Weekly Roundup, Friday 6 February 2015

A picture as stunning today as it was when taken in December, 1968.
A picture as stunning today as it was when taken in December, 1968.

Good morning

Belated happy 45th anniversary to one of the most notable and widely distributed photos of our modern age – the earthrise photo taken by the crew of Apollo 8.  I received an email commemorating the 45th anniversary of that event and with a link to a brilliant Youtube video a couple of days ago, but I then realized that of course, it must be more than 45 years ago that this happened (it was actually 47 years).

But I found the story of how this picture came to be almost accidentally taken so interesting, and it also reminded me of my first ever visit to Cape Kennedy/Canaveral and buying a large ‘laser print’ of the picture, taking it home and framing it, so here’s a link to the video anyway.  (At the time, still living in NZ, I had no idea even what a ‘laser print’ was – and am still not sure – but the picture quality was stunning and ‘laser sharp’, so I had to buy it, going to enormous lengths to protect it for the rest of my travels and return to NZ.)

In case you too bought a copy of the picture and marveled at its quality, it wasn’t digitized and transmitted back to earth.  It was taken by the crew onto a Hasselblad film camera (probably 120 format, if that still means anything to you), and apart from perhaps a very little distortion through the space craft’s window, there was no atmosphere to further distort the image, hence its stunning definition.

As you know, I like gadgets, and like sharing some of my ‘finds’ with you.  I bought a lovely little gadget a week back, and the more I played with it, the more useful I found it.  It simply displays the voltage and current flowing through a USB circuit, but this information can be really helpful for deciding which of your undoubtedly many different chargers work the best with which of your undoubtedly very many different USB chargeable devices.  I found as much as a five-fold difference in charge rates between different chargers, and that can make a huge difference when you’re in a hurry to get some power into your phone or whatever else.

The unit also confirmed what I suspected – one of my car USB chargers was useless at charging modern iPhones and other devices.  The good news – the four port high current car charger I reviewed a while back has dropped in price and now is only $17, making it an obvious and trivially priced upgrade.

The further good news is that the six port mains powered USB charger that I reviewed a couple of weeks ago proved to work at least as well when measured by this tester as I’d empirically ascertained, and I’m even more impressed now with this unit (which has also dropped in price, now down to $21) after having seen just how bad many of my other chargers are.  I’m buying a second one – one is my at-home charger, and the other goes into my travel kit, replacing the two iPad chargers I used to travel with.  My Android devices were typically only charging at 0.44 A from the iPad chargers, something I’d totally not realized before.

There’s a review of the unit after the rest of this newsletter.  I’m not saying you should buy one, but at only $10-15, if you like those sorts of gadgets, you’ll love this.  Alternatively, you can simply benefit from the more scientific nature of my future reviews.

One other gadget comment.  After 11 consecutive loss-making quarters, Thursday saw the long-anticipated Chapter 11 filing by 94 year old Radio Shack, which is expected to be followed by the closure of most or possibly all its stores.

While it is true that many things in a Radio Shack store can be bought elsewhere, some things could not be as easily bought through a retail storefront.  If one suddenly discovers the need for a switch, or capacitor, or a length of coax, or an odd-shaped electrical connector – something you can only confirm as being the right piece by matching it to its opposite connector in person, where does one now go?  I’ll miss them.

Please continue reading for :

  • Travel Insider Touring Update
  • Fuel Surcharges Being Lifted, But…..
  • Amazing Plane Crash on Video
  • Other Plane Crash News
  • Does United Think Americans Have Got Smaller?
  • China’s Spring Airlines Beats United’s Seat Perfidy
  • Not Quite So British Airways
  • US Carriers Complain of Unfair Competition
  • Outrageous Behavior on Flight – Rich Kid Almost Gets Away With It
  • How Poor People Are Treated
  • Debunking More Music Myths
  • And Lastly This Week…..

Travel Insider Touring Update

We’re getting closer and closer to both our mid-year tours, it being already February.

The cruise on the lovely all-suite Sea Spirit from Germany/Holland, over to Scotland, then up through the Shetland and Orkney Islands, to the Faroes, and around Iceland, ending in Reykjavik this coming May/June, had another couple and we’re now at 16 people on this cruise.

