see this, because you might remember how early video projectors required a curved screen to project onto, and flat screen technology, when it emerged, was being sold as the best approach to screen design.  But now, rather like tie-widths and skirt lengths, we’re expected to happily pay appreciable surcharges for convex curved video screens.

LG actually took a position against this, boasting a line-up of flat screens, but one of the ‘flavors of the week’ for most other companies is to offer new curved screens.

In terms of other CES trends, there continue to be a profusion of wireless devices, including both headphones and speakers that seek to free us from the ‘tyranny of wires’, such as that tyranny may actually be.  They are typically lo-fi rather than hi-fi quality, however, and adding all the issues of a wireless distribution path tends to make any aspirations to hi-fi rather impossible to achieve.

Dell brought out a new laptop – the XPS13 – that seems to be a close competitor to Apple when it comes to being small, lightweight, and cool.  For decades I’ve been resigned to struggling through airports with an overly heavy carryon bag, due to the weight of my mega-laptop inside, but I’ve become increasingly aware of the lightweight slim Apple laptops, and have felt a bit guilty giving a hand-me-down older heavyweight laptop to my daughter, while others in her class have Apple laptops weighing a third its weight, and with three times the battery life.

The new XPS13 weighs 2.6 lbs and has a 15 hour battery life, and its entry-level model is priced at $799.  Very appealing indeed.  Even lighter was a new laptop from Lenovo, the HZ550, at a mere 1.7 lbs – little more than the weight of a first generation iPad.

The shortlived phenomenon of ‘Netbooks’ – tiny screened, under-powered and under-featured laptop computers – were stopped dead in their tracks by tablets.  But now one of the major features of tablets – light weight and smaller form factor – is being credibly challenged by the latest generation of laptops.

One of the features of the XPS13 is its solid state hard drive.  I replaced the traditional spinning platter type hard drive with an SSD in my laptop last year, and it is absolutely the best thing I’ve ever done to improve computer performance.  The cost of SSDs is of course dropping, and – perhaps even more importantly – their reliability and total projected life is greatly increasing.  This is a highly recommended upgrade for your present computer system, and/or a must have option to include in any future computers you buy.

CES was filled with ‘drones’ of all types – you know, what we used to call ‘remote control toy/model planes/helicopters’ but now called ‘drones’.  They’re still essentially the same thing, of course, but somehow ‘drone’ implies a level of seriousness that the $40 remote controlled helicopter never had (and the change of name seems to now empower the FAA to feel it ought to regulate their use).

There continue to be efforts to connect our fridges and other appliances to the internet through the concept of ‘the Internet of Things’ but the ‘killer app’ to bring this into practical reality remains elusive, if not entirely absent.

Last year saw a lot of activity in the Smart Watch category, this year sees a much more listless lack of innovation in a device that is perhaps already proving itself to be a fad rather than truly functional.  Goodness knows, there is plenty of need for Smart Watches to improve – better screens, longer battery life, and thinner/lighter designs are all essential improvements that current model watches cry out for.

We are also starting to get a possible understanding of when Apple might introduce its smart watch, which it revealed last September and said would be on sale early in 2015.  It seems that ‘early in 2015’ might mean March, possibly April.

Anyone who has spoken against Apple’s earlier product family launches – the now largely moribund iPod, the iPhone and the iPad – have been proven to be utterly wrong.  So it would require more courage than I have to stridently speak out against their smart watch, particularly because Apple has still not given us the complete specifications of what the device might be and what it might do.  But we do know that it will require an iOS device to be connected to, which closes Apple out of the much larger Android powered mobile market, and we also think it will need daily charging – not entirely a deal breaker, but not a wonderfully convenient thing, either.

What we don’t know is what compelling answer it will provide to the necessary question – why buy another device, costing $350 or more, that relies on a cell phone being close by to work and which essentially does nothing more than what one’s cell phone already does?

Thus far, cell phones have been replacing watches.  It will definitely be a surprise if smart watches can now become an essential part of our lives the same way that Apple’s earlier iPod, iPhone and iPad have.

