Weekly Roundup, Friday 6 December, 2019

Four of the candidates and an election official in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip electorate, waiting to hear which of them won in yesterday’s UK election. (Others in similar attire are out of the picture on the left.)  Can you guess which of the four is the UK Prime Minister?

Good morning

More a narrative type of roundup this week than the usual format.

Yesterday was an interesting day – it was a general election in the UK.  The Conservative Party under Boris Johnson, which had been struggling to rule as a minority government, but with an opposition that refused to agree to a general election (because the polls suggested that the Conservatives would win an outright majority in a new election) finally got the election they wanted and the country needed, and won a strong working majority enabling it to now deliver on its promise to complete the process of leaving the EU.

I’ll spare you any further analysis other than to briefly note that the large swing to the Conservatives was actually not what it seemed.  The Conservatives added a mere 1.2% to their national share of the vote; the most significant contributor to their decisive win was not their success, but rather the fracturing of the main Labour Party opposition, with a 7.8% drop in support.

And as for Britain’s third part, the Liberal Democrats, they added an impressive 4.1% to their small 7.5% share of the vote in the last election, but notwithstanding a greater than 50% boost in the popular vote, the number of seats in Parliament they won reduced from 12 down to 11, and indeed, their leader lost her seat (in Scotland).

Truly, “first past the post” electoral systems are, these days, riddled with anomalies such as this and the need for a more sophisticated form of representation seems to be more than overdue.  When New Zealand replaced its first past the post system with a new “Mixed Member Proportional” system my sense is that its politics improved massively, with every person feeling they had more of an effective voice in the voting, and every politician feeling more accountable.

While it seems the protracted and contentious process of Britain leaving the EU is finally now about to be resolved, a remaining issue is having new life breathed into it – the concept of Scottish independence.  The Scottish National Party won 48 of the 59 seats in Scotland, up from 35 in the last election, and is choosing to interpret this as a new call for Scottish independence.

Conservative leader and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is currently opposed to the concept of another referendum on the issue, and neither needs any support from the SNP nor owes them any favors.  But if he had a strategic view of politics, he might see there to be benefit in severing Scotland from the national parliament, and therefore getting rid of a significant slice of guaranteed opposing votes in parliament.  And while the financial analysis is somewhat contentious, it seems more likely than not that Scotland is a net beneficiary of belonging to the UK – that is, it receives more funding from the UK government than it contributes in UK taxes, so cutting Scotland loose would benefit the rest of the UK financially, too.

We expect the demand for another independence referendum is an issue that will not quietly subside, but its impact on us in the US is probably less than is the issue of the UK shifting its alignment with Europe and possibly focusing more on a new stronger relationship with the US (or, if I may add as also a British Commonwealth citizen) perhaps rediscovering its former Commonwealth friends, too.

Perhaps the most notable impact on us is that the British Pound has been soaring in value as the Conservative win has become perceived as more likely over the last week or so.  Just a couple of months ago £1.00 cost us about US$1.22.  Now it is at about $1.35, a greater than 10% increase in the cost of all things British.

As for the Euro, it has not changed so much in value, and presently €1.00 costs about US$1.12.

Simple Gifts and Christmas Gifts

Have you seen our 2019 Christmas Gift Giving Guide?  I’ve added a couple of additional items to it, so perhaps have another look if you’ve already visited, and if not, hopefully Amazon’s fast shipping means you’ve still got plenty of time before Christmas to get what you need.

But I do say “hopefully” because I’ve had three delivery problems in the last week – one item lost on the truck and never delivered, and two items delivered late.

It used to be in the past that Amazon would rush to give you a free extra month of Prime service if anything is ever delivered late.  Now, when I was complaining about an item twice delayed and suggesting perhaps I qualified for one of those goodwill credits, the customer service agent said she wasn’t authorized to do that any more.  I asked to speak to a supervisor, and after a very lengthy conversation where the supervisor insisted on defending the indefensible (a driver who was unable to deliver the package because he couldn’t find my house, even though the number is clearly on the driveway in large reflective letters, and even though the house is clearly sandwiched in the middle between the house numbered below mine and the house numbered above mine) she then said she’d issue a goodwill credit to my account.

