Weekly Roundup, Friday 3 November, 2017

Where is this beautiful vista? You’ll see it in the former national capital of the country we’ll be traveling to next year – details immediately below

Good morning

As our 2017 Annual Fundraising event winds to its close, we had a good week last week with another 49 readers choosing to join in with their support, including six new Platinum members who each contributed a three figure sum – Joanne S, Michael L, Jim S, Gary B, Joe B and Claire C.  Thanks to these six specially generous supporters, the other 43 supporters, and of course, the now 345 readers in total who have chosen to help keep The Travel Insider alive.  We’re very close to our 400 participant target.

Need I add that it is never too late to add your support to this worthy cause, too?

Apple’s newest phone, the iPhone X, became available for pre-order last Friday morning, and first deliveries will start arriving today.

Reports state that the initial units available for delivery on 3 November were sold within ten minutes in the UK and within 30 mins in the US.  I checked shortly before 10am last Friday and already all versions were showing a 5 – 6 week wait until they shipped, and they’ve stayed with that status ever since.  There’s something very strange, the way that orders quickly shipped from being immediately fulfillable to a constant 5 – 6 week wait.

Whether these experiences speak to extraordinary demand, or confirms the rumors of grave problems in making sufficient of the phones in advance, is not yet certain.  But with only five or six weeks until Christmas, and a similar length waiting list to get an iPhone X, one has to think that Apple is going to be experiencing a disappointing pre-Christmas sales peak.

Apple’s cheerleaders, after an uncomfortable silence due to lackluster sales of the iPhone 8 and 8+, are now back out in full voice.  As one example of their ridiculous claims how about this statement (about the iPhone X) from David Pogue :

The price, the delays, and the popularity all tell you one thing, loud and clear: There’s an unbelievable amount of advanced technology in this thing.

Gosh.  Apparently something that is highly priced is therefore better than something less expensive, and something that is slow to market is better than something that lives up to its promised timeline.  And also, popularity equates to advanced technology, too.

That might sound like an unusual and possibly unique line of logic, but may I use it as a segue to one of the two articles following this week’s roundup – some snarky comments on Tesla’s third quarter results and how their worst ever loss and ever-increasing delays on their Model 3 were greeted uncritically and even enthusiastically.  Does David Pogue have some siblings who write about the auto industry, perhaps?

The Tesla article evolved from a lesson I prepared for my daughter’s Middle School Math Club on how to take difficult-to-grasp data and make it into something clearer.  Perhaps some of the Tesla analysts should attend that class.

As for the second article, there’s really no easy way to segue into that, because it is so different.  Kazakhstan.  As in – and this is the exciting part – a Travel Insider tour there, next year (see image immediately above).

With the help of Kazakh experts, I’ve put together an extraordinary tour that not only includes the must-see sights of Astana and Almaty, but also ventures far off the beaten track to where the Soviet nuclear programs were – indeed, we’ll even tour to the ground zero spot where the first ever Soviet A-bomb was exploded.  A couple of overnight trains add to the experience, and all in all, this is a compelling tour of a beautiful country that is not only little known but massively underappreciated in the west.  Here’s your chance to see Kazakhstan – the ninth largest country in the world by area – before it becomes one of the ‘in’ places and tourist hot-spots, before it loses its strange combination of modern sophistication and timeless innocence.

When exactly next year is this tour?  Good question!  It might be mid/late May, or it might be the middle of September.  Which is more convenient for you?  There are voting links in the article where you can click to express your preference.  The more popular time will be when we do it.

Also next year is our Grand Expedition of Great Britain in June, we’ll offer another NZ Tour in late Oct/early Nov, and I’m thinking of our first ever Irish tour in August.  Plus hopefully a Christmas Markets cruise too.  A busy year, and plenty of opportunities for you to come along.

And, please read on, below, for commentary on :

  • Differing Thoughts on Pilot Qualifications
  • Just Exactly How Many Airlines Can Taiwan Support?
  • United Auctions Off Some 747 Parts
  • Might Air Cruising Become the Next Big Thing?
  • More on National Park Passes
  • Amazon vs Wal-Mart (and USPS Fees, continued)
  • Some Daylight Saving Thoughts
  • And Lastly This Week….

Differing Thoughts on Pilot Qualifications

Bruce Landsberg, a Trump nominee to the National Transportation and Safety Board is in hot water, because prior to his nomination, he dared to criticize the stupid change that now requires airline copilots to have a minimum of 1500 hours of flying time.  Previously it had been 250 hours of flying time.