Lastly, while there were some truly interesting and exciting products being demonstrated at CES, there were also some truly strange ones.

California’s High Speed Rail Project Lurches Slightly Forward

Tuesday saw a groundbreaking ceremony in Fresno to mark the official start of California’s High Speed Rail project.  As pictured at the top of the newsletter, the official starting point is a curious location to choose – marked neither by a train station nor any measurable population clamoring for train service.

We love trains, and particularly like fast trains, and we’d be delighted to see any high speed rail, anywhere in the country.  But we just can’t feel at all positive about this project in California, because currently it is largely unfunded ($55 billion of the supposed $68 billion cost has yet to be found), and with no clear path towards getting the funding to be built, and the first parts of the construction will have no measurable value until ‘plugged in’ to the completed project.

Particularly with a project that shows little sign of ever being finished, wouldn’t it be more sensible to develop those parts of the project that would immediately start providing some benefits to commuters, rather than to go to Fresno and start building 29 miles of track north to Madera – a train line that seems fated to become ‘the train from nearly nowhere to absolutely nowhere’.  Why not first build the line from San Francisco down to San Jose, or out from Los Angeles either north or south a way.

Actually, there is an answer to that.  The federal grant that is paying a large share of this first stage of construction prohibited the track being able to be used for local commuting.  Apparently they didn’t trust California not to ‘cheat’ with the funds and repurpose them to regular commuter rail projects.

All going well – and that’s a massive proviso – the project plans to have trains operational in 2029 – 14 years from now.  Who knows how many – or perhaps how few – of us will be around to see its completion, should it ever be completed.

This article has interesting additional information.

Banks Imply Americans Are the Stupidest Race in the World

As international travelers well know – and often at some cost and inconvenience, the US is probably the only remaining country of significance in the world that doesn’t issue ‘Chip and PIN’ type credit cards – cards with an embedded computer chip and where, instead of swiping the card and signing a charge form, you insert the card to have its computer chip read, then you enter a four digit PIN to confirm your ID.  This Chip and PIN technology has been in use in other countries for over a decade already.

Although Visa and Mastercard insist that all stores, everywhere in the world, continue to provide the means to process our old-fashioned insecure cards, travelers sometimes find problems with stores and clerks who are too lazy to bother, and with automatic vending machines that don’t accept our cards.

The good news is the US banking industry is finally starting to issue cards with chips in them.  At last!  But wait – the bad news is that while the cards have a chip, they don’t have a PIN.  This makes them little more secure than the present cards – anyone can still use a stolen card, without needing to know its PIN.

Why is this?  U.S. bank executives said they are choosing the signature version so customers won’t be burdened at the checkout line to remember a new four-digit code.

Yes, citizens of other countries seem able to manage this difficult task – remembering a four digit number – perfectly well.  But here in the US, our banks feel it is too much to expect of us.

Strangely, they have no hesitation in requiring us to remember PINs for debit cards, but remembering them also for credit cards seems to be ‘a bridge too far’.

Needless to say – as I’ve discovered myself already – our new chip but not PIN cards do not work in international card readers that require a PIN number to be entered.

So, are we the stupidest people in the world, or is it just our bankers who are the stupidest?

If I sound bitter, it is also because I’ve just had to, for the second time in less than twelve months, have my Visa card cancelled and re-issued due to someone having managed to copy/clone it – something that would be much less likely with real Chip/PIN technology.

A Former TSA Officer Confesses

This article probably doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t sometimes suspect or fear was true, but it is still important to read and appreciate just how much of the public front the TSA presents to us is completely at variance with the ugly underlying reality.

While publicly rubbishing claims their whole body imagers were useless, they privately knew that was indeed the truth and so were scrambling to add additional ‘random’ pat-downs in a hope of catching things which the very expensive whole body imagers couldn’t detect.  Regular ‘old fashioned’ metal detectors would have been more effective.

And while pretending they don’t racially screen passengers, the good news is that in secret truth, the TSA isn’t totally blind and does indeed selectively add extra screening to people from some countries.

Most of all, the frontline TSA officers realize the nonsense of their actions, and hate having to ‘follow orders’, but they do so whether sensible or not, and somehow, their superiors have become more focused on the appearance of security rather than the reality of it.

