Weekly Roundup, Friday 22 March 2019

Bet you can’t name this distinctive capital city. See item, below.

Good morning

“I’m sorry, I’m having difficulty understanding that right now.  Please try again later.”

That was the regular response, during the last nightmarish couple of weeks, to my regular morning request “Alexa, turn on David Bed Light”.  An intermittent problem with my new Netgear router often meant it had frozen overnight, so when it came time to turn on the light in the morning as part of a regular getting out of bed routine, instead of a happy “click” and light in the dark room, there was a red light on the Echo Dot and this polite but vague error message.

Now, you might consider this a first world problem, easily solved by simply turning the light switch.  Not so.  The bedside light was plugged in to an Alexa controlled wall outlet, behind the bed-head, and unreachable without moving the entire bed.  Accessing the manual switch was not a case of flipping the switch on the light, but flipping the switch on the Alexa controlled wall outlet, a non-trivial task and not a welcome one when struggling awake in the half-light of too-early-in-the-morning.

When you’re unable to turn on or off the lights and other devices in your house, it is clear that one’s home Wi-Fi network, and its reliability, has shifted from being an inconsequential part of one’s life to an essential requirement, and a brand new router that intermittently freezes is utterly unacceptable.

I spent a couple of weeks struggling with substandard support from Netgear, with foreign sounding support reps reading through checklists of things that had no relevance whatsoever, making irrelevant tweaks (like changing the Wi-Fi channel from an uncongested one to one that several neighbors used – not only a strange thing to do, but failed to explain how it would fix the freezing not only of Wi-Fi but wired Ethernet connections too) before they gave up and announced they’d swap the unit for a replacement.

That might sound like a welcome resolution, but there was a remaining catch.  I’d have to send the faulty unit to them first, and only after they’d received it would they then send a replacement unit back to me.

When I pointed out I couldn’t live without internet access for perhaps two weeks, they offered to send a unit first, but in that case, I’d have to pay them $16.90.  I suggested that wasn’t very fair for a brand new unit that was clearly dead-on-arrival, and when my other choice was to return it to Amazon, for free, and get a replacement unit from another manufacturer.  They refused to budge from this official policy until I publicly tweeted my unhappiness on Twitter (a great avenue for customer service complaints these days).  This quickly got me access to a higher level of customer support, who made more changes to the unit’s settings, but still no fix.  Because the fault was intermittent, checking each reconfiguration took a day or so until it failed again, so it was a slow process.

Eventually the second level support person also conceded defeat, which brought about the same discussion/argument about their replacement policies.  Happily this time, after only a little huffing and puffing, they agreed to send out a new unit prior to my returning the other unit, and at no cost.  Except that, ooops, they were out of stock, and further investigation revealed the unit was discontinued (even though I’d bought it as a new/current unit on Amazon just a few weeks before).

Okay, I understand that, and so prepared myself for the good news of being offered a newer and better unit instead.  That has been my occasional good fortune with other technical replacements in the past (special shout-out here to Dell, who have always been more than fair and generous in such cases).

But, no.  Netgear would only offer to swap the new unit I’d just bought with a replacement that was two generations older than the unit I’d just purchased.

To be polite, this was a surprise.  But it was their “best” and final offer.  I explained that I’d simply return the unit to Amazon, get a full refund, and buy a competitor’s router instead, and they shrugged their shoulders.

So, that’s what I did, and currently, now ten hours after its receipt, I’m delighted to say that the less expensive but similarly featured TP-Link AC1750 router is working perfectly, after an easier smoother installation process.

I remember, years ago, when Netgear was the name to beat in router products, and I’d happily pay a premium to buy their routers and switchers, back then costing sometimes $2000 per device (an unthinkable cost now).  It was the pleasure to buy state-of-the-art, robust, fully featured products from an American company.  Now I sadly find myself delighted with a product that does everything the Netgear product does, while costing $25 less ($65 instead of $90) but from a Chinese not American company.

You can’t blame the Chinese for making a better product.  American companies can only fairly claim the need for protection against Chinese companies when they are offering comparable or better products and services.  When the American units are inferior and their service lousy, they deserve no protection at all.

