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22 January, 2010

Good morning

I am struggling to throw off the feeling of guilt I have about not releasing a feature article last week.  However, last week's newsletter was, ahem, not insubstantial in size (almost 7500 words, in fact - more than twice what it 'should be') so my feeling is that you got more words from me last week than would normally be the case with a more sensibly sized newsletter and feature article.

I make these comments because I am now breaking my promise to release the whisky article to you this week.  I'm almost certainly giving it too much attention, but whisky is not only the most complex of all spirits to appreciate, but it is also without doubt the most complex to write about - for example, I currently have over 5500 words in the single section 'The magic of whisky' - all about the subtle and semi-secret aspects of making whisky that cause one bottle of whisky to be different to the next, and sometimes profoundly so.  In total, the article series is pushing 20,000 words - much more and it will be capable of being published as a free-standing book!

I want to end up with a comprehensive treatment on the topic that can be accessed either piecemeal or in toto, and this is dissuading me from releasing it in pieces each week.  Besides which, as I continue to add to the overall total project, I find I am adding/modifying parts that I'd earlier thought complete, and shifting around the sequence of topics to make into a better flowing entirety.

So, please bear with me and my struggles; I'll try to have it all done for next week.  And, for those of you wondering what this all has to do with travel, it is intended as a segue into our lovely Scotland's Islands and Highlands Tour this June.

Now that the latest knee-jerk nonsense has subsided after the crotch-bomber alert at Christmas, international travel becomes more acceptable once more, and Britain/Europe - especially in the early summer - is always a wonderful destination to consider.  My challenge is to come up with interesting touring opportunities that will take you places you haven't been to many times before, but which you've always wanted to visit.

That's not easy, because you've probably been many places already.  But I'll wager you've not yet toured around Scotland's lovely islands (well, one couple coming on the tour actually has, but they enjoyed it so much they're coming back for a repeat experience) so here's a great 11 day tour that you can enjoy either as part of a broader European vacation or as a great standalone experience.

And for those people who are curious about whisky, I'll be holding a formal (but optional) whisky tasting class one evening where you'll have a chance to try widely differing styles of whisky, including some of Scotland's award winning second best (out of 3500+ different contenders) single malt, and several other of what are generally considered the reliably best 'top ten' single malt whiskies in Scotland.

But, if you don't drink (and even if you do) there's still lots to enjoy.  We'll have long days (being far north and touring right over the summer solstice) giving us a chance to get the most out of each day, and it seems we've got the core of a wonderful group of people, four of whom have travelled with me four times before and one who has traveled with me three times before.

So, for a wonderful time, in a wonderful place, at a wonderful time of year, and with a wonderful group of people, please do consider joining our 2010 Scotland's Islands and Highlands Tour.

This has now become another enormous newsletter (over 8000 words) - again longer than a typical newsletter and feature article.  Should I apologize or not?  I'm not sure to be proud or embarrassed!

For those of you who don't read it all, and I will admit that there are some arguably off-topic lengthy bits that may have you reaching for your Page Down key repeatedly, please do continue on down to the bit about an amazing new data plan from AT&T for the iPhone - an incredible deal for anyone who travels internationally and another reason (if one were needed) to get an iPhone rather than any other type of phone.  How wonderful to at last see a crumbling of the exorbitant rip-off rates for international data roaming.

To make it easier to find, I've put an all caps heading 'WONDERFUL AT&T iPHONE NEWS' at the start of the section (in blue).

Dinosaur watching :  You presumably received my special newsletter on Tuesday explaining the non-event (for us as passengers) of JAL's bankruptcy filing that morning, and referring also to a BA fare sale, with discounted fares and packages to Britain and Europe, good for travel through the end of March, with tickets on sale through next Thursday.

Several of you pointed out that BA was probably only doing this to try and encourage people onto their flights at a time when there is a grave risk of their cabin crew going on strike.  Is that true?  Well, maybe yes, but also maybe no.

Firstly, there is nothing particularly unusual about a fare sale at this time of year for travel through the dregs of winter.  Many airlines do them every year, and BA does this most years too.

Secondly, I've tried to understand the dynamics of the possibility of a BA cabin crew strike.  It is hard to know exactly what to expect, but the key facts seem to be :  BA's cabin crew, through its union (called 'Unite') overwhelmingly voted to strike shortly before Christmas, but their strike decision was deemed to be invalid and ruled illegal by the courts in Britain.  Amongst other things, the union sent ballots to more than 1,000 retired cabin crew, who certainly would be keen to have the still serving cabin crew strike if it served to protect their retiree benefits.

