Is the future here yet?

I’m currently sitting in the World’s Tiniest Laundromat on Karasuma-dori in Kyoto, waiting for the wash and dry cycle of the giant incomprehensible machines to complete. This is an interesting down time for us; laundry day while traveling is generally boring, but this trip I’ve tried something new: I rented a pocket wifi hotspot, so amazing between that and Skype my iPhone works more or less just like it does at home. (Also, we seem to have entered an era where cell phones really do work all over the place – despite Japan’s notorious CDMA incompatibility, HSPA seems to have fixed everything. Assuming you’re willing to pay extortionate roaming fees, anyway.)

This has proven to be something of a boon for communications, and I strongly encourage anyone traveling with a smartphone to look into it.

It’s 2011. I am often fond of rhetorically asking whether we are living in the future yet. Sitting in a laundromat on the other side of the planet from home, composing a blog post with a wifi access point in my pocket, while the 70-something obasan next to me sends text messages on her phone, I can safely say that in this department at least, yes, we are living in the future.

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Pat down

I’d been lucky in the six-ish months since the Tray Stacking AgencyTransportation Security Agency introduced the Freedom Frisk enhanced pat down procedure for air travelers to, from, and within the United States. Not once in my travels had I been forced to go through the Nude-o-ScopeAdvanced Imaging Technology scanner, and not once was I subjected to the Government Gropeenhanced pat down. I had been tagged for a trip in the microwavemilimeter wave scanner at YVR transborder a few months ago, but politely declined and got a relatively benign CATSA-approved physical search. And that’s been it: every other time I’ve had to be screened in the United States it’s been at a priority lane or some other kind of checkpoint that hasn’t used the AIT devices, or I’ve ended up in a normal lane, so I didn’t have to opt out.

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My big fat scandal

The Economist, Tipping Point: Removing the rot from the sport of emperors:

Bout-rigging has been alleged for decades. Retired wrestlers occasionally admit it. In 1996 two former wrestlers about to go public with evidence died of a rare respiratory illness within hours of each other (no wrongdoing was found). A statistical examination of bouts over 11 years by University of Chicago economists clearly identified rigged matches (to let borderline wrestlers retain their rank). Still, the JSA always denied foul play. The body even sued those who dared to disparage the sport of emperors, which traces its lineage back more than a millennium.

Today’s charges will be harder to evade. Evidence is provided by erased but reconstructed text messages on the mobile phones of a dozen wrestlers and stablemasters. These were confiscated by police during an investigation last year over sumo’s links to baseball betting (illegal in Japan) and ties to the yakuza, Japan’s mob. “Who do I owe a win to now?” one wrestler texted another last March. “Will you let me win at the next tournament? If not, I want the 200,000 back,” texted another in May, according to police leaks to the media.

Yomiuri Shimbun, Sumo rigging probe: Long slog ahead:

Getting to the bottom of the sumo match-fixing scandal that has plunged the ancient sport into what could be the biggest crisis in its history is certain to take much longer than expected because of difficulty analyzing evidence and uncooperative wrestlers, a special investigative panel has disclosed. All signs are pointing to a protracted effort to fully reveal the details of the scandal and decide on punitive action against wrestlers and others involved, according to the panel. The independent investigative body headed by Waseda University Prof. Shigeru Ito submitted an interim report Monday to an emergency meeting of the Japan Sumo Association at Ryogoku Kokugikan.

Asahi Shimbun, Low-ranked wrestler played a key role in sumo scandal. Looks at the role of a 31 year-old sandanme wrestler named Enatsukasa, who may have been responsible for coordinating a lot of the match rigging. I include this mostly because it is the first time I’ve ever seen the term “dohyo diver” in print.

That’s one hell of a terminal change

I’m in the process of hunting for a cheap way to get 2,080 miles on some combination of Star Alliance carriers before the end of the year, having fallen short of the magical requalification threshold by that much. (This is much worse than last year, where I was 84 miles shy, which required a one-way flight from Vancouver to fix.) It’s just enough miles that a quick trip to Alberta isn’t really feasable without some creative routings, and if I’m going to do something creative I might as well have some fun with it. Also, I’d like to keep the number of days on the road down as much as possible, which means doing a same-day turn if I can pull it off.

