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29 January, 2010

Good morning

To my delight, our Scotland's Islands and Highlands Tour is filling fast.  We now have 14 people confirmed, and two more couples may be going to confirm their participation shortly.

We've a very international mix - as well as, of course, Americans, we have some Brits, Canadians, two more New Zealanders (plus me) and even one Swiss.  Seven of the people have traveled with me before, and I'm getting to know the other group members too, and it seems we'll have a wonderful mix of people, enjoying a wonderful part of the world, and at a wonderful time of year.

Even better, as soon as we get a 15th and subsequent person joining, the tour price starts to drop for all participants, reducing by $100 per person for everyone for each of the next two couples joining, and then by $50 per person for the next two couples after that - assuming I can continue to get more rooms at the hotels.  While I'm willing to grow the group up to 24 people, I'm not sure I can continue to get extra rooms at the hotels.

So, if you'd like to come, please do let me know as soon as possible.

My three year old laptop has been getting slower and slower, and generating more and more problems.  I hasten to add that these are not hardware problems.  The underlying Dell hardware is as good as it ever was.  The problems were mainly due to Windows Vista getting clogged up with who knows what, and with small issues - perhaps as the result of occasional system crashes and program errors - gradually multiplying and getting more serious.  A nearly full hard disk didn't help at all.

The bottom line was I really had no choice but to reformat the hard drive and start over afresh, and if I were to do that, I may as well go 'all the way' and replace the never-good Vista with the improved newer Windows 7.

So, with considerable trepidation, I went out and bought a copy of Windows 7.  I had hoped to buy the upgrade disk ($120) because I had the original Vista disk that came with the computer, but I was told that the upgrade requires one to install Win7 over the top of Vista.  I wanted a 'clean install' with no contamination from the nasty and now damaged Vista at all, so the only way to do that was to buy the complete program ($200).  So much for the upgrade offer.

Windows 7 installed without any immediately apparent problems.  But by the time I'd loaded Win7, plus the main programs I use, a bunch of music files, and other essential data files, there was only about 20GB free on the 100GB hard drive, much the same as before.  I might have a lovely fresh OS and a faster running computer, but my hard drive was still as clogged as ever.

So, phase 2 - I went out and bought a new hard drive.  And here's the trick of this.  Going from a 100GB to a 500GB hard drive did not just increase my storage capacity five-fold, but it increased it more like 20-fold (going from a net useable remaining space of 20GB to a net useable remaining space of almost 420GB).  That's a huge difference and should see me content for quite some time.

Plus - talk about getting something for nothing....  The new five-times greater capacity hard drive uses less power than the older one - 0.451A compared to 0.58A.  As an interesting aside, and not as I expected, all the Seagate hard drives, both slow 5400 RPM and fast 7200RPM drives, and of capacities from 160GB up to 500GB, use exactly the same power.  I had always guessed that the faster drives used more power, and had also thought that maybe higher capacity drives might use more power too.  Apparently, not so.

Bottom line on hard drives - buy the fastest (in RPMs) and biggest (in GBs) one you can find.  It will not cost a lot more in terms of $$$, and gives you a huge extra resource with no performance or power/battery life penalty.

So, I had to of course reinstall everything a second time onto the new hard drive, but that again proceeded with no up front problems.

Another benefit of upgrading to Windows 7 is that the better power management features in Windows 7 will allow the battery to last about 10% - 20% longer than before.  You may recall just a couple of weeks ago I ran out of battery life, and several of you commented that you too find it harder and harder to find places to recharge while traveling, so the 30+ minutes of extra battery life given to me by Win7 is much appreciated.

To complete the laptop's midlife upgrade, I increased its memory from 2GB to 3GB (this just involved plugging in a new memory card, no need to reinstall anything again).

I can't give you specifics of the performance impacts this has, but my sense is possibly the disk drive is used less now, and with memory being so brilliantly faster to access than the hard drive (and using less power when accessed) this has to be another positive performance tweak.

You'll recall that prior to Christmas I was trying to spend the thick end of $2000 to buy a new laptop from Dell, but they refused to supply me the laptop I'd ordered and paid for as they'd promised they would.