One last point about all of this.  I eagerly wrote a review on Amazon to share my negative experience with the Netgear product and its associated support.  Amazon refused to publish it, saying it violated their nebulous community guidelines.  Unstated, but apparently part of their community guidelines is a requirement to limit one’s reviews to gushingly positive comments.

If you look at any Amazon product page and the reviews, you’ll notice a plethora of five-star reviews that are as short as two or three words long.  I guess these are so short there’s no possibility of them violating a nebulous community standard!  But in censoring detailed negative reviews while encouraging throwaway glib positive phrases, isn’t Amazon shaping the nature of its reviews and pushing them more to the positive?  With all the focus these days on fake reviews, is it possible that Amazon itself is part of the problem rather than part of the solution?

For more thoughts along these lines, and a chance to read the review that Amazon refused to publish, please enjoy this week’s feature article, after this morning’s newsletter.

The week has been marked by challenges of various other types as well as internet related.  My kidney related medical travails alas continued, and I made the interesting discovery that much/most of modern medicine these days is based on the expectation that people only get unwell between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Furthermore, it seems there is an expectation that when one becomes unwell, you can conveniently wait a week or longer for an appointment to see your physician.  Either that or you’re willing to pay the enormous extra costs of going to an Emergency Room, the need for which is artificially created by the same companies who choose not to provide regular services on a timely basis.

I also learned an astonishing thing.  When I went to make an appointment to see the doctor who has always been designated as my primary care physician, both by my insurance company and by the large organization he is part of, with as recently as last week me being given paperwork to go and see him this week by the Urgent Care facility, I was told I couldn’t see him because he is not my primary care physician any more, and he is not accepting new patients.

I expressed surprise at this and asked what happened in the few days between being told to go and see him on Wednesday last week and attempting to do so on Monday this week.  “You were automatically cancelled and removed from his practice because you’ve not seen him in five years, and if you don’t see him at least once every three years, we remove you” I was told in a truculent tone signaling to me this was all my fault for having been robustly healthy.  To further signal it was not their fault, they also tried to blame insurance (again) for their policy.  (It was nothing to do with the insurance company, a point they subsequently conceded without any embarrassment at being caught in a lie.)

I did point out I’d still been occasionally visiting other doctors in their practice – at their suggestion – at times when the wait to see the primary doctor was too long, but that was not considered an acceptable excuse on my part.  I also pointed out that no-one ever told me I was risking being taken off his list and their own company was still sending me material telling me he was still my PCP, but that was disregarded as irrelevant and something to do with the computer.

Eventually, after three days of arguments and escalations, they agreed to accept me back as a new patient.  “But I’m not a new patient” I protested, knowing full well that being accepted as a new patient was code for additional costs, but that remains an as-yet unresolved issue.  Happily, I get to see the doctor of my choice, but not until Tuesday 9 April.

Enough of my problems, which were I believe happily resolved with the passing of a kidney stone a couple of days ago.  On with troubles in the rest of the world.

What else this week?  Lots!  It’s a thick newsletter today (6500 words), or would be if you’re one of the few who I gather print them out each Friday morning.  Please keep reading for :

  • Touring Updates
  • The G-Men Get FAA/Boeing Collusion In Their Sights
  • Boeing Sells Safety as an Option
  • Amazon’s Pilots Don’t Let a Good Accident Go to Waste
  • SSSS Stupidity
  • I’d Like a Ticket to Akmoly Akmolinsk Tselinograd Akmola Astana Nursultan
  • Hotel Anti-Trust Lawsuit Proceeding
  • Should We All Start Wearing Burqas?
  • Long Distance Rocket Travel.  Fast, but…..
  • And Lastly This Week….

Touring Updates

Are you curious what the “new” Britain might be like after it gets its independence back from the EU?  Always assuming, of course, that it actually does – an issue that is surprisingly far from certain.  Britain’s exit from the EU, scheduled two years in advance to occur on 29 March 2019, and determined almost a year prior after a public referendum voted in favor of leaving in June 2016, is now looking far from certain, and indeed, it isn’t even clear how long of an extension of time to get their act together they’ll get from the EU, or on what terms, or what the alternative to a mutually agreed exit might be.