We were allowed up to 20 people on our amazing discount (as much as 30% off Poseidon’s direct price on their website, plus we’re offering space available cabin upgrades, an optional additional three free days of cruising, and some other extras too), so we could accept four more people on this.  Details of our Poseidon Arctic Expedition here.

Talking about 20, our June Scotland’s Islands and Highlands tour also continues to have more people joining, and we now have 20 people planning on enjoying this great experience around Scotland’s Hebrides islands and the mainland highlands in June.  I think I can still find one more room, so we can accept one or two more people (and if you’re a single willing to share, we have both a lady and a gent seeking a share partner so you can both save on the single supplement).  Our price has dropped again due to reaching 20 people and it is now a wonderful value $2995 per person.

So, no promises, but if you’re both quick and lucky, we might be able to add you to our group.  But please let me know asap.

Fuel Surcharges Being Lifted, But…..

Good news and bad news.  Airlines are lifting and completely removing their fuel surcharges.  That’s the good news.

The not so good news?  The airlines that are doing this are based in China, not in the US or EU.

Why is it that airlines, usually owned in part or in whole by the Chinese government, are adopting a fairer approach to their pricing than are the free-enterprise airlines in the west?  Actually, it is because the Chinese government is requiring its airlines to do this.

While I dislike government regulation as much as anyone else, it seems in this case the airlines and the ‘free open competitive market’ have colossally failed, and so perhaps we need to ask for government help.

How about the airlines remain free to set any fares they like, but their surcharges be subject to government regulation and be required to be factually based on cost recovery only, not on exorbitant exploitive fantasy.

Amazing Plane Crash on Video

You may have already seen the dashcam video of the TransAsia Airways ATR 72 crashing in Taiwan.  This clip has been widely viewed, and here’s one from the car immediately behind the car that shared the first clip.  Both make for compelling viewing.

We don’t yet know much about what happened, other than the pilot radioing a terse message ‘Mayday, Mayday, Engine Flameout’ shortly after the plane took off and also shortly before it crashed into the water.  In total, there were not quite three minutes from take-off to crash.

The engine failure has been linked to a possible problem with an engine in the plane’s previous flight, but exact details of this are sketchy.  This is the second ATR 72 crash by TransAsia Airways in little more than six months.

The ATR 72 – like all other planes – should have been able to recover from an engine failure at/around takeoff, but it does require some urgent actions to then ‘feather’ the propeller of the failed engine – ie, to turn the propeller blades into the direction of travel so as to cut down on the wind resistance they’d otherwise cause.  It is unclear if the propeller was feathered from the two video clips I’ve seen.

The immediate problem – my guess and only a guess – is that the pilot may have pulled too sharply back on the control column, causing the plane to nose up too steeply and lose airspeed, then stall, followed by, as we see in the videos, the port wing dropping, clipping a taxi and the side of the road, and the plane crashing into the water.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but in cases like this, the plane will climb more quickly – or at least, remain at its present altitude and speed – if the stick is pushed slightly forward and the commanded rate of climb reduced.  But human nature, when you’ve a dire emergency and the plane losing height, does make one instinctively pull back rather than push forward (and yes, I’ve been there and done that).

Engine failures at take off are one of the commonly practiced scenarios in ongoing pilot training, and should generally be survivable.  Good pilots always anticipate and have a plan prepared for what to do in such a scenario.

On the other hand, some people are suggesting the pilot may have deliberately sacrificed the plane by climbing too steeply so as to avoid buildings, preferring to crash into the water than into a building.  A building crash would have almost surely seen no survivors and additional collateral casualties from people in the building, compared to the water crash.  Fourteen passengers and one flight attendant (out of 47 – 57 on board, numbers vary in different reports) survived, and more probably would have survived but for drowning in the submerged forward part of the plane cabin after the crash landing.

More details here.

One interesting sidebar note about this crash.  I’ve heard about a study – but not sighted it – that was perhaps done by the FAA in the 1970s, and which purports to suggest that crashes in which a wing drops and hits something before the main body of the plane does is more survivable, because the wing’s destruction takes up some of the kinetic energy, and spreads it over more time, than if the crash happened ‘all at once’.  An interesting point.

Other Plane Crash News

Is it only me, or is it unusual to have so many ‘open’ major plane crashes at one time?

