Weekly Roundup, Friday 31 January 2020

The stunning Customs Square looking out to the river in the heart of the stately world heritage city of Bordeaux.  We’ll be based here for a week in our May tour of France.

Good morning

It is the dawn of a new era for Britain today.  At 6pm Eastern or 3pm Pacific time, ie 11pm GMT on 31 January 2020, Britain formally leaves the EU.  Depending on who you choose to believe, it will be the start of a new golden era of independent prosperity and a return to Britain’s leading role on the world stage, or the start of a terminal decline into poverty and irrelevance, or perhaps, there’ll be little or no change at all.  My money is on the third of these possible outcomes.

It is interesting to note that in the 46 years of the EU existence (and the additional years prior to that of its predecessor organizations) Britain is the first country to leave what is currently a group of 28 nations, and is about to become 27.

Britain is releasing a commemorative 50p coin to note the occasion, and the many ardent pro-Europeans have mounted a campaign for Europhiles to deface the coins with black Sharpie markers with slogans such as “I (heart) the EU”.  Britain is also replacing its Euro-conforming red passport cover with a new blue passport cover, although the actual passport size and shape will not return back to the distinctive earlier passport design before Britain was forced to conform to European passport standards.

There’s also a point that no-one dares mention – the new British passports are not being printed by the traditional English printer, de la Rue.  They are being printed by a French company, in France.  Sorry, Britain – you can’t escape Europe that easily!  Here’s an interesting article that is both about the history of Britain’s passports and obliquely about passports in general.

Talking about passports, for us as travelers to Britain and the EU, we can expect no difference at all when entering/exiting either Britain or Europe.  Britain never joined the Schengen zone, and so our experiences flying anywhere in Europe and Great Britain will remain the same.

Talking about Britain, we have to respectfully and sorrowfully note the passing of a British “national treasure” this week – Nicholas Parsons.  Parsons was best known as founding and chairing the panel game “Just a Minute”, mainly on BBC 4 radio, but occasionally in television form too.  The program ran for 53 years, during which time he only ever missed two episodes due to ill health.  He had a polished calm presentation that endeared him and the extraordinarily long running program to the nation and the world as a whole.  He was still working full-time on the shows, and for the last ten years held the title of “oldest show host in Britain” (he died at the age of 96).

I remember enjoying Just a Minute as a boy, and to my delight, was able to share it in turn with my daughter and her peers when volunteer teaching speech and debate at her school last year.  Indeed, of all the AV aids in my classes, the Just a Minute shows (and our own in-class version of the game) was the runaway favorite of the group of early teenagers.  Here’s an obituary and another article about this lovely gentleman, and here’s a link to the first of the television episodes of Just a Minute.  If you like it, there are plenty more on YouTube.

I not only lament the passing of Parsons himself, but also the decline of such “intelligent, thinking and apolitical” entertainment (and the intelligent thoughtful people featured within the programs), passed over now in favor of “reality tv” and extended television editorials that masquerade as news.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • Reader Survey Results – Newsletter Length
  • Terrific Trio of Tremendous Travel Insider Tours
  • This Week’s Bad News for Boeing
  • The Kobe Bryant Crash – Everything we Don’t Know
  • United’s Fashion Police on Patrol
  • Delta’s Antsy Pilots and FA’s Cost it a $50,000 Fine
  • Too Fat for Business Class – Had to Fly Coach Class
  • A Tiny Bit of Legal Sense about Mandatory Contracts
  • Coronavirus Update
  • TSA Becoming Still More Sensible
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey Results – Newsletter Length

I asked last week if you felt that the weekly newsletter had grown ridiculously long, and if so, how did you think it should be trimmed in size.  Other options were to proclaim the newsletter as perfect, or to say that it was too short.

Here are the results, and of course, thank you to everyone who shared their opinions.

Almost half the readers felt the newsletter was too long, with the preferred strategy for shortening it being to have less detail per article, followed by readers who didn’t mind how it was shortened, and the least desirable method being to include less articles each week.

I was surprised by how many people deemed the newsletter – at least in length – to be perfect as it is, and astonished by the few who wished it to be even longer still.

The information is helpful, but perhaps the most relevant information of all would be from people who didn’t reply – quite likely because they didn’t read the newsletter last week.  I note that, as best the newsletter sending service can determine, each week about one third of the newsletters sent out are actually opened.

