Weekly Roundup, Friday 7 February 2020

Glorious Chambord Castle in France’s Loire Valley. Come visit it with us in May.

Good morning

News came out on Thursday that because of New York state’s policies shielding the state records of illegal aliens from federal organizations, the Department of Homeland Security announced that no-one in New York state will now be eligible for any of their Trusted Traveler programs (the best known of which is Global Entry), and those currently enrolled will not be able to renew when their current membership expires.

As one who had to spend many years and thousands of dollars on attorney fees to go through all the legal steps to become a lawful resident alien and eventually citizen, I have no comprehension at all why it is that states choose to lavish resources on illegal aliens while making it harder and harder for law-abiding immigrants to go through the formal system.  Why do lawful immigrants have to prove they have no police convictions, but unlawful ones are waived that requirement?  How is it that, here in Washington, an illegal immigrant gets instant access to state benefits but a citizen moving from another state to WA has to wait a year before they, for example, qualify for in-state rates of tuition at the University of Washington?

But I have to acknowledge that the DHS decision seems rather specious.  To suggest the only way to determine if an applicant qualifies for a Trusted Traveler program or not is by researching their state driving license application is nonsense.  As part of the Trusted Traveler application process, people have to show identification proving who they are (such as a driving license, from anywhere), and also identification proving their lawful status as a citizen/permanent legal resident (a passport, green card, birth certificate, or naturalization certificate).

However, this got me thinking about the Trusted Traveler programs.  Did you know there are seven different ways/statuses that can apply to you when you go through a TSA security check at the airport at present?  And did you know that the most expense of these statuses is perhaps the least useful, while the least expensive of them is perhaps the most useful?

I accordingly wrote an article looking at the various ways you can transition from being an ordinary passenger, going through the longest line, and with the most intrusive security, and instead become a privileged and even trusted traveler.  It is attached after today’s roundup.

Note – the article, while hopefully useful as it is, includes a bonus section for our kind and generous Travel Insider Supporters that adds substantially to the advice and guidance offered.  If you’re one of our Supporters, you’ll need to read the article on the website after logging in to your Supporter account.  The extra section doesn’t appear in the email.  And if you’re not yet a Supporter, it only takes a minute or two to become one.

What else this week?  Still another call out on Boeing’s latest problems (unbelievably, yet another software bug has surfaced just a day or two ago), plus an update on the coronavirus, and also :

  • Travel Insider Touring
  • This Week’s Bad News for Boeing
  • Lessons from the Istanbul Plane Crash
  • Airplane Sales Bribes
  • Coronavirus Update
  • Amazon Doesn’t Choose its Amazon Choice Products
  • 5G!  Who Needs It?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Travel Insider Touring

I’m increasingly feeling desperate to escape, even if only for a few weeks, from the mounting craziness in this election cycle.

About the only thing the country can agree on at present is that the impeachment process was a farce, while simultaneously disagreeing in almost equal measure as to which part of it was farcical!  Who was the ruder in the State of the Union address – President Trump for not shaking the Speaker’s hand, or Nancy Pelosi for first omitting the usual gracious introduction when giving the floor to the President, and then standing up and on camera ripping his speech up in front of the nation?  Who won in Iowa – a question still being hotly debated on Thursday night?  And so on…..

So please do join with me in a politics-free relaxing break on carefully selected Travel Insider tours in May of France, or Scotland in June, or in several of the ‘stan countries in September.

Come and enjoy a time where the hottest topics of disagreement and debate are nothing more substantial than which was the better wine or whisky we’d just enjoyed!  Whether we should turn left or right at the next cross-roads, and go to this or that lovely little town or village.  Whether we should have an appetizer or dessert (or both!), as well as a main course, at dinner.  Whether we want to enjoy a double seat to ourselves on the left or right of the coach – indeed, whether we want to go out on that day’s touring or just have a lazy relaxing day in the town we’re staying in and do nothing much at all.

