Weekly Roundup, Friday 23 December 2016

We wish you a Merry Christmas….. hmmm, isn’t there a song for that?

Good morning

Well, just today and tomorrow – two shopping days remaining until the holiday that dares not speak its name.  I hope you’ve bought everything you need for everyone you wish to bestow gifts upon; as for me, I’ve been relying on the Amazon elves to help.

While not exactly reindeer and sleds, reader Jerry reports from his ADS-B air traffic monitoring hub near Denver that he has noticed the Fedex and UPS flights, which normally fly overhead westbound between 7-9pm and return east at 12.30 am, are now flying steadily back and forward all day long – an interesting insight into how the parcel delivery companies can ‘surge’ their capacity for the Christmas rush.

Of course, it isn’t just the planes that have been busy.  I had a USPS delivery person dropping a package at my door at 7.14am on Thursday.  Extraordinary.

It is great to see how, in response to technology taking away a core part of the USPS service (regular mail), the USPS is joining forces with Amazon and creating a new opportunity (package delivery) which it is doing very well.  Who’d have thought to see regular Sunday deliveries by the Postal Service.  How nice that in response to a problem, they added services rather than cut them back.

Come Sunday, we’ll know if the alluring packages under our trees contain hoped for items or the modern day equivalents of lumps of coal.  If you find yourself feeling sadly underwhelmed by the items you’ve received, you might come to realize that you’re missing a gift from someone very central in your life – yourself.  So why not indeed treat yourself to a little something, too.

With that in mind, I’ve been continuing to experiment with my Amazon Echo Dot, and I’m slowly warming to it.  But more than the Echo Dot itself, I’m finding more and more use for remotely controllable switches to manage household appliances and lights.  Sure, there’s nothing particularly new or unique about the idea of remote controlling your lights – I’ve had Radio Shack X-10 type switches in my home for literally decades.  But the new internet connected controls are much more ‘clever’ and can be controlled not just from a controller box at home, but quite literally from anywhere in the world.  Most of them can be controlled by an Echo unit, but they also have their own phone/tablet apps too.

It is more than just remotely turning on and off lights.  There are some excellent and innovative security devices, thermostats, and various other things too.  So please find a further article, after this roundup, about the Echo Dot and the remotely controllable accessories that can be used with it.

Assuming all the deposits come in as promised, our Scotland tour is full.  Wow.  Was that the fastest selling Travel Insider tour ever?  Quite possibly so!  Your next Travel Insider tour opportunity will be Oct/Nov with another wonderful New Zealand Epicurean Extravaganza tour.

What else for this pre-Christmas newsletter?  How about :

  • Air Force One – Even More Than $4 Billion?
  • An Even More Fanciful SST
  • Looking for MH370 In the Wrong Place?
  • New Information on the Egyptair Crash
  • A Job You Probably Don’t Want to Apply For
  • I’m a Doctor!  Says Who?
  • Uber Continues to Amaze
  • Tesla Continues to Disappoint
  • Consumer Alert – Artwork Sales on Cruise Ships
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Force One – Even More Than $4 Billion?

It seems Donald Trump may have been wrong.  When he criticized the new Air Force One replacement program as costing $4 billion, Trump-haters rushed to attack, claiming the cost to be nowhere near that much, and cited it as another example of him ‘shooting from the hip’ and getting his facts wrong.  I wrote about this colossal waste of money, and feared the $4 billion was at risk of further increases.

Well, the latest update does indeed suggest Mr Trump may have got his facts wrong.  But, alas, he under-estimated the possible cost of the two new planes.  This article suggests that the program cost will be at least $4 billion, but – ooops.  That doesn’t include the cost of the two planes (perhaps as much as $850 million extra!).

An Even More Fanciful SST

As you probably know, I simultaneously long for the return of Concorde-speed supersonic travel – and, indeed, see it as a commercially viable concept, just as Concorde itself was also profitable; but also view all the current proposed SST concepts as wildly fanciful and wildly unlikely to ever take to the air.

