Weekly Roundup, Friday 26 March 2021

It was wildly windy and cold at the top of Scotland when this picture was taken in summer 2018 during our Grand Expedition of Great Britain. Compare it to the picture on this page, taken just a couple of weeks earlier, at the bottom of England! Come compare these two extremities of Britain yourself, this August and September.


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Good morning

It has been a busy week, and if words written are any measure, there is plenty of proof of that.

First, I’ve updated a couple of things.  After my article last week on using Amazon Alexa type units as a way to call for emergency help, it seemed an appropriate time to update my listing of helpful Alexa commands.  There is a summary version of this for all readers, in this article, and supporters can access a much larger 25 page document from this page.

I got a promotional email from Google Fi this week advertising their lovely Pixel 4a 5G phone for only $299.  The offer is good for both existing and new Fi members.  By coincidence, it was just the previous night (well, actually, it is a frequent occurrence) that I was admiring my Pixel 4a 5G and reflecting on how much I like/love it.  It is so extraordinarily better than the Samsung A71 5G I briefly toyed with before returning in disgust, and I also realized I’ve never yet had a bad Google phone – neither this Pixel phone nor the two (or possibly three) Nexus phones I also have owned.

The thing I like the best is the pure Android OS on the Pixel 4a 5G – intuitive and powerful, and without any “bloatware” by other companies such as Samsung to complicate the clean consistency of the pure Android system.  I also love its speed of operation, and its ability to do just about anything and everything I’d ever want a phone to do.

And while I absolutely loathe and marvel at how bad Google’s customer support is (how can such a clever company be so stupid?), I love their Fi phone service, too.  If you’re considering a new phone, and maybe a change of phone service, give the Pixel 4a 5G and Google Fi a careful consideration.

These thoughts in turn prompted me to update my feature comparison table of cell phones.  It has now grown to include details on 71 different phones (up from 60 in its previous version), including the very latest Samsung and OnePlus phones.  Everyone can browse through a table showing 11 attributes per phone, and supporters get access to a larger table with 31 attributes per phone.

The other big thing I’ve been working on this week is some Travel Insider Touring for later in the year.  I’ll write about this a bit more below, and I’m also attaching a general article for everyone considering travel to the EU and/or UK this summer – is it realistic to go to Britain and Europe this summer or not?  The answer to that question is not easy, and will probably vary over time; the article tells you how to best answer the question for your needs, and how to track developments as they occur.

Plus also attached is Thursday’s Covid diary entry and Sunday’s can be seen online.

I’ve been busy upgrading the website hosting.  I’ve outgrown the current hosting, and at the same time, the provider (SiteGround) has continued to cut back on their support to the point that it is almost non-existent and more frustrating than helpful.

To my delight, instead of continuing to suffer at the hands of the Bulgarian company that owns/operates SiteGround, I’ve found a local company, here in Washington State, that promises to be everything I need and want.  I’ve been fastidiously testing their services this week, creating spreadsheets comparing various aspects of their website serving and speeds and functions, talking with everyone from the CEO/Founder down, and trying to build a feeling of comfort before moving there.  Hopefully the process will be invisible to you, and helpful to me!

And also, the usual collection of other items :

  • Travel Insider Touring in August/September
  • Air Passenger Numbers Increasing
  • How Is This Pilot Blunder Even Possible?
  • Nonsense About the New Norse Atlantic Airways
  • Is There a Special Name for a Ship Tunnel?
  • Much too Much Musk?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Travel Insider Touring in August/September

I am regularly asked by readers/tour members when I’ll resume some Travel Insider Tours.  As I’ve mentioned earlier in the year, I’d love to be able to offer some tours, starting from late summer, and I’ve been staring intently at the news and virus numbers for the last couple of months, trying to divine what the future will hold.  My hope for New Zealand and Australia appears unlikely to eventuate until the end of the year, and while I’d love to offer a tour to the ‘stan countries, my feeling is they’re a fair way away from reopening, too.

Currently my best guess is that it might be possible to consider some touring in the UK in late summer, but Europe might stay closed a bit longer.  I say this based on present virus activity levels, present vaccination levels, and the differences between how the UK and EU score by these measures.  It should go without saying that anything might happen in the next four or five months to completely recast my present projections and predictions.

The attached article explains my thought process and what needs to happen for travel to become feasible and fun.

