Weekly Roundup, Friday 4 January 2019

Fedex tracking information showing it will take eight days for a package to travel about 15 miles from Seattle to Redmond.  See article below.

Good morning

A chatty sort of newsletter rather than a “real” one today.  I’m still easing back into the usual routine after a disruptive Christmas/New Year break, but plan to be back to whatever passes for normal next week.

There used to be a time when I’d bemoan the start of each new year due to the difficulty in breaking the habit learned over the previous year of writing that year on checks and other documents, needing to relearn it for the new year.  But, these days, I can’t think when I last wrote out a check, and seldom/never need to write a date on anything else, either.

I guess this is another sign of the times.  I was reminiscing this week, as one does when years turn over, about some of the other things that have changed so profoundly, and for some reason, thought of phone directories.  In New Zealand, they were only issued sporadically – back in the days before computer records and computer typesetting, maintaining the information for a phone directory was close to impossible, because it was changing so fast.  Although, and also back in NZ, it wasn’t changing as fast as it should – there were commonly six month or longer waiting lists to get a phone line, making any sort of residential move more inconvenient than it is now.  What I can’t remember so clearly, though, is how did we manage when either we or our friends did not have a phone?

Phone directories, and in particular the Yellow Pages, used to be an essential part of every household.  When did you last use one?  One has to wonder how many trees/forests have been spared each year as we’ve all moved away from phone directories.

Anyway, enough of such year-end/start reminiscing.  On with a few items to fill your Friday morning :

  • 2019 Travel Insider Tour Calendar
  • An Interesting Link Between the Still Mysterious Lockerbie Crash and Robert Mueller
  • Talking About Plane Crashes
  • The Surprising Benefits of Automating Trains
  • More Reasons Why Sears Deserves to Fail
  • Google and Fedex Don’t Have a Clue
  • Amazon’s Crazy Non-Price Match Policy
  • Has Amazon Already Become a Monopoly?
  • And Lastly This Week….

2019 Travel Insider Tour Calendar

I will release more details in the coming weeks, but for now, there are three activities planned for this year.  Please set aside time if they sound of interest.

  • 28 March – a five-day practical/defensive handgun course and concealed carry class in Reno, NV
  • 24 Sept – about now for a one week “land cruise” in the Loire Valley, with a lovely pre-cruise option at a beautiful town close to CDG and post-cruise option on to Bordeaux
  • early Dec – a Christmas Markets cruise

An Interesting Link Between the Still Mysterious Lockerbie Crash and Robert Mueller

It is the time of year when people dust off their Lockerbie/Pan Am 103 crash stories, it having happened on 21 Dec, 1988 – this being the 30th anniversary of an event that hastened the probably inevitable demise of Pan Am.  Here’s an interesting story by someone with good insider knowledge of intelligence related matters, hinting that what we think we know about the crash and who caused it may not be correct.

And here’s a different type of story pointing to Robert Mueller’s involvement in the overall investigation.  Let’s hope his current activities result in a clearer outcome.

Talking About Plane Crashes

Talking about plane crashes, here’s a brilliant use of modern internet browser capabilities to graphically show what happened to the Lion Air 737 crash at the end of October.

But, while the graphics are outstanding, the narrative is a bit faulty.  This is perhaps unsurprising, because, as explained at the end of the presentation, the main source of information was from pilots and former pilots.  So the analysis tends to show the pilots as heroes, with the plane’s faulty sensors and Boeing as the villains.

That analysis omits the awkward point that the problem which the pilots of the crashed flight were unable to resolve had been repeatedly resolved by multiple earlier crews on earlier flights when the same problem occurred, but was solved by the pilots.  You’ll not see that mentioned in the article at all.

Still on this unfortunate topic, if you’d like to see an example of a perfect set of responses to a problem, here’s an article with associated YouTube video that shows what happened on an A340 bound from Zurich to Shanghai when an engine started to give trouble.  By amazing coincidence, a filming crew had set up in the cockpit to film the journey anyway, so what you see is an absolutely true, live, realistic example of a cockpit crew responding to a problem.

One more item on this topic, a fascinating story of an air crash mystery dating back 50 years that might soon be resolved.

The Surprising Benefits of Automating Trains

I’ve always felt that, long before we have self-driving cars and trucks and self-flying planes, we should first have fully automated trains.  It is such a relatively simple and trivial thing to automate trains, because nearly every aspect of train operation is already either automated or semi-automated, and very little requires lightning fast responses to complex situations.

Here’s an interesting story on automated freight trains now operating in Australia.  Faster transit times, safer operation, and less related costs and hassle such as positioning and repositioning drivers are just some of the benefits.

More Reasons Why Sears Deserves to Fail

Are your New Year resolutions still intact?  Mine is, so far (to complain less and to thank more).  I have already had a year’s worth of interactions with service providers, and not all of whom deserved thanks, alas.  First the water heater failed on Sunday, and then the central heating furnace on Tuesday.  (Yes, I’m anxiously aware of the adage about things coming in threes, although my daughter and I have surveyed the house anxiously, and are not sure what might be the third thing to fail!)