So the union is sending out a new ballot on Monday, 25 January.  Voting closes four weeks later (22 February).  Allow a few days for the votes to be counted, and then the union can lawfully strike, if the vote so affirms, seven days after the result is announced.

So the earliest we'd likely see a strike occur would be perhaps the second week in March.

But - there's another complicating factor.  With an eye on getting good rather than bad publicity and realizing that the public is generally unsympathetic, the union has said it won't strike over the Easter period.  This year Good Friday is on April 2, and if the union did go on strike prior to then, it would need to end its strike several days prior to Easter so as to allow BA to restore full services and for people to complete their 'going somewhere in time for Easter' plans.

Does that mean the union will strike for a couple of weeks in mid March?  That is possible.  On the other hand, the union might feel that when (if!) it is armed with a strike authority, it can then go back to the negotiating table with BA and threaten management with the plausible certainty of a strike if their demands aren't acceded to, and also cause more harm to BA commercially by having advance notice of a strike, giving people more time to book away from BA.

One last factor.  BA is preparing a response for any possible cabin crew strike, and is training volunteers from its ground staff to go in and replace any no-show striking flight attendants.  The airline would almost certainly not cease operations during a strike.  It would also, almost certainly, suffer substantial cuts to its flights, but my guess/hope is that it would selectively cancel the least strategic flights so as to inconvenience the fewest travelers, and that it would move passengers over to its Oneworld alliance partners and possibly even to other unrelated airlines wherever possible, and maybe even be fair in terms of helping delayed passengers who did suffer problems with their flights.

Many of us have suffered cancelled flights before, for one reason or another. The worst sorts of cancellations are those that involve many hours at an airport, standing in lines, and with no knowledge of what is happening to oneself or one's luggage.  A strike is usually not in this category - unlike a weather or operational (and thereby unexpected) cancellation, you'll know all about the strike as soon as it happens, and can then start to make plans as you get successively close to your flight.

I say this not to encourage you onto BA, and not to make light of the possible hassles surrounding a strike, but merely to explain the overall issues.  BA's airfare sale is good, but it isn't exactly a compelling 'best deal I've ever seen' type offer either.  At least now I hope you can make a slightly more fully informed decision.

And just in case you think I've somehow switched roles from being a perennial thorn in BA's side to now being an apologist, here's an interesting item about a new lawsuit BA must defend.  The complaintant is objecting to BA's policy that forces male passengers to move if they end up seated next to an unaccompanied minor, and says that BA is treating all male passengers as perverts.

In fairness to BA, my understanding is that BA is not alone in this - other airlines have similar policies.  On the other hand, in the particular case this man is complaining about, BA forced him to move away from being next to his pregnant wife - if they think that a man traveling with his pregnant wife is a potential predator, then they've gone so far into the land of politically correct lunacy that even the biggest lawsuit loss will fail to bring them back to reality.

BA's response to the lawsuit is more detailed than their inadequate nonsense statement originally quoted in the linked article.  BA now says it was 'examining the case and looking at a potential settlement by meeting the customer's claim', whatever that means, and touting their many years of safely flying children (perhaps as a result of their 'nowhere near a man' policy?).

Apparently BA even has a special seating department that is supposed to sometimes seat unaccompanied minors together and in an area close to where cabin attendants congregate.

The incident occurred in April 2009; one wonders how much longer BA will take to 'examine the case'.

Continental and American Airlines have now reported their 2009 results - CO lost $295 million and AA managed to lose an impressive $1.5 billion.  About the best thing one can say about that loss is that it is less than last year's $2.1 billion.

But, if one excludes special items, the two years show a loss of $1.2 billion in 2008 and $1.4 billion in 2009, suggesting the underlying movement was negative rather than positive.

However, losses notwithstanding, AA is positive about its future - perhaps because earlier this week it started off the first round of airfare increases for 2010, with increases of between $6 - $16 roundtrip.  AA also said it plans to increase its international services this year.

Indeed, in general, if the airline lobbying group ATA is correct, 2009 saw the largest ever annual drop in airline revenue, with total US airline passenger revenue dropping 18%.  The previous record was a 14% drop in 2001.

December 2009 represented the 14th straight month in a row of declining sales, with traffic down 3% and revenue down 4% (compared to Dec 2008).

With that as perspective, here's an interesting article about the five best proposals to fix the airline industry.  Unfortunately the comments that follow it tend to be naive, unrealistic and sometimes massively off topic or just plain wrong.  Sometimes 'vox pop' comes up with good ideas, but not on this occasion, and perhaps this also shows the underlying complexities of the airline game - the biggest one of which is that customers want/demand services that they refuse to pay for.

