Archive for March, 2011

Google introducing facial recognition app

March 31st, 2011 by Mariah

Santa Monica, California (CNN) — Google plans to introduce a mobile application that would allow users to snap pictures of people’s faces in order to access their personal information, a director for the project said this week.

 

In order to be identified by the software, people would have to check a box agreeing to give Google permission to access their pictures and profile information, said Hartmut Neven, the Google engineering director for image-recognition development.

 

Profiles might include a name, phone number and e-mail address.

 

“We recognize that Google has to be extra careful when it comes to these (privacy) issues,” Neven said. Before the app launches, Google plans to have acceptable privacy models in place, he said.

While Google has begun to establish how the privacy features would work, Neven did not say when the company intends to release the product, and a Google spokesman said there is not a release timeline.

Google has had the technical capabilities to implement this type of search engine for years.

 

Just as Google has crawled trillions of Web pages to deliver results for traditional search queries, the system could be programmed to associate pictures publicly available on Facebook, Flickr and other photo-sharing sites with a person’s name, Neven said. “That we could do today,” he said.

 

But those efforts had frequently stalled internally because of concerns within Google about how privacy advocates might receive the product, he said.

 

“People are asking for it all the time, but as an established company like Google, you have to be way more conservative than a little startup that has nothing to lose,” said Neven, whose company Neven Vision was acquired by Google in 2006. “Technically, we can pretty much do all of these things.”

 

Neven Vision specialized in object and facial recognition development. The object-related programs are reflected in an image search engine, called Goggles. The face-recognition technology was incorporated into Picasa, Google’s photo-sharing service, helping the software identify friends and family members in your computer’s photo library.

 

In 2009, Google acquired a company called Like.com, which specialized in searching product images but also did work in interpreting pictures of people. Google has also filed for patents in the area of facial recognition.

 

Privacy concerns

 

As Google’s size and clout grow, so does the chorus of critics who say the company frequently encroaches on people’s privacy. Over the years, Google has made various missteps.

 

The company agreed to pay $8.5 million last year in a legal settlement over grievances that its Buzz social-networking service published the names of people with whom Gmail users regularly communicated.

 

Google quickly fixed the problem, but its repercussions are still being felt: On Wednesday, Google announced it had reached an agreement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to receive an independent review of privacy procedures once every two years.

 

Google also faces numerous inquiries from governments regarding information collected by its Street View vans. Developers who report to

Neven work on aspects of that street-level photography initiative — mainly privacy-minded features such as the automatic blurring of faces and license plates, he said.

 

Google also is concerned about the legal implications of facial recognition. Even during trials among its own employees, Google has taken steps to ensure testers have explicitly agreed on record to try out the service.

 

The novelty of this sort of product may help attract early adopters. But policies would need to be uncomplicated and straightforward to keep users from abandoning it over privacy concerns, experts said.

 

“Online, people don’t think about the privacy concerns; they think about the fun activities they’re doing,” said Karen North, director of a University of Southern California program that studies online privacy.

 

“They’re going to have to figure out a way where people who like the ease and fun of some of these technologies … online don’t feel burned at any given point. Because once they feel burned, they’ll opt out.”

 

North said she believes Google has a tendency to push boundaries in order to outdo competitors. The service could push too far by, say, aggregating every photo of a user it finds on the internet without giving that user an easy way to erase certain images, she said.

 

“Google, in all the best ways, has put itself in a very difficult position — that no matter what they do, they have to do it biggest and best,” North said. “They have trouble starting small and building up because they’re Google.”

 

A ‘cautious route’

 

Google acknowledges the nefarious ways someone could leverage facial-recognition technology.

 

Many people “are rightfully scared of it,” Neven said. “In particular, women say, ‘Oh my God. Imagine this guy takes a picture of me in a bar, and then he knows my address just because somewhere on the Web there is an association of my address with my photo.’ That’s a scary thought. So I think there is merit in finding a good route that makes the power of this technology available in a good way.”

 

Neven and a Google spokesman described the facial-recognition app concept as “conservative” in relation to privacy.

 

“I think we are taking a sort of cautious route with this,” the spokesman said. “It’s a sensitive area, and it’s kind of a subjective call on how you would do it.”

 

While the opt-in requirement limits the app’s utility, Neven foresees many circumstances where people would agree to be found.

 

“If you’re an actor in L.A., you want to have everyone recognizing you,” he said, sitting outside in the sun at Google’s beachside office some 12 miles from Hollywood.

 

A facial-recognition app could tie in to social-networking initiatives

Google is said to be working on. For example, people looking to connect online could use their phones to snap each other’s pictures and instantly navigate to that person’s profile, rather than having to exchange business cards or remember a user name.

 

This month, Google redesigned its Profiles pages in a change that more closely resembles Facebook’s site. On Wednesday the company announced a new social-search tool, called +1, that allows people to share helpful search links with their friends.

Radiation levels in seawater off Japan plant spike to all-time highs

March 31st, 2011 by Mariah

Tokyo (CNN) — The levels of radiation in ocean waters off Japan’s embattled Fukushima Daiichi plant continue to skyrocket, the nation’s nuclear safety agency said Thursday, with no clear sense of what’s causing the spike or how to stop it.

 

The amount of the radioactive iodine-131 isotope in the samples, taken Wednesday some 330 meters (361 yards) into the Pacific Ocean, has surged to 4,385 times above the regulatory limit.

 

This tops the previous day’s reading of 3,355 times above the standard — and an exponential spike over the 104-times increase measured just last Friday.

 

Officials have downplayed the potential perils posed by this isotope, since it loses half of its radiation every eight days.

 

Yet amounts of the cesium-137 isotope — which, by comparison, has a 30-year “half life” — have also soared, with a Wednesday afternoon sample showing levels 527 times the standard.

“That’s the one I am worried about,” said Michael Friedlander, a U.S.-based nuclear engineer, explaining cesium might linger much longer in the ecosystem. “Plankton absorbs the cesium, the fish eat the plankton, the bigger fish eat smaller fish — so every step you go up the food chain, the concentration of cesium gets higher.”

 

On Thursday, Hidehiko Nishiyama, a Japanese nuclear safety official, reiterated that seawater radiation doesn’t yet pose a health risk to humans eating seafood.

 

Fishing is not allowed within 20 kilometers (12 miles) of the plant, and waterborne radiation should dilute over time, Nishiyama said.

Still, authorities don’t know where the highly radioactive water is coming from or how it reached the sea.

 

The contamination may be coming from either a leak or ground seepage. The high levels suggest the release of radiation into the atmosphere alone couldn’t be the lone source, an official with Tokyo Electric Power Company, which owns the Daiichi plant, said Thursday.

 

Tokyo Electric had previously announced plans to spray a water and synthetic resin mix around the complex to envelop radioactive particles, so they can’t spread any further. Still, persistent rain and wind on Thursday forced authorities to postpone the start of that effort.

The Japanese utility and the government have gotten new help from beyond its borders.

 

Gen. Ryoichi Oriki, chief of staff for Japan’s Self-Defense Force, said Thursday about 140 U.S. military members will arrive soon. The soldiers specialize in detecting, medically treating and decontaminating radioactive material.

 

A French nuclear group, Areva, has sent five specialists who are experts in treating contaminated water, the group said Wednesday.

 

And the U.S. Department of Energy deployed about 40 people and more than 17,000 pounds of equipment to Japan to help with the crisis, said Peter Lyons, the department’s acting assistant secretary for nuclear energy.

 

The nuclear plant has been in a state of perpetual crisis since being rocked by the March 11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, and there’s no clear end in sight.

 

This has all left the plant’s owner reeling, with the ordeal taking a significant toll on both its reputation and bottom line.

 

On Wednesday — the same day the company announced that its president, Masataka Shimizu, had been hospitalized due to “fatigue and stress” — Tokyo Electric’s chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata said it had no choice but to decommission four of the plant’s six reactors.

