Weekly Roundup, Friday 26 May, 2017

Impossible to answer security questions = see item, below.

This weekend marks the traditional start of summer.  Here in the Seattle area, summer came a week or more early; and let’s all hope for a lovely Memorial Day weekend.

The AAA are forecasting the most Memorial Day travel since 2005, with an increase of 5.5% in people flying, and 2.4% in people driving.  In total, 39.3 million of us will travel 50 miles or more from home.

Contrarian that I am, that sounds like all the more reason not to travel out of the immediate area.

In other news :

  • Boeing’s Claim Against Bombardier Challenged by Delta
  • Another Tease from Sir Richard
  • Rocketry – New Zealand Joins the Elite Group
  • The Curse of the Olympics
  • Amtrak, Eat Your Heart Out (Australian edition)
  • Suing the Publishers of Lists of Best Restaurants – a Good Start
  • The Latest from the TSA
  • Apple’s Annoying Security
  • RIP MP3
  • And Lastly This Week….

Boeing’s Claim Against Bombardier Challenged by Delta

We expressed our grave doubts as to the validity of Boeing’s claim that Bombardier was guilty of ‘dumping’ its CS100 planes when it sold them to Delta a month ago.

Boeing is now presenting its case to the US International Trade Commission, claiming that this act by Bombardier threatens the entire viability of Boeing and the US aerospace industry in general – no half measures there!

Boeing’s theory is that by Bombardier forcing it to discount the 737-700 to try and match Bombardier’s CS100 price, other airlines will now insist it discounts all its other planes too, no matter whether Bombardier is competing or not.  This is explained (unsympathetically) here.

There is however one interesting aspect to Boeing’s claim.  Well, there are many ‘interesting’ and ‘surprising’ elements to Boeing’s claim, but perhaps the most interesting and surprising of all is Delta’s testimony that Boeing wasn’t actually even trying to sell any of its 737s as an alternative to the Bombardier offer!  Instead, apparently Boeing offered a selection of used 717s and Embraer E-190s it had traded in as part of another deal with another airline.  Delta says that Boeing didn’t offer, because it didn’t want, the 737-700.

That rather makes Boeing’s claim a bit hard to understand, don’t you think.  Details here.

Another Tease from Sir Richard

To be blunt, Virgin America was a disappointment from its start until its end.

It was much delayed in its launch (in 2004 they said they’d start flying by mid-2005; in actual fact, the first flight wasn’t until August 2007), due possibly to Sir Richard Branson not understanding the restrictions on foreign ownership of US airlines.  The high level of hype (and blame) that regularly came from that source was consistently contradicted by an underperforming (it didn’t make a profit until 2013) and largely ignored airline that failed to gain sufficient traction in the marketplace to go it alone.  Apparently it takes more than purple lighting, loud pop music, and Sir Richard to make an airline successful.

But now he is hinting that he might be back again, starting another US carrier.  Or is this just Sir Richard doing an imitation of Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair?  Whenever O’Leary felt he needed more publicity for Ryanair, he’d mention a plan to take all the toilets off his planes, and/or to charge for access to them.  And the headlines would dutifully light up, and the traveling public would be reminded again that Ryanair was the ultimate low/no frills airline with the lowest fares.  Exactly what he wanted.

So perhaps Sir Richard’s plan is to occasionally talk about new ventures he is considering (supersonic planes, space flights, and so on) so as to bring more attention to himself?

But, whatever the reason, here he is, half hinting, in a deniable form, that he might choose to start another US carrier.  Doesn’t that beg the question – if he wants part of a US carrier, why did he allow his last airline to be sold (although we believe he probably made a tidy penny on his initial investment when the airline was bought by Alaska Airlines)?

Rocketry – New Zealand Joins the Elite Group

On Wednesday New Zealand became the 11th nation to display the capability to launch satellites into orbit, when a joint US/NZ company sent a rocket aloft.  The rocket is regrettably misunderstood by some to be ‘battery powered’ – an ambiguous nonsense that some are taking to imply it uses battery propulsion.  It uses batteries to control some things, but definitely uses regular rocket fuel to propel the rocket.

