Weekly Roundup, Friday 18 September 2020


Good morning

I’m again behind on the annual fundraiser – apologies to all – so will go silent on that this week until caught up again next week.

But I’ve not been doing nothing.  My book on the virus is now over 100,000 words.  I’ve written two more Covid-19 diary entries (Sunday’s entry here, Thursday’s entry below), plus two other articles too (both below).

One of the articles was sparked by an email from a generous supporter and friend.  He had sent in a contribution a couple of weeks ago, and decided to repeat it again this week.  Wow.  In a note he sent with it, he expressed a thought I’ve increasingly seen elsewhere, and one I’ve even sometimes caught myself thinking, too.

Maybe, rather than continue to live in perpetual fear of the virus, and change one’s entire life in the process, it is better to just boldly get infected and get it over and done with?

I thought the concept demanded a highly visible response for everyone, and so you’ll see an article on that point, below.

Another long time reader and kind supporter asked for more reviews of electronic items, and so I wrote a review on a slightly whimsical item.  I remember, when I first moved into my current home, 24 years ago, I didn’t have a single Wi-Fi device, and had the house wired for ethernet cabling instead.  I didn’t want any Wi-Fi devices, being keen to keep the radio waves to a minimum, and even refused to review an otherwise lovely sound system because it required Wi-Fi and wouldn’t work on wired ethernet.

Now, if I turned every wireless device on, I’d have something over 30 devices all transmitting simultaneously.  Normally, I usually have more than 20 connected.  Quite a change.  You might have a similar setup at your place, too – indeed, why not check your router to see how many wireless devices are connected to it.

Which raises the issue – are we creating dangerous levels of radio waves in our homes?  The review discusses a meter that can answer that question, more or less, and inexpensively.

Have you noticed how Amazon is again slipping on its delivery times?  The company is simultaneously boasting about having 3 million items that, in some parts of the country, can be delivered the same day they are ordered, but also quietly letting its fast free Prime delivery service slip out from two days to sometimes much more than two.

I eventually capitulated to the terrible smoke in this area and decided to order an air purifier.  But none of the units in stock on Amazon offered a delivery in less than four or five days.  And one in particular really puzzled me.  The good news was the item was in stock, and it was sold by Amazon directly, and shipped by them directly, and eligible for Prime.  So – same day delivery?  Next day?  Standard two day?  Nope, none of the above.  As you can see, the best Amazon could say was that it would be delivered sometime in a four week window of time starting from several days later.  Four weeks????

When I asked an Amazon rep on Twitter about that, I got a nonsensical but unsurprising reply vaguely blaming it on Covid.  That’s nonsense.  We’re now seven months into the virus situation, the earlier rush and panic buying of various things has settled down, and Amazon can’t simultaneously be boasting about being able to now deliver 3 million items the same day but not being able to deliver other items, that they already have in stock in their warehouses, with any sort of time-frame other than “some time in the next four weeks”.

I ended up ordering a purifier on Walmart.com instead.  The prices were better, and the delivery times similar or quicker.  Maybe Amazon’s position at the top of the online tree isn’t unassailable, after all.

Back to the smoke thing.  I’d been using this map to see what the conditions were in the area and where the fires were, but I was increasingly coming to realize that when I turned on the smoke forecast layer (click the three pieces of paper icon/button in the top right corner) the information it was providing was hopelessly wrong.

I found two other maps that are each very much better – you might find them helpful if you’re in an area affected by the fires and their smoke, or just to see what is happening to people who are.  This one very cleverly uses a network of monitoring devices that it sells to people and puts all the results onto a map.  The data is reliable and helpful, just so long as you’re in an area with some devices online.

Then I found this one, which combines the data from the map I just mentioned with some more “official” monitoring devices too.  In theory, it should be the very best of all three maps, but strangely, not all the devices shown on the second map appear on this map too.  So I switch between them a bit.

