Weekly Roundup, Friday 19 September, 2014

Good morning

Have you joined the rush of people ordering a new iPhone?  They became available for pre-order at midnight last Thursday/Friday, and will be in the stores today.  I (and, by all accounts, millions of other people too) spent a very frustrating 90 minutes failing to order a phone, either through the Apple or T-Mobile sites, before giving up at 1.30am, going briefly to bed, and getting up again at 7am to continue my attempts.  With some challenges I successfully completed an order through T-Mobile, but was unable until this Wednesday to ascertain when my phone would ship.  The larger screened iPhone 6 Plus quickly sold out, hence my anxiety, but as good luck would have it, I’m told that a man in a big brown truck will be delivering one to me sometime today.

As I said last week, and it bears repeating, T-Mobile’s complete ‘bundle of benefits’ is awesomely compelling these days, making them head and shoulders above the other wireless companies in terms of both features and value, and they promise to continue innovating on features and packages.  If you’re considering buying an iPhone 6, then perhaps you too should buy yours from T-Mobile.

The next Apple excitement is now projected for 21 October, which is expected to see new iPads announced, and a new version of its Mac OS.  With a current generation iPad Air, I’ll probably sit this one out, but it will still be interesting to see if there are any new ‘must have’ features.

This has been a very exciting week, at least for me.  Scotland held its referendum on seceding from the UK on Thursday (and in what can only be described as a triumph for the losing side, seems to have clearly voted in favor of remaining in the union – the concessions being granted to Scotland now truly give it the best of both worlds), and on Saturday, there’s a general election in New Zealand.

Closer to home, not only is the new iPhone 6 now released, but on Wednesday the new iOS version 8 came out (it seems almost indistinguishable from the previous version in most respects) and also on Wednesday, Amazon announced three new models of its black and white screened Kindle eBook reader.

I’ve been delightedly buying Kindles since the first one came out in November 2007.  If you don’t already have a Kindle Paperwhite, and instead either have no Kindle at all or an older model Kindle, it is probably time to take the plunge and get one of these lovely new Kindles.  I’ve written up an analysis of the three new models of Kindle (priced at $79, $119 and $199) and it is at the bottom of the newsletter.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • Reader Survey :  Air Fares vs Amenities
  • JetBlue Ousts Another CEO
  • It is Not Only Younger Policemen that Make Us Feel Old
  • Sir Richard Branson’s Amazing Media Pass
  • US to Re-Acquire Manned Spaceflight Capability
  • Another Hotel Fee
  • More Rapid Robot and Car Development
  • Alternative ‘Taxi’ Companies Having Massive Impact in San Francisco
  • Ebola Update – and How to Stay Healthy on a Plane
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey :  Air Fares vs Amenities

It is a classic trade-off that we and the airlines balance every day.  Would we prefer a ‘nicer’ flying experience, or a cheaper airfare?  We like to blame the airlines for cheapening the product they provide, but in many cases, the surprising truth is the airlines would actually prefer to provide a better quality product, at a higher price point.  This would give them happier passengers (and crew) and more profits.

Instead, they are responding to what we want – it is their view that while we of course would like many different included features on our flights, we are unwilling to pay for such benefits, and so the airlines have zeroed out many of the inclusions in their race to the bottom.

I noticed a survey that was recently held in Europe on this point, and thought it would be interesting to see what Travel Insiders think, so have come up with a list of ten different amenities, and am posing the question to you – which amenities would you sacrifice in order to save money on the airfare?

Please click here for the two question quick survey (offering you the same question for both a $20 and a $10 fare saving per amenity eliminated).  I’ll publish the answers next week.

JetBlue Ousts Another CEO

JetBlue was founded in 1999 by high profile airline executive David Neeleman, who served as CEO until 2007, at which point he was replaced by Dave Barger in a move largely interpreted as being fired as punishment for an operational screwup in bad weather earlier that year.

During Barger’s lower profile tenure, the airline has generally under-performed, and its star has faded somewhat from its exciting startup days under Neeleman.

It now seems that JetBlue’s board have decided the grass is still greener elsewhere, and it was announced on Thursday that Barger would not have his contract renewed when it expires in February next year.

Amongst other grievous wrongs, Barger was accused of championing a ‘destructive’ refund policy that ‘put the shareholder last’.  Translation – unlike other airlines with their no-refund policies, JetBlue had fair refund policies.  Those policies were abandoned very recently, but it was too little to save Barger.

Now viewed at risk is JetBlue’s one free checked bag policy.  Apparently JetBlue has decided that seeing as how it is no longer able to beat the major dinosaur airlines, it will instead join them and slavishly copy their policies as closely as possible.

