Weekly Roundup, Friday 10 January 2020

What are these amazing and enormous creatures (not horses)? They’re something we’ll see on one of this year’s Travel Insider Tours. See the following article for details on the tours and what they feature.

Good morning

We’re now definitely into the third decade of the 21st century, but I’m still captivated by the special feeling that the number 2020 gives me.  I hope your special year is shaping up to indeed be special, in the most positive meaning of the term.

Talking about special, I am trying to feature our 2020 tours – all of them most definitely special – for you to look over, but an article I published on the website, on Thursday, to showcase them is not consistently formatting itself for the emails going out this morning.  Please visit it here to see details of the four tours now identified, and to pick and choose the one(s) you’d like to come on.

I updated our popular list of air ticket taxes this last week, adding some more tax codes that people had sent in requests to have decoded, and I’ve now started dating each entry so as to give a sense for how current the information is.

There are now 230 entries in this list.

What else for the week?  Please continue for :

  • Unexpected Amazon Deal
  • CES 2020 Report
  • This Week’s Bad News for Boeing
  • United Makes it Harder to Get Compensation
  • Amtrak Blames its Passengers for Discontinuing Its Dining Car Service
  • Virgin Galactic Boasts of a “Major Milestone”
  • How (not) to Operate a SAM Defense System
  • Another Crazy Ranking of Airlines
  • And Lastly This Week….

Unexpected Amazon Deal

One of the items I omitted from my 2019 Christmas Gift Giving Guide was the Amazon Fire 4K TV stick – not because it isn’t great, but just because there were already so many wonderful products featured.

This device is similar to a Roku box, and similar to the “built in” streaming capabilities that most modern tv’s have.  But I find I prefer my Fire stick more than my Roku, because it has Alexa built in to it.  I particularly love the ability to fast forward or skip back by just speaking to the remote control “Skip 50 seconds” (to miss the opening credits, for example) or for any other Alexa type commands.  Fast forwarding/rewinding is one of the things that tends to be most difficult with many streaming controllers, and the Amazon Fire stick’s voice control makes it simple and consistent across all streaming sources.

So it has become my main streaming conduit, with the (also nearly new) Roku no longer used.  At $50 the Fire Stick is already a bargain (half the price of the Roku).  At present, even better, you might be able to get it for half price ($25).  I don’t quite understand what the logic is for who does and does not quality – on my regular Amazon account, I qualify for the 50% discount, even though I’ve already bought one, but on another account, I don’t.  Try it and see – use the discount code 4KFIRETV when manually checking out via the shopping cart, rather than doing a one-click order.  At that price, you really can’t go wrong.

CES 2020 Report

Talking about great devices, this was the week of the annual Consumer Electronic Show.  For sure, 2020 might be a special year, but this year’s CES was one of the most disappointing and dreary shows I can ever remember visiting/reporting on.

It is usual for a show to (and usually by chance) end up with a “theme” – a “hot category” of products that are all over the show, and/or for a show to have a stand-out new product or new category of consumer electronics.  Past themes have been electric cars, smart speakers, smart watches, 3D televisions, tablets, and various other items in the increasingly more distant past (and clearly just because something is a theme doesn’t guarantee it will become a success).

But this year there seemed to be nothing other than endless aisles of “more of the same” – unchanged products from last year, other than perhaps new colors, or slightly faster/smaller/whatever than before.  The kindest way of describing it might be as a year of “evolutionary consolidation” rather than one of revolutionary innovation.

As an example of how boring the show and its products were, look at Engadget’s struggle to come up with a list of best of show product nominations and an eventual winner (the winner being a product much the same as it was last year).

