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2 April, 2010

Good morning (and Good Good Friday)

I'm semi-distracted while writing this, counting down the days, hours, and minutes until some uncertain time on Saturday, at which time I hope to receive an Apple iPad.  I received an email from Apple on Monday with tracking details for my iPad's shipment - it was sent, via UPS express international courier service, direct to me all the way from Shenzhen, China.  Wow.

I'm guessing what Apple is doing is packaging all their orders at the Chinese factory, then shipping them in a consolidated shipment to somewhere in the US before then breaking them down to individual UPS shipments.  As of Thursday, the unit has only got to Hong Kong, so I'm a bit unsure if it will arrive on my doorstep on Saturday as promised.

Saturday is the official launch of the iPad, but if you haven't already pre-ordered one, you may have some challenges finding one in a store.  While it isn't clear how Apple is allocating inventory, last weekend they stopped accepting pre-orders for 3 April delivery, and delayed the promised delivery date for new orders to 12 April.  It seems likely that Apple stores may have a limited number of units for sale at each location, and Best Buy stores with an Apple section are also believed to have some inventory on launch day.

Here's a tip - apparently the Apple stores will be holding their pre-ordered and reserved units in stores until 3pm on Saturday.  If they haven't been claimed by then, they will release them for general sale.  If you really want an iPad tomorrow, it might make sense to go to the store early and, if none available, ask if you can put your name on a standby list for any unclaimed units being held in the store until 3pm.

Initial reports of the iPad from the privileged very very few people who have been given a pre-release sample are positive, but the big unknown still remains the question of what it can best be used for.  There are expected to be about 1,000 apps specially written for the extra capabilities and large screen of the iPad available on Saturday, with of course, many many more being added every day subsequently.

The most amazing disclosed fact so far - the claimed ten hour battery life, which many commentators had derided and expected to be wildly over-optimistic, is actually proving conservative, with testing showing it to last 11 - 12+ hours, even when playing movies.

Needless to say, next week's feature column will be an iPad review.

As for this week's feature column, what can I say, other than 'Oh, my, I've done it again.'  I had started to pen some brief thoughts about the Moscow subway bombings that occurred on Monday morning as part of the regular section on security horror stories, for there are some valuable lessons to be learned from this terrorist attack, and after a paragraph or two of comment, I realized that perhaps I could expand it to a complete article to add to my Scary, Silly and Stupid Security Stories section of the website.

So, off I went, and several days, five pages and 6,000+ words later, here I am, with a much more detailed analysis and commentary on the issues and implications of this event.

In case you don't want to treat yourself to the entire oeuvre, here are a few quick bullet points :

  • Why is everyone acting so surprised by this event?  It is the seventh time that Moscow's subway system has been bombed.  Other subway systems around the world have been attacked in the past, too.

  • Why are subway systems around the world tightening their security now?  Russia's problems with its domestic Muslim separatists have no flow-on effect nor security risks for other countries, and even if there were linkage, there's never been an example of a global campaign of terror unfolding in a coordinated manner.

  • The tightened security that is occurring is useless and just for show.  For example, machine gun toting police on the NY subway system won't deter suicide bombers, who have no intentions of waging gun battles with over-armed police - they just want to quietly and demurely surround themselves with commuters and blow themselves up.

  • Adding airport security type procedures to subway systems is impossible, and, for the NY subway system alone, would not only cripple its ability to handle peak flows of commuters, but would also create the equivalent of 440 terrorist deaths a year (due to the time lost through delays).

  • Why has the US not suffered a multitude of terror attacks, such as have been formerly experienced by countries as disparate as England (by the IRA), Israel (the Palestinians, etc) and Russia (their Muslim separatists)?  Is our security better?  Are our enemies less determined?

If these questions have whetted your appetite, please now help yourself to :

This Week's Feature Article(s) :  Lessons from the Moscow Metro Bombings :  The ongoing metro bombings in Moscow show us that you can't conveniently secure mass transit.  But there are some things that can be done to increase our safety.

Many thanks to everyone who sent in suggestions in response to my request about how to make a hotel Wi-fi signal serve multiple devices.  You may recall from last week's newsletter that some hotels charge a daily internet fee per device that you wish to connect to the internet.