Here’s a quick and sadly still very inconclusive roundup of the ‘big three’ other crashes.  MH 370 – the mysterious disappearance now almost 11 months ago – remains a total mystery with still no sign of any airplane remains, anywhere.

MH 17 – the downed flight over Ukraine almost seven months ago – also remains a mystery.  What shot it down, and who shot it down?  No-one is saying – well, the Russians continue to strenuously insist it was nothing to do with them, while the western powers mutely say nothing more than was originally said, and the rebuttals of the Russian claims seem to be sourced from amateur enthusiasts rather than official sources.  At what point does official silence become guilty silence?

Lastly and most recently, the AirAsia 8501 crash five weeks ago is generating controversy, claims and denials about what happened to the plane in its final moments.

Although in some respects more is known about the AirAsia crash than the other two open mysteries, the decision of the Indonesian government not to publicly release their preliminary report into the accident has gratuitously created this fog of claim and counter-claim, all for no apparent good reason or purpose.

It begs the question – what are the Indonesians trying to hide?

Does United Think Americans Have Got Smaller?

Adding insult to injury, one of the cruelest contradictions in the air travel industry has been the opposing trends of, on the one hand, passengers getting bigger, and on the other hand, airline seats getting smaller.

We accept the point that seats with thinner seat backs can be squashed into less space, although some of those thinner backed and bottomed seats sure are getting a bit too thin and uncomfortable, at least for us on longer flights.

No seat design can compensate for diminishing seat width.

But that doesn’t seem to be a concern to United Airlines, which is now making deniable hints that it is looking at going from nine to ten seats across in some of its 777s.  This would seem to be a ‘trial balloon’ – allowing the story to leak out and testing to see how much push-back it receives, prior to then publicly proceeding or backing down on the concept.

It wouldn’t just be less seat-width.  It also means 11% more people fighting for the same amount of overhead space, 11% more people making do with the same number of toilets, and so on.  And just like how a freeway has a ‘tipping point’ – up to a certain number of cars per hour, traffic moves smoothly, but then a slight increase beyond that sees the freeway become a parking lot instead, the same is true of things like airplane toilets – if they barely handle the needs of passengers at present with reasonable waits, adding 11% more passsengers can see the wait times not increase by 11% but perhaps double or treble.

To be fair, United would not be starting a new trend, it would be joining a growing number of other airlines already choosing to squeeze ten seats per row into their 777s (even highly regarded airlines such as Emirates).  But United and the other US carriers cater more for US passengers than do foreign airlines, and – whether we should be proud of this or not – we do tend to be the ‘biggest’ people in the world.

I sometimes pay extra for enhanced economy seating; it would be great to see airlines split their coach class into, in this case, a nine seat across and a ten seat across section, and simply charge 10% more for the less dense seating.  Then at least we get what we want and are willing to pay for.

China’s Spring Airlines Beats United’s Seat Perfidy

Slightly narrower seats sounds bad, but it could be worse.  Much worse.

If the first ever discount airline in China – Spring Airlines – gets its way and secures approval from the Chinese government, it proposes to start selling ‘standing room’ type seating on its flights.  Details here.

This idea is not as easy to implement as it might seem – many times one of the constraints on how many people can be squeezed onto a plane is the ability of the passengers to quickly exit the plane in an emergency.  Every plane has a tested maximum capacity based on evacuation timings, and so even if standing type ‘seats’ were allowed, the extra seating would still be limited to the maximum number of passengers the plane was certified for.  (There is a non-trivial solution – adding more exits to the plane.)

Whether it happens or not, there’s nothing good about stories such as this – it shows the lengths the airlines will go to in order to try and squeeze more of us in, and softens us up so if United does go ahead with its ten-across seating, we’ll think ‘well, at least they aren’t stand-up seats’.

Not Quite So British Airways

I’ve always quite liked the lingering traces of national pride tinged with xenophobia still to be occasionally uncovered in England, a phenomenon dating back to countless wars against the continental powers over many centuries, religious differences, and of course national pride and colonial rivalry as competing empires struggled to coordinate their ambitions in taking over the rest of the world.  In a world where too many regional and national differences are vanishing, as the ‘global economy’ takes over from regional variances, a less-welcoming approach to such things helps to preserve some national identity and character.

