Weekly Roundup, Friday 14 June 2019

Glorious Prague – always a favorite – is again the climax of this year’s Christmas Markets tour.

Good morning

Our redesign continues today with some more tweaking in the newsletter and now rolled out to all newsletter versions – the Express, the Daily, and the Weekly versions.

Note that some people are getting a copy of the newsletter through the Google Feedburner service rather than through the Feedblitz service.  We can’t control the Google Feedburner formatting, and with Google having turned its back on Feedburner some years ago, it is unlikely Google will be updating it.  You might want to consider getting a Feedblitz copy instead, from this link.

At this point there is a known issue with formatting for Microsoft Outlook.  But on phones, mobiles, and all other email browsers/clients that I’m aware of, both photos and text should be sensibly sized.  Please let me know if this is not the case so I can continue to tweak.

This week sees an enormous two part feature article, on the Apple Watch.  In total there’s almost 10,000 words of detailed explanation, review, and buying guide.  It surprised me that such a small and seemingly simple thing required so much commentary, and in truth, I could easily write another 10,000 words of further discussion, but I’ll try to control that urge.  The second of the two pages includes a “supporter only” section as well – some special bonus content to the people who generously contribute, allowing the newsletter and most of everything else to be free to everyone else.

Why not consider becoming a supporter too, to get instant access to this and and four other “extra features” plus seven special reports and assorted other things.

One other point about the Apple Watch review articles.  Amazon has a special on the Apple Watch at present, both the Series 3 and the Series 4.  If you’re thinking of getting one, then please read the material first so as to know which is the best choice for you, then maybe act quickly while these deals last.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for

  • Travel Insider Touring Update
  • Another Week of More Bad News for the Boeing 737 MAX
  • Once is Chance, Twice is ?
  • A Different Type of Airplane Scandal
  • Fake Reviews and Yelp
  • The Mystery of Last Week’s 360° Infinity Pool Picture
  • US High Speed Rail – Boom or Bust?
  • The Unavoidable Inconvenience of Security
  • And Lastly This Week….

Travel Insider Touring Update

We’ve a terrific trio of Travel Insider Tours on offer for you at present.

We probably can still squeeze another couple into our September Scotland’s Highland Highlights tour of parts of Scotland that regular tourists never get to see – and I shouldn’t be using the word “squeeze” because we’ve a huge coach less than half full for us to spread out in.  With a succession of two night stays, it is an easy paced exploration of hidden/unexplored/uncrowded Scotland – no squeezing at all.

Then immediately after, there’s our wonderful French tour, to Brittany and the Loire Valley, including a day over to Jersey in the Channel Islands.  This continues our Travel Insider theme of going to some of the less well known treasures in well known destinations, and avoiding the worst of the peak season and the crush of crowds at such times.

The third is our December Christmas Markets tour, based in Munich and roaming around Germany and Austria, and even poking our nose into Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.  A lovely pre-Christmas celebration.

Another Week of More Bad News for the Boeing 737 MAX

When the 737 was first grounded back in mid March after the two fatal crashes, we were told that Boeing was already most of the way through completing a software fix which it hoped to push out and get FAA approval on by the end of the month.  I guessed it might take somewhere between two weeks and two months to get the planes flying again.

We are now three months into the grounding, and there’s no sign whatsoever of it being lifted any time soon.  Indeed, this week saw American and Southwest extend their “out of service” schedule adjustments on to 2 September (the Labor Day weekend), and then the FAA issued a statement that put some detail onto their usual vague statements about nothing would happen until it was appropriate to happen.

Now they are suggesting possibly early December as a time for when the plane might be recertified and back in service.  That is a beyond stunning statement, and terrible news for Boeing.

Boeing has been trying to pass off the grounding and associated delay of delivering new but grounded 737 MAX planes as an ordinary normal thing which has to be accepted without any obligation on their part to compensate airlines.  But to now be considering an 8 1/2 month grounding – there is no way in Boeing’s wildest dreams that could be considered ordinary, normal, or foreseeable.  A week or two is probably okay.  A month or two is significant, but 8.5 months?

The other massive puzzle that I’ve not seen any credible answer for is why is this fix taking so long?

As I understand it, there are no new bits being added to planes, just software tweaks and resulting electronic not electrical changes to how the cockpit displays show information about the Angle of Attack sensors.  The software tweak shouldn’t take more than a few days to do, then allow time to quality control it then test it first in simulators then in live flights, then get the FAA to approve it.

Adding to the mystery, the software has been updated, and the simulator and live flight trials have been done too.

We know there has been discussion/debate/heated argument even about the degree of training pilots will need to have this new thing explained to them, but isn’t that a parallel or even separate discussion?  What is the holdup in getting the planes back in the air?