There are lots of ways to take a hotel's wired internet access and to share it among multiple devices without having to pay per device access fees - just about any router will do this - but taking a Wi-Fi signal and rebroadcasting it in a manner that saves you from incurring multiple per device fees is a rarer ability.

I've now identified at least one and possibly two or three devices that can do this, as well as other workarounds typically involving two back-to-back routers that provide the same functionality.  The device that definitely will do this is the Linksys WTR54GS wireless router.

In addition, readers have also pointed me to a wonderful piece of free software that runs on just about every Windows 7 computer with a Wi-Fi card.  I've tested it myself, and it is very easy to install and operate, and provides a complete flexible solution without requiring any additional hardware or hassle or expense at all.  Brilliant.

The product is Connectify and it works for sharing both wired and wireless internet connections.  I'll be releasing a more comprehensive review of Connectify and the various other ways of controlling Wi-Fi access costs in the next day or two and will advise Twitter followers when it is online.

But the bottom line is clear.  This is a great solution and should be loaded, even if only as a stand-by 'just in case' program, on all your Windows 7 laptops and netbooks.

Dinosaur Watching :  An unusual airline pairing was announced this week.  American Airlines and JetBlue - two airlines that have been at each other's throats, competitively, in the past, announced they would start to work closely together, swapping 12 landing slots at JFK (formerly belonging to Jetblue) with 8 at Washington/Reagan and 1 at White Plains, and interlining on some flights in the northeast.

Part of the purpose is to make it easier for passengers flying in to JFK or Boston on Jetblue to then connect to international flights out of those airports on American.  The two airlines also coyly teased in vague no-comment terms about further and closer workings together in the future, even possibly extending to a Oneworld membership by Jetblue.

This is the third partnering of note by Jetblue.  Earlier (in 2007) it had announced tie-ups with Aer Lingus and with Lufthansa, in part due to LH buying  a 20% shareholding in Jetblue.

And that is the really surprising thing - Lufthansa is a key member of the competing Star alliance; so one would have expected any alignments between Jetblue and other US carriers to have been more sympathetic to the interests of its 20% shareholder.  Lufthansa's response to this new announcement is to stoically say that what is good for Jetblue benefits them as a shareholder.

A not so surprising pairing (or trebling, to be more exact) was also announced this week, with frequent flier linkages between Virgin America and two other of the Virgin fleet of carriers - V Australia (international airline based in Australia) and Virgin Blue (domestic Australian carrier).

At the same time Jetblue and American are cozying up together (and I'm much too well mannered to make any jokes about the three Virgins entering into a relationship) there's another as yet unconsummated relationship apparently on the rocks - that between Westjet and Southwest, with the Montreal Gazette reporting that Westjet may withdraw from the still not yet in place agreement with Southwest in favor of an alternate arrangement with Delta, Air France and China Airlines.

I was very skeptical of the announcement, now almost two years ago, of a linkage between Westjet and Southwest, and noted with complete lack of surprise how Southwest, subsequent to boldly announcing the relationship, then proceeded to go very slow on making it happen, citing problems with their computer reservation system that were preventing them from moving forward.

Westjet is recently under the leadership of a new CEO and it seems he is keen to move forward with something with someone, and if it isn't to be Southwest, it will be someone else.

It seems to me that Southwest would be best served by flying into Canada itself.

Talking about Southwest, it has retained its mantle as largest domestic carrier, as measured by domestic passengers carried, making it the third year in a row it has been the largest US domestic carrier.  American was the largest international carrier for the 20th year in a row, but look for that probably changing this year due to the DL/NW merger.

I'm as quick as everyone else to decry the lessening standards of airline service, and the continued trend to charging extra for items that used to be included in a standard airfare.

But I have always conceded that the real reason the airlines do such things is because they can - in other words, because we let them.  We have never shown any resolve in such matters - for example, as much as we might complain about inadequate leg room, when American Airlines offered its 'more room in coach' concept - better pitched seats on planes than competitors, but at the same price - they failed to get extra market share, and so they gave it up.

When airlines introduce negative policies, they don't lose any appreciable share of their traffic, so other airlines copy and the airlines lose all fear of any market repercussions as the continue to gouge us with patently unfair fees and policies.  For example, as much as we dislike the baggage fees charged by most airlines now, how many of us switch our loyalty to Southwest due to it not charging baggage fees?

The most recent example of this was Continental's decision to stop offering free food in coach on its domestic flights.