What would be tremendously interesting would be to know whether it is the same people opening the newsletter every week, or a changing mix so that over a course of some weeks, everyone ends up reading at least one newsletter.  I suspect the answer to that is “all of the above” – some people open nearly every newsletter, some people open a newsletter ever two or three weeks, and some rarely or never open it at all.

I’m always interested in ideas as to how to make the content more interesting or more engaging.  But for now, I think this reply (and others like it) sort of summed things up

I think it’s absolutely fine.  If I don’t want to read something, just go on through/past it.

Nicely said, but there’s another worry to keep in mind.  Guess what is now a new target for eco-freaks?  Too much email (truly, see this article).  So I’m anxiously wondering if I’m risking the health of the planet with longer emails.  (I ended up, alas, profligately writing 4730 words today.  Apologies to the planet.)

Terrific Trio of Tremendous Travel Insider Tours

We’ve two tours currently accepting participant requests, and one almost good to go.  Please check them out, and choose to come with a great group of your fellow Travel Insiders.

In May, our French tour, with a week based in the Bordeaux area, a pre-tour around the French Riviera, and a post-tour in the Loire Valley; and then connecting on to

In June, our Scotland tour, going to some unusual and remote parts of Scotland, plus a lovely island or two, with pre-tour options in a castle and industrial-era mill now a hotel, and a post-tour around Edinburgh.

In September (5 – 12 September), a week touring the amazing mix of ancient and awesome that is Kazakhstan, plus a pre-tour around Ukraine and a post-tour going on to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan – will be available to join hopefully next week.

Plus, a Christmas Markets tour in early December, details a bit later.

Please do think about coming along for one or more of these great experiences.

This Week’s Bad News for Boeing

The news for Boeing this week wasn’t particularly good, but it was all largely anticipated and so there were at least no surprises.

Third time’s a charm seemed to be the case for the first flight of Boeing’s new 777X plane.  After two cancellations due to “strong wind” the plane finally took to the air on Saturday and enjoyed a largely uneventful multi-hour flight, most of it flying large circles in eastern Washington.

The strong wind concern was due to the plane not being allowed to depart from Everett’s Paine Field into the wind, as all other planes prefer to do.  If it did this, it would have flown over a built-up area, and in a display of a ridiculous amount of caution, this was not allowed, in case the plane were to crash out of the sky on its maiden flight.  So for two days in a row, Boeing felt the tail winds were too strong to allow for a safe take-off, while all the other planes at the airport were happily flying off in the opposite direction into the wind.

The general rule of thumb is that if the tail wind is stronger than 10 or sometimes 15 knots, planes should usually not take-off with the wind behind them (and the same for landing).  That’s a very conservative rule indeed, and while I’ll not say I’ve ever broken it, I’ll not say to the contrary either.

Wednesday say Boeing announce its results for 2019, and to no-one’s surprise at all, it showed a loss for the year, the first since 1997.  But in anticipation of that, it has already arranged for loan facilities to give it up to another $12 billion, so the company is unconcerned about money.

It also remains curiously unconcerned about its market share.  The new CEO has decided, apparently, to “do his own thing” and so has halted the company’s current inconclusive studies into successor planes to both the 757 and 737, saying the company needs to be less focused on future planning and visions, and more focused on restoring trust with its customers and regulators.  It is of course unfortunate that the company can’t do both simultaneously.  He said in a press conference this week he expects the 737MAX to be around for many years to come – possibly through the mid 2030s.

Meanwhile, would it be churlish of us to point out that, depending on the time-frame taken, the new Airbus A321 models are outselling the 737MAX 9 & 10 by a factor of between 3:1 and 5:1.

What was surprising is that after last week Boeing predicting no recertification of the 737 until perhaps June/July, this week the FAA said it might be able to certify sooner than that.  When?  No-one really knows.  Details, such as they are, here.

The Kobe Bryant Crash – Everything we Don’t Know

“Pilot was told he was too low minutes before fatal crash” – headlines like this have been sounding alarms ever since the crash in the Los Angeles area of a helicopter carrying a former basketball player and others on Sunday morning.

Other phrases used have been “the pilot was struggling to avoid the clouds” – a nonsense statement because no struggle was involved.  The pilot wished to avoid clouds and wanted a clear view down to where he wished to land, but he wasn’t struggling with flying the helicopter.  He just wished to optimize the experience and had plenty of options and alternates if needed.

The clear message that simple-minded journalists seem to be breathlessly conveying is that the pilot got lost in dangerously bad weather, couldn’t see where he was, and so experienced a “controlled flight into terrain” event (a polite/technical way of saying “crashed into the side of a mountain because he couldn’t see it/didn’t know where he was”.

