Weekly Roundup, Friday 20 March 2015

Move over Apple.  Switzerland's largest premium watch manufacturer, Tag Heuer, have announced plans to release an Android based smart watch later this year, designed to look just like this classic model.
Move over Apple. Switzerland’s largest premium watch manufacturer, Tag Heuer, have announced plans to release an Android based smart watch later this year, designed to look just like this classic model.

Good morning

A slightly shorter newsletter this morning.

But, and in anticipation of the upcoming summer travel season that seems to be rushing towards us at an exciting rate, there’s an extra article added at the end about how to use GPS outside your home country, along with a bonus mention of a wonderful mapping program for people traveling to Britain, France and Germany.

Also below, please continue reading for :

  • Gulf Carriers Fight Back
  • Ryanair’s Broken Record on Trans-Atlantic Service Plans
  • Sir Richard Wants to Make Electric Cars Too
  • Assorted Other Auto Developments
  • Easier Travel Across the US/Canadian Border?
  • Will Apple’s Watch (and all the others too) Be Bad for Our Health?
  • Why Expanded Government Surveillance Makes Us Less Rather than More Safe
  • And Lastly This Week….

Gulf Carriers Fight Back

Our US airlines don’t want government regulation or oversight, except for, of course, when they do.

After having decided they don’t want to fairly compete with the new super-carriers that are springing up in far away places such as Dubai, they’ve decided the best thing to do is to ask our government to selectively annul the carefully negotiated open sky agreements that have been agreed to over the last some decades (there are over 100 of them now in existence), even though they formerly largely and eagerly supported the creation of such protocols.  Of course, they still want some to remain, just not the ones where ‘our’ airlines feel they’re losing out as a result of the agreement.

While the US dinosaurs have shown precious little interest in directly competing with the likes of Etihad, Emirates, and Qatar (just how many flights a day to the US carriers send to those destinations?) they’re increasingly upset that the active competition by these airlines here is actually succeeding in taking passengers away from them.

So, in a campaign that seems to be founded on – let’s be polite – some misunderstandings, our airlines are pressuring our Congress to protect them and restrict access to our airports by the Gulf carriers.  There can be no doubt that such restrictions would indeed benefit American, Delta, United and – oh wait, stop.  That’s it.  There aren’t any others – we only have three truly international airlines these days.  No more US Airways, Continental, Northwest, TWA, and so on through the ever longer list of failed US airlines.

But, back to the story.  The three remaining US carriers have mounted this campaign with, again let’s be polite, some suggestions that are of uncertain probity.  And now the perhaps unfairly accused Gulf carriers are starting to respond.

Emirates has said if they suffer any losses from untruthful claims, they’ll sue the pants off the US carriers that have perpetrated the lies.  And Qatar has said there’s nothing difficult about how it is they’re succeeding and the US carriers are failing – the US carriers ‘fly crap old planes’ while Qatar flies nice and nearly new ones.

All joking aside, this is an extremely alarming attack on one of the fundamental cornerstones of the American value system – free private enterprise and competition.  It must not succeed, or else we’ll all be the losers.

Ryanair’s Broken Record on Trans-Atlantic Service Plans

It used to be, several times every year, Ryanair’s controversial CEO, Michael O’Leary, would say either he’d start charging for the use of in-flight toilets or else remove them entirely and squash more seats into his planes.

Every time he did that he’d be assured of a crop of headlines and some great publicity showing how cheap his airline was and how nothing was sacred in its pursuit of ever lower fares for its passengers.

But there was never any underlying possibility that he’d actually do what he talked about.  And that was part of the fun of it, for him, and for those of us who like to watch his antics and the unquestioning way they would be repeated in the press.

However, it seems he may have ‘cried wolf’ once or twice too often, and in the last year or two, he has switched approaches.  Now it seems his favorite headline grab is to talk about plans to start trans-Atlantic service, typically referring to flights between a vaguely referred to set of about twelve European cities and a similar number of US and possibly Canadian cities.  Going light on the details was very clever, because it allowed everyone, in every city, to imagine/dream/hope that they might be blessed with Ryanair flights when they were inaugurated.

There’s been a rash of headlines this week with the latest restatement of this future plan.

But there’s always been some ‘fine print’ attached to his vague promises – a requirement that a suitable aircraft be found for them to operate the flights with.

