Weekly Roundup, Friday 10 July 2020

Yet another flying car proposal – see item below.

Good morning

I hope you had a great 4 July.  This year was probably the strangest and saddest of the 35 such experiences I’ve had since moving to the US in 1985.  We are a country in the grip of a colossally mismanaged and somehow controversial pandemic – I’m astonished that politics can color how we respond to a virus.  We are a country in which celebrating American Independence and Excellence somehow is becoming unfashionable.  Is there another country, anywhere in the world, with so much to proud of and thankful for, yet so filled with hate for itself as the US is at present?

I had an interesting item scheduled for you today, but alas, my “legacy” web server crashed yesterday, and because the piece I am writing included links to earlier pieces on the legacy server, I’ve held off on its release until I can get the earlier articles back online again.  I’m a bit worried about the legacy server – I bought it second hand probably five or six years ago, and I fear its failure on Thursday (the hard disk can not be read) may indicate the need for more than “just” a replacement set of hard drives and possibly controllers.

I’m increasingly shifting from using my own hardware to using online/in-the-cloud type services; the freedom from having to maintain hardware and update the operating system and firmware, and the disruption when something fails and has to be urgently replaced, is something I value greatly, especially as I’m only semi-competent in the technical side of managing the backend of such equipment.

Fortunately, the blog side of things relies ultimately on Google Cloud services, via a company in Bulgaria that provides interface management in the middle.  So here I am, although with fingers crossed after something happened to the weekly newsletter last Friday – it went out to some people with a strange subject line.

A friend sent in an interesting article about one of the many existing, ordinary and “safe” medicines that may have some benefit as a way of preventing Covid-19 infection, and of reducing the severity of an infection if one still occurs.  There are any number of such products claiming to work out there at present, and very many websites hailing each of them as a miraculous cure-all.

This one had a whiff of truth about it, so I did some more careful looking into the topic, and the result is an article below about Vitamin D and if it is something you should consider taking every day on a “just in case” basis.

Also added to this week’s newsletter is a wide-ranging Covid-19 diary entry that was published yesterday.  The Sunday edition is available online for those of you who don’t get the realtime or daily newsletters.

What else this week?  Read on for an amusing story that again proves the truth of “you get what you pay for”, and a few other assorted items :

  • Airline Competition, Australian Style
  • Funniest Headline of the Week?
  • Airplane for Sale.  Little Used, One Careful Owner, Good Price
  • Bose QC35 Series II Headphones – only $32?
  • Elon Musk’s Familiar Sounding Autonomous Vehicle Promise
  • Flying Cars Again
  • Robocalls
  • An Amazon Competitor?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Airline Competition, Australian Style

With the current Chapter 7 style bankruptcy of Australian’s “other” airline (Virgin Australia), Qantas has been placed in a difficult position.  Other than for a few very tiny regional airlines, there are only two airlines in Australia – Qantas and Virgin Australia.

Surprisingly, Qantas has never wanted to see Virgin go bankrupt.  It has always had a quiet objective to keep Virgin alive, in a weak form, and with about 35% – 40% of the market.  Qantas believed that by doing so, it would avoid any accusations of being monopolistic, and wouldn’t have to worry about the government meddling in how it managed its operations.

It seems that Virgin Australia will be purchased by a group lead by American investors and will return to its role of “seemingly keeping Qantas honest”.  And clearly, someone or something does need to keep Qantas honest.  It figured it could make more money by playing by its own rules with 60% – 65% of the market, than having to comply with government regulations, and a larger market share.

With Virgin on the ropes, a tiny but punchy little airline, Rex, has been trying to grow and grab some extra routes.  That’s of course extremely worrying to Qantas, who fully appreciates that today’s “harmless” tiny airline might become tomorrow’s ravening monster, and sees the best way to prevent that happening is to muscle in on Rex early and hard.

Rex had been operating flights twice a week between Sydney and a smaller city in NSW, about 150 miles west of Sydney, Orange – population about 45,000.  At present, with depressed numbers due to the virus, it carries, on average, 40 passengers a week, which is about a 30% load factor.

