Weekly Roundup, Friday 5 April 2019

Our reliance on the amazing convenience of GPS might become an issue on Saturday. Story, below.

Good morning

I hope you had a great April Fool’s Day on Monday.  This year, more than previously, I found myself struggling to tell the jokes from reality.  For example, this story about a tiny town in Denmark with only 7,000 people being the location for a new 1050 ft tower, to become the tallest in western Europe, definitely seemed like a joke, but it continues to be repeated around the internet, and so may actually be true.

Not such a great day or week was enjoyed by Boeing, and I discuss that below.

This week’s feature article took a long time to write, and involved me inadvertently destroying my car’s battery in the process.  How/why?  I’ve been testing a couple of external battery packs – small things, half the size of a pound of butter – that claim to be able to “jump-start” your car if its battery fails.

The concept of a tiny little device you keep in the car trunk for “just in case” occasions, rather than having to rely on a Good Samaritan and a set of jumper cables, has enormous appeal, but can a tiny device weighing about one pound really start a car, the same as a bulky battery weighing over 40 lbs?

For a typically comprehensive answer to that question, please read the feature article after tonight’s newsletter.  And, yet again, I’ve added a special bonus section in it for the lovely people who choose to support The Travel Insider.  Remember, if you’re a supporter, you need to be logged in to the website to read the extra content, it doesn’t appear in the newsletter.

And if you’re not yet a member, please do consider becoming one.  Members have received bonus content three times this year so far (and I’ve just yesterday added some more to the Google Fi article), and also have access to a library of other special reports and assorted materials.  Becoming a member is very simple and quick, and your membership is instantly activated as soon as you’ve joined.  Details here.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • Our September Tours are Getting Closer
  • Boeing’s Bad Week
  • A List of Long Haul Flights (and some snark)
  • Does Your GPS Know Where You’ll Be on Saturday?
  • Tesla’s Latest Disappointment
  • At Last – a Tax I Support
  • And Lastly This Week….

Our September Tours are Getting Closer

Yes, little more than five months to go until some lucky Travel Insiders will be meeting in Fort William, Scotland, and more in Chantilly, France.  Will you be among our small and special groups, and enjoying the fellowship and touring experiences, variously on our Scotland’s Highland Highlights and Loire Valley Land Cruise?

Please do feast your eyes on our itineraries for the two tours, and then decide which – or both – have the greatest appeal, and come join us.  We’ve a great group of friendly people for each tour, and we’d all love to have you along, too.

Boeing’s Bad Week

Remember last week how Boeing was boasting that it had completed its software patch for the grounded 737 MAX planes?  It had presented the fix to pilots and airline management and the FAA and Boeing was confidently expecting approvals to be quickly granted and the planes to return back to the air within a few weeks.

Well, an awkward thing occurred.  A preliminary report on the Ethiopian Airlines crash was released earlier this week, and not only did it show that the plane seemed to have the same problems as the earlier Lion Air crash, but there was an unexpected answer to the question everyone was wondering – “How is it the pilots didn’t know about the problems after the Lion Air crash, and simply turn off the MCAS automatic attitude adjusting service?”

That unexpected answer was that the pilots did know, and accurately followed the newly issued Boeing procedure for what to do in such a case.  But the Boeing procedure was flawed, and the plane still crashed.

I’d reported on that possibility earlier based on some excellent speculation by people who know a lot more about such things than me (and who apparently know more about these things than Boeing itself!), and it turned out their speculation was largely correct.  At the relatively high speeds the Ethiopian plane was flying at, it was not possible to adjust the attitude trim while also pulling back on the stick – the forces on the tail surfaces were too strong.  The only possible fix was one developed decades ago, and involves going “neutral” on the stick and allowing the plane to fly in the attitude it is set for, and then with no extra air pressure on the tail controls, you can start to adjust the trim.

But the problem with that approach is that when you’re at a mere thousand feet or so above the ground, and struggling to stop the plane plunging out of the sky, you don’t have enough height to sacrifice some thousands of feet while letting the plane do what it wants to do and gradually adjusting the trim.

