Weekly Roundup, Friday 1 March 2019

A section of the brightly colored houses and shops facing out to the harbor in the lovely little town of Tobermory, on the Isle of Mull. We’ll spend two nights here on the Scotland’s Highland Highlights tour in September.

Good morning

Another week with a disrupted review – the product I was testing abjectly failed at the thing it was primarily intended for.  To be fair, I have to give the manufacturer a chance to respond – maybe it is a bad unit, for example.

However, there’s lot we do have this week, more than normal.

First is a great article and review for you, telling of my experiences with Google’s somewhat new Fi mobile phone service.  Some of you know I’ve been an ardent T-Mobile fan for many years, right from when they re-positioned themselves as an “un-carrier” with non-standard service plans that were simpler to choose and less expensive.  They were also one of the first to not include “free” phones, so there were no two-year minimum contracts either.

Most of all, the thing that won me away from AT&T and to T-Mobile was its then revolutionary international plan.  International phone service has always been the last frontier for rip-off phone fees, and T-Mobile abolished all the ridiculous $5+/minute rates and $5000+/GB data charges.  Instead, they offered a simple flat rate calling plan and unlimited free but slow data.  Best of all, in the first few years, the data rates were often very much faster than the speeds they promised, presumably because cause they lacked the sophisticated network equipment to throttle back the speeds.

That was back in October 2013.  A lot has changed since then, and the cost of international phone service and data has plunged across the board.  How has T-Mobile responded?  By, ooops, upping their cost per minute for phone calls (from 20c to 25c) and more rigorously ensuring that the data service is appallingly slow.  Yes, that’s as counterintuitive, but in a bad way, as their earlier aggressively low pricing was counterintuitive in a good way back in 2013.

Meantime, modern web design has become much more bandwidth and data intensive, because all types of internet access have got faster and cheaper.  Combine a need for more bandwidth by websites and ever slower connect speeds, and T-Mobile’s international service has become practically impossible to use.

I also discovered that I’d been overpaying on my plan for several years.  Their response – to adjust it down to the correct rate, but with effect from the next month rather than immediately.  Apparently, with T-Mobile, additional account fees take effect immediately, but billing reductions have to wait a month.  As for all the money I needlessly gave them, neither a word of thanks nor any sort of special “thank you”, and when I told them I would leave them, their response was an indifferent type of “don’t let the door hit you in the behind on the way out” kind.  I’d been a customer for 5.5 years, and always paid my bills on time, which were always around $120 or more a month.  Apparently that’s not the sort of customer they want to keep any more.

However, I offer this merely as background.  It meant I wasn’t sad to leave T-Mobile, but I wasn’t being forced to Fi, and of course, there were plenty of other options offered by other wireless companies.  I went to Fi because it is simply the very best type of mobile service there is at present, with the best coverage, and, for most of us and most account configurations, also the best value.  Google has even finally come around to conceding that they need to offer phone based customer support, and their support people are bright, personable and intelligent (and American).

So, please do read the article that follows the roundup about Google Fi.  And if you choose to become a fellow Fi customer, clicking on the article’s link will not only get you a $20 discount for joining, but it will also get me, ahem, a $20 credit on my bill, too.  With my monthly bill (two phones and an iPad) currently struggling to exceed $40, it doesn’t take many $20 credits to see many months of potentially free service.

Oh – for the much appreciated supporters, there’s a little “Easter Egg” in the article especially for you, too.  And if you’re not yet a supporter, please do consider becoming one.

What else this week?  I started off writing a typical newsletter, but the first piece sort of grew, and then grew some more, and I realized it deserved its own separate place, and so it became a second feature article now attached to the newsletter, all about Rolls-Royce and the extraordinary story of how a company that was once the world’s greatest manufacturer of airplane engines may now perhaps be considered the world’s worst.  Well, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but read the article, enjoy some of the jokes about the cars, and see what you think.

As a result of growing this from a few paragraphs recording the company’s decision to give up on trying to compete to supply engines for Boeing’s new 797 plane, and making it into a 1400 word separate article, the rest of the newsletter is necessarily a bit abbreviated.  But I hope you like a second feature story.

Here are a few quick things, including – how could I resist – a look at the latest good/bad news from Tesla.