It was understandable to see British Airways buy a shareholding in Qantas, but disappointing to see it sell that shareholding, and to observe a competitive rift emerge between the two formerly closely partnered airlines.  More recently, it was slightly surprising to see British Airways join with Iberia into a new merged entity, IAG, with the two airlines as two divisions of the parent.  It was also surprising, but not astonishing, to see IAG repeatedly bid to buy Aer Lingus – an act largely driven by a desire to get more Heathrow slots.

But now, what can we make of Qatar Airways buying a 9.99% share of BA’s parent company, IAG?

If nothing else, it is further proof, if needed, of the enormous growth of the Emirati airlines – Qatar, Emirates (now closely allied with Qantas) and Etihad (part owner of Alitalia and closely allied with several other airlines) and perhaps lesserly Gulf Air.

US Carriers Complain of Unfair Competition

This growth of the Emirati airlines, including into the US, is not going unnoticed among our own dinosaur airlines.  They of course have no idea how to compete, either between themselves, or fairly with other airlines, and they are growing increasingly fearful of the impact of these Emirati carriers, so are asking for the Open Skies agreement between us and the Emirate nations to be amended or repealed.  In particular, they make the risible suggestion that the Emirati airlines be limited in their growth of flights to the US to only the same number of flights as US carriers choose to add to the Emirati hubs in the Middle East.

This is a very clever ploy – on the face of it, it makes sense, but beware of sensible-seeming suggestions from US airlines.  The reality is that US carriers seldom fly people to an Emirates hub and then continue flying them elsewhere, whereas the Emirati airlines do that all the time.  That would be like Lufthansa saying ‘AA and UA should be limited to only as many flights to Europe as we fly to Chicago’.

It also strikes right at the heart of the concept of open skies.  Open sky agreements allow for any number of flights by airlines between the countries in the agreement, and absolutely do not have quotas or limits.  Anything else is not an ‘open’ sky.

To bolster their arguments, the US carriers are making inaccurate claims about ‘unfair competition’ from the Emirati carriers.  Here’s a good rebuttal by Sir Tim Clark, President of Emirates Airline.  I’ve also written about Emirates and rebut some of the nonsense often alleged about their ‘unfair advantage’, which doesn’t exist.

One would love to know exactly what the US carriers define as unfair competition.  It is apparently fair if they buy out or merge with other competitors (In less than a decade, the market share in the US formerly split 11 ways has reduced down to four only airlines), or force them out by pricing below cost and doubling their flights on routes that suddenly become competitive.  But to have a foreign airline simply provide better service on newer nicer airplanes – oh my gosh!  That’s obviously very unfair competition, even when the prices charged are reasonably comparable to those charged by the US carriers.

And lastly, Delta (one of the three complaining US carriers – the other two of course being the only other two international US carriers of any note these days – UA and AA) has shown it is pulling all the stops out in a perhaps competitive response to the extraordinary high standards of the Emirati airlines.  It will now offer Starbucks coffee on all its flights, worldwide.

Yay – brewed stewed Starbucks.  That’ll make a big difference – or so Delta seems to think/hope.

Outrageous Behavior on Flight – Rich Kid Almost Gets Away With It

Money doesn’t buy manners, alas; if anything, it seems to be used to excuse the lack of social graces, and our bizarrely ‘celebrity’ obsessed society enables appalling behavior by people with nothing of any value to contribute to the world.

This week saw the release of detailed disclosures of how Conrad Hilton ran amok on a BA flight last July, accompanied by what seems to have become a standard throw-away excuse by such people for their misbehavior – he took a sleeping pill before the flight.  But whereas sleeping pills generally make most people drowsy and placid, it seemed to have the opposite effect on young Mr Hilton, almost as though he was on some other sort of drugs (and had taken way more than the stated dose of such medication).

While I’ve been quick to side with passengers in many stories of alleged in-flight misbehavior, it seems that the accused actually confessed to doing at least some of the acts he was accused of when interviewed by the FBI, and this time the FBI have corroborated the accounts of the crew with matching stories from passengers.

Now for the ‘almost gets away with it’ issue.  Any other passenger who acted even slightly like Hilton did would have been frogmarched off the plane upon landing by an improbably large number of armed police; indeed, there’s every chance the flight would have made an ’emergency landing’ somewhere and been ‘escorted’ by fighter jets.