 

He acknowledged reports that Japan’s government is mulling nationalizing the company after the disaster, saying, “We want to make every effort to stay a private company.”

 

Beyond the recovery and clean-up expenses, Tokyo Electric will likely be asked to pay those who suffered because of the nuclear crisis.

 

A report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch estimates the utility firm will face 1 trillion Japanese yen (about $12 billion) in compensation claims if the recovery effort lasts two months, rising to 10 trillion yen if it goes on for two years, said Takayuki Inoue, a spokesman with the financial giant.

 

That might include farmers whose livelihoods were shattered after the detection of high radiation in several vegetables, prompting the government to ban sales. Contaminated tap water also has prompted officials to tell residents in some locales to only offer bottled water to infants. Businesses have been hit hard, too, by rolling blackouts tied to the strained power grid.

 

But those most affected have been the thousands, living within 20 kilometers (12 miles) of the stricken plant, who have been ordered to evacuate.

 

The International Atomic Energy Agency on Thursday urged Japanese authorities to “carefully assess the situation” — and consider expanding the evacuation zone further — after high radiation levels were found in Iitate, a town of 7,000 residents 40 kilometers northwest of the nuclear facility.

 

The U.N. agency did not say how much radiation it had detected, though the environmental group Greenpeace said Sunday it found levels more than 50 times above normal.

 

Koboyashi Takashi, Iitate’s manager for general affairs, said radiation levels in soil and water were decreasing. Residents had temporarily evacuated, but later returned to take care of livestock, he said.

 

Another village official, who declined to be named, was irked Thursday after the earlier radiation readings surpassed the IAEA’s evacuation criteria but not those of the Japanese government. He said local officials have urged tests on soil from 70 locations around the village.

 

“We (have to) believe what the government tells us,” said the Iitate village official in apparent frustration. “There is no other way.”

 

Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said it was not planning to change the exclusion area, saying that only one sample submitted by IAEA exceeded IAEA standards. Villagers are expected to be exposed to about half of Japan’s safety standard of 50 millisieverts after 24 hours of full outdoor exposure, said Nishiyama.

 

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters Thursday the “IAEA results will be taken into consideration,” but said “there is no plan” to expand the evacuation zone to 30 kilometers or beyond.

 

“There is no immediate health hazard,” Edano said, adding later that the government may offer free medical check-ups to those near the plant. “If the exposure continues for a long period of time, (a negative) impact can occur. We will continue to survey the situation.”

 

Meanwhile, Japan’s deputy finance minister said Thursday that this month’s catastrophic quake and tsunami could cost the government in excess of 25 trillion yen ($300 billion).

 

As of Thursday afternoon, more than 11,400 were confirmed dead from the March 11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, the National Police Agency said.

EPA boosts radiation monitoring after low levels found in milk

March 31st, 2011 by Mariah

Washington (CNN) — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is increasing its nationwide monitoring of radiation as two states reported very low levels of radiation in milk.

 

The agency said Wednesday it is boosting its monitoring of radiation in milk, precipitation, drinking water, and other outlets. It already tracks radiation in those potential exposure routes through an existing network of stations across the country.

 

Results from screening samples of milk taken in the past week in

Spokane, Washington, and in San Luis Obispo County, California, detected radioactive iodine at a level 5,000 times lower than the limit set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, officials said.

 

The I-131 isotope has a very short half-life of about eight days, the EPA said, so the level detected in milk and milk products is expected to drop relatively quickly.

 

FDA senior scientist Patricia Hansen also said the findings are “miniscule” compared to what people experience every day.

 

 

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire said tests confirmed the milk is safe to drink.

 

“This morning I spoke with the chief advisers for both the EPA and the FDA and they confirmed that these levels are miniscule and are far below levels of public health concern, including for infants and children,” Gregoire said in a statement.

 

“According to them, a pint of milk at these levels would expose an individual to less radiation than would a five-hour airplane flight.”

Similarly, the California Department of Public Health reassured residents that the levels do not pose a threat.

 

“When radioactive material is spread through the atmosphere, it drops to the ground and gets in the environment. When cows consume grass, hay, feed, and water, radioactivity will be processed and become part of the milk we drink. However, the amounts are so small they pose no threat to public health,” the department said.

 

At least 15 states have reported radioisotopes from Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in air or water or both. No states have recommended that residents take potassium iodide, a salt that protects the thyroid gland from radioactive iodine.

 

Iodine-131 has been found in eastern states from Florida to Massachusetts as well as in western states like Oregon, Colorado, and California, according to sensors and officials in those states.

None of the levels poses a risk to public health, they said.

 

The Japanese plant has been leaking radiation since it was damaged in the earthquake and resulting tsunami earlier this month.

Ritz Carlton Hong Kong is tallest hotel in the world

March 31st, 2011 by Mariah

The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong opened Tuesday, claiming the title of world’s highest hotel.

Located on the top of Hong Kong’s tallest building, the 488 meter tall International Commerce Centre, The Ritz-Carlton has an incredible vantage point of possibly the best panoramic views of Hong Kong.

The opening marks a comeback for the hotel, which closed operations in its former location in Central in 2008.

While Hong Kong is saturated with luxury hotels, Ritz-Carlton President and COO Herve Humler has faith in the market.

“Everybody is doing very well,” says Humler of the hotel and its peers in Hong Kong. “There is a great demand [for five star hotels].”

Much of that demand is coming from visitors from mainland China who account for an approximate average of 30 percent occupancy rate in luxury hotels in Hong Kong, according to Humler. They are often The Ritz-Carlton’s best customers.

“They come to eat in the restaurants, they bring their family and they are eating better than anybody, drinking the best wines,” says Humler. “And mainland Chinese customers are very loyal to the brand.”

Cautious start

 

Humler’s forecast for The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong’s occupancy rate until May 2011 is at 58-62 percent, considerably lower than the more than 80 percent rate of luxury hotels in Hong Kong. He says his cautious numbers are part of a strategy to keep quality high during the launch period.

“That kitchen has only been cooking for the last ten days,” says Humler of the hotel’s Italian restaurant Tosca in which we were seated. “I can fill up the place, but I’m going to be very careful. You have to look at consistency.”

If he can keep the service and food consistently as good as it was during our breakfast meeting, then The Ritz-Carlton is pretty much set on becoming Hong Kong’s next hottest dining destination.

Tosca’s scrambled eggs and caviar were casual yet decadent and done to a runny perfection. Served with a bit of smoked salmon, a sprig of greens and a toasted bagel half on a simple ungarnished white plate, the whole thing was very homey and easy — not ostentatious.

The latest Ritz-Carlton has made a conscious departure from its haughty image as a stuffy upper class refuge with strict dresscodes. The pompous tagline may still stand (”We are Ladies and Gentleman Serving Ladies and Gentlemen”) but everything else about the hotel feels postmodern, even hip.

Cool ambitions

Cheeky and insightful touches mark the hotel, from the telescopes in every guest room to the wheels fitted onto the dining chairs to the Chocolate Library, a cacao-themed lounge that serves a chocolate high tea. The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong is trying hard to cater to every whimsy of its 21st-century guests.

Ambiance starts with unbridled glamor at Ozone, the world’s tallest bar, a curved length of a room in an energetic patchwork of gilded wood, leather and marble serving cocktails, Japanese cuisine, and Asian tapas. Then follows the classy swagger of the restaurants Tosca and Teen Lung Heen where 8,580 bottles of wine line the walls, on the last count.

Some of it is almost braggadocio like the Bar and Lounge with its double fireplaces and two-story tall chimneys, or the world’s highest swimming pool complete with 144 screens on the ceiling in case swimmers get bored.

But amid all the trendy, contemporary superlatives, some things don’t change at The Ritz-Carlton. General Manager Mark DeCocinis assures that his team’s signature commitment to good service will continue at the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong where 30 percent of previous staff have been retained.

