Weekly Roundup, Friday 30 June, 2017

Happy 10th birthday to the iPhone. This is a picture of the original iPhone, still looking reasonably modern a decade later.

Good morning

As much as I enjoy traveling, it is always good to be home again.  Perhaps that’s the true concept of ‘home’ – the place you’re always most happy to return to.

My return from London on Delta was surprisingly good.  Things got off to a rocky start with the plane that was supposed to fly us to Salt Lake City having a maintenance issue that didn’t allow for a fast fix, but Delta quickly ‘found’ another plane, and moved our bags and everything over, causing us to leave London just over an hour late.  We picked up over half an hour on the way across the Atlantic, getting to SLC only 25 minutes late.

Stupid quote from the pilot – ‘We’ll get you to SLC as quickly as we can, while still being safe’.  Unlike driving a car along the road, flying a plane faster is no more dangerous than flying it slower.  There are no speed limits in the sky (above 10,000 ft), and so as long as the plane isn’t flying faster than it is designed for, and as long as the engines aren’t being redlined, adding extra speed has no increase in risk at all.  The main difference is that the plane’s fuel efficiency slightly drops, and engine wear slightly increases.

Perhaps what the pilot meant to say was ‘We’ll get you to SLC as quickly as we can without costing more money’.

I was astonished at the quality of the food Delta provided – and the quantity of it, too.  There were three meal services during the nine or so hour flight (this is in coach class), and whereas I usually struggle to find anything I can force myself to eat, I liked all three meals.  Add to that an enormous variety of movies played in good quality on lovely seat back monitors, and it was a very pleasant flight.

Security Experiences

Going through security at Heathrow involved a longer line than previously, but the line was moving quickly and the total time to get through the process wasn’t really appreciably longer.  And while it seems that there are continuing increases in the scrutiny of electronics (now with new tougher rules applying to flights to the US from 280 airports in 105 countries), none of that was apparent to me, even though I flew with a large laptop with extended battery, four tablets, two phones, and two external battery packs, plus other smaller items like a music player.

Note these newly promulgated rules include a four-month period for airlines and airports to implement them – but will the terrorists agree to wait four months before exploiting the security loopholes?  Additionally, if the current ten airports that have a total ban on larger electronics being carried into airplane cabins comply with the new security processes, they can have the ban lifted.

A question to all the conspiracy theorists who decided the first iteration of the new security measures on electronics was either a way of giving the Big Three Gulf carriers a hard time and or a way to make travel more difficult for muslims – how’s that theory working for you now?

A security enhancement that was noticeable at Heathrow was a moderately good security interview.  Instead of being asked a limited number of rote questions by someone who wasn’t really listening to my answers or observing me, an intelligent young man engaged me in what seemed to be a friendly and reasonably extended, unscripted conversation, but with well phrased open-ended questions such as ‘what did you enjoy most about Scotland’ and ‘what was the weather like’.  If I’d not actually been in Scotland, it would have been harder to quickly answer those questions correctly.  That was very encouraging, but it would have been interesting to see what happened when he interacts with a person who speaks little English or who only spent a day or so in England, more or less just transiting from somewhere else.

What was also noticeable was a strange security loophole.  When I flew out from Seattle, my passport was of course automatically scanned/read, and I’d also input the passport data at home.  As a third level of passport checking, a checkin agent also viewed my passport and I think keyed in some data.

So, when I went to self-checkin online for the return flight, all my passport information was prepopulated.  Great – nothing wrong with that, right?

Well, actually, there was something very wrong with that.  My passport has three zeroes in its number.  But two of the three zeroes in the passport number where showing as upper case letter O’s.  So instead of, eg, 1200034 as my passport number, it was showing as 12OO034.  The difference is subtle when viewed on a screen, but for a computer, there’s a world of difference between a 0 and an O.

Two points of puzzlement.  How did my passport number get mangled?  And secondly, because out of curiosity, I didn’t correct the passport number, how did I get to travel without problems with an impossible passport number totally out of the sequence of numbers issued by the US for passports and not matching my name or other details?  We are told that TSA/Homeland Security prescreens all passengers based on the information loaded into their passenger name records.  How did my wrong information pass through the system?

