Weekly Roundup, Friday 5 July 2019

Paris, truly a lovely sprawling city, but may be about to become very difficult for visitors to sightsee around. See final item, below.

Good morning

I hope your July 4 was great, and if your day was enlivened by the California ‘quake, the extra “celebration” didn’t cause any damage or disruption.

I’d commented last week about what I perceived as ever more strict regulations and restrictions on fireworks.  It turns out I may have been wrong about that, and not all the country is emulating things in the Seattle area.  Indeed, even here, despite city (and I think county-wide) total bans on all fireworks, the evening was filled with steady very loud sounds of people enjoying themselves and celebrating the day.  This article suggests that Americans are steadily letting off more and more fireworks every year, and twice as much as in 2000.

My 4th was good, and I’ve decided to indulge myself because of the holiday with a slightly whimsical feature article.

But first, the big news for today is, as sometimes happens, we’ve had a cancellation off our Scotland tour.  There’s still 2 1/2 months before it goes, but in view of the relatively late notice, I’m shifting more than normal of the deposit to you as a “sweetener” to encourage you to join us now.

The tour has already dropped down to $1895 per person due to the group size.  With the already received deposit to apply, I’ll make that $1495 per person, a massive further $400 reduction.  The first person or couple to say they want to come, and get payment in, can have it and join us for a great experience in Scotland this September.  Let me know – the early bird gets the worm.  Or, in this case, the heavily discounted tour of Scotland.

Meanwhile, our lovely France tour in later September is taking further shape and still eager to accept you, as is our December Christmas Markets tour, of course.

Returning to a Scottish theme, two things are coming together which suggested today’s article.  First, I think I’ll finally choose to wear a kilt for at least some of the Scotland tour this year.   Hmmm, I’m not sure if that will encourage people to join, or if the sight of my white nobbly knees might scare everyone away!

So I’ve been doing a great deal of research into kilts, which seem to range in price anywhere from an improbably low $50 to a painfully high $1000, plus potentially more for all the associated “kit” that goes with it.  And then there’s the really important question of choosing what to wear underneath it, although that’s a choice that will hopefully remain private and unknown to tour members.

Fortunately, I do have some material already prepared about kilts; indeed, in total, I’ve hundreds of pages of notes about Scotland which I selectively use to base the commentary on the Scottish tours.  Some people have already said I should make a book out of these notes, and perhaps indeed I might, or if nothing else, at least make it into some sort of handout for tour members in general, and with short-run “Print on Demand”, it becomes feasible to consider such things as a tour giveaway.

So, with that ultimate goal in mind, I’ve decided to share with you today a slightly whimsical and irreverent telling of the history of Scottish tartan, something that could form a chapter of the book.  You might find some parts of it surprising, and I’ll add to it in the future with some articles about kilts too – a surprisingly complicated topic if you want to get it right.  If all goes well, I hope to be able to share a first edition of the book (catchy title suggestions welcomed!) with this year’s tour members in September.

I hope you enjoy the article as a relaxing read, ideally on a Friday when you’re not working.

What else for the week?  Please keep reading for :

  • Boeing’s Latest Semi-Bad Week
  • Alert : Scarily Shrinking Seat Proposal
  • Hello, DoT?  Anyone Home?
  • The Puzzle of Paperless Tickets
  • The Annual CYA Statement
  • And Lastly This Week….

Boeing’s Latest Semi-Bad Week

When will the flow of bad news stop?  That’s a question many executives at Boeing must surely be asking.  This week’s major item isn’t, in my opinion, as bad as some chose to make it out to be.  It relates to the discovery that some or even perhaps much of the software in the B 737 MAX that was involved with responding to the problems that resulted in the two plane crashes was written by Indian developers, some of whom were being paid only $9/hr.

Of course, many different pressure groups used this news to press their various agendas and objectives.  But let’s be clear about what this all means and implies.

First, there is utterly no correlation between how much a software developer is paid and how good they are.  The market is not “efficient”, and tools for measuring software productivity are very imprecise and subjective.  I know – in recent years I’ve paid developers up to $100/hr and down to, I forget exactly what, but around $5.  There was no correlation whatsoever between quality and cost, and that’s been observed in many other situations, too.

The same thing is true of pilots – a $300k/yr pilot doesn’t necessarily fly a plane any better than a $30k/yr pilot.