For example, there are various suggestions that airlines should make seats bigger.  Hello?  If you want a bigger seat, there's already one on most planes.  It is called 'first class'.  Oh yes, right - it costs more.  What these people are really saying is 'airlines should be forced to offer their services for less money' - and that surely isn't going to help fix the airline industry at all.

Perhaps the best partial solution is updating the outdated air traffic control system.  Everyone is agreed on the benefits this will offer - our airways are over-crowded at present, and a new improved ATC system is similar to adding more lanes to the air 'freeway'.

Better than just reducing congestion however is the promise of allowing for more direct flight paths and better take-off and landing ascents and descents, reducing fuel and flight time, a 'green' win-win that saves us time, saves the the airlines money, and also helps enhance air traffic safety too (but when did you last hear of two planes colliding in the sky - other than over Brazil?).

With all these benefits - and cost savings - you'd think there'd be a positive move forward on this front.  But, alas, the concept has been languishing for more years than any of us would wish to remember, due to arguments about who will pay the up front costs of establishing the new system.

The phrase 'penny wise and pound foolish' springs to mind, and indeed, isn't that the biggest problem of all that permeates the entire airline industry.  When they're not nickel and diming us out of lettuce leaves and pillows/blankets, they're refusing to spend their own money to invest in their future.

An interesting choice of speaker at a White House forum on modernizing government was Southwest's CEO, Gary Kelly.  As a keynote session on customer service he said it was more important to be on time and have great employees that to offer frills.

He also made the interesting comment that communication with his company's customers didn't cost much, because the airline's blog gave them valuable customer feedback - feedback that other companies would pay a research firm to generate.

Looking ahead, the airline industry forecast seems better.  According to the OAG (remember them - apparently they're still around in some form or another) January 2010 shows a global increase of 3% in flight capacity compared to Jan 2009, and on a global basis, by their statistics, there have now been five consecutive months of global capacity increases, with most of that growth being in the low cost airline sector, and at the expensive of the dinosaurs.

Naughty United doesn't get 'time off for good behavior' - or, in this case, a remission of half its fine.  Back in August, the DoT fined UA $75,000 for not disclosing taxes and fees in the initial advertised fares on its Web site and for showing one-way fares that were only applicable for round-trip travel.  As is usually the case, UA had to pay half the fine, and was told that if it didn't commit any more violations for twelve months, the other half of the fine would be excused.

Let's ignore the amazingly gentle slap on the wrist that a fine of half $75,000 represents to a multi-billion dollar airline.  Let's instead see if UA learned its lesson.

Ooops.  United was fined $30,000 last Friday for a further violation, after United's website left out the 7.5% federal tax that the government requires airlines to hide into their fares (apparently the government doesn't really want us to know just how much tax we pay at every turn) for a 60 hour period.  This 'programming error' (as United describes it) and the $30,000 fine means that UA failed to be well behaved for twelve months, and so now has to pay the other $37,500 of its earlier fine too.

Hey, DoT.  How about, next time, you add another zero or two to these fines?  United may have made more money by showing these lower fares than the cost of the pathetic fines you levied against them.

Talking about the DoT and naughty airlines, one should see one's glass as half full rather than half empty.  It is my clear sense that the DoT is becoming ever so slightly more activist and participative in attempting to create and enforce some rights for us passengers.

Just a month ago it promulgated new rules setting obligations on airlines to care for passengers on tarmac-delayed flights (plus some other rules too), now they have launched an updated website at a slightly different address to make it easier to file complaints about airlines.  The site also has some other consumer information.

Now if they could just kick some life into the people who judge airline mergers as being consumer unfriendly and uncompetitive, things would be close to perfect.

I don't think anyone has kept track of the flow-on bankruptcies caused when an airline goes into Chapter 11 and reneges on its debts and obligations.  And so maybe there is some poetic justice in learning of how a recent airline bankruptcy may have been partially as a result of problems with its credit-card processing company.

Now defunct Scottish airline Globespan was apparently owed 35 million by its credit card processor, E-Clear.  Apparently E-Clear may have been holding back the moneys due to Globespan (and other travel companies too), and E-Clear has now been placed into bankruptcy administration with external managers, as it appears the company may owe in excess of 100 million.

Typically banks hold money back from companies that they are worried about, and companies have had to meekly submit to such hold-backs as an unavoidable business cost that must be accepted in return for the privilege of accepting credit cards.

No-one has ever thought to question the probity or financial strength of the credit card processing company.  More details here.

And another bankruptcy with business as usual (except for its creditors) is the Las Vegas Monorail, which filed this week, showing between $10 and $50 million of assets and between $500 and $1 billion of liabilities.  Being as how the monorail's bond insurer Ambac could now be facing as much as $1.16 billion in liabilities, it would seem that liabilities are closer to $1 billion than $500 million.