The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong has 312 rooms and is on floors 102-118 of the International Commerce Centre, 1 Austin Road West, Kowloon, Hong Kong, tel +852 2263 2263. Rooms start at HK$6,000 a night for a deluxe suite, rack rate. The presidential suite is $100,000 per night. www.ritzcarlton.com

 

Minami Sanriku a town hit hard by disaster

March 14th, 2011 by Mariah

Minami Sanriku, Japan (CNN) — As some in Japan officially kicked off their first work week Monday since its epic earthquake and tsunami, others — especially in the country’s northeast — grieved the loss of loved ones, kept fleeting hopes that missing could be found alive and tried to come to grips with a disaster that literally tore some communities apart.

 

The nation’s Kyodo News Agency, citing Prime Minister Naoto Kan, reported more than 15,000 people have been rescued in the days since Friday’s 8.9-magnitude tremor. But, while 1,598 people were officially dead Monday according to the National Police Agency Emergency Disaster Headquarters, the fear was that the final death toll could be exponentially higher.

 

That official figure, for instance, does not include 200 to 300 bodies in Sendai that have yet to be recovered, Kyodo reports. Nor does it include half the population of Minami Sanriku — some 9,500 people — who may be unaccounted for.

 

In that northeastern Japanese town, a family photo album lay on the sodden ground, showing a beaming man holding a newborn baby — happiness out of place amid the devastation and carnage left by a tsunami that occurred just after a massive earthquake.

 

Only a handful of buildings were left standing, with the rest a mangled mess of rubble. A boat sat on the edge of town, carried more than two miles inland by the tsunami.

 

When the tsunami warning sounded Friday, “Most people ran away,” said Choushin Takahashi, who was working in a local government office near the water. “Some had to leave the elderly or disabled behind on the second floor. I think a lot of those left behind probably died.”

 

As the wave hit, he said he felt as if it was happening in a dream.

 

“I saw the bottom of the sea when the tidal wave withdrew and houses and people were being washed out,” another resident said. “I couldn’t watch anymore.”

 

A dramatic rescue took place off Japan’s coast Sunday, when a Japanese destroyer rescued a 60-year-old man at sea, some 15 kilometers (9 miles) off Fukushima prefecture, according to Kyodo

News Agency.

 

The man, identified as Hiromitsu Shinkawa of Minami Soma, was swept away with his house, Kyodo said. He was spotted floating in the sea, waving a self-made red flag while standing on a piece of his house’s roof.

 

Shinkawa was conscious and in good condition, Kyodo said, citing Defense Ministry officials. He was quoted as telling rescuers he had left his home because of the quake, but returned home to grab some belongings with his wife when the tsunami hit. “I was saved by holding onto the roof,” he said, “but my wife was swept away.”

 

When a member of Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force handed him something to drink on the rescue boat, Shinkawa drank it and burst into tears, Kyodo reported.

 

“No helicopters or boats that came nearby noticed me,” he said. “… I thought today was the last day of my life.”

 

In Minami Sanriku, search and rescue efforts were frequently disturbed by tsunami alerts prompted by ongoing aftershocks.

 

When the alarm sounded, police abandoned their cars, rescue workers blew whistles and people rushed to high ground. “It’s your life!” shouted one man. “Run!” It was a false alarm, but such warnings are taken seriously in the wake of the disaster.

 

In Sendai, south of Minami Sanriku, Hiroki Otomo said his mother and uncle remain missing. They were at the family’s home when the tsunami struck.

 

“Frightening beyond belief,” Otomo said. “I have no words.”

 

Many areas of the town are simply gone — mud and splintered wood littering an area where a row of homes used to stand; a vehicle upside-down among tree branches. A school, which had 450 people inside when the tsunami hit, stood with its doors blown open and a jumble of furniture — plus a truck — in its hallways. Some teachers and students were able to escape the building, but officials said others did not.

 

Sendai residents said the water reached the treetops as it swept into the town. Cars were tossed like toys, windows blasted out and homes crushed or swept away completely.

 

“As I was trying to evacuate, the tsunami was already in front of me,” another young man said. “I tried to drive, but I ended up running instead.”

 

Some four-wheel-drive vehicles were seen on Sendai roads. Military choppers hovered overhead. Among those yet to be rescued Sunday were those trapped in a hospital, officials said.

 

“I’ve been watching TV, but it looks much worse when I actually see it in person,” said a third young man. “I grew up in the house that was not close to the ocean. I didn’t think it would be this bad, but I’m from the west side and I guess some people could not imagine the horror of the tsunami and couldn’t evacuate in time.”

 

Some residents of coastal Sendai returned to their homes Sunday, salvaging what they could. Others stood in long lines for limited fuel and, especially, for food and water. The line at one food and water distribution center was several blocks long.

 

Melissa Heng said she has many colleagues who are unable to reach friends and family living elsewhere in Miyagi prefecture, as phone service has been spotty. That, she said, is “adding to the emotional toll.”

 

But “for a city that’s seen so much tragedy in the last few days, the people seem very calm,” she said. Many families are focusing on the cleanup process, she said, and there is a sense that “we’re all in this together.”

US ship moves due to radiation

March 14th, 2011 by Mariah

CNN) — Tests detected low levels of radioactivity on 17 U.S. Navy helicopter crew members when they returned to the USS Ronald Reagan after conducting disaster relief missions in Japan, the military said Monday.

 

No further contamination was detected after the crew members washed with soap and water, the Navy said.

 

In addition, the Navy said the U.S. 7th Fleet has temporarily repositioned its ships and planes away from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after detecting low-level contamination in the air and on its planes in the area, the Navy said.

 

One ship was operating about 100 miles northeast of the power plant when “airborne radioactivity” was detected, the Navy said.

The Navy’s statement, however, provided some perspective, noting that the maximum potential radiation dose received by personnel when the ship passed through the area was “less than the radiation exposure received from about one month of exposure to natural background radiation from sources such as rocks, soil, and the sun.”

 

On Sunday, the USS Ronald Reagan started delivering aid in the coastal regions of Japan’s Miyagi prefecture.

 

Crew members, in conjunction with the Japan Maritime Self Defense Forces, conducted 20 sorties delivering aid pallets.

 

Eight U.S. and Japanese helicopters were used to distribute the pallets, according to Sgt. Maj. Stephen Valley of U.S. Forces Japan.

 

Workers are scrambling to cool down fuel rods and prevent a full meltdown in three reactors at the earthquake-hit plant. Radioactive steam has been released, intentionally to lessen growing pressure in the reactors.

Anxiety in Japan grows as more bodies are found

March 14th, 2011 by Mariah

Sendai, Japan (CNN) — In a nation already besieged with grief over mounting casualties, fears of possible radiation and the threat of more earthquakes, the nightmare grew for Japanese residents Monday as thousands of bodies reportedly were found and crews struggled to keep damaged nuclear plants under control.

 

Friday’s 8.9 earthquake and ensuing tsunami killed thousands, based on official and Japanese media reports, but an exact accounting of the disaster remains hidden beneath widespread damage that rescuers are only beginning to penetrate.

 

The official death toll, rising every few hours, reached 1,833 on Monday. But that didn’t account for thousands of bodies Japan’s Kyodo News said had been found in the hard-hit Miyagi Prefecture on Japan’s northeast coast.

 

At least 2,369 people were missing on Monday, the National Police

Agency said, and the number of dead is expected to go up as rescuers reach more hard-hit areas.

 

The earthquake and tsunami led to problems at three nuclear power plants, one of which remained a serious concern on Monday.

In Fukushima Prefecture, officials reported an explosion in a building housing the No. 3 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi plant had injured 11 workers.

 

Hours later, cooling problems at the plant’s No. 2 reactor allowed nuclear fuel to overheat and generate radioactive steam that officials will have to later vent into the atmosphere.