Second, although there most definitely are some very poor Indian programmers, there are also very many brilliant ones.  There’s a reason that the streets in my city (Redmond – Microsoft’s headquarters) are filled with Indians – Microsoft goes out and hires them, not because they are cheap, but because they are excellent.  The same for the Google office nearby, and Amazon in downtown Seattle (and apparently Boeing too!).  Indeed, the CEO of both Microsoft and Google are Indians.

So while the phrase “$9/hr Indian programmers” might be dog-whistling to some sectors, it is meaningless.

Third, much was made that these programmers had no experience programming airplane systems.  So what!?  It makes absolutely no difference to a programmer what is outside his code.  The programmer has been given a complete set of specifications – “with these inputs, respond this way; with those inputs, response another way”.  All the programmer does is create the programming to the specifications they have been given.  It is not for them to second-guess the logic they are being asked to code, especially in complex areas such as flight control systems and safety.

It is the person who develops the specifications – the person who decided to tell the programmers “don’t worry if you are getting conflicting information from the two angle-of-attack sensors, ignore the other one and trust only the random one that will be used for this flight” who made the error here.  The person who said “ignore what the pilot is trying to do and override the pilot’s commands”.

There is absolutely no reason to suspect that the programming code did anything other than exactly what it was specified to do.  It wasn’t the programming at fault, it was the specifications that were given to the programmers to develop from.

Fourth, even if there was an error in the code, that is why companies have quality assurance/control departments.  To check the effectiveness of the code and to search out any bugs.  Every company understands that programmers deliver code to a 90% – 95% standard of perfection; it then becomes the QA/QC department’s job to find out the shortfalls and problems, and to get the remaining percentage points completed.  Software bugs are inevitable; and it is shame on Boeing’s QA/QC departments if any slipped through undetected.  But there’s no suggestion that any did.

So the whole story, while used to portray Boeing negatively, was actually a big load of nothing at all.

In other Boeing news, the 787 is getting some more FAA attention again.

We don’t see this as a very big deal either – of course, it would be nicer if it were not happening, but it was known, many years ago, that there were quality control problems in Boeing’s SC plant, and maybe this is the FAA just catching up with it, some years later.

I was discussing the 787 with a reader earlier this week.  While I was as concerned as anyone with the battery fires shortly after the plane’s introduction, that was back in 2013.  We’ve now had almost exactly six years of excellent service from the planes, and currently there are 840 planes that have been delivered and in service.  Clearly the plane has now proven its worth and its reliability, and while I was slow to accept that fact, it is now a year or possibly two since my first 787 flight and I happily fly the plane now without giving it a second thought.

On Wednesday news was released that Boeing had set up a $100 million fund for the relatives and families of the 364 people killed on the two 737 crashes.  That sounds marvelous, but the Boeing press release needs to be read carefully.

First, it seems this money is not in the form of cash payments.  While a case could be made for saying that some of the beneficiaries are likely inexperienced in prudently handling large cash sums, the “we know better than you what is best for you” approach and the earmarking for specific things and goodness only knows what type of application processes makes these sums far from easy to access or use.

Secondly, it is not even clear how much goes to the families and relations.  Talk of “community programs and economic development in impacted communities” and partnering with local governments and non-profit organisations – what does this mean?  What is the qualification for being deemed an “impacted community”?  By the time all these different mouths at the trough have been fed, how much – if any – gets to the affected parties?

Thirdly, this is like winning a $3 million lottery jackpot, and discovering that it isn’t a single cash payment of $3 million.  It is a $100k/yr annuity for 30 years, which is neither so life-changing nor so valuable, due to the erosion of value with 30 years of inflation, and of course, the taxman takes his share too.  In this case, all we know is that the investment will be over “multiple years”.

Fourthly, without counting the number of qualifying/affected family members and relatives, the 364 victims represent $275,000 slices of payment each.  While $100 million sounds like a lot of money when mentioned in a single breath, $275k is not nearly so much, and by the time community programs, local governments and non-profit organisations have all enjoyed a share, the tiny trickle remaining to the families and relatives will be pathetically small.

$100 million  is also not quite 1% of Boeing’s annual profit.

To be blunt, the entire thing reads like a PR stunt, and a way for Boeing to try and score some points with the national governments, but not actually materially assist the people directly suffering from the loss of their loved ones.