Christmas Cruise Missing Link?

Several people asked about last week’s newsletter, saying I left out a link to the Danube Christmas Markets cruise we’re offering this December, from Budapest to Nuremberg.  There actually was a link, but it was unhelpfully the same color as the rest of the text.  Ooops.

We’ve heard from Amawaterways that the special $750 per person promotion is soon due to expire, so please do think about your Christmas plans and choose to join us for this, the most popular of all our Travel Insider tour experiences.

What else this week?  The usual smorgasbord of items, including :

  • 2018 Travel Insider UK Expedition Almost Finalized
  • In Any Other Country, This Would be Decried as Corruption
  • Another Airline Joint Venture
  • Supersonic Planes, again, again
  • Unhealthy Flying
  • Former Northwest & Delta CEO to Head Amtrak
  • Greedy NIMBYs Seek to Limit California Cell Phone Service
  • Interesting Article on New Satellites
  • Do Your Ears Deceive You?  Often, Yes.
  • And Lastly This Week….
Traveling between Land’s End and John O’Groats is a ‘bucket list’ activity for the British, and a wonderful experience of England, Wales and Scotland for us.

2018 Travel Insider UK Expedition Almost Finalized

I’ve spent most of this week developing next year’s UK Expedition from Land’s End in England to John O’Groats in Scotland (and, yes, we even include a bit of Wales on our journey, too).  I keep finding more things to add into our days, and it is becoming a wonderful tour, crammed full of experiences.

The dates are now reasonably firm, with the main tour starting on Sunday 10 June in Salisbury or Exeter and ending on Tuesday 26 June in Edinburgh or Glasgow.  Because of the panoramic nature of this tour, and because I love to make tours as flexible as possible, not only do we have pre and post tour options, but you are free to join and leave the tour on pretty much any day that works for you.

Although we hope you will, if you don’t want to do the entire 17 days (or more with the options), you can do any shorter portion that works for you.  Have you ever seen such flexibility in any other tour?

The approximate route our main tour will take.

If the tour gets reasonably full, and if exchange rates don’t change adversely, it seems the tour price could drop below $3995 per person, which would be great value for such an extensive tour.

Whether it be going down into an old tin mine in Cornwall, or visiting mysterious stone circles in the lovely Lake District and remote Orkney Islands; photographing quaint village scenes in the beautiful Cotswolds or mixing with the locals in places that seldom see tourists; visiting the ruins of ancient castles possibly associated with King Arthur or (optionally) staying in a 700+ year old castle in fine condition in the Scottish highlands, there’s a lot here you’re sure to love.

Perhaps best of all is something that is happily a constant on most Travel Insider tours – sharing your experiences with a group of friendly and like-minded Travel Insiders.

This is an aspirational tour that enables you to comfortably and conveniently achieve a ‘bucket list’ experience that few British people even do – traveling the length and breadth of Britain from Land’s End in the southwest corner of Cornwall to John O’Groats in the northeast corner of Scotland.

I hope to have the tour available for booking next week.  Stay tuned, and meantime, please keep the dates open.

In Any Other Country, This Would be Decried as Corruption

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee agreed by voice vote earlier this week to add a new restriction on the ability of foreign airlines to fly into the US.  The measure will allow the Secretary of Transportation to deny requests by any foreign carrier to fly to the US if the Secretary believes doing so would ‘erode labor standards’ due to the airline being established in a country other than that in which its majority owners reside in, so as to avoid regulations of the country where the owners reside.

No, this isn’t valid legislation to protect either us as fliers or other Americans as aviation related workers.  ‘Erode labor standards’ is code for ‘sell airfares at lower costs than the US carriers do’.