But now, by spending $200 for a new OS, $135 for a new hard drive, and $60 for an extra 1GB of memory, I've ended up with a familiar faithful friend that may be good for as much as another three years.  Sure, the computer is handicapped by a much slower processor than the latest computers have, and sure it doesn't come as a brand new computer with a new three year warranty, but these small upgrades have saved me over $1000.

That's not to say that this has all been the work of a few brief minutes of course.  Downloading (or finding the original disks for) all the different software on my laptop has been a several day process, and there's still a bit of learning curve to adjust to Windows 7 compared to Vista, but all in all, I feel it has been time very well spent.

I do begrudge the time required by PC Tools to register their Spyware Doctor program - one has to type in a 48 character registration key in addition to typing in one's name.  48 characters (8 of them are dashes, but even so)!!!  The 40 character password is enough to give more than a billion different unique identifiers to every man, woman and child on the planet, plus with ample check digits to prevent people guessing other valid identifiers.

What sort of corporate conceit requires such a long registration code?  Even Microsoft only requires 25 character codes.

It gets worse.  After manually typing it all in, if you've made a single mistake (as many of us will, and as I did) rather than telling you and letting you edit the one tiny error you made, it zeroes out all the data and requires you to type it all in again.

With Microsoft now offering a complete free anti-virus program, you'd think that companies that still hope to sell their similar products such as PC Tools would lift their game a bit (I'm only continuing to use PC Tools because I bought a multi-year multi-computer subscription which has yet to expire).

Win7 might be better than Vista, but it - and the other Microsoft programs - are still far from perfect.  The system still sometimes freezes.  But at least a reboot is vastly quicker now than it was in the 'bad old days' of a three year old Vista based system.

The system also seems to be demonstrating some instabilities, dropping its network connection on a random basis.  Some underlying Win7 problem, perhaps?  Unfortunately, the latest Dell drivers for the computer are generally 2 - 3 years old; and so are pre-Win7.  Whatever the problem is, the usability of the laptop is currently greatly compromised.  One step forward, two steps back, it seems.

Joe Brancatelli told me an interesting story of his Windows 7 upgrade experiences.  He had two identical laptops - one with few applications on it, and one with lots of different stuff.  He upgraded them both to Win7, in the same way, at the same time - not by reformatting and starting over but by installing Windows 7 on top of the previous OS and preserving all its settings and software/data.  But although the laptop with lots of applications and data installed perfectly, the laptop with few applications and data - the one which should be the easier install - gave him no end of problems.  Software these days, particularly from Microsoft, seems to be as much a matter of good luck as good management.

Talking about Dell - yuck, how I hate to talk about them, and how I hate, even more, to talk to them.  I got an email on Thursday telling me I was being charged $49 for a service call.  I've happily had no contact with Dell for some weeks, and my laptop still has a couple of weeks warranty remaining on it, so I was surprised by this.

I called the contact number in the email, and keyed in the seven digit extension number to directly reach the person who'd raised the charge, only to get into an endless loop whereby the result of entering the seven digit extension number was a request to enter the seven digit extension number, and so on and so on.

Impassioned pressing of the 0 key finally got me to someone who was unable to help me, but who transferred me to someone who could help me.  Unfortunately, that person was also unable to help me, and transferred me to a third person (unable to help), who in turn transferred me to a fourth person.  All four people were in India not the US, and the phone line quality varied between average and unintelligible, and none of them were able to tell me anything about the charge.  Eventually I gave up and accepted the fourth gentleman's promise to 'look into it and email me and explanation.  Ten hours later, I've heard nothing more.

But maybe that makes sense, at least in some sort of alternate Dell universe.  He tried to tell me that it was a service call placed on 29 Jan, but the conversation was occurring on 28 Jan.  So I guess he can't look into it until after it has occurred - insert Twilight Zone music here.

So, with that as lenghty introduction, what's an obvious next thing to talk about?  Yes, of course.  How can I avoid joining in the chorus of comments about Apple's new iPad tablet device, announced on Wednesday.  So - quick question/answer - is it a 'must have' device that you should rush out and get as soon as it becomes available for sale?