Meantime, we have the CEO of Delta gleefully plunging the knife into Boeing’s back by claiming that the entire airline industry has been traumatized by the 737 situation.  Those are hardly the words of someone keen to encourage passengers to happily start flying the plane again, whenever it finally returns to the air.  Although, why would he care?  Delta doesn’t have any.

We understand why he’d wish to do this.  He is probably still smarting from Boeing’s attempts to bully him into buying 737 planes instead of the Bombardier Cseries/now Airbus A220 planes that he wanted.  Note to Boeing – what goes around, comes around.

Also volunteering some choice words is one of the relatives of the people who died in the two crashes.  This person says the 737 MAX is so flawed that it should never fly again.

Well, we can understand how grieving relatives might make such statements, but generally they have little influence or say in the aftermath of such tragedies.  But this person, mourning the death of his grand-niece, is Ralph Nader.  Details here.

So, coming back to the “Why is the FAA taking so long to sign off on the fix” puzzle, is it possible they’re waiting to see which way the wind is blowing before acting?  There are Congressional investigations, Justice Dept/FBI investigations, other countries more assertively wishing to do their own due diligence for a change, and unruly pilots demanding added levels of training.  Not only is Ralph Nader saying the plane should never fly again, others are demanding that the entire 737 MAX be completely certified from scratch, rather than continue to rely on a grandfathered certification that was first issued 50+ years ago.

Here’s the piece that Nader wrote.

If Boeing had any sense of decency, you’d expect this story about them delaying an important part of the 737 fix for three years would cause them to feel a bit awkward.

But instead Boeing seeks an out by hiring the most connected lawyers in DC and elsewhere in the country.  It is a tragedy they are spending money after the crashes to limit their liability and bully their way out of lawsuits, rather than spending money before the crashes to optimize their planes’ safety.

Once is Chance, Twice is ?

In April, Boeing failed to register a single new plane order.  Indeed, order cancellations saw a net negative order figure for the month.

Some people were keen to associate that with the 737 problem, but I viewed it as just one of those occasional things.  Like buses, sometimes there are a series of buses in a row, then next you wait a long time before another one.  Also in April, Airbus had no new orders either and after reversals, had a net negative new order number too (but not as bad as Boeing).

Now with May results out, Boeing has repeated its zero order feat from April.  As for Airbus?  It triumphantly announced one new order, of an A320.  To put these numbers into context, last year Boeing received a total net of 893 new orders and Airbus 747 – averages of 74 and 62 planes a month, respectively.

Is there something wrong with the demand for and sales of airplanes at present?  Probably not.  We think the inactivity in May is because the Paris Air Show starts this Sunday (16 June) and both manufacturers like to bunch up orders and make a big deal of announcing them at this and other major air shows.

But if this time next week, there are still no new orders for both companies, then yes, maybe there is something wrong.

A Different Type of Airplane Scandal

The F-35 is the most expensive defense program in history. Will it also be one of the worst?

The F-35 fighter has been in the news this week, and we’re somewhat curious how the story was leaked, but we are now being told there are massive fundamental failures in the plane’s design that limit its ability for high performance flying.  High-G maneuvering may cause structural damage, and supersonic flight may cause the anti-radar stealth coating to degrade and fail.

The Air Force and Navy response has been to create an elaborate series of restrictions on how the plane can fly, and to tell us that it isn’t a problem, because 99%+ of the time, the plane would never need to exceed the restrictions now imposed on the plane.

Well, not needing to fly the plane to its maximum capabilities is maybe true in peacetime (but you know the adage – you train how you fight, so you fight how you train), and probably true in low-intensity conflicts against low-tech adversaries.  But for a high-intensity conflict against modern able-opponent fighters, absolutely of course the plane will need to be flown hard and up against its performance envelope limits.  No-one designs a fighter or any other plane to be better than it needs to be (and/or if anyone ever did, they should be fired for incompetently wasting money and resource).  A fighter needs the most optimized package of performance abilities possible – even though dog-fighting is at surprisingly low speeds, the advantage of being able to out-turn, out-climb, and out-run one’s opponent translates to wins every time.

So of course the F-35, which some commentators are suggesting is not as able a fighter as the F-22 to start with, needs all the performance it can provide.

This is particularly a problem for the naval version of the plane.  If a couple of high stress sorties damages a plane, it might be weeks/months before the plane can be returned to a land base for repairs, and in the meantime, the carrier group’s airwing is down in strength.