Boeing hasn’t said much about that, but it has now said that there is just one more little thing it wants to add to its software patch, and so there’ll be a bit of further delay before it is submitted for approach and then distributed to the airlines.

A reader wondered why the planes had to be grounded in the first place.  Couldn’t the automatic MCAS service that has been causing these problems simply have been disabled until better software to manage it was released?  That’s a good question.

The ugly ultimate expression of why the MCAS couldn’t just be disabled (which isn’t as easy as it sounds anyway) is that Boeing created a plane that was inherently unstable and needed the MCAS automation to counter its inherent instabilities.  But the automation was flawed, making the instabilities worse rather than better.

These issues and problems are well described and detailed here, and here’s a more technical description if you wish it.  And here’s an analysis of what happened in the short period from take-off to crash that makes gripping reading.

A List of Long Haul Flights (and some snark)

You probably already know the trivial pursuit question about the most traveled air route in the world.  It is a short route between Seoul in South Korea and an island just off the coast, Jeju, with 13.5 million passengers a year, followed by Sydney-Melbourne with 9 million.

But what about the busiest long haul route, which has been arbitrarily defined as routes over 3500 km/2175 miles by the OAG publishing group.

Our thanks to OAG, because they’ve created, by their kind definition, a list on which the US features prominently.  The busiest long-haul route is JFK-SFO, with 15,587 flights a year.  If you guess about 150 people per flight, that would be just over 2.3 million people.  Strangely, there was no LAX-NYC route on the top ten list at all.

The 2nd through 5th places went to JFK-LHR, HNL-LAX, EWR-SFO (again, still no NYC airport to LAX), and BOS-LAX.  Details here.

As readers know, I tend to be a bit derogatory about many of these lists, although to be fair, at least lists of busy routes are fairly unambiguous and not subjective (even if I am uncomfortable at the arbitrary definitions for what makes a route long or short, and the switches between counting flights and counting passengers).

But ever since I discovered that an airline I actually liked after flying it twice (North Korea’s Air Koryo) is perennially at the very bottom of most lists of airlines, for no apparent reason other than “just because it is based in North Korea so therefore it must be bad”, I’ve been very wary of the validity of such lists.

Another dubious type of list are the lists of the world’s safest airlines.  How can you distinguish between airlines when dozens of them all go dozens of years between major incidents/accidents?  That also leads to the possibility that the airline that this year is the world’s “safest” might have a single accident in the next year and suddenly plunge from top of the list to near the bottom, all because of a single semi-random accident (similar to how a single misfortune saw the Concorde flip instantly from being the world’s safest to least safe airplane).

So I was delighted to see this article poking fun of a list of the world’s best airlines just now published by TripAdvisor.

I’d say that I hope TripAdvisor is better at rating its hotels than it is at rating the world’s airlines, but the reality is that it is no good at rating hotels, either.  Many cities I’ve looked at show the very best hotel in the entire city as being a glorified backpacker’s hostel, but having garnered a large number of enthusiastic five-star reviews, causing it to soar above true five-star deluxe resorts in the rankings where more critical guests will deduct a star if their room doesn’t have a heated towel rail, or a choice of pillows, etc.

Does Your GPS Know Where You’ll Be on Saturday?

Remember the Y2K bug?  There was a concern that programmers who had written years as two digits rather than as four in their programs would cause problems – would the year 00 be considered 1900 or 2000 or, even worse, might it create “divide by zero” type errors or in some other way create unpredictable occurrences and program crashes.  For many years prior, companies were urgently involved in updating their code to allow for year fields to be four digits rather than two, and while there were concerns that there was a lot of code unimproved, the actual flip from 1999 to 2000 went smoothly.

But GPS units also have a legacy problem.  Earlier versions of the GPS software can only “count” up to 20 years before resetting, and the latest reset is due to occur on Saturday.  GPS units were uncommon twenty years ago, now they are everywhere and in almost every thing, so there’s some concern as to what will happen.

An updated version of the firmware that controls this now has resets every 157 years, which is probably well beyond anyone’s lifetime today, but we do wonder what will happen in 2176 – will people then be calling us short-sighted and foolish?  It would have only taken one more bit to make it 314 years, or two more to go to 628 years, etc.  It seems a shame to stop at 157 years.

