Weekly Roundup, Friday 11 August, 2017

This picture nearly got me arrested. Can you guess why? See ‘Don’t Mention the War’, below.

Good morning

I hope your summer is proving as wonderful as mine is here.  At times like this, it is hard to think of living anywhere else in the world, but think about it, I did, after noting an article on Forbes suggesting I could quit my job and live in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, for US$850 a month.

Kota Kinabalu is a curious mix of a booming industrial town and tourist resort on the island of Borneo.  It has a year-round temperature almost not varying at all from the mid/high 80s, and some beautiful tropical beaches and islands off its coast.  Who wouldn’t enjoy a tropical paradise type lifestyle, albeit awkwardly juxtaposed against possibly Malaysia’s fastest growing conurbation, and all at a cost of only $850/month.

Wait – please don’t sell your house and pack your bags just yet.  There is some fine print, alas – not particularly disclosed in the $850/month claim, but present, nonetheless.  I explain more in the first of two articles which follow.

Two articles today!?  Yes, indeed.  Which brings me to the second.  I don’t mean to be more cynical than I always am, but I have noticed, at times, a strange disconnect between the size/cost of a person’s camera and the quality of the pictures they take.  I suspect there are some people who view a large ostentatious camera as a ‘badge of honor’, and some who hope that by getting the best camera in the shop, they’re more likely to take good pictures.

Our most recent Travel Insider tour to Scotland was notable for more camera enthusiasts being present than normal, and so I’ve been thinking about travel photography topics more than I have for a while.

I’m a lapsed enthusiast – since my early teens I’ve been dabbling in photography, dark-room processing, enlarging, a/v ganged multi-projector slide presentations, commercial video production, and other related matters.  My grandfather was a professional photographer with honors received in both Britain and New Zealand, and I got to play with some of his gear (still have a couple of his items in a cupboard).  So it was sort of in the blood, and I went through phases where I’d probably have more weight and bulk in my suitcase for camera gear when traveling than I did for clothes (and don’t get me started on the almost literally crippling burden imposed on one by old shoulder-mounted video cameras!).  These days, not so much.  A pocket camera and little else, if that.  But after watching all the photographers in Scotland, I’m thinking of becoming a more active photographer again.

I last wrote about photography almost three and a half years ago, when recommending my latest camera purchase (a Sony DSC-RX100 II) as being a ‘best in class’ choice for people who wanted something better than a pocket compact camera or a phone camera, but who didn’t want to be burdened by a huge DSLR type camera, complete with the necessary camera bag full of heavy bulky lenses, etc.

The once rapid pace of digital camera evolution has slowed considerably, although three new models of the DSC-RX100 have been released in the last three years, albeit none with much significantly improved over my still-lovely RX100 II (which remains for sale as a current model, too).  If your digital camera is also three or fewer years old, there is probably no pressing reason to replace it, unless you wish to upgrade to a higher level of equipment.  But if your camera is starting to age past five or so years, and you didn’t get a high-end camera back then, maybe it is time to tempt yourself, and perhaps I might generate another buyer’s guide in the next few weeks.

There are, however, some simple techniques and inexpensive accessories that can have a significant and positive impact on the quality of photos you are taking, no matter what camera you are using.  And so, after that long-winded introduction, this week’s feature article both imparts an invaluable tip for how you can possibly take better pictures without any extra equipment, and suggests a $15 or less accessory that may make a huge difference to your picture quality.

We had another couple of Travel Insiders choose to join us on our Christmas Markets Cruise this week – a mother and daughter.  To the disappointment of my 13 yr old daughter, the other daughter is, alas, a ‘grownup’.  We still have a few more cabins available with the great discounts and extra inclusions, so whether you bring your daughter, son, spouse, parent, or no-one at all (no single supplement!), and no matter what their age, there is still time to decide to join us.  Amawaterways are continuing to surprise and delight with some great value airfares to magnify the saving still further.

Next year’s Grand Expedition is also making progress, and we’re now at 15 people, including Anna and myself.  While still ten months out, I need to get hotel rooms set aside, so please do let me know if you can join this ‘epic journey’ across the length and breadth of Great Britain.