Also, we’re doing this in November or December. And I’ve had quite enough fun being stuck somewhere because of environmental problems this year, thank you very much. So: western and midwestern spots affected by snow are a bad idea. East coast spots affected by hurricaines and storms are also a bad idea. Practically speaking, for Star’s hub route structure across North America, this means: no Toronto, no Montreal, no Chicago, no Philadelphia, no Denver, no Newark (well, Newark should never be on that list anyway). This refusal to accept the major eastern hubs pretty much deletes the southeast as a potential mileage run destination. I’m not in the mood to do a trans-Pacific, and as I say, I only need 2,080 miles, so there isn’t much point in spending more time than absolutely necessary to accomplish my goal(s).

Considering the limitations, it pretty much comes down to Texas, Nevada, California, and Arizona. Enter the ITA Matrix. They have a new version of the tool (you can find it on the right), but I much prefer the older, less-slick interface. If you dig around a bit, you eventually discover the route query language, which — when combined with the month-long view — makes for one hell of a useful method of finding the right combination of cheap destinations when you don’t actually care where you end up.

I’ve learned a few interesting things using ITA this past week. One very interesting thing is that getting to San Diego from Victoria is unreasonably difficult, even if you’re willing to expand to non-Star Alliance carriers. Another is that, despite direct service from Vancouver to Houston (on Continental) and Dallas (on American), getting to Texas isn’t cheap. (Though having said that, if I needed to be in, say, East Texas and didn’t care about alliances or miles, I could fly through Seattle and go direct to Austin on AS. This… does not help me.)

A third thing is that you need to be very careful when agreeing to change terminals, because ITA has a very loose definition of what a terminal change means. It’s one thing to be willing to fly into, for instance, MCO and out of TPA — they’re theoretically in the same city (for varying definitions of the concept of “city”). It’s quite surprising, on the other hand, to look at a proposed itinerary and discover that your change of terminal involves going to a different state — fly into LAS, leave from LAX.

I bet if you weren’t really paying close attention, that might seem quite reasonable.

As for what I’m going to do? Probably YYJ-YVR-LAS and return, or something like that, on a same-day turn. If I can find it for cheap on the weekend (hah!), K. and I might make a quick trip out of it (I am still getting silly offers from the Wynn, and I’m told rooms in Las Vegas are wicked cheap right now) — just so this isn’t a pointless expenditure of money solely for the sake of flying around. But I’m also considering YYJ-YVR-SFO, with enough time in San Francisco to get down to the waterfront, have a Manhattan and the hangtown fry at Tadich, and back out to the airport again. That’s a good reason to get on a plane, right?

日本人は奇妙です

(Tech note: This is also a test to see whether the database can handle having unicode as part of the reference key…)

Edited to add: まじで?

素晴らしい製:

Compare and contrast the full-scale version:

The only way these could get any better is if some VW-sized walker tank were to come out and start shooting tennis balls at everyone.

Go fever

We left to see The Lion King last night in a cloud of despondancy. The new ash plume was heading southeast, looking to blanket the entire United Kingdom for another five or six days. Little improvement was expected. I blamed watching BBC News through the doorway of the Civil Aviation Authority’s office on Kingsway, the first time in my life I have ever been thankful for the presence of “the crawl” on the bottom of the screen. Walking home along the Strand, I took a picture of a bar called “Stranded in London,” perfectly summing up my feelings. When I tell this story in the future, I don’t expect many to be sympathetic — “oh, how wonderful for you to be stuck in a city as lovely as London” and so forth — and I don’t expect that I’ll ever be able to fully explain how awful it feels to be trapped on the other side of the planet with no way to get home. I suspect that it will be one of those things you have to experience first hand to fully understand. And do I ever understand it now.

So it was with some trepidation that we turned on Sky News in our Notting Hill apartment upon returning, expecting to hear more bad news — flights canceled, airspace restrictions continue, blah blah blah. I mentally prepared myself to start making preparations to decamp for Paris or Frankfurt or Munich or Madrid. Imagine my complete surprise at the word: flights from London airports expected to resume tonight, normal operations planned from Heathrow and Gatwick by British Airways for tomorrow, check airlines for further details. The netbook was spinning up before I finished reading the crawl on the TV. And there it was, in glorious green on aircanada.com: “AC855 LHR to YVR. Scheduled. On time.”

Fast forward nine hours. We’re here in the London Lounge, killing the two hours before the gate opens and boarding begins. ACA855 is still showing ready to operate, scheduled to depart on time at 1055L this morning. FlightAware does not have routing information right now, which is a bit strange, but hardly unusual for non-North American departures. There is a mood of giddy optimism in the lounge this morning, and Heathrow was not the chaos I expected — likely the results of careful access controls on the terminal buildings, as well as discretion on the part of travelers. The departure information boards show a lot of canceled flights, but a lot of operating ones, too; Air Canada seems intent on operating this flight today, and I dearly hope they do.

