Friday, March 27, 2015

2014 Travel Review

It seems like such a simple question. "How many countries did you visit for the first time in the past year?" For 2014 my answer needs to be, "it's complicated". Depending on your definition of "visit", "first" and "country", I visited anywhere between zero and three countries for the first time last year. For the record I’m counting it as two and I'll explain my reasoning below.

Similar to a year ago, this blog post is mainly just as a record for myself so that I can keep track of my travels. With only one overseas trip in 2014 it's rather a simple job, but here it is anyway.

In April I flew with my family to Singapore, where we were to board the "Voyager of the Seas" ship for a cruise up to Japan, via Hong Kong and Taiwan. I had visited Singapore before - in 1972 when I was nine years old, it was the first overseas location I had ever been to. My family lived in Darwin and Singapore was almost as close to us as Sydney - in fact it was quicker to get to because it was a non-stop flight to Singapore, but at the time Darwin to Sydney flights went either via Adelaide or Brisbane. I had obtained a passport for the first time, and as a sign of the times it was stamped, "Not valid for North Vietnam". It also identified me as an Australian citizen and British subject, the latter being a label which of course no longer applies to Australian passport holders. I was also required to be vaccinated against cholera and smallpox prior to the trip, a precaution which is thankfully no longer necessary. *

Since that first trip to Singapore I have lost count of the number of times I have been to Singapore's Changi airport, but until 2014 I had always stayed airside in transit, rather than going into the city. I don't remember much about the city from when I was a child, but it's fair to say that it has changed somewhat in the intervening 42 years. I don't count this as being a newly-visited country for me, but it might as well have been. I must also say that I was very impressed with the place and must visit for a longer time at some stage.

Next stop was Hong Kong which I've been to a few times, but then it was on to Taiwan. There was no doubt about this being my first visit, but in the international political arena there seems to be some question as to whether it qualifies as a country. Practically of course it is, and I'm counting it.

Finally there was Japan. I've been to Narita airport a few times, including a couple of extended lay-overs, but had never previously left the airport. On this trip we went to Nagasaki and Tokyo (including a quick trip to Tokyo Disneyland) so that counts as a first visit to Japan.

So that was 2014. Two new countries, but no new airlines or aircraft types. A bit light-on from a travel perspective and less than I would have liked, although I'm a little to blame for that since I did talk my way out of a business trip to Arizona which I wouldn't have enjoyed at all.

2015 looks like another one-trip year. I think there may only be one new country, but as it's Tunisia it will add a whole new continent for me since I've never been to Africa. It will also add a new airline - I'm due to fly from Dubai to Barcelona on Emirates. We shall see if any other opportunities present themselves.

* A few more notes for myself. I never heard the whole story, but there was some mix-up when we arrived at the airport for the Darwin to Singapore flight. My parents knew the check-in agent and rather than being denied boarding, somehow all five of us ended up in first class on the BOAC (later British Airways) 747-100, my first flight on a 747 and my only one in a -100 model (Qantas never had any -100s, starting their wide-body fleet with the 747-200). In those days there were only two classes on board - first and economy, unlike the four on many long-haul flights these days, and first class had big seats rather than beds, pods, suites, or whatever other expressions the marketing departments come up with. The 747-100 did however have a lounge in the aircraft hump for first class passengers, rather than just using the space for more seating. Of course first class was wasted on a nine year old, and definitely a bit unnecessary for a four hour trip, but it was still a glimpse into life in the pointy end of the aircraft.

The return flight was also interesting, being a BOAC VC-10. It was my only ever flight on that type. This was a rare aircraft with only 40 being built for civilian operations and another 14 for the military. It had four rear-mounted engines, and still holds the subsonic Atlantic crossing record, although given that Concorde regularly did it in less than half the time, it's kind of like holding the record for being able to whisper the loudest. Incidentally, the Concorde I flew on (G-BOAD) happens to be the aircraft which holds the trans-Atlantic commercial flight record. Who knows how long it will be before there is another commercial airliner which could even come close to beating it.