These problems are not new.  They have been known since 2011.  We don’t know how many planes in total have been delivered in the eight years since then, but 91 were delivered last year.  Here’s an interesting article but which omits much discussion on how these problems could be fixed, or at what cost.  Another article cites operational statistics suggesting that a contingent of F-35s operated by the Marines in the Middle East were only able to operate one combat sortie per plane every three days over a several month period.  Oh, the F-35 program, currently expected to run $406 billion, is the most expensive military project in history.

How is this possible?  And where it the accountability?

Fake Reviews and Yelp

In some cases, it is obvious that a website has a vested interest in the reviews it publishes.  Any website that publishes reviews from its own clients of the products it sells and the services it offers is obviously an extreme case of a conflict, and the temptation to reject negative reviews on some pretext or another is great (as is the temptation to write a few more positive reviews).

But a site like Yelp would seem to have no vested interest at all in the reviews that appears on its platform.  Quite the opposite – you’d think its business model is all about presenting website visitors with the most accurate and fair/honest information possible.

But if you think that, you don’t understand the revenue driver that is at the heart of Yelp’s business model.  It makes money by selling services to the businesses that are reviewed, and at times there have been credible suggestions that in simple terms, Yelp is operating a modern day version of a “protection racket”, helping the businesses that pay it to get positive reviews and possibly even allowing businesses that don’t support it to suffer more negative reviews.

This is very hard to prove, either which way, of course, although Yelp has been unsuccessfully accused of such things in the past.  The discretionary tool that Yelp might have is how it chooses to accept or reject reviews as being either bona fide or suspicious.

We’re not expressing an opinion on this, although others have not been so hesitant, and of course Yelp itself maintains that any past improper actions on its part have long since ceased and no longer ever happen.

But here’s an interesting story of a pizza restaurant that was so frustrated with being pestered by Yelp sales reps using the status of the restaurant’s review scores as a weapon to force-sell Yelp advertising packages that the restaurant revolted and asked all its clients to give the lowest possible one-star reviews on Yelp.  That not only bought the business a lot of free publicity but also zeroed out the ability of Yelp to pressure them with the promise of better reviews and the threat of worse reviews.

So where can you go to find credible reviews?  We’ve no answer to that.  Some people like the Google reviews that appear when searching for businesses.

The Mystery of Last Week’s 360° Infinity Pool Picture

Last week’s newsletter had a puzzling picture near the bottom of a rooftop “infinity” ie borderless pool.

The puzzle was that with no borders on any side of the pool, how would people get up to and in/out of the pool?  The answer is that a strange sort of airlock thing rises up from the bottom of the pool.

But apparently, there were other puzzles implied in the picture too.  Reader Jeffrey, who creates and solves such puzzles professionally (he is an architect) writes

Interesting. I now can see a hint of the retractable circular stairway in the aerial view. I also now understand that the only portion of the pool floor that is transparent (and visible from below) is the dark square in the center of the pool, while the remainder has a solid, opaque bottom. This also accounts for why the bathers appear to be of such different sizes.

Some questions remain:

Are people drawn to outdoor pools of any sort in dreary London weather? (I can readily imagine this in Honolulu, Singapore, Kuwait, or an equally warm place with property values that could support such an investment.)

With typical infinity pools, the water at the perimeter spills over into a trough, which drains back into the pool internally, but the entire pool enclosure is solid – usually concrete covered with plaster. With this one, the sides are transparent cast acrylic. One assumes a trough at the level of the pool floor would serve this purpose, but it would be a major engineering feat to overcome the lateral pressure of all that water, especially at the corners.

How is the stairway summoned? What is the backup plan if a system, such as the complex stairway, fails? How can any maintenance tasks be accomplished without draining the pool with some frequency?

And, finally, there is the question about the rest of the building. Conceivably, window-washing equipment, HVAC vents, and possibly a helicopter landing pad (required in many cities but possibly not in London) could be accommodated at larger, more  conventional roofs at lower levels, but there is no information about that.

In my quest to answer that last question, I checked out a few web sites but found nothing. One article ( https://nytimespost.com/london-set-for-360-degree-infinity-pool-on-top-of-700ft-tall-skyscraper/) tells why with this quote from the pool designer:

Architects often come to us to design roof top infinity pools, but rarely do we get a say in the building design because the pool is usually an afterthought. But on this project, we actually started with the pool design and essentially said, ‘how do we put a building underneath this?’

As an architect, I find it mildly appalling that, evidently, neither the developer nor the pool designer has any idea yet about what would support this pool, other than vague notions about office and hotel space. While I entirely understand the desire of the developer to create buzz and of the pool design company to raise its profile – and both have done so brilliantly,  this is a perfect example of the tail wagging the dog.

As such, it fits perfectly into your skeptical viewpoint on so many things. Thanks so much for getting me thinking about this.