But one good thing about Continental - their new CEO has said he won't take a salary or a bonus until Continental has made a profit for an entire year.  That's a brave decision to take - doubtless many of his staff are hoping he won't require them to be similarly magnanimous.  Details here.

The almost certain to be approved anti-trust immunity application by BA, AA and other Oneworld carriers for flights across the Atlantic became a bit more critical this week.  One of the most distinguishing aspects of this tie-up is that it concentrates a lot of the traffic in/out of Heathrow into the hands of the new merged airline group, with Heathrow being a more strategically vital airport than those controlled by other merged airline groups (eg Star and Frankfurt, Skyteam and Paris).

The development this week was news that Heathrow's oh-so-long awaited third runway may not be able to proceed after all.  With new terminal developments reducing and promising to, in time, eliminate Heathrow's overcrowding on the ground, the remaining bottleneck was its two runways and the flights it could handle.

Clearly, the third runway would have transformed Heathrow's traffic handling capacity and greatly reduced the stranglehold on the airport currently enjoyed by AA/BA, but as this article reports, a High Court ruling found that the government had acted incorrectly in approving a third runway.  At the least this will delay a third runway by some unknown number of years (it took six years for the approval to be first given in early 2009, so at least another five), and it may possibly be the last nail in the coffin of the expansion at all.

More about London's airports and their future plans are in this series.

But perhaps the British government is wiser than we thought?  In November it will be increasing the per passenger 'Air Passenger Duty' from an already usurious 55 up to 85 per person.  If you're flying in other than the coach cabin, the fee will double to 170 per person (ie $255).

With costs like that, if your final destination is actually somewhere in Europe, wouldn't you prefer to avoid flying through any UK airport en route to and fro?  Might this depress passenger numbers into Heathrow and London in general so much that there'll no longer be any need for a third runway?

The answer actually could be yes.  Other European countries have reduced their comparable fees on passengers, after discovering that by making travel through their airports more expensive than travel through other airports, passengers truly do switch their travel plans to avoid connecting through the more expensive country.

One other solution of course to Heathrow's capacity constraints is to replace smaller planes with A380s, but this is only a partial solution because while it increases the passengers per plane, it doesn't allow for airlines to boost the number of flights a day in/out of LHR.  These days most airlines seem to be more fixated on operating lots of smaller flights rather than fewer big flights.

But this week did see the announcement of more A380 service into England, however the A380s will be flying not to Heathrow but to Manchester, making it the first time that an A380 has been scheduled to fly into a secondary rather than major primary airport.

You can probably guess the airline that will be flying the planes into Manchester.  None other than, of course, the indefatigable Emirates, which currently operates double daily 777 service between Manchester and Dubai.  They plan to replace one of the 777s with an A380.

Why are so many people flying to Dubai?  One has to guess that people increasingly only change planes in Dubai en route to a friendlier destination - or maybe the growth in traffic is not people flying to Dubai, but people flying (fleeing) away from it.

Just a couple of weeks ago I described some of the judicial horrors suffered by foreigners in what seems to be increasingly a hostile prudish nation, and this week there's news of another ridiculous action.

A 56 yr old Briton has been banned from leaving Dubai since August last year, while a criminal trial slowly proceeds against him, with the threat of a six month jail sentence at the end of it all if he is found guilty.  He is charged with - wait for it - after getting into an argument with an Iraqi student resident in Dubai, he apparently gave the Iraqi youth 'the finger'.  This resulted in him being arrested for 'outraging public decency', being stuck in Dubai for the last eight months, incurring who knows how much in legal fees to defend the charge, and worrying at the concept of six months in prison.

Read this article for more dismaying details of this latest Dubai extremist action.  When it comes to 'outraging public decency' the Dubai authorities should perhaps find themselves guilty and lock themselves up somewhere where they can't do any further harm to the image of the country, once seen as 'western-friendly' and a great place to visit, to relax, to indulge oneself, and to spend huge sums of money while doing so.

Talking about the A380, some news about Boeing's new 787 plane.  It seems to be showing some risk of encountering further delays, with its flight testing program now six weeks behind schedule.  Boeing continues to project the first plane will be delivered to launch customer All Nippon Airways prior to the end of the year.