Addendum on 27th March 2015. It's six days before we leave on our big trip, and a few things have changed. Unfortunately on 18th March there was a terrorist attack in Tunis. Twelve of the victims were passengers on the MSC Splendida, which is the ship we will be boarding next week. As a result we will be stopping over at Malta (Valletta) rather than Tunis, which is where we were due to be a fortnight from now. It makes perfect sense from a security/safety point of view, but it means I will need to wait until another trip to tick the continent of Africa off my list. Valletta also looks like a beautiful stopover, so I'm sure our journey will not be diminished by the substitution.

I will also be adding yet another airline to my list. We are booked to fly on EasyJet from Barcelona to Paris. I’ve wanted to fly EasyJet ever since the "Airline" television program aired in the early 2000s, even though I have low expectations of actual experience. I'm sure being such a big group we will make the most of it.

Monday, February 03, 2014

TSA - Incompetent idiots, but irrelevant

This blog post owes its existence to this article, which was drawn to my attention by my sister-in-law, the recently published author Jude Burger.

Frankly even before I read it, I knew that nothing in it would be a surprise. The only new information for me was that it is possible to hide a weapon from TSA x-ray machines. But do you know what? I couldn't care less.

Prior to 9/11 (an event which took place on 11/9/01 ;) ), pilots were taught to follow whatever instructions a hijacker gave. The reasoning was that the hijackers wanted to draw attention to their cause, but ultimately wanted to walk out alive. I know this first hand because (although I didn't finish my training) I was at one stage a trainee commercial pilot. With the advent of suicide terrorists this is no longer the case.

9/11 changed this, but almost every security regime put in place since then has been a total waste of time and money. There are exactly two changes since 9/11 which have ensured safety in the skies. The first is the strengthing of cockpit doors. It is now virtually impossible to gain access to the pilots' work space, certainly without invoking the second change since 9/11. The second change since 9/11 is that nobody will ever go along with anything to do with hijackers. Every single person trying to take control of an aircraft is assumed to want to destroy the aircraft and all aboard, so will never have any hope of achieving their objective - passengers and crew alike will do all in their power to overthrow any potential hijackers.

This is why I don't care that the TSA or their equivalents are incompetent. I hate having to deal with these jumped up idiots when I travel, but it doesn't make me concerned about air travel. Air travel is safe because we have sealed the pilots away and because we won't give in to hijackers.

Air travel has always been the safest form of travel. It is now even more so. Happy travels everyone!

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

2013 Travel Highlights (with an emphasis on airline flights)

As usual these blogs are mainly to let me keep track of stuff in the future, but I hope at least someone reading this will take an interest. So here goes ...

Well, it's the end of the year (I wrote this last week) and time to review my year in travel. Last year (2012) was a real drought. In fact I had to manufacture a trip to Brisbane to maintain my four decades of flying at least once every calendar year. I must say though that it was a great trip - I got to see The Stranglers and Blondie in concert, fulfilling two long-time concert wishes! The only other time I had an annual aircraft-free close call was one year when my only flight was on New Year's Eve from Sydney to Canberra.

2013 was another matter altogether, but by comparison with my travel-heavy years it was very light on. Here are the highlights:

New countries:
  •  Bahamas. Thanks to a cruise from Florida our whole family visited the Bahamas for the first time.
  • Mexico. Somewhat of a cheat. I was working in Arizona and I walked across the border for about 15 minutes. Very interesting conversation with US Border Protection on the way back, but all was fine in the end.
New US states:
  • Florida (holidays)
  • Nevada (holidays)
  • Arizona (work)
Special mention - yet another visit to Dallas/Fort Worth airport in Texas without ever actually entering Texas.

New aircraft:
  • Airbus A380, three times.