The company (and its rockets) are small but ambitious, saying they plan to launch at least 50 rockets a year when they get into full production.  This compares with 22 rocket launches from all companies in the US during 2016 and 82 internationally.  Details here.

We of course wish the company the best of success, but we’re wondering if they’re getting into the market just as it is about to massively change.  It seems there is a bewildering profusion of private companies now developing rockets, and also on Wednesday, there was an announcement about Boeing winning a DARPA contract to built the XS-1 – a hybrid concept that has a ‘space plane’ fly traditionally from a runway up into the high atmosphere, at which point it then launches a rocket that travels the remaining distance to orbital altitudes and releases its payload.

Boeing predicts this will reduce the cost of getting a 1,500 – 3,000 lb satellite aloft from $350 million at present down to $5 million (ie about $2250/lb), and has a goal to be able to launch ten satellites in ten days by 2021.  Details here.

Let’s hope they get closer to achieving these realities than NASA did with the colossal disappointment of the space shuttle program.  The Space Shuttle was originally  promised/projected to have a cost of $657 per pound in 2013 dollars to get satellites into orbit and weekly launches.  Its actual cost, depending on how much of the program overhead was amortized, came in at figures of up to $27,000 per pound (in 2013 dollars).  See this article.

To add encouragement to the various aerospace companies, NASA has announced accelerated plans to send a spaceship to an asteroid that is in the belt of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter.  The asteroid is believed to be almost entirely iron and nickel, and is almost 150 miles in diameter.  The significance of this is that if its iron and nickel were somehow transported to Earth, and at present day prices, it would have a value estimated at $10,000 quadrillion.  How much is that?  Well, the entire global economy is about $75 trillion, so it is 133,000 greater.

The article reporting this is silent about what it would cost to bring the asteroid back, and of course, if we were to suddenly get that much metal, one has to believe that the value of iron and nickel would drop!  Although the drop in price would be moderate rather than spectacular, because so much of the cost of the bar of steel that is used to manufacturer something is in the processing from ore to iron and on to steel, and then in the further processing and transportation to the place where it is finally used.

I estimate the asteroid could weigh in the order of 64 trillion tons.  The amount of energy needed to shift an asteroid of that weight from an orbit beyond Mars and to land it carefully on Earth is unthinkably enormous, and as for the cost to somehow get the needed fuel to the asteroid….. well, let’s just say that the ‘free’ iron would no longer be quite such a bargain.

The real value of minerals on asteroids is to allow for construction of things there – on the asteroid – using the materials present, rather than needing to expensively transport them from Earth.  But this asteroid is way too far away to be a sensible place for any sort of off-Earth base.  The moon, a ‘nearby’ 240,000 miles – maybe.  But the asteroid belt, which at its closest is 125 million miles from us (further away than the sun) and at its furthest point is almost 400 million miles away, is way too far away.  Even Mars is much closer (34 million miles at closest point, 250 million miles furthest away).

The Curse of the Olympics

The curse of the Olympics has struck again, as it tends to invariably do.

Nation after nation excitedly bids for and ‘wins’ the rights to host the Olympics, and upon winning, erupts into paroxysms of delight, promising all who care to listen that the event will transform their country, its economy, and the wealth of its people.  The value in ‘free publicity’ (which can only be considered free if one conveniently ignores the billions of dollars it costs to host the Olympics) will be enormous, they say, and the lasting benefits from the ‘Olympic Village’ housing and the new sports stadiums will transform the regional economy.  And so on and so on.

The truth is usually something very different.  Do you remember who hosted the last few Olympics?  Were they places you’d never heard of before, and to which you’ve subsequently chosen to go visit as a result of them hosting the Olympics?  For example, the most expensive Olympics ever, just a few years ago in Sochi – did that make you go visit Sochi?  Can you even point to Sochi on a map?  Some readers might not even be sure which country Sochi is in.

Astonishingly, the city that hosted the 2008 Olympics reported lower hotel occupancies before, during, and after the Olympics than would normally have been the case without the Olympics.

For the 2000 Olympics, my travel company was outlooking a terrible year for general travel to both Australia and New Zealand (the Olympics were in Sydney) because almost all the hotel rooms in Sydney were taken over by the Olympic Committee and their official travel partner, making it impossible for ‘normal’ visitors to Australia to get a room in Sydney, meaning many of them stayed away from Australia entirely.

