Weekly Roundup, Friday 12 January, 2018

We can’t guarantee making the front page of the local paper again this year, but we can offer you a wonderful tour of NZ.

Good morning

First, an exciting update on our 2018 touring schedule.  I’ve now put up the dates and details for our New Zealand ‘Epicurean Extravaganza’ tour, running from late October through mid November.  With a bit of care and belt-tightening on my part, I’ve managed to keep the price the same as it was two years ago, $2995 if we get 20+ people joining, and slightly more for smaller numbers.

I love this tour, because it goes to all my favorite places in New Zealand.  It includes the ‘tourist essentials’ of Rotorua and Queenstown, but it also goes off the beaten path to Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay, and is based around an amazing food and wine festival in Hawke’s Bay.  Our groups are treated almost as visiting royalty for this event, and the always friendly Kiwis turn their hospitality up a special extra notch to make us all feel very welcome.

You have a great chance to enjoy some of the best wines in the world, and increasingly, some of the best cuisine too, in some of the most beautiful parts of the world, and dare I say it, both within our group and in NZ in general, with some of the nicest people in the world, too.  Definitely a tour to treasure.

And before October, we have our almost unique Triple K tour of Kiev, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in May and our Grand Expedition of Great Britain in June.  The Triple K comes very close to deserving the title of ‘unique’ due to the places we visit and the experiences we’ll have.  If you’ve ‘been there and done that’ in the usual sorts of tourist destinations, this is definitely a tour for you.

And while you’ve doubtless been to Britain before, you’ve probably never done Britain’s ‘bucket list’ road trip, from Land’s End at the southwest tip of England to John O’Groats in the northeast corner of Scotland.  That’s what our Grand Expedition is all about, plus, as we meander our way along the route, we offer treasured experiences such as two nights in the Cotswolds, one night in the Lake District, and even a chance to stay in a 700 year old castle.  This tour is almost full.

One more tour is also currently open for you – and that’s our Frontsight defensive handgun course in Nevada, the first weekend in March.  I make this a special experience too by layering my own presentation on related issues in a preliminary session.  If you’ve never held a handgun before, this would be ideal as a safe and stress-free way to sample what it is all about.  Or if you’ve formerly been issued a handgun as part of your profession, you should come, too, because I’ll wager you’ll learn things that they never taught you, ‘back in the day’.  Old, young; male, female; able or with challenges, this is good for everyone.

(Still being developed – our Ireland tour in Aug/Sep and hopefully a Christmas Markets cruise in Dec.)

Today’s edition of the newsletter is primarily a ‘Consumer Electronic Show Special Edition’, with almost 5,000 words of commentary about what was featured this week at the Las Vegas CES event following after the roundup.  Going beyond the press releases, I tell you about what is happening beneath the surface, and what to look for in the year ahead.

There are a few other items too, of course, so please keep reading for :

  • MH 370 Search to Resume
  • The JFK Nightmare
  • BA’s Cheapening Passenger Experience
  • A Tale of Two Train Services
  • Amsterdam Curtails Airbnb Service
  • More on Hotel Do Not Disturb Policies
  • Hotel Evicts and Bans a Guest for Doing Nothing
  • Apple to Buy Netflix?  Blame President Trump!
  • And Lastly This Week….

MH 370 Search to Resume

Almost four years ago, on 8 March 2014, a Malaysia Airlines 777 took off from Kuala Lumpur, in theory heading to Beijing.  It disappeared off the radar not long after, halfway between Thailand and Vietnam, and as has since been recreated, appears to have flown a roundabout course doubling back and heading south into the Great South Ocean, then vanishing without trace.

An extensive underwater search of the zone where the plane might have crashed into the ocean after running out of fuel found nothing and so was abandoned.  But now the Malaysia government has commissioned a US company to search some more for the plane, on the basis of paying them a success fee only, and nothing if the plane isn’t found.

The mystery of what happened, and the potential underlying vulnerability, has nagged at many of us, and if the plane and its cockpit recorders are found, perhaps some of the unanswered questions can be resolved.  We hope so.  Details here.