Here’s the latest one, even more ridiculous than most others.  It would fly at ten times the speed of Concorde, but would hold ten times fewer passengers (ie a mere ten passengers), and would have a range almost four times greater, allowing it to fly from anywhere in the world to anywhere else in the world, in less than an hour.

Not even Sir Richard Branson has held his hand up for this plane.  There are several problems with the concept, which even its ‘designer’ (more like ‘dreamer’) admits is just a concept, ‘designed to provoke conversation and interest in potential technologies’.

For example, there is no engine on earth that could be used to power the plane, and its aerodynamic concept of reverse flow air, while showing some signs of potential in wind tunnel testing, is utterly unproven.  Then there’s the ‘problem’ of such very long range – the plane would have to hold so much fuel, and be burning so much of it merely to carry the rest of it, and the matching ‘problem’ of only ten passengers, and the net result is something far on the wrong side of impractical.

Looking for MH370 In the Wrong Place?

After two and a half years of unsuccessful searching for the remains of the lost MH 370 plane, the Australian searchers have come up with a startling suggestion – maybe they have been searching in the wrong place.  You reckon?  That is an almost inescapable conclusion, isn’t it.

The good news – they think they now, really truly, know where it might be.  The bad news –  Australia says it won’t look for it any more, unless it has been already found (ummm, yes, that’s essentially what they said, even though it seems rather illogical).

With the latest refinement of what seems to be an increasingly likely theory that the plane crashed due to a cockpit windshield fire, and the potential risk of other 777s to the same type of fire and loss, the need to find the crashed plane would seem to remain present, so as to understand what caused the crash and to take such measures as may be necessary to ensure that such crashes don’t reoccur.

New Information on the Egyptair Crash

Remember the Egyptair A320 which crashed into the Mediterranean, back in May?  It has sort of fallen off the radar, to misuse metaphors, but news this week emerged that traces of explosives have been found on the bodies of the crash victims.  Until now it was thought there had been a fire on board, and of course that remains a possibility.  Perhaps the fire was the result of the explosion.

The investigation continues.

A Job You Probably Don’t Want to Apply For

I’ve come across people with all sorts of strange jobs, over the years.  It never ceases to amaze me at how, in our reasonably free market economy, people can uncover opportunities to provide a product or service that is incredibly ultra-niche, but also profitable for the service provider and valuable for their customers.

But here’s a job probably few of us would ever wish.  And, worst of all, it isn’t the sort of job where ‘being kept busy’ is something you look forward to.

I’m a Doctor!  Says Who?

Most physicians I know usually have ID on them that proves they are a doctor.  Airline policies vary as for when they call for a doctor if an in-flight medical emergency occurs.  It seems to me that usually when they call for a doctor, they’re so desperately appreciative when someone responds to the call that they just rush the person to where the emergency is occurring.

But in a recent unfortunate incident on a Delta flight, a young lady who didn’t fit the stereotype of what a doctor should look like was prevented from assisting, ostensibly because she hadn’t shown any ID to prove she was indeed a doctor, as she claimed.  Apparently Delta has a policy of requiring medical professionals to prove their credentials before allowing them to assist, and on this flight, another doctor had already offered to help.

But the lady in question claims the problem was due to her color, not her qualifications, and took to Facebook to complain.  Her commentary sounds credible.  Other doctors have said they have helped on planes and never been asked to prove their qualifications, which also is in line with my perception of how these things usually go down.

Unfortunately, Delta in turn has now over-responded, and says it will no longer require medical professionals to prove they are who/what they claim to be.  There are plenty of stories of bogus doctors, in hospitals, on cruise ships, and generally everywhere (although, intriguingly, many of the bogus doctors seem to have practiced medicine with skill and positive results); and while any help is probably better than no help, is political correctness now going to force Delta flight attendants to never question anyone’s claim to being a doctor?  One would hope that some middle ground could be found.

Uber Continues to Amaze

I think I’ve managed to put my finger on one of the things that makes me really uncomfortable while watching Uber steam-roller its way into more and more cities around the world.  Regular taxi companies stolidly trudge along, and offer some element of predictability and certainty.  They have rostered drivers who commit to working specific shifts, and while at times the wait for a taxi might be high, you know that one will come eventually, and if you book in advance, you are even more certain to get a taxi more or less as requested.