Whatever you might feel about Brexit, surely you can agree there’s something seriously wrong, and something a lot more than a mere trade agreement binding countries together, when after two years a country is still unable to work out how to re-assert its own sovereignty and reclaim its independence.

The concept of leaving the EU has also been seized upon as another dividing issue by the independence-seeking Scots, pointing out that in their part of Britain, people voted strongly to remain in Europe (in England most of the political divisions voted to leave), and therefore, they reason, this is another reason for Scotland to obtain full separation from Britain and become its own independent nation.

What will Britain and Scotland be like by/in September?  As another reason to come on our Scotland’s Highland Highlights tour, a chance to see the reality of the impacts of Brexit (if it happens, and if there are measurable impacts) will be fascinating to observe.  We suspect most of the impacts might be felt in London, with the possible shift of some of the financial companies out of Britain, rather than in the Scottish Highlands, where life continues much as it has for hundreds of years with only few changes.  Maybe spend a couple of days in London before, and a day or two in Edinburgh or Glasgow (or both) after to get a sense of the mood and spirit.  Note – this may require spending some time in bars and mixing with locals, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing at all!

There may possibly still be some interesting social issues to observe in France, too, in the immediately following Loire Valley Landcruise.  When we were there for our Christmas Landcruise in December, it was interesting to see the “Yellow Jacket” protestors (mainly a weekend thing) out and about, and astonishingly, those protests have remained, to a greater or lesser extent, for the three months since then, too.

The thing about the Yellow Jacket protestors is that apart from some anarchists who have attempted to pollute the protests with gratuitous violence, the average protestor is an average person – a typical French “man in the street”, such that there is strong sympathy and support for them across the nation as a whole.  It isn’t like the “us and them” dichotomy that often surrounds protests in this country – issues like gun control, abortion, immigration, or whatever have become extremely polarised with little middle ground.  In France, the Yellow Jacket protestors are simply protesting what they see as an under-representation of their interests by the government – they see their taxes going to the government, but don’t see anything coming back, or any concern by the government for them and their values and needs.  They are, in effect, the “fly-over” country and the “deplorables” of France, but rather than being geographically contained, and at odds with other demographic groups, they are spread all over the country and integrated in with the rest of society.

Will M. Macron and his government finally stop making hollow promises and make some tangible changes to recognize the Yellow Jackets’ demands?  That’s anyone’s guess – he has made plenty of promises so far, but the action has been largely absent.

So, interposed among the beautiful Highlands of Scotland and the lovely Loire Valley of France, there are some interesting social issues for us to dwell upon while sipping Scotch or savoring some wine.  Or not, whichever way you prefer – we are, after all, primarily on leisurely vacations!

Details of our Scotland’s Highland Highlights tour here, and our Loire Valley Landcruise here.

The G-Men Get FAA/Boeing Collusion In Their Sights

It has been a really bad week for Boeing and its partners-in-crime (potentially quite literally) at the FAA.

Hot on the heels of an excellent article in the LA Times explaining how decades of design compromises ended up with the 737 MAX now being a flawed plane, came a blistering article by Dominic Gates, who as the long-serving aviation reporter at the Seattle Times is the go-to guy for most things to do with Boeing.  Last weekend he shone a bright light of clarity into the process of how the B737 MAX series of planes obtained FAA certification, interesting, an article he’d been researching and preparing prior to the Ethiopian crash a couple of weeks ago.

It seems that the FAA relied on Boeing to self-certify much of the 737 MAX, trusting whatever Boeing told it about its internal processes and how the plane’s safeguards and systems were designed to operate, and not verifying with in-person inspections.

If that has a slight ring of deja vu to it, you’re not wrong.  It was Boeing’s self-certification of the safety of its 787 batteries that saw the batteries short-circuit (ha!) the usual inspection processes, and based on nothing more than Boeing’s assertion, the FAA rubber stamped them as safe – until a series of at least four planes had battery related problems, including two cases where the batteries more or less burst into flames, happily while parked on the ground rather than in the air.

Boeing had promised there’d be no more than one failure per 10 million flight hours.  The actual failure rate, prior to the 787 being grounded for over three months, was two failures in 52,000 flight hours, or a rate almost 400 times greater than Boeing had promised.