Now, you might think that the skies are full of suitable planes, many of which are flying between Europe and North America at the very minute you read this.  But, no.  This is Ryanair’s escape clause, which they activate every time, and never go any further with their ‘plans’.  It seems they would like to get planes that cost less to buy than those purchased or purchasable by anyone else, and hopefully also planes that cost less to operate than any others currently in service or anticipated in the near future.  They also point to the long lead time between ordering and receiving any new planes (while conveniently ignoring the presence of leasable planes, and the ability to negotiate the movement forward of airplane deliveries with both Boeing and Airbus).  Rather than recognizing the long lead time, if indeed there is one, and urgently ordering some planes, they instead hang their head in mock despair and abandon the entire concept.

So, until they get their hands on this unicorn of a plane, their plans continue to be shelved indefinitely.  As happened again this week, with this article indicating that within a couple of days of the latest excitement being generated, it has all fizzled out, yet again.

Sir Richard Wants to Make Electric Cars Too

Talking about self-aggrandizing airline executives brings us to this next piece.  Sir Richard Branson, self-promoter extraordinaire and founder of Virgin this, Virgin that, and Virgin everything else, is now thinking he’d like to jump into the increasingly crowded group of companies developing electric cars.

At an event in Miami with his Virgin car racing team (yes, he has one of those too) Branson coyly commented

We have teams of people working on electric cars.  So you never know – you may find Virgin competing with the Tesla in the car business as we do in the space business.  We will see what happens.

Of course, one always has to view anything Branson says very carefully, and his claim about competing with Tesla in the space business is a little specious.

Tesla founder Elon Musk also has another company, Space-X.  But whereas Branson’s Virgin Galactic is currently on hiatus after a fatal accident, and is many years behind schedule, and, all going well, seems to be little more than a sub-orbital high-altitude joyride for wealthy passengers, Space-X is pushing forward with commercial freight rockets that can fly all the way up to 20,000+ miles above the earth (compare that to the not yet operational 68 mile objective of Virgin Galactic), and, with more vision, a rocket to Mars as well.

So would a reasonable person describe Virgin Galactic as competing with Space-X?  Ummm, probably not.  And somehow we expect that Mr Musk is no more concerned about the possibility of any meaningful competition from a Branson venture into the electric car field as he is in the commercial space field.

Assorted Other Auto Developments

The burgeoning interest in developing electric cars truly is becoming an increasingly crowded field, as this story about a test deployment by Uber of 25 electric cars in Chicago attests to – the cars are from a Chinese manufacturer.  Not to be outdone, here’s a French billionaire bankrolling the development of another electric car.

Plus, yet another of the regular articles that crop up promising major breakthroughs in battery technologies.  This one is notable for including noted British inventor and technologist, Sir James Dyson, as one of the participants, although he seems to be investing a risibly tiny $15 million into the new technology.

There can be little doubt that we’re getting closer and closer to electric cars becoming a practical reality for us all.  And not only electric, but self-driving cars, too.  Thursday saw an announcement from Tesla that they’ll be upgrading their cars to have a new ‘automatic steering’ option in about three months.  Add that to adaptive cruise control, and we’re getting very close to fully automatic cars.

Here’s an interesting article that looks at some of the ‘missing pieces’ of the self-driving car puzzle that still need to be resolved.

Or, who knows, will the perenially promised flying car beat the self-driving car to the market?  This article suggests so.  I doubt it.

Easier Travel Across the US/Canadian Border?

A ritualistic orgy of mutual back-slapping occurred this week with officials in both Canada and the US proudly announcing a new series of measures to make it easier to travel between the US and Canada – an extension and implementation of a ‘Beyond the Border’ plan first mentioned in 2011.

Some of the measures will be sort of good – more prescreening stations, meaning you get cleared into the other country before your flight rather than after, although I have to say I’ve never understood why that is a good thing.  If you get cleared upon arrival, that happens in time you’d otherwise probably be wasting waiting for your luggage to arrive, but pre-screening means arriving earlier for your flight’s departure to allow a longer time and more random uncertainty about the checking-in process before your flight.

Clearing people on trains and buses while they’re driving to the border, rather than forcing a stop at the border, everyone off, cleared, and back on again is definitely a great thing.  But, ahem, how many times do you travel across the border by bus or train?

Most of us will travel by car, and the benefit to us is far from clear.  How can you pre-screen the driver and passengers in a car, other than by encouraging them to join the Nexus program and go through the ‘fastlane’ at some border posts, during limited hours each day?