Do you get the feeling and sense of the style of the France and Scotland tours?  They can be as much – or as little – as you like.  An oasis of calm and quiet, while redolent with opportunities to see, do, experience and enjoy as many new and fun things as you like.

We’re getting closer to needing to start confirming numbers at hotels, so if you’re “on the fence” about coming or not, now is a good time to decide to join a group of your friendly Travel Insiders and share a good time, the “old fashioned way”, with a group of friends in relaxed good company.

This Week’s Bad News for Boeing

Boeing’s path towards recertification of the 737, something that initially looked like a trivial task requiring only a few weeks, seems to be characterized by a series of fitful single steps forward, followed by an oblique step to one side, and then a matching step backwards again.

This week’s backward step was the disclosure that a new software bug has been discovered.  On the face of it, the bug doesn’t seem very vital – a warning light that unreliably comes on/goes off – but whereas in a car, and we’ve all experienced faulty indicators for things like oil/tire pressure or “check engine” lights, you don’t have quite the same luxury of pulling over on the side of the road when it suits you, if necessary, to determine if an indicator light proves to be real or not.

Plus – oh yes.  The faulty indicator light is to do with the MCAS system that was the cause of the two crashes!  Surely that part of the plane’s control software would be in the most robust form possible.  Apparently, not quite yet.  Details here.

If that’s not enough, there are also new concerns about some of the wiring paths in the plane, with the Europeans in particular concerned and possibly wishing to see the wiring layout redesigned.  Potentially yet another backward step.

The FAA seems to be less anxious about the wiring, and of course, Boeing says there’s not a problem.  This opens up the Pandora’s Box concept of some certifying bodies allowing the 737 to resume service and others refusing, imposing their own set of standards and requirements.  It has been enormously beneficial for international aviation, up to this point, to have a single lead certifying agency for most airplanes, and the other agencies generally accepting that organization’s certification and not requiring a separate compliance with their own standards.  To do otherwise would be as if every state in the US had different emission controls, mpg requirements, and safety standards for cars.

Words to strike fear into Boeing’s heart?  The statement by Ryanair’s CEO that discussions with Boeing for compensation due to the 737 MAX grounding were “going well“.  Ryanair is famous for its very aggressive deals with Boeing, in exchange for being a huge 737 customer and running exclusively a 737 fleet.

A 737 crashed near Amsterdam in 2009.  This was long before the 737 MAX series, but this article and some commentators are trying to link the two unrelated events, in the sense of claims that the investigation into Boeing’s role in the crash was quashed.

That’s a serious concern, and the new refusal by both Boeing and the NTSB to cooperate with a new enquiry into the crash is not the best way to quell the concern, particularly when it was a NY Times article, here in the US, that reopened questions about the nature of the investigation.

Lessons from the Istanbul Plane Crash

A Boeing 737 crashed when landing at one of Istanbul’s airports earlier this week.  It spectacularly broke into three pieces after a bad landing, skidding along the runway, then veering off and ending up in a ditch 100 ft below the runway.  Apparently three of the 183 passengers and crew may have died.

There’s no suggestion at this stage that it was a 737 fault.

The lesson I take from this is looking at where the plane broke into its three pieces.  Just forward of the wing box, and near the aft tail section.  This is exactly as expected, or, to distill it to its core component, the strongest and therefore most survivable part of a plane is the part over the wings.  Some people believe the front of the plane to be riskiest, and others suggest the rear to be safest, but my money is on the strengthened section over the wings, every time.  In survivable crashes where it is the break up of the plane that causes the casualties, if you’re in the section over the wings, it seems you’re in the strongest and safest place.

I discuss this topic in more detail in the second part of my four part series “How to Survive a Plane Crash“.  If you missed it when it first came out in 2009, why not go have a read of it now.

Airplane Sales Bribes

Do you remember the famous line in the film Casablanca when the police inspector says he was shocked to discover there was gambling going on in Rick’s Cafe (while simultaneously pocketing his own winnings)?