This legislation is about one thing and one thing only – making it harder for airlines such as Norwegian Air to bring lower cost higher quality flights to the US.  The only thing being protected here are the dysfunctional US carriers that have no notion of how to compete with new quality airlines, and so resort to lobbying and deal making to erect specious new levels of protection against new quality carriers offering better service, better quality, and better value.

The legislation would also seem to fly in the face of the open skies treaty agreement between the US and EU.  What Norwegian Air is doing is nothing unique.  These days it is far from uncommon for an airline to operate from bases removed from where the majority of its shareholders live.  For example, British Airways, based in London, is owned by International Airlines Group, a company that is registered in Madrid, Spain.  KLM is owned by Air France.  Or how about any airline which has a hub in a country other than that which it is registered in, such as Delta with its hub in Amsterdam?

The US airlines already managed to delay for no valid reason at all Norwegian’s expanded presence into the US for three years, and now seek further ‘legislative clubs’ with which to bludgeon other low-priced carriers and to keep them away from us.

We love to ridicule corruption in other countries, while choosing not to see it in our own country.  How can this legislation be described as anything other than a corrupt piece of unneeded law that does not protect us, only the three major US carriers.  The legislation is anti-competition, and the complete opposite of the American values of free markets and competition which our country supposedly embraces and which we proudly claim made us the greatest economic power in the world.

Details here.

Another Airline Joint Venture

Long time frenemies and Skyteam members Delta and Korean Air have announced plans to establish a joint venture across the Pacific that seems designed to dilute and dissolve the differences between the two carriers even more than at present, and to minimize any potential for competition between them.

Sure, this is explained as an enhanced and expanded network, with industry-leading products and service and a seamless customer experience, but so too has every other airline ‘joint venture’ made the same claims to date.  Cut out the hype and meaningless adjectives, and the main thing it means is that the two airlines are joining at the hip and making sure that you can’t play one of them off against the other when it comes to lower fares, better service, or more convenient schedules.

The arrangement is subject to regulatory approval, but what are the chances of that being denied?  Slim to none, alas.  First the airlines say ‘you should approve this because there are so many other airlines also out there’.  Then, when that becomes demonstrably no longer true, they say ‘you should approve this because you’ve already approved it for the few remaining other airlines and we’d be unfairly disadvantaged if you didn’t allow us the same approval’.  Heads, the airlines win; tails, they don’t lose.

Details here.

Supersonic Planes, again, again

The week before July 4 is often a slow news week, and so it is unsurprising to see yet another SST plane story bubbling to the surface.  It isn’t new – NASA have been talking about developing a quieter SST for some years already, and neither is it promising a commercially viable passenger plane anytime soon, either.

Instead, NASA and an as yet unselected contractor hope to begin flight tests of concept planes perhaps ‘as early as 2021’.  The single engine concept plane is nothing like what subsequent passenger planes might become, which suggests we’d be lucky to see any operational passenger planes this side of 2030.  Details here.

To put this into a timeline, it was 1973 when the US banned supersonic flight over land due to concerns about the sonic boom.  Yes, it has taken 44 years to get us to the point we’re at currently.  It took almost exactly 44 years from the Wright Brothers to the X-1 and its first supersonic flight (1903 – 1947); and now, another 44 years further ahead, and notwithstanding computers, new materials, and everything else, we’re still dragging our heels with something that self-evidently is solvable – mitigating the sonic boom.

Progress is a funny old thing, isn’t it.

Meantime, more optimism from Boom – the strangely named company hoping to get supersonic flight launched within the next six years, or so it is now claiming.  Don’t hold your breath….

Unhealthy Flying

Talking about holding your breath, it might be a good thing if you didn’t breathe at all during your next flight.  Here’s a distressing article that raises some of the little talked about issues of ‘dirty air’ on planes – air that may have been contaminated with engine oil and other fluids while being heated and compressed prior to being piped into your airplane’s cabin.  The air – so-called ‘bleed air’ comes from the jet engines, albeit of course prior to the point where the fuel is mixed in and burned.  But there seems to still be potential for contaminants within the engine to enter into the air that is being tapped from the flow through the jet engine.