Anyway, if there’s a conflict between what your GPS is telling you and that which your old-fashioned Mark 1 Human Eyeball is suggesting, maybe go with your eyes rather than with the GPS.  In case you need instruction on what (not) to do, this might be most helpful.

Tesla’s Latest Disappointment

First quarter sales have now been reported, and Tesla reported a 31% collapse in deliveries compared to the last quarter of 2018.  Its excuse is that it has more product in transit to overseas destinations than it did in the fourth quarter of 2018, and while there’s a measure of truth in that, it is also interesting to look at what is happening to their US sales.  Comparing Q4 2018 with Q1 2019 and also with Q1 2018, we see

Model S  From 7350 sales/deliveries down to 3625 (5300 in Q1 2018)

Model X  From 8525 sales/deliveries down to 3850 (4400 in Q1 2018)

Model 3  From 61,650 sales/deliveries down to 22,425 (n/a for Q1 2018)

Their sales are down not only from the end of year blowouts last year but also from the same quarter a year ago.  Where’s the market growth in any of that?

Puzzlingly, this sales data seemed to surprise the markets – or maybe it was that investors had taken Elon Musk at his word when he’d promised a good first quarter.  The share price dipped 10% before recovering later in the day after the announcement was made.

To be fair, the disappointment extended further than Tesla.  It is an increasing puzzle why all other electric cars are failing to sell.  The Chevy Bolt is down on both last year’s first and fourth quarters, as is the Nissan Leaf, and other fine cars full of promise are struggling to sell more than one or two thousand units in the quarter.  None of the “Tesla killers” have inflicted any notable pressure on Tesla at all.

Gas prices are rising again, and a strong economy would seem to help encourage people to accept the extra up-front cost that is still a factor when buying an electric car, but it just isn’t happening, as can clearly be seen in this month by month sales table.  In March, only six electric cars sold more than 500 units.

It isn’t just the cars that seem always to be promised for next year (for example, where is the flood of battery-powered cars that the Detroit automakers have been promising for many years?).  We also continue to be teased with stories of amazing new battery technologies, due to appear in the next few years – here’s the latest such example.

But like pots of gold at the end of rainbows, none of this stuff ever seems to materialize.

At Last – a Tax I Support

Talking about electric-powered vehicles, we all know that our cars have become more fuel-efficient, getting many more miles per gallon of gas than was the case ten, twenty, and so on years ago.

We also all know that our highways and bridges are crumbling, while the cost of road works is ever-increasing.

Did you know that much of the cost of such work is funded through a fixed federal tax of 18.4c per gallon of gas, a rate that has remained unchanged since 1993?  Roading costs are probably twice what they were 25 years ago, while cars probably average half the gas consumption of what they had back then, making the funding problem four times more severe than it was in 1993 (which was hardly a golden age of perfect freeways and highways anyway).

So it seems totally fair that the federal gasoline tax should slowly rise upwards to reflect the growing disparity between the funds the tax raises, the amount of public works that such funds will pay for, and the actual need for roading maintenance and repairs.

Of course, currently, in most states electric vehicles are exempted from any equivalent to this federal gas tax or similar state gas taxes (which adds about another 20c – 60c to the cost per gallon at the pump).  But as the number of electric vehicles on the roads continues to grow, legislatures are shifting their perception from seeking to encourage electric vehicles to seeking to tax them to make up for the loss of gas taxes that such electric vehicles represent.

And Lastly This Week….

I mentioned the semi-annual problems of changing clock times last week.  Lila wrote in to observe

What are even worse are the bedside clocks in hotels that cannot be reset by guests, only by a hotel staff member with a special programming device.  I have been in two hotels (a Marriott and a Hilton) since the change to daylight savings time and in neither one had the clocks been reset.

Called front desk and they sent someone who was unable to make the change.  Both times the person left and came back with another clock which was then plugged in somewhere else in the room “until we can find someone who knows how to do this reset”.  Neither clock was changed while I was there.