Astonishingly, big boy Qantas has now decided to start flying, three times a week, between Sydney and Orange.  It will add another 216 seats to the route, meaning if passenger numbers stay the same, flights will now average an 11% load factor.

There are other routes that seem much higher priority for Qantas, and where there is no air service at all.  But for reasons that are – let’s be polite – “puzzling”, and at a time when Qantas is talking about laying off thousands of staff because it can’t afford to pay them – Qantas has decided to enter into a slugfest with Rex on a tiny thin route that has no need for extra flights, and which will only lose both airlines money until one caves in and drops the route.

Could it be that Qantas is sending Rex a message – “You keep off our turf, and we’ll keep off yours”?

If this story sounds familiar, it is of course exactly what airlines in the US do to kill smaller competitors.  We hope the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is more astute at recognizing harmful practices than the DoT is here.

Funniest Headline of the Week?

Prize for the “funniest headline of the week” would surely be this one –

The 5 U.S. Airlines With the Best Customer Service, According to T+L Readers

The thing is, just exactly how many airlines are there in the US these days?  American, Delta, Southwest and United are the big four, then there’s Alaska, Hawaiian and JetBlue.

So nominating five of the seven airlines as all being “best” leaves precious few for “not quite so excellent” or “average” or “below average” or “unacceptable” service levels, doesn’t it.

Would I be too cynical to observe this as another case where society these days demands to see everyone as winners, no matter how ill-deserved.

Airplane for Sale.  Little Used, One Careful Owner, Good Price

You can probably guess that at present, there are lots of perfectly good passenger planes that are being sold off or even scrapped by airlines who can no longer afford them and no longer need them.  A 737-700 could be yours for under $10 million, and a  larger 737-800 will soon be similarly priced (when the 737 MAXes can finally start flying).

If you’re wanting something a little larger, there would be a 767-300ER for $14 million, or an even larger 777, yours for about $22 million (-200ER) or just under $30 million (-300ER).

Now, if you want something truly big, how about a used A380?  These planes are now being offered for about $45 million, but the price is very theoretical because while there are sellers, there are not any buyers, so who only knows what one would actually be sold for.

Just like a car, one of the main variables for establishing desirability and value with a plane are the options that are included.  So if you want something that is both large but also luxurious, your best bet is a nearly new 747-8i.  And we suspect this particular plane will probably sell for quite a lot more than $45 million.  (Or then again, if you play your cards right, you might get it for nothing – the owners gave a similar second plane away for free a couple of years ago.)

The plane has been described as the world’s most lavish flying palace.  But, just like some of the palaces and stately homes in Europe that can be purchased for astonishingly little money, the problem is not so much the purchase price as it would be the upkeep.

Figure on $20,000 an hour for each hour the plane is in the air, plus of course, the landing fees each time you landed somewhere.  And parking charges that make airport (car) parking look like a veritable bargain.

Bose QC35 Series II Headphones – only $32?

There are many companies that specialize in selling low-priced Chinese items online.  Somehow, I seem to have got on the email lists for many of them, and from time to time, in a quiet minute, I’ll click on an email ad and browse through all sorts of weird and wonderful knick-knacks and unusual gadgets.  I’ve been known to occasionally decide “Oh, heck, it is only a couple of bucks” and order ridiculous things that when they arrive invariably disappoint.

I’ve some liquid metal, a bit like mercury, that notably managed to soak in to much of the lovely teak surface of my dining table – both my daughter (Anna) and I are certain we didn’t spill it, and so it probably was either a sly visitor or the dog who did.  But a metallic grey teak table doesn’t look quite as nice as a regular teak table.  I’ve some “magic smoke” (rub it between your fingers and smoke appears) that similarly does little more than require a lot of handwashing subsequently.  I’ve bought various electronic gadgets that come with no instructions as to how to use them, and, I’m embarrassed ton confess, some things have arrived that I don’t even remember ordering and can’t work out what they are.

Often I buy things that I think might be great finds to share with you.  There was the $12 smart watch, for example.  Or, more expensively, the $85 tablet.  The fact I’ve not told you about either is because neither was at all like I hoped for.