Exhausted by the lengthy battle for a $10 credit (the cost of one month of Prime service), I thanked her, but as I was ending the call, an alarm bell rang in my mind – she was mentioning a “goodwill credit”, not an extra month of Prime service.  Sure enough, the “goodwill credit” was for less than a month of Prime – it was a mere $5.  Sure, the issue is merely a pinprick of annoyance, but made worse by the struggle to get it and the deliberate obfuscation on the supervisor’s part as to how much she was crediting me.

I also feel it is a bit on the deceptive side when they send out a happy positive email advising that my item has been shipped and will be delivered on Friday, while never acknowledging that the original promised/guaranteed delivery date was Thursday.

One last thing on deliveries.  On Tuesday, my daily USPS delivery report advised that I was getting a package on Thursday.  That was good to know, but would you believe, in among the Christmas rush, USPS actually delivered it a day early, on Wednesday!  Thank you, USPS.

Back to the Christmas Gift list, and at least so far, based on clicks, it seems the most popular items are proving to be the portable light for dim hotel rooms, followed by the multi-port USB charger and then the external battery pack/emergency light and a perennial favorite – the Bose QC25 noise cancelling headphones.

There are two items that I’m not including in the gift guide, however.  Well, yes, of course, there is a bazillion items excluded, but two that I was asked to feature didn’t seem to qualify.  One was an example of taking electronics and “connectedness” a stage or two too far.  It reminded me a bit of Apple’s first clumsy attempts to sell its Watch when it was initially released, offering a feature whereby you could tap on your Watch and have the tap repeated as a vibration on someone else’s watch, and also share your heartbeat rhythms.  Those are functions they’ve subsequently moved on from, I’m pleased to say.

The other object could be yours for a mere €525.  Now, the price alone isn’t necessarily a disqualifier, but what do you get for the money?  You get an Eiffel Tower “rivet” except that it isn’t actually one of the 2.5 million rivets used to build the Eiffel Tower at all.  Instead, it is a piece of iron that apparently has been taken from some discarded/left over/replaced iron that was part of the Eiffel Tower project (the website is a bit vague about its exact provenance other than offering a “certificate of authenticity”, and which has been made into the notional shape of a rivet as we would recognize one.

The actual rivets used to construct the Eiffel Tower were actually cut off pieces of rod that then had a head fashioned after the rod had been inserted into the two pieces of iron it was to join together, and then the other end burnished over in place.  They never looked like a rivet prior to having been affixed into the structure.

I received an early Christmas gift from Google, as will have you too if you’ve followed my recommendation to switch to the excellent Google Fi mobile phone service.  They just announced that everyone with an active Google Fi account as of 9 December will get a free Google Nest Mini device.  That’s their equivalent to Amazon’s Echo Dot.

I accepted the free Google Nest Mini, although I’m not sure I’ll use it much, other than to review/compare it with the Echo products.  It was very surprising to see that the race to “own” and dominate the voice controller market has reached the point where Google is giving their $49 devices away fully for free.  Would it be churlish of me to note that they limited their offer to only the black and white options, the nice pastel pink and blue units were “out of stock” – although I checked and if I was willing to pay full price for them, they magically returned into stock!

I’ll now hope that Amazon might match and perhaps give a free Echo Dot to every Amazon Prime member.  :)  Mind you, with the least expensive Echo product currently selling for $25, there’s no reason to wait for a free one to try out the Amazon “Alexa” voice command service with one of their Echo Dot devices at minimal cost.