The JFK Nightmare

JFK seemed to experience everything going wrong that could possibly go wrong in the last week, almost as if the ghost of JFK himself was mocking President Trump after he took credit for the accident-free record earned by commercial aviation in 2017.  Surely, if that is to Mr Trump’s credit, the disgrace of JFK over much of the last seven days therefore can also be laid at his feet.

  • There were the two planes that collided, messing up ground operations for a while.  Mind you, that also happened in Toronto too.
  • There was a near-riot.
  • There was a water-main break.
  • There were nightmarish tales of passengers trapped on planes on the tarmac for way over the maximum three hours.  We wonder how many fines the DoT will now levy (it can fine airlines up to $27,500 per passenger in such cases).
  • Thousands of passengers were stranded at the airport with no idea when their flight would depart.
  • And, of course, bags too.  On Wednesday it was reported that there were still 5,000 passenger bags held at JFK – this article includes some depressing camera footage showing airport/airline staff doing very little to get the bags back to their owners.

All of this because of a little snow, followed by an ever longer list of excuses and blame passing to try and excuse the inexcusable – the inability of the airlines and airport authority to operate in slightly adverse weather.

Now, I get that some airports cruelly decide to save money such that if the weather looks challenging, the airport basically closes rather than trying to cope with snow removal and other related matters.  While that’s reprehensible, it is understood.

But JFK can’t even manage a temporary close-down.  It strains me to describe what happened without resorting to very naughty words.  The level of staggering incompetence, and the utter lack of care about the thousands of passengers, left to manage as best they could sleeping on hard airport floors, eclipses anything one would encounter in a third world country.  And JFK is supposed to be one of our primary international gateway airports, and we’re supposed to be one of the most advanced countries in the world.

American excellence?  American know-how?  American spirit and can-do problem solving?  American compassion and caring?  All mysteriously and utterly vanished.

But, rest assured, Something Will Be Done.  The Port Authority announced it has a instituted an investigation into everything that went wrong, to be headed by former DoT Secretary Ray LaHood, a gentleman with no clear expertise in airport operations, but with a politician’s certain instinct for diffusing blame and whitewashing a report.

Words to remember :  the Port Authority’s Executive Director, Rick Cotton, said

The Port Authority is committed to providing the highest standard of service to all travelers, and the series of events following the winter storm this month were completely unacceptable. We are committed to understanding where and why failures occurred, and making whatever changes are necessary to assure these failures never happen again.

As high-minded as that statement is, it omits one thing – finding anyone or anything accountable.  You can be certain that no-one will lose their job, and certainly not Mr Cotton.  As for assuring that such failures never happen again, well, that’s not quite so certain.

BA’s Cheapening Passenger Experience

Okay, we understand that low-cost and no-frills carriers are eating BA’s lunch in Europe, but we’re not sure that BA’s best response is to ape the worst of the low-cost carrier service levels and then go one step even worse.

But BA failed to consult with us, and is cheerily trying to cram as many passengers into its jets as is (in)humanly possible.  A 29″ seat pitch, non-reclining seats, even eliminating one of the galleys – anything to squeeze more passengers into the plane.

Details here, albeit in a slightly overwrought article that suggests even a glass of water will become scarce on their new configuration planes.

A Tale of Two Train Services

After slowing down its high-speed trains after a crash five years ago, setting a maximum speed limit of 350 km/hr (ie 220 mph), China is regaining confidence in its railroad operating safety.  That ‘reduced’ speed is of course almost exactly three times Amtrak’s maximum speed of 79 mph (apart from some brief sections of the Northeast corridor track).

Well, good news.  It is now allowing new trains to go up to 400 km/hr (250 mph) and is continuing to steadily add more high-speed rail lines to its network (1400 miles last year alone).  Details here.

Meanwhile, in the US, Amtrak has announced an impressive seeming plan to invest nearly $40 billion into capital investments, together with ‘stakeholder support’.  $40 billion – surely that’s enough to have some positive impact on national train services?

Well, not so much.  Almost half that total goes into redeveloping five of its passenger stations, with the money going not just into the passenger experience itself, but into related developments into the areas around the stations – something with zero impact on trains and their  passengers.  Is Amtrak now becoming a property developer?

Actually, we don’t mind if indeed Amtrak is going to become a property developer, particularly because it seems to be doing so with other people’s money.  Done correctly, that can be successful and a great source of future income streams and capital appreciation, both of which Amtrak desperately needs.  And, after all, what more inspiring example of the positive outcomes of being a property developer than our present President!

But what of the other $20 billion or so?  What does that buy?  Alas, precious little.  $13 billion would go on a new tunnel under the Hudson River and related updates to current tunnels.  Then there’s $5 billion to replace another old tunnel running underneath Baltimore.  The current old tunnel is a mere 1.4 miles long – someone call Elon Musk and his ‘Boring Company’ and let’s see if he can dig a replacement tunnel for less.  Seriously, shouldn’t we do that?

In a no-doubt non-coincidental happening, Bloomberg carried a feature on the desperate need for repairs on the tunnels underneath Penn Station in New York.  It makes for horrific reading, and one has to struggle to realize that the situation they are describing is in New York, USA, not in some decaying outlying city of a former Soviet bloc country.  Details here.

Then there are some bridges also needing replacement or major repair, and, ooops, that’s all.  No new track.  Nothing on the west coast or midwest.  Details here.

We are happy to see some terribly long overdue major maintenance now be countenanced, but let’s not pretend this is anything other than replacing the bandaid on the massive oozing wound that is Amtrak and the state of its infrastructure.

China is adding 1400 or more miles of brand new high-speed rail every year to its network.  We’re unable to add one single mile, and are struggling to maintain the small amount of low-speed rail we currently operate.

Instead, we get excited when a new private rail service starts operating between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach – a mere 45 mile journey, on existing track.  This company, now known as Brightline, and formerly as “All Aboard Florida” has been knocking around for many years (dating back to 2012, maybe earlier), with a broader objective to operate trains between Miami and Orlando, taking a projected three hours to travel the 240 miles (ie an average of 80 mph).  And, when I say “Orlando”, I mean the airport, to the southeast of the city itself, not downtown.  Additional speculative plans might see the line extending to Tampa and/or to Jacksonville.

Most of the route is on existing track, but a new 40 mile section will be laid between Cocoa and the Orlando Airport, paralleling the Bee-Line/Beach-Line Expressway.

We’re pleased to see new train service of any kind and anywhere, but three hours to travel 240 miles is not particularly fast, especially when you consider China’s trains that are now traveling up to 250 miles in a single hour.  Details here.

And, for the last word in this article, back to China again.  Here is poor old Amtrak, struggling to get $40 billion to repair parts of its quite literally crumbling infrastructure.  And there is China, now undertaking the most expensive foreign infrastructure development program in the history of the world, and expected to be seven times larger, in inflation adjusted dollars, than that spent by the US on the Marshall Plan after WW2.

Get that – China is spending up to a trillion dollars building infrastructure in other countries, while we can’t even maintain the infrastructure in our own country.  Details here.

Amsterdam Curtails Airbnb Service

A year ago Amsterdam decided that people letting spare rooms or their entire houses through Airbnb could do so no more than 60 nights a year.  It has now decided to reduce that again, down to 30 nights a year, so as to ‘reduce the problems caused by tourists in some areas’ and also to ‘make it less inviting to use [your] home as a way to earn money’.

Why would the council object to its residents making money from their homes?  Does the council not in turn make money by charging land taxes and assorted other fees to home owners?

Why only focus on Airbnb.  Why not tell hoteliers they can only rent their rooms for a limited number of days a year?  And what exactly are the problems caused by tourists, and if there are indeed problems, is restricting the (hard to enforce) Airbnb activity the best way to resolve those problems?

Just as cities are fast to impede the growth of Uber and other non-traditional taxi type services, it seems they are also eager to restrict the growth of Airbnb and other non-traditional accommodation services, often citing (as is the case here) the most specious of reasons in mock-justification.

Details here.

If however you’d like to show your public spiritedness, help out Amsterdam and its tourist problems by not staying there, or by staying there less.  Consider staying in Rotterdam, a mere 35 minutes away by train, and simply do one or two day trips to Amsterdam if indeed you absolutely must visit that city too.  Trains depart every 15 minutes.

Indeed, there are plenty of nice historic towns ringed around Amsterdam that will give you a wonderful Dutch experience.

More on Hotel Do Not Disturb Policies

Hotels are eagerly rescinding the former (very limited) right to privacy enjoyed by guests, all in the name of ‘safety and security’.  This is a result of the Las Vegas shooting, where it was alleged that the shooter hung his Do Not Disturb sign outside his Mandalay Bay hotel room for three days, and – so it is now claimed – if only housemaids had been able to access his room, and/or if hotel staff had any type of interaction with him, they would have realized that something was up, called security, and the entire tragedy completely averted.

But, like so much surrounding this highly mysterious shooting, these statements have turned out to be incorrect.  Investigators have found at least ten interactions between the shooter and hotel staff, including entering his suite.  It now turns out there were numerous interactions between hotel staff and the shooter every day during his stay.  Details here.

So can we please be allowed to hang our Do Not Disturb signs on our door handles once more?

Hotel Evicts and Bans a Guest for Doing Nothing

Never mind the ‘sanctity’ of our hotel rooms and the protection given to us by Do Not Disturb signs on the doors.  Imagine being woken up in the middle of the night by the police banging on your hotel room door, followed by a hotel manager unlocking your door and letting the police in, and being told you’re being immediately evicted from the hotel, and served a trespass notice that will make it a criminal offense to return to the hotel property.  The two police men stay in the room watching while your naked girlfriend has to get out of bed and get dressed.

Now imagine this happening even though you’ve done nothing except somewhat rudely tell a hotel staff member to go away and let you sleep in peace, earlier in the evening.  And have this all happen at a five-star luxury resort.

Well, that’s what happened to an unfortunate guest of the Boca Raton Resort; it seems the hotel suddenly became obsessed with worry that the guest was going to film a YouTube prank video making fun of their hotel, so urgently in the middle of the night, got the police to evict the man (and his girlfriend).

But in terms of actual offenses, or contradictions of the contract between the hotel and the guest – none occurred, and indeed, none were alleged to have occurred.

Most of all, don’t you just love the way the hotel can summon the police to ‘do their dirty work’ for them.  Two police dutifully turn up and do as they’re told by the hotel, even though the guest has done nothing wrong.  Did they investigate anything?  Determine any crime had been committed?  Arrest anyone?  No, they just acted as standins for what you’d normally expect to be the hotel’s own security detail, and even told the guest (who was filming it all) that there was no point discussing the matter with them, they were merely doing the hotel’s bidding.

You could expect such mindless compliance by the police in a banana republic, but in the US?

Details here.

Apple to Buy Netflix?  Blame President Trump!

As readers know, my relationship with Apple is at best strained.  On the other hand, I unreservedly love Netflix.  And so it is with much angst I’ve read the rumor that Apple might be considering buying Netflix.

Maybe it is just me, but I can’t stand iTunes and its interface, while I love the Netflix interface.  Losing that, and seeing Netflix evolve from an open easy system to another closed part of the Apple eco-system would be a terrible loss.

So, if it happens, who could I blame?  Well, this article rushes to tell us, in their very first opening sentence, that if it does happen, it will all be President Trump’s fault.

I’m not sure what is worse.  Trump himself claiming responsibility for good things that aren’t really a result of his actions at all, or other people hastening to blame him for every bad thing under the sun.

And Lastly This Week….

Last week I mentioned a ‘semi-secret’ airline.  This week, the semi-secret airline is advertising for flight attendants.  It helps if you have past experience as a flight attendant, of course; and, oh yes – a Top Secret security clearance would be nice, too.  Details here.  Maybe this lady might like to apply?  Or my reader who wrote in last week to mention that he had gone to an ‘undisclosed location’ that he couldn’t disclose, but hinted it to have been numbered somewhere between Area 50 and Area 52.

Anyone for a Yum Ee Kouw Patt?  This strangely named (think about it….) and allegedly oriental delicacy is one of several items on the menu at a restaurant in Christchurch, NZ.  Politically correct?  Ummm, not very.

Also regularly straying beyond the confines of political correctness is this sometimes delightful collection of airport signs – you know, the signs held by people meeting arriving passengers.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and if you’re being met at the airport….





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