The monorail has been in trouble for some time, and while it may have been earning enough to cover its ongoing operating costs, it has not been earning enough to cover debt repayments.  But notwithstanding it first tapping into cash reserves to make debt repayments back in January 2008, it is choosing to blame the last year's general slowdown in Vegas tourism as the main reason for its collapse.  It always has to be someone else's fault, doesn't it.

Amazingly, the monorail still hopes to expand to the airport and extra places along the strip.

One more bankruptcy thing.  Here's an interesting article about JAL's bankruptcy that exposes some of the massive inefficiencies in Japanese aviation, and throws into stark highlight JAL's inability to trade profitably, even with the protectionist regime it has enjoyed in the past.

The big 'take home' idea from this article and the JAL bankruptcy is the reminder that Japan, Japan's corporations, and the Japanese way of life is not necessarily greatly better than our own.  There was a time, a decade or two ago, when it seemed that 'Japan Inc' was the unstoppable new economic giant that would march across the world, with US and European corporations falling helplessly to the wayside in the face of Japanese superiority.

Well, of course that never happened.

But can we extrapolate from the pricking of the Japanese bubble to a similar fall from grace for China?  At present, it surely seems that China is the new unstoppable monster - economically and demographically - and that its rise to pre-eminence is almost guaranteed with the only issue being when.  But does China too have weaknesses that are currently obscured by its enormous 'catch-up' type growth, and will it in turn also prove to be no more invulnerable than Japan?

I'd like to think so.  But I'm far from sanguine.  Here are some more thoughts about China.

First, some more background.  China's economy continues to surge ahead - for example, in 2009, and global economic slowdown notwithstanding, its economy is estimated to have grown at an overall rate of 8.7%, with the fourth quarter overcompensating for some slower earlier quarters - after a low of 6.1% (annualized) in the first quarter, things were roaring ahead at an annual rate of 10.7% in the fourth quarter - a rate which would see another doubling of its GDP in just under seven years.  Look for it to displace Japan as the world's second largest economy this year.

Because a lot of this growth represents simply bringing impoverished members of its population into something more akin to a 'normal' international standard of living, and because there's still a very long way before its income per head of population gets anywhere near international norms in the first world (city dwellers earn on average $2700/yr, rural dwellers a mere $750) there's a great deal more upward potential before its economic driving forces start to slow down.  More details here.

China remains a curious contradiction of freedom and control, with its communist leadership struggling to find some way to keep its citizens happy as it moves the country forward, and to find some way of reconciling free enterprise with communism.  For example, these days, although the government builds major new freeways everywhere all the time from state funds, it then turns around and charges drivers for driving on those same roads.  And healthcare is not free - sure, it is also a great deal less than in the US, but China does not provide universal free healthcare to its citizens (or, if it does, most Chinese people choose not to avail themselves of it).

As example of the contradiction, the annual Index of Economic Freedom released earlier this week ranks China at number 140 out of the 183 countries ranked (Cuba, Zimbabwe and North Korea came at the bottom), but Hong Kong - now a semi-sovereign somewhat integrated part of China again - came at the top as the freest place in the world (Singapore, Australia and New Zealand came immediately below).

Clearly, in the 13 years since the British returned Hong Kong to China, the mainland government have been careful stewards of Hong Kong's business focused ethos.

Should we be afraid of China?  Is there an inevitable conflict looming between this still communist country and the western democracies?  Recognizing that war is an extension of economic policy by other measures, one hopes that China might recognize the economic imperative of keeping the peace, for what would it gain if it were to destroy the west, its major trading partner?

This reasoning has been a key part of, in particular, the US's approach to engagement with China, attempting to sooth the savage beast with economic self-interest, and in the belief that as China developed its economy, freedom would naturally spring from that (with the last part of that assumed process being that free nations would be 'just like us' and no threat).

Our two last presidents respectively said 'In this global information age, when economic success is built on ideas, personal freedom is essential to the greatness of any nation' (Clinton) and 'Economic freedom creates habits of liberty. And habits of liberty create expectations of democracy ... Trade freely with the Chinese and time is on our side' (Bush).

But has this process actually occurred to any discernable extent?  This article suggests that there has been no sign of any relaxation of government control, no new freedoms introduced to China at all, and goes on to opine that there is no reason to expect such a social evolution to occur in the foreseeable future either.

Meantime, China's military continues to grow well beyond anything needed to safeguard the nation and protect its borders from enemies that largely do not exist.  The development of a 'deep water' navy, and Chinese missile systems that threaten US naval dominance in the Pacific are also causing concern in Washington, as is the reality of China's military buildup always exceeding our prior intelligence estimates.