It is Not Only Younger Policemen that Make Us Feel Old

You know what they say – you know you are getting old when the policemen start looking young.  For most of us, that’s been something we’ve been noticing for quite a few years now.

But what does it say about our age when the pilots start to look young, too?  Actually, it may not be dooming us to an even more advantaged category of aging, because some pilots truly are young.  Such as, for example, this 21 year old now flying for BA!

Sir Richard Branson’s Amazing Media Pass

The media loves Sir Richard Branson and his various Virgin branded companies, and develops gracious amnesia when his sometimes extravagant promises fail to materialize.

For example, look at this extraordinarily forgiving article, which suggests that his Virgin Galactic ‘space’ flights have been slightly delayed from ‘by the end of 2014’ to now being set for ‘early next year’.  We certainly agree, that if it was indeed merely a trivial tweak of perhaps a couple of months, then the story deserves nothing more than this article in which one can almost sense the writer struggling to stay awake at the keyboard.

But when the article refers to the previous launch timetable being ‘by the end of 2014’ it neglects to mention that there have been almost literally dozens of previous broken promises of projected first flight times.  Indeed, way back in May 1999, Branson was predicting that in five years (ie, 2004) a reusable rocket would be taking up to ten people at a time to an orbiting Virgin Hotel for two week stays.

Here’s a more complete account of this always-delayed-a-little-bit-more Virgin vaporware.  As for the orbiting Virgin Hotel, it is still occasionally hinted at by Sir Richard, as is even missions to Mars and beyond.  Is there no limit to what the man can promise, and what the media will graciously accept without question?

It isn’t only his Virgin Galactic product that has been over-promised and under-delivered.  Here’s an interesting report of Branson’s promise in 2006 to spend $3 billion combating ‘climate change’ over the following decade.  Here we are now, with eight of the ten years gone, and so that would suggest Branson might have spent 80% of the $3 billion, ie, $2.4 billion.

The amount actually spent?  Less than one tenth.  $234 million.  And Branson is frantically backpedalling, now calling his very public pledge a mere ‘gesture’.

US to Re-Acquire Manned Spaceflight Capability

Talking about Virgin Galactic, the US has been without a manned spaceflight capability since retiring the space shuttles just over three years ago.  We’ve been awkwardly relying on our inconstant alliance with Russia to get our people to the International Space Station.

This week brings an announcement that NASA will be awarding contracts to both Boeing and SpaceX (another Elon Musk company – he being the founder of Tesla) to develop capabilities to transport astronauts to/from the ISS.

It is hoped we’ll be able to take our own people up to the ISS in about three years.  I wonder if Virgin Galactic will be operational by then?  (Note – the ISS orbits at about 255 miles, the Virgin Galactic flights are expected to only go to about 110 miles.)

Another Hotel Fee

Imagine you’re visiting your accountant, and after having just paid him top dollar to prepare your basically simple tax return, you look more closely at his fee note and see included on it ‘Surcharge to supplement my filing clerk’s only-slightly-above-minimal-wage earnings’.  What would you think?  But, when you complain, your accountant points out the filing clerk did an excellent job of photocopying your return, putting it in the mail to you, including a copy for your records, and putting one of those little ‘sign here’ stickers on the return at the appropriate place.  The clerk deserves your appreciation, you are told.

Do you feel good supplementing the accountant’s fat fee with another few dollars to help him pay his staff?  Of course not.

Now imagine you’re staying at a four or five star hotel, and find, in among all the other fees and costs being thrown at you, a request to help their only-slightly-above-minimum-wage employees’ income.  What do you do?

If the request is labeled ‘Customary tip for housekeeping staff’, the chances are you gladly pay up.  Indeed, in a reader survey in 2011, 52% of Travel Insiders said they either usually or always tip housekeeping staff at hotels.

This is what is now being done at Marriott hotels.

My question is ‘Why?’.  Why does/how can anyone ‘feel sorry’ for low wage earning employees in a hotel, but not in an office or shop or most other settings (other than restaurants and bars).  And why are we allowing ourselves to be suckered into gladly covering more of the luxury hotels’ wages bill?

More Rapid Robot and Car Development

I wrote last week predicting that robots will be very rapidly becoming a central part of every part of our working and home lives.  Here’s just one more ‘straw in the wind’ – a robot being developed in England that is becoming better at manipulating delicate and irregular shaped objects that it self-learns how to hold.  This is a surprisingly complex task, and while the article projects that the tasking this robot will become well suited for – by as soon as April next year – would be loading dishes into a dishwasher, that is of course just the start of what it could be suitable for.

