Weekly Roundup, Friday 23 June, 2017

Looking for all the world like my own Dell laptop, this is the type of x-ray image a security screener sees of a laptop. You can see the six cell battery at the top, the CPU in the middle with a copper heat sink wicking away the heat to the fan on the right, a CD player in the bottom left, a hard drive in the bottom right, and the memory in the bottom middle. At the top you can see the two hinges for the screen, and connectors on the top left and right, plus probably the radio unit on the top right.

Good morning

And very best wishes from Scotland.

I wanted to send you a couple of items as a ‘little something’; not a full newsletter, but hopefully a happy surprise for your Friday.  Next week we’ll be back to regular newsletters (I return home on Tuesday).

I also wanted to update you on our Christmas Markets cruise along the Danube this December.  This is still available, and we’ve a great group of people already choosing to come and enjoy this lovely experience, as well as – special bonus for me and hopefully for you too – my 13 yr old daughter.

When traveling from Seattle a couple of weeks ago, Delta sent an email anxiously recommending, as a special alert, that due to increased security, I should check in three hours in advance of the flight from Seattle to Amsterdam.  The actual time it took, for a coach class check-in, from walking into the terminal’s front door to sitting in the gate?  30 minutes.  So why the suggestion to check in 3 hours in advance – an irresponsible wasting of two hours of my time.

Of course, you too probably know this is a ridiculous suggestion by Delta, but the thing is – less experienced passengers consider this as the gospel truth.  The number of times I’ve had arguments with people who demand to be at an airport three hours prior to departure because of some vague perception (or specific airline recommendation) that they should do this is amazing.  I doubt they enjoy their ‘bonus’ hour or two of contemplation while waiting to board the flight, and rethink their policy for next time.

Delta had nicely redesigned its check-in kiosks and surrounding counters.  But, with a level of detached idiocy that is truly impressive, the counter-tops are sloped.  Place your phone or ticket or anything on the counter-top (there’s nowhere else to put them), and watch them slip and slide off.

My Uber ride to the airport was quite scary.  The driver seemed to think that if he drove hard and fast, his earnings might increase, but in reality, the only things that increased were my blood pressure and his fuel consumption.

I wanted to give feedback on his quite dangerous driving (following too close, braking too hard, and speeding way more than I liked in residential areas), but the only thing I could do was give him a number of stars, I couldn’t add a comment.  Sure, after giving him a reduced rating, I was invited to go and provide more information on the Uber site, but the link just took me to a generic Uber page, it didn’t take me to a page to enter specific information about that specific Uber experience.  Totally (and totally unnecessarily) unhelpful.

With his own direct Uber connection and GPS, Uber should be clever enough as to know when a driver is speeding, although of course the following too close and braking too hard issues are harder to detect through a GPS.  Why don’t they do this?

Another perennial frustration.  As soon as I got to the airport and logged in to my Gmail, Gmail panicked because I had traveled 15 miles from home and locked most of my Gmail accounts ‘for my convenience’.  It repeated the process in Amsterdam, and again in Glasgow, and so on throughout the itinerary.  Thanks for nothing, Google.

I am also puzzled at Google’s partial intelligence.  It ‘reads my emails’ and works out my flights and hotel bookings with spooky accuracy.  As I travel around, it is guessing at what I’m seeing and even where I’m eating.  If it is clever enough to know almost every detail of my travels, why isn’t it clever enough to accept that I’m traveling and not block my email accounts?

The big mystery though is why it locks some of my email accounts but not others.

As for our tour, we had an interesting and diverse group of 28 Travel Insiders, and while I can take no credit for this at all, everyone felt that their fellow travelers were yet again one of the highlights of the tour.  It is lovely to be able to share one’s travels with other people, and all the more so when they are pleasant like-minded travelers.  Indeed, two couples were traveling again on this tour after having met on an earlier Travel Insider tour and becoming firm friends to the point of now traveling together again.

Something else I can’t take credit (or blame) for is the weather, and this year it was a bit patchy, with light rain through much of the first part of the tour, but transforming to glorious sun for some of the rest of the tour, and never too cold or too wet.  Our visit to the windiest place in the entire UK was disappointing inasmuch as it wasn’t very windy at all!

Driver Jim on the left, and yours truly on the right.

It was wonderful to be traveling with the same driver who has been with us before (Jim Morrison – here’s a picture of the two of us somewhere).  He enormously added to the shared experience we all enjoyed, so much so that I’ve been already persuaded to offer another tour with Jim next year, and this time it will be a new tour never before offered.

Our new tour for next June in two halves.  The first half has us in England, primarily in Devon and Cornwall, and ending in the Cotswolds, including a visit to Land’s End at the southwest point in Britain.