Back here in the US, informed sources suggest that the nation with the most active network of spies operating in the US is, ummm, China.  Some of their spies focus on military secrets, some on industrial secrets.  Forget about Russia, forget about other countries; when it comes to spying, China is where most of the action is coming from these days.

So, let's get this right.  Ignoring stateless terrorism, the nation with both the present and probable future biggest challenge to the United States, economically and militarily, is China.  It poses the most credible threat, both short term and long term, to our nation's security.

So what does our government choose to do?  Overriding the disagreements of both the Director of National Intelligence and CIA Director, and focusing instead on the political implications of not upsetting China, it has downgraded China from a 'Priority 1' intelligence status to a 'Priority 2' status.  This leaves North Korea and Iran as the two remaining Priority 1 intelligence status countries.

About the only good thing that can be said about this is if we're now stepping back from our watchful alertness about China because we're worried what China might think, then there's unlikely to be any future battle between our two nations, because the battle has already been lost.  And, ahem, we're not the victor.  Details here.

Two closing comments.  I'm not criticizing China at all - it is acting in its own selfish best interests, as should all nations.  Unfortunately, if China perceives a collision between its best interests and our own, then it will attempt to secure outcomes that are best for China rather than negotiate compromises or allow us some victories.

Secondly, don't downplay the extraordinary growing powerhouse that is China until you've seen it for yourself.  Travel across China, and in particular, go out of the cities and into the smaller towns.  You'll see prosperity and amazing development and construction everywhere, not just in the big cities - new high rise buildings, new multi-lane freeways, and new high speed rail lines.

Alas, you'll also see pollution everywhere too, because China is choosing not to constrain its growth with any concerns about global warming or carbon emissions.

So perhaps it is a good thing that the UN is now backtracking on yet another global warming myth and downgrading still further the possible threat of 'global warming'.

This is an interesting example of the evolution of a global warming myth, because it illustrates how unscientific nonsense becomes hallowed after multiple repetition and becomes accepted conventional wisdom.  Two years ago the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a benchmark report that was claimed to incorporate the latest and most detailed research into the impact of global warming.  A central claim and great headline stopper was that the world's glaciers were melting so fast that those in the Himalayas could vanish by 2035.  The report said the probability of this happening was 'very high' - ie more than 90% likely to occur.

It now appears that such a claim is colossally untrue, as anyone with half a brain would have always realized.  With most of the Himalayan glaciers hundreds of feet thick, this would require a melting rate so fast that it might even be visible to the naked eye.

Read the amazing story of this exposed myth in Britain's The Times newspaper.

Would you like another example of national short-sightedness?  Here's an interesting one - the US is about to close down its LORAN navigation system.

LORAN (short for Long Range Navigation) evolved during WW2 and was used by both airplanes and ships for navigation.  Since that time, it has been enhanced several times, but in its current form (LORAN-C) it is much less accurate than GPS based systems (GPS is maybe 5 - 10 times more accurate), and requires more expensive equipment.

So with the worldwide network of GPS satellites, the decision has been taken to save some money by decommissioning the LORAN network.  On the face of it, this is acceptable, but what it means is that just about everything that moves or needs to know its position is now dependent on GPS, with no backup system (other than celestial navigation, a much deprecated skill that few people know and which, of course, relies on being able to see a clear sky, and can not be done to great degree of accuracy or timeliness).  Details of LORAN's retirement here.

How likely is it that our planes and ships might need a backup system?  As I discussed last year, the integrity of our GPS network is currently under threat, with the projected life expiry of current satellites exceeding the replacement rate of new satellites, and with some alarmingly optimistic projections being made about the ability to deploy new technology GPS satellites on time and as expected.

So there is a known concern at present, extending over the next five or more years, about possible threats to the reliability of the GPS network.

And how about unknown threats?  Well, the GPS satellites are safely way up in the sky, right?  It isn't as though a terrorist could launch a SAM and hit one (a MANPAD/SAM can rise maybe 5 miles, the GPS satellites are more than 10,000 miles up).

Well, yes, that is all true, but if we were to find ourselves in a conflict with another technologically advanced nation, is it not possible that the adversary might launch killer anti-satellites to destroy our communications and GPS satellites?  Indeed, with our total battlefield reliance on satellite based systems for everything these days, any nation that could do so would consider it the best possible strategy to neutralize our own space assets.  Interestingly, most of our potential adversaries have maintained strong low-tech C3I systems that would not be jeopardized by the loss of any space based assets of their own.