Even with almost 20 years of writing this newsletter under my belt, I still am surprised by what you like and engage with.  The most commented element of last week’s newsletter were my comments about Emma Peel/Diana Rigg.  Both men and women agreed emphatically with me about her allure and exceptionalism.  Happily, no need for more acknowledgements of more public passings this week.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • Air Passenger Numbers Surprise
  • Airlines Ask for More Govt Money
  • Missing Air Travel?  How About a Fun Flight to Nowhere?
  • Apple’s New Watches and iPads
  • Another Futuristic Technology
  • Musk’s Vegas Tunnel
  • I’m From the Government, But I’m Not Here to Help You
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Passenger Numbers Surprise

Last week it seemed that people were returning back to the skies with renewed enthusiasm.  But look what happened in the week since then (chart at the top).  A week ago, the rolling seven day average showed passenger numbers at 36% of last year.  Now, a short seven days later, numbers have dropped back down to 30%, lower than any time since 29 August.

The sudden rise was strange, as is, now, the equally sudden over-correction.  Any guesses for where we’ll be in another week’s time?  Up, down, or sideways?

Airlines Ask for More Govt Money

When it comes to asking for money, airlines are about as subtle as a heart attack.  Airline leaders went to DC this week with their hands outstretched, with the threat associated with their request for $25 billion more of bailout funds being that if they don’t get the money, they’ll lay off tens of thousands of jobs, particularly in battleground states where President Trump is struggling to get ahead for the November election, with the layouts happening, by coincidence, not long before the election.

I don’t altogether begrudge the airlines their tens of billions.  But, here’s the thing.  There is nothing magic about an airline job, nor about an airline.  If the government is going to help the airlines keep people on the payroll until April, it should equally help every other company that has also suffered from the virus, too – other companies in the travel industry, and every other company too, no matter what their industry might be.

It is essential not to play favorites.  Assuming you don’t work for an airline, I’m sure you agree (and I hope you do, even if you are an airline employee).  Everyone who has been harmed by the virus shutdown is as equally deserving as everyone else.  A job loss is no more harmful or significant if it is an airline employee, or a bus driver, or a school janitor.

Missing Air Travel?  How About a Fun Flight to Nowhere?

A good friend, a Qantas salesman, would always open a presentation by saying “Now I do know that no-one buys an airline ticket, not even on Qantas, just for the fun of flying 15 hours nonstop”.  That would always get a knowing round of chuckles from the audience, appreciative that they weren’t about to get the usual unrealistic dog and pony airline sales rep show pretending that their airline was wonderful rather than merely a functional means to an end.

But Qantas – and other airlines – are now quietly eating their words.  Qantas, which isn’t operating any international flights at all at present, due to Australia closing itself to the rest of the world, just sold tickets on a seven hour “flight to nowhere” – a flight from Sydney up to the Great Barrier Reef and over to the Outback then back to Sydney again.  Tickets ranged in price from $575 to $2,765, and the entire flight was sold out within ten minutes.  Details here.

We can certainly understand why airlines are now trying to get people to fly, even if their passengers end up some hours later back at the airport they departed from.  But we can’t understand why people would pay to do that, particularly when reading this article that suggests there’s an almost 1% chance of catching a virus infection on a typical flight.

Apple’s New Watches and iPads

Apple continues to amazingly underachieve with its new product release events.  The latest disappointment was a scarcely noticed event this week where they released some new Watches and iPads.  It is easy to blame this on the virus, but the Apple of yore would still have loaded up the pre-release buzz with lots of press releases and hype, and for sure, a natural showman like Steve Jobs would have found an impactful way to present his new products, even if the auditorium was empty.

So, with all the buzz absent, the only thing left are the products that were released.  The annual iPhone release has been delayed this year (due to virus related challenges, we are told) so the event focused on Watches and iPads.

The new Watch Series 6 adds one nice new feature – it will now track your blood oxygen level.  That is nice, but it isn’t worth upgrading a perfectly good Series 3, 4 or 5 watch for.  You can buy a separate pulse oximeter for under $20 at Amazon.