It is a common tradition in Britain to travel between Land’s End in England all the way to the northeast tip in Scotland, at John O’Groats, and that will be the second part of our tour, going up to John O’Groats and then taking a ferry into the Orkney Islands off the northern coast of Scotland, including visits to Scapa Flow and Skara Brae.  This Scotland tour will go to places that we’ve not included in our ‘Islands and Highlands’ itinerary, including places such as Beauly, Thurso and Aberdeen, as well as over to the Orkney Islands.

At both ends, the traditional start and end of the journey are nowhere special, but the actual accomplishment of traveling the entire country is something people love to do.

You can do one half or the other half, and if doing both halves, we also have two days of experiential touring to get from Oxford to Glasgow, including overnights in Chester and the Lake District that you’d surely enjoy as well.

This will all take place next June.  Exact dates and prices aren’t yet known, but it should start in the second week of June and end in time for you to be home for 4 July.  Each half of the tour will be about a week or so, the total tour with touring in-between will be a bit over two weeks, and there’ll of course be plenty of opportunities for you to add additional activities and touring before and after the main tour elements.  I’m hoping the total tour (both halves plus touring in the middle) will be available for $3800 – $4100 per person, depending on exchange rates and group size, and each smaller portion will be more or less proportionately reduced.

More details either next week or the week after.

More on Security Questions

In the last two newsletters, I’ve been complaining about the challenge with answering the ‘security’ questions surrounding an account profile – questions like ‘what was your first car’ and ‘what was the first beach you ever visited’ and so on.

Last newsletter I reported that the technique of providing the same generic answer to all such questions doesn’t always work.  Some services detect you’re providing the same answer to every question and refuse to accept that.

Reader Chuck writes :

Here is how to resolve the duplicate answer problem.

As you state, first pick a common root answer, in your example ‘Nosemi34!’. Then add to that a seed variable derived from the specific question you are being asked. It could be a single character or an entire word. (Since many of the questions are of the Who, What, When, Where variety, I would skip the first word of the question; the second and subsequent words are more variable.)

To eliminate duplicate answers, pick questions that do not have the same character/word at your seed location. As long as you are consistent as to where you select your seed, and keep your root phrase secret, you have a viable solution. Whenever you are asked a security question, you always know the answer: Your root phrase plus your seed, which is provided to you in the security question. (This of course depends upon the provider presenting the security question in exactly the same format as when originally asked.)

When asked ‘What was the color of your mother’s favorite canary?’, and since you are always (possibly) using the fourth word as your seed, you know the answer to this question: ‘Nosemi34!color’.  Easy to remember. Problem solved.

So, my suggestion, built on Chuck’s helpful advice, is to have a seed word that includes an upper and lower case letter and a digit, and then, as he says, perhaps choose the fourth word in each question and add that word – all in lower case – to your seed phrase.

More BA Meltdown Perfidy

BA tried to get out of paying some compensation by bluffing passengers with the assertion that the airline will only pay the amount of claims that the passenger’s insurance policies won’t cover.

But that is plain wrong, and the airline is now diffidently making ambiguous noises supposedly walking that claim back.  The EU legislation doesn’t say ‘airlines will compensate only when there isn’t travel insurance available’.  The EU makes the airlines the prime source of compensation, and that expectation is built into the premium rates assessed by trip insurers.  Their cover only applies to any element of loss that the airline does not make good on, and they expect and require you to file claims with the airlines first.

Details here.

This raises an interesting point about many types of ‘free’ or extra insurance covers.  Often they are secondary rather than primary covers.  For example, if you have free rental car insurance through your credit card, and if you think that means you can happily have an accident and get fully reimbursed by your credit card company and not need to claim on your regular insurance policy and risk having your premiums go up, think again.

Although, decades ago, such insurance often was ‘primary’, now it is invariably ‘secondary’ and they require you to file a claim with your home auto insurer and offer only to pay any additional amounts (like a deductible) that aren’t paid to you by your primary auto insurer.

Meanwhile, people have been fast to blame BA’s outsourcing of IT functions for the problems – and not just for the original problem, but for the woefully extended time it took to restore service.

BA’s New Airline – Any Better than the Old One?

You might have heard, back in March, of BA’s plans to start a new low-cost airline, under the name of Level.

BA hopes to be the exception that proves the rule – the rule that legacy/dinosaur airlines invariably fail when trying to create ‘an airline within the airline’ as a low-cost off-shoot of the main airline.

The jury is still out on this, but the airline has now started flying.  Rather strangely, it has decided to base itself in Barcelona – and you might remember this is the city that has decided it will freeze all new hotel construction/conversion, because it is already ‘too full’ of tourists.

A key part of any airline’s success is to have a central hub that can also serve as a destination (and point of origination, too) in its own right.  The choice of Barcelona would seem to threaten the success of this new airline right from its inception.

Boeing Studies Pilotless Planes

As Boeing’s VP of Product Development rightly observes in this article, you can get a self-flying drone for under $1000.  So, if a drone can fly itself for $1000, why can’t a full size passenger jet?