 

A similar explosion over the weekend occurred in another reactor at the Fukushima plant.

 

Government officials have tried to calm the public, saying the releases of radiation are modest. But people are still nervous.

 

“I’m due to give birth soon,” said a woman who had to evacuate from the area. “I want to know what’s going on at the nuclear plant. I’m scared.”

 

“We’re not afraid of another earthquake, but of the nuclear reactors,” said Michelle Roberts, a resident of central Tokyo whose family is trying to decide whether to leave the country. “I am also at risk because of the medications I have to take. I don’t know if I need to be worried or not.”

 

“It’s just adding insult to injury,” said Ryan McDonald, an American living in Kitakata, about 60 miles west of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. “The earthquake was horrible. Then The tsunami was horrible. And that’s not enough. Now there’s a nuclear fear.”

 

In Tokyo, residents worried about the threat of more aftershocks as they started their work week Monday.

 

“It didn’t really feel safe going to an empty office,” said Tokyo resident Mia Moore, citing the ongoing tremors that continue to rattle the city every few hours. “People want to stay with their families at this time to recover, really. It’s quite exhausting feeling so nervous all the time. I think people want to get back to normality as soon as they can.”

 

But normalcy seems a distant memory in Miyagi Prefecture, where rescue workers sifted through mountains of debris and hope for survivors appeared to dim.

 

The town of Minami Sanriku — about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the Pacific Ocean — morphed into a massive pile of wood that used to house some 20,000 residents. An eerie silence prevailed as emergency rescue officials said they didn’t think anyone was still alive under the rubble. About half of Minami Sanriku’s population was unaccounted for.

 

New video Monday from Miyagi Prefecture showed a broad wave of Thursday’s tsunami washing away an entire residential neighborhood, as residents who had fled to higher ground could be heard crying out in despair. Some people can be seen perilously close to the churning debris and running away on a roadway leading out of the neighborhood.

 

In the Sendai area, where buildings were disintegrated by rushing water within seconds during the tsunami, a bizarre mix of sport-utility vehicles, cabinets, sofas, a taxi cab and a doll were heaped in a pile outside the remnants of a house. A white car sat precariously at the top of a sloped house.

 

Solemn residents waited in lines that stretched blocks for food, water and gas. Despite the devastation surrounding them, the crowds appeared calm and orderly.

 

At a shelter in Sendai, a shell-shocked man who fled the tsunami would not let go of his 3-week-old infant. “I have to protect my children. I have to protect my children,” he said.

 

Some areas in the city of Ishinomaki remained inaccessible by ground on Monday. Japanese troops had gone door-to-door in hopes of finding survivors — but found mostly the bodies of elderly residents.

 

Cold weather has increased the hardship for disaster victims and rescuers. Rescuers report some victims have been exposed to cold weather and water, in some cases for days. Conditions are expected to worsen with temperatures forecast to drop below freezing by Wednesday across portions of the earthquake zone.

 

So far, about 15,000 people have been rescued, Kyodo News reported Monday, citing Prime Minister Nato Kan.

 

Among them was Hiromitsu Shinkawa, a 60-year-old man from Minami Soma who was swept away with his house, Kyodo said.

 

A Japanese destroyer found him Sunday floating some 15 kilometers (9 miles) off Fukushima Prefecture, waving a self-made red flag while standing on a piece of his house’s roof, according to Kyodo.

 

“I was saved by holding onto the roof, but my wife was swept away,” he told Kyodo.

 

The problem of trying to keep Japan’s large, modern industrial economy running added to the difficulties facing the nation.

 

On Sunday, the country’s prime minister called on people to pull together and face sacrifices.

 

“In the 65 years after the end of World War II, this is the toughest and the most difficult crisis for Japan,” Kan told reporters.

 

With the imperiled Fukushima plant offline, Tokyo Electric Power said it was expecting a shortfall of around 25 percent capacity, which necessitated blackouts.

 

Rolling blackouts began in eight prefectures Monday evening, with electricity turned off for three to six hours some parts. Downtown Tokyo was not included. Up to 45 million people will be affected by the rolling outages, which will last until April 8.

 

Kazuya Matsuo, who lives near Tokyo in Saitama Prefecture, said residents are limiting power consumption on their own.

 

“Many people appeal (to) each other to save electric power on (the) internet,” including on social media sites, Matsuo said. “Many Japanese people are cooperating.”

 

The earthquake and tsunami will rank among the costliest natural disasters on record, experts predict.

 

Japan’s central bank announced plans Monday to inject 15 trillion yen ($186 billion) into the economy to reassure global investors in the stability of Japanese financial markets and banks.

 

Still, Japanese markets dropped sharply Monday, the first trading day since the disaster. By mid-day local time, the benchmark Nikkei 225 was down more than 6.4%.

 

The drop was the largest single day fall since September 2008 after the collapse of Lehman Brothers during the financial crisis.

 

A massive emergency response operation is under way in northern Japan, with world governments and international aid groups coming together to bring relief to the beleaguered island nation. Sixty-nine governments have offered to help with search and rescue, said the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

 

Friday’s quake is the strongest in recorded history to hit Japan, according to USGS records that date to 1900. The world’s largest recorded quake took place in Chile on May 22, 1960, with a magnitude of 9.5, the agency said.

Join Dewey Lake Manor for a trip to the botanical gardens

March 11th, 2011 by Mariah

Dewey Lake Manor B&B in Michigan is near Hidden Lake Gardens, Michigan State University’s Botanical Gardens. www.hiddenlakegardens.msu.edu

It is truly a HOT SPOT in the Spring. In April and May, stay 2 nights at Dewey Lake Manor and receive free admission to the Gardens and a $10 gift certificate to their Gift Shop.

Call 800 815 5253 for reservations.

http://www.deweylakemanor.com/

Join Anne Hathaways Cottage For Garden Week In Virginia

March 11th, 2011 by Mariah

Virginia holds its annual Garden Week April 16-23 this year. What a great way to see Spring at its finest in the Shenandoah Valley!

Make Staunton your headquarters and see 3 or 4 days of open houses and gardens. If you start April 16th you can do Staunton’s Garden Day and then on the Sunday Charlottesville has their day, with a special talk on Monday evening at Monticello.

During the day on Monday you can do the Leesburg Garden Day and if you have any energy left, Tuesday is Fredericksburg’s Garden Day. These are all within a reasonable driving distance from Staunton.

Anne Hathaway’s is offering a special rate of $119 per night for a 2 night stay or stay 2 nights and get the 3rd night half off.

Call today 540-885-8885 or go to http://www.anne-hathaways-cottage.com to book online.

For complete Garden Week schedule:
http://www.vagardenweek.org/schedule.htm

For tickets and tour book:
http://www.vagardenweek.org/tickets.htm

Supermoon threat to earth?

March 11th, 2011 by Mariah

On March 19, the moon will swing around Earth more closely than it has in the past 18 years, lighting up the night sky from just 221,567 miles (356,577 kilometers) away. On top of that, it will be full. And one astrologer believes it could inflict massive damage on the planet.

Richard Nolle, a noted astrologer who runs the website astropro.com, has famously termed the upcoming full moon at lunar perigee (the closest approach during its orbit) an “extreme supermoon.”

When the moon goes super-extreme, Nolle says, chaos will ensue: Huge storms, earthquakes, volcanoes and other natural disasters can be expected to wreak havoc on Earth. (It should be noted that astrology is not a real science, but merely makes connections between astronomical and mystical events.)

But do we really need to start stocking survival shelters in preparation for the supermoon? [Photos: Our Changing Moon]

The question is not actually so crazy. In fact scientists have studied related scenarios for decades. Even under normal conditions, the moon is close enough to Earth to make its weighty presence felt: It causes the ebb and flow of the ocean tides.