This is the question I've been mulling over ever since Wednesday's release event.  Try as I might, I can't think of a single compelling reason to get one.  That's not to say that I probably won't get one, anyway, if for no other reason than to be able to talk more knowledgeably about it, but at present, it seems the device is deliberately trying to straddle the gap between intelligent phones and laptops; doing some features of each, but not doing anything as well as the device that is primarily designed to do such a thing.

Will the sum of the parts - will the new 'convergence' offered by the iPad - in total create a value proposition that the individual stand alone components do not?

Obviously, Steve Jobs and Apple are betting on the answer to that being yes.  I'll concede that the iPad certainly will be a vigorous competitor in the Netbook market, and it only needs to get a moderate share of the Netbook market to succeed.

We may also see some new and as yet unthought of  'killer apps' be developed for the unit that vastly extends its value appeal.

To answer that question in further detail, I've take a break from my whisky writing (now at 30,000 words) to analyze and opine on the iPad.  I also decided to speculate, sort of, on the new iPad and all the business that will grow up around it (I was getting press releases from accessory makers within hours of the iPad announcement, touting their new devices that will work with the iPad), and so grabbed a website name in the hope that someone might now turn around and seek to buy it from me for a ridiculous sum of money.

I've added some content to populate a few pages on this new site, and so rather than pointing you to a regular page here, I will direct you instead to my skeletal brand new iPad site for :

This Week's Feature Column :  The Apple iPad :  The hype prior to this product's release was matched by the superlatives and rhetoric at its launch event on Wednesday.  But is any of it actually valid?  Visit allaboutipad.com to find out more.

Needless to say, if you'd like to have a lovely new website name, do let me know!  To my astonishment, the site had 25 visitors on Wednesday, even though no search engines yet know anything about it.  People must be desperately searching for any possible information on the iPad.

High Speed Rail :  There was a lot to dislike in this year's State of the Union address, but I'm confining my comments narrowly to that closest related to travel - I am outraged at the outright lies that are being thrown at us under the rubric of a national commitment to building the best high speed rail network in the world.

Rather than analyze the deceit behind this claim in the newsletter, I've set it out on the website.  Please do visit, accordingly, my commentary titled 'The Government's Outrageous Lie about High Speed Rail Funding'.  Read it and weep, as I do myself, for this missed opportunity at really truly doing the great and good thing our government pretends they are now doing.

Dinosaur watching :  The struggle between British Airways and its cabin crew is reaching epic proportions, with BA upping the stakes by declaring that any cabin crew who go on strike will permanently lose their travel privileges when they subsequently return to work.  Risking their travel privileges is a big deal for most staff members, many of whom get good use out of this benefit, and even if they don't, they probably pass the benefits on to others via the 'friends and family' provision.

BA's cabin crew are currently voting on whether to conduct strike action against the airline or not.  Results will determined late February.  Details here.

I'm all for a knock down high stakes fight to the finish, because, if BA is to become successful on the international stage, it needs to reset the old culture of lazy entitlement and replace it with a more realistic work focused one and a cost structure in line with its competitors.

A stand-up knock-down fight to the finish is more likely to do that than a trivial bit of compromise that as much as anything reaffirms in the mind of cabin crew their dual sense of both entitlement and being wronged.  A piecemeal approach would necessarily involve ongoing returns to the bargaining table seeking further concessions; much better for BA as a company, and us as their anxious passengers, to do it all at once.

On the other hand, when one looks at BA's rapacious so-called fuel surcharges, one wonders how it is they can possibly lose money, and how it is they can't afford to generously pay all their staff huge 'fuel bonuses'.

As always, their surcharges defy logic and are clearly totally unrelated to the underlying cost of fuel.  For example, a coach class surcharge between London and Seattle is 132 if you're buying a ticket in Britain, but $282 if you buy a ticket in the US.  132 converts to about $212 - what is the extra $70 for?

For further example, although the plane burns the same amount of fuel wherever in the plane you sit, the surcharge increases from $282 in coach to $354 in premium economy, and up to a hefty $410 in business and first class.

Oh - one more thing.  If you cancel your ticket, if the ticket is non-refundable, so too is your fuel surcharge non-refundable.  Why is that, BA?  How much fuel do you consume to process a computer booking and a computer cancellation?