But Uber drivers can work when it suits them and can stop working whenever they wish.  If there’s a mismatch between demand and supply, Uber brings in its infamous ‘surge’ pricing which sees their normally low fares double or triple, or possibly increase even more than that, in an attempt to discourage people from wanting rides, and to encourage drivers to keep working.  If that doesn’t work, the Uber app simply refuses to connect you with a driver – as I found out to my cost, with a message ‘no cars available’ being the only response I could get.

Is it really fair that Uber is forcing taxis out of business, but is replacing taxi service with selectively good and sometimes – when you most need it – dreadful service; service that is sometimes lower cost, but sometimes higher cost?

When you use a taxi in ordinary times, you should consider that part of the fare is a premium to guarantee you the taxi will also be available for you at other times.  When you walk outside the airport arrivals hall, the line of taxis may have been waiting in a holding area for two or three hours, at no cost to you.  Uber has no such guarantee, because it has no control over when its drivers will work and when they won’t work.

Yes, I still use Uber, but I no longer feel as clever or pleased when I do so.  I feel like I’m cheating.

Now, for how Uber is continuing to amaze.  Its amazing accomplishment is its ability to lose money.  This week saw news that it is expected to disclose ‘above the line’ losses of almost $1 billion for the third quarter, and apparently with a bunch of more obscured costs as well making the total loss greater (being a private company, it doesn’t need to disclose financials).

As this item headlines, it lost $800 million (or more) on $1.7 billion of net revenue.  The gross fares processed through the Uber system were $5.4 billion, so Uber is averaging a 31.5% share of fares.

There’s no part of the Uber business model that seems to be working.  The drivers are unhappy at their sometimes possibly even below-minimum-wage level net earnings, the public are unhappy when surge pricing goes into effect or when there are no Uber cars to be had, old fashioned taxi companies hate this competition which truly has to be considered unfair, and Uber’s corporate operation is losing money at an impressive rate of about $10 million every day!

Oh, did we mention the company, while essentially not owning a single car, not directly employing a single driver, and losing money, even in its home US market, is valued at $69 billion?

Lyft, way behind Uber in most measures, says it will keep its quarterly losses below $150 million each quarter.

And if you’d care to invest a few billion in ‘David’s Car Service’ I’ll promise to keep my losses below $100 million every quarter…..

Tesla Continues to Disappoint

Talking about extraordinarily highly valued companies that lose money, Tesla continues to be regularly in the news; more to the point, there is a steady groundswell of stories of ‘better than Tesla’ electric cars due to be released in the next couple of years.  Whether it be similarly priced high end cars that may have better features (and even better performance) or more realistically affordable cars that offer comparable range and similar features, there’s no part of the Tesla product/feature lineup that isn’t under growing threat.

Well, at least until now Tesla has had one unique feature that promised to differentiate itself from other car manufacturers.  Its free fast charging network of ‘Superchargers’ across the country (and world).

But Tesla continues to marginalize this, too.  Its original promise was simple – unlimited charging at its chargers.  Period.  No ifs, ands, or buts.  Unlimited.

Tesla started to squirm and seek to get out of that simple and strong product offer by telling people who were charging their cars at local charging stations that they were supposed to only use charging stations when out of their local area.  Tesla also makes it as hard as possible for local drivers to get free charging by, much of the time, simply locating their Superchargers away from major population centers.  For example, in the Seattle area, the nearest Superchargers, from downtown Seattle, are 67 miles north, 83 miles south, or 105 miles east.  That’s a long way to do just to get $5 – $10 worth of free electricity!

Then it said that for new cars purchased from 1 Jan 2017, they will only come with 1,000 miles worth of free electricity.  How much will additional electricity cost?  Tesla says it will “cost less than the price of filling up a comparable gas car”.    That’s a rather vague statement isn’t it, particularly with gas prices now embarked on a steady rise upwards once more.