By the way, did you note the double meaning of the phrase “Simple Gifts” in that heading?  I was referring, of course, to the lovely Shaker melody/Hymn – offered here in a nice form, and featured most notably in Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.  In case of interest, here’s an alternative video recording, featuring the composer himself conducting.  The sound isn’t as good, and like many composers, Copland isn’t quite as gifted at conducting as at composing, but at least it is certainly a genuine expression of the tempos and dynamics that he had in mind.  I also find it a bit surprising that the composer needs the “comfort blanket” of his score in front of him!

This Week’s Bad News for Boeing

Strangely, there’s one thing that Boeing is always apparently the last with the news about.  And that is its “progress” towards getting its 737 MAX planes recertified and back into the air once more.

This week the increasingly assertive FAA and its new Administrator, Stephen Dickson, stated that there was no way the plane would be recertified prior to 2020.  Prior to that statement Boeing was continuing to publicly claim it expected recertification this month.

There is also of course a lot of leeway in setting a target of 2020 for recertification.  Does that mean 1 January, or not until some date later in the year?  No-one really knows.

Administrator Dickson is also publicly pushing back against what he views as too much pressure for an unrealistic accelerated schedule to get the plane flying again, even going as far as to sharply point out that if Boeing responded to requests for information more quickly and correctly, things would move more quickly.

Some sources are suggesting certification might not be obtained until February, and while the three US airlines with 737 MAX planes currently have tentatively scheduled the plane to return to service in March, Southwest’s CEO is saying they might need to push that date further back yet again.

Meantime Boeing continues to hopefully make new 737 planes at a slightly reduced rate of 42/month, with now over 400 of the new planes waiting to be delivered.  So it is no great surprise, perhaps, to see an article which worries that maybe Boeing is running out of places to park their undelivered planes!

Qantas Chooses a Plane for Its Long Flights

(This is also more bad news for Boeing.)

I’ve commented several times in the past, to put all the enormous publicity Qantas has garnered for its two trial long flights (one from New York to Sydney, the other from London to Sydney) into much needed perspective that this is a concept at a very vague state of realization, because there isn’t even yet a plane that Qantas has selected that would offer the flight performance characteristics Qantas would need to make such very long flights economical.

Well, just today Qantas has announced that it has tentatively chosen the new Airbus A350-1000 as its preferred airplane, beating out the new Boeing 777X.

But even that announcement is more “show” than “reality”.  Qantas is deferring any final decision until March next year (and that’s a delayed date – it had earlier been set for February) and still is dithering about various elements of the flights and their operational and financial impacts (ie trying to talk down the greedy pilots from wanting too much more money to fly the planes).

So Qantas continues to play and win at the PR game, announcing a plane decision now that actually isn’t a decision at all, and won’t be until perhaps March.

Not a Notable Breakthrough in Airplane Development

Just because people wish a thing could be, doesn’t mean that it is.

In this case, many people dream of electric planes.  “If Tesla can do it with cars, why can’t Boeing with planes?” is how the reasoning goes.  But there are two enormous differences between an electric car and an electric plane.

The first is that the car recaptures a lot of its energy every time it brakes, which is why such vehicles are more efficient in town than on a long freeway drive.  A plane doesn’t do this, because it only sort of brakes at the end of a flight, when landing, and at that point, there’s no easy way to recapture the tiny bit of energy being squandered in the braking process.

The second difference is that with a car, there’s not a significant loss in efficiency from the weight of the batteries.  A five gallon fuel tank weighs a lot less than the 7,000 batteries in a typical Tesla, and, most of all, as you use the petrol, it “goes away”, but the weight of a battery stays the same, whether fully charged or discharged.  Airlines that will print their magazine on thinner paper to reduce the weight on a plane are unlikely to agree to many gratuitous tons of extra weight for batteries.

There’s a whole bunch of other challenges too with electric planes, all of which serve to keep the concept very definitely in the aspirational rather than actual category, at least until the next quantum leap in battery storage efficiency comes along – something which is always being promised “in the next few years” but which has never actually come to pass.