Actually, there is an answer to this question, and it isn’t a very nice one.  If you’ve ever driven on I-5 between San Diego and Los Angeles, you know there’s a good chance that you’ll have to stop and go through a random border patrol checkpoint, no matter if you’re returning from Mexico or not (I’ve never understood, but always wondered – what do they actually do when they encounter an illegal alien from Mexico?  Apologize for detaining them and let them go?  Hand them out a brochure in Spanish explaining all the welfare services available to them?).  But for those of us who can’t expect anything special from the stop except rudeness and suspicion, it is an irritating and gratuitous waste of time on a drive that’s never much fun to start with.

There’s more than the whiff of a hint that we might start to see such things increasingly on our northern freeways, too, ostensibly of course, either for our convenience and/or our safety/security.  It is called, after all, ‘Beyond the Border’.  Lucky us!

Details here.

Would I be the only one to point out how it works in Europe.  Do we really need a border between Canada and the US at all?

Will Apple’s Watch (and all the others too) Be Bad for Our Health?

It is a while since the last ‘cell phones might cause cancer’ article, perhaps because such articles are about as unwelcome as the visitor walking through your door and onto your carpet after stepping in dog droppings immediately outside.

Who among us could manage without our modern mobile life?  Try it and see – turn off your cell phone and your tablet, turn off your Wi-fi router, and what does that leave you?  Many people no longer have an ‘old fashioned’ wired phone (if you do, turn off any cordless phone extensions too), and many people no longer have wired internet, using only wireless/Wi-fi to connect all their devices.

We are definitely as addicted to and dependent upon wireless services as anyone ever has been to cigarettes, and the extent of wireless addiction (both figuratively and literally in the medical sense) is much more universal than it ever was with tobacco products.

So there’s not exactly a clamor of people desperate to be told that their wireless devices are harmful, and causing cancers to develop.  Whatever the level of stranglehold the tobacco companies may have had on the media and medical research in the middle part of the 20th century, you can multiple it several times for the massively greater degree of commercial involvement in mobile technology these days.

So here’s a slightly brave article in the NY Times that wonders if the new crop of smart watches might be adding to our risks from wireless devices.  Unfortunately, not only is it very equivocal in what it tries, but can’t quite bring itself, to say, but it adds some utter nonsense statements, such as suggesting that Wi-Fi and Bluetooth frequencies are safe, unlike wireless data frequencies.

I say this is nonsense due to the simple fact that there is precious little difference between many wireless data frequencies and those used for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Why Expanded Government Surveillance Makes Us Less Rather than More Safe

We are being asked to accept ever greater intrusions on our privacy, with the justification being that the more the authorities know about us, the safer we’ll be.  They’ll more readily discover the terrorists that are allegedly lurking in our midst.

The truth is entirely different.  Some people would cogently argue that extra surveillance actually hampers intelligence and counter-terrorist activities, because the relevant data needed by those who seek to protect us gets swamped in a sea of irrelevant data.  These people might even point out that the authorities have known about most of the terrorists who have attacked us in the last decade or more, whether it be the Boston bombers, the 9/11 bombers, the shoe bomber, or whoever, without any of the new surveillance measures being foisted upon us, but the key information about the threats those people posed was overlooked in the morass of other intelligence reports about other things.

Perhaps the need is for less – but better – information; rather than for very much more information of dubious value?

In rebuttal, the authorities would probably ask us to trust them to do the right thing, and in any event, they would seek to reassure us that innocent people have nothing to hide and nothing to fear from increased government intrusion into every part of their private lives.  All they need is a bigger budget, more access, and more personnel.

Which brings me to this damning article.  Read it (please) and then try and feel reassured that innocent people have nothing to fear from increased government ‘knowledge’ of their lives.

And Lastly This Week….

Setting a good example for our children?  Or ‘the teacher from hell’?  A Penn State University professor got into trouble on a flight recently.  Read about it and wonder if this is really the person you want to be teaching sociology to your children.

And now, truly lastly this week, is ‘she’ back at long last?  Has Nessie – the Loch Ness monster – been sighted again?  The last few years have been dismayingly lacking in credible Nessie sightings, all the more disappointing due to the universal prevalence of cameras everywhere.

But here’s a snippet of video footage that might possibly hint at something mysterious still being present in the lake.  22 of your fellow readers will be there with me and my daughter in June – we will search assiduously!

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






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