But, and here’s the fascinating thing.  The water heater was a fairly recent purchase, from Sears, and I remember, when buying it four years ago, that I phoned in the morning to say I had a broken water heater, and they delivered/installed a new one that same afternoon.  Outstanding service, and much appreciated.

But to now request a “warranty” repair for a failure on Sunday had us wait, without hot water, not another quick half day, but until Thursday afternoon for a scheduled visit from a repairman!  Why does it take half a day to entirely replace a water heater, but four days to repair one?

The good news part of the repair was that the failure was only a tiny little plastic fitting that couldn’t have cost more than a dollar, if that, to replace.  The bad news was that the warranty covered parts, but not labor.  So this “warranty repair” ended up costing $210 for the labor.  The guy was on-site for less than an hour.

The gas furnace was a happier experience.  I placed a call at 8.15am, and had a serviceman on site within a couple of hours.  This was not Sears.

Clearly there is no reason why Sears couldn’t have been more responsive, other than choosing to make warranty repairs their lowest priority, and having no comprehension about the colossal inconvenience that four days without hot water represents to their customers.

Sears and its various product lines were among the most trusted of all retail brands.  50 years ago, they were the largest retailer in the world.  Now, many people were predicting their total bankruptcy and corporate demise prior to 31 Dec, they have sold off many of their brands, and the only news about the company are reports of ever more store closures.

To suggest the reason Sears is on its death-bed is due to the difficulty of operating traditional department stores in today’s online world is an unfair oversimplification and facile attempt at excusing its failures.  It overlooks the fact that the Sears empire grew to very much more than retail stores and suffered multiple errors (who remembers the scandals over the revealed dishonest practices in its automotive department – to me, that marked the beginning of the end, showing that a trusted name actually couldn’t be trusted at all).  My service experience is another pointer to a company that has lost its core value – customer service.  Which makes their implosion all the more tragic, for being all the more preventable.

Google and Fedex Don’t Have a Clue

Talking about bad service, Google is a company that prides itself on being “state of the art” and “leading edge”.  But its pursuit of perfection is extraordinarily spotty, and its over-confidence in online help files rather than providing real live human customer service people has tripped it up repeatedly in the past whenever it tries to stray outside of its core search business.  I’m slowly getting up to speed with their new wireless service (Fi) and was distressed to find that their customer service phone numbers had been closed down completely for an indefinite period into the future, due to being too busy.

One can only guess about the twenty-something-year-old who reasoned that the best approach to long hold times by paying customers needing to speak to a live customer service person, the same as they’ve always done with AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile, would be to just turn off their customer service entirely.  Yes, the wait on hold time now has been reduced to a second or so.  But, no, that isn’t the solution, and if they’re truly serious at competing directly with the major wireless operators, they’ll need to provide old-fashioned customer service, not just help files on their website and a suggestion to post problems in online forums and hope/wait for someone to send a correct reply back to you.

Another extraordinary contrast was also encountered between Google’s concept of service and that offered by Amazon.  I ordered two phones – one from Amazon, one from Google.  The Amazon phone arrived early the next day.  The Google phone took 12 days to arrive (even though it was shipped via Fedex).  Apparently Fedex have come up with a service that is slower rather than faster than USPS.  A surprising service, indeed.

But if you think 12 days was slow, there’s more.  The same day I ordered the phone from Google, I also ordered a second SIM.  As you know, these days a SIM is smaller than a postage stamp, about the same size as a Micro-SD card.  I was unsurprised that Google didn’t manage to amalgamate the two orders, but I was astonished to see that Google was promising a delivery date of between 9 – 11 January, for an order placed on 21 December.  That is 19 – 21 days from order to receipt – and again shipped by Fedex.  This is an item that they could have stuck in a regular envelope, placed a 50c stamp on, and had it in my mailbox in two days, maybe even one.  Instead, Fedex, at surely greater cost, promised to get it from a collection point in the midwest to here in the Seattle area in almost three weeks.

If you think that is beyond belief, have a look at the screen shot at the top of the newsletter showing the package arrived in Seattle on Monday 31 Dec, but wasn’t expected to get from Seattle to my place in Redmond (15 miles away) prior to Tuesday 8 January.

What’s up with Google and Fedex that they consider this to be an acceptable service standard?

My phone story continues, from another perspective, in the next story.

Amazon’s Crazy Non-Price Match Policy

I purchased a new Moto G6 phone in early December, from Amazon, for $299.  I noticed, just prior to Christmas, that it was now being sold for $229.  The Moto G6 I had purchased was identical to the new ones now being sold for $70 less, and also was still eligible for a full refund.

I do understand that normally if you buy something and a short while later, the price drops, that’s just your bad luck.  But when the item you bought has a no-questions asked return for any reason type arrangement, the question of adjusting price becomes an issue.

So I called Amazon, told them I liked and wanted to keep the phone, but wondered if they would price match their own new lower price.  The helpful girl said no, they never price match anything/anywhere, but suggested I instead return the phone I had then buy a new one at the new lower price.