But while we don’t know what caused the crash, we do know that it was neither weather nor a CFIT.  The message from Air Traffic Control saying “you are too low” is a misleading excerpt of the full message, which was “you are too low for us to track you on radar”.  It was not a message warning that the pilot and his helicopter was dangerously low and about to fly into the ground.

Furthermore, it seems plain that in the seconds before the crash, something happened that caused the craft to plummet to the ground.  It had been safely well above the ground, then something happened and it “fell out of the sky”.

Height was not an issue.  Visibility was probably (but not 100% guaranteed) not an issue either.  It is possible, but very unlikely, that the experienced pilot did become disoriented and so somehow got his controls out of balance causing the helicopter to descend rapidly.  Much more likely though is some type of catastrophic engine or rotor failure, and in particular, a failure of a type that wouldn’t allow for a hair-raising “autorotation” – the process where a helicopter with failed engine can make a semi-controlled semi-crash landing with no power.

The helicopter wasn’t equipped with a black box (and wasn’t required to have one).  But we hope the NTSB investigators will work their magic and deduce what went wrong, as difficult as that surely is when having only broken tangled pieces of metal to work with.

United’s Fashion Police on Patrol

A stunningly beautiful businesswoman was intercepted on her way to board her first class United flight at Denver, and told she couldn’t board because her blouse was too low cut/revealing.

United subsequently changed its mind and allowed her on, but only after some tense exchanges.  Here’s an article and, yes, a picture too.  But don’t click in expectation of seeing much – there’s very little on display, and when you further consider she was to be in first class, and on a red-eye flight in the dark most of the way, the hypersensitivity of a UA employee at DEN seems puzzling.

Delta’s Antsy Pilots and FA’s Cost it a $50,000 Fine

The DoT is proposing to fine Delta a ridiculously trivial amount ($50,000) due to it having violated anti-bias laws in removing three Muslims from two flights.

We feel awkward at the concept of anti-bias laws, which often serve to strangle common sense on the altar of political correctness.  But in these two cases, as recounted in this article, it seems abundantly plain that there were never the remotest of grounds for being concerned at the presence of the passengers on the flights.

While Delta has been ordered to impose “cultural sensitivity training” on the people involved, the real problem isn’t cultural sensitivity.  It is gross idiocy and self-indulgence on the part of the pilots and flight attendants, and while it was possible to at least respond with cultural bias charges in this case, how many other times have we also seen crew on planes force passengers off for no measurable reason at all, just saying “we didn’t feel comfortable” as if that’s a catch-all excuse.  It is a bit like the police with their catch-all charges of “disorderly behavior” and “resisting arrest”.  In all those cases, we have no recourse to cultural bias legislation, and in the “their word against ours” scenario with overly supportive police invariably siding with the airline staff, we’re left without any recourse.

We need more than cultural sensitivity training.  We need to get aircrew to realize that not all their passengers are people they’d choose to invite into their home and leave alone with the family silver.  They don’t get to pick and choose which passengers they’ll allow to fly on “their” flights and which they’ll refuse to allow to fly on the flight the people have booked and paid for and are relying on to get somewhere for some purpose.

We also need fines several orders of magnitude greater than $25,000 per incident.  Plus not just sensitivity training.  If a pilot or flight attendant isn’t comfortable flying with passengers, they should resign, voluntarily or otherwise.  Keep in mind these incidents invariably end up delaying the entire flight and everyone on it, sometimes to the point of requiring everyone to leave the plane, be re-screened, and then reboard the plane again.

Too Fat for Business Class – Had to Fly Coach Class

How surprising is this!  Three women were downgraded to coach class due to being too large to fit in the airline’s business class seats.  When you consider that business class seats are generally anywhere from 2″ to 6″ wider than coach class seats, it seems astonishing that people would be sent to coach class because the business class seats were too small.  Indeed, on the Thai Airways 787-9 that the three ladies were on, the coach class seats are 17″ wide and business class seats are 21″ wide.

But there’s another factor to consider.  The Thai planes have airbags in their business class seatbelts, as sometimes happens when the seat in front of you is too far in front for you to brace against.  This apparently means you can’t add a seat-belt extender, and so, in this case, if you have a waist measurement greater than 56″, you can’t be accommodated in nice wide business class seats, but you can be accommodated in nasty narrow coach class seats.

Details here.