Talking about hotels and automation, here’s an interesting story about how automation is evolving at hotels, with the latest new frontier being facial recognition for checking in.  I know that many hotel front desk staff are far from wonderfully entertaining and fun to interact with, but it is a shame to see another shred of human interaction being taken away, and another layer of impenetrable and unaccountable automation replacing it.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago how Amazon refused to publish a negative review of mine, while of course gleefully publishing plenty of vapid five-star reviews without complaint.  (Here’s an article pointing out how some products that are panned on “real” review sites get loads of five-star reviews on Amazon and similar sites.)

This week I had a small (and probably automated) run-in with another one of the growing FAG internet monopoly (Facebook Amazon Google); this time it was Google crossly advising me that it was restricting the advertising on one of my webpages which it had deemed to violate its acceptable content policies.

The offending page has been up for almost nine years, so either Google is a bit slow in checking, or it is becoming more aggressive at deeming what is acceptable or not.  If you’re willing to risk your own delicate sensibilities, why not go visit it and see what you think.

Today it is easy to laugh at such silly things, but as the screws are being inexorably tightened, turn by turn, our laughter will change to concern, and while our First Amendment rights are understood to apply to public and government issues, not to private fora, the reality is that if you run afoul of FAG, your internet presence shrivels up to almost nothing, and without FAG freedoms, our residual First Amendment rights these days are increasingly of little value.

So that’s the A and G.  How about the F?  Did you hear how this week Facebook was challenged for its new procedure in verifying accounts.  Whereas it is fairly standard to verify a new account somewhere by sending an email to the account holder’s declared email address and requiring them to click a link in the email to prove the validity of the email, Facebook decided that instead of doing that, it would require new members to actually give Facebook the password to their email account.  There’s no justifiable reason for requiring this whatsoever, but since when has Facebook needed to justify whatever it does.

Talking about negative reviews and consequences, a critic of the Homeland Security Department has been discovering that criticizing Homeland Security can have consequences, too.  Here’s an interesting story about how the person challenged a demand for him to hand over his electronic devices and their passwords when returning back to the US, and how the Customs officers demanding access to his devices, and refusing to allow him to consult an attorney, ended up having to back down when he called their bluff.  But, the Customs officers had the last laugh – they revoked his Global Entry fast track privileges.

Are we becoming more and more like a little third world tinpot banana republic/dictatorship?  Many of you agree, because I’ve lost count of the number of times you write to me with horror stories of your own, but ask me not to identify you, because you too are concerned about what type of blowback might occur.

Thanks to Bill and Felipe for answering the question I posed last week about what caused all four engines on the Viking Sky to fail.  It was a very low tech issue, but with a high-tech monitoring/control circuit that lacked the sense to fully appreciate what was happening.  Sounds a bit like the 737 MAX, doesn’t it – and indeed, it was even to do with angles.  Here’s an explanation.

And talking about cruise ships, five passengers got stuck inside an elevator that jammed on board the Carnival Inspiration.  After maintenance workers joked that waiting another 45 minutes to solve the problem wouldn’t kill them (after an hour had already passed), the elevator was eventually repaired and the relieved passengers could leave – well, four of them could.  The fifth had fainted.

So, as an apology, Carnival made it absolutely 100% guaranteed certain that none of these five unfortunate passengers would ever be stuck in one of their elevators, ever again.  It banned them all, for life, from their entire fleet.

Details, such as they are currently are, can be found on this maritime attorney’s website.  We hope that suggests he has been retained to act on behalf of the five passengers.

A nod to the person who invented something that has become so omnipresent that it is hard to imagine a prior life without it.

And, truly lastly this week, do you remember how we had our state series of quarters issued over a period of many years?  Well, a story came out on Monday this week about how Britain, which has been experimenting for some time with special “limited issue” versions of some of its coins already, has announced a new series of designs for its 50p coin.  Some of the designs are potentially somewhat controversial.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 5 April 2019”

  1. Good newsletter as always David..however, the last story about the new 50 pence coins…you did notice the date of the article I hope?

    1. Hi, Earl; nice to hear from you.

      Yes, I noticed the date, but wanted to leave it as a small “test” of reader perspicacity to see if you would, too. :)

      All the best….. David.

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