But, heck, we're not planning on going to war with eg Russia or China are we?  Two answers to that.  First, a prudent nation plans for the unexpected, not only for the expected.  That's why we have a standing military force - to be ready to respond to unexpected challenges.

And the second answer would be - how about nations such as, well, the other two nations on the top of our intelligence priority list - N Korea and Iran.  N Korea has high altitude missile capabilities already and test launched at least one satellite last year, and as this article reports, Iran is planning to shortly launch not just one or two but three satellites.

Still feel good about putting all our eggs in the one (GPS) basket?

It had been my quiet resolve not to mention a word about Haiti, not last week, not this week, and hopefully not ever.  We're all being bombarded, in all the usual places and in some quite unusual places, to donate towards relief efforts, and as worthy as the cause may be, there comes a point when one has to start just saying no.  Visit half a dozen stores and you'll probably have nearly as many exhortations to give, and so on and so forth.  It seems to me that when we give a contribution, we should be given a button to wear saying 'I've already given' so we don't feel obliged to give again and again as if for the first time.

But.  I've been amazed at the extraordinary lack of comprehension shown by the people who have been decrying continued visits to Haiti by cruise ships.  In particular, Royal Caribbean Line has been strongly criticized.  It has its own private beach and tourist attractions at Labadee, a sea-side resort about 60 miles north of Port-au-Prince and an area unharmed by the earthquake.

Would someone please explain to me how halting the lucrative cruise ship visits to Labadee will help the Haitian economy?  Royal Caribbean says their port calls provide employment for about 500 Haitians; the ships are bringing relief supplies as well as tourists, and the cruise line is currently donating all of its net revenue from the port visits to relief efforts.

So please tell me how putting 500 people out of work and cutting back on relief funding would be a good thing?  Would not a doubling of port calls to Labadee actually be better?

Two fascinating new bits of information on Google's Nexus One cellphone.

The first piece of information is that apparently Google sold a mere 21,000 units in its first week of release - compare this to the Motorola Droid which sold twelve times more in its first week of release, or to any iPhone release which typically sells way more than a million in its first week, and always could sell more if it weren't for stock/supply shortages.

So is Google's phone likely to change much at all in the marketplace?  Apparently not.

The second piece of information is that the company that makes Google's phone for them, HTC, is expecting to shortly release a phone, which HTC calls the Bravo, sometime in the next month or two.  The Bravo is apparently almost identical to the Nexus One in all but name.

If we can safely assume that the Bravo will be sold for less than the Nexus One (and with an underlying manufacturing cost of about $180, the retail price of $530 that Google is asking for its Nexus One is surely able to be reduced some by HTC), who would now choose to buy a Nexus One instead of a Bravo?

Meanwhile, rumors are rife that Google's move into direct phone hardware competition with Apple is destroying one of the last remaining shreds of cooperation between the two companies - it is being suggested that Apple may be about to remove the Google search engine from its iPhones and replace it with Microsoft's Bing instead.

You can surely understand Apple's outrage in seeing a former partner now seeking to directly compete against it.  First was Google's indirect competition - providing the operating system platform for new smartphones to use in an attempt for them to match Apple's iPhone OS, and now their is Google's direct competition, with its own branded smartphone.  If Apple does now turn to Bing, Google will have only itself to blame.

Google's entire involvement in phones - both phone OS and phone hardware - remains a puzzle.  The Google search engine was already the search engine of choice or at least conveniently available on nearly every smartphone out there, so how did/does it stand to benefit by getting involved in OS development and hardware sales?

Now, perhaps Google will blow Apple off the same way it did China by saying that the revenue impacts of losing its search engine status on iPhones is negligible.  But if it does that, it is being as short-sighted as it is in allowing itself to be beaten in China by a better search engine (Baidu, which actually increased its market share during Google's attempts to win the Chinese market).  As evidence of the vital importance of cell phones to Google, a new study from the Gartner Group predicts that in 2013 there will be more browser equipped phones capable of accessing the internet than computers, and that in 2015 (that's just over four years from now) phones will have become most people's primary internet browsing device.

So Google is willing to sacrifice its relationship with Apple, a key player in this new marketplace, all for a 'me too' phone under its own brand which is being outsold by the iPhone approximately 50 to 1?

Don't get me wrong.  I'm delighted that Google's Android OS exists, but if Android didn't come along, something else would have appeared to exploit the yawning gap between the iPhone OS and things like Windows Mobile.  Nokia (and other companies) still continue development on the Symbian OS, for example.

To repeat, Google's entire involvement in phones - both phone OS and phone hardware - remains a puzzle.