If that’s not bad enough, the article also cites a statistic suggesting you’re 100 times more likely to catch a cold when flying.  I’ve certainly often come down with a cold within a few days of flying, although – touch wood – the last few flights have been the exception, perhaps due to an assiduous focus on hygiene and avoiding any contamination between food/drink, possibly dirty/infected surfaces, and me.

The problem isn’t just with someone coughing onto you, or breathing air that someone coughed into.  It is with someone coughing onto a surface that you touch some time later (maybe even on the next flight), then you touch your food, then you eat your food, and – voila – instant infection.

The airlines, while accurately boasting about the effectiveness of their air filters to cut down on airborne transmission of infection, are being careful not to talk about the more common path of infection – via a ‘fomite’ – a surface on which germs can gather and then be passed on to you.  Air filters can’t help with that at all.

These days I sometimes get a headache for no apparent reason while flying.  I formerly thought, on long international flights, that it was maybe some sort of hangover as a result of having a drink or two in the lower air pressure cabin environment, but after having regularly flown without any alcohol consumed either on the plane or at any reasonable time prior to the flight on the ground either, I still get headaches, and know other people who experience the same thing.  The article suggests such headaches may be a response to contaminated air.

It would be possible to take ‘fresh’ air from outside, compress and heat it, rather than taking bleed air from the engines, but that may be more costly in terms of fuel consumption, so the airlines take the easy way out.  And we suffer the consequences.  (Note that the new 787 may be using a different approach for sourcing air that bypasses the engines and any possible chemical contaminants from the engines.)

Former Northwest & Delta CEO to Head Amtrak

Richard Anderson is bravely seizing what is increasingly looking like a poisoned chalice.  Formerly the CEO of Northwest Airlines (2001 – 2004) and subsequently of Delta Airlines (2007 – 2016), Anderson has been appointed President and CEO of Amtrak, with effect from 12 July.

Apparently he will encounter some surprises.  He was quoted as saying ‘Amtrak is a great company today’ and also said that ‘passenger rail service is growing in importance in America’.

He might want to look at these ridership statistics – while, as a former head of two dinosaur airlines, he’s doubtless very experienced at dealing with moribund travel services and enormous losses, it is hard to see much evidence of any growing importance of passenger rail.  Even Amtrak’s much boasted about Acela service in the Northeastern Corridor struggled to match passenger numbers in 2016 with the same numbers the year before, and with 2014 besting both subsequent years.  In total, Amtrak grew its passenger numbers a mere 1% in 2016 compared to 2015, and announced an operating loss of $227 million.  Its actual total loss was $1.1 billion in 2016 – sure, an improvement on $1.2 billion the year before, about the same as 2014’s $1.1 billion loss and better than 2013 and 2012, both with $1.3 billion losses.  But that is five years and $6 billion in losses, with no overt indication of any turnaround on the horizon.

Most people I talk about Amtrak with have way too many nightmare stories of cancelled or delayed trains, broken equipment on trains, and poor/bad/no service.  And, as has been reported here and everywhere else, President Trump’s administration is seeking to massively reduce Amtrak’s operating subsidies for the future to the point where its entire long-distance train network outside the Northeastern corridor may be abandoned.  A proud Democrat, one wonders how well Anderson will succeed at endearing himself with the Trump administration and persuading them to give Amtrak the capital infusion it so desperately needs as well as the annual top-ups to cover its ongoing losses.

What Anderson should have said is ‘Amtrak is struggling to remain relevant in the modern age, is chronically unprofitable, and suffers from major service shortcomings’.  Sure, he could have added the usual empty platitudes about looking forward to the challenge of leading Amtrak to future greatness, but pretending the business is great and growing is, alas, total nonsense.

Greedy NIMBYs Seek to Limit California Cell Phone Service

The explosion of cell phones and all the other devices we have that use cellular data services must necessarily be matched by adding more, smaller, cells for our phones to connect to.  Simplistically, if we have ten times as much cell phone traffic, we need close to ten times as many towers.  Without a corresponding increase in towers, wireless data rates will slow and phone calls will not always go through.  Those that do go through might be of poorer quality due to needing to be handed off to a further away cell tower.