Although there are delays in the ongoing testing, it seems the delays sure aren't due to Boeing conducting more rigorous than normal testing.  In actual fact, one would wish Boeing to do exactly that and test the plane much more rigorously than normal - here's a plane with an airframe built in large part from new composite materials (ie glorified fibreglass) that have never been used on a plane before.  The problem isn't what we do know about the composite materials; the problem is what we don't know and so can't predict, plan or test for, and I'd sure prefer to find any such surprising things about this new material on ground tests than as a passenger on a commercial flight.

Some of us may know about the first ever passenger jet plane - the British Comet - and how a series of mysterious crashes of the Comet taught us about metal fatigue - a previously largely unknown and unconsidered factor in airplane design.

What lessons are waiting for us with the 787?

Boeing should in particular take note of one of the victims of the Comet crashes - the airplane company that made the plane.

The particular issue that concerns me slightly is that Boeing is not doing the typical wing stress test of a new plane, where the wings are loaded progressively further and further until the point that they actually break and fail.  Instead, the 787 wings are simply tested to a load described as 'more than one-and-a-half times anything the jet will experience in service'; if the wing and plane survives that test, then the testing stops.  For all we know, the wing might have been about to fail at 151%, and more to the point, if we stressed the wing all the way to failure, we might learn some invaluable lessons about how composite materials fail.

Earlier stress testing had also uncovered some problems - doesn't that mean the testing of the fixes should be much more rigorous now?

One more question.  How is this 'more than one and a half times' factor calculated?  Is it 150% of what the plane encounters flying at normal cruise speed in still air?  Or is it 150% of extreme rough weather when flying through a massive thunderstorm, such as was the case with the Air France A330 that crashed mysteriously off Brazil?  My guess is that the 150% factor is somewhere between these two extremes, and all the claims about no planes having had their wings fall off in the last some decades are rather invalidated by the new composite materials in the new 787 and the less rigorous testing protocol.

The fact that all aluminium wing and fuselage planes have withstood the stresses of regular operation is of little relevance when now introducing a plane that is not built of aluminium.

There's another factor in the testing, too.  The stress test involves the slow steady buildup of loading to the 150% point, and then the test ends.  But, in very rough weather (can you say 'turbulence') stresses are not slowly and gently/smoothly applied.  They are suddenly impacted on the wing - first one way, then suddenly the other way, and so on.

I'd like the stress testing to reflect the way the wings are stressed in the real world.  And rather than do it in a hangar at regular temperature, I'd like it to be done in real world temperatures such as -40 or more, such as is encountered when flying at altitude.  And rather than a single stress test with the force being steadily applied in one direction only, I'd like it to involve sudden random stresses both up and down, and to proceed for, oh, 100 hours.  Better still, 1000 hours.

For all we know, icy cold weather and an extended series of semi-random sharp stresses both up and down might wear out the composite material or cause it to separate from itself or make it brittle and snap or who knows what.

You can read more about the testing here.  As for me, while I'm eager to fly an A380 any time the chance presents itself, I'll attempt to avoid the 787 as much as I can for, oh, maybe 3 - 5 years.

For a long time, Apple's acolytes have laughed sneeringly at Microsoft's security vulnerabilities.  I've always felt that the main reason for Apple's lesser problems have simply been that hackers, along with most other people, just can't be bothered with the niche product that is the Apple Mac.

Now it seems that even Apple's Mac operating system is also not perfect.  This article reports how Apple just released updates to its operating system that addressed not just one or two, but 92 different security vulnerabilities, a third of which were deemed to be critical.  Hmmmm.

Here's a very interesting chart that shows the share of mobile phone data traffic that is generated by each of the main different types of mobile phone (from this article).  There are two extremely obvious trends here - the extraordinary growth of Android based phones, and the steady decline of both RIM (Blackberry) and Microsoft Windows based phones, both to near trivial market shares.

While RIM has just reported a good result for 2009, with increased sales and profits, it would seem, at least by this measure (which is not the only or even necessarily the best measure), their market share is dropping steadily.  I continue to predict that unless they come up with 'the next big thing' - some sort of new revolutionary breakthrough - they are destined to be consigned to the scrapheap of techno-history along with all the other 'one trick ponies' that briefly flared into prominence before being obsoleted and overtaken.

They've really only ever had one good idea - a convenient way of accessing email on a portable device, and their first mover advantage is being steadily eroded by newer devices that not only do email better than RIM now does, but which also offer many other features vastly better than anything available on a Blackberry.

