Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I’m Not Stupid, and I Don’t Want Your Headphones

Earlier this year, I started to notice that United had placed a warning on all of their headphones which they provide in the seatback pockets in the economy cabin. The warnings stated clearly:


Upon seeing this warning, I was filled with a sudden urge to remove the headphones from the aircraft. I've never had a desire to take these headphones before, but the fact that United so blatantly didn't want me to do it made it much more attractive. I didn't need or want the headphones, but I was interested to find out more about whether or not some technology was actually being employed to disable the headphones or if the warning was just so much white ink on black plastic.

I'll admit that I'm not the most skilled person when it comes to electronics, but in my mind, I figured that the technology required to disable the headphones once removed from the plane would be cost prohibitive and/or impossible to pull off. That left me with the notion that this was just a passive way to try to curtail headphone theft.

I will admit that United provides some of the better airplane headphones out there. The one problem that I have with them is that they don't appear to be cleaned between users. Please let me know if I'm wrong on that point, but if I don't see evidence of something being "cleaned for my protection" I'll assume that it isn't.

Sanitation aside, I was left with the burning question of technology vs. snake oil. Surely this topic required additional investigation.

While I'm not an electrical engineer, I happen to know someone who is, so I brought the topic up with a coworker of mine. He let me know that there are some relatively simple methods which could be employed to effectively limit the headphones to airplane use. One method, which he briefly mentioned, was to add some sort of electronic device to the headphones that would require a stronger than normal audio signal to get through to the speakers. With that done, you'd have to increase the capabilities of the sound system to match the headphones, but once that was done the headphones would effectively be useless once removed from the plane.

This technique seemed unlikely as retrofits to the sound systems of a fleet of airplanes would be costly. Additionally, you'd have to be careful that the sound system wouldn't blow out the headphones that passengers brought from home. We concluded the conversation by determining that a device that disabled the headphones upon leaving the aircraft was impractical.

My coworker also left me with a simple test that I could perform that didn't require me to “borrow “ a pair of headphones. While on the plane, all I would have to do would be to plug in a pair of the provided headphones into a portable sound output device. If I couldn't hear my audio feed, the technology was in use, otherwise a liberal application of BS was likely.

As I write this, from my airplane seat, I’m listening to the exotic sounds of Arthur Lyman on my laptop with a pair of the "PLEASE DO NOT REMOVE" headphones. So, in conclusion, there’s no magical device that disables the headphones like a grocery cart removed from a parking lot.

With that said, there’s no reason to remove these headphones to begin with, they don’t belong to you. Additionally, please don't take the toilet seats, coffee pots or the shoes of the flight attendants. As far as I know, the Skymall catalog and inflight magazine are still fare game.

A simple reminder not to remove the headphones would have sufficed, but don’t patronize me and invent some phantom technology; expecting me to swallow it. I’m not stupid and I don’t want your headphones.

I have contacted United on this matter and I have yet to hear from them. If I'm completely mistaken on this topic or my test is flawed, please let me know so that I can clarify the details of this post.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Vending Machine Roundup #2

It's everyone's favorite time, vending machine roundup time. Once again, my travels have put me in contact with some interesting vending machines that I thought I'd share with everyone. If you are new to Graham's Travel Blog, you may want to read Vending Machine Love and Russian Vending Machine Roundup for a little context.

First up we have a vending machine that dispenses microwave popcorn, and it even has a built in microwave. I found this machine immediately upon checking into a motel in Wisconsin. My vending machine radar seems to be improving and I caught sight of this one out of the corner of my eye. I knew that I had to use it as I'd never seen a machine quite like it.

The popcorn was nice, hot and eerily delicious despite the fact that I wasn't even in the mood for popcorn. When I see a machine like this, I can't resist.

On the other hand, here we have a pair of machines that I have no problem resisting. The machine on the left sells iPods, PSPs and the related accessories while the machine on the right sells the popular language learning software Rosetta Stone. Neither of these machines take coins or dispense food so they don't really draw me in. They fall well within the realm of luxury goods vending machines, accepting only plastic and vending things that shouldn't be impulse buy items. On the upper left section of each machine you can see the video screen that attmpts to lure in the casual passer by.

While I'll often seen people stopping and looking at these machines, I've never seen someone actually purchase something out of one of them. Perhaps, if you really needed a nice present for someone or if your headphones snap, then I might picture someone using an iPod machine, but I don't think these machines get a lot of use.