In the video category, it was notable that 4K televisions are now very much “yesterday’s product”, although improved video continues to be something that the set makers tout.  Most of the focus was on 8K televisions, but don’t rush to buy one.  There’s almost no original content, and even the concept of re-digitizing film to a new 8K format is uncertain.  This has been done validly and repeatedly in the past to obtain first HD and then 4K digital copies, but starts to become marginal with 8K resolution – Super 35mm film has a frame size of 0.98″ x 0.735″, and that would require resolution of 7830 pixels per inch from the film, which is unlikely to be achieved.  So at 8K you’re actually starting to get more grain and film artifact than wanted picture information, and quality might be going backward rather than forward!

Even if there was true original 8K content, you’d struggle to notice any improvement compared to 4K, unless you watch your set from about one foot away.  The only reason for promoting 8K sets is because there is nothing else new and marketable out there for television technology, and the notion of jumping from 4K to the four times better resolution of 8K seems like a good thing to people who don’t really understand how it truly works.

There appears to generally be another year of delay in getting foldable screens onto cell phones.  Low-cost Chinese manufacturer TCL showed a foldable phone concept which it says will go on sale this year for under $1000.  If this proves to actually work reliably (something Samsung has now astonished the world by failing at twice), it might help affirm the concept, but whereas last year’s CES was full of excitement about folding-screen phones, this year there was much more caution.

There was one phone concept we saw and liked.  It was a “four year phone” – a great idea, now that people no longer need to buy phones every year (because in truth most new model phones are little changed from the previous year).  My last iPhone lasted me four years, and while it seemed like a long time, it is still good even now it is in honorable “retirement” in my desk drawer.

The four year phone includes four years of warranty/maintenance, so your investment is protected.  It is also likely to be modestly priced – $350 before discounts.  This article describes it as “decidedly midrange” but to me, a phone with a 6.2″ Full HD display, 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, two rear facing cameras and a front facing camera, NFC, plus both a headphone jack and Micro-SD slot is decidedly high end.

Both phones and televisions continue to show screens with smaller bezels/frames around them.  That’s a moderately good thing for a phone, and a moderately irrelevant thing for a television.

Electric and self-driving cars – another concept that was all the thing for the last couple of years – was also not nearly so aggressively promoted this year.  But there was a crazy concept car from Mercedes Benz that had glass doors – what would happen, one wonders, if the car was T-boned/sideswiped.

There was also a concept car from Sony – a very unexpected event, because Sony had kept their involvement in electric/high-tech cars completely secret.

The most notable self-driving car came from another surprising source – the Russian equivalent of Google, Yandex; a company best known for its own Russian search engine.  It was taking people for demonstration drives around Las Vegas.

Perhaps the most exciting self-driving car advance however was at the component level.  All self-driving car systems (with the notable exception of Tesla) use a large bulky and very expensive Lidar sensor device.  The company that makes most of these things showed a new generation of Lidar sensor that was close to the size of a matchbox, and which will cost about $100 each, instead of current units that generally cost in excess of $5000.  Both the massive size reduction and collapse in costs will remove two of the unstated constraints and impediments to self-driving car progress – the cost and aesthetics of designing and building such capabilities.

Other than these things, most of the other items were in the “same old same old” category (higher capacity portable disk drives) or the slightly (and very) strange category of items that are unlikely to become mainstream parts of our culture, one hopes.

For example, there’s an internet connected razor and a “beauty wand” that uses a built in ink-jet printer to spray ink over one’s facial blemishes.

Of possible use might be a ten second smart toothbrush, and maybe some people might find a high tech hair analyser useful.

Alexa’s relentless drive to be part of your everything continues, with Alexa about to be able to arrange for you to pump and pay for your gas at the petrol station, and an Alexa powered speaker now doing double duty as a shower head.

Samsung has displayed more plans for its own Alexa type product range, but seems very unsure whether to actually release them and start competing against Amazon and Google.  They might be well advised to pass on that contest, which currently sees Amazon beating Google in terms of unit sales by a margin of almost four to one.

While there are lots of awards for “best product” at CES, there are not many “worst product” awards.  However, some contenders for any such awards might include this air mask that I don’t think anyone would choose to show themselves in public while wearing, and a well meaning product that is surely doomed to failure because it will never sell enough units to create the critical mass of acceptance it needs to become useful.