While BA sees the solution to its terrible losses as unfairly gouging its passengers and cutting back on staff, United sees the solution to its terrible losses as - well, I guess United has already scored close to max on passenger gouging and staff cutbacks, so instead, it is time for, yet again, the return of the beast that will not die, or, if you prefer, airline mergers.

With a business plan no more sophisticated than 'if you can't beat them, join them', the airline execs who pull down the massive mega-million dollar salaries are again beating the merger drum, as witness this article.

Is mindless merging really the finest business strategy that these highly paid executives, presumably representing the fullest flowering of western and American free enterprise and competitive know-how, can come up with?

Talking about union problems and United, here's an interesting story.  The Air Line Pilots Association has agreed to settle a lawsuit brought against them by some of their own members, senior pilots at UA.  They claimed the union didn't fairly represent their best interests in a pay cut agreement with United, and the union is now settling with 2,000 pilots, with a $44 million settlement (ie about $22,000 per pilot - of course, less attorney fees totaling a cool $15.4 million).  Details here.

On the basis of what goes round comes round, ALPA is now suing UA for the $44 million it has had to pay its members.  Is the union now saying 'It is your fault we accepted a bad deal from you'?  That sounds like a bit of a reach, doesn't it.

Continuing to show there's nothing new in the airline industry, stories are coming out about another high-cost airline planning to float a lower-cost subsidiary to provide regional services.  The new airline subsidiary will be based in a smaller regional center, will have faster turnarounds, use regional airports rather than central/major/expensive airports, have fewer checkin staff and use more outsourced services.

But - surprise - it isn't one of the US dinosaurs announcing this plan.  It is Air France, announcing a new regional carrier to be based in Nice.

Another airline trying to re-re-invent itself is Aer Lingus.  Their latest approach to the market is, using their words, to stop trying to become another Ryanair and begin to offer better service to customers willing to pay more for a ticket.

The airline will adopt a hybrid model somewhere between a discount carrier and a full-service carrier.  It wants to attract more business fliers so it plans to offer better food and a faster check-in.  It will add more short-haul flights by working with Aer Arann and will try and find more code-share partners.

Aer Lingus' CEO said a review of the airline showed the low-cost model was limiting its ability to maximize revenue -  a limitation that strangely doesn't seem to apply to Ryanair.  Flights on Aer Arann will be branded "Aer Lingus Regional" and tickets will be sold by Aer Lingus.

Rumors that Aer Lingus might try and rejoin the Star Alliance are currently being denied.  But being as how its departure from the alliance was based on a claim that Aer Lingus was downgrading itself to a discount carrier rather than a full service carrier, if it is now returning back to being a full service carrier, then surely it would want to return back to Star (or another) alliance?

JetBlue is in the black.  It posted an $11 million profile for the last quarter of 2009, up from a $58 million loss a year ago.  Continental, AirTran and Southwest have previously also reported profits for the last quarter.  And Allegiant has just announced a profit twice that of last year - $76.3 million, its best ever, and with the fourth quarter being its 28th consecutive profitable quarter.

United happily reported a loss of $240 million for the quarter, and $651 million for the year.  Why happily?  Because last year it lost $5.4 billion.

Delta - now merged with Northwest, of course - reported a loss for the quarter of $225 million (excluding special items).  For the full year, it lost $1.2 billion.

So tell me again exactly how great the DL/NW merger is?  Unmerged Continental can make a profit, but merged DL/NW continues to make losses.

One sign of the health of the airline industry is a 10% growth in the incidence of involuntary denied boarding of passengers (ie bumping) - airlines seem to be getting more aggressive at overbooking flights (or maybe less generous with their offers for passengers to accept voluntary bumping in return for a reward).

I've written comprehensively on what to do if you get bumped, how to avoid getting bumped, and even how to increase your chances of being bumped in a massive eight part series.  Click the link for more than you ever wanted to know.

Air New Zealand beats Virgin to delivering on a long stated promise of Sir Richard Branson.  Sir Richard has long promised Virgin passengers a double bed on his planes, together with lashings of innuendo that the bed isn't just to allow two people to, ahem, sleep together.  Nudge nudge, wink wink.