My new flight distance record:
  • Sydney to Dallas. It's not the all-time record for a regularly scheduled flight, which is held by Singapore Airlines on the New York Newark (EWR) to Singapore (SIN) route. That flight ceased on 23rd November 2013, making Sydney to Dallas the current record holder. Turkish Airlines will soon commence an Instanbul to Sydney flight which will overtake Sydney to Dallas as the new record holder, but will fall short of Singapore's EWR-SIN all-time record.
Most remarkable trip from an aircraft variety perspective:
  • Holiday to the US which involved eight flights on seven different aircraft. Oddly the only duplicate aircraft was an American Airlines 757. The whole trip was:
    • SYD - DFW, Qantas (QF) 747 (Economy)
    • DFW - MCO, American Airlines (AA) MD-80 (Economy)
    • MCO - JFK, AA 757 (Domestic First, with lie-flat beds that were wasted on a 2.5 hour trip)
    • JFK - LAX, AA 767 (Domestic Business)
    • LAX - LAS, AA 757 (that's the repeat, Domestic First with normal seats like Australian Domestic Business)
    • LAS - LAX, AA 737 (Economy, surprisingly the only 737 on the trip)
    • LAX - SYD, QF A380 (Economy but with a spare seat beside me which makes all the difference, my first flight on the A380)
    • SYD - CBR, QF Dash 8 (Economy of course)
So all in all it was a very interesting travel year. 2014 promises to be very different but just as interesting in that I hope to be able to add two new countries (Taiwan and Japan) thanks to a family cruise in March. I've been to Narita (Tokyo) airport a few times, but never entered Japan.

Here's hoping for many more special travel experiences in the future. Happy New Year everyone!

Thursday, February 07, 2013

In which I take on a Quantum Physics problem

Let me start by acknowledging that real science is hard. People way smarter than me with advanced degrees and a lifetime of experience toil away at the smallest issues to advance knowledge bit by bit. Amateurs have no part to play - anyone without at least a PhD who claims to have a "Eureka" moment is either deluded or trying to sell something to the gullible.

That said, I've had a "Eureka" moment. Unfortunately I'm not trying to sell anything to the gullible. I wish I were because, frankly, I could do with the money.

Quantum Physics is weird. Lots of stuff happens that doesn't make sense, but it can be demonstrated to be real. However there is one phenomenon which seems weird that I think can be easily explained. Without spending the next thousand words describing it, there are experiments using light which seem to require the light to send information back in time (to itself) do determine how it will later behave. For some background reading check out Wheeler's delayed choice experiment and Delayed choice quantum eraser (in particular the Problems with using retrocausality section).

So to cut a long story short, different results can be obtained, at the time of the experiment, which vary in a way which is only possible if the light changes the way it behaves before the experiment is conducted. It seems that the light reaches the experimentation site and sends a message to itself in the past dictating how it should behave.

Anyone who has studied enough Physics eventually comes to accept that time isn't absolute. The faster you go, the less time passes for you compared with slower dudes (see the Twin Paradox). The closer you get to the speed of light, the slower time goes. Of course it goes the same speed for you, but your Earth bound colleagues will age much more quickly than you. Nothing can travel "at" the speed of light except, well, light (actually that's not strictly true, but to travel at the speed of light requires zero mass - neutrinos may qualify).

The thing is, if you do happen to travel at the speed of light, there is no time. A photon of light is created, travels and is extinguished (converted to another form of energy) in zero time in the photon's frame of reference. Not "really quickly", exactly zero time. Now here's where it gets odd, because from where we stand we see light travelling quickly, but still taking time. Eight or so minutes to get from the Sun to here, four and some years to get from the next nearest star to here. Yet each photon experiences zero time for its journey, no matter how long it takes in our frame of reference.

Here's the Eureka stuff.

At any given instant my body is approximately 183 cm (6 feet) long. I have no problem detecting my feet and my head at the same time. To a photon its entire journey, be it from a torch or a distant star, occurs at the same instant. It happens in varying physical lengths, but zero time. For the photon to send a message from the end of its "life" to nearer the beginning of its life does not require sending a message back in time, because its whole life happens at exactly one instant in time. It requires sending a message from one physical point to another, both of which are experiencing the same time. The end and the beginning are at the same time. We see the photon taking time to reach its destination, but that's only from our frame of reference.

From the point of view of the photon, in Wheeler's experiment, the detector screen isn't being removed "after" the light has passed the double-slits because the whole journey is happening at the same time. The photon at the physical end point of its journey communicates with itself at an earlier physical point (since it is at the same time from its point of view) and behaves accordingly.