I’ve written about this several times before (main article here).  The trigger event for increasing qualifying hours was the Colgan Air crash, primarily attributable to incompetence on the part of both pilots in the plane that crashed.  But the senior pilot in that plane had 3263 hours of flying time, and the copilot had 2244 hours, so I’ve never understood how increasing the minimum hours from 250 to 1500 hours would have made any difference.  Indeed, all the reasonably recent crashes prior to the Colgan Air crash also featured pilots with way more than 1500 hours flying time – in one case, a massive 13,043 hours.

This was bad legislation without a shred of sense associated with it, and I’m impressed that Landsberg has had the intellectual honesty to dare to criticize it.  The solution isn’t more flying hours, but better training and ongoing requalification.  Details here.

Which brings me to what they’re doing in Canada.  Most airlines have regular internal on-the-job checks on their pilots – the people who do this are senior pilots called check pilots or check airmen or something similar.  They typically will ride in the jump seat watching a pilot (or both pilots) on a flight, making notes, and then assessing if the pilot shows adequate skill and familiarity/competency or if there are training needs that should be addressed.

Now, the big question is ‘who checks the checkers’?  In Canada, the check pilots were themselves evaluated by Transport Canada, and this body has now decided to let the airlines appoint and control their own check pilots.  Transport Canada says it can better use its limited resources to better effect by using them for other safety related checks and inspections.

Is this a weakening of standards?  Not really.  We don’t for an instant think that any Canadian airline would deliberately appoint an incompetent or dishonest pilot as a check pilot.  Details here.

Just Exactly How Many Airlines Can Taiwan Support?

Taiwan is a tiny country of 23.5 million people.  It already hosts two international airlines – China Airlines and EVA Airways.

EVA is a largely family-owned airline, and after its founder died in January 2016, disputes among his children saw the founder’s son Chang Kuo-Wei ousted from his position as holding company Chairman.

His response was to announce he’ll found his own competing airline, now to be known as StarLux Airlines.  With a gratuitous dig at his former airline – but ignoring his previous leadership role in that airline, he said

I want to bring Taiwanese airline brands to the world stage, breaking the stereotypes that we don’t have quality carriers, and that Taiwan is notorious for its aviation safety record.

His new airline is expected to take to the air in late 2019 – although this is already a one year delay from the original estimate made a year ago.  We wish him good luck, but fear that three airlines may prove to be one too many.  Details here.

United Auctions Off Some 747 Parts

In September, three 747s were offered for auction on the Chinese website Taobao – their equivalent of eBay.  Currently, it seems bids are in excess of $20 million per plane.

If that’s a bit much for you – or if your garage is a bit small – but if you really feel great sadness at the gradual disappearance of this lovely plane from our skies, your good friends at United Airlines might have just the thing for you.  The airline is allowing its Mileage Plus members a chance to bid on various parts of a couple of its decommissioned 747s, ranging from instruments to seats.  Amusingly, a row of three coach seats sells for less than a row of two coach seats.

If you don’t have enough miles, that’s not a problem, you can buy extra miles from United.  Miles cost $35/1,000 miles, with a limit of 150,000 miles purchased each year.  If that’s still not enough, get a friend to also buy miles, then transfer the miles to you (yes, there’s a fee to transfer miles too, but if you’ve just got to have that row of three coach class seats….).

Details here.

Might Air Cruising Become the Next Big Thing?

There have been companies selling ‘air cruises’ for some time – basically their concept is a fairly upmarket experience where instead of traveling longer distances by train or coach (or ship), you fly them in a private plane.  Not a bad idea for people who are time poor but cash rich.

However, maybe there’s a different form of air cruising about to appear.  A travel experience more truly analogous to an ocean or river cruise, where you live on the plane, and make ‘port stops’ as and where the itinerary takes you.

Except that, this would not be a plane.  It would be an airship.  British aerospace company Hybrid Air Vehicles is paving the way to the giants of the sky once again taking flight. The company has agreed a deal with travel company Henry Cookson Adventures to pioneer exotic flights using its “Airlander”, a blimp which it calls the world’s largest aircraft.

Under the terms of the agreement the 300ft-long helium-filled airship will take invited guests on expeditions, with North America via the Arctic and the Middle East taking in the Alps penciled in as the first destinations.  HAV is currently undergoing a flight test program to gain airworthiness certification and the expeditions are planned to form part of this process.  The prototype Airlander made its maiden flight in May and a passenger configuration of the aircraft is expected to be able to cruise at 80 knots at an altitude of up to 20,000ft, carrying a load of 10 tons, with passengers able to sightsee through floor-to-ceiling windows.  Details here.