Slightly more practical is a vending machine that sells cut flowers. I first saw one of these in Las Vegas, which makes perfect sense within the context of Las Vegas. I can easily a guy spending the night at a strip club and then needing a handy appology gift.

The pictured machine however, was found in Raliegh, NC. It offers a variety of cut flowers within the $10-$20 range.

In addition to the machines above, I also found a good one at the local Costco. Since the last time I visited, they installed a coffee/hot drink machine. It was a little chilly that day, so I had to give it a try. I wasn't disappointed when the prerequisite poker coffee cup popped out, and I was pleasantly surprised at the high quality of the hot chocolate that was dispensed into said cup. In case you were wondering, my hand was a pair of queens.

Well, that's about it for this vending machine roundup. I look forward to photographing the next interesting vending machine that I come across (and posting about it). I will be moving to Boston, MA quite soon, does anyone know of any Boston area vending machines that I should seek out? Have you seen any interesting machines lately?

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

My Take on Subways

During my travels, I try to take public transportation as often as possible. When I visit large cities, this usually means catching the subway, and I’m proud to say that I’ve ridden quite a few. Subways are an inexpensive way to get around, they are much more environmentally friendly than taxis and less frustrating than attempting to navigate a new city by car.

There’s something that I just love about subways. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in an area that didn’t have them or perhaps something in my brain switched on that time I fell asleep watching The Warriors. Whatever it is, I love taking the subway whenever I get the chance.
There’s always a slight learning curve while riding a new subway system for the first time. In addition to figuring out your route using an often complicated map which is in either tiny print or embedded into the wall (using either makes you look like a tourist), you have to figure out fares, transfers and how to get through the turnstile gate while carrying over 100 lbs of equipment without getting stuck, but maybe that last one is just me. Once all that is sorted, you have to find the right track, lugging said equipment up and down stairs if you can’t find an elevator.

After becoming oriented to it, the subway is an excellent way to get around town. While subway routes can be difficult to sort out, you can get a head start on the basics from the subway’s website. I usually investigate fares and print out a copy of the subway system map before I arrive at a new city.
Throughout the world, you’ll find subways in some of the more populous cities. While there are some vague similarities between them (you have to pay, they use trains and they offer excellent people watching opportunities) they are all different in ways that make them their own with architectural elements, artwork or something as novel as cleanliness.

Below is a list of all of the subways that I have ridden, along with a brief comment about each one:

Moscow, Russia: Beautiful Art Deco elements in some stations, interesting ring track around the city center.
Boston, MA, USA: Efficient and it goes to where I’ve needed to go. Just avoid it before, during and after the St. Patty’s Day parade and after the Red Sox lose a ballgame.
Philadelphia, PA, USA: I’ve only used this subway once, but they used tokens at the time of my visit.
Toronto, Canada: A great system that still runs on tokens, generally full of Canadians.
Washington, DC, USA: Slightly confusing with direction changes in the tracks, but pretty good at moving people around.
New York, NY, USA: Iconic, smells of vomit from time to time. Just watch out for roaming gangs of mimes.
Santiago, Chile: Cleanest subway I’ve ever seen.
London, UK: Mind the gap signs are plentiful here. You can buy T-shirts suggesting other things to do to the gap.
Paris, France: Beautiful Art Nuevo stations, very confusing to get anywhere.

There’s my brief take on subways. They may not be exciting to everyone, but I certainly enjoy learning a new system when the opportunity arises.

If I had to pick a favorite, I think that I would have go with New York on account of its tight links to American pop culture, but I think that the Metro in Paris could definitely grow on me once I figured it out. What’s your favorite subway system and why?

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Graham is Moving!

Photograph by Nicole Holt

Wheels have been set into motion for my wife, our cat and I to relocate from Eugene, OR, to the greater Boston area in the next month or so. The move comes after a long stretch in Eugene, but we think that it's going to be a good move for us because it will open up both personal and professional opportunities for both me and my wife. Of course that means leaving the familiar and the friendly, which is something that I generally resist.

There will be plenty of things that I'll miss: friends, cubicle neighbors, farmer's markets and the odd restaurant (Eugene has lots of odd restaurants), but I am very much looking forward to discovering the Boston area.

With that said, my attentions will be a little scattered in the coming weeks as a cross country move is neither easy nor without its logistical complications. I hope to be able to maintain the same level of content on Graham's Travel Blog, but if it comes down to working on the blog and preparing for the move, the move will have to come first. The posts may be shorter or slightly move related, but I'll do my best to keep up.