But still countries persist in making outrageously expensive bids to host the Olympics, most recently Buenos Aires and the 2016 Olympics.  Actually – that was a test.  Although not quite a year ago, have you already forgotten they weren’t in BA, Argentina, but in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil?  Anyway, you may recall another part of the Olympic tradition – the panic and struggle to get all the infrastructure ready for the Olympics.  And now that it is all over, what about the permanent lasting benefits the city will get for what reportedly was a cost of somewhere between $5 billion and $20 billion?

Ummm – not so much, as this article tragically points out.  And the really great tragedy?  It isn’t just Rio.  The same thing seems to happen with almost every modern Olympic site, as this article details.  When will we learn, and demand the Olympics return to their modest roots and celebration of true amateur sport?

Amtrak, Eat Your Heart Out (Australian edition)

We are told that Amtrak has no hope of matching the type of service offered in Europe because the distances are much longer between cities in the US than in Europe.  That is certainly true in the mid-west, but east of the Mississippi, it seems there are reasonable similarities.

If we then look at a country closer in size to the US – ie China, we are told that Amtrak has no hope of matching the type of service offered in China, because the costs of building railroad track and the bureaucratic red tape is so much lower in China.  Well, that is maybe so, although the cost of a yard of iron/steel rail is the same the world over, and if we have too much bureaucratic red tape, should we give in to the red tape or eliminate it?

What about Australia, then?  A country not tremendously different in size to the US, but the US has almost 15 times as many people.  That would seem to make rail 15 times less practical in Australia than the US.

The Australian government has just announced an A$20 billion (US$15 billion) program of investment in rail services.  Details here.  Allowing for the larger population in the US, that would translate to about US$225 billion here.

We know the excuse for why the US can’t equal Europe’s rail network, and we know the excuse for why the US can’t equal China’s.  But what now is our excuse for why the US can’t at least struggle to keep up with the Australians?

Although the new Trump administration was initially making noises in support of US rail services (accurately considered to be part of making America great again), the budget they presented a few days ago drastically slashes the government’s present inadequate drip-feed life-support to Amtrak down to almost nil.  Amtrak would probably be required to eliminate all its long-distance services.

As for Amtrak’s one profitable route – the Northeastern Corridor – it needs $28 billion for repairs to the corridor’s infrastructure – infrastructure that is sometimes over 100 years old.  Details here.

Suing the Publishers of Lists of Best Restaurants – a Good Start

It is no secret that many internet publications are forced to come up with ‘click bait’ articles.  These are stories that will generate lots of page views, and therefore advertising revenue, but which cost little or nothing to write and which are generally of little intrinsic value.  They are designed to be on subjects that people might choose to be looking for information on, even if the ‘click bait’ stories don’t really contain the answers the visitors to the site are hoping for.

You’ve probably noticed the trend – a story that would formerly be on a single internet page is now split onto two or three or more pages, each with lots of advertisements and very few words of actual content.  In an extreme form are the photo-stories, usually on topics such as ‘You Won’t Believe ……’ or ‘Never Before Seen Pictures of ……’ and so on, which take you to sets of tens of photos, most of which you’ve seen many times before, all of which you can believe and all of which have been seen before.

One form of click bait is to come up with ‘top ten’ lists.  Or maybe more generic lists of ‘the best …..’.  Chances are you too sometimes search for ‘the best restaurant in (a city name)’ or ‘the fastest (car/truck/plane/whatever)’ or ‘the best hotel’ or whatever else.

So, many internet sites with various degrees of credentials and credibility publish these types of lists.  Some of them have become quite influential, in a self-referential cycle whereby the more that people unthinkingly cite them, the more credible they seem and the more that more people cite them.

One such example is in New Zealand, where a widely read magazine publishes an annual list of the top 50 best restaurants in New Zealand.  For restaurants, making it onto that list can profoundly boost their business, and of course, the converse, if you subsequently get dropped off the list again, there is a tangible drop in business.  But how is the list created?  How are restaurants measured and rated and ranked?