The moon’s gravity can even cause small but measureable ebbs and flows in the continents, called “land tides” or “solid Earth tides,” too. The tides are greatest during full and new moons, when the sun and moon are aligned either on the same or opposite sides of the Earth.

According to John Vidale, a seismologist at the University of Washington in Seattle and director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, particularly dramatic land and ocean tides do trigger earthquakes. “Both the moon and sun do stress the Earth a tiny bit, and when we look hard we can see a very small increase in tectonic activity when they’re aligned,” Vidale told Life’s Little Mysteries, a sister site to SPACE.com.

At times of full and new moons, “you see a less-than-1-percent increase in earthquake activity, and a slightly higher response in volcanoes.”

The effect of tides on seismic activity is greatest in subduction zones such as the Pacific Northwest, where one tectonic plate is sliding under another. William Wilcock, another seismologist at the University of Washington, explained: “When you have a low tide, there’s less water, so the pressure on the seafloor is smaller. That pressure is clamping the fault together, so when it’s not there, it makes it easier for the fault to slip.”

According to Wilcock, earthquake activity in subduction zones at low tides is 10 percent higher than at other times of the day, but he hasn’t observed any correlations between earthquake activity and especially low tides at new and full moons. Vidale has observed only a very small correlation.

What about during a lunar perigee? Can we expect more earthquakes and volcanic eruptions on March 19, when the full moon will be so close?

The moon’s gravitational pull at lunarperigee, the scientists say, is not different enough from its pull at other times to significantly change the height of the tides and thus the likelihood of natural disasters. [Infographic: Phases of the Moon Explained]

“A lot of studies have been done on this kind of thing by USGS scientists and others,” John Bellini, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey, told Life’s Little Mysteries. “They haven’t found anything significant at all.”

Vidale concurred. “Practically speaking, you’ll never see any effect of lunar perigee,” he said. “It’s somewhere between ‘It has no effect’ and ‘It’s so small you don’t see any effect.’”

The bottom line is, the upcoming supermoon won’t cause a preponderance of earthquakes, although the idea isn’t a crazy one.

“Earthquakes don’t respond as much to the tides as you’d think they would. There should actually be more of an effect,” said Vidale.

Most natural disasters have nothing to do with the moon at all. The Earth has a lot of pent up energy, and it releases it anytime the buildup gets too great. The supermoon probably won’t push it past the tipping point, but we’ll know for sure, one way or the other, by March 20.

Widespread destruction from earthquake in Japan

March 11th, 2011 by Mariah

Tokyo (CNN) — The morning after Japan was struck by the most powerful earthquake to hit the island nation in recorded history and the tsunami it unleashed — and even as the earth continued to twitch with aftershocks — the disaster’s massive impact was only beginning to be revealed.

The 8.9-magnitude temblor, which was centered near the east coast of Japan, killed hundreds of people, caused the formation of 30-foot walls of water that swept across rice fields, engulfed entire towns, dragged houses onto highways, and tossed cars and boats like toys. Some waves reached six miles (10 kilometers) inland in Miyagi Prefecture on Japan’s east coast.

Buildings collapsed by the score, and numerous fires were ignited.

Hundreds more people were missing, Japanese media reported, citing local and national police. Tens of thousands of people were displaced, according to Japan’s Kyodo News Agency.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the “enormously powerful” earthquake had caused “tremendous damage over a wide area.”

The quake, which struck at 2:46 p.m. (12:46 a.m. ET), prompted the U.S. National Weather Service to issue tsunami warnings for at least 50 countries and territories.

The epicenter of Friday’s main quake was located off Miyagi Prefecture, about 230 miles (370 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo, the U.S. Geological Survey said.
Cars ablaze in wake of Japan quake Also in Miyagi, officials reported that a train had derailed and authorities had lost contact with four trains in coastal areas, Kyodo reported, citing the East Japan Railway Company.

Japanese broadcasters showed video of collapsed buildings and reported widespread power outages and transportation disruptions. In Tokyo, rail service was suspended overnight, elevated highways were shut early Saturday and surface streets remained jammed as commuters — thousands of whom had spent the night in shelters — tried to get to their homes in outlying areas.

Video aired by Japanese broadcaster NHK showed extensive fires in Miyagi and in the port city of Hakodate, in the southern part of Hokkaido island in northern Japan. An oil refinery was burning in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo, according to NHK. And Kyodo News said fires could be seen in extensive areas of Kesennuma in Miyagi.

Aerial views of Kesennuma showed plumes of white smoke emanating from the center of the city and large, black areas the flames had already traversed.

In the city of Minamisoma in Fukushima Prefecture, all that was left of many structures were their foundations. Only concrete and steel buildings appeared to have withstood the wash. No people were visible in the streets of the town, whose population on Friday had been 70,000.

And a dam in Fukushima Prefecture failed, washing away homes, Kyodo reported. There was no immediate word of casualties, but the Defense Ministry said 1,800 homes were destroyed.

The National Weather Service sent a warning to 50 countries and territories it said could be affected by the tsunami.

Scores of aftershocks jarred the country Saturday, punctuated by a pair of strong earthquakes in the early morning, including one with a magnitude of 7.1 and another with a magnitude of 6.6.

Radioactive material may have leaked from an atomic power plant in northeast Japan, a major electric company said Saturday, according to a news agency report.

Citing the Tokyo Electric Power Co., Japan’s Kyodo News Agency said that radioactive substances may have seeped out of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors, about 160 miles (260 kilometers) north of Tokyo.

And cooling problems appeared to have spread to another of the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s nuclear plants.
Moment of the Japan quake Kyodo reported the power company alerted authorities that the cooling system at three units of the Fukushima Daini plant — which is distinct from the Fukushima Daiichi reactors — also failed. That prompted Japanese authorities to add that plant to its emergency list, along with the Fukushima Daiichi plant, Kyodo said.

The agency also reported Saturday that the same agency ordered the power company to release a valve in the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s “No. 1″ building, to relieve growing pressure.

Citing Japan’s nuclear safety agency, Kyodo said radiation levels were 1,000 times above normal in the the control room of the facility’s “No. 1.”

Prime Minister Kan told reporters he would board a helicopter to inspect the plant and the rest of the affected region from a helicopter.

The government had ordered the evacuation of residents nearest the plant as efforts to keep it cool after it was shut were initially hampered.

The confirmed death toll stood at 202 in nine prefectures, not counting the 200 to 300 bodies — apparently drowned — found in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, Kyodo said, citing police. It reported that 673 people were unaccounted for.

But NHK, also citing police, said at least 427 people were confirmed dead and more than 740 were missing across several prefectures.

Kyodo predicted the death toll would surpass 1,000.

The news agency, citing Japan’s defense forces, also said 60,000 to 70,000 people were being evacuated to shelters in the Sendai area of Miyagi Prefecture.

The prime minister said an emergency task force had been activated, and he appealed for calm. The government dispatched 8,000 troops to assist in the recovery effort and asked for U.S. military assistance, according to Kyodo.

A spokesman for the U.S. military bases in Japan said all service members were accounted for and there were no reports of damage to installations or ships.
U.S. President Barack Obama offered his condolences and said the United States was standing by to help “in this time of great trial.”

The U.S. Navy initiated reconnaissance flights to map the disaster zone and was moving the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan into position to assist the Japanese government with relief efforts, defense officials said.

Two search-and-rescue teams, totaling more than 140 people, were en route, the U.S. Agency for International Development said.

Images from Japanese media and CNN iReporters showed smoke pouring from buildings and water rushing across fields, carrying away entire structures.

“I wasn’t scared when it started … but it just kept going and going,” said Michelle Roberts, who lives in central Tokyo. “I won’t lie, it was quite scary. But we are all OK. We live on the third floor, so most everything shook and shifted.”

The quake toppled cars off bridges and into waters underneath. Waves of debris flowed like lava across farmland, pushing boats, houses and trailers. About 4 million homes had no power in Tokyo and surrounding areas.