I’m reminded about that when viewing the expressions of faux astonishment and outrage by the Malaysian government at the “discovery” that Airbus may have bribed AirAsia to buy its planes.  In total, it seems Airbus has been naughty in at least 20 different countries, and is now being fined $4 billion.

Boeing is silent on the matter, which is perhaps just as well because it too is known to have been involved in some shady practices, either directly or somewhat at arm’s length.

Realistically though, what right do governments of countries A, B & C have to impose their standards and values on companies doing business in countries X, Y and Z?  Especially when certain practices are viewed in those countries not as dishonest but as normal, necessary and expected?

As the McKinsey report in the second Boeing link, above, says – “Respect traditional bureaucratic processes including use of bribes.”

We’d also observe that countries A, B & C have benefitted greatly from the employment and profits generated by Airbus as a result of the contracts that it won.

If we allow countries A, B & C to impose their cultural values on multi-national corporations, wherever they do business, doesn’t that then allow every other country in the world to do the same?  Will it become necessary to follow halal traditions in building airplanes?  To observe labor laws of another country, even though the planes are neither built in that country nor sold to them (but they might subsequently then fly in and out of that country)?  No planes to be built on the Sabbath?  Women not allowed to participate in building planes?

The next thing you’ll know, and it directly flows on from this; unrelated countries will not only be demanding compliance with whatever laws and unwritten customs they arbitrarily cite, but they’ll also be demanding taxes and other tributes, too.

Question :  What is the difference between a bribe, a referral fee, a commission, a consulting fee, an expeditor fee, and a tip?  What is the difference between “peddling influence” and bribing?

How about the “social influencers” that make millions of dollars for unreal insincere endorsements of products they never use, or who claim to love a particular hotel/resort, without disclosing they were paid to stay there and praise it?  Or even simple things like “product placements” in movies?

How about military generals who place multi-billion dollar contracts, and then after retiring, find themselves working for the companies they’d awarded the contracts to?  Or the politician who is paid a six or seven figure sum to give a one hour speech at a lunch event then finds themselves voting on legislation that affects the group who bought his “speech”?  Or when person A donates extravagantly to a favorite charity of person B, then sells or buys a product to/from person B on favorable terms?  Or when person C donates millions to a Presidential campaign and after the inauguration, finds himself the Ambassador to a country, even though he has no diplomatic experience at all.

Aren’t these all bribes by different names?  Or, if there are differences, are they real massive differences, or merely differences of social perspective?

We are not advocating for bribes as an ordinary part of normal business, in the west or anywhere else.  But we are pointing out the blinkered hypocrisy that surrounds the topic, the surprising number of shades of grey, and observing that “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is not only a good rule for considerate tourism, but maybe for considerate business too.

Coronavirus Update

This time last week, the count was 9692 cases and 213 deaths.  What a difference a week makes.  Now the current counts are 31,481 cases (4,824 of them being in critical condition) and 638 deaths.  On a more positive note, 1563 people are reported as having recovered.

We are told that about 2% of patients die.  This is a nonsense claim.  Sure, 638 deaths is quite close to 2% of 31,481 cases.  But many thousands of those cases are new fresh cases, and it can take patients a week or more to die.  Also a problematic measure, but one no worse than the 2% measure, is to compare the 638 deaths to the 1563 survivors and suggest that implies a 29% death rate, which is of course utterly worse than the 2% measure.  The great Spanish flu pandemic immediately after World War 1 had a mortality rate of about 10%, way below the mortality rate the previous calculation suggested.

The problem is we truly have no idea.  The only thing that is increasingly obvious about the cases in China is that the Chinese authorities are not being accurate with their counts.  Earlier reports told us of people collapsing and dying, unattended, in the streets of Wuhan.  More recent reports tell us of crematoriums running 24/7, even to the point of possibly creating a thick smog from the cremated corpses, of dead bodies being stacked in hospital corridors, and – make of this whatever you will – the apparent mysterious disappearance of the country’s president, Xi Jinping.