There have been other things I’ve stopped myself at the last minute from buying, when I finally managed to decode the Chinglish and work out what it was that was deceptively being actually sold.

A classic example of that would be an item that shows “Usually $429, now special price for one hour only, $29” alongside a picture of, description of and feature list for a new Apple Watch 5.  In truth (a very scarce commodity on some of these sites) what you’d actually end up getting was not the watch at a bargain price, but a very overpriced watch strap, or – even more ridiculously – an even more overpriced plastic screen protector to place over it.

Other examples have been tablets and phones that claim one set of specs in the headline and a lesser set of specs in the fine print on the same page.  And so on.

But on March 9, I came across an item that might have almost been real.  A refurbished set of Bose QC35 Series II noise cancelling headphones for $32.  Although these sell for $300 and upwards, $32 is more or less the cost price, and what I guessed they really might have been were some “unofficial” extra units made by the Chinese manufacturer.  It is not unheard of for a Chinese manufacturer, when they get an order for, say, 100,000 units of some high-markup brand name product, to keep their machine going after the first 100,000 units have been produced and sell the extras, themselves, through other and indirect supply chains.

I carefully read the description and verified they were indeed the Series II not original Series I headphones, and couldn’t see any hints of deception in the item listing, so eagerly bought a set, hoping to have an amazing deal to share with you.

Although I paid for them to be expressed from China, they only arrived this week on Tuesday, a couple of days short of four months.  It is true that the virus issues had greatly slowed shipments from China, and I was happy to finally get them.

I eagerly opened the shipping package.  As you can see from the first picture, above, they were in a nice box.  I opened the box and took the headphones out.  The first thing I perceived was that the headphones felt very light, and the build quality was not what I’m used to with Bose.  Maybe they were factory seconds, because they had the Bose logo prominently on them.

I then noticed they were missing an instruction manual and audio cable, but, hey, what can you expect for $32 instead of $300.

I turned them on, and they had one of those slightly annoying voice prompt systems that told me the headphones had been turned on.  Except this voice was painfully loud, and in very Chinese-accented English.

I remembered there were some instructions on the back of the box, so turned the box over to read them.  I noticed, wryly, the illustration on the bottom right implying they came with both a USB and audio cable, but, as I said, for $32, you’ve got to cut them a little slack.  Anna puzzled over why the French text was described as PRE, but I zoomed in to look specifically at the English instructions on the bottom left.  I’ll zoom in so you can see them, too.

As you can see from the third image, below, it wasn’t just the voice in the headphones that was very Chinese-accented.  There’s something poetic about the instructions that I quite treasure.  “Hold the headphones is a song”.

I then realized the headphones were missing one of the switches on other Bose QC 35 II headphones (the one that turned the noise cancelling on or off), and the power switch – a slide switch on other QC 35 II headphones, was a push button on these ones.

And so came to realize that rather than getting a bargain for my $32, I had actually received more like something you’d get at the local dollar store.

They were a total complete fake.  The only remaining puzzle is what to do with them – the symbol instructions clearly show not to throw them out in a trash bin or a waste paper basket either.

Elon Musk’s Familiar Sounding Autonomous Vehicle Promise

Elon Musk is crazy – like a fox crazy.  He makes, ahem, “overly optimistic” promises, then gets people to buy and pay for his promised new feature in advance, and in effect, providing him with the money to then hopefully make good on the promise.

Nowhere is this more apparent than his stumbles on the road to a fully self-driving car.  This is a feature you can buy on a Tesla now – it is called “Full Self-Driving Capability”, and costs $8,000 to add.  You’ve been able to buy it for four years, but these days it is more carefully defined.

You and I might understand “full self driving capability” as meaning you tell the car where you want to go, then recline the seat back and sleep for the next half dozen hours, waking upon arriving at your destination.  But Tesla describe it as “requiring active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous” – in other words, if you take your hands off the wheel for too long, the car will come to a stop.

This discrepancy has been present since about 2016, and if anything, the company seems to have gone backwards and has become more aggressive at checking for and requiring driver alertness.