But, promises notwithstanding, there's been no making good on such undertakings.

Now Air New Zealand has revealed new seating that truly does become a double bed - okay, so a narrow one, but a double bed of sorts nonetheless.  And - get this - their double beds aren't in overpriced first class, or even in business class or premium economy class.  They are in their coach class cabins - initially to be offered on their 777s and then to be added to their 787s when delivery is finally secured for these new planes too.

What Air NZ has done is take a row of three seats, and have a fold-out extension of the seat cushion on each seat.  Lift up the two arm rests, fold out the seat cushion extension, and you've a flat bed that is probably about 60" long and maybe 25" wide.

A double bed, it surely isn't.  Indeed, it's not really even a single bed, being both too short and too narrow - a point entirely overlooked by the large contingent of sycophantic commentators Air NZ flew down to NZ to introduce their 'couch' to, who in turn dutifully chorused their positive comments online.  But Air NZ, undaunted, is suggesting that two people book the three seats and, when the mood takes them, convert the seats to the bed layout and somehow squeeze together in the tiny space available.  They offer the three seats for the price of 2.5 seats, making it a great deal.  There are some pictures and a video here (the second half of the video shows the new coach seating).

As part of a massive upgrade of its coach class cabins, Air NZ is also offering at seat power, USB and iPod connections.  I'm tempted to fly them again myself after not having been near an Air NZ flight for several decades.

Take that, Sir Richard.  Never underestimate a bit of Kiwi ingenuity!

Talking about videos, here's an amazing video animation of the Hudson River crash landing last year.  Well worth watching.  And if you're sufficiently moved after watching the video, you can actually buy the plane itself.

Continuing my series of exposed global warming myths and scientific fallacies, this week let's look at the myth about the ocean levels rising.

According to Al Gore, the oceans will rise 20 ft in the next some years; a ridiculous claim that not even hard-core global warming advocates accept (but he got a Nobel Prize and Oscar, all the same).  According to the official UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the oceans may rise by 17" in the next 90 years.

But according to an actual oceanographer who specializes in monitoring sea levels, there has been no rise in ocean levels in the last 50 years, and he says that - at most, the water levels might rise 4".  He points to evidence that ocean levels might currently be dropping rather than rising, and complains that the IPCC study was based on computer projections with faulty assumptions and bad data, rather than real world observation.

He also points out that not a single one of the 22 contributing authors to the two IPCC studies is a sea level expert.  More details here.

We are often told by people who can't give us evidence or proof about global warming that we should accept it because all leading scientists believe in global warming.

Not only is that statement untrue - there is no more any type of consensus than there is any type of proof, but I'm reminded also of Einstein's comment.  When told that 100 leading scientists disagreed with his Theory of Relativity, he replied that he preferred one fact to 100 scientists' opinions.

But, then again, perhaps I should accede to the impassioned requests from some readers who tell me that commentary on global warming has no place in my newsletter (even though global warming is being used as an excuse for surcharges on and demands for curtailment of air travel), because it seems that few of us are even interested in global warming any more.

This latest Pew Research Center poll shows that global warming is viewed by Americans as the least important of 21 different current issues; with highest priority going to the economy, jobs, and terrorism (as in protecting ourselves against).

Apologies for boring you, accordingly.

I'd spoken very enthusiastically about Blu-ray technology last year - this being the high definition successor to DVD, finally triumphing after a confusing several year battle with a competing high definition format.

At the time there were two issues.  The first was that not many movies were released onto Blu-ray disks, and the second was that there was a massive cost premium associated with buying Blu-ray rather than DVD disks.  And, to my astonishment, some readers picked out some ill-considered commentary by other observers and predicted that both Blu-ray and DVD technology was doomed, to be replaced by on-demand internet delivery of movie 'rentals'.

A lot can happen in a year, particularly in consumer electronics, and it is perhaps helpful to update my Blu-ray comments.  Blu-ray players are becoming more common and less expensive, with models now for as little as $120, and a similar price now applies to adding combo Blu-ray/DVD/CD players to computers too.  The selection of Blu-ray movies is growing by the day, with more studios choosing to support the format, and most new releases appearing on both Blu-ray and DVD.