But there are of course some very narrow marginal “corner cases” where a plane can be powered by batteries, if commercial concerns aren’t given top priority.  And that’s how we categorize the event this week when a battery/electric powered float plane, capable of carrying a maximum of six people for a maximum of 100 miles, flew “a short test flight” in/around Vancouver BC.

Oh – that 100 mile range claim.  We wonder if that includes the FAA requirement for fuel reserves of at least 30 minutes extra flying time….

Flight Attendants Earn How Much?

We’ve always been a bit envious of pilots and their ridiculous earnings.  But for too long, we’ve unquestioningly accepted claims that flight attendants are as grievously underpaid as are pilots stunningly overpaid, and have noted stories offlight attendants clubbing together to rent an apartment near an airport and then filling it with beds and hot-bunking because they can’t afford the ordinary cost of ordinary housing.  No wonder they’re so grumpy!

But then we read of a flight attendant who is earning a quarter million dollars a year.  Sure, she is the most senior flight attendant at Delta, and has been working for 57 years – but that exposes another issue, too.  Remember how flight attendants justify being rude and unhelpful because their job is not to coddle us and help us, but to protect and save us in an emergency?  Their job is safety, not service, they tell us.

Well, one wonders just how effective a job a 79 yr old flight attendant could do if she had to respond to an in-flight emergency, or an unruly passenger, or some other safety concern.  If pilots have to retire at 65, how is it that flight attendants can apparently still be working at 79?

TSA Says Not to Worry if it Uses Obsolete or Unreliable Detectors

The TSA are brilliant at one part of their activities – the essential “inventing excuses” part.  They’ve two standard excuses they love to trot out when confronted with some of their sometimes hard to understand practices.

The first is the specious claim that the reason you are sometimes allowed to take certain things onto planes with you and other times, the exact same things are banned, is to be unpredictable and prevent terrorists from being able to take advantage of their predictability.  If you were a terrorist, which would you find more challenging – a system where you could never take a bomb/gun/knife on a plane, or a system where sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t?  The TSA thinks the “sometimes you can/sometimes you can’t” system is superior, but surely either a thing is dangerous, and so should never be allowed, or a thing is safe, and so should always be allowed.

The second claim is that it doesn’t matter if one part of the TSA is incompetent or ineffective, because they have “multiple layers of redundant security”.  In this article, they boast about 20 layers of security.

So when a Government Accountability Office report surfaced this week criticizing some of the screening equipment the TSA uses, the TSA predictably trotted out its “layers” response.

So here’s a suggestion.  The next time you’re flagged for secondary screening, why not tell the TSA screeners there’s no need to bother.  If you’re a terrorist, tell them, you’re sure to be foiled by one of the other 20 layers.  Let me know how well that works for you….

And Lastly This Week….

No, it’s not 1 April, but it probably should be the date on this article about new first class carriages on the London Underground.

Talking about travel experiences, we know some of you are extremely well traveled and always seeking new travel experiences.  How about this – almost literally being buried alive in the searing heat of the Sahara desert.

Lastly this week, we’ve noticed, in the US, that many people seem to use half or all of their garage for storage of “stuff”, rather than to park their cars.  Have you ever wondered exactly what your neighbor has in his garage that is forcing him to leave his cars parked outside?  If you live in Ohio, well, how about a nuclear reactor?  Oh yes, apparently such things are not even necessarily illegal (probably Congress has been too busy to write a law forbidding personal nuclear reactors).

I’m going to be dodging snow drifts on multiple mountain passes this coming week (and I’m increasingly wishing I’d shelled out for Snow+Ice grade tires!).  Not sure I’ll be able to get much of a newsletter out, but will see what the weather allows.  One thing is for sure, I won’t be traveling as fast as these three people did on a recent cross-country drive from New York to Los Angeles.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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