We also would not be disappointed if this product went nowhere (as opposed to obediently into our bathrooms).

But there was one product which might provide a value and benefit, most especially for people who don’t use it.  How so?  It is a robot dog, being marketed as a service/support “animal” in place of a real dog.  Hopefully it doesn’t pee/poo, or bark/bite when taken on planes by its owner.

This Week’s Bad News for Boeing

Still more revelations came out about how Boeing employees view the FAA, and, somewhat more alarmingly, their own co-workers on the 737 MAX program, most memorably in the statement

This airplane is designed by clowns, who are in turn supervised by monkeys

Unfortunately, in the time since that statement was made in 2017, it has been shown to be more right than wrong.

Meanwhile, Boeing’s stalled 737 production line looks likely to stay shut down for at least two months, with some sources credibly suggesting a three month closure might be more realistic.  And news has come out this week about another unrelated vulnerability on the 737 MAX (wiring issues) that also needs to be addressed prior to recertification.

Boeing has now reassigned some of the 737 production line staff to other duties in other Boeing locations.  We guess the ones who are reassigned to Boeing facilities hundreds or thousands of miles away will be given temporary relocation programs, but the people who formerly worked in the 737 plant in Renton WA and now are assigned temporarily to the 777/787 plant in Everett potentially face an extra 33 miles of commute each way, each day, something that could add up to as much as another two hours of traveling time to their days.  Ugh.

Here’s a fairly lengthy article that is in places over-simplistic, but which nonetheless is right on the money with its underlying contention that Boeing’s current corporate culture problems largely stem from when it bought McDonnell Douglas in 1997, but somehow found itself taken over by the senior MD management and changed from an engineering excellence focused company to a “shareholder value” focused company.

United Makes it Harder to Get Compensation

One of the curious gaps in our passenger protection laws is that – unlike in Europe – we aren’t automatically entitled to compensation if a US carrier delays or cancels our flight.  Airlines tend to generally “look after” their passengers because they know that if they refuse to compensate at all, sooner or later the government will sleepily arouse itself and “do something about it”.

But United has decided to tighten up on the compensation it awards.  It now says it won’t “proactively” give passengers compensation when flights are delayed for less than six hours.

Now, if you want a good laugh, consider this :  United says it isn’t doing this to save money.  Oh no.  It has changed its policy as a result of “feedback it has received” (but it won’t say what sort of feedback or from whom) and goes on to say that this change “empowers our employees to make more personalized service decisions for our customers when a disservice occurs”.  Translation – only the aggressive complainers will get anything.

The bottom line?  You’re going to have to argue a bit harder to get anything from them.  This article helpfully compares the compensation policies of the other major US carriers.

Amtrak Blames its Passengers for Discontinuing Its Dining Car Service

Just like United vaguely implying that its decision to become more miserly with delayed flight compensation is at the request of passengers, Amtrak says that the reason it is discontinuing its dining car service is because that is what its passengers want.

I know the few people who have discussed the matter with me have all bemoaned the loss of one of the small creature comforts that remain on Amtrak’s long distance services, and it is of course hard to disprove Amtrak’s claim, short of calling them outright as liars.

On the other hand, we suspect that the culinary standards on the dining cars are no longer what they once may have been.  But we still feel this loss of service is taking Amtrak in the wrong direction, making it more and more like a bus and less and less like a pleasant travel experience.  Amtrak needs to realize that its main market for its long distance (ie overnight and longer duration journeys) is for people seeking a fun and special travel experience, not for people wanting generic travel.  Generic travel is faster by plane and cheaper by bus.  Amtrak needs to take its long distance services up market, not allow them to steadily drift down and down in quality and features.

Here’s a valedictory ode to Amtrak’s dining cars.