But now Mr Musk is again promising full self driving capability, apparently without the asterisk and fine print below that negates the headline promise.  He says it will be available on cars later this year.

I say I’ll believe it when I see it.

Flying Cars Again

Talking about believing it when I see it, there are a number of things that regularly appear in articles as exciting new developments about to be released commercially very soon now.  One example is new electric batteries that will hold more charge for less money and last longer.  They’re always coming “next year”.  Then there are supersonic planes – they’re usually coming in about five years.

There are also “flying cars” – a name that awkwardly describes a range of things, some of which you’d never drive on the road as well as fly, and very few of which actually might allow for both flying and driving.  They’ve been expected and promised to appear in the near future for as long as I’ve been interested in travel (many decades).

The latest “development” in flying cars involved the New South Wales (Australia) government investing in a flying car testing facility, whatever that actually means.  A picture of the flying car (see top of newsletter) shows that it surely isn’t anything you’d drive down a dry dusty road in outback Australia, or even try and squeeze into a lane on the Sydney harbor bridge.

This article avoids including any timeline for when we might see the craft take to the air.  Probably wise of them.

Robocalls

I had three robocalls from “The Department of Social Security” this week.  Of course, none of them were actually from any government department at all, but were scammers trying to get personal details and/or a credit card number from me.  I felt foolish for answering them, but they came in showing local numbers and even had a person’s name alongside them, so it seemed like they might have been real calls from someone.

Sadly, one of the easiest things to spoof is caller ID information.  You can’t believe what you see on your caller ID display.

I realized, after hanging up for the third time and disliking the repeated interruption to my concentration and thought flow, that there have been not just one but two enormous changes in how we use phones these days.

The first change – the shift from having a land line phone to now only having a cell phone.  I still have a “land line” although even that isn’t a POTS type good old fashioned wire running to a good old fashioned phone.  It is a VOIP service that acts like a normal phone.

The second change is more impactful.  I remember, decades ago, how one would always drop everything and rush to answer the phone whenever it rang.  “It might be someone/something important” was always our thought, along with an unstated list of hoped for good things that we might be about to experience via the phone call.  Nowadays, I seldom answer my phone, and increasingly, neither do other people, either.  “If I don’t recognize the number, I don’t pick up” is a common comment.

Indeed, increasingly people are switching to apps to communicate through their phone rather than using the dial pad.  Skype has been around for a long time, even though current owner Microsoft seems to be slowly but steadily destroying it.  WhatsApp is very common, and there are very many others too.

What brought these thoughts about is news that the Supreme Court has upheld the ban on robocalls to cell phone numbers.  But does that really stop scammers from auto-dialling and robocalling you on your cell phone?  I’ve had my phone numbers on the official “Do Not Call” list for many years, and still get plenty of calls.

It is good news the Supreme Court didn’t allow robocalls, but the ban isn’t very effective.

An Amazon Competitor?

We frequently express astonishment at how Amazon has managed to make the online selling business almost entirely its own.  It wasn’t the first to start online selling, and it had no built-in advantages like an existing distribution network or existing warehouses or other retailing operations to learn from and build upon.

But all the “obvious” potential competitors have faded into the background as Amazon establishes a lead and economy of scale and efficiency of integration that now seems almost unassailable.

One of the biggest failures to compete has to be Walmart.  In an attempt to kickstart its earlier failed attempts to become a major player, in 2016 it spent $3.3 billion to buy Jet.  Yes, a company you’ve likely never even heard of, but which, back then, some people (mainly Jet corporate executives) suggested was an up and coming online retailer.

Jet failed to transform Walmart’s online fortunes, indeed, it has been suggested Walmart lost $1 billion in its online division last year.  Walmart is generally thought to have about one tenth the market share of online retailing that Amazon has.

Since the Jet acquisition, Walmart has bought a number of other small online retailers, in a rather random manner and seldom making its affiliation with the newly acquired business obvious.   It also dug deep into its pockets to find $16 billion to buy 77% of Flipkart – the reason you’ve not heard of this is because it is an Indian company.