How have we allowed this to happen to ourselves?

Homeland Security’s Drones a Waste of Money

Talking about ineffective security posturing, the Homeland Security Department’s own Inspector General has concluded that their drone surveillance program is a waste of money and has told the agency not to proceed with the spending of almost another half billion dollars on extending the program.

Amongst other ‘impressive’ findings was that their small surveillance drones are costing $12,000 an hour to operate – almost twice the variable operating cost of some Boeing 737 models (we’re not sure exactly what is being included in the $12,000 an hour cost).

And as for the benefits, the drones were thought to have assisted in the apprehension of less than 2% of apprehended illegal immigrants.

Details here.

More on Hotel Anti-Wi-Fi Trickery

Talking about ridiculously overpriced things, the hotel industry is pressing forward with efforts to get the FCC to reverse its earlier ruling and to allow hotels to block private Wi-Fi networks in their buildings.

Ostensibly this is about ‘security’ and ‘quality control’, but if you believe that, please speak to me about the bridge I have for sale.  In reality of course, the hotels are trying to force us to use their over-priced internet, rather than to use our own internet via our phones and then rebroadcast out as a Wi-Fi hotspot for the rest of our electronics.

This article nicely lays out the issues and the hotels’ hypocrisy.  The good news is the greedy hotels are getting very little support, and substantial opposition, in their efforts to get the FCC to allow them to block our Wi-Fi signals.

A Truly Stupid Solution to a Nonexistent Problem

We’re the first to point out the many limitations and problems with sites like TripAdvisor.  And we’re also the first to click to their website to research a new hotel we’re unfamiliar with.

One of the things we all need to do is to learn how to filter out the inappropriately positive and inappropriately negative reviews from such sites, and to try and form a consensus as to what a hotel or other tourist attraction might really be like.  I usually look for a mix of distinctive positive comments about specific things that are clearly ‘over and above’ what one would normally expect and hope for, and also for realistically described problems and limitations, particularly if repeated by several different reviewers.  I give more credit to ‘even handed’ reviews than ones that are written in a red-hot fury or a lovey/gushy outpouring of idolatry, and more credit to people who have reviewed many different places than to people who only seem to have reviewed one single place.

A new website claims to have a solution to these problems.  It tells us the way to make reviews more useful is to prohibit any and all negative comments/reviews, and only allow positive reviews and comments to be posted.

A press release celebrating the concept says :

Enter HeyLets — the world’s first travel app focused exclusively on “posi-mendations” — positive recommendations directly from locals with similar interests.   On HeyLets, there are no negative or even average reviews — everything is a recommendation that’s right for you, whether you’re at home or away on a trip.

You couldn’t make this up, but it is apparently true.

And Lastly This Week….

Talking about Wi-Fi, here’s a town the hotels would probably love.

Airplanes are very complicated devices, and the consequences of a device failing can be severe, particularly when flying over the mountains in Nepal.  So it is reassuring to learn that when Nepal Airlines encounters a problem with one of its 757s, it uses all possible measures to ensure the efficacy of its repair.  How puzzling then to also learn that it is rated as one of the least safe airlines in the world.

UFOs :  Fact or Fiction?  Some UFOlogists will be delighted to learn that the CIA is now confessing that many UFO sightings were due to their activities.  But, alas, not involving little green men or saucer shaped objects – a more mundane explanation is offered.

This week’s sad confirmation of a truth we already realize – this article makes the claim that the airlines are squeezing more people into planes now than at any time since operating troop transports in WW2.

Truly lastly this week, while the Chinese will consider 2015 to be the year of the sheep/ram, the Economist magazine is calling it ‘The Year of the Plug‘.  One can but hope.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






1 thought on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 9 January 2015”

  1. Excellent advice on a number of issues, in particular about filtering information on the use of devices and our dependence on them. The article also is realistic and honest about how airlines are using the “squeeze” in all aspects of the word to utilise travellers, their money and alos to make a profit for the airline. Travellers seem to be somewhat expendable in the rush to compete.

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