Weekly Roundup, Friday 19 June 2020

The beautiful English countryside in spring. See last item….

Good morning

Two articles as well as the roundup for you this morning.  In the first, I review yet another set of noise cancelling headphones.  My first ever noise cancelling headphone review was published on 7 December, 2001.  I’ve probably written a couple of dozen more since then, ranging from high end $350 headphones to low end under $50 headphones.

Today’s new article is exciting, because it is a very attractively priced ($60) set of headphones with excellent noise cancelling performance.  Worth considering, and probably the best price/performance set of headphones I’ve reviewed yet.  I’m not going to discard my lovely Bose QC25 headphones, but if I was buying a second pair, I’d surely spend $60 rather than $300 and get the headphones featured in the article.

Also added is yesterday’s Covid-19 diary entry – the 99th article I’ve now written on this unfortunate topic.  I wish I’d never had to write a single one.  In it I analyse how New Zealand became re-infected with the virus, and its lessons/implications for all of us, everywhere.

Noting that US virus numbers are rising not falling, and that we’re continuing to reduce rather than reintroduce restrictions, it will be a long time before we’re in NZ’s position.  Alas.  Shame on us and on our public health and political leaders for such staggering ineptitude.

Last week I asked people to share what the oldest powered gadget/appliance is that they still use at home.  I gave, as an example, details of one of my oldest gadgets, an HP12C calculator.

That evoked a lot of replies, but with only two exceptions, all from other people extolling their own HP calculators, some having had forerunners of the HP12C dating all the way to the 1970s and still going strong.  The love for HP12C calculators, and the entire line of Reverse Polish Notation (a different way of entering calculations that doesn’t require using an equals sign – believe it or not, it is actually very much easier and more versatile) HP calculators was astonishing, as is the contrary fact that RPN never became more widespread.  It has always been a niche system that few people know about and fewer people use, but those who do, love it.

Why not try an HP12C yourself, especially if you’re involved in “time value of money” and loan type calculations.  You can also get HP12C apps for both Android and iOS phones – I have them on my phones too, of course, but they are not nearly as “nice” as the actual calculators, which have a better fit and feel and more responsive keys.

I decided not to feature the responses, because they all basically said the same thing.  “Greatest calculator ever made”, “Lasts for ever”, and so on.

One last prefatory comment.  People from the Commonwealth in particular will be mourning the loss of Dame Vera Lynn on Thursday.  She was an iconic figure in World War 2, and for a long time had been one of those people I’d occasionally see mention of and think “Is she still alive”.  The latest round of celebrations of VE Day (75th anniversary 6 weeks ago) saw her best known song “We’ll Meet Again” revived with a contemporary singer and many others adding their vocal line to Dame Vera’s, and it is nice Dame Vera lived to see that milestone, and now, at 103, she is sadly with us no longer.

Please keep reading for a few more items this morning :

  • Reader Survey :  Which Travel Amenity Will You Miss the Most
  • United Discloses Some MileagePlus Data
  • Hello, Delta?  Anyone Home?
  • Air Travel Continues to Rise
  • Another New Seating Layout Concept
  • Another Crazy? Musk Idea
  • So If My Room Costs $20/Night, the Resort Fee Should Be…..
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey :  Which Travel Amenity Will You Miss the Most

A recent article anticipated the loss of various travel amenities, particularly for premium travelers, as a result of the virus.  Which of them will you miss the most?

Please click the item that best describes the item you’ll most miss.  That will create an email with your response coded into the subject line.  I’ll add them all up and report on the results next week.

Note – the question is which item will you miss the most.  So we are not asking for all the items you will miss, just the one you’ll miss the most.  In an “emergency” I guess you could click on two items, though!

Headphones on planes (especially premium headphones in business/first class)

Hotel bedding – no more decorative items like bed scarves and display pillows

Pillows and blankets on planes

Social spaces – on Emirates A380s, and in hotel lobbies, etc

Daily room service

Buffet breakfasts at hotels, buffet snacks in airline lounges

Airline meals – now prepackaged snacks in coach class

Valet parking

Ice machines


Shower suites in airport lounges

Inflight magazines and newspapers

Smiles and facial feedback now obscured behind masks

Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.  It is always interesting to see what you think and care about.  Look for the results next week.