Astonishingly, after the colossal failure of Boeing’s self-certification of the 787, and much tut-tutting in public, it seems Boeing was allowed to do it again, with the 737 MAX series of planes (and, we’d wager, probably every other new plane certification since the 2013 787 grounding as well – one wonders what other surprises might be lurking as yet unknown).

But the focus of Gates’ article wasn’t just on the self-certification.  It was on the, ahem, discrepancy between what Boeing claimed its MCAS system would do (the thing that causes the plane’s nose to go down if it thinks the plane is pitching too high) and what Boeing ended up allowing the system to actually do.  Boeing said the MCAS would only make small adjustments of no more than 0.6° at a time.  In reality, the system as eventually deployed in the 737 MAX planes, would make huge adjustments of up to 2.5° at a time – more than four times greater.  To put that in perspective, the total adjustment range for the elevators was only 5°; so whereas it was countenanced that only about 1/10th that would be tweaked gently each time by the MCAS, in reality, half the total adjustment could happen without warning or advice, and after a second automatic adjustment mere seconds after the first, the plane’s elevators would be in max “nose-down” setting, a setting so strong that in some situations the pilots couldn’t counter it by pulling back on the control column.

And – oh yes, did we mention that this critical system was based on readings from a single sensor – a sensor that, by virtue of being a physical device on the outside of planes, was known to occasionally be a bit idiosyncratic or susceptible to damage.

Let’s also keep in mind Boeing’s extraordinary decision to not tell the pilots that these mistaken deadly over-corrections might happen.

We’d earlier been predicting somewhere between 2 weeks and 2 months of grounding for the 737 MAX, based on the belief that all was needed was a slight tweak in the MCAS software.  Now we’re not quite so sure.

The thing that has been carefully not considered all the way through this is that Boeing ended up with a plane which, during ordinary foreseeable operations, might get into an unsafe and dangerous configuration, such that it was necessary to create some imperfect flawed software to “automatically” correct for this.  A new airplane design would be unlikely to ever be green-lighted with such an aerodynamic flaw.

Will the certifying authorities – if not the FAA, those in other countries – continue to turn a blind eye to the underlying design weakness on the basis of “Oh, it’s just the proven safe and successful 737, nothing to see here”, or might this issue now get further scrutiny?

Plus, several countries have already made it known that when the FAA recertifies the 737 MAX, they will not automatically accept the FAA certification, but will instead go through their own process.  This is a very new development – until recently, FAA certification has been the Gold Standard which other national bodies have automatically accepted.  It has been a convenient arrangement for everyone – it allows an airplane to conform to one set of rules and requirements rather than to have to conform to dozens of different requirements for different nations, a situation that would rapidly become impossible and require so much over-engineering as to make the planes much more costly and much less efficient.

But, whether to prove a point, or for bona fide reasons, nations as friendly as Canada, as ambivalent as Europe, and as hostile as China are now intimating they’ll want to approach the recertification of the 737 directly, themselves, rather than accept the FAA’s determination without question.  It is interesting to note that Air Canada has taken its 737 MAX planes off its schedules all the way through until July; clearly they are guessing at least a 3 1/2 month suspension is on the cards.

On an absolutely related note, these developments are all being gleefully watched by lawyers, seeing an increasing number of causes for large damage suits opening up.

Here’s a good overview that points out the overall extraordinary nature of how the B737 MAX story has evolved so quickly.  Social media has an incredible shaping effect, even on things like aviation safety policy, these days.

Most of all, not only have the Senate opened an enquiry into the issue – a chance for little more than political grandstanding and soundbites, and noting Boeing’s annual lobbying investment (last year $15 million) something to expect nothing to come from, but the FBI are now involved in a criminal investigation into the certification process of the plane.  That is a truly astonishing development.

Boeing Sells Safety as an Option

Remember back when anti-lock brakes were sold as an option?  Before that, airbags were an option, and before that, safety belts were an option.  All three are now mandatory in new cars, of course.