We’ve always been astonished at Walmart’s apparently haphazard, uncoordinated, and unsuccessful moves in the online retailing arena.  There has been no consistent strategy or branding or service concept.  No single website with everything on it.

But we were intrigued to read this week that Walmart is about to launch its version of Amazon’s Prime service – an annual membership fee giving free fast delivery, and who knows what other possible benefits too.

We wish Walmart well.  Amazon desperately and increasingly needs a competitor to keep it honest.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s one of the most incredible model airplanes I’ve ever seen.  Made out of manila folders.  Amazing.

One of the most dangerous acts in terms of spreading the coronavirus is to talk loudly, shout, or scream.  Doing so causes you to expel ever greater quantities of aerosolized virus particles, and for them to be spread more forcefully away from you for longer distances.  So, yes, a library would be a relatively safe place, while a noisy bar where everyone has to shout to be heard is deadly.

The Japanese obviously appreciate this, because an amusement park that is being allowed to re-open again is requesting and requiring its riders not to scream on the roller-coasters.  “Please scream inside your heart” is the polite exhortation.  And, of course, with a mask on.

Truly lastly this week, real life imitates art sometimes.  As in the case of this man, who spent over 100 days trapped in an airport terminal in Manila.

Until next week, please stay happy and healthy

 

David.

 

 

5 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 10 July 2020”

  1. Qantas actions on the Sydney – Orange route are clearly to send a message to REX. And, if not illegal, are clearly anti-competitive. They are a reaction to the REX announcement that it will start flying the Australia capital routes (in particular Sydney to Melbourne, Sydney to Brisbane, and Melbourne to Brisbane) early 2021. They have raised money, so I’m assuming they will be getting real jets (they fly small planes today).

    Sydney – Melbourne is a cash cow route. In normal times, it is the 2nd busiest air route in the world (in terms of # of flights). Pre-pandemic, there were flights as often as every 30 minutes during peak hours by both Qantas and Virgin Australia

  2. You have probably noted it before, but can you repeat your source for death rate stats? I use the CDC website (https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/covid19/index.htm) and it is frustration that the lag is so big – the report for week ending 4 July, for example, shows 302 deaths for that week, but every week the prior weeks up to a month or more back are revised upward drastically due to the lag in getting the data In the CDC data the weekly deaths have dropped steeply in the past couple of months, I have been waiting for them to turn up based on the upturn in cases. Of course, the cases increase is fairly heavily driven by testing, which has more than doubled over the past two months or so. If you have a source that has reliable data in more nearly real time please advise.

    1. I use Worldometers.

      https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

      All the different sites that collate data tend to normalize to similar numbers over time, but because they source slightly differently and handle timing issues differently, the daily numbers can look different. Worldometers is a great site with a huge array of data for both the US and rest of the world, and I decided early on, for consistency, to stick to them.

      I totally disagree about case increases being heavily driven by testing. Please look at this site which adjusts underlying cases numbers by allowing for testing changes. The growth in cases is not because of more testing. It is because of more cases.

      https://rt.live/

      The numbers are most clearly shown at state level. On the other hand, the IHME site has quite a different picture of estimated/confirmed cases and testing, so who really knows!

      https://covid19.healthdata.org/united-states-of-america

      I’m more than a bit cynical about the nice neat orderly line they show there for test numbers though.

  3. Doubling testing over the past two months would almost certainly reveal more cases – how could it not with so many people shown to be asymptomatic? The Rt numbers have to be calculated (they cannot measured) based on number of cases over time, virus incubation time, the period that an infected person can transmit the virus, how many people an infected person has contact with, and other factors – I don’t know rt.live’s algorithm. They don’t take the number of tests out of the equation since the parameters that are used can (and certainly do) change over time, both as our understanding of the virus behavior evolves and as people’s behavior changes.I agree with “…who really knows”.

    1. I’m sorry, Don, but I consider it somewhere between unfair and dishonest to critique the rt.live algorithm when you also say you don’t know what it is, even though it is published and explained on their site.

      I suggest that detracts greatly from your commentary.

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David.