What else this week?  Well – –

  • Not All Airlines Agree With the Big Three
  • More on Pilotless Planes
  • We Have Met the Enemy.  It is Us.
  • Avoiding Infections on Planes – This Week’s Least Surprising Story
  • Don’t Mention the War – It’s the Law
  • Watch Out for the Pirates
  • Italy – Planes Out, Trains In
  • More Leaks About the Leaf
  • Justice Delayed – Justice Denied?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Not All Airlines Agree With the Big Three

American, Delta and United hope the new administration might be more receptive to their largely specious and spurious complaints about the three Gulf carriers – Etihad, Emirates, and Qatar – than was the previous administration.

But this last week, getting their pitch in first, saw other airlines and US airports meeting with US Secretary of State Tillerson, explaining they thought the operations of the three Gulf airlines actually provided a substantial benefit to the country.  Present at the meeting were representatives of JetBlue and various other airlines and air freight carriers, including Fedex, airport representatives and the CEO of the US Travel Association.

Underscoring the interconnectedness of the airlines today, JetBlue must have felt awkward arguing against United.  Lufthansa has a 19% shareholding in JetBlue, and is of course joined at the hip with United across the Atlantic.  So even the strongest of competitors – as weak as the competition truly is – are sort of ‘kissing cousins’.

It is expected the Big Three airlines hope to meet with Tillerson and/or Trump in the near future.  Might this become the moment when AA CEO Doug Parker gets to regret his refusal to accept President Trump’s invitation to meet with him earlier in the year?  You might recall he alone didn’t attend, due to a vague unspecified alternate engagement.

More on Pilotless Planes

Never mind the greater safety we would enjoy from pilotless planes.  Studies show the traveling public remain slow to warm to the idea of no-one up front, and you can bet the pilots’ unions are doing all they can to misdirect the fears of passengers and cause them to be reassured rather than worried by the sight of ‘old fashioned fallible humans’ in the cockpit.

But what will surely see the inexorable shift to pilotless commercial planes is the money the airlines can save.  Pilots cost the airlines $35 billion a year at present, plus it seems there’s a growing shortage of pilots.  In the US, the cost of the pilot represents about 11% of the ticket price you pay, and that’s impactful not so much to us as passengers, but to the airlines, who you can be sure aren’t seeing this as an opportunity to make flying more affordable, but as an opportunity to boost their profits.  Getting rid of pilots would triple AA’s pretax profit and double United’s.  How long do you think they will ignore those numbers?

An interesting independent confirmation of the improved safety of pilotless planes is a UBS Aerospace study which projects that airlines would save $3 billion a year in insurance premiums, due to the assessed lower risk of automated planes compared to piloted planes.

My guess is we’ll see air freighters as the first pilotless planes, and after some years of accident free operations, and at the same time becoming more comfortable with cars and buses that drive themselves, it will then become an easier sell for the airlines to convince us of the benefit of removing the pilots.  But I’ll wager there will be pilotless passenger planes within ten years.  Let’s hope we’re all here to see if I prove to be correct or not!

Another way to get us to welcome pilotless planes – convert the cockpit into a view lounge where passengers can congregate and look out the front of the plane.  How amazing would that be!

Details here.

We Have Met the Enemy.  It is Us.

Airline seats seem to be getting more and more uncomfortable, smaller and smaller, and squashed closer together.  It is so bad that three federal Court of Appeals judges have asked the FAA to see if the ever-smaller seats are becoming a safety issue, interfering with the requirement for fast emergency exits from planes.

We all hate the airlines in general, and middle seats on planes in particular.  How can they be so uncaring and inflict such indignities on us, we all howl.  If only someone would do something about it.

But let’s be careful with that last statement.  Just like we get the politicians we deserve and vote for, we get the airline seats we deserve and pay for.  Results of a Reuters/Ipsos survey were announced this week, showing that when asked the question ‘Are you willing to pay more for a seat that isn’t a middle seat’, 60% of fliers said ‘No’ and another 12% didn’t know if they would or not.  The remainder who are willing to pay presumably already do so.