They also released a lower cost Watch SE that omits both the pulse oximeter and the ECG capability, and doesn’t have an always-on display.  And they are still selling the three-generation earlier Series 3 watch.  The prices start at $399 for the Series 6, $279 for the Watch SE, and $199 for the Series 3 Watch.

At now $199, the Series 3 is becoming a more appealing item at an increasingly great price.  And there’s really not a lot of change through the generations 3 – 4 – 5 – 6.  I’ve a lovely Series 4, and don’t feel any need to upgrade yet, even though it is now two generations out of date.

For the iPad, Apple continued its confusing array of models and screen sizes.  It now has five different screen sizes and four different models.  There is an existing iPad mini with a 7.9″ screen, and existing iPad Pro models with 11″ or 12.9″ screens.  Released at this week’s event is a new regular iPad with a 10.2″ screen, and a new iPad Air with a 10.9″ screen.

You’ve probably already noticed the almost identical screens on the iPad Pro 11″ and the iPad Air 10.9″ models.  The iPad Pro is older, with a slower chip inside, and starts at a price $200 more expensive than the new faster iPad Air.

That’s a curious way of managing their models and differentiating between them, isn’t it.  Although, I’m not really too focused on either the iPad Air or the 11″ iPad Pro.  If I were to get another iPad, I’d love the 12.9″ screen unit.  That’s transformationally so much larger and more impactful than any of the other units.  Sure, it is also physically larger and 6 ounces heavier, but it is no heavier than an original iPad with its 9.7″ screen, while having a huge increase in screen area.  Unfortunately, it also starts at $1149 for the least expensive model with GPS and cellular data, which is a non-trivial sum to pay for a tablet, isn’t it!

Another Futuristic Technology

I occasionally comment on articles excitedly describing a transformational new battery technology that promises to hold twice as much charge, be capable of being charged twice as quickly, and twice as many times, and cost half as much.  Somewhere towards the end of the article is always the quiet mention that the battery is not yet ready for commercial development, but is expected to start being made in a year or two.  The year or two never seems to happen.

This time, it is the same formula of a transformational new technology, but it is with solar cells rather than batteries.  Solar cells have been steadily improving, but still are less than one third of their theoretical efficiency at converting solar power to electric power, meaning there is plenty of room for improvement.

So this is an exciting new development, although it only promises a 20% boost in efficiency.  It would still be nice to see, and of course, that’s where the sting in the tail emerges.  The technology will appear in a few years time (they’re very vague about when) – it isn’t yet ready.

Musk’s Vegas Tunnel

In an artfully worded statement that sounds a bit like Virgin Galactic announcing their latest delay, Elon Musc’s “Boring Company” described its tunnel under the Las Vegas Convention Center as “almost done”.

Is “almost done” a bit like “almost pregnant”?  But, whatever its status, what is most interesting in this article are the plans Musk has to extend the tunnel transportation out of the LVCC grounds and to have it going up and down the Strip and all the way to downtown, and also out to the airport, too.

This is described very gently as a “conceptual future expansion”.  It might be good to see it happen, especially now that the monorail has again declared bankruptcy, as part of a plan to sell itself to the Convention Center for about $24 million.  The original construction cost was $654 million.

The monorail, privately owned since it opened in 2004, has probably never been profitable, even though it carries about 5 million people every year.  It has had a series of ambitious expansion plans all fail to come to fruition, and being hidden away from the Strip, a lot of people don’t even realize it is available, and others object to the $5 fare.

For many people though, the problem is more unsolvable.  It is just plain not convenient.  If you’re on the other side of the Strip, and want to go to somewhere else also on the other side, then by the time you’ve gone from the casino on the other side to the actual road side, then crossed the road at an intersection, then got to a monorail station (there are only seven stations so they’re fairly spread out), waited for a train, and repeated the process at the other end, even moderately long distances are easier and more quickly walked.

I’m From the Government, But I’m Not Here to Help You

On 9 September last year I electronically submitted an application for another renewal of my Nexus Card – an enhanced type of TSAPre/Global Entry program, and paid the requisite fee.  I’ve been a member for ten years already, and expected no problems with another automatic renewal.