A Tiny Bit of Legal Sense about Mandatory Contracts

Don’t you just hate the mandatory licenses and other contracts that we have to accept if we want anything at all in this modern world.  One of the many legal lies that we all have to pretend is not actually a ridiculous nonsense is that we have equal bargaining power, and are free to negotiate and to accept/refuse the contractual terms as we wish.

Try that the next time you’re reading through the several pages of legalese in a contract to rent a car.  See how far it gets you.  Or, next time you install an app on your phone and it asks for permission to access your entire life history.  Say no, and watch the app disappear.  You either have to agree to everything, or else you get nothing.

I was recently sent a non-disclosure agreement to sign.  There were two lines for buyers to fill in their names and sign, and another line for a buyer broker to fill in and sign as well.  I said I had no buyer broker, and the seller broker said they couldn’t accept the NDA because it was “a Legal Document” and “everything had to be filled in”, including details for a (non-existent) buyer broker.

I asked them if that meant I also had to get a partner, because there were two lines for buyer names and signatures, but they just woodenly repeated that it is a Legal Document and they would not tell me any more about the business they were supposedly being paid to promote and sell unless I filled it out completely.  (I was unable to comply, and they wouldn’t budge with their demand.)

Oh – one more example.  I was helping a friend buy a house recently, and at closing, the Title Insurance company required her to sign a document indemnifying them from any mistakes they might have made.  The whole purpose of title insurance is to guarantee you certainty and give you recourse if someone made a mistake, and the indemnity they were seeking would have voided most of the purpose of their $600 insurance policy!  At least in that case, she refused to sign the indemnity, and the title insurance company backed down.

Anyway, a tiny little bit of sense came this week when a Philadelphia judge refused Uber’s demand that a lawsuit against it by a passenger who was injured in an accident in the Uber ride she was taking be thrown out and replaced with arbitration.  Uber said that in the standard terms and conditions was a requirement for all legal action to be via arbitration.  But the judge said there was no proof that the woman had read the terms.  Details here.

Unfortunately, we expect Uber and every other company will quickly close this loophole.  The judge said that Uber didn’t require the woman to click on an express “I agree/accept” type statement.  So probably all that will happen is we’ll have to check/click on another step in the future.

Coronavirus Update

It has been a frantic week for coronavirus updates.  Within the space of yesterday alone, we saw the count of known cases climb from 7711 early in the morning to 8200 a bit later in the day and by the evening, it was 9692.  It was the day when the total count of infected people climbed past that of the SARS virus back in 2003.  The SARS virus saw a total of 8100 infected.

In terms of deaths, it might seem that we’re getting off lightly.  Only 213 people have died so far, compared to 774 SARS casualties.  But the 213 count is misleading, and not just because it seems possible that China is under-counting its mortality rate.  It takes time for people to die from either virus, so we’ve no idea how many of the 9692 infected people, most still in the very early stages of the virus, will end up surviving or not.

To put this in perspective, between 10,000 and 80,000 people die of “normal” viral influenza, in the US alone, every year.  Currently we’ve had no deaths from coronavirus in the US.  So on the face of it, it might seem there’s a massive overreaction to the coronavirus.  But on the other hand, the thing is we just don’t know the scope and severity of the coronavirus, or how readily it gets passed on, or the mortality rate from people affected.  Better safe than sorry is an adage that is easy to appreciate.

The World Health Organization finally got around to declaring the coronavirus a global emergency on Thursday.  A week later than we’d hoped for, and we suspect it was the political not medical considerations which delayed the announcement.  Indeed, rather than sounding the alarm, WHO is way behind the curve, with governments advising against all travel to China and restricting visitors from China, and airlines not just restricting but canceling flights to/from China, and not just canceling some flights, but canceling all their flights.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there’s been a massive run on buying “surgical” facemasks by people optimistically hoping that wearing such a mask will keep viral infections away.  They certainly don’t hurt, but do they really help?  Not so much.  You need a proper N95 or higher respirator, not a piece of gauze, to protect you more completely from airborne infections.  This is a helpful explanation.

Even if you do have an excellent N99 style respirator, that isn’t the only way you can get infected.  Another route is that someone coughs in your direction, and while the mask blocks the particles from being breathed in, they land on your eyes, which it seems is another way the infection can enter your system.  Or, more subtly, they settle on your hair and face.  You subsequently smooth your hair, transfer infection to your hands, then pick up a food item, eat it, and transfer the infection from your hand to the food item and then you ingest it.