Virgin Galactic Boasts of a “Major Milestone”

Virgin Galactic has long been promising to send passengers into “outer space” with first flight dates originally scheduled for 2009.  Since its founding in 2004, the date of its first passenger flights has been inexorably slipping.  Probably few people in 2004 expected that flights would really start in 2009, but at some point, surely there had to be some credibility associated with its ongoing “very soon now” scheduled dates.  For example, in October 2017, Sir Richard Branson said he would be flying into space himself within six months (ie by March 2018).

That promised date has continued to slip, with various promises to commemorate the Apollo moon landings 50th anniversary in July 2019 with a Virgin Galactic flight, and then in August for a flight later in the year, and now, vaguely, “hoping for passenger flights in 2020”.

But, as a sop to the many people who have already prepaid for their flights, Virgin Galactic boasted this week that its second spacecraft can now stand on its own wheels.  That’s pretty thin gruel for a company now 11 years behind on its schedule.

I always wince when I read their press releases for two reasons.  The first is their talk about flights to outer space in the first place.  NASA considers 76 miles as the point where its Space Shuttles used to re-enter the earth’s outer atmosphere, and the world body governing aviation sports and records deems it, somewhat arbitrarily, to be 100 km (ie 62 miles) above the earth’s surface.  The Virgin Galactic craft may indeed reach the 62 mile point, but it is still sub-orbital and captive to the earth’s gravitational pull, and, per NASA, still subject to the decaying effects of the very thin atmosphere at that altitude too.  Outer space?  Not really.

And the other thing is how the company loves to refer to its passengers as “private astronauts”.  Its passengers are no more astronauts, by virtue of having been flown on the brief flight, than are you and I “private pilots” because we’ve ridden on an airplane.

How (not) to Operate a SAM Defense System

On Wednesday morning, a 737-800 operated by Ukrainian International Airlines crashed a mere six minutes after taking off from Tehran’s international airport.  It was carrying 176 passengers and crew, all of whom perished.

While the Iranian authorities have come up with various spurious and specious explanations for what happened, they’ve refused to release the black boxes to western accident investigators, and based on semi-secret military monitoring by the US and other western allies, it now seems 99% certain that the plane was targeted by an Iranian SAM installation’s radar, which then launched two missiles at the plane, both of which seem to have successfully impacted/exploded close-by, resulting in the plane’s sudden and complete destruction.

Iran’s apologists have rushed to describe this as a tragic mistake.  Certainly, there is no apparent rational reason why the Iranian military authorities would choose to shoot down a civilian plane on which half the passengers were Iranian nationals, and most others also fellow Muslims.

But how on earth can one be so incompetent as to confuse a 737 in the early stages of taking off from the city’s international airport and climbing into the sky on a route taking the plane away from the city center (a regular many times a day event) with an incoming military plane planning on bombing Tehran (an event which hasn’t happened since the Iran/Iraq war, 32 – 40 years ago)?

We’ll agree that on a radar screen, one blip can look similar to another, but a quick glance at altitudes, speeds, where the plane has come from and where it is going to is all that is needed to make it obvious that a civilian plane has just taken off from the airport and is leaving the region on a standard flight path.

There’s also the fact that the 737 would have been transmitting a coded identifier labeling it as a Ukrainian Intl Airlines 737 and showing its flight number.  We don’t know if this shows up on military radars, but it surely does appear on civilian air traffic control radars, and if you’re going to have a SAM site right next to your country’s busiest civilian airport, you’d probably have some mix of civil and military radar capabilities.

The continued talk by the same apologists of “heightened tensions with the US” making for itchy missile trigger fingers are unsubtly trying to make it partially our fault, but are nonsense.  If the US was going to stage an attack on Tehran – an act it has no need to do at present, and indeed, after the “Twitter diplomacy” over the weekend, it seems tensions are decreasing at the moment, it would send missiles not planes.  There is no easy way to get a plane from the USS Harry S Truman, the carrier stationed in the Persian Gulf area at present, and fly it 500 – 800 miles through Iranian territory to Tehran (and with one or two refuelings required in Iranian airspace en route), whereas it is an ideal task for cruise missiles (although getting close to their maximum operational range too).