I waited for any sort of response, and all I got were excuses.  “Because of the government shutdown” (it ended way back on 25 Jan 2019) – or so they said – they were experiencing a backlog of cases and there would be delays.  September became October, and then November and December.  My membership was now expired, but Homeland Security announced they were extending everyone’s membership for a year due to the delays.  Even if the government shutdown excuse passed the laugh test and was real, the shutdown was for about a month, and now they were countenancing up to a year of delay.  That doesn’t work out, does it.

Eventually, on 30 April (almost eight months after sending in the renewal form and payment) I got an email saying I’d been conditionally approved, but had to be interviewed at their processing center 120 miles from here to be confirmed.  Except that now it was virus-shutdown time, of course.

I was also told that if I didn’t attend an interview within a year, my application would be deleted and I’d have to start a new application (and pay a new fee, too).

Since then, I’ve occasionally tried for an interview date, especially when things started opening up again, but every time I tried, I’d instantly be told “No appointments available for this location”.  I’ve even tried the next closest site (724 miles away in Sweetgrass, MT) and that has always had no appointments available either.

I don’t know how far out they are booked for, but I do see that if I could wait until 2 December, I could visit a center in Minnesota.   But I don’t want that, of course.  I want them to provide a halfway decent level of service, in return for the fee I paid, and allow me to go to a 100% unnecessary interview (everyone I know who has been to a renewal interview has reported it as a totally trivial and pointless experience) and be approved for the card again.

As an interesting contrast, I just renewed one of my concealed carry licenses.  Normally I have to go in person to the City of Redmond Police Department, be fingerprinted, fill out a form, pay money, etc, then wait 3 – 4 weeks until the new license is mailed to me.  But because of the virus, they changed their procedure.  I just filled out a form online, sent in payment, no need for fingerprints (it isn’t as though they’ve changed!) and they sent me a new permit a week later.  It even cost less, because there was no fingerprinting fee this time.

Why can’t DHS forego the ridiculous interview requirement, or – if it insists on them – simply add a few more staff so they can keep up with their self-imposed workload.  With a charge of $50 – $100 per membership, and an interview process that lasts five minutes or less, you’d think the program would be completely self-funding and more besides.

Here’s also another idea :  Zoom.  Save me – and everyone else – having to travel hundreds of miles, and do video interviews.

There is a rumor that they might now be extending the validity of expired memberships 18 months instead of 12.  But instead of falling further and further behind, why not catch up and start to deliver a standard of customer service that we have every right to expect and to require.

How has our government become so dysfunctional (and remember, this predates the virus)?

And Lastly This Week….

I asked you last week if you recognized where a picture illustrating an ad for new river cruises on the Mississippi river was taken.

One reader and long time generous supporter quickly responded.  The picture, he said, was taken about a mile from his home.  No other readers wrote in to say the same.  I was not surprised that Laszlo recognized the picture, though, because it was indeed of his home – Budapest.

Now I know the Mississippi river is very long, but I don’t think it goes all the way to Hungary!  An interesting choice of picture for a US cruise.  Those of you – the very many of you – who have traveled with me along the Danube on a cruise to or from Budapest and somewhere else know that, of course.

Won’t it be great when we can confidently and comfortably plan for our next such cruise.  I wonder if we could get enough people among us all to do a whole boat charter – a “Welcome Back to Europe” cruise.  That might be possible, but could we all find a matching time slot to do it, and would we all agree on when it becomes safe to return to Europe?

Probably in about a year’s time, is my guess.  At that point there is likely to be a reasonable distribution of whatever vaccines have been developed, and people can decide to get vaccinated prior to a journey, or to accept the risk and go anyway.

Talking about future travel, here’s an article that appeals to my sense of contrarian thinking.  It features some of the countries with the least amount of travel buzz.  Anyone for a Travel Insider tour to Lesotho?

Until next week, please stay healthy and safe





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