WONDERFUL AT&T iPHONE NEWS

I had a phone call earlier this week from an AT&T salesman at a local retail store.  I've no idea what prompted her to call me - I had bought my iPhone from Apple, not AT&T, and I'm hardly a big customer, but she called to offer me a new data plan that included - wait for it - unlimited international data roaming.

Prior to now, whenever I took my iPhone out of the country, I had to switch off its data services, except for the rare occasions when I was within range of a free Wi-fi service.  All of the phone's wonderful value-add intelligence would shut down while out of data range, as would its email handling.  This was because AT&T was, in round numbers, marking up the cost for data 100,000% - what would cost a few dollars a GB for local users in eg the UK was being sold by AT&T for slightly more dollars, but per MB rather than per GB.  Yes, that's a 1000-fold markup, plus a bit more because you can be sure that AT&T wasn't paying full retail for the data it sells on to its customers.

Every so often, someone would misunderstand that and, being used to the unlimited data included in their home service, would use the phone the same way while traveling internationally, and so would come home to find a bill from AT&T for many thousands of dollars.  For sure, AT&T has become a lot more pro-active at warning people about the costs of data, but warned or not, the outrageous costs remained the same.

Until now.  AT&T has just now quietly introduced a new unlimited international dataplan that, at least earlier this week, was only being offered to customers with at least one year account history, and requiring a manager's approval.  But, for whatever reason, my new best friend Katelyn extended this to me, and for the very fair cost of $35/month, I can now use my phone internationally exactly the same as I can in the US.

Wow.  Wow, wow, and again wow.  This transforms the phone's global usefulness, and is a huge change in AT&T's tariff.  If you have an iPhone and travel internationally, call AT&T and get this service added to your phone too.

My expectation is that when the plan becomes more broadly implemented and normalized, I'll then be able to tactically switch it on and off, only turning it on when traveling out of the country, and turning it immediately off again upon my return, thereby reducing the cost of international data roaming down from $420/yr to a few pennies over $1/day.  But until this all happens, I'm not giving up my new unlimited international data roaming, for fear of not being able to get it back again.

And to put this into context, until now I've had to also pay a monthly subscription to T-Mobile for a Blackberry with international roaming - $40/month every month just to have the phone switched on, and $20/month when internationally roaming.  So I'm ahead of the 8-ball right from the get-go and at long last can happily turn my back on the last vestige of the 'bad old days' of relying on a nasty Blackberry for email and data services.

Longer time readers know that my style is to 'tell it like it is' in my reviews, and to mercilessly point out the faults in products that I'm reviewing.  Very few of the mainstream media writers are similarly blunt, or similarly detailed in picking apart a product, but I have to give full credit for having encountered one reviewer in particular who writes exceedingly well, very clearly, and who can be at least as merciless as me.

I'm referring to David Pogue of the New York Times, and to prove my point, you absolutely should read his review of Barnes & Nobles' Nook eBook reader.  He takes no prisoners as he absolutely destroys this product, and supplements his brutal (but brilliant and absolutely on topic) review with a spoof video, too.  Amazing.

Amazon currently have 90% of the market for eBooks, and with B&N fielding an apparently grossly inferior reader and charging appreciably more for their eBooks, it is hard to see how the Nook will, ahem, carve out a nook for itself in this new market.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Now that the first round of excitement and hysteria has subsided slightly, let's think about the logic behind the new security rules on flights.  As you know, they apply only to passengers from certain countries, on international flights coming in to the US.  The security requirements are designed to detect hidden explosives being smuggled on to planes by passengers from these named countries, and may or may not be effective.

Let's not even start with the question 'So, if the terrorists know which countries of origin will cause them to be given special treatment, why won't they choose a different country of origin?', and let's not wonder about things like the shoe bomber Richard Reid who was, hmmm, a British citizen.  Being as how Nigeria was apparently only added to the list of 'bad' countries by virtue of the crotch bomber being Nigerian, shouldn't the same logic be applied to Britain, too?

But, as I said, maybe we should leave these easy simple questions unanswered and trust that our government knows best about such things.

Instead, here's another question :  Why are only passengers on international flights to the US being given this treatment?  Why is there an assumption/belief that no passengers on domestic flights in the US would also be suicide bomber/terrorists?  Or, for that matter, passengers on flights leaving the US?  For sure, the potential damage is identical in all three scenarios.

And, if we think about it, if the crotch bomber had simply flown to the US without attempting to blow up the plane he was on, he could then have subsequently taken a domestic flight in the US and done the same thing on that flight as he attempted to do on the international flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

And, if I were a terrorist, I'd rather stage an attempt on a domestic flight, so as to massively disrupt the flying plans and convenience of the entire US flying public. Terrorists want to harm the US as a nation.  They view destroying a plane with 300 people on it as a means to that end; they're not interested in killing 300 people, their objective is to harm the US and destroy our way of life, ourselves, and our country.  For sure, a much higher impact on all our lives would flow from their using the same crotch-bomb tactics on a domestic flight within the US.