It is true there are concerns – quite probably valid concerns – about the safety of cell phone signals, both those originating from handsets and those originating from the towers.  But who among us has chosen to abandon their cell phones due to these concerns?  All the rest of us – those who are using our phones all the time – need to understand the unavoidable swings and roundabouts of the service.  The more we use it, and the more everyone else around us also uses it (including when they communicate with us), the more we need to accept a continued proliferation of cell phone towers.

The good news is that with more and more towers, the transmitters in each tower can be weaker and weaker, because we actually want them to have increasingly limited range so they don’t interfere with other nearby towers on the same frequencies.  So growing the number of towers ten-fold doesn’t necessarily multiply the amount of radio waves around us also ten-fold.

With this as background, it is interesting to also consider one more statistic.  In California, the use of smart devices and other mobile internet services has increased 23-fold since 2010.  This of course invariably results in a need to add more towers, and the latest generation of even faster/better data services, to be known as ‘5G’, also require new transmitting antennas for the new frequencies they operate at.

As a result, there is a need and a plan to add between 30,000 and 50,000 additional cell antennas in California over the next five years.  That sounds like a lot, but when you consider that California has an area of 164,000 sq miles, that is an average of one extra antenna per every 3 – 5 square miles.  Or, to express in other terms, with a population of 39.2 million, that is only one antenna for every 785 – 1305 people.

The thought of more cell phone antennas – an unavoidable essential if the state is to continue to have moderately functional cell phone service – has some in California up in arms, and in particular, some of the city governments.

But, in truth, it is unclear whether their opposition is based on aesthetic, scientific, or financial grounds, because part of the new regulations expediting new antenna additions is a reduction in fees that would be payable to cities down from $1250 per antenna to $250 per antenna.

Details here.

In not altogether unrelated news, a recent survey of about 80 countries shows that more than 55 other countries have faster wireless data speeds than the US.  The US is in the bottom 20 of the countries surveyed.

Interesting Article on New Satellites

Here’s a fascinating article that you might like to read later next week if you’re taking time off work for the July 4 holiday.  It looks at some of the quiet revolution that is occurring with orbiting satellites, starting from a launch of a rocket earlier this year that deployed 104 satellites once it reached its target orbit.

A dizzying combination of lower costs per pound of material sent into orbit and massively lighter weights per satellite are combining to encourage a veritable explosion of satellites being sent into orbit.  Note the article has a slightly out of context table of rocket launches halfway through, but this is a table of rocket launches, not of satellite deployments.  With the average rocket launch now deploying very many more satellites than was previously the case, the table massively understates the revolution underway.

Well worth reading.

Do Your Ears Deceive You?  Often, Yes.

It is a physiological (and also somewhat psychological) fact that one’s perception of what one thinks one is hearing can be influenced greatly by one’s expectations.

Sadly, this has encouraged the growth of an industry that lives on snake oil and similar artifices – the ‘high end audio’ industry, epitomized by expensive cables that some people are convinced sound better than cables costing 1/20th as much, but which the same people can never tell apart in true double-blind testing.  It sees people paying way over the odds for differences in sound quality they insist they can clearly hear, but can’t differentiate between in double-blind tests.  It has people advocating for meaningless and indeed dangerous ‘improvements’ in dynamic range which if adopted could cause close to instant deafness,  It sees a $2000 external amplifier selling well but producing no better sound than a $2 chip that nearly all modern computers have within them.

But it also sees other people lamenting the loss of massively inferior sound reproduction – that offered by lp records.  The same people who rushed to CDs when they first came out are now rushing back to vinyl records, describing them as having a ‘warmer’ sound than CDs.  There is a revival of interest and an astonishing growth in lp record sales.

If by ‘warmer’ they mean less dynamic range, more hiss and background noise, greater distortion, poorer frequency response, sidetalk from one stereo channel to the other, and finite life and deteriorating audio quality every time the record is played, then they are definitely correct.  But is any of this something to wish to start suffering from again?