The answer, somewhat obscured by layers of pilot union interference, is that planes already can and – more to the point – do fly themselves.  But unofficially, and of course with two overpaid pilots in their fancy uniforms struggling to stay awake in the cockpit and officially doing all the flying.

Predictably, lip-service is paid to the role of pilots by referring to the very lucky landing in the Hudson River a few years back after an A320 lost both engines when taking off from La Guardia.  Would a self-flying plane have been able to similarly save the day?  That’s unknown, but even if a self-flying plane would have crashed the plane ignominiously with the loss of all passengers on board, that’s not a reason not to proceed with automating airplanes and getting rid of the pilots.

The thing that is seldom expressed is that for every time the pilots do truly ‘save the day’ (and the plane and the passengers) there are probably ten or even one hundred times when they actually make things worse and change a survivable situation into a fatal one.  So the less we have pilots and the more we have self-flying planes, the safer we become.

The airlines quietly know this, and also are very aware of the cost of their pilots and the growing need for more and more pilots.  While they’ll not admit this in public, they’re as keen as any other group to get rid of pilots.  The main reason they’re not pressing more aggressively for this?  Be prepared to be astonished.  It is a concern about what we, the traveling public, would think.

Due to an insufficiently complete explanation of the issues surrounding self-piloting planes, and of course, due to the fact that the technology is still evolving and improving, the general level of public perception is that a piloted plane is safer than an unpiloted one.  But, just as a self-driving car is thought to be ten times safer than a car that you or I drive, we’re almost at the point where a self-flying plane will be similarly many times safer than one relying on imperfect pilots.

Boeing Had a Good Week

It was the Paris Air Show this week, and Boeing announced yet another new version of its venerable 737, this time called the 737 MAX 10.  It was greeted with an apparently impressive rush of initial launch orders, but two-thirds of the launch orders were actually conversions by airlines who had already ordered other model 737 planes and simply switched to this slightly larger/longer range model instead.  The actual net count of new orders was less impressive and less clearly determined.

Airbus contented itself with some tweaks to make its A380 super-jumbo more efficient and cost effective.  The A380 program remains very much at risk of being cancelled, and if the current weakness in the Gulf airlines – in particular Emirates, which has single-handedly ordered almost half the entire number of A380s sold or on backlog – should translate to some A380 deferments or cancellations, we’d not be surprised to see the A380 cancelled entirely.

It seems, without saying so, that Boeing has now cancelled its 747-8I passenger plane, while still offering the freighter version for sale, marking the quiet end of its glorious 747 line of planes.  One would have hoped for slightly more fanfare about the end of such a transformative plane.

Boeing also announced plans to jump on the hypersonic passenger plane bandwagon.  As with all other similar announcements, I’ll believe it when I see it.

The Laptop Ban Isn’t Going Away

There continues to be a lot of ‘noise’ in the press about extensions to the laptop ban, which currently is limited to incoming flights from about ten middle eastern airports.

After the proposal to ban laptops on all flights to and from Europe was rejected by the European authorities, several other ‘trial balloons’ have appeared in the media.  One was that the ban would extend to domestic flights as well as international flights – something I’ve long said would be essential, because, as we all know, security is the same to go through an airport for a domestic flight as it is for an international flight.  If there’s a risk for international flights, surely the same risk is present for domestic flights, and with common checkpoints serving both international and domestic flights, how could you limit the extra security for only one type of flight.

Another credible sounding ‘leak’ is in this article, where the US may be slightly backtracking, and now saying that it might extend the ban to another 71 international airports, unless the airports improve their security.

There is no information on the timeframe for when this might occur, or which the airports might be, or what they have to do to avoid being subject to the ban.

Radiation Risks of Frequent Flying

Some good news for people who fly a lot.  If you work your way through the numbers in this article, it seems that the increased radiation that people experience in the higher altitudes while flying doesn’t significantly increase your radiation exposure.

Sure, the exposure goes up, but not by enough to doom you to a certain and premature death from radiation poisoning or radiation induced cancer.

But it would be a different story if you decided to go to Mars.  This is one of the several unresolved issues that interfere with Elon Musk’s fanciful vision of traveling to Mars.

And Lastly This Week….

A secret button that gives you more seating space on a plane?  Well, actually, not at all, but here’s the piece that teasingly raises the possibility.

One of the amusing but puzzling elements of a trip to China is the common appalling translations of Chinese words and menus and signs to English.  I’ve no idea why the Chinese in particular do such a bad job of translating, but it definitely is commonly found, and is often referred to as ‘Chinglish’ (examples here).

News this week suggests that the Chinese government is about to embark on a campaign to improve its translations.  That is almost a shame, and will make a Chinese tour much less amusing.

Until next week





2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 23 June, 2017”

    1. There are reports that current planes with pilots are already hackable. Modern ‘fly by wire’ planes are already controlled by computers that ‘take into consideration’ the requests by the pilots for the plane to do certain things. There have been suggestions it may be possible to access the airplane’s flight control systems through their inflight entertainment systems.

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