This article, ostensibly about wiping down airline seats, does a good job of pointing out some of these less obvious routes through which an infection can travel.

We suggest it is close to time to become intimately acquainted with hand sanitizer.  Today and tomorrow, the prevalence of Coronavirus in the US seems amazingly low.  But we suggest you should buy some sanitizer now.  It is flying off the shelves, and prices are going up for what remains.  Amazon still had a reasonable selection on Thursday evening.

By all means buy Purell, but there are others that are almost identical, including an Amazon “house brand” (Solimo).  The key thing is to look for what percent alcohol the sanitizer has.  The best seems to be 70% alcohol (hinted at by products that boast 99.99% efficiency), and anything with less than 60% is insufficiently strong.

If we start to see more cases in the US, you should start to use it.  Even now, it is a good habit to inculcate to carry a small one or two ounce sized “travel pack” with you all the time, and use it regularly whenever you are outside your controlled home environment, and again before entering back into your controlled clean environment.  If the risk escalates, you should also ask all visitors to use it before entering your house if you’re particularly concerned.

Keep spare sanitizer dispensers in your vehicles, at work, and in assorted other strategic locations.  Buy also a bulk pack of sanitizer so you can refill the travel packs.  Again, not so much today, but in the future, at work, try and keep the surfaces around you sanitized as well as yourself, and if infection rates start to climb, then if you use public transport or are in crowds, consider showering upon getting home and even changing your clothes.

For normal life, it is still useful to practice slightly better hygiene than you do at present.  Have you ever caught a cough or cold, or got a sore throat?  Those didn’t just appear from nowhere.  They were the result of being infected by someone else, either directly or indirectly (ie the infected person contaminates a surface then you transfer the contamination from the surface to you).  It is good to get into such habits now.

TSA Becoming Still More Sensible

We find, to our astonishment and delight, we feel increasingly comfortable going through US airport security these days.  And it has become much harder to continue what, for over a decade, was a very easy accomplishment of every week having an article headed “This Week’s Security Silliness” – actually, I forget now what it was called, it having been so long since I last used the phrase!

The heartening news this week from the TSA is that you can now take a souvenir toy “light saber” from Disney through airport security.  This is particularly encouraging because last year the TSA were forbidding much smaller souvenir Coke bottles that looked like a Star Wars thermal detonator (I’ve no idea what that would look like).

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

I started the newsletter this week lamenting the loss of a British “institution”, the wonderful Nicholas Parsons.  Perhaps, as a bookend, I can observe the passing of another British “institution”, with the final retiring from active service of their Lee Enfield rifle.  First adopted by the British Army in 1895, and subsequently by most other countries in the British Empire, it started to be slowly phased out, first in Britain in 1957, and then elsewhere in what is now the Commonwealth (and not even that).  We believe the Canadian Rangers were still using them as recently as a year or two ago (Canada made the rifles in Long Branch, Ont), but think not any longer, and just this week has marked their retirement in India (who also made them in Ishapore), which now sees the rifle no longer in active service in any formal army, although there are still plenty in reserve, and informal forces still use them.  There’s a sad irony with modern day British troops in Afghanistan confronting rebel forces who are armed with Lee Enfields.

There was a time in New Zealand where most families had a “303” as we’d call them (their caliber is .303) in their wardrobe, and I’ve a number of collector type rifles dating as far back as pre-WW1 in my safe.  It remains possibly the smoothest bolt action rifle ever made, and in World War 1, the rapid rate of fire from the rifles caused the Germans to think they were facing machine guns.  The record is to fire 38 aimed shots (at a target 300 yds away) in a minute, with the rifle holding ten rounds and feeding from five round clips.

On a lighter topic, here’s an article answering a question I used to wonder about, when freshly arrived onto these shores (now 35 years ago) but now take for granted.  Why do American houses have so many bathrooms?

Do you need to buy the overpriced insurance with a rental car?  You certainly might find the need for some sort of insurance, because these days rental car companies are getting more and more aggressive at checking for – and finding – every slightest and smallest scratch and ding on their cars.  Here’s a good article on the subject.

Over-tourism is increasingly a problem, everywhere in the world.  This article explains what one destination had to do after it became inundated with too many tourists.

Truly lastly this week, I was writing, above, about precautions to take to reduce the risk of contracting coronavirus (or any other infections too).  But while I said that a gauze type face mask wouldn’t hurt and might help, there are some strategies that actually might hurt and definitely will not help at all.  Such as?  Well, have a look at this article.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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