That is why the airlines continue to degrade our flight experiences.  Because, when push comes to shove, the vast majority of fliers will always choose a cheaper flight over a better flight.  Until we show we’re willing to pay for better seating and everything else, airlines will go where the market pushes them – to ever more basic flights with less and less included and more and more charged as extra options.  Details here.

Avoiding Infections on Planes – This Week’s Least Surprising Story

I’ve seen reports suggesting passengers have something like a ten-fold increase in catching coughs and colds and other common omnipresent infections if they go on a flight somewhere.  No-one I know likes to come down with something like that a couple of days into their expensive and eagerly anticipated vacation.

So when one sees an article aggressively headed “Here’s How We Can Stop Planes From Becoming Total Cesspools of Infection” one tends to rush to read it.

The article’s astonishing suggestions?  Uh – don’t crowd people together when they’re boarding the plane.  And fly on a smaller plane with fewer people.

One wonders how many millions of research dollars were spent to come up with these stunningly banal suggestions.

Don’t Mention the War – It’s the Law

Those of us who had relatives who fought in – and died in – the Second World War; the struggle to bring freedom back to Germany and its subjected nations, are doubtless very disappointed at how freedom has only been partially restored.

Who can forget the hilarious episode of Fawlty Towers, ‘The Germans’, and Basil’s admonition to his staff ‘Don’t mention the war’, along with the rider ‘I mentioned it once but I think I got away with it’, before ending up goosestepping around the hotel and bellowing out insults to the German guests himself.

That’s all very good and funny for those of us in free countries, but in Germany it is a crime to refer to WW2 and the Nazis in other than tones of politically correct shocked horror and amazement at how such a lovely peace-loving nation allowed itself to be tricked by a madman for 12 long years.  I nearly found this out dramatically a decade ago on a Christmas markets cruise when our coach driver mistook an innocent ‘stretching’ action on my part, while in the Nuremberg Party Rally Grounds, as being a Nazi salute.  Some people wish to do that not to glorify the Nazi regime but to poke fun at it – ‘You weren’t so great after all, were you, Mr Hitler and your 1000 year Reich, because here I am now, a country boy from NZ, in the ruins of your party rally grounds, freely poking fun at your silly salute without fear of any consequence.’

Well, the last part of that sentence is sadly completely wrong.  For whatever the reason, the Germans don’t like people referring to that time in their history much at all, and this last week saw two Chinese tourists arrested for filming each other in front of the Reichstag in Berlin making mock Hitler salutes.

It almost makes you wonder if the Nazis were ever vanquished, doesn’t it.  Details here.

Watch Out for the Pirates

Passengers on the Sea Princess, sailing from Australia to Dubai, had an unexpected frisson of excitement.  For ten days and nights, the ship was on pirate alert, meaning that at night all lights had to be out, and there could be no entertainment on board.  Apparently, the lure of a cruise ship show would have attracted pirates like flies to honey.

No enjoying the sun set on one’s pricey balcony-equipped cabin.  No pretense of enjoying ‘the good life’.  No pool parties or outdoor bar hopping.  Instead, sober quietness was the rule.  For ten long nights.  About the only bonus experience was a ‘pirate drill’ where passengers learned what to do if the ship was attacked – moves that were reminiscent of the 1950s/60s suggestions to get underneath your desks if a nuclear attack was underway.

Assuming the cruise ship was operating at its rated cruising speed of 22 knots/25 mph, during those ten days/nights the ship could have covered 6,000 miles, but it seems like it struggled to do much more than 2300 miles (between Colombo and Dubai), gratuitously doubling the unpleasantness and risk.  Not only was the ship going at less than half its normal cruise speed, but by traveling so slowly it made it more than twice as easy for pirates to respond to its presence, intercept the ship, and board it.