There is also the strange case of the “accidental” but repeated release of much larger casualty figures that were then quickly withdrawn from one of China’s largest social media sites, Tencent.  A couple of days ago, an apparent accidental release of information on Tencent suggested possibly 24,589 deaths.

While we don’t know anything, we can observe the panicked responses – not by ordinary people, but by medical authorities around the world.  Not only is China quarantining enormous swathes of itself, but the rest of the world is rushing to cut off all contact with China.  These actions are not those of ill-informed panicking ordinary people; they are the actions of national public-health leaders.

What do they know that we don’t know?

Of interest to us as travelers is a list of eleven US airports to avoid.  These are the eleven “screener” airports that flights from China are allowed to fly to, and they are SFO, SEA, HNL, ORD, IAH, DFW, ATL, DTW, JFK, EWR and IAD.

It appears that the extra scrutiny and screening being given to passengers on those high risk flights is snarling up the international arrivals parts of those airports, plus of course, there’s a tiny but measurable increase in risk for you if traveling through the same airport.

Do you see any surprising omissions on that list of screener airports?  Hint – an international airport a little north of LGB and a little south of  BUR…..

Lastly on this point, there are now two quarantined cruise ships, each with multiple coronavirus cases on board.  They are enduring two week quarantines, with the ships on lockdown and passengers restricted to their cabins.

And the craziest coronavirus action this week?  The man who suddenly stood up, two hours into a flight from Toronto to Jamaica, and announced he had the virus.  The plane had to urgently return back to Canada, where it turned out the man was making a stupid joke, and was in perfect health.

The next week promises to be another interesting week.  I received a bulk shipment of four quarts of hand cleanser on Thursday, so am feeling much more settled!

Amazon Doesn’t Choose its Amazon Choice Products

About two years ago, you may have noticed that some of the products on the Amazon website started bearing a little icon alongside their listing, showing them to be an Amazon Choice product.  If you hovered your cursor over the icon, a popup explained “Amazon’s Choice recommends highly rated, well-priced products available to ship immediately”.  Exactly what that rather opaque statement meant was subject to some conjecture, but in some way or another the classification clearly was intended to recommend and endorse some products in preference to other similar products in the same category.

I can’t start to describe the enormous feeling of betrayal that I’ve felt since buying a couple of Amazon Choice products and finding them to be worse than offensively useless.  But I still dared to hope that these were the exceptions, and that in general, a product marked as an Amazon Choice product was more likely than not to be better than its competitors.

This week saw news break of excellent research and discovery into what the Amazon Choice process involves, and how many companies have been gaming the system to inappropriately trick Amazon into awarding this endorsement to their undeserving products.

The biggest disappointment of all is that Amazon is supposed to be smarter than this.  How is it that no-good fly-by-night resellers of cheap Chinese junk can fool the world’s largest retailer?

Here’s the story.  Read it and weep.

5G!  Who Needs It?

You’ve surely read some of the breathless hype surrounding the roll-out of 5G wireless data services.  You could be forgiven for generally believing what you read.  After all, the transitions from 1G to 2G to 3G to 4G have all been massive quantum leaps bringing about huge improvements in data speeds (ten-fold or more in each case), so there’s every reason to expect another giant leap from 4G to 5G.

But don’t believe the hype at all.  For one thing, 4G service, most of the time, is nowhere near as good as its theoretical maximum speeds promise.  In theory, 4G data rates can exceed 300 Mbps and best case scenario reach 1Gbps, but in the real world, if you’re much over 10 Mbps you’re doing well.  Furthermore, if you’re enjoying faster than 10 Mbps speeds, you don’t really need much more bandwidth.  If you’re already streaming a movie or music, or having a video call, who needs more/faster service?  If webpages are already loading faster than your phone can render them onto your screen, and faster than the website can send them to you, who needs more speed?