So, what if travel does become feasible and fun?  I am drafting three tours in Britain – starting with the first time we’ve gone on tour to Wales, then the umpteenth time for Scotland (but a brand new itinerary never offered before) and then thirdly, a tour to England’s southwest.  The tours run consecutively, and like all Travel Insider Tours, you can join any tour on any day and leave on any day.

You can do two or all three tours, or any parts of any of them, including one special part that I’ve highlighted as a “Great British Expedition” – a tour running all the way from John O’Groats at the northeastern tip of Scotland down to Land’s End at the southwestern tip of England.  This is perhaps the British version of doing a road-trip along Route 66 – it is a fabled and famous aspirational trip that all British people wish to experience, but few ever do.

You can see a calendar of the dates for these tours here.  I’m working on putting together some provisional day-by-day itineraries and of course costings, and as soon as I have those in place you’ll be able to register your interest, but you won’t have to commit any money until closer to the time when things start to be more clearly in focus.

The Wales tour has me excited.  Apart from a quick sneak across the border in the 2018 Grand Expedition of Great Britain, I’ve never offered a Welsh-themed tour.  I’m not sure why not, because there are a couple of stand-out experiences in Wales I have vivid memories of enjoying, decades ago, so I’m really looking forward to the seven day/six night Welsh tour, which has the usual mix of much-loved highlights and subtle off-the-beaten-track experiences.

As for Scotland, I take the “off-the-beaten-track” concept and run with it about as far as you can go.  Quite literally.  Called “Scotland’s Four Corners” it takes you to the furthest north, south, west and east points of mainland Scotland – oh yes, and we include time on two, possibly three, maybe even four islands too.  I’ll wager there’s not a person reading this who has been to more than one of Scotland’s four corners before (well, apart from people on our 2018 Grand Expedition who went to two of them).

In England, we focus on three of my favorite regions.  Wiltshire, based in Salisbury, with visits to chalk horse cliff markings, the Isle of Wight, and hopefully a very special treat in Romsey, and of course, Stonehenge, with its relatively new visitor center making it a totally new experience to what it used to be.  Then we head down through Devon to Cornwall, an area so different from the rest of the country they are lobbying for independence, before ending on a high note in the gorgeous Cotswolds.

Small group numbers on a large size coach and a requirement for all participants to be vaccinated will hopefully keep us safe.

Wow.  Just writing about it makes me eager to go!  Stay tuned for more details of these three tours.

As for Europe, their state of re-opening seems, currently, to be almost two months behind Britain.  But that should still be resolved in time for a Christmas Markets tour in early/mid December, however, I’ll wait until perhaps July to come up with details for that.

Air Passenger Numbers Increasing

As you can clearly see, air travel numbers in the US are steadily increasing.  The green line has become unhelpful, because it is comparing 2021 numbers against 2020 numbers, and we’re now approaching the absolute lowest time in 2020 for air travel numbers.

It will be a long time before that measure reappears on the chart scale with its max 200% limit.  For now, the orange number, the percentage of “normal” 2019 numbers, is the relevant one to keep your eye on.  We’ve already passed through the 50% halfway point, and so airline executives are probably starting to feel a little more comfortable, and, predictably, articles such as this are suggesting the end of super-discounted air fares.

But – and I discuss this in the Covid diary attached – we’re in a parlous position at present.  While our excellent rate of vaccinating people is surely now starting to help reduce the number of new virus cases every day, many states are rushing to abandon much/all of their former social distancing measures, and even where they are not officially withdrawn, my sense is a feeling of general euphoria is encouraging people to take risks now that they’d not have done six and twelve months earlier (eg flying!).

So it is a real struggle to see which force is the greater – the vaccinations acting to reduce new case numbers, or the lack of social distancing, acting to increase new case numbers.  Add into that mix of uncertainty the potential impact of the new virus variants that are more infectious than earlier virus variants, and which may be not so strongly protected against by the vaccines, and what the future holds is currently anyone’s guess!

This chart shows both the rolling seven day average new cases reported in the US (blue bars) and also the daily change in that seven day average (orange line).  The orange line is very sensitive to small changes, the blue bars not quite so much, and you can clearly see a trend in the orange line where the daily change has been moving from large reductions to small reductions, then more or less staying the same, and now moving up to growing again.

Where will this continue to go in the next days/weeks/months?  That depends on the opposing forces of more vaccinations and less social distancing.  It will be an interesting thing to watch, and if you can’t wait for weekly updates, I’m now adding a daily report on this to my twitter feed, every morning.

How Is This Pilot Blunder Even Possible?

The two pilots of a South African Airways flight miscalculