Weekly Roundup, Friday 24 August, 2018

Happy birthday today to my daughter, Anna.

Good morning

The rapid passing of time is never more noticeable than on this day each year, it being today my daughter’s 14th birthday.  As many as you of course know, possibly with grandchildren as well as children, one looks at one’s children with amazement, still vividly remembering what they were like so many years previously, and marveling at how they became so much older, so quickly.

I hope yours give you as much delight as mine does me.

Talking about time passing quickly (clumsy segue here) we are getting ever closer to December and this year’s Christmas Land Cruise.  Come and experience a wonderful week (or more) in Northern France.

We will be based in the historic cathedral city of Lille, and enjoy daily touring to villages, towns and cities in the nearby area, heading to the coast (Dunkirk and Calais), even Belgium (Ypres, Bruges and Ghent) and of course, into the wine area as well (Reims in the heart of the Champagne region).

What else this week?  Please keep reading for

  • AA Blinks and Steps Back
  • Congratulations to Qantas
  • Ryanair’s Check is In the Mail, But….
  • Not Only China Bullying
  • Tesla Tales
  • How Big a Wallet Did You Need in Venezuela
  • Airport Police Swarm Plane and Arrest Federal Air Marshals
  • And Lastly This Week….

AA Blinks and Steps Back

One of the most surprising things in the airline industry is how passive passengers generally are.  I’ve regularly been at meetings with senior airline executives who, when talking off the record and perhaps after a drink or two, have laughed and marveled at how much they can get away with, at how the traveling public just passively accepts insult and financial injury without complaint.

There have been several initiatives that the airlines have hesitantly come up with, and they’ve been ready to cancel them in an instant if they sensed pushback from the public, but almost without exception, there has never been any negative consequences.

That is why we sometimes find ourselves in such ridiculous situations as when a change fee on a ticket would cost more than just throwing the ticket away entirely and buying a new ticket.  Really?  In what far-off galaxy does that pass for fair?  How can a change fee – something that costs the airline nothing whatsoever, other than a fraction of a penny of computer time – be more expensive than selling a new ticket to a new passenger and adding them to a flight?

You want another example?  How about when it costs more for an extra bag than it would to buy another seat for another passenger?  How can a 75lb bag in the cargo hold cost the airline more than a 200lb passenger in a seat, especially if the passenger is being given frequent flier miles and a free drink or two, adds to the wear and tear of the seat, uses the toilet, and so on?

But a happy exception to airlines being able to do anything they want and us passively accepting it seems to be the various attempts by airlines to further restrict the inclusions on their lowest price fares and making it difficult to bring a bag onto the plane as a carry-on.

American Airlines has just decided that it will now allow everyone to take a carry-on with them.

That is good, but what would be even better is if AA and all the other airlines would also fairly enforce their carry-on rules.  Whenever I board a flight and find all the overheads full, after having watched people go down the jetway with multiple massive bags and no airline staff objecting, I am again reminded of how the airlines have an uncanny way of creating the worst possible experience for everyone.  Indeed, I almost feel sorry for passengers when due to some unlikely random stroke of bad luck they find themselves having problems when trying to take way too much stuff onto the plane as carry-on.

The never-knowing element of ‘will there be space for my carry-on in the overhead’ combined with the randomness of airline staff sometimes surprising us all and randomly choosing a few people to be made examples of means that none of us are truly relaxed when boarding our flights.

Congratulations to Qantas

Rising fuel prices have been blamed for tightening airline profits, but there is very little (if any) correlation between airline profitability and airplane fuel costs.

Even in the worst down-trends in the industry, some airlines make money, and others lose much more than others.  Conversely, even in the most booming of times, some airlines struggle to break-even.

Although no longer the poster-child of excellence that it used to be a couple of decades ago, Qantas continues to be closer to the front than the rear of the pack when it comes to quality of service for passengers and quality of investment return for its investors.

The airline has just announced a record breaking profit for its last fiscal year, its biggest/best profit ever, A$1.6 billion (US$1.2 billion).

While largely jingoistic nonsense, their CEO’s boasting about their profit is interesting, because unlike many US carriers, Qantas sees its path to profit as being through providing better quality services and good value fares.  In a statement to the Australian Stock Exchange, he says the record profit

….reflected a strong market as well as the benefits of ongoing work to improve the business.