United Discloses Some MileagePlus Data

Almost exactly to the day, 15 years ago I wrote an article suggesting that United Airlines’ MileagePlus business was worth $15 billion.  The airline was in bankruptcy at the time and I suggested it was ridiculous to declare itself bankrupt when it was sitting on this enormous and largely undisclosed asset.

United has just now borrowed $5 billion, secured by their MileagePlus program.  This article expresses naive astonishment that the frequent flier program is actually a profit center for the airline.  The writer should have read my article, 15 years earlier.

It is very interesting though to see the reality of some of the previously undisclosed numbers that I had to guess at back then.  The program truly does seem to be robustly profitable.

Hello, Delta?  Anyone Home?

We understand and concede that back in March and April, things were crazy/busy for the airlines.  They were cancelling thousands of flights every day, and trying to work out which passengers still wanted to fly, and where/when/how they could be flown where they wanted to go.

But the last month or more has been reasonably stable.  Now, the airlines, still largely staffed at close to full numbers, even though operating less than 1/4 the flights they were before, would seem to have a higher staff per passenger ratio than at any past time in the last many decades.

So how is it, as described in this article, impossible to get to talk to a real person at Delta?

Air Travel Continues to Rise

As you can see, US air passenger numbers continue to steadily rise.  We’ve had a day that peaked at just over 20% of last year’s numbers, and several days have seen over 500,000 people traveling.

It is a long way until we are back to “normal”, but we have seen a five fold rise from the very lowest days of travel – 3.6% and 87,500 passengers – in mid April.

Another New Seating Layout Concept

We always feel anxious when we read about new ideas and innovations for airplane seating.  It never involves the truly innovative concept of giving coach class passengers more space, and usually involves some terrible concept that will squeeze us in even more tightly than before, while trying to tell us that actually we’ll have more space, even though there are more of us in the same amount of airplane.

But here’s an interesting idea.  We’d like to better understand the measurements and layout, but it seems to suggest that it might be possible to have two layers of seats – one on top of the other.  Assuming that someone has really truly done the measuring and figuring, that’s an interesting idea, as long as the airlines don’t do their usual pivot and change it from “more space for the same number of people” to “more people in the same space”.

One point that might act in our favor though is that most modern planes are now getting close to the maximum permitted number of seats in terms of how long it takes to evacuate all the passengers in a carefully staged test emergency evacuation.  But the airlines can “solve” that problem by simply adding another pair of emergency exits somewhere.

Details here.

Another Crazy? Musk Idea

Elon Musk has been musing for a while about using his developing fleet of spacecraft types to blast people halfway around the earth in little more time than it takes an ICBM to make the journey.  In theory, a distance similar to traveling between New York and Shanghai could be covered in 39 minutes, or so Musk is quoted as saying in this article, which says the aircraft would travel at between 4,000 – 6,000 mph.

That sounds amazing, doesn’t it.  The problem is, it is also nonsense.  The shortest great-circle distance between New York and Shanghai is 7382 miles.  If we say the aircraft/spacecraft is traveling at 5,000 mph, that is not a 39 minute journey, it is probably the far side of two hours (after allowing for acceleration and deceleration and a bit of maneuvering.

However, even two hours is very much faster than 13 or so hours in a normal plane.

But there’s another problem.  We don’t really see either New York or Shanghai allowing for rockets to blast off from or land somewhere in their downtown areas.  The rocket ports will need to be a considerable distance out of the city – much further away than JFK or Pudong.

Musk’s idea is to have floating space ports at sea.  This has been hinted at already with the way he has been returning rockets to land on his at-sea pads.  It has some appeal, and certainly would cut down on real estate costs.