Wait, I lied: while I was typing the above paragraph, FlightAware suddenly had routing information loaded into it.

BUZAD T420 WELIN UT420 TNT UN57 POL UN601 MARGO UN590 NINEX UP59 BALIX 6400N 02000W 6700N 03000W 6900N 04000W 7000N 05000W ADSAM 6900N 08000W 6730N 09000W 6530N 10000W YSM J528 YWL T201 ELIDI WHSLR2

I don’t have mapping handy right now so I can’t tell for sure, but that looks an awfully lot further north than these flights usually go. Comparison with previous flights shows a maximum latitude of 6800N; we’re apparently going to 70N. Ok, not an awful lot further — but further north just the same. (I’ll map this out tomorrow night when I get home.)

Allah be praised: it looks like we’re really going home. I don’t expect sympathy, or even understanding — just relief. I might kiss the ground in international arrivals in Vancouver.

Day 6

Still here. Last night, we thought we had a glimmer of good news, in that a bunch of flights were supposed to operate from London airports later today. That doesn’t look like it’s going to happen, and Iceland continues to spew more ash in our direction. Sky News is reporting that BAW’s 18:10 arrival from Beijing left China about an hour ago (it’s currently 09:44L), so maybe they know something we don’t. Or they’re planning to divert. I dunno.

We are considering our options for re-routing. Madrid and Barcelona don’t offer good Star Alliance services (most route through Frankfurt, which doesn’t really help); I am wondering about whether Germany offers a better chance than Spain right now. It’s probably easier to get to, at any rate.

I’m likely to write a series of posts over the next few days wherein I say some relatively uncomplimentary things about the United Kingdom. Please, UK-fans — don’t take it personally. I just want to go home.

Greetings from Vilecano land!

Week 5 of my epic circle-half-the-globe-twice-in-a-month adventure started out swimmingly. We left Swansea on Wednesday night, spent the night near Heathrow, planning to wake up early and catch our flight to Amsterdam the next morning. Rode the Hotel Hoppa to T5, was suitably impressed at what you can get for a whole lot of pounds, dropped off our excess baggage at the left luggage office, went upstairs, and marveled at the fact that, hey, there weren’t many people there at 09:20! What a shock.

Guess why. Go on.

We all know what happened, of course: volcano blows top, traps hundreds of thousands of travelers in and around Europe. Fine, no problem. Lovely Wife and I started racing through the options: we found space on Eurostar to Amsterdam (via Brussels), then discovered we couldn’t book because Eurostar’s Web site kept crashing on us. (Yay for load testing! Good work, developers!) British Airways’ Web site was equally useless — their on-hold message continually advises one to try their flight cancellation facility, except that no such facility seems to exist on their Web site. Calling Expedia (with whom we had booked our Amsterdam chunks) resulted in a “sorry, we can’t route your call” message — which seems absurd and unreasonable in 2010. It was only K.’s calming presence, and the random appearance of MP5A2-armed police officers, that prevented me from having a full-on psychopathic fit in the middle of the check-in concourse. (Photos to come.)

Multiple hours on hold depleted our phone balance, but we finally got the outbound segment on BA canceled. We also finally got through to someone at Eurostar, and confirmed space, and got through 95% of the booking process — then the phone ran out of money, and I had to race downstairs to find a top-up point. Lather, rinse, and repeat. Fully flexible tickets to and from Amsterdam, leaving Friday morning. Did we really want to go now?

Answer: no. So instead we booked ourselves into the Jumeirah Lowndes, a place run by a company owned by the government of Dubai that seems to cater to the Middle Eastern traveler. (It is around the corner from the Pakistani High Commission, and down the street from the Syrian Embassy.) We got settled and decided to make the best of it — fine, we’ll have a bit of a break in London instead of Amsterdam; this won’t be so bad, will it? I tried to refund our Eurostar tickets — that didn’t work. We went to St. Pancras to do it in person — the ticket agents all went home at 16:00. I tried phoning them — no, they close at 17:00. Does nothing in this goddamn country work??

(This is also the point where I should mention that SNCF, the French rail operator, has been experiencing strikes all weekend. Yes! What a great place Europe is!)