These numbers show a company that’s delivering across the board.

Our investment in free Wi-Fi and cabin improvements are delivering a better experience for customers as well as higher earnings for Qantas and Jetstar. The overall value for the travelling public remains extremely strong, with domestic sale fares almost 40 per cent lower in real terms than they were 15 years ago.

We’re seeing healthy demand across key sectors matched with improving levels of capacity discipline, which is a positive sign for the year ahead.

And bravo for all of that.  They remain one of my preferred airlines.

Ryanair’s Check is In the Mail, But….

“The check is in the mail” is of course one of the classic lies of all time.  There is also a sub-genre of check-in-the-mail related lies, ranging from “Ooops, sorry, I put the wrong date on it” to “Uh oh, I sent you John’s check, and I sent John’s check to you by mistake, please send me back John’s check and when I get your check back from John, I’ll send it to you” and so on.

Perhaps the most common of the sub-genre of check excuses is to send the check but to ‘forget’ to sign it.

Which is apparently what happened to a batch of checks sent out by Ryanair to passengers who were due compensation as a result of delayed or cancelled flights.  Ooops.

Even worse, some people didn’t notice the lack of a signature and deposited them, only to have them bounce back and be charged a bounced check fee by their bank.  Details here.

Not Only China Bullying

China continues to become more and more assertive as to how it wishes the rest of the world to see its relationship with Taiwan.  With its still very centrally controlled economy, it has the ability to not only influence/control trade with other countries, but also the flows of its citizens/tourists to other countries.

Poor tiny little Palau is on the receiving end of China’s ire.  Palau is one of the dwindling number of nations that still officially recognize Taiwan as an independent country (different sources give the count as between 16 and 19, neither the US nor any other first world nation is among them).  Apparently China has used the carrot approach effectively, having persuaded four more countries to withdraw their recognition of Taiwan in the last two years by bribing them with aid packages, and in cases where that doesn’t work, such as Palau, it is now making it difficult for Chinese people to travel there as tourists, effectively killing the largest part of the tiny country’s tourism industry.

Details here.

Mind you.  We shouldn’t be too myopic in our disapproval.  At the same time China is using its economic strength to influence the world, and its tight internal controls to ‘quality control’ what its citizens get to see and hear, we see similar things happening in the US.  The last week or two has seen a slew of companies disassociate themselves with right-of-center causes.  For example, the shopping site provider Shopify has decided to deactivate customers using their software to sell various firearms items, even though the items being sold and the manner of their sale is totally 100% legal.  Their CEO loftily says that merely following the law is too low a standard for his company.

Other credit card merchants are cancelling the merchant accounts of political blogs because they don’t agree with the political views, and Facebook and its cronies are in a virtue-signaling frenzy to shut down commentators and their commentaries, but exclusively focusing on shutting down right of center opinions and (mis)labelling them as hate speech.

While it is true the First Amendment only applies to what the government can and can’t restrict in the form of free speech, it is a terrifying move when companies that purport to be content-neutral publishers of whatever people choose to write now start selectively censoring lawfully held and lawfully expressed views just because someone on their staff disagrees with them, or because some vociferous member of the public complains.

The most worrisome part of this is to see our nation – founded on the principles of free expression, even when the concepts being expressed were deemed by the authorities at the time to be dangerous and wrong – is now moving to a process of invisible and unaccountable censorship of thought.  No-one appointed Facebook to decide what we can and can’t read, or what we can and can’t say, no-one understands how Facebook chooses to censor content, and there’s no formal impartial review or appeal process to go through.

Is it only me who finds the evolution of the internet surprising – it went from being the promise of an open platform making it easier for everyone to be heard and to express their views, and now it is increasingly a closed platform where only opinions that conform to those held by 20-something-year-olds in Silicon Valley are welcomed.

It is one thing to enforce the nation’s laws.  But by some curious twist of fate, the same people most eager to ban companies and products that exist and act entirely legally have no difficulty at all supporting and advancing acts of ‘civil disobedience’ and outright law-breaking such as helping illegal aliens.  These inconsistencies make plain to anyone willing to see that this is not about ‘avoiding hate speech’ or illegalities, it is all about advancing specific agendas.