One of the wonderful things about this newsletter is that there is always, no matter what the subject, at least one reader who is an expert on the topic; someone to keep me on my toes and to help the high standard of discussion here.  Thank you, Jeffrey.

US High Speed Rail – Boom or Bust?

According to this article, all is going excitingly well for high speed rail projects in the US.  Admittedly the article seems to be based on the US High Speed Rail Association and related groups, an increasingly desperate set of cheerleaders for high speed rail with forlorn maps drawn up 10 and 20 years ago showing all the places high speed rail would exist now, but alas, nowhere does any exist apart from the several brief miles of Amtrak line in the North-east.

The example of success that is cited for high speed rail is new service between Miami and West Palm Beach.  Except that it isn’t high speed service.  It is slow speed service.  And it isn’t on new track.  It is just a new train, at slow speeds, on existing track.

When it eventually extends service up to Orlando, the max speed on some parts of the line will be raised to 125 mph.  But that’s still not “high speed”.  Sure, it is a lot faster than the 79mph normal max speed limit on trains in the US, but it is nothing like the 185 – 225 mph on truly fast trains in Europe, and the even faster trains in China.

The article also cites the California project as a success, but that’s an utterly unsupportable claim that makes the entire article seem suspect.  The California rail project has no credible source of funding, and no political commitment to find funding, and no realistic timeline or credible plan to progress to completion.

The article goes on to talk about a private rail project in Texas to connect Dallas and Houston.  This is indeed an exciting project, with backing by the Japanese bullet train people, but it suffers from a very optimistic timeline to enter service (2024).  With approvals to proceed not yet received from the TX legislature, and controversy over the project, we’d hesitate to wager much on trains rolling by 2024.

Talking about the mess in California, here’s an article that tells an important other side of the story as to what has been happening there.  The inappropriate haste (and attendant waste) might be partially justified if it resulted in faster development and lower development costs, but it is doing neither – money is being wasted and land-owners are having their livelihoods destroyed without the compensation they are properly due.

The Unavoidable Inconvenience of Security

Here’s a story, the same as dozens/hundreds/thousands of others that occasionally make the news, of a middle-aged woman objecting to a very personal search while going through an airport security checkpoint.

None of us enjoy “very personal searches” but here’s the thing.  If certain parts of one’s body are declared as being off-limits to the screeners, what would a terrorist do?  Where do you think they’d choose to hide explosives, weapons, or whatever else?

If we’re to have effective security, we can’t restrict or limit it to only the easy and nice things.  Security – like a chain – is only as good as its weakest link.

Talking about unavoidable inconvenience, another story this week suggests that Heathrow might finally be introducing the long awaited new machines that will somehow scan liquids in carry-ons and decide if they are safe or dangerous, meaning we don’t have to remove them from our carry-ons.

We’ll believe it when we see it, because there have been previous promises to this effect that have never been followed through.

And Lastly This Week….

If you’re looking for a day tour with a difference in Amsterdam and have already done the usual things like a canal tour, the Ann Frank House, and the Rijksmuseum, have we got the tour for you.  Best of all, it is ideally suited to single travelers.  Details here.

Phil Baker writes about problems he had trying to do a very simple thing – check the mileage balance in his Aadvantage account.  I’m sure we all feel his pain at this unnecessary problem.

As a New Zealander, I’ve been surprised and saddened to see the demise of wool in almost all its traditional uses.  Carpets and garments in particular are now almost never made from wool, and in some places wool, once highly valued, is now being used as cheap insulation material.  I still treasure my woollen blankets on my bed, but finding replacements (at an affordable price) is nowadays almost impossible.

So it was very interesting to read about a new benefit/use for wool – travel garments that don’t need such regular washing.

I mentioned the never-ending problem of fake reviews above.  There’s another type of fake review which infests every nook and cranny of social media these days.  Articles by self-proclaimed “influencers” who only ever write glowing nonsense about the products they test and the places they visit.  Inbetween doing so, they now have the temerity to complain about the pressure they have (entirely self-imposed) to only say nice things.

Here’s the story of a woman who was groped and nearly abducted (whatever that means) in the Dominican Republic, but who continued write glowing nonsense about what a wonderful place it was, copiously illustrated with the de rigeur bikini photos.  She expects our sympathy for her self-imposed burden of lying and misleading us.

I am always fascinated by articles looking back into the recent past and comparing them to the present day, especially when they relate to travel and technology.  Here’s an article and delightful animated video from 1958 which has the double bonus of being even more interesting because it is looking into the future, from the perspective of 1958.  It is about the then new Dulles Airport.

And an article on ‘the golden age of travel’.  Love those old pics.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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