If we look at the current cost, a Tesla uses about 350 watt hours to drive a mile.  Let’s say that if it was a petrol driven car, it would get 25 mpg.  With electricity at perhaps 11c/kWhr and petrol at say $3/gallon, that means a cost of 3.85c to drive a mile on electricity or 12c to drive a mile on gas.  So, what exactly does “cost less than a comparable gas car” mean?  Does it mean 4c/mile?  6c?  8c?  10c?  11.5c?

Why won’t Tesla tell us?  They promised details ‘later this year’ when making the announcement on 7 Nov, but as of 23 December, that announcement – like so much else to do with Tesla – is already late.

This week, Tesla made another change to its charging policies.  Although it used to try to make lemonade from lemons, and happily say that while your car was charging for 20 – 30 minutes (long enough to add another 120 – 150 miles of range to the car), that would give you time to go and use the restrooms, grab a bite to eat, have a cup of coffee, etc.  But now Tesla says that if you don’t move your car away from the charging stand within five minutes of the charge being completed, they’ll start charging you 40c a minute for blocking the charger.

There’s a measure of fairness about this, particularly at the rare locations where there is sometimes a line of cars waiting to access a charger.  But couldn’t Tesla simply make their charging cables longer, and redesign the station layouts, so that one charger could service any of perhaps four or even more cars parked around the charging unit?

At what point does a fair cost recovery become an outrageous rip-off?  At what point do Tesla’s growing raft of fees and restrictive policies for its Superchargers upset the economics of ownership to encourage people to return back to gas powered cars?  Or, if not that, at least cause Tesla to lose one of its few remaining competitive advantages, just at the point where competitors are poised to start pressuring it (the GM Bolt has already started shipping, albeit in very limited quantities so far, and interestingly, the consistent theme in generally positive reviews is the need for a nationwide fast charging network).

Consumer Alert – Artwork Sales on Cruise Ships

An excellent article appeared last week ‘exposing’ the – well, let’s be carefully polite and call it ‘over-valued hype’ that seems to be associated with the common practice of selling artwork on cruises.

The story the article tells is far from new, and it should be obvious to anyone that you’re unlikely to get any sort of bargains for anything while on a cruise.  However, the art company seems to consistently ring up big sales, and so it is a tale worth retelling, and a story worth reading.

The real core of the problem is that the cruise lines, getting doubtless rich slices of the action from the art house selling the pictures, has no motivation to intercede in some of the more questionable actions.  And, to be fair, no-one is pointing a gun at any passenger’s head, forcing them to bid and buy on overpriced art.  But, please, make sure you are aware of these challenges before attending an art auction yourself.

You know the saying – look around the room, and if you don’t see the sucker, that is because the sucker is you.

And Lastly This Week….

Not only has the denaturing of our Christmas celebration seen the eliding of the word ‘Christmas’ from phrases where it seems essential, such as Christmas Cards and Christmas Trees, but I’ve noticed this year many fewer Christmas carols on the radio, being replaced instead with more safely generic ‘holiday music’.  Plenty of Snoopy’s Christmas and Rudolph, but not so many choirs singing Christmas carols.

Oh – apologies to my many Jewish friends.  In talking about Christmas, it is absolutely not intended to overlook or denigrate the important Jewish celebration of Hanukkah – the eight day and night ‘Festival of Lights’ commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem and the miraculous longevity of some candle oil, either.  I have to say that in turn, while Jews of course don’t celebrate Christmas, and while we of both faiths occasionally get exasperated by the overly commercial and pervasive nature of something that was originally a religious holiday and nothing more, I’ve never met a single Jew who has been offended by the underlying religious concept of Christmas.

So, may I close this week with a link to, not so much a Christmas carol, but to a piece from an extraordinary larger work that deserves to be played in full, repeatedly (plenty of links to the full work, often associated with either/both Christmas and Easter, when you click over to the excerpt).  This – and this other excerpt – are two of the pieces most likely to drive Christmas-haters crazy.  In response to which, there’s really only one thing to say.

Until next week, please enjoy a wonderful Christmas (or Hannukah which this year also starts this weekend) and, always, safe travels





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