  • Travel Insider Touring
  • Atlas Air 767 Crash
  • The Man Who Never Was
  • Tesla Finally Makes Good on Its $35,000 Model 3 Promise – Or Does It?
  • Cheap Model 3 Cars?  Maybe.  Cheap Flights to Mars?  Maybe not.
  • And Lastly This Week….

Travel Insider Touring

More people are signing up for our two September tours, which can be taken individually or together, and we’re building up excellent groups of people, many known to me from previous tours.  There’s still room for you too, though – and a couple of your friends (or a couple of couples) too!

First is our Scotland’s Highland Highlights.  Like all our Scotland tours, this mixes the known with the unknown.  The chances are you’ve never been to Tarbert, let alone spent two nights there, but on this tour we go way off the beaten track to enjoy two nights in this lovely little fishing village, with a day excursion down the Kintyre Peninsula (as in the famous song by the area’s most famous resident, “Mull of Kintyre”) all the way to Southend, from where we can see Ireland.

There’s a lot more, too, including two nights in what is called “The Capital of the Highlands” – Inverness, at a lovely hotel right on the bank of the River Ness.  While there we’ll see Loch Ness, and possibly the monster within it too.  Plus a ride on the Harry Potter Steam Train, two nights on one of my favorite islands off the coast, and so much more.  We’ve put this together at a great price, and would love to have you along.

Almost immediately after is our Loire Valley Land Cruise.  This has us enjoying seven nights in the French town of Tours, with daily touring around the Loire Valley region.  This is where all the grandest chateaus are to be found, as well as, of course, plenty of wineries, charming villages, and beautiful scenery.

The Land Cruise has great options before (in Chantilly) and after (in Bordeaux) and will feature the guide we so much enjoyed in Lille in December.

We hope you can make it for one of these lovely experiences, and hope even more you might choose to do both!

Atlas Air 767 Crash

Did you read about the Atlas Air 767 freighter, flying on behalf of Amazon Prime Air, that crashed while coming in to land at Houston’s George Bush Airport?

The fact that it was a cargo plane and flight, with only three flight crew (all of whom were instantly killed) made it less newsworthy, but it is an interesting and concerning event, because there are plenty of the same planes flying passengers all around the world at present.

The plane was gradually descending as it approached the airport, and all seemed normal.  Suddenly, at about 6,000 ft, the plane pitched down and plunged into the water below.  At the rate of descent, it probably was only something like 15 seconds from suddenly nosing down to crashing into the water at high speed.  Not only was there very little time to respond, but if the pilots didn’t correct the pitch early in those 15 seconds, it would have been too late to pull out of the dive.  So, as a guess, there were perhaps only ten seconds for the pilots to react and respond.  Of course, they didn’t have a chance to radio in any information.

On the other hand, all other things being equal, how long does it take to note the plane’s nose suddenly drop steeply, and to pull back on the control column to compensate?  Any experienced pilot instinctively senses the plane’s angle-of-attack – its angle with respect to the horizon as it flies through the sky, and would be instantly attuned to any sudden change.  Besides which, with the suddenness and steepness of this event, you’d feel it very strongly, too.

So clearly something went catastrophically wrong, possibly including the controls ceasing to function.  An alternate explanation is that the cargo on the plane shifted (moved forward) – there may have been rough air and turbulence at the time – and that sudden shift caused the plane to become uncontrollably front-heavy in its then state of trim, and plunge down.

This is a major part of the reason why take-offs and landings are so dangerous.  When you’re “low and slow” you’ve got very little reserve power or energy, and even less time to solve sudden unexpected problems.

There have been other unresolved mysterious descents of 767s occasionally in the past, which hopefully encourages the NTSB to try even harder than they always do to get to the bottom of it this time.

The two “black boxes” have yet to be found.  It is hoped they will be found, and further hoped they will be helpful.  More details here.

The Man Who Never Was

A gentleman, Steve Homen, booked a roundtrip on AA between Los Angeles and San Jose.  He flew up to San Jose in a perfectly normal manner, with no problems.

But shortly after getting to San Jose, he got a message from AA telling him that his return flight was cancelled.  The reason for the cancellation?  Because he had failed to take the flight from Los Angeles to San Jose.