The ‘warmth’ (whatever that actually means) is a claim that is impossible to test, because the difference between a record and a CD is so instantly obvious.  One is almost totally silent, distortion free, and without any background noise, the other is always accompanied by noise, and soon enough by scratches and other physical damage, too.

Don’t be fooled.  And if you’re thinking of returning back to inferior lp records, you might like to first read this article I wrote a few years back – “You Can’t Trust Your Ears – Or Anyone Else’s” and then perhaps browse through other articles in my collection of High End Audio articles.

And Lastly This Week….

I’m always casting around for new places to offer on Travel Insider tours.  Apparently, the new ‘hot’ destination (as in popular rather than temperature) is a rather unlikely one, but perhaps that is all the more reason for it to be featured in a Travel Insider tour.  The destination – Astana, the newish capital city of Kazakhstan, a country now better known than before, albeit perhaps unfairly, as a result of the Borat movie.

Here’s an article about Astana’s new popularity, some interesting background on Kazakhstan, and a concept which would seem to be more at home in Dubai than Astana.

Like many parents and their children, bringing presents home from international trips is something my daughter, Anna, generally expects of me.  This time she wanted Irn Bru soda drink and various Cadbury chocolate candy items.  But she was strangely insistent that I should not buy her any Haribo sugar-free Gummi Bears.  So I went to Amazon and read the reviews to understand her aversion to this product.

Strangely, Amazon has inhibited linking to the product, but if you have ever considered buying some of these, please go to Amazon and search for “Haribo Gold-Bears Gummi Candy, 5-Pound Bag” and open the obvious result that appears.  Do read some of the reviews.  Warning – don’t have anything in your mouth while reading, because you’ll for sure either choke on it or spit it out while laughing.

May I wish you the very best for the US national holiday this coming Tuesday, and for those readers not in the US, perhaps it is a good time to remember and appreciate that the independence and strength of the US has almost certainly changed their part of the world for the better, no matter where it is they live.  We have all benefitted from the US’ prominent role in world affairs over the last 100 years.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





3 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 30 June, 2017”

  1. Oh, David, you wicked man! I usually read your weekly bulletins at breakfast time (I live in Spain), and I was blithely reading until I got to your note about Haribo Gold-Bears Gummi Candy, 5-Pound Bag, and of course I followed your link . . . and I have tears streaming down my face from laughing and breakfast cereal snorted out over my place mat. Thigh-slappingly hilarious comments. Want to know how many Gummi bears you have to eat to achieve a rectal Hiroshima effect? Try that over breakfast.

  2. David, the problem with the zeros on your passport being read as the letter O may not be the issue you think it is.

    There are various strategies that the data processing industry has evolved to deal with this problem, as well as the related problem with the number 1 and a capital I. One strategy I am familiar with is to record, for example, all 0s and Os as the number 0 , effectively eliminating O as an legal character. This works well for certain data fields such as account numbers, but may not be usable in the case of address fields.

    I am not claiming that this strategy is used for passport numbers, but if not, I am sure that some other similar methodology is in place. If both 0 and O are to be allowed, another possibility is to use a hash or checksum on the binary code representation to correct errors and insure misread data is caught.

    1. Hi, John

      Your points are all valid in some contexts, but not in this context. I’ve actually never seen a US passport with letters, only numbers, in its identifier. So it would seem simply to ensure that manual data entry or OCR reading only identifies digits.

      I’d be entirely unsurprised to learn there’s a check digit in use as well.

      But, somehow, there was my passport ‘number’ in my record, showing a mix of O’s and 0’s. No ‘invalid data’ alert. No checksum failed. Just sitting there, quite happily. And also, no problems checking in, getting on the plane, or going through Global Entry upon arrival in the US, either.

      All a mystery. If nothing else, you’d think that the screwy data would have generated an alert ‘manually check/review this guy’s passport and make sure it isn’t a fake’.

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