The quake also disrupted rail service and affected air travel. Hundreds of flights were canceled, Kyodo said. Some 13,000 people were stranded at the Narita airport, and 10,000 were stuck at the Haneda airport, the news agency said. Flights into and out of both airports had resumed Saturday.

At Tokyo Station, one of Japan’s busiest subway terminals, shaken commuters grabbed one another to stay steady as the ground shook. Dazed residents poured into the streets, and offices and schools were closed. Children cried.

Residents said that although earthquakes are common in Japan, Friday’s stunned most people.

“This was larger than anyone expected and went on longer than anyone expected,” said Matt Alt, who lives in Tokyo.

“My wife was the calm one. … She told us to get down and put your back on something, and leave the windows and doors open in case a building shifts so you don’t get trapped.”

Richard Lloyd Parry said he looked through a window and saw buildings shaking from side to side.

“Central Tokyo is fine from what we see, people are calm … and not going inside buildings,” he said.

Such a large earthquake at such a shallow depth — 15.2 miles (24.5 kilometers) — creates a lot of energy, said Shenza Chen of the U.S. Geological Survey.

The impact was felt far and wide. In McKinleyville, California, a wave swept three men into the Pacific Ocean as they were reportedly trying to take photos of the incoming tsunami waves, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Two of the men returned to shore, but one died, officials said.

Japanese government officials said large tsunami waves were still a risk to coastal Japan, and they urged residents in coastal areas to move to higher ground.

The tsunami brought waves of nearly 7 feet to a harbor in Maui, authorities said, but other areas reported lower levels.

On the U.S. mainland, wave heights from Alaska to California ranged from under a foot to over 8 feet. The highest measurement, 8.1 feet, was at Crescent City, California.

Tsunamis are a series of long ocean waves that can last five to 15 minutes and cause extensive flooding in coastal areas. A succession of waves can hit — often the highest not being the first, CNN meteorologist Ivan Cabrera said.

Humanitarian agencies were working with rescue crews to reach people affected by the earthquake and tsunami.

“When such an earthquake impacts a developed country like Japan, our concern also turns to countries like the Philippines and Indonesia, which might not have the same resources,” said Rachel Wolff, a spokeswoman for World Vision.

Wolff said her agency is helping people in Japan and teaming up to help others in countries along the path of the tsunami.

The quake was the latest in a series around Japan this week.

On Wednesday, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Honshu, the country’s meteorological agency said. Early Thursday, an earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 6.3 struck off the same coast.

Friday’s quake is the strongest earthquake in recorded history to hit Japan, according to U.S. Geologic Survey records. The previous record was an 8.6-magnitude earthquake that struck near the Chubu Region near southwestern Honshu on October 28, 1707, that may have killed 5,000 people, CNN meteorologist Sean Morris said.

That quake generated a 33-foot (10-meter) tsunami wave, and some scientists believe the quake may have triggered the eruption of Mount Fuji 49 days later, Morris said.

The world’s largest recorded quake took place in Chile on May 22, 1960, with a magnitude of 9.5, the USGS said.

Global study examines corporate travel trends and best practices

March 8th, 2011 by Mariah

Egencia, an Expedia, Inc. company, released the results of its “2011 Global Cost Avoidance Study,” uncovering several best practices and strategies that travel managers can use to circumvent and protect against growing corporate travel costs related to air and hotel.

“In today’s challenging environment, we see the need more than ever to provide companies with expertise and guidance to optimize and monitor travel spend,” saidChristophe Pingard, Senior Vice President, Egencia EMEA and APAC. “This was the impetus for our global research and recent innovations such as our proprietary Air Fare Benchmarking and Flexible Dates Search tools.”

The global survey of 348 travel executives revealed that 95 percent of respondents view travellers compliance as important to extremely important to the success of their travel programme in 2011. A lack of compliance can mean missed opportunities for corporations to preserve funds, and can ultimately affect the bottom line. For example, respondents identified failure to book air travel far enough in advance (68 percent) as the number one area where travellers tend not to comply. Respondents identified other areas of frequently breached compliance, including:

  • Not booking preferred carriers or lowest logical fares (42 percent)
  • Booking more expensive hotel rooms (32 percent)
  • Not booking hotel rooms with preferred hotel partners (30 percent).

To encourage compliance with their travellers, 50 percent of respondents proactively communicate their corporate travel policy as updates occur; however, 16 percent communicate quarterly, 11 percent communicate yearly, and four percent never communicate. Additionally, 77 percent of respondents noted that they do not use incentives to keep their travellers compliant with their corporate travel policy.

According to a recent joint Egencia/NBTA Foundation study[1], a carefully conceived and consistently enforced corporate travel policy allowed companies to reduce annual travel spend by at least 45 percent or more.

When respondents were asked how they promoted travel spend accountability within their company, 56 percent noted that they establish a pre-trip approval system for approving or denying travel before booking, while 37 percent identify rogue travellers and follow-up with them directly, and 36 percent provide department managers with a specific travel budget that they manage and own.

In addition to strong policy enforcement and compliance, corporations should actively utilise cost avoidance tactics and best practices to ensure a successful travel programme. Respondents identified “insisting that travellers use lowest logical fares” as the most effective cost avoidance tactic, with 55 percent saying that it is effective to very effective. Respondents also identified requiring pre-trip approval (51 percent), using hotels that offer discounted/included amenities (47 percent), using independent hotels (25 percent), and utilising a last room availability clause (17 percent) as tactics used to avoid costs.

Corporate travel executives are increasingly focused on negotiating additional amenities or better terms and conditions into their hotel contracts, with 49 percent of respondents saying that they are utilising this tactic to combat anticipated hotel rate increases in the coming year.

“A key strategy of policy and cost control is to proactively identify new air and hotel opportunities, helping to maximise savings,” said Jonny Shingles, Managing Director, Egencia UK. ”For example, our Account Management works directly with our clients to expand and leverage specific discounts such as the Egencia Preferred Rate programme which includes amenities (breakfast, wi-fi) with major hotel partners .Within this programme, we also offer flexibility by negotiating specific terms such as “same day cancellation”, thus helping companies avoid additional costs while maintaining the satisfaction and comfort of their travellers.”

Respondents focused most prominently on negotiating free breakfast (56 percent) into their hotel contracts, followed by free Wi-Fi (55 percent), free parking (39 percent), last day cancellation (36 percent), and last room availability (24 percent).

The majority of respondents (57 percent) noted that they do not include reminders in their travel policy communications about available hotel benefits or amenities that have been negotiated into their rates. This is a substantial missed opportunity, as educating travellers on the availability of these benefits through targeted communications can dramatically increase the likelihood of them utilising these rates and included benefits.

Airline Prices May Rise With Gas Prices

March 8th, 2011 by Mariah

 

Airfares rise with oil prices

By HUGO MARTIN

Los Angeles Times


Airline ticket prices are on the rise again, and even industry experts can’t predict how much higher they will go. All this is making business travel managers very nervous.

For several months, airfares have been pushed up by growing demand and flights’ limited capacity. But the prices have been kept in check somewhat by consumer resistance and competition among airlines.

Now turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa has raised fuel costs, which represent at least 25 percent of airline expenses. Each $1 increase in the price of a barrel of oil results in $1.6 billion in added costs to the worldwide airline industry, according to the International Air Transport Assn.

So it’s not very surprising that the nation’s largest airlines have adopted half a dozen fare increases since Jan. 1.

During the fifth increase, however, the power of competition cut the price hike in half. In late February, major network carriers such as United, Continental, Delta and American raised domestic fares $20 per round trip. But those increases were later rolled back to $10 when low-fare airlines Southwest, JetBlue, AirTran and Frontier raised their prices only $10.

“Airlines can’t afford to be $1 more than a competitor, or they don’t show up on the first page of results” on fare-comparison websites, said Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com.