The design of the Airlander means it acts as a wing, so that 40% of the lift it needs is generated through aerodynamics as it moves through the air. The remainder comes from the lighter than air helium gas it is filled with.  Sounds like a good idea, but it also means that if the engines fail, the craft will sink, just like a regular airplane – but in one place, rather than in a long glide.  As the Airlander does not need much of a runway, it could make stops anywhere along its route.  HAV believes that the design brings together the best characteristics of airships, aeroplanes and helicopters, creating a vessel which does not need a runway and can land almost anywhere, can fly for weeks at a time, generates as little pollution as possible and is cheap to operate.

Airlander made its maiden flight in the in UK in May this year.

80 knots – 90 mph – is certainly faster than a coach or ship, and slightly faster than the Hindenburg (cruising speed of about 75 mph).  Its efficient rate of progress would be boosted by being able to take more generally straight paths between points than is the case on rivers or highways.  But it also means that a journey from New York to Los Angeles – 2464 miles – would take 28 hours, without allowing for stops or adjusting for head or tail winds.  At 90 mph, a 30 mph wind can make a big difference – in one direction you’re going at 60 mph over the ground, and in the opposite, your speed has doubled to 120 mph.  (A problem for my math students or math loving readers – what is its over the ground speed if the 30 mph wind is blowing from the side.)  The much stronger jet stream winds are generally found only at altitudes much higher than the airship would fly at.

A trans-Atlantic crossing from London to New York would take 39 hours (before adjusting for wind effects), and Los Angeles to Sydney would be a 3 1/2 day journey (currently about 15 hours by plane).

So as a simple means of transportation to get from point A to point B, not really very practical.  But as a way to wander around a region, avoiding the worst of congested highways, it sounds like it would have a great deal of potential.  A possibility for a future Travel Insider tour, perhaps?

One also wonders how smooth the experience would be.  At generally low altitudes, with little speed and not an enormous amount of mass, but a large surface area, one suspects the airships would be very susceptible to the effects of turbulence, although accounts of earlier airship travels seem to suggest generally smooth sailing.  And with a much slower cruise speed, detouring several hundred miles to avoid tornadoes or other extreme weather represents not just a few minutes but a few hours of extra travel time on each occasion.

More on National Park Passes

Thanks for the many readers who wrote in on this topic.  There is a lifetime senior pass that people over 62 can purchase to avoid the worst of the possible admission increases.  I could point out that I didn’t mention this last week, because I did not then qualify for such a pass, but as of last Saturday, I now do!

The senior pass is a bargain, although in August it increased eightfold in price, from $10 to $80.  You can usually buy them upon entering into any park where fees are charged, or you can apply for one through the mail.  But, if you apply for one through the mail, it will cost you $10 extra.  I’ve no idea why; you’d think it would be good policy to speed up the processing of people at the sometimes painfully long lines waiting for admission into parks, so why is the ‘by mail’ fee is so ridiculously high.

There are also annual senior passes, for $20.

Details here.

Amazon vs Wal-Mart (and USPS Fees, continued)

Talking about ridiculous fees by mail, my article last week about the Postal Service in effect subsidizing Chinese companies (and Amazon) with unfair discounts continues to attract some excellent comments.  It seems the USPS loses millions of dollars a year on its postal rate agreement with China, which makes an already ridiculous situation entirely and drastically wrong at every possible level.

I am also learning that Amazon is doing so brilliantly well not just because of the help they are getting from the Postal Service.  They are also prospering because their service is just simply good.  I know this because I purchased an item from Wal-Mart online last week.  I’ve always been puzzled how it is that Wal-Mart is losing so dramatically to Amazon – Wal-Mart is anything but stupid, but somehow they have a blind spot when it comes to internet sales, with a disappointing website that has never appealed.

So, I ordered a $20 electronic item from them early Friday last week.  I was told I could have free delivery or faster delivery for an extra price – so far so good, a similar arrangement to Amazon.

But then I looked at the delivery times and fees.  Free delivery meant that the item would arrive on Monday, 11 days later.  And ‘fast’ delivery meant it would arrive on Wednesday – five days later – and at a cost of $25.  Compare that to Amazon’s free second day delivery or next/same day delivery for perhaps $6 or so.

Plus Wal-Mart’s confirming email helpfully listed two competing products to the one I’d just bought.  Talk about encouraging buyer’s remorse and returns!

So, bottom line, Amazon has nothing to fear from Wal-Mart.

Some Daylight Saving Thoughts

As you know, this Sunday sees the end of daylight saving in the US for another year.  Remember the mnemonic – “Spring Forward, Fall Back” so set your various time keeping devices back an hour.  And, with seasonal regularity, we of course are treated to another debate, in some parts of the country, on the merits of daylight saving.