Therefore no time travel is required and there is no paradox. It's just one physical location of the photon communicating with another physical location of the photon, both of which exist simultaneously.


Monday, February 04, 2013

Et Tu, Zed? Wow, that sounds stupid (and it is).

Today the ACT Opposition Leader Zed Seselja announced that he would be challenging Senator Gary Humphries in the preselection process for the Liberal Party Senate ticket for this September's Federal election. Of course he is well within his rights to do so in our democracy, but why on Earth would the Liberal Party think that was a good idea?

Let's start by examining their records.

Zed (oh, I should point out to my US friends that "zed" in this part of the world is the 26th letter of the alphabet. I don't think he would appreciate you calling him Zee ;) ) has been the ACT Opposition Leader for the past five years, having been in the Legislative Assembly since 2004. He failed to defeat the sitting Labor Government in 2008 and again failed to defeat the sitting Labor Government in 2012. He has never in fact served in Government. In all seriousness, really, what has he achieved? I'm a Liberal supporter and I'm struggling to think of anything. Of course there was that member of his staff (Tio Faulkner) who it turned out, allegedly (did you see what I did there?) was being paid by the ACT taxpayer to do party political work, but I'm not sure that's what he would like to be remembered by.

Gary was a member of the ACT Legislative Assembly starting at the first self-government election. He held various roles during his time in the Assembly - Deputy Chief Minister, a number of Ministerial portfolios, and of course Chief Minister. Yes, he shares Zed's experience as Opposition Leader, but I'm sure he considers that a very minor part of his overall qualifications. Since leaving the ACT Legislative Assembly to join the Federal sphere as a Senator in 2003, he has been a tireless supporter of the Canberra region, even when that has put him at odds with the Federal Liberal Party machine. Having listened to my share of Parliamentary proceedings I know that even the Labor Party acknowledges that Gary is a reasonable person who on occasion puts the ACT community's interest above his party's posturing. This may well have cost him the chance to "climb the greasy pole" as Yes, Minister put it, but his party still saw it right to reward him with the front bench roles as Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Attorney-General and Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Materiel.

In summary, I ask ACT Liberal Party members, exactly what does Zed have to offer and why is that better than what Gary has to offer? Or to put it another way, what has Gary done that even makes you consider changing to a perennial loser like Zed?

[I would have like to have left my blog at the last question, but I think I know the answer. The ACT Liberal Party, like a lot of organisations, doesn't care what is best. They are a collection of self-interested individuals who have absolutely no regard to anything other than how they can pursue their own agenda. And lest you think I am biased - the Labor Party is no less guilty of this. In fact with their disgraceful ties with the union movement they are almost certainly more so.]

Frankly, if Zed takes over from Gary it will be a travesty. However it will not be a surprise because under the scum of the Earth that is Tony Abbott, the Liberal Party is not just a shadow of its former self, it has no right to even bear the moniker of its founder or its heritage. It should rename itself the Conservative Party, or more accurately, the Republican Party.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Anyone for wiff-waff? I mean ping-pong. I mean table tennis. I mean gay marriage.

Consider the following text.

"I was playing ping-pong when I tripped over the hoover cord and banged my head on the thermos which had been left on the linoleum. I had to put a band-aid on the cut and take some aspirin for the headache."

Strictly speaking I should have written this as either:

"I was playing table tennis when I tripped over the vacuum cleaner cord and banged by head on the vacuum flask which had been left on the [actually linoleum is such a ubiquitous ex-trade mark that there is no obvious generic term with which to replace it - "vinyl flooring" I suppose]. I had to put a sticking plaster on the cut and take some acetylsalicylic acid for the headache", or:

"I was playing Ping-Pong1 when I tripped over the Hoover2 cord and banged my head on the Thermos3 which had been left on the Linoleum 4. I had to put a Band-Aid5 on the cut and take some Aspirin6 for the headache."