Consumers also have some power over prices, said George Hobica, the founder of travel website Airfarewatchdog.

“The airlines are playing cat and mouse with the consumer: ‘Let’s see how much consumers are willing to take before they say enough is enough,’” he said.

But it’s the rising cost of fuel that has many business travel managers nervous.

In a survey of people who manage travel spending for businesses, more than 90 percent said they were concerned about the effect of rising oil prices on travel costs, with nearly half saying they were “very concerned.” The survey of 472 business travel managers was conducted last week by the Global Business Travel Assn.

BAG-CHECK FEES COST TAXPAYERS

Fees charged by airlines to check luggage are not only costing passengers billions of dollars each year – they are costing all taxpayers money too, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said.

During testimony before Congress last week, Napolitano said airline passengers were trying to avoid the checked-baggage fee by carrying more luggage with them on planes. Carry-on bags require more labor-intensive inspections by Transportation Security Administration officers, she said.

“When you have to pay to check a bag it increases carry-on luggage, and that means there is more to inspect at the gate,” Napolitano said during testimony before a Senate appropriations subcommittee on homeland security.

The extra cost to the TSA, she said, is about $260 million a year.

FROMMER’S RATES AIRPORT LOUNGES

With storms wreaking havoc with airline schedules across the country this winter, delayed passengers are killing time at airport lounges. But depending on the lounge, they may not mind the wait.

Frommer’s, the 54-year-old travel guide business, talked with frequent fliers, guidebook editors and others in the airline industry to choose North America’s top 10 airport lounges.

Included on the list was United Airlines’ United First International Lounge at San Francisco International Airport, which Frommer’s said looks like a hotel lobby and offers showers, free drinks and free sushi.

Also among the top 10 was the OneWorld Lounge at Los Angeles International Airport, which is operated by British Airways, Qantas and Cathay Pacific. In addition to nine showers, free liquor and Wi-Fi access, the free food is particularly good, Frommer’s said.

Most lounges are open only to passengers with first- or business-class tickets, but some airlines sell day passes for $45 to $50. Frommer’s praised the ReLAX Lounge at LAX’s international terminal, which is open to all visitors; prices start at $15 an hour.

At ReLAX, non-alcoholic drinks are free, as are cookies, fresh fruit and wireless Internet access.

Said Frommer’s: “It’s a quiet and spacious place to watch the planes taxi around and take off.”

FAA BILL BANS USE OF LAPTOPS IN COCKPITS

After delaying for more than three years a bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, Congress appears ready to adopt legislation that would also make several changes in the way airlines operate.

For example: An amendment to the bill could more than double the number of daily round-trip flights between the western U.S. and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, to 28 from 12. Long-distance flights into Reagan National have been limited because of noise concerns and an effort to shift more flights to Washington Dulles International Airport.

Airline officials expect nearly half the new flights to take off from Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Debate over how many flights to allow was among several issues that delayed adoption of the bill.

The bill also includes a provision pushed by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., to prohibit pilots from using cellphones, laptop computers and other personal electronic devices in the cockpit while flying a plane. The proposal was drafted after two Northwest pilots overshot a Minneapolis airport by 150 miles in 2009 because they were distracted by their laptops.

The bill would also give the FAA the green light to modernize the nation’s air traffic control system, upgrading it from the World War II-era radar system to a GPS-based system that FAA officials say could reduce airline delays by as much as 20 percent.

“In an industry like aviation, standing still or moving backward is not an option,” FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt recently told a congressional committee.

Among other changes, the legislation calls for a study on flight attendant fatigue. The study was requested by flight attendant unions long before a frustrated JetBlue Airways Corp. flight attendant argued with an unruly passenger, cursed that person over the intercom, deployed the plane’s emergency chute and slid down it – beer in hand.

Congressional leaders hope the president will sign the bill by the end of March.

AIRLINES BEGIN TO HIRE AGAIN

After 28 consecutive months of declining employment, the U.S. airline industry is back in hiring mode, a sign that airlines are ready to add routes and flights.

The airline industry reported a 0.2 percent increase in employment in December, the first rise since August 2008, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“I think the airlines are moving up with the general economy,” said Jan Brueckner, an economics professor at UC Irvine and expert on the airline industry.

American Airlines recently announced that it plans to hire as many as 30 bilingual flight attendants for its new Los Angeles-to-Shanghai route.

The route will serve the growing tourism and business travel markets from China over the next few years as the Chinese middle class grows and travel restrictions ease. The new American hires are in addition to the 568 flight attendants recalled to work by the airline this month.

AIR CARRIERS SEEK WATSON’S HELP

The technology that enabled a supercomputer to beat two former quiz show champions in the first human-versus-computer “Jeopardy!” match might also help airlines operate more efficiently and aid passengers in booking travel plans.

The IBM technicians who built the question-answering computer named Watson say they are talking with several U.S. and international airlines about using the technology. IBM officials declined to name the airlines.

One situation in which a supercomputer could help is if several planes have landed at an airport but only one gate is available. The Watson technology could determine which arriving plane has the most passengers with impending connections so it could be unloaded first, said Raul A. Arce, IBM’s vice president for travel and transportation.

In the next five to 10 years, Arce said, airlines and hotels could also use Watson technology to suggest travel plans for passengers.

 

Megayacht built for adventure

March 2nd, 2011 by Mariah

(SuperYachtWorld) — What happens when an owner with bold ideas commissions a 45-meter yacht to venture where few have gone before? The result is “Big Fish,” a new yacht that’s bringing fresh meaning to go-anywhere yachting.

Just consider some of the yacht’s ambitious upcoming trips: Besides the vast white continent encompassing the South Pole, these include the formerly impassable but no less challenging North East Passage. Warm-weather destinations like the Amazon are on “Big Fish’s” itinerary, too — an itinerary that has seen her cover more than 10,000 miles to date of a polar circumnavigation.

So just what is it about “Big Fish” that makes her so special? Try being the first yacht to feature stone decking. Longer-lasting and more environmentally responsible than teak, the quarter-inch square granite slabs require less maintenance, including no sealant. They’re essentially impervious to impact, too.

That same granite decking covers the fold-down balconies off each side of the dining area and the fold-down “wings” surrounding the transom. No mere places to stand and watch the sunset, these platforms can support a table and chairs when guests wish to enjoy an incomparable dining experience.

And when’s the last time you were aboard a yacht with a video wall rising up two levels? It’s forward of a set of floating stairs that fold up via an electric winch to improve the viewing experience from the saloon and dining area. Beattie and guests can use it to watch a movie or their favorite sporting event, and even display photos and video footage from the day’s dive.

Diane M. Byrne is the owner and editor of Megayacht News.

The absolutely indispensable guide to Disney World

March 2nd, 2011 by Mariah

(Budget Travel) — If there’s such a thing as an archetypal Disney fanatic, I’m pretty sure that I don’t fit the mold.

I don’t own Mickey Mouse T-shirts or have a Disney license plate on my car. There are no movie posters, bobblehead dolls or other assorted Disneyana decorating my cubicle.

But as hard as it is for my colleagues at Budget Travel to believe, I’ve been to Walt Disney World more times than I can count. In fact, when my family and I try to tally the total number of days we’ve logged in the parks, we usually start with some complex mental math only to throw up our hands and agree, “A few hundred.”

Having grown up in Tampa, about an hour from Disney World, I’ve had some of my most memorable life experiences with Mickey and the gang. Disney World is where my fourth-grade science class went on a field trip to learn about marine biology, where my elementary school chorus performed Christmas carols, where I’ve spent countless New Year’s Eves, Fourths of July, Labor Days and Memorial Days.

I even learned I was accepted into journalism school, from an e-mail sent to my smartphone, while riding in a simulated hang glider at Epcot’s popular Soarin’ attraction.

So I guess you could say I know the place pretty well. Add in my family (mother, father and sister), and we’ve collectively amassed more than 60 years of park experience. With that kind of dedication comes a little embarrassment and a lifetime’s worth of invaluable rules.