Are we to believe that it is impossible for terrorists to enter the US, with or without bombs (if they came to the US without any bomb, it would be a relatively simple process to mix up the explosive here)?  That is a nonsense belief, for many reasons, including our new understanding that the 'Do Not Fly' list is very small and that most terrorists are not on it.  And then there's our wide open southern border and all the helpful 'Immigrant Rights' groups doing all they can to help people to sneak into our country - I don't think they check illegal aliens against the various watch lists before helping them on their journey.  Any terrorist with the desire to reach the US can almost certainly achieve his goal.

So, what actually have we ended up with?  Largely ineffective procedures that apply to only a tiny percentage of flights with US citizens on them.  Completely unprotected outbound international flights, and completely unprotected domestic flights that, by all accounts, are a more tempting terrorist target than inbound flights from other countries.

That is the part that really bugs me.  What's with the assumption that terrorists won't want to attack a domestic US flight - have we forgotten 9/11?

Some good security news - Canada is slowly returning to normal and is now allowing passengers flying from Canada to the US to take one small carry-on onto the plane with them.  The bag should be 'equivalent to the size of a small gym bag' (whatever that means), and there will be sizing templates (that may or may not ever be used) deployed.

In addition, you can also bring on board some personal items such as a purse, laptop, crutches and camera bag.

A man smuggled himself onto an international flight by hiding in a plane toilet until after the flight had taken off.  Good job that he wasn't a terrorist, isn't it.  Details here.

This individual worked at an airport.  But if you want to get into the secure area of a US airport without going through security screening, you don't need to be an airport employee.  There's another, simpler way.  Simply climb over the airport's perimeter fence This article points to how the NY/NJ Port Authority's airports are having major problems with their perimeter alarm systems and so, much of the time, simply switch them off.

Although the alarm systems are proving unworkable, it isn't because the Port Authority bought the cheapest system that was inadequate.  It has already paid substantially more than the $100 million originally contracted for a fancy system from Raytheon - a system that is not only over budget and not working, but also behind deadline.

Here's a story that would be funny if it weren't also true.  A devout Jew donned his tefillin on a commuter flight from New York to Louisville.  What's that?  You don't know what a tefillin is?  Neither did I, and neither did other people on the flight.  A flight attendant worried that it might be a bomb, so the pilot diverted and made an emergency landing at PHL where the plane landed at a remote part of the airport and was surrounded by police.  After about 15 minutes, the police decided the tefillin and its wearer were no threat, but the plane was searched anyway (why?).

As for the tefillin, here's a picture, and this Wikipedia entry tells you all you'd want to know about the objects.

We all know that we're not supposed to joke about bombs or anything when we go through airport security.  But did you know that apparently the TSA aren't supposed to joke with us either This story sympathetically explains what happened to an overly sensitive woman who was at the receiving end of a TSA screener's practical joke.

While I agree the screener was a bit heavy handed in his humor, I think it sad that we all have to pretend to be terribly serious about something we all know is utter nonsense.  Rather than summarily fire the TSA screener, I'd have promoted him and made him officer-in-charge of introducing a note of levity and humanity into the charade that we all undergo every time we fly.

We're often told that all the new security and surveillance measures that are descending upon us are there for our protection, and that we, as innocent upstanding citizens, have nothing to fear from an increased level of state awareness of every part of our lives.

That intuitively sounds sort of true, doesn't it.  What have we to hide?

To answer that question, look to this story about how the police in Britain are making a game out of charging otherwise ordinary normal honest citizens for minor violations, and abusing their online surveillance capabilities to do so.  Worse still, many of the violations they are issuing may be incorrect due to faults in the databases the police are using to create their charges.

Not sufficiently stated in this article is that while the police are writing out tickets for not having vehicle insurance, even if the car owner/driver in fact does have vehicle insurance, they are turning their backs on the real crime that pervades so much of Britain these days.  Policing has become a 'numbers game' with police forces often being instructed by their own senior officers to go after 'paper crime' rather than real crime, just so as to keep the numbers of crimes 'detected' up.

Don't just take my word for this, though.  For more, I very strongly commend the Inspector Gadget blog.  This blog is anonymously written by a serving British police officer, and the regular revelations he shares with us about the dreadful misdirection of police priorities will almost drive you to tears.

Do you know how hot the air is coming out of a jet engine?  One unfortunate private jet owner now has a very clear understanding of this interesting bit of airplane trivia.  Details here.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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