Here’s an article that wonders if Boeing is “too big to fail”.  The answer of course, as we’ve observed for some time, is that yes, Boeing is being supported by airlines who don’t so much see Boeing as “too big to fail” but rather as an essential foil against Airbus to keep both companies honest.

It would be interesting to see what might happen if a credible third source of passenger jets appeared.  But that’s unlikely to happen for another decade or so.

Alert : Scarily Shrinking Seat Proposal

What do airlines and airplane manufacturers do when they’ve finally made the rows of seats on their planes as close to each next row as possible?  When seat pitches have been reduced so far that your knees are having a close encounter of the third kind with the back of the seat in front of you, all flight long?

Easy.  They think in two dimensions.  Having “optimized” the seat pitch, they are increasingly narrowing seats, so they can add extra seats to every row – even while we as people are sadly growing wider and wider.

Airbus for some time has dined out on having slightly wider seats than comparable Boeing planes, but has decided to abandon that path, and is now expressing interest in adding another seat per row on their new A350-1000XWB.

Currently, the A350 has nine seats across in coach class, with the seats typically being 18″ wide, whereas Boeing 777 and 787 seats are 17.2″ wide.  That 0.8″ might not seem like a lot, but when you’re filling a seat – as more and more of us are, it makes a big difference indeed.

Airbus wants to have the plane carry more people, to reduce the cost per person flown.  So it is proposing to add an extra seat per row, which means narrowing the two aisles and also all the seats.  Seats would now be 16.4″ wide.

That is the narrowest of any seat out there, narrower even than short haul small RJs.  Keep in mind also that the A350 is designed to operate long flights – it has a range of 9,000 miles and up, which translates to 15+ hour flights.  How do your kidneys feel at being squeezed for that length of time?  That also means 10% less overhead space, and 10% more congestion at the toilets, and so on.  Every part of the travel experience will become just that little bit nastier than it already is.

This is not a joke.  This is truly straying into the territory of cruel and unusual punishment.  Can’t the DoT/FAA regulate minimum seat sizes?  Well, yes, they can/could, but no, they won’t, or so seems to be the situation at present.  They have resisted several attempts to goad them into action so far.

Details here.

Hello, DoT?  Anyone Home?

Talking about the DoT, it seems clear that the airlines enjoy a peculiarly privileged position with the passive people at the DoT.  The DoT feels unable to intervene with some of the more ridiculous “rules” the airlines try to foist upon us, such as “you must use all of a ticket, and if you don’t, we’ll charge you a penalty”.

I can’t think of anything analogous to that scenario in any other industry, and it is only because the airlines create irrational fares where roundtrip fares are less than one way fares that such concepts become an issue.  For example, imagine if your phone service plan charged you extra if you didn’t use your entire data allowance each month!

Being masters at “having their cake and eating it too”, the airlines not only want to charge more in penalties if we don’t use every part of a ticket we’ve bought and fully paid for, they also want to right to cancel every remaining segment of a ticket if we miss the first segment for any reason at all.  And of course, not refund us anything for the unused segments.

In the UK, the far from active equivalent to the DoT/CAA is stirring itself and muttering that perhaps that isn’t quite fair, as this article reports.

Is it too much to hope that the DoT might do the same thing, and simply require that we are free to use or not use any segments of any tickets we buy and pay for.  If that exposes loopholes in airline tariffs, then it should be up to the airlines to write their tariffs more sensibly.

The Puzzle of Paperless Tickets

I was writing, just last week, about the blessed elimination of paper airline tickets, and the probable disappearance of paper passports soon, too.

But the transition to paperless/electronic airline tickets was way less than smooth, and for many years, security screeners or assorted other officials would demand to see “a printout” of your booking, without acknowledging how laughably simple it would be to generate an official seeming email in Word or Photoshop as proof of the booking.  As recently as last year I found myself being refused admission to an airline international terminal building unless I could prove I was a ticketed passenger, which is not easy to do when you’ve nothing but the smile on your face and the confidence in the airline’s checkin computer being able to locate your booking by last name and flight number.

Other parts of the travel industry are also slowly transitioning to new forms of ticketing, most notably passenger railroads around the world.  First they allowed us to book and pay for travel and to get tickets issued from vending machines when we got to a train station.  Then they allowed us to print out a PDF version of an official train ticket at home.  Now some are allowing us to simply have one of those funny “3D” bar-codes on our phone screen and available for scanning when a ticket collector goes through the train.