Once we get settled, things should go back to normal fairly quickly, and the blog that regular readers have come to know and love will be back. Boston is a great place to kick off traveling adventures, of which we plan to take full advantage of so you can look forward to seeing that reflected here.

Before we leave, we’ll be going on one last Oregon road trip to the Tree House Hotel in Southern Oregon, and then we'll head back up the coast. This trip is one that we’ve wanted to take for quite some time, and it’s long overdue. I should note that this trip was booked long before we had tentative move dates. I’ll admit that the timing for the trip isn’t perfect, but life, much like travel, often doesn’t turn out exactly as we plan. Oddly enough, it’s those unexpected events that end up being some of the most memorable experiences of our lives.

Moving to Eugene was another one of those events that wasn't part of my grand plan, I sort of went with the flow of my life at the time, and it brought me to Oregon. It was quite an adjustment, going from a suburb of Los Angeles to a small college town in Oregon, but eventually the pieces fell into place. After a rough start, I ended up meeting some amazing people, landed a great job, fell in love and got married. I wouldn’t trade any of those experiences for the world, but it is time to move on.

I’ll admit that I haven’t always taken advantage of everything that Oregon has to offer, but I will learn from my mistakes take more opportunities to explore New England.

Have you ever moved across the country? Do you have any sagely wisdom for me in my time of transition?

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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

What's Next? Flying Luggage?

I haven't made a big secret of my dislike for marketing departments. In Shaving Soap Sheets and Holey Soap I discussed how their actions have struck me as being driven by dubious motives, and in Airport Polynom Syndrome I suggested an occasional lack of good judgment . The marketing departments in the travel industry continue to find new ways to make me scratch my head.

Lately, I've been seeing a lot of ads for a new service that is offered by FedEx through United Airlines. The service guarantees overnight, door to door baggage service. The idea of paying even more fees to have your luggage moved from one place to another strikes me as a bit silly. It's as if United is admitting that there is a good chance that your bags won't make it, so you might want to try FedEx because they really know how to move luggage. Details about this service can be found at Door-to-Door Baggage.

I may think that an airline partnering with anyone to provide a similar, competing service may be a tad self defeating, but all of that is beside my main point, which has to do with the artwork used to promote this service. I have put their image onto a white background for the sake of clarity:

I've probably spent more time than I should have in pondering the above image, but that's because it's just plain wrong. To me, it appears that the wings are going in opposite directions; that is, the leading edges of the wings are not pointing the same way. This would make forward propulsion of the suitcase quite difficult, and it would cause the suitcase to spin around like a helicopter suddenly attached to its rotor.

How successful such a flight would be would depend on a lot of factors that we just don't know, such as how much lift is provided by the wings, how much the suitcase weighs and the weight distribution of the suitcase.

Another possibility, with the wing configuration illustrated above, would be for the suitcase to be flung sideways like a boomerang. Of course, fixed wings work better for a boomerang, and these bird-like wings do not appear to be fixed.

A coworker of mine suggested that the far wing could be up so high that we are seeing the underside of it. After considering this, I determined that the only way that this theory would work would be if:
1. the suitcase were flying toward us.
2. the wing had become broken and twisted.

Since the suitcase appears to be of normal proportions and it would be silly to use an injured flying suitcase in an advertisement, I have dismissed this theory.

I'm pretty sure that the idea of the image is to convey that the service will give your baggage the freedom to arrive independently from you, flying to your destination like a bird. I believe that the following image invokes the appropriate connotations while avoiding some of the more tricky aeronautical quagmires that I have mentioned:
Of course, my version is not without flaws. Using my basic Photoshop skills, I copied the existing wing, which clearly shows the underside and put it on the far side of the suitcase. The far wing should picture the top side of a wing. There is also no way to tell if these wings would provide enough lift as the properties (mass, location of center of gravity, etc.) of the system are unknown.

Assuming that there was sufficient lift to get the suitcase to fly, how would it steer? I suppose that the bird-like wings could do some steering, but even birds have tail feathers. How about landings? I know that my suitcase isn't built for landing at speed on any kind of surface.

Perhaps I'm just being a little too picky, but I don't think that it's too much to ask for a little bit of reality from advertisements coming from a company with which I trust my life while flying. I mean, if they don't know how wings work, who does?

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