I pointed out to her that she/Amazon had two choices here.  One was a book entry, costing nothing than a second of her time, to credit me $70 (plus tax).  The other was to receive back a used phone no longer in new condition, and then turn around and ship out a second new phone to me, at additional cost.  In both cases, I would end up with the $70 credit, but one way cost them nothing more, the other way resulted in two more shipping costs, plus meant they ended up with a used phone.

She agreed with my analysis, but said that was their policy.  I asked to speak to a supervisor, who reiterated that was their policy, and said my only option was to do the return/buy a new phone swap.

I have of course now done that, noting with amusement that when I filled out the return/refund request, they asked for the reason, with “found a lower price elsewhere” being one of the offered responses.  I of course chose that, and was next asked who was selling it for a lower price.  Ahem, Amazon, the lower price was from yourselves!

Am I alone in thinking that a refusal to price-match their own pricing, combined with a suggestion to return for a full refund and buy a new one, is a beyond stupid approach by Amazon that creates a lose-lose outcome for both themselves and their customers?

Oh, there was one final insult.  When I completed the return paperwork, it appeared that I was now being charged freight for the return rather than free freight.  Usually there is also an option to drop it for free at one of their lockers, of which there are many ringed all around this area, but that option was omitted.  A bit of passive-aggressiveness on Amazon’s part?

Has Amazon Already Become a Monopoly?

Like everyone else, I love Amazon, and couldn’t imagine a life without it.  But I also fear Amazon, and as it shifts, inexorably but inarguably, from a highest-quality highest-value provider to a dominant and more complacent “take it or leave it” approach to servicing its market, the cracks in its customer service model, such as exposed in the situation immediately above, are likely to become more and more severe.

As for competition, who can possibly compete with Amazon?  Their ever larger size and related extraordinary economy of scale, even to the point of now building their own air courier company to make more and more of the freight/delivery process in-house, gives them a scary advantage that no-one else can match.  Astonishingly, master-retailer Walmart, master-catalog operator Sears, master warehouse company Costco, assorted failed startups, and every other retail business of any type, have all consistently and abjectly failed to take on Amazon’s ever greater dominance.

It feels terribly unfair to penalize a company for great management, vision, and success, but at what point do we all accept the reality staring us in the face and agree that Amazon already holds a monopoly on internet sales of just about everything.  In July 2018 Amazon had a 49.1% market share of US online retail sales, up from 43% a year earlier.  It seems almost pre-ordained that for the Christmas period just passed, Amazon’s market share has now crossed over 50%.

The next biggest online retailer, six months ago, was the specialty fleamarket site, eBay, at 6.6%, then Apple at 3.9%, and only then another general retailer, Walmart, with a mere 3.7%.  Yes, Amazon is thirteen times larger than its closest comparable online retail competitor.

An earlier May report showed that Amazon had a greater than 90% share of five different product categories.

Amazon’s greatest advantage is its fast free shipping.  But the courier companies should be helping and encouraging Amazon-competitors rather than making it almost impossible for competitors to get started.  Perhaps they don’t appreciate what is happening.  Although for a while, third-party shippers such as UPS and Fedex enjoyed a bonanza of extra business from Amazon’s exploding growth, more and more of the shipping part of every Amazon transaction is now being fulfilled either by Amazon in-house, or through the USPS and drop locations.

Amazon not only operates its own local delivery services, but now has a subsidiary, Amazon Air, to ship packages in bulk, longer distances.  Amazon Air started operations just over two years ago, in 2016.  It has a main hub at CVG and flights to 19 other destinations, and operates 40 767 freighters with ten more on order.  While that is still very small compared to the two giants – Fedex and UPS – it is still a measurable sized air freight operation, and it seems a totally safe bet to guess it will continue to grow.

And Lastly This Week….

Less turbulence and wider seats?  Give me a ticket to ride on that plane, please!  The new “Airbus” A220 (formerly known as the Bombardier C-series).  Details here.

As non-smokers, we’ve watched the growth in the new e-cigarette phenomenon with dismay.  We’ve noted the claim that these “vaping” devices are very good, because they help smokers to wean themselves off regular cigarettes, but we’ve never seen the statistics to support that claim, until now.  Here’s a devastating expose that puts the lie to that claim.  Sure, a study found that, way back in the early days of this new craze, in 2015, that 2,070 cigarette-smoking adults quit with help from vaping.  But in the same year, 168,000 teens and young adults who used e-cigarettes eventually started smoking real cigarettes daily.  Not exactly a winning trade-off at all.

This is nothing more but the latest deceit by the tobacco industry, wrapped up in a new package of lies.  It should be stopped before it tragically attacks your family, the same way regular cigarettes used to invade our homes and our lives.

Here’s a second unrelated article that further points out the devastatingly addictive properties of this new way of delivering nicotine poison into our systems.

A reminder that there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.  Here’s “proof” that parachutes are useless.

To end on a happier note, here’s a fascinating piece of trivia – a YouTube video featuring the woman who is best (un)known to us as the voice of Siri.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

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