But how long would it take to get from either city to an at-sea launch site?  That could add a couple of extra hours or more at each end.  And if the weather is rough, who wants an hour or two at sea and sea-sickness at the beginning and end of your journey.

What about inland cities like Denver or most of Europe?

We’d rather see a decent SST, with a cruising speed of say Mach 2.5 (the Concorde was about Mach 2.02).  That would do the New York-Shanghai run in about 5 hours, and that is starting to get similar in time to a 2 hour rocket flight plus getting to and from the launch/landing sites.

Our concern has always been that rockets would be enormously expensive, and also enormously unreliable.  Let’s consider the reliability issue for a minute.  As this article explains, there is a one chance in 60 of the Musk rocket’s current roundtrip to the ISS failing and one chance in 270 for total mission failure.

That is arguably acceptable for brave astronauts and infrequent rocket launches.  But for a commercial rocket service traveling dozens of times every day?  That would end up with a total mission failure (ie loss of rocket and all passengers) perhaps once a week.  There’s never been a plane in history with that sort of crash/disaster rate.

We could also analyze the relative cost of a rocket vs an airplane for travel, but the reliability issue is such a deal breaker as to make additional thoughts moot.

As a bonus, a second crazy Musk idea, but this one might not be so crazy.  His plan to fill the sky with satellites to provide internet service to people.  He sent another 58 satellites into orbit last Friday, and is about to send another rocket load up in a couple more days.

Astonishingly, it is suggested that service will be offered at download rates of up to 1 Gbps, and the monthly cost could be approximately $80/month.  Stay tuned for this one, it could be a total game changer and would totally transform the concept of living in rural areas currently without broadband service.

But, in a not unusual circumstance for Musk, he is racing, late, to meet a deadline to qualify for federal assistance with his plans.

We hope he beats the deadline.  It is a visionary and futuristic concept.

So If My Room Costs $20/Night, the Resort Fee Should Be…..

Can you complete the above sentence?  You’re thinking of booking a stay in Las Vegas, and you see some hotels with room rates as low as $18 (Excalibur) or $19 (Flamingo) a night.

How much do you think the resort fee per night would be?  Well, back up a minute.  There’s an assumption that there even is a resort fee.  Sadly, there is, and that’s another story in and of itself worth bemoaning.

Back to the sentence.  If the hotel nightly rate is $18, what would a fair proportional type of resort fee be?  10%, ie $1.80?  20%, ie $3.60?  You decide.

Now, what do the hotels think is “fair”?  Surprisingly, many of the hotels in Vegas have the exact same resort fee.  That truly is astonishing, isn’t it.  Different hotels, different amenities and inclusions, different room rates, but the same resort fee.  And that fee is?

For your $18/night room, you’ll pay an extra $42/night for the resort fee.  That is more than twice the rate for the room itself.  Impossible to justify.

Resort fees truly are the most dishonest and despicable practice in the hotel industry.

And Lastly This Week….

Reader Doug sent in this YouTube video showing a rather self-centered young man playing a game, GeoGuessr.com.  The man has made many such videos, some of which have been viewed up to a million times.  But if you can bear the initial introduction, it is beyond amazing to see the guy playing the game.

It is not often I feel as hopelessly inadequate, when it comes to world geography, as I did after watching a couple of his videos.  Truly astonishing.

Ghosts at the British Museum?  That’s what this interesting article suggests.  It would be great to see the BM offer night-time tours for people to experience such things, but I think I’ll be content simply reading about it.

A $75,000 dog robot?  But, imagine the possibilities, as someone once said in a different context.

Truly lastly this week, you may have seen the “open fire” type videos that show a fireplace with a fire in it, complete with the sounds of the wood crackling and the flames and drafts.  All it needs is to add “Smell-O-Vision” for a complete experience.  Other videos show a goldfish tank, or whatever else.

I ended up watching – well, I won’t say exactly how many hours – of this video, which I found to be similarly relaxing and captivating.  It doesn’t actually start until 8 minutes in, but even the first few minutes are interesting.

Until next week, please stay happy and healthy






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