Daylight saving was originally introduced as an energy-saving and productivity enhancing concept.  These days, for a number of reasons, it no longer provides any significant benefit in either category – and some calculations, for some areas, suggest it might even be very slightly counter-productive.

This year has seen a special commission in Massachusetts review whether or not they should stay on daylight saving year round.  This was brought about by a person who moved to Boston a few years ago and was horrified to see the sun set around 4pm in mid-winter.  If daylight saving stayed on year-round, that would mean it stayed light until 5pm, and so this gentleman has been strongly lobbying to get this passed.  Because Boston in particular is far east in the time zone, it does indeed have the sun set earlier than is the case in the western parts of the time zone.

But this gentleman is forgetting a small but significant thing.  It is certainly true that in the summer, moving the clocks forward does meaningfully increase the hours of daylight.  That is because the first hour or two of daylight would otherwise be ‘wasted’ while we sleep.  So why not have the sun rise later – but still while most of us are asleep, so that all of us enjoy an extra hour of daylight and warmth in the evening while not sacrificing any daylight in the morning.

The forgotten thing?  Simply that in winter, there is no ‘spare’ daylight in the morning that is otherwise wasted while we sleep.  The extra hour of daylight from 4pm to 5pm translates directly to a lost hour of daylight in the morning.

I hate getting up in the dark and going to work as it transforms into a weak daylight in winter.  But I equally hate returning home with the daylight fading, and arriving home in the dark.  So – does making the afternoon experience slightly better justify making the morning experience worse?

The commission has decided that moving Mass into its own unique new US timezone, one hour ahead of the East coast, would be more trouble than it is worth, and they would only do it if other states in the region also agreed to conform – most notably New York.

Details here.

But having said all that, we’d not be averse to a total reconsideration of the layout of the US time zones.  As you may know and can see, above, some states along the boundaries of the time zones have crazy anomalies, with parts of the state in one time zone and other parts in another.

The time zones were originally determined by railroad timetables, and while they’ve slightly adjusted over the years, they remain arbitrary and there’s no reason why they couldn’t be rationalized, with a view to pushing them generally west a way, giving affected states the equivalent of some year-round daylight saving.

At the very least, all of ID should be in the Mountain Time Zone, all of ND, SD, NE, KS and TX in the Central Time Zone, and perhaps the Eastern Time Zone should be redrawn down the western boundary of WI, IL, KY, TN and MS.

Another consideration might be to move the time forward 30 minutes for all states, all year.  While unusual, there are a number of other time zones around the world that also are on a half hour point, not a whole hour point.

We should be thankful we’re not like Russia, these days spanning nine time zones (and until a recent ‘rationalization, formerly 11 time zones).  Or, the other extreme, not like China, all in a single time zone.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s a fascinating presentation about a problem that you probably never gave any thought to.  Providing addresses to every location.  Here in the US we are fortunate, as a relatively modern country, to have fairly good addressing capabilities – a standard format that programmers love, zip codes, and, while little used, the zip+4 codes that provide a much higher degree of address ‘granularity’.

The UK, while having at times frustrating addresses that include house names not numbers, and tiny village names described as “near (a larger town’s name)”, and ambiguity about county names, also have an excellent alpha-numeric postcode that drills down so that each postcode is shared by an average of only 15 houses.  Indeed, the postal codes in the UK (and a similar system also in Canada) is so geographically specific that GPS units will simply accept a postal code as a point to navigate to.

But much of the world have no addresses at all.  How can Amazon deliver shipments when a person’s residence or office has no address at all?  More sensibly, how can a person call for help when they have no address?  How can you even tell friends how to find you?

This linked presentation talks about an idea to divide the entire planet into a grid of 3m x 3m (about 10ft x 10ft) squares and to give each grid square its own unique address.  You might think the addresses would be terribly complicated, because there end up being 57,000,000,000,000 squares (57 trillion).  But this is solved by using ordinary English words in combinations of three words.  That makes addresses very easy to identify and impossible to confuse.  For example, one grid square is “lived.buddy.fruit” and the square next to it is entirely different – “mostly.wicked.when” to the west and “rots.ropes.wacky” to the east.

After you’ve enjoyed the presentation, you could go to their website and to their address locator to find your own address.  Chances are your property spills over more than one square, so I guess you get to choose which three word combination is most appealing.

Surprisingly, the answer to the question ‘what is the grossest thing about living in space’ has nothing to do with toilets.  Here’s the answer.

A bit of travel trivia – the history of passports.

Truly lastly this week, next year’s tour to Kazakhstan (please remember to tell us when you’d prefer the tour to operate) will be many things, but for sure, one thing it won’t be is a tourist trap.  Here’s a fun article on how to spot a tourist trap.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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