A diner has now laid a complaint about the magazine’s list with NZ’s Advertising Standards Authority, claiming that its list and the advertising in support of it is ‘offensive, misleading and deceptive’.  One restaurant owner says that one of his restaurants made it onto the list when it shouldn’t have qualified, but that other restaurants he has, that are better, have been overlooked.  Another restaurant owner with a generally highly regarded restaurant that didn’t make it onto the list says that the judges never even visited his restaurant.

Details here.

I’ve always felt the same way about the dozens of lists ranking airlines from best to worst, maybe grouping them into five, four, three, etc star categories.

The classic example of the nonsense behind these rankings is when Air Koryo, the national airline of North Korea, gets ranked worst airline in the world, a ranking most people accept without thinking.  As one who has flown on Air Koryo – and on their old not new planes – I’ve found their service to be good and comparable to any American airline.  They even serve free food, and in no way deserve to be rated the worst airline in the world.

The Latest from the TSA

The US says it has no plans to require electronics to be placed in checked bags on flights from the US to Europe or anywhere else.  This is good news, but also surprising.

How is it that terrorists have come up with a new way of sneaking bombs into laptops, in a way that can’t be detected in foreign airports, but which can be detected in US airports?  All airports use the same X-ray machines.  And I don’t for a minute believe that TSA staff are very much better than security staff in European airports.

There has also been a great deal of push-back by airlines, countries, and travelers, so that, for now, plans to require laptops to be checked on flights in to the US from Europe have been placed on hold.

Now, as you know, I detest stupid security as much as anyone else.  But I am surprised at how the entire world have appointed themselves as security risk experts and have decided they’d rather risk being blown up by smuggled bombs than be challenged by the hassle of checking their laptops.  (Of course, and as previously discussed, unfortunately the choices aren’t quite that simple.  Checking laptops creates a different risk vector – the possibility of lithium-ion battery fires in the cargo hold.)  I’m also surprised that the TSA and other security services have acquiesced.  It seems the balance point between convenience and security has shifted substantially.

It would be interesting to see what would (will?) happen if/when a terrorist bomb in a laptop does blow up a plane.

Meantime, we might have a new challenge to confront when flying this summer – possibly related to this same threat.  Moves are afoot (in the US) to require passengers taking carry-on bags stuffed full of a miscellany of items that create a dense visually confusing mess of shapes and images on an X-ray machine monitor to unpack much of their stuff so it is easier for the security people to understand what is going past them.

It is hard to disagree with this.  I always try to look at the X-ray machine monitors if they are angled so we can see them, and often (and with my bags, full of electronic items, batteries, wires, and all sorts of other stuff) I’m astonished that no-one requires me to open them up, because all I can see on the monitor is successively darker blobs of stuff overlaid over each other.

So get ready for not only having to remove your laptop and your liquids.  Maybe soon you’ll have to remove other items from your carry-ons too, or so this article suggests.

The good news?  It is probable that TSA PreCheck members won’t have to do this.

Apple’s Annoying Security

In a fairly obvious segue from one sort of annoying security to another, Apple recently introduced new ‘two factor’ security so that, sometimes, when you enter your iTunes password, you also have to enter a code that it sends to your other Apple devices.  If you don’t happen to have any other Apple devices, or if they are not close to you, I’m not sure how well that works.  But it is all ‘for our protection’, whether we want it or not.  Apple knows best.

Somehow, Apple ‘forgot’ about one of my iPads, and so when trying to use it earlier this week, I triggered the two-factor security thing.  Annoyingly, the two factors weren’t working (I’ve no idea why not), and as part of a deep dive into trying to understand how to solve the problem, I came across a way to turn it off.  I could instead replace it with a set of three security questions.

The first of these three security questions gave me a choice of common questions like ‘what was the name of your first pet’.  So I chose a question and provided an answer for it.  The second set of questions had harder questions, like ‘what was your first car’.  How do you answer that in a way that you’ll be sure to exactly answer the same way next time?  For example, say your first car was a 1965 Ford Mustang Hardback GT.  Now, you can provide any answer you like – maybe you say ‘Mustang’ or ‘Ford Mustang’ or whatever else.  But how can you be sure to remember to answer the question the same way if you’re ever presented with the question again.  Did you include the ‘GT’ or not?  Did you include the model year?  If you did, did you say 65 or 1965?  And so on.