This being the selfie-generation, Steve even had pictures showing him taking the flight, and a video showing the flight taking off and landing.

He said he used the AA app to check in, watched the code being scanned at the gate, saw the scanner turn green to indicate his boarding code had been read and accepted, and the gate agent allowed him to board.  Surely this indicated that his boarding had been accepted and loaded into the system.

Subsequently he noticed a flight attendant doing a head count prior to the plane departing, and there was no sudden surprise at there being an unexplained unrecorded extra passenger on board.

But AA refused to believe him and insisted he had not taken the flight, and required him to buy a new ticket back.

How is this possible?  That’s what Steve wonders.  We wonder too.  Details here.

Tesla Finally Makes Good on Its $35,000 Model 3 Promise – Or Does It?

Do you remember that rapturous evening in March 2016 when Elon Musk wheeled out the new Model 3 car, and said it would be sold for $35,000, going on sale late in 2017?  As a result, within 24 hours, almost a quarter million people had paid $1000 deposits on a Model 3, and in the months that followed, the forward order/reservations grew to about 500,000.  That gave Tesla a very nice $500 million in extra working capital, and was an astonishing vote of eager confidence in the concept of a high quality good performing and high-value electric car.

One of the key aspect of the car and its price was that it would qualify for a federal rebate of $7,500, dropping its actual cost down to a net of $27,500.  This was little more than a regular mid-range car, and promised to open the floodgates for electric cars.  Musk’s promises of making half a million or more Model 3 cars each year added further hype to an already irrational exuberance.

But when the Model 3 finally did emerge, 18 months later, it appeared only in a higher priced version, costing in the mid/high $40 thousands, and going as high as the mid/high $50 thousands.  More recently, after some “price reductions”, a fully loaded Model 3 is now $69,500, plus a $1200 “destination and doc fee”.

Tesla eventually explained that there was no way they could make money on a $35,000 car until they’d smoothed out their volume production.

Something else also happened.  At the end of last year, the $7,500 federal rebate ended, because it was limited to the first 200,000 cars sold.  For the first half of 2019, new Tesla car sales will qualify for a reduced $3,750 rebate, and for the second half, the rebate drops further to $1,875, and, from 1 January 2020, it ceases entirely.

So, now that Tesla has finally, on 28 Feb this year, announced the availability of a $35,000 Model 3, no-one will be able to get it for the $27,500 that was originally the implied actual net price.  Instead, it will be $32,450 (including the gratuitous $1200 extra fee), and from 1 July, it goes up to $34,325, and then to $36,200 on 1 Jan 2020.

So all those people, expecting to get a $27,500 car by the end of 2017 are now having to accept a $32,450 car in 2019.

In addition, Tesla has made it close to impossible to be happy with a $35,000 car.  For example, as much as Musk pokes fun at the legacy car manufacturers, he has directly copied a policy from Henry Ford and the first ever mass-produced car, the Model T.  You can have your Model 3 in any color you like, as long as it is black.

Yes, of course there are other colors available, but they cost more.  If you want a red one, you’ve just spent another $2500.  Apparently red paint is very expensive, whereas black paint is very cheap?

The same applies inside the car, too.  You get a black interior; if you’d prefer white, then be ready to fork over another $1,000.

Noting also the “range worries” that many potential drivers have, Tesla helpfully offers five different range configurations.  The best gives 325 miles, the worst gives 220 miles.  If you want to go from 220 to 240 miles, you must pay another $2,000 for these 20 extra miles of range.  If you’d like to go to 264 miles, then the cost is an extra $5,000; there is another version at 310 miles, and the max range 325 mile option is $8,000 extra.

One of the things Tesla is famous for are its extravagant claims about the self-driving capabilities of its cars.  None of that is included.  If you simply want intelligent cruise control, that’s going to be another $3,000, and if you want all the “bells and whistles” of its automation (some of which continues to be described as “coming soon” even though you have to pay for it now) that’s an $8,000 item.

So if you can actually walk through the various options and not choose a single extra feature or non-black color, you will end up with a standard car costing $36,200 before a $3,750 federal rebate.  But if you start adding options, you’re likely to end up paying very much more.