Meanwhile, Facebook’s reach is becoming ever more extensive.  They are even asking for and receiving banking records from our banks (without telling us or securing our permission).  I was looking at my Facebook page details the other day, and was astonished to see what types of other companies are also giving Facebook information about me.  While I have about as minimal a Facebook footprint as possible, it seems that without even knowing it, other companies are helpfully telling Facebook things about me that I’ve no wish to share.

A distinctive new model electric car. If you don’t like, you can always choose one of the AK-47s also for sale, and shown in the right background too.

Tesla Tales

The extraordinary tale of Elon Musk’s claim to have ‘financing secured’ to take Tesla private continues.  His stated offer to buy shares at $420 as part of that privatization has not only been shaded by his expression of hope that as many as 70% of the shareholders in the public company would follow him into the private company, but by the market’s continued expression of total disbelief in the concept.

Immediately prior to his tweet about this, the shares were at $345.  After a rapid scramble to buy shared, and having trading halted on the exchange for a while as a result (usually material announcements like this are made outside trading hours), the shares rose to about $380 before people realized it was probably a nonsense, and started to head back down.  Thursday last week they were below the $345 pre-announcement price at $335, and Thursday this week they closed at $320.

Meanwhile the SEC is giving a bravura performance illustrating how slowly it can investigate the simplest thing.  Musk tweeted that funding was secured.  The SEC is investigating that, and has been for several weeks now.

Here’s the thing.  It takes a minute to pick up the phone, call Tesla, get put through to Musk, and ask who the funding was secured with, and ask him to fax/email a copy of the agreement that has been signed.  Five minutes later, a copy of that document would be on the investigator’s desk.  Have him call the source of the funding and get their confirmation that the formal agreement is indeed valid and not a forgery – another five minutes.  Get an attorney to read through it to confirm it truly is an unconditional confirmation – a couple of hours perhaps.

So, within a business day or two, the investigation can be fully completed.  Instead, as many weeks later, no news about what is happening.

What is wrong with our government when very highly paid so-called experts can’t do the simplest things in reasonable time frames?  Even the least informed shareholder has already laughingly rejected Musk’s statement.  But the SEC is investigating.

So, here’s some help for the SEC.  Apparently “funding secured”, when uttered by Mr Musk, doesn’t necessarily mean what other people might think it to mean.  Imagine an invisible asterisk leading down to a few paragraphs of footnotes and disclaimers underneath the unadorned and apparently unilateral statement.

Musk is now backpedalling on his claim, and there’s a conspicuous lack of third parties standing shoulder to shoulder with him in public saying “yes, we’ve promised to secure his funding”.

I guess ‘funding secured’ is a subjective statement capable of more interpretation than most people would expect.  A bit like many of his other claims.  A $35,000 Model 3 being released last year, for example.  Or 5,000 (60% more expensive) Model 3’s being produced a week in June.  And so on…..

It is also interesting that his alleged major potential funding partner is also busy funding the development of one of the major US competitors.

Some people might wonder whether this is all a devilishly clever scheme on the part of Musk to actually depress his company’s share price.  If he is going to take the company private, then the lower he can drive the share price, the better a deal he can secure to buy the shares for the privatization.  Is he being deliberately maladroit?  Will he subsequently come back and use the excuse of a lower market price for his shares as a reason to reduce his offer from $420 a share to $320 a share or less?

Certainly, some brokerages this week announced they were lowering their target price.  JP Morgan lowered their target down to $195.

But not everyone agrees.  One brokerage has now said they can see the shares going as high as $4000 a share.  (Four thousand dollars – this is not a typo, leastways, not by me.)

And, perhaps, most alarming of all this week is news of yet another new electric vehicle competitor.  This one being developed by that well known automotive manufacturer, Kalashnikov.  Yes, the company that makes the guns (also visible in their promotional picture, above)!

Hey, I’ve a great idea for a sales incentive, should their car ever get to market……

There’s something very wrong when this many expensively printed bank notes are required to buy this mass-produced and unprinted roll of toilet paper.

How Big a Wallet Did You Need in Venezuela

We’ve all seen pictures of Germany in 1922-1923, when the exchange rate between the mark and dollar went from not much more than 5 marks to the dollar to almost 5 trillion marks to the dollar; when staff had to be paid daily because each day the value of currency dropped so much.