It hasn’t been all bad. We saw the Egyptian stuff at the British Museum, got turned away from the British Library because we didn’t have visitor passes, saw Westminster Abbey (which was deeply cool), and I managed to finish up seeing the parts of the Imperial War Museum I hadn’t seen the last time I was here. We went to the theatre last night. (“Wicked,” and it’s quite good.) Mostly we’ve enjoyed the paradoxically wonderful weather — it’s been lovely the entire time we’ve been in the UK, which is exactly the opposite of what I want it to do now. We have been trying to enjoy ourselves, with the knowledge that our travel plans hadn’t really been that screwed up.

Then this morning came. Scheduled to be on ACA849, EGLL-CYYZ, connecting to ACA191, CYYZ-CYYJ this afternoon, departing 15:00. NATS closes airspace, Air Canada cancels flights. Now things have gotten out of hand: K. and I are both supposed to be working on Tuesday; the earliest we can get out of here is on Wednesday, assuming the airspace opens up again — which it doesn’t look like it will. We are leaving our lovely little (ok, it’s not so little) hideaway in Chelsea, trading it in for a “serviced apartment” in Notting Hill that is 1/3 of the price. And now we’re crossing our fingers for a change in the weather, a change in the volcano, or more holiday time than I thought I was going to get this year. I don’t know.

It’s the not knowing that’s the hard part. If someone were to say “ok, we’re going to shut down until XXX,” I think we could get on with things, potentially make other plans (driving to Turkey, perhaps), and deal with the delay. (More likely, we’d go back to Wales and stay with family.) Or book passage on the Queen Mary 2 — at this rate, we’ll get to New York faster than waiting here. But that’s not what’s happening. At the moment, I have to keep my mobile stuck to my side, waiting to hear if something changes. I don’t like this feeling at all.

I still love travel. I still love Airworld. (Though I have to say I’m really tempted just to stay on the ground for a bit after this is all over, and figure out how to mileage-run my way back to status for next year.) In the past four or five years, the world has seemed like an exceptionally small place; nothing was more than a plane ride away, and the places you could go were only as limited as your imagination, or at least the departures from your home airport and your tolerance for connections. Today, however, the world feels extremely large — the concept of being “on the other side of the planet” is no longer a rhetorical statement, because I am on the other side of the planet, a world away from being home with my cat and my dog and yes, my job. K. and I take solace in the knowledge that at least we’re here together, but I won’t pretend it’s not stressful, that this is the opposite of a holiday.

(One must, however, pause to appreciate the irony of — with the amount of time we spend in Hawaii, and living where we do within shouting distance of most of the great volcanoes of the Cascade range — traveling to Europe only to have a volcano disrupt our lives.)

If you want to send positive thoughts in our direction, that’d be appreciated. If you want to call or SMS, +44 7794 619582 is our number here. Friendly voices would help a lot.

Links for your consideration:

  • Fallows: FAQ on the volcanic ash mess. Like Fallows, I note two things: (1) this is probably going to be viewed as a huge overreaction when this is all over, and (2) I’m shocked the media is doing as good a job reporting on this story as they are. I haven’t had to cringe once yet, and that’s virtually unheard of when it comes to aviation stories.

  • Posts I intend to write when I get to a computer with a real keyboard (and have time): the utter uselessness of European IT, nanny-stateism gone mad, what I hate about Britain, a comparison of Chelsea and Notting Hill as neighborhoods (executive summary: never in my life have I stood on a street corner and seen $2,000,000 worth of car in front of me — this is what happened when a Ferrari 599, a Bentley Continental, a Rolls Royce, and an Aston Martin DBS were in view), and an elegy for the airport where nobody is traveling.

I’ll update more later when I can.

Open Letter #46: I don't think that's going to help

Dear Kayak:

Earlier this morning, I asked you for some help finding flights between Kailua-Kona and Honolulu at the end of January. Now, I’ll admit — I wasn’t trying to use you to buy the tickets, merely to get an idea of what was out there and what the price ranges were. And, to be fair, you showed me about 240 options, most of them in the same price brackets. But I got kind of curious about the flight that was listed for $1,400, and so I was floored to discover that your route-finding engine’s idea of a reasonable way to get from Kailua-Kona to Honolulu is to connect through… Los Angeles.

Okay. I’ll concede that somewhere, a user might think, “hey, that might be a good choice,” but I’m hard-pressed to think of a situation where that would occur on a regular basis. And, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not quite as bad as stupid as the time the RAC told a woman driving from Nottingham to Bideford to go through Ireland and France (which has been fixed; I just tried it). But really, would it be so hard to insert a sanity check in the engine that said, basically, “if the proposed route is longer than the average length/time of these other routes, maybe we should hide it from the user unless specifically asked”?