A problem well known to some of us is that sometimes, trains go through countryside where there’s no cell phone signal.  So the obvious workaround is to do a “print screen” copy of the bar code and save it as a file on your phone, meaning you have the bar code stored on your phone without having to rely on cell phone signal whenever it is asked to be shown.  Great idea, yes?

Well, the answer is of course “yes” to everyone with a modicum of common sense.  But if you’re a train operating company in Britain, apparently the answer is “No”, and they are refusing to accept such proof of issued tickets.  Details here.

My question to the train companies then is “What do you expect from your passengers when going through a region with no cell phone signal?”

The Annual CYA Statement

A joint intelligence bulletin issued the day before July 4 warned us that domestic terrorists could target holiday events, but there were no known plots.  The FBI, DHS, and NCTC said they remain concerned, but are unaware of any current plots.

So what does this actually mean?  It is the ultimate in CYA statements, and perfectly so, because several times each year, the three (and four) letter agencies get to update and revise/polish/perfect such statements.

If a terror attack does occur, then, well, they did they job and warned us all.  And if nothing happens, then they were correct that nothing was about to happen.

It is a brilliant statement that is always correct, no matter what the outcome, and never wrong.

Meanwhile, of course, we continue to be reminded of the loss of our once free-from-fear American way of life, and we get to enjoy the TSA and rentacops doing variously laughable or bothersome security theater performances at more and more public events and gatherings.

Happily, it seems that our celebrations ended without incident.  So, yes, the authorities were right.  Of course.

And Lastly This Week….

Let’s all feel sorry one more time for Air Koryo, the much maligned national carrier of North Korea.  Here’s another example of an ill-informed list of airlines that takes the easy way out and chooses to label Air Koryo as the most dangerous airline in the world.

This is a nonsensical claim backed up by no facts at all.  The only fatal accident on record during the airline’s 63 years of operation occurred 36 years ago, and since that time if has operated reliably and accident free.  As I’ve observed before, the service on board is average and not unlike other airlines.

Here’s the latest example of a city seeking to bite the tourist hand that feeds it generously.  This time it is Paris, who wants to ban tourist buses from the center of the city.  This not only means no coach tour buses, but also none of the “hop on, hop off” sightseeing buses.

The Parisians suggest that tourists should go on walking tours instead.  That ignores the sprawling size of Paris.  To test the practicality of the suggestion, I quickly constructed a walking tour from central downtown to the Louvre, Notre Dame, Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Opera House and Sacre Coeur and back to the start point.  That covered 10.7 miles, and had a vertical height gain of 746 ft (the same as climbing a 75 storey building), and, while extraordinarily demanding for a typical retired tourist, only covers the barest minimum of the city.

The ridiculous thing of course is that Paris is a city with a metropolitan population of 12.5 million people, many of them owning cars and driving them in and out of the city every day.  What will the impact on Paris traffic be to ban a few hundred tourist coaches and buses?  Almost minimal.  But how many tens/hundreds of thousands fewer room nights will the city’s hotels sell to tourists?

Lastly, sometimes progress is an amazing thing.  Here’s an interesting retrospective on a technology released 40 years ago, and now almost totally vanished – the Sony Walkman cassette player.  Who here didn’t have one at some time in the past?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and if you can take advantage of the bargain on the Scotland tour, please urgently do so.  You can decide if you wish to see me kilted or not!





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

  1. Also, nine dollars per hour amount to over one hundred thousand Indian rupees per month. This is about ten times the average income in India and is sufficient to support a very comfortable life style and would be quite a good salary for a professional programmer in India. There are no grounds to doubt the competence of an Indian programmer based on such a salary.

    1. Hi, Ted

      While I truly don’t want to get into the realm of “$x buys a better programmer than $y”, there’s a lot we don’t know about the claim that Boeing pays $9/hr. Is that the net amount received by the programmer, or the amount Boeing pays to the contracting company that actually hires the programmers, for example?

      I do agree, of course, that by Indian standards, $9 is a decent wage. But it is probably a middling to good rather than excellent wage for a programmer, assuming they are getting the entire $9 themselves, directly. Some Indian contractors charge considerably more, but, of course, rates are negotiable. Sort of like the asking price on a Boeing airplane – it is very easy to get 30% off the list price of a Boeing plane, and not unheard of for discounts to reach up to 60%. :)

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