1 ® J. Jaques & Son Ltd
2 ® The Hoover Company
3 ® Thermos GmbH
4 ® Frederick Walton
5 ® Johnson & Johnson
6 ® Bayer

The issue of course is trade marks, and specifically those trade marks which have become generics. The most recent I can think of is when we say that we should "google" something, do we really mean we should use, or does it also include using or any other search engine? The point is that companies fight very hard to retain their use of particular words, because by doing so they can both capitalise on the public's familiarisation with the name and gain an advantage over the competitors needing to use an unfamiliar generic name for the product.

Moreover, if they fail to adequately protect their trade marks, the risk is that eventually a court may decide that the trade mark is no longer protected - it becomes a generic term and in the public domain. Hence Mattel could almost certainly safely sell their own "ping-pong set" without paying royalties to J. Jaques & Son Ltd, and without having to worry whether they will be sued (well, they might be sued, but Monsieur Jaques and/or his fils would certainly lose).

The various Christian sects (stay with me here, I'm getting to an important point) have what they call Sacraments. These include (amongst others) "Baptism"  and "Marriage". These are very significant and sacred ceremonies within the church, and they carry with them a number of well-known rituals.

Many years ago if you wanted to be married it would take place in a church. Then some day it was decided that there should be a secular version where a man and a woman affirm their desire to remain in a certified relationship "till death us do part". Fine. The state set up the mechanism and the idea of a wedding in a registry office was born. The issue is what the resulting relationship ended up being called. The state decided that since "marriage" was what it had been called up until that point when a wedding was held in a church, so "marriage" was a perfectly cromulent term for a relationship affirmed in a non-church setting.

Now, what the churches should have done is strenuously object. As mentioned earlier, the sacrament of marriage is to the church a sacred union of a man and a woman in the sight of God. I'm sure they don't see it as a convenient way to sort out taxation, inheritance and various other legal issues. It was their term and they should have tried to protect it. But they didn't object or try to protect the term (or if they did, they didn't do a very good job of it). The various churches either accepted or chose to ignore the fact that a ceremony which did not necessarily refer to God at all could result in a union known both legally and socially as a marriage.

Fast forward a few decades. Gay people want to "get married". Suddenly a number of churches prick up their ears and think, "Hang on, marriage is a sacred union between a man and a woman in the sight of God. Our theology doesn't recognise gay relationships as fulfilling the Biblical definition of a marriage." And you know what? They may well be right. Right, but utterly irrelevant. You see in a very real way (not just a weasely "Aha, I've got you there" way) the churches lost the right to define what constitutes a marriage when they allowed (or at least did not successfully argue against) secular unions to use the term . The term entered the public domain and therefore how it was subsequently used was in the hands of the Government. Of course everyone, whether it be an individual or an organised interest group, has the right to present their point of view on any matter being decided in Parliament. However they have absolutely no right to expect or receive any preferential treatment (let alone exercise any actual power) over the Government's decision.

This brings me to my final point. Many governments around the world have decided that discrimination based on sexual preference or orientation is illegal. This is the most important point of this blog, so I will write it again. Many governments around the world have decided that discrimination based on sexual preference or orientation is illegal. Once we accept that "marriage" is a non-religious, statute-defined term, then there can be no logically supported valid argument against two gay people being married in jurisdictions where anti-discrimination laws apply.

Forget arguments that gay marriage undermines heterosexual marriage (it would make no difference to my heterosexual marriage, and I would be interested to know how anyone who uses that argument could quantify how exactly their marriage would be affected), forget any arguments from religious organisations about how it contravenes their teachings (guess what? It's not your trade mark any more), forget about the "it's icky" arguments (legal rights, particularly anti-discrimination rights, are often there to protect minorities from the icky feelings of the majority), and just accept that if a heterosexual couple can enter a relationship called a "marriage" then it is unconscionable for a gay couple not to be able to do the same. And when I say "same", I don't mean "similar", I mean with exactly the same legal, taxation, inheritance, adoption, etc. rights, and not least of which (but in some ways absolutely the least of which) the right to use the now secular term "marriage" to describe the commitment into which they have entered.