And now, for the piece de resistance.  Their third set of questions, pictured at the top of the newsletter.  I truly can’t answer any of these questions in a way that I’d be sure to remember and answer the same way in three or however many years time – can you?  The street you grew up on – I went to school in three different cities – which to choose?  How to name the first album I bought (which I’m far from sure I remember) in a way I’d use again some years later?  Was my first boss the guy I worked for after school for a while, or the other guy I did holiday work for in summer, or ???  Indeed, I don’t even remember the first name of them all.  The first beach I visited, when I was probably one or two years old?  How would I know that, particularly living in a city with many dozens of beaches all around.

And so on with problems for all six questions offered.

Just think.  Some twenty-something-year old is probably being paid a quarter million dollars a year to dream up this ‘user interface experience’.  Sure, he is in his early 20s and all these questions and answers are fresh in his memory.  But what about some of us who are, ahem, slightly older!?

There was a time when Apple’s customer experience was impeccably excellent.  No longer.


Talking about Apple, they are the company that, more than any other, contributed to the rise of the MP3 format as a way to digitally store music files, thanks to the popularity of their iPod (remember them – how quickly they’ve vanished).

The MP3 format never deserved the popularity it enjoyed.  It was a ‘lossy’ type of music compression.  It saved on space, at a time when space was limited and expensive, but the trade-off was a loss in music quality.  As space has become less and less a constraint, better ways of saving digital music have come along – ones that are ‘lossless’ but which require more space while preserving the quality of the music.  This is discussed in detail in my series on digital music, and in particular, in this article.

Somewhat surprisingly, the company with the patents on the MP3 process has announced a decision to withdraw their licensing agreements, because they wish to abandon the MP3 product.  I’m not sure why they are going to effectively ‘kill’ MP3 rather than turn the licenses over to the public domain, but the writing is now on the wall.

This article recommends AAC encoding, but I disagree.  AAC, while better than MP3, is still a form of lossy compression.  These days there is no need for lossy compression; with faster internet connections and larger disk/memory storage, who cares about taking up some extra space.  Use FLAC – it gives you 100% the identical music as was on the CD to start with.

And if you want external validation for my recommendation, here’s a good article.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s an interesting article about the ever-increasing horsepower in automobiles – something I’d sort of sensed, but had never seen so vividly illustrated prior to this article.  And if you – like me – are eagerly awaiting a good and affordable electric car, this article says that as soon as next year, there’ll no longer be any price penalty for electric compared to internal combustion.

Something you probably never think about is the colors of crayons.  I certainly never do.  But here’s an interesting story about how a new color has recently been discovered/invented – the first new shade of blue in 200 years.  In this digital age of 16.7 million colors that one can ‘dial’ in to one’s onscreen paint program, who knew that there were limits on the seemingly limitless range of crayon colors.

Truly lastly this week, at a time when the whole world seems murderously crazy, perhaps it is time to think back to a kinder gentler time when even hijackers weren’t quite so unpleasant.

Until next week and summer, please enjoy safe travels





2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 26 May, 2017”

  1. Re: Apple’s Annoying Security

    Several years ago, a friend recommended answering “James Brown” to every security question. The street I grew up on? James Brown. My father’s middle name? James Brown. Now I don’t have to remember which variation of Chevrolet Impala (or Chevy Impala) I typed when I was asked about my first car, or whether I included (or spelled out) the state name when I typed in the city where my parents met. James Brown.

  2. I dislike 2 factor password verification (msg sent to phone) as when I am overseas I often do not have my US tel number on as I use a local SIM. What is best way to handle this??

    I do like the E trade bank which gives me a fob with a number that changes every minute which I have to add in addtion to my password. Wish someone would have a multi number fob (press one button for Email, one for Facebook, one for bank, etc.) which would allow me to carry one. But other Website would have to coordinate as well.

    also dislike standard questions. I like to make up my own – such as street name I lived on when I was 17 years old (it is unusal, but I would not forget and very unlikely in any data base 55 years ago). And then allow 8 times to answer correctly or disable site, with a warning when entered incorrectly after 6 times.

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