If the US was using bombers, they’d probably be low visibility B2 bombers, and definitely not flying at 250 knots at 5,000 ft.  Any American plane departing the city would be doing so after delivering its load of goodies, and the SAM site – a primary target for any first wave of attack – would already know all about their presence.

We don’t know what happened or why, but it has to be considered incompetence of a breathtaking magnitude and utterly in no way any part our fault.

Another Crazy Ranking of Airlines

Click-bait websites love to come up with lists, with each item on the list taking one or two web pages to name.  They make money from all the ads on each page that you have to click through to read the article – a trivial article that should be displayed on a single page, not on 25 different pages.

Some companies go to great length to assert their lists are actually “the real thing” and one such list is the airlineratings.com list of safest airlines in the world.  But we feel their list is little better than simply writing airline names on pieces of paper, then drawing them blind out of a barrel, randomly.  The thing is that almost every western airline (and most non-western airlines too) have beyond-excellent safety records.  We can complain about airline seats and airline fees as much as we like, but the happy fact is that airline crashes and fatalities are almost nonexistent these days.  So how do you rate a bunch of airlines from 1 – 100 when all of them have perfect operational safety records?

You end up either with a meaningless list, or saying “they’re all as good as each other to within any possible statistically significant margin of difference” (which of course doesn’t win headlines), or else you over-engineer the parameters you consider so as to create differences where none exist.

This is clearly illustrated in the airlineratings.com list, which sees Southwest Airlines plummet down to a three star out of seven stars safety rating, putting it on a level with airlines from Cuba, Tajikistan, Bangladesh, and other places that don’t seem to have much in common in terms of best aviation safety practices mandated and followed in this country and adopted by Southwest.

The largest part of Southwest’s poor ranking seems to be because it had a fatality in 2018.  But, get this, airlinerankings.com – the fatality was not Southwest’s fault.  One of the engines on a Southwest 737 had an uncontained engine failure, with parts flying off the engine and into the plane fuselage, cracking open a window, and causing a passenger to be partially sucked out.  She was pulled back into the plane but subsequently died of her injuries.

The problem with the engine was nothing to do with Southwest’s operating or maintenance.  It was discovered to be an engine design problem, it could have happened on any other similar model engine on any other airline’s 737 as well.  It was pure random bad luck (the size of Southwest Airlines and the 750 or so planes it operates making it more likely to be the airline that draws the short straw, but this is luck not bad operational procedures and safety noncompliance).  It was not a reason to downcheck Southwest’s safety rating.

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Are you familiar with the concept of mileage runs – desperately flying unnecessary extra flights at the end of a year in order to end up qualifying for a higher level of frequent flier program membership for the next year?  It is definitely a thing about which there are some amazing and amusing urban legends, and with 2019 just having come to a close, already there’s a 2019 mileage run new story that definitely seems worthy of joining that list.

One of the more surprising exhibitors at CES this week was Delta Air Lines.  They were showing some of their new inflight entertainment system capabilities, including a “binge button”.

Also at CES was yet another new electric car, but – as seems inevitably the case – not due out for over a year.  A good seeming car and great price, but they seem to have shortchanged us in battery range.

A secret US national park?  And spread over multiple different locations in the US?  Sounds great, and to my delight, one part is here in Washington state.  Definitely a must visit for me.

Have you ever wondered what those little hook things on the top of wings are for?  I have, and it turns out, I guessed wrong.  Here’s an interesting explanation.

A man somehow managed to trip over a luggage scale at an airport (Westchester County in New York state).  So he did what we’d all of course do, right?  He is suing the airport for $5 million.

Lastly, in the possible event the next article about our tours doesn’t display properly, please click here to see an introduction to our quartet of tempting tours for this year.  I hope we’ll share at least one of them, together.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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