It was always easy for a car salesman to sell these safety options.  About 35,000 people die in auto accidents most years in the US, countless more are injured, and we’ve all had a taste of an almost-accident or a more benign fender-bender, so we all know and accept that cars are really astonishingly dangerous devices.  We also understand the value in paying a few more hundred dollars for extra options that materially improve the survivability of accidents, or which lessen the chances of accidents occurring in the first place.

But Boeing doesn’t sell its planes with a starting point being an assumption that 35,000 people a year will die in them each year in the US (and 1.3 million worldwide).  Imagine the different perception of air travel if that were the case, and how wonderfully empty flights would be!

Instead, it is required by law and the certification process to come up with planes that are as close to 101% safe as is humanly possible, and in return, it sells its planes for varying amounts from $40 million up to $400 million each.

Now take pity on the poor Boeing salesman who has to try and sell safety options to his customers.  How does he phrase it?  “Here’s a plane that’s absolutely state-of-the-art perfectly safe in every way known to man, but, oh yes, for another $500, we can add this extra gauge, and for another $50 we can add another warning light to make the plane even safer still”?

You see, the 737 MAX planes had two additional safety options (probably plenty more as well) that relate to the troubled MCAS – a simple warning light that appears on the dashboard in the cockpit to warn if the two sensors, one of which is being used by the MCAS, disagree with each other, and a slightly more sophisticated gauge that shows what the two sensors are each reading.  Either or both of these make it easier for the pilots to realize something that the MCAS unfortunately was not designed to understand – that there is a sensor problem that might cause erroneous and dangerous MCAS activation.

There is a sad irony that the black box from the crashed Lion Air flight has provided more information to the accident investigators than the pilots had available to them while struggling to understand how to fly their strangely disobedient plane.

Of course, when we say $500 for the gauge and $50 for the light, we suspect the costs are more like $50,000 for the gauge and $5,000 for the light.

And so your typical airline, being offered a plane that is described as perfectly safe to start with, having no fine print saying “well, there are some potential problems we know about” and then ten pages of issues and disclosures, and seeing little value behind the likely very high costs of these options, and reasoning “this plane has been certified by the FAA as safe; if it was necessary or important, it wouldn’t be an option”, probably decides that not only do they not need the white-wall tire option and the fake-walnut dash, they also don’t need either or both extra instruments in the cockpit.

This is exactly what happened.  Somehow, some part of Boeing recognized there was a vulnerability in the MCAS and its single-sensor dependency, and so created these two optional extra items to better advise the pilots what was happening to their plane, while another part decided against including them as standard, preferring to either save on the infinitesimal extra cost of the two items, or to see them as extra profit opportunities to sell.

Actually, there’s another reason as well.  In its desperate desire to keep the cockpit identical to the previous generation of 737, the last thing Boeing wanted to do was introduce a new gauge and warning light, which would also then raise questions about what they were and why they were added.

Only American Airlines is known to have ordered both options, and Southwest ordered one (I think the light) and is now retrofitting the other as well (which is why both airlines were reasonably relaxed at continuing to fly their planes last week).

No-one seems to know what UA chose for its 737 MAX 9 planes, and it seems that most if not all other airlines, elsewhere in the world, chose not to fit either.

New slogan for Boeing?  “Boeing – Where Safety is an Optional Extra”?

Amazon’s Pilots Don’t Let a Good Accident Go to Waste

It was probably left-wing activity Saul Alinsky who first suggested “never let a good crisis go to waste” (in his book “Rules for Radicals”, page 89), although it has been suggested similar concepts have been expressed long before his time.

Pilot advocates well understand there’s no such thing as a bad accident when it comes to advancing the interests of pilots.  If it is the plane’s fault, then along comes a story of the need for highest quality pilots to protect against design shortcomings and unexpected events in the plane, along with a retelling of the few memorable times that pilots truly have saved the day.  This, they say, proves the need to pay pilots more and have them fly fewer hours, so that only the very best people will be pilots (apparently paying more causes less well qualified people to be less interested in the job) and to be totally refreshed and ready for anything at any time.

If a crash should be the pilots’ fault, as, sadly, it more often than not seems to be; then this, they say, proves the need to pay pilots more and have them fly fewer hours, so that….. etc, the same as before.