5G service in theory can reach a maximum of 20 Gbps.  But there are several problems with that theoretical maximum.  The first is that the (relatively) low frequencies being used by wireless carriers in the US can’t allow for anywhere near that theoretical speed.  The second problem is that even if your phone could communicate with the nearby cell tower at 20 Gbps, nothing else could keep up.  The phone itself wouldn’t be able to render pages that quickly, and the data feed from the cell tower into the rest of the internet couldn’t keep up either, and neither would most of the internet backbone.  For example, I’ve a 500Mbps fiber optic connection to the internet at present and never, ever, have anything sending data at that speed to me.  And my website – like most – has a 1Gb feed from its server to the internet at its hosting location – plenty fast enough for just about anything at present, but again, something that would offer no benefit to a person asking for pages at 20 Gb/sec.

Here’s a good article that looks at some of the other 5G myths.  Bottom line, as I said to a reader a week or two back :  Don’t feel any pressure at all to upgrade your present phones to newer models that claim 5G compatibility.  You’ll not notice an iota of difference with any of your ordinary normal uses.

And Lastly This Week….

One thing that has always troubled me about Australia’s electoral system is that voting is compulsory, and – yes – they do track down and fine people who don’t vote.  To me, the freedom to privately vote as you wish is of course a cornerstone of the democratic process, and inseparably part of that freedom is the freedom not to vote at all.

Sometimes, with two similarly unappealing choices on the ballot, not voting at all is the only remaining way to show one’s disaffection with the choices offered.  Other times, perhaps with judges or complicated initiatives, one either doesn’t care or doesn’t feel qualified to be able to sensibly contribute to the electing process.

So it is with concern that I note California toying with the notion of making voting mandatory.

Still on the subject of freedoms, there’s a truly terrifying proposal in Canada to require all news websites to be licensed by the government in order to be allowed to operate in Canada.  Our First Amendment is such a precious treasure, as is shown by proposals (and actions!) such as this one in a country that “should know better”.

About the only good thing about it is that with the amorphous nature of the internet, it would be difficult to exclude international news sites and keep them away from Canadians.  Difficult, but alas – as shown by “The Great Firewall of China” – far from impossible.

I was decrying the spiraling costs of Britain’s currently-under-development HS2 high speed rail line.  I’m still very unhappy with the way the cost projections doubled in a very short time, but this is a great and thoughtful article that goes a long way to persuading me that the rail line is worth it, no matter the cost.

I did hear the ritual invocation of “infrastructure” at the State of the Union address, and the enthusiasm with which the phrase was received by Congress as a whole; both parties.  But do I think there’s any increased likelihood of any increased investment in US high speed rail?  Not for a moment, alas.

Don’t you just love the wonderful help that we get from Google Maps and Waze (also a Google product), showing realtime traffic on their maps, and intelligently rerouting us on our way to a destination to avoid traffic.  The certainty of knowing if you should take this route or that route for easiest quickest travel gives us all much peace of mind, and helps smooth out the peaks and troughs of traffic flows over multiple paths.

Here’s an amusing story of how a gentleman in Berlin tricked Google into thinking there was a terrible traffic jam on the city’s streets.  It involved a hand cart and 99 phones….

And truly lastly this week, if you’re running out of countries to visit, here’s one you’ve probably not visited before.  Best of all, it isn’t even far from Las Vegas, and no, it isn’t Mexico.  Details here.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 7 February 2020”

  1. Just returned from Japan to ORD on Wednesday 2/5 where I was for 6 days. Prior to Japan I was in Hong Kong for 6 days (and other SE Asia countries before that).

    Although asked some simple questions about my trip locations on embarcation, no medical testing nor detailed interrogation was performed. In fact, on landing in ORD I got thru US global entry in about 5 minutes – although a breakdown in the baggage delivery system resulted in a short 5 – 10 minute delay. No one even looked at my Customs form where one lists the countries visited on one’s journey.

    So despite the virus scare, getting through immigration this time was one of the fastest I have encountered.

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