However, as trivial as ‘doing the dishes’ might seem, my daughter would consider that sufficient ability to transform her life and to free her of that never pleasant bit of household drudgery!  And this robot would seem likely to also be good at picking up clothes and doing the laundry too.

And another straw in the wind – the increasing prominence of robots in advertisements, being used to convey concepts of progressive modernity.

I also read an astonishing explanation of an anticipated sudden huge explosion in robot intelligence and capabilities.  If you click no other link in today’s newsletter, please do read this article.  It points out that when robots start becoming able to ‘improve’ themselves, then all of a sudden there will be an enormous positive feedback loop that will see robot capabilities and intelligence skyrocket.

Until now, I’ve been viewing the concept of advances in robotics as a positive thing (other than for the impact on jobs).  But after reading this article, my new big worry – and surely it has to become a worry for us all, is suddenly apparent :  When robots become self-aware, and when they acquire life and death capabilities over people, what will they do?  Other than artificial values created by us and which they could presumably overwrite with ease, what possible reason do they have to value human life the same way we do?  Wouldn’t it be more logical for them to look at all the negative impacts we have had on our planet – impacts which we can justify to ourselves as improving our living standards, albeit at some cost to other creates – and seek to reduce those?  Why would a robot put us before itself and its fellow robots, if it had to choose?  Why would it put a person ahead of an animal or even insect?

The greatest part of this concern is that, if the article is correct, this sudden leap in robotic intelligence and capabilities will occur very quickly and with little or no input by humans.  Before we even know there might be some developing problems, it might be too late.

My goodness me.  Something that has been a staple of science fiction for decades is now within a few years of possibly becoming a terrifying reality.

On the somewhat more benign topic of self-driving cars, this article talks about one key part of the evolution of car intelligence and capabilities – the ability for cars to communicate with each other so as to coordinate their driving.

Alternative ‘Taxi’ Companies Having Massive Impact in San Francisco

Uber, Lyft, and other similar services that provide an alternative to traditional taxi companies are in the news a great deal at present, with the ‘old guard’ of traditional taxi services and the licensing authorities that support them, engaged in battles on every front to try and interfere with the success of these new business models, ignoring the bottom line consumer-friendly fact that the new services are clearly providing an appreciated and better service to the public than the traditional taxi model has been doing.

Clearly these new services are having a tangible effect on traditional taxis.  According to this article, and by one measure, traditional taxi use has dropped by 65% in San Francisco over the last two years.  Whereas a typical taxi operated 1424 hires per month in 2012, it is now down to only 504 hires a month.

San Francisco and its early-adopting high-tech community is probably an extreme example, but it does make one wonder whether traditional taxis will be able to continue to survive alongside these more user-friendly and lower-cost new internet/smartphone based alternative services.  No wonder the taxi industry is so fiercely opposing the continued expansion of these new services.

Ebola Update – and How to Stay Healthy on a Plane

The CDC has pretty much brought its website up to date, and is now reporting 2630 deaths through 18 September.  This compares with 2331 listed on Wikipedia last week, and Wikipedia is showing 2575 on its site as of Thursday night this week.  To be consistent, using Wikipedia data, that shows an increase in deaths of only 244 people in the last week, compared to 483 the previous week.  I guess that can be considered good news.

Here’s an interesting article on how to minimize your risks of getting an infection when flying.  The suggestion to ‘ground’ oneself is a new one (to put it, ahem, politely) but many of the other suggestions are sensible, in particular the observation that you’re much more likely to get infected by touching something that has some bacteria or virus on it and transferring it to your mouth than you are to breathe something in from the air around you.

The good news aspect of that is this means you can control your infection risk simply by being aware of what you’re touching and how you’re potentially transferring infections from airplane surfaces to yourself.

And Lastly This Week….

What do Ayers Rock, Paris, and Las Vegas have in common with each other (and with Stonehenge)?  They’re all on an ‘anti-bucket list’ – a list of places to avoid, rather than places to visit.  Here’s the list in its full glory.

A related list – some might think it also a list of places to avoid, is this list of ten weirdest restaurants in the world.  Alas, missing from this list is the restaurant in New Zealand set in a former public convenience.

Finally, one of the things we take for granted are traffic lights.  Here’s a fascinating 1937 educational film that explains traffic lights back when they were new, and before they were standardized.

I’m still struggling to get images into these newsletters again.  I’ve made some progress, but haven’t yet attained perfection.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels


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