So is it any surprise then that the pilots at Atlas Air – the freight airline that, on behalf of Amazon, operated the 767 that crashed when arriving into Houston, are predictably complaining that they are not paid enough and are being forced to work too many hours, and this is leading to dangerous working conditions, with lots of 20:20 hindsight now suggesting the 767 crash was predictable/inevitable due to underpaid pilots being worked too hard.

One pilot, the poor fragile soul that he is, complains that he was asked to work two extra hours.  In return, he was “only” offered four days of full pay.  What an onerous and unfair request that was – two days of full pay per extra hour worked!

The pilots complain they’re being made to work as many as 100 hours a month (most of us with fulltime jobs work 165 hours a month), which is the FAA maximum they’re allowed to work.  Of course, they love to point out that this 100 hours doesn’t include time getting to and from the airport and plane, and time getting the plane ready or shutting it down at the end of the flight.  On the other hand, it does include being paid for their lunch hours, and getting free meals too, and don’t the rest of us also have to travel to and from our jobs, and don’t we usually work more than 40 hours a week?

And then there’s the thing about being paid too little.  A senior Atlas Air pilot has to struggle to survive on barely more than minimum wage – well, actually, $179/hour, which for working little more than half time (100 hours a month) he’s getting “only” $17,900 a month ($215k/yr) to say nothing of some lovely benefits.

Worst of all (where’s my tiny violin) sometimes the pilots have to overnight away from home.  Oh my goodness!

Here’s an article that combines uncritical parroting of the pilot claims with some confusing facts and figures that seem slightly unrelated to the main thrust of the story.

SSSS Stupidity

I mentioned last week how one of United’s most VIP frequent fliers was given the SSSS designation for a flight from London to Chicago, even though his wife, traveling with him, was not.  He found out about this well before getting to security, so of course, if he was a terrorist (and how likely is it a retired business executive/frequent flier would be a terrorist) he’d have had plenty of time to pass over his terrorist items to his wife.

The comments evoked a number of replies from readers, reporting their own eye-rolling experiences at being given the dreaded SSSS designation.  But the one which is surely the best of all was from a reader who was flying from Los Angeles to Phoenix, changing planes with a tight connection, then flying on from Phoenix to his ultimate destination in Philadelphia.

For his first flight from LAX to PHX, he was given his usual TSA PREcheck status and was whisked through security such as happens with PREcheck.

But for his connecting flight from PHX on to PHL, he had an SSSS rather than PRE stamped on his boarding pass.

But – get this – he didn’t have to go through security in PHX.  He went from one gate to the next, staying within the secure area of the terminal.

How is it that a person goes from being PRE eligible on his first flight, to SSSS on his second flight, all the more so when there’s no security screening in-between flights?

I’d Like a Ticket to Akmoly Akmolinsk Tselinograd Akmola Astana Nursultan

We’ve never seen a government act so quickly before.  On Tuesday this week the long serving (30 year) President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, announced his intention to resign (while still keeping some official duties).  As in, he resigned that same day.

The next day his successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (a career politician and previously Speaker of the Parliament), was duly anointed, and his first move was to propose renaming the nation’s futuristic capital city, changing its name from Astana to Nursultan.  (Some jokes suggest the reason for choosing the outgoing President’s first name for the capital city is so the country can now be renamed after his last name.)

That same day, parliament unanimously voted the name change into law.  In less time than it took for even social media to get wind of the name change, the city’s name had changed.

Follow the name changes.  The city was founded in 1830 as a small settlement, named Akmoly.  Two years later it was designated a town, and renamed Akmolinsk to indicate its new status.

In 1961, as a more prominent part of the then Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic of the USSR, it was renamed Tselinograd.  Shortly after Kazakhstan gained independence, it was renamed in 1992 as Akmola, a Kazakh adaption of its original name of Akmoly, with the name strangely meaning “White Grave”.

Then, after the city was designated the nation’s new capital in 1997, in 1998 it was renamed Astana, another Kazakh word, and while it sounds nice and appropriate to western ears, its meaning is simply and unimaginatively “capital city”.

And so, at least for now, it is Nursultan.

Interestingly, to those of us who love to understand the meaning of airport codes, its airport code (something that seems to survive city renamings the world over) remains TSE.