We are told that increasing amounts of carbon emissions as a result of human activity are causing the planet to warm up, with various types of tragic consequences being forecast.  Charts show increases in man-made CO2 emissions, and for sure, they reveal impressive increases over the last century or so.

But have you ever seen a chart showing all the other sources of CO2 emissions as well, so we can get a handle on just exactly how much of the total CO2 that is emitted into the atmosphere is manmade?  No, I thought not.  There's probably a reason the global warmers don't want to show us such data, because the amount of CO2 caused by human activity is a trivial tiny percentage of the total CO2 emissions from all natural sources.

Here's an interesting article about the level of CO2 emissions from soil.  The key data point is about halfway down.  Micro-organisms in ordinary soil emit ten times more CO2 into the atmosphere than does man.

So, clearly, if CO2 emissions are a problem, there's an obvious solution.  In the interests of saving the planet, perhaps we should concrete it over entirely.

Or maybe there's not even a problem at all.  This article reports that the Arctic sea ice extent is returning back to the historic baseline level (historic in the sense of applying to the 1979-2000 period) this year.

Of course, we should all be doing our bit and buy only the most energy efficient appliances, right?  We should look for appliances, large and small, with the EnergyStar certification?  Because that is an accurate impartial rating of the energy efficiency of each appliance?

Or, then again, maybe it isn't.  This article points out that EnergyStar ratings are usually self determined by each manufacturer, and, ummm, not always tested or confirmed by the EPA.

The EPA's oversight is so ridiculously lacking that Congressional auditors managed to get EnergyStar certification for such obviously fake devices as a gasoline powered alarm clock and an air purifier that was a space heater with a feather duster pasted on top.

Every week I get newsletters self-righteously returned to me by anti-spam filters that oversee many of your email inboxes, incorrectly telling me that my newsletter is spam.  Who knows how many more newsletters get censored without me being told that you failed to receive the newsletter.

So I'm very attuned to the issues raised in this fascinating article about some of the problems and failures of anti-spam programs.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  One could say that the five part article offered as the feature article for this week is the security horror story for the week, but why limit ourselves when there's so much else to offer as well.

Such as, for example, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's strange statement that the new expensive full body scanners being rushed into airports everywhere 'do not see everything'.

Ummm - wasn't that exactly what they were supposed to do?

If they don't see everything/everywhere, how are we being made safer - especially when it is rumored that terrorist organizations have sometimes acquired working units themselves so as to test them for weaknesses?

I may have mentioned this before, or maybe this is a new example of a terrorist threat that even the best full body scanner could not possibly detect - exploding breasts.

The threat is perhaps not quite as serious as might be seen at first blush, because an explosive contained within one's body would have a lot of its force absorbed by the body it was within.  But when you also consider that the Moscow metro bombers had less than 3lbs of explosive each earlier this week (the explosive was equivalent to about 3.5lbs of TNT, but was more powerful than TNT so less was required), you don't actually need a large volume of explosive to cause a sizeable effect.

So - today is the day after 1 April, which means rather than offer you an April Fool's Day joke, I can merely report on them.  Here's a good roundup of some jokes.

One of my favorites doesn't appear on this list.  It reports on what is perhaps termed 'cellbow' or 'cell phone elbow' - a bona fide problem a bit like carpal tunnel syndrome.  This is caused by bending your arm too sharply at your elbow for an extended period of time - for example, when holding a cell phone to your ear.  The net result, apparently, can be painful and serious, as the video on this special website vividly demonstrates.  (The proposed solution is to buy one of their Bluetooth headsets.)

Kazuo Inamori, the new CEO of Japan Airlines said that an 'extremely low' number of the airline's executives had any business sense, saying to reporters that he had told them 'You guys wouldn't be able to run a greengrocery with your ideas'.

This is not an April Fool's Day joke.  He really did say that.

I fly to Anaheim on Thursday next week for a repeat Disneyland experience with my daughter, who has already wondered if the coins in her half-full money box will be sufficient to buy us a third trip to Disneyland shortly thereafter.  How to explain to her that at Disney's prices, they wouldn't even buy us a bottle of water inside the park, let alone a complete trip for two from Seattle.

However I plan to release an iPad review for Friday, so hopefully there'll be no internet problems at the hotel interfering with the newsletter's publication.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels and have a great Easter

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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