Here endeth the lesson.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

ACT Legislative Assembly results - please hold, your vote is important to us

I need to state up front that last Saturday when the ACT Legislative Assembly election was being held, I had never felt less enthusiastic to exercise my democratic right, privilege and responsibility to cast my vote. We have a local government masquerading as a state government, and those seeking endorsement are frankly uninspiring with very few exceptions. Be that as it may, of course I voted in the manner which I thought was the right way. 

As it happens, in the 17 member Assembly the Liberal Party and the Labor Party secured eight seats each. The Greens secured one seat. We now await the one Greens member, Shane Rattenbury, to decide who he will grant his deciding vote to determine who will govern the ACT. The obvious choice for him is the Labor Party because the Greens' policies are more closely align with the left. I dare say that if you were to ask everyone who voted for the Greens whether they would rather a Labor or Liberal Chief Minister, they would overwhelmingly chose Labor.  I just hope that whichever party negotiates to give Mr Rattenbury its support, it does not sell out its morals or basic principles.

We do need to look back however to the 2010 Federal Election. The independents who held the balance of power, and in particular the ones who finally decided who would be Prime Minister, represented electors who, had they not sent independents to Canberra, would certainly have elected either National or Liberal Party candidates. Yet those independents decided to support the Labor Party and sent Julia Gillard to the Lodge. Presumably they were promised great things for their constituencies, but there is evidence that using the excuse "in the fullness of time" these promises were not delivered. I need to state that even though I am a lifetime Liberal Party voter, and still support the Liberal Party stance on almost all policies, I cannot and will not ever support a party led by Tony Abbott. In other words, even though I think the independents did the wrong thing by their supporters, I breathed a hypocritical (or, I like to think, a pragmatic) sigh of relief when they made their decision.

Will Mr Rattenbury decide to send Mr Seselja to the Chief Ministership in return for the promise of some legislation which may never eventuate? My prediction is "no". I think Katy Gallagher will remain Chief Minister, and from a democratic point of view I think that's probably the correct result. 

Australian Foreign Minister Senator Bob Carr - senile or a liar?

Yesterday the Australian Foreign Minister, Senator Bob Carr was asked by a reporter if he still thought that US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was "bloodless". The question was prompted by a blog by Senator Carr from January this year entitled, "Bloodless Romney Misses Great Counter Attack". As of today (1st November) it is still online.

How did he respond to the question? Well for starters he said, "That's ancient history". Really, January is ancient history is it?

The fact that the blog post is still online did not stop him from saying to the reporter, "I rather suspect you're now inventing things on my blog to throw at me". No Bob, not inventing things, quoting things. Do you understand the difference? By the way Bob, if you're going to deny something, perhaps deleting it from your blog would be a good start because if you don't, everyone can see that the reporter wasn't inventing anything.

Not content with that patently false accusation he then went on to say, "Any view I held at the time has been overtaken by the views I've now got to express on behalf of Australia." The only possible logical interpretation of that statement is that you did hold that view but now are forced to (that's what "got to" means) express views which you don't believe because you are the Foreign Minister.

Of course he also resorted to the standard cornered-rat defence (otherwise known as the Alan Bond defence, or since the Leveson enquiry, the Rupert Murdoch defence) of saying "I can't recall making those remarks". Really? It was only 10 months ago Bob, and you thought it important enough to blog about. Unless you don't actually write (or at least read) what goes on your blog, which I seriously doubt, that leaves only two options - either you really can't remember it, in which case you are senile, or you are a liar. Which is it Bob?

This is where it turned completely surreal. Senator Carr said that since writing the blog post he has met Romney, and stated that he "certainly wasn't bloodless". OK, that statement is fine I guess, for someone trying to be diplomatic. The bizarre bit was the very next thing he uttered which was, "And I deprecate anyone like you using an adjective about someone who could be president of the United States." What? The reporter wasn't using that adjective about Romney. The reporter was quoting something you said about Romney. Can you seriously not see the difference? Of course you can; you were just saying that to try to deflect the valid criticism away from yourself. Unless of course you really are senile, which would be the only explanation for you saying that truthfully.

I'm certainly no fan of Mitt Romney - I think he would be a disastrous US President. I just think with Romney and Carr we are dealing with a case of Tweedledum and Tweedle-even-dumber.