But have you been tuned in to the astonishing problems in Venezuela – an oil-rich country that should be abundantly prosperous?  Prior to remonetizing and revaluing their currency this week, they’ve been suffering runaway inflation too, to the point where, using one of the most classic measures of a ‘problem’ currency, the sheer volume of paper (banknotes) needed to buy toilet paper is much greater than the toilet paper so acquired.

This article has some fascinating pictures comparing the stack of money needed to buy something ordinary and not very expensive (elsewhere in the world) and the size of the item being purchased.

I’ve always wondered how people managed to carry all their money around with them.  Apparently, in Germany, they used wheelbarrows.

Sadly, the new Venezuelan currency does not seem to be helping to solve the situation.  Probably not a good country to travel to at present; on the other hand, if you’re a contrarian, we understand there are some amazing property bargains to be had at present.

Airport Police Swarm Plane and Arrest Federal Air Marshals

This reads like a story from the spoof website, ‘The Onion’, but apparently it is true, although for sure, a lot of the official explanations are clearly anything but accurate.

We know, for sure, three things.  The first is that two federal air marshals were assigned to travel on a United/Republic flight from EWR to MSP, which they duly did, and were seated, as is often the case, on opposite sides of the aisle in first class.

Please appreciate that while air marshals are secretive and attempt to avoid being recognized by passengers, part of the protocol for going on a flight is that the flight crew know there are air marshals on board and where they are, in case they need to enlist their help, and also, very relevantly, in case they get concerned by ‘suspicious armed characters’ on board who are actually the marshals themselves!

The second is that a radio monitoring site heard the pilot of the flight tell air traffic control that a federal air marshal on the plane ‘actually showed a flight attendant his gun’ (whatever that means) during the course of the flight.  The pilot therefore did the obvious and sensible thing (well, only obvious and sensible if you live in that unique and special world inhabited by overpaid pilots and their flight attendant compadres) and declared an in-flight emergency.

As a result, and the third thing we know for sure, the airport police also did what they defended as being obvious and sensible.  They had the plane stop in mid-field, and a team of ‘at least four’ armed police boarded the plane, and arrested both the federal air marshal who showed his gun – and his partner too, hauling them off the plane, handcuffing them, and taking them to the airport lockup to be questioned.

No-one is able to explain how, even though the pilot has been heard on the radio saying that it was a federal air marshal, a decision was made to arrest the marshal, who likely as not did absolutely nothing wrong, and his even more guiltless partner, too.

There’s so much wrong here, that one just doesn’t know where to start.  But the one thing you can be sure of – no-one is going to lose their job, and no-one will be admonished or censured.  Most of all, not the pilot for declaring the in-flight emergency.

Sketchy details and official obfuscations here.

The astonishing ability of stupid flight attendants and even stupider pilots to invoke massive responses by police to non-events and imagined events on their flights should continue to alarm us all.

And Lastly This Week….

I needed to replace the faucet in my kitchen this week.  I’d never realized just how many variables and ways for a faucet to be bad existed until buying the “Amazon’s Choice” faucet on Amazon and getting it installed this week.  Every part of its operation is a stunning disappointment (and not mentioned in the parade of glowing reviews).

But I’m not going to return it to Amazon and swap it for a better one, even though I could; because the plumber’s fee is so exorbitant.  Guess how much the plumber cost for an hour of his time (and about 15 minutes of driving time to get here)?  $290, plus 10% WA state sales tax.  That’s a rate that even many attorneys (and possibly pilots too) would wish to be able to charge.

I was contemplating the different earning powers of plumbers vs website publishers when I discovered another similar career path that also pays astonishingly well.  The most surprising part of this career placement being that while the basic salary is $71,760, benefits boost it up to $184,678.  Yes, that’s obviously working for a government department, in this case the City of San Francisco.

What’s that?  What is the job, and what skills are needed?  The good news is that few skills are needed.  As for the job, here’s the link.

Still on that subject, do you know why outhouses traditionally have crescent moons carved in their doors?  An interesting bit of Friday trivia for you.

Did you read about the woman who survived for ten hours in the water after falling off a cruise ship.  Sure, the water was warm, but still an astonishing feat.  This ‘how to’ article might be useful to read if you fear you too might fall off a cruise ship in the future.

A ‘secret section’ of the Berlin Wall has just been discovered, 29 years after most of it was pulled down.   Can someone explain to me how it is/was possible to have a secret section of the wall?

Until next week, and – so soon! – our official end of summer long weekend, please enjoy safe travels





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