And, after landing, the hapless culprit would be slammed into police cells and left there for a day or more, before then facing an array of ridiculous federal charges, many of which would subsequently be quietly dropped.

But in this case, what happens?  It appears that the FBI ‘interviewed’ Hilton when the flight arrived, but he wasn’t incarcerated at all.  And then, for six months further, nothing.  The FBI seems to have completed interviewing its witnesses within a day or two, and if ever there was an obvious case to answer and charge to bring, surely this would be the one.

So what happened from the beginning of August through to the beginning of February, six months later?

And how did Hilton avoid the headlines that usually promptly accompany any such misbehavior as soon as it happens?

If convicted, Hilton could spend up to 20 years in prison.  Let’s hope for justice rather than wealth to prevail in this egregious case.

How Poor People Are Treated

If you feel the need for me to prove my statements above, that is sadly easy to do, as witness this story about a (comparatively) poor person who apparently upset a TSA supervisor during airport screening.

The passenger spent 20 hours in jail before being released.  The TSA supervisor invented some ridiculous lies about how the victim allegedly raised his hands, pointed his fingers at the supervisor – oh yes, and also made a bomb threat, but was so stupid in doing so as not to comprehend that his lies about the passenger’s ‘agitated behavior’ would be rebutted by the airport security cameras which showed the victim standing calmly and not acting as alleged.

The charges against the passenger were dismissed – but only in court.  The vindictive TSA and prosecutors pressed their non-existent case all the way to a judge’s bench.  The passenger is now suing for what he says was a retaliatory arrest after he indicated he wished to make an official complaint about the TSA.

Not disclosed – whether the lying TSA supervisor kept his job.  Care to guess?  And note also this is a supervisor, not a low-life straight off the street, who has been exposed in this lie.

Debunking More Music Myths

Last year I wrote a series of articles trying to counter the egregiously outrageous nonsense promulgated to try and bamboozle people into buying ridiculously overpriced audio gear.  A quick executive summary is that the claims about these sometimes multi-thousand dollar pieces of unnecessary equipment have either never been subjected to proper scientific testing, and/or if they have, the claims have never been sustained by the reality of the test results.

I wrote the pieces out of a sense of frustration, seeing an entire industry of promoters and enablers apparently validating the nonsensical claims that are generally accepted as true, and not seeing much in the way of any rebuttal.

But this week saw a delightful article from noted tech journalist David Pogue, who tested the new Pono digital audio player, in an article titled ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes‘.  Unlike most of the sycophantic reviews of high-end devices, Pogue actually had people test the player and required them to determine which of two different players was the Pono.

The results of the testing – of the people who expressed any preference at all as between the Pono and a regular music player, was that more people preferred the regular player to the high-end Pono!  My guess is that this was just random – I’m surprised they managed to hear any difference at all, and suspect this apparent difference is merely statistical error rather than something significant.

But, whatever the results do or don’t imply, one thing is clear.  There’s no apparent advantage to the Pono, and Pogue’s closing comment – the best way to improve your sound quality is to spend more money on your headphones – is utterly true.  I did a several part series on headphones last year, suggesting excellent performing high value headphones at several price points.

It is great to see a member of the main stream press now objecting to the baseless hyperbole that surrounds so much of the so-called high-end music field.

I do actually agree that a Pono is capable of playing back music at better-than-MP3 quality, but I don’t agree with the claims about ‘better-than-CD-quality’ that are used to justify more bit depth and faster sampling rates over and above the stunningly excellent sound quality offered on CDs.  For probably 99% of the world, there is not and never will be any perceptible difference between CD quality and ‘HD’ quality audio.

And Lastly This Week…..

I mentioned above our two tours in May and June.  There are lots of reasons to consider joining us on either or both of these tours, but if you remain unpersuaded, perhaps this BBC article (and its Mark Twain quote) about the profound benefits of travel – any travel – might be convincing.

Lastly this week, we know that some flight attendants don’t make a lot of money, even though they are sometimes required to have unusual skills such as jungle survival, and sometimes have to wear slightly unusual or uncomfortable uniforms.

So, in response to their low earnings, and as a way to earn money they say they desperately need, a cynic might say that some of them are now charging pilots for what some pilots formerly regarded and allegedly may have enjoyed as one of the perks of their position.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






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