We wonder what will happen to the country’s fine airline, Air Astana.  Air Nursultan doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.  Many other businesses have Astana as part of their name too.

Oh – one more thing.  Assuming the country doesn’t rename itself from Kazakhstan to Nazarbayev, it is scheduled to rename itself to Qazaqstan in 2025.  This is part of a shift from its current modified Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin alphabet, involving a collapse from 42 letters down to only 26.

Hotel Anti-Trust Lawsuit Proceeding

There seem to be more and more hotel brands out there these days, but obscured behind the explosion of hotel brands is the amalgamation of the brands and their ultimate owners.  Starwood operates 11 brands.  Intercontinental has 14.  Hilton has 18.  Wyndham has 19.  But wait, that’s nothing compared to Marriott, with a crazy list of 31 different brands.

You might think with so many different hotel brands, competition has never been fiercer.  But the names on the signs obscure the consolidating ownership and the artificial nature of many of the brands.

An interesting class-action lawsuit is slowly working its way through federal court alleging that Hyatt, Marriott, Wyndham, Hilton and InterContinental have conspired among themselves to not competitively advertise against each other.  That means that if a person searched online for, eg, a Hyatt hotel, none of the other brands would allow their ads to appear on the search result pages, and, of course, vice versa too.

While, if true, that’s a weak level of price-fixing/anti-competitiveness, it is also a real and harmful practice, and the defending hotels have just lost a motion to have the lawsuit dismissed.  It will be interesting to see how this proceeds, and what, if any, the assessed damages might end up as being.

Should We All Start Wearing Burqas?

Facial recognition capabilities in surveillance cameras, and international databases shared by both governments and private organizations, threaten to follow us wherever in the world we go.

Imagine if you live in country A.  While traveling, you’re banned from entering a shop in Country B because a database misidentifies you as having been arrested for shoplifting in Country C.  How are you going to resolve that issue while in one foreign country, and with another foreign country misidentifying you?

Facial recognition is prone to errors.  But when it is your word against a disembodied computer, and when you’re told to submit some sort of form (and almost surely a processing fee) to some sort of unaccountable authority in some dubious offshore jurisdiction, how well will that work out?  It is hard enough fixing errors in one’s credit report, with the laws working on our side, and everything in the same country.

Depressing details here.  Is it time for us to all start wearing burqas?

Long Distance Rocket Travel.  Fast, but…..

Mr Musk’s plans to send people across the Atlantic via rocket ship have resurfaced again this week, although this time notably without his earlier claim that the cost per ticket would be comparable to current business class fares.

One also wonders which runway at one’s local airport would be turned into a rocket launching/landing pad, and what the residents for many miles around might think.

Of course there’d have to be an entire new infrastructure of space ports around the world, and the extra time taken getting to and from the space ports would eat into the time saved traveling across the Atlantic.  But for longer distances, eg, to Australia or the Far East, both possible by intercontinental ballistic missile rocket in under an hour, the time savings become spectacular.

While I don’t expect to agree with Ms Ocasio-Cortez about much, one does have to wonder about the environmental effects of rockets blasting into the upper atmosphere.  Most current rocket fuels are particularly nasty poisonous chemicals.

To say nothing of the safety issue.  We’ve been agonizing over the B737 MAX safety, and it has a crash rate of about one per 200,000 flights.  Most planes have a crash rate of something like one per 10 million flights.

Compare that to the Space Shuttle – one per 66 flights.  Or Virgin Galactic – one crash and no commercial flights so far.  Or even Mr Musk’s own SpaceX rockets to date – in 2018, with 21 flights, there were three failures, either during take-off or landing (both being rather important when there are people on board!).

For sure, Mr Musk’s rocket technology is surely getting better and better all the time, but at present he is some number of many zeroes away from offering the type of safety (and reliability – lots of flight rescheduling) that the traveling public would require before he can realistically offer rocket flights around the world for regular commercial travelers.

We also suspect he is also quite a few zeroes away from getting the per passenger cost down to something comparable to a business class airline ticket.  Details here.

And one curious side effect of space travel (which also has us wondering why NASA has chosen to report on it) might deter a sizeable slice of the adult sexually active population from traveling….