And did we mention that the more options you choose, the faster your car will be made and delivered to you?  The plainest cars take about 4 weeks, the highly tricked-out ones can be delivered to you within 2 weeks.  Most people would think the generic uncustom version would be the one they have in inventory ready to ship, which the “factory order” variations are the ones that take longer.

Tesla’s fans are of course ecstatic about Musk delivering on his promise of a $27,750 $32,450 car, and three years rather than one year after it was first announced.  But we have to wonder exactly how many of those fans are now ordering the $32,450 car, as compared to an upgraded and much more expensive model.  It would seem that Tesla’s main solution to their “we can’t build cars at that price profitably” is to make it as unlikely as possible that anyone would ever buy one at the lowest price.

In other Tesla news, they have to find $920 million today for debt that comes due.  Perhaps you could help out and put down some deposits urgently on some Model 3 cars (now requiring $2500 deposits rather than $1000 before).

In still more Tesla news, Consumer Reports has just published its latest lists of the most reliable and unreliable cars.  Tesla doesn’t make the reliable list, but the Model X does make the unreliable list (third most unreliable).  Ouch.

Cheap Model 3 Cars?  Maybe.  Cheap Flights to Mars?  Maybe not.

In between his activities with Tesla, Elon Musk is passionately developing some type of spaceship to Mars.

The exact nature of this seems not entirely clear yet, but this week he made the astonishing claim that a ticket to Mars would cost less than $700,000.  We’re not sure if this is one-way or roundtrip, but either which way, it seems a laughably low cost.

The reason we’re doubtful about this cost is not only because of the current and historic costs of getting things into high earth orbit (think in the order of $10,000 a pound for just the fuel alone) but also because of Russia’s charging $75 – $80 million per person to take people up to the International Space Station.  NASA hopes that new technologies, including Musk’s own SpaceX, may drop this price down to $58 million.

Another pricing indication can be seen in this article, which in 2017 estimated a cost in the order of $175 million per person to the moon.

In 2017 Musk indicated he would fly two people to orbit the moon and return, and hinted that the cost would be in the order of $35 million (presumably per person).  He also said it would happen in late 2018, and clearly that has most definitely not happened.

So, with Musk himself saying that a trip to orbit the moon would be about $35 million, how can he get from that to a trip to Mars at $700,000?

In September 2018, Musk revised the expected moon flight to 2023, and indicated the development costs of the rocket that would be used for that flight and presumably also the Mars flight would be in the order of $5 billion.  We’re not sure what happened to the earlier target of 2018.

To look at the low end, Sir Richard Branson’s soon-to-start flights that merely graze the edge of space before quickly coming back to earth again are being sold for $250,000 each.  It surely would cost more than three times as much to actually escape the Earth’s gravity, fly to Mars over a ten month period (that’s half a ton of food per person as well as all the other life support systems), and then land and/or fly back again.

We do understand that current rocket technology relies more on “brute force” than elegance, and we’re sure that there are some breakthrough new technologies that will see even further repeated use of equipment, and cheaper fuels, and it is entirely conceivable, particularly for more frequent operations, that the costs could reduce by ten fold, and probably more.  But to get to Musk’s $700k figure, we’re looking at more like a 500 to 1000-fold reduction in costs, and that is unlikely to happen in any of our lifetimes.

We are sure that NASA hopes that if Musk can get a man to Mars for $700k, he will stop charging as much as he does for flights merely to the ISS.

And Lastly This Week….

A Russian-captained ship sailed the wrong way in Busan harbor in South Korea.  It collided with a cruise ship, but continued, and then collided with a bridge.  As the picture in this article vividly shows, the ship was nowhere near the usual part ships go underneath.  The mind boggles.

The copilot of a China Airlines flight took a video of his pilot alongside, while the flight was progressing, and posted it online.  There’s nothing too extraordinary about that, except that the video showed the pilot to be enjoying a nice relaxing snooze.  Both pilots have now been punished, and we have to wonder what possessed the co-pilot to share the video online.  Details here.

A museum devoted to “cute” poop.  Hmmmm.  Details of this new museum in Yokohama – and pictures – here.  Talking about which, and truly lastly this week, this sign.  I guess I’ve lived an overly protected life, I’ve no idea what the image in the bottom right is trying to depict.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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