Even better, the cost of Blu-ray movies is dropping.  I bought my first Blu-ray disk for under $10 a couple of weeks ago, and there is a growing inventory of movies for under $20.  Amazon and other retailers have regular specials with titles for $15 or less, and even with brand new movie releases, the extra cost of a Blu-ray compared to DVD version is narrowing down to sometimes only $5.  Some Blu-ray movies now come packaged complete with a second 'free' disk in DVD format too.

The amazing picture quality enhancements remain as compelling as ever (but require a modern monitor to fully appreciate - ideally one that supports 1080p video), and the more vivid audio is a further bonus, although again requiring a reasonably high-end sound system to get full benefit from it.  But if you have a reasonably good sound system, do try playing one of the battle scenes from the Generation Kill television series at 'realistic' surround sound levels (remember, when choosing your 'realistic' sound level than a rifle shot, up close, is an almost deafening sound....) for a truly overwhelming experience.

Meanwhile the promise of comparable high definition downloadable movies remains elusive, and the cost/benefit equation as between the inferior quality of a downloaded so-called 'high definition' movie that you can play for only a brief time interval and the superior quality of a Blu-ray disk you can play as often as you choose continues to point more clearly in favor of Blu-ray.

Blu-ray player shipments tripled in volume in 2009, and marketplace projections now predict that Blu-ray revenues will exceed DVD revenues in 2013.  The market is speaking - Blu-ray is the future, and it is a positive future you should consider embracing.  Here's an article about choosing a player.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  It is in German, but this video is more or less self explanatory.  An English speaking gentleman, who seems to be a rep for a body scanner company, proudly gives a demonstration of his airport security scanner.  Unfortunately, the demonstration fails to detect four or five different things hidden on the test subject's body, none of which were 'artfully concealed'.

After the demonstration and revealing of the hidden items, and after some embarrassed excuse-making by the scanner rep, at the 7 minute point, there is then a demonstration of the power of the Thermite which the test subject had hidden about himself.  It seems they are pointing out that Thermite can melt and set fire to aluminium (such as the fuselage material of an airplane).

In particular, imagine the effects if half a dozen terrorists each took packets of Thermite through security and then concentrated them together.

Here's a starkly honest statement, much as we might wish to the contrary.  The Director of National Intelligence, in congressional testimony, said that it is inevitable that the intelligence community will make more mistakes in the future similar to the ones which allowed the crotch bomber on his flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

So, if the new scanners won't detect carefully concealed explosives, and if the intelligence services will occasionally make mistakes in the future, just how safe is one's next flight?

We hear a lot about terrorism these days, but what exactly is a terrorist attack?  Apparently, in Canada, if you're the Federal Fisheries Minister and a Seal Hunt protester from PETA sticks a pie in your face, then some MPs there are advocating for it to be considered an act of terror.

Here's a video of the 'terrorist attack' - you decide.

Talking about Canada - a reminder :  Don't forget your passport if traveling to Canada and then subsequently wishing to return back to the US.  You can now go into Canada without a passport, but you can't return back home without it.

I wrote last week about a TSA member who played a practical joke on a passenger going through security screening.  Reader Noel writes in with some more amusing interactions :

TSA joking - For some reason my backpack almost always gets looked at and, a while back when flying out of Dayton, the TSA guy found some matches from a bar when doing his search.

"Oops, forgot those were in there," I said.

"It's okay," he said. "You need something to light the bomb with."

I told him I preferred a low-yield nuke and he laughed.

Here at Manchester airport they asked to see my wallet.  "Why do you want to see my wallet?" I asked.

"Just seeing if it's a block of C4," says the TSA guy with a grin.

I said, "I really like Semtex better".

And he laughed. "Have a good trip," he said.

I know it's unwise to joke with these guys, but when they start the joke you have to wonder!

Lastly this week, what will they think of next?  Well, if you're the Holiday Inn in England, it is human bed warmers.

It has been a busy week.  Computer upgrades, a new website on the iPad, an article on high speed rail, 10,000 more words on whisky, plus all the other normal stuff too.  Phew.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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