And Lastly This Week….

Good news if you are thinking of going to Brazil – the country, which for a while had a fairly draconian visa requirement (a “tit for tat” thing due to the US attitudes to Brazilian travelers) is now exempting Americans (and Australians, Canadians and Japanese) from the need for a visa entirely, and good for stays of up to 90 days.

An interesting study by the World Tourism Organisation suggests that easy or no visas brings a 25% boost to incoming international travelers.  Thank you, Brazil – details here.

You’d have to be feeling hungry before going to a new restaurant in Norway.  They serve 18 course meals, and you’d want to eat it all, because it costs $430 per person.  The reason for the cost is the meal is experienced in an underwater tube, claiming to be Europe’s first underwater restaurant.  We presume the fish is freshly caught.

We mentioned facial recognition above.  Another type of video invasion of privacy is the appearance of obscured spy cameras in hotel rooms, something that seems to be quite a thing in South Korea.  That is bad enough, but can you imagine if the spy cam footage of you in your intimate moments in a hotel room was combined with facial recognition?  Details here.

Talking about hotels, and to close on the same note as I opened – a mega-website that lives off reviews, and which has an aversion to negative reviews, one of the uglier elements of TripAdvisor is the way they delicately avoid giving prominence in their hotel profiles and rankings to credible claims of things such as rapes of hotel guests by hotel employees.  This is nothing new, but it is worth repeating, and here’s a recent article on the topic.

Truly lastly this week, you know those annoying people who claim to never get lost because they ‘have a sense of direction’?  Turns out, they might be right.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 22 March 2019”

  1. Daniel’s Headline: “The G-Men Get FAA/Boeing Collusion In Their Sights” This is more knee jerk reaction from media reporters, government employees, and others with an agenda. NOWHERE do I see the comments of an experienced airline pilot; just the hyped smear from those WITHOUT experience.
    The rest of the story from a retired airline Captain with 20,000 hours in Boeing 707, 727, 747, and 757:
    Third world airline pilots NEVER, and I mean NEVER think outside their memorized abnormality check lists in their memorized flight manuals. If an abnormality occurs that is outside what they have memorized, a third world airline pilot has no clue how to react. The same runaway-stabilizer procedure, common to both accidents, has been taught on Boeing aircraft for 60 years. It is as simple as flip a switch to turn off the automatic trim system and then hand trim and hand fly the jet. The problem for more than 90% of third world pilots is that they don’t know how to fly th plane when the automation MUST be switched off. Few have been taught in training.

    >>>>>>>>Publish this Daniel, in rebuttal to your one-sided article<<<<<<

    1. You’ve challenged me to publish your comments in response to “my” one-sided article. It is true that the situation is dismayingly one-sided, but it is also true that 99% of the commentary, including by professional pilots, is in line with what I’ve said. There is no other side to this story.

      Your article would be more convincing if :

      (a) You got my name correct

      (b) You conceded that the Lion Air plane was successfully flown by pilots who resolved the problem on several previous occasions when it manifested itself

      (c) You also conceded that most “third world airlines” have excellent safety records

      (d) The US pilot unions didn’t express shock and horror and dismay that they had been given a new “undocumented feature”. For example, I don’t see the AA pilots in this article today nonchalantly saying “nothing to worry about, we can handle it”. Quite the opposite, they’re demanding full rigorous training. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ethiopia-airplane-usa-training/american-airlines-pilots-will-test-737-max-software-fix-in-boeing-simulator-idUSKCN1R306I?utm_source=applenews

      (e) Aviation authorities everywhere in the first world didn’t ground the 737 as unsafe

      (f) You conceded that due to Blow Back, it is possible for a 737 MAX to get into an uncharted and unrecoverable part of the flight envelope, no matter what country the pilots come from

      Normally comments as poorly written and basically wrong as this don’t get published, but occasionally I find it amusing to show people what doesn’t get through. I’m not going to publish your second comment of today where you claim, as a pilot, to have saved 180,000 lives, because that claim is beyond nonsense.

      Well written factual feedback is always welcome, even polite disagreements based on fact or persuasive opinion. But diatribes “just because” have no place here.

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