Very little of this makes sense, and surely isn’t what the passengers expected.  Other than an empty ‘out of an abundance of caution’ non-response, no further explanation has been received from Princess Cruises as to why they chose to extend the risk and unpleasantness for their passengers.

Details here.

Italy – Planes Out, Trains In

Alitalia is in its death throes and up for sale to anyone as unwise as to wish to buy it.  Well, in truth there’s nothing wrong with Alitalia, except for its unions and their insistence on crippling the airline with uncompetitive work conditions and pay rates.  Until the unions agree to accept adjustments and allow greater productivity, Alitalia remains an impossible airline to resurrect.

The Italian government appears to have turned its back on the Italian flag carrier, and instead is looking at investing up to €400 million to bolster its domestic rail network, increasing the trains that serve 200 cities in Italy (200?  That’s what this article says).  In addition, the Lombardy region announced plans to invest over €1.6 billion in new trains for suburban and regional services.  Then there’s the mooted privatisation of the Trenitalia fleet of long-distance high-speed trains as part of a ten year €94 billion plan announced last September that will also see a growth in high-speed lines in Italy.

So now the US is even being beaten by Italy when it comes to investments in high-speed rail.  Sigh.

More Leaks About the Leaf

My favorite car blog revealed, 18 months ago, that the 2018 model Nissan Leaf electric car would double its range to 300 miles.

This is now becoming more broadly confirmed, with an interesting article this week suggesting it might have a range in excess of 340 miles, a more powerful electric motor and greater self drive capabilities.  Not only does this range knock both the Chevy Bolt and the entry-level Tesla Model 3 (should it ever appear) for a six, but the price is another home run – it is projected to come in at $29,990.  The Bolt is priced at $37,500, and the Tesla’s real world price remains a guess, but probably somewhere in the mid $40 thousands.

What is truly astonishing is that the new Leaf’s 340 mile range is said to be powered by a 40 kWhr battery pack.  If correct, this might explain Elon Musk’s reluctance, a week ago, to reveal the battery packs in his Model 3 cars (he said it would confuse his customers).

Musk has now been forced to reveal that the Model 3 comes with either a 50 or 70 kWhr battery pack – and here’s the thing.  His Model 3 is rated for 220 miles from its 50 kWhr pack and 340 miles from its 70 kWhr pack.  But the Leaf might get 340 miles, from a 40 kWhr pack.  That is nearly twice as fuel-efficient as the Tesla.

Yes, that is indeed confusing.  Why is the Tesla nearly twice the battery hog that the Leaf promises to be?

Justice Delayed – Justice Denied?

In 2004 a US border guard tackled a Chinese lady visitor to the US, pepper sprayed her, and drove her head into the ground.  Although it is true she panicked and ran away from the officer, after she was detained, she was adjudged to be an innocent ordinary person and not charged with any crimes.

Thirteen years later, just now, she has finally been awarded  $461,000 as settlement for false arrest, medical expenses, pain and suffering, and lost earnings.

Thirteen years?  Really!?  Is that the best we can do in this country?  What happened to the right to a speedy trial?  Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Have you noticed how web pages are getting more and more hyperbolic in their headlines.  Like, for example, this one – 12 Shocking Things I Learned by Working as a Butler at the Plaza Hotel; You’ll never look at hotel staff the same way again.

Actually, none of the 12 ‘shocking things’ were very shocking, and few of them were new disclosures.  But it is an interesting quick read for the envious voyeur that lurks within us all.

Whether a butler to the ultra-rich, or anything else, are there some days when you wake up and wish to make a total change in your job?  Have you ever wondered what the exact opposite to your job might be?  Well, there is of course an answer to that question these days.  This page will analyse your job and suggest the exact opposite job.  Me – I’m apparently the absolute opposite of an ‘Agricultural Grader’.  Or possibly, to my immense disappointment (or possibly relief), the opposite of a lumberjack.

Truly lastly this week, there were stories of a self driving car making its way around Arlington, VA.  What was truly surprising was that it was indeed a fully self-driving car – there was no-one inside the vehicle at all.  Or so it seemed, until a sharp-eyed person uncovered the truth.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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