What follows is my hard-won Disney World wisdom, an insider’s manual for first-timers and fanatics alike.

1. Embrace your impulsive side

Disney World’s sheer scale can be daunting: four theme parks, 25,000 acres, nearly 500 places to eat, more than 28,000 hotel rooms. Guidebooks often suggest creating a master multiday game plan before hitting the parks. I totally disagree. Rather than sticking to a rigid agenda, my family has developed a simple system: Check the morning forecast.

If rain is on the way, we head for Hollywood Studios — it’s far and away the most compact of the four parks, and almost all rides and lines are indoors or sheltered. Cloudy days are ideal for Animal Kingdom, since the big cats, great apes and Serengeti grazers are much more active when the sun is hidden, while Epcot is a must when the mercury is predicted to climb above 90 degrees. Many of its top attractions clock in at over 15 minutes, maximizing your precious air-conditioned hours.

And for those perfectly sunny days? Magic Kingdom, of course. Blue skies are ideal for carnival-style rides like Dumbo the Flying Elephant and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad — not to mention that classic family photo in front of Cinderella Castle.

2. Don’t even think about paying for parking

When you’re shelling out $82 a day for admission, tacking on another $14 for parking can feel like adding insult to injury. I’m proud to say my family hasn’t paid for a spot in years. What many out-of-towners don’t realize is that the parking lots at Disney water parks, miniature-golf courses and the Downtown Disney entertainment district are absolutely free.

From those locations, shuttle buses will take you wherever you need to go (note that some routes require transfers). Our all-time favorite spot is an unmarked overflow lot across the street from the BoardWalk Inn. Next to a Hess gas station, the lot is almost always half-empty and is a 10-minute walk to the resort.

From there, you can stroll over to Epcot, take a ferry ride to Hollywood Studios, or catch a shuttle bus anywhere else — all free of charge.

3. Ready, set…run!

If you’ve been to Disney World even once, you probably know that Fastpasses are the single-greatest time-savers ever. They are distributed from special machines at many popular rides, and they specify a time window (essentially a reservation) when you can return and skip the line. The only hitch is that they’re limited and first-come, first-served.

Every December 26, my family visits the Magic Kingdom with a large group from our neighborhood. To ensure that we all get Fastpasses, our family friend, a special-projects manager at a major computer company, uses his logistics skills to coordinate what I call the “running man” strategy.

Because favorites like Space Mountain and Splash Mountain are located far from the entrance, it would be impossible to get our whole party to the Fastpass machines before the best time slots were taken.

Instead, we send the fastest member of our pack bobbing and weaving through the crowds to collect passes for everyone.

4. Look beyond the biggies

With top rides like Hollywood Studios’ Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (an intense free fall) and Epcot’s Mission: Space (a thrilling virtual space flight) commanding hour-long waits, it pays to go where the action isn’t. Epcot’s Sum of All Thrills is no less exciting than Mission: Space, but for whatever reason, I’ve never waited more than 15 minutes for it.

On a touch screen, guests design their own roller coaster, bobsled course, or jet flight, and then step inside a two-person module on the end of a robotic arm to experience a simulated version of their creation.

Another inexplicably empty attraction is Magic Kingdom’s Tom Sawyer Island. The 3.3-acre site is a warren of wooded trails, caves and circa-1840s buildings. Each morning, staffers hide six paintbrushes on the island, and the first kids to find them get front-of-the-line passes for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad or Splash Mountain.

5. Drink for free — in eight languages

Disney World isn’t exactly known for its giveaways — which is why Epcot’s Coca-Cola-sponsored Club Cool is such a score. Located in a nondescript storefront behind Epcot’s silver geodesic sphere, Club Cool doles out free samples of eight soft drinks from around the world, including Costa Rican Fanta Kolita, Israeli Kinley Lemon and Japanese VegitaBeta.

Just beware the bitter and syrupy Italian (nonalcoholic) aperitif known as Beverly. It’s a doozy.

6. Grab some shut-eye (and a quick history lesson)

During summer’s peak, when the Magic Kingdom can stay open as late as 2 a.m., the conventional wisdom is to return to your hotel for a refreshing afternoon catnap or a cooldown by the pool.

But really, there’s no need to leave the park. My apologies to the Hall of Presidents — Disney’s audio-animatronic celebration of the American presidency — but there’s no better place for a quick midday snooze.

Comfy seats, a long running time (23 minutes), perfect air-conditioned temperatures and Morgan Freeman’s warm narration make for a dreamy combination.

7. Look at the line. Now skip it

Trying to fit all the highlights of a given park into a single day can feel like a race against the clock, so every little time-saver helps. At Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster (Hollywood Studios), Test Track (Epcot) and Expedition Everest (Animal Kingdom), riders have the option of queuing up in a dedicated singles line to fill any empty seats that might open up between larger parties.

Sure, you won’t be able to buy the requisite cheesy souvenir photo of you and your family screaming your heads off, but you’ll halve that hour-plus wait time.

Multi-kid families have another option, called the rider switch. If one of the kids is too young, short or scared to ride, one parent-child pair can enjoy the attraction while the other waits by the loading zone.

When the riders finish up, the parents can swap positions and the new parent-child team sets off for another run — no extra waiting involved.

8. Squeeze in time for cocktail hour

At a certain point in every young Floridian’s life, Epcot graduates from “the educational theme park” to “the park where you can drink your way around the world.”

Everything from Chinese green-tea plum-wine slushies ($7.50) to icy, blended French Grey Goose citron cocktails ($9) is available in the grab-and-go bars that ring Epcot’s World Showcase Lagoon. Sure, these drinks are delicious, but there’s an even better alternative.

For those unconcerned with trying to hit every attraction before the park closes, I suggest setting some time aside to duck into La Cava del Tequila, hidden inside Epcot’s Mexico Pavilion.

With only 30 seats, the grotto-like restaurant is an unexpectedly intimate shelter from the bustle outside and serves some mean specialties like flavored margaritas (avocado, cactus, jalapeño and hibiscus), house-made guacamole, small plates like blue crab tostadas and flights of top-shelf tequila (margaritas from $10, small plates from $6).

9. Buy a souvenir you’ll actually want

For years, the most popular souvenirs at Disney World were hyper-collectible but decidedly uncool pins. (That didn’t stop me from gathering them by the hundreds.)

But now Disney has gone and added a twist: It’s introduced a line of souvenirs that are at once cartoonish, crowd-pleasing, and surprisingly hip. With their trademark Mickey Mouse ears, the three-inch-tall Vinylmation figurines (from $10) come in hundreds of designs.

You’ll find everything from classic characters like Goofy and Pluto to iconic attractions like the monorail and Cinderella Castle.

The catch? These pop-art-inspired action figures are sold in unmarked boxes, so you never know which pattern you’ll find inside. If you’re unhappy with your randomly selected design, most stores keep three options in full view by the cash register, and you can swap yours for one of those backups.

10. Don’t skimp on your hotel. I promise you’ll regret it

Most people are quick to think you’ll get the best hotel deals outside the parks. And while that’s probably true — a $35 room on congested International Drive is not unheard of — value-oriented visitors should not rule out Disney resorts.

For example, the All-Star (Music, Sports and Movies — three separate hotels) and Pop Century resorts are just minutes from the parks via Disney buses, and they start at $82 a night (make reservations at disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts).

Each is outfitted with oversize props that suit their respective themes. Think 51-foot-tall tennis rackets, a guitar-shaped pool and pop culture figures like Mr. Potato Head and Pac-Man. If all of this overblown theming comes off a bit kitschy, Port Orleans (from $149) and Coronado Springs (from $154) offer more subtle experiences inspired by New Orleans and the American Southwest.

Whichever you choose, I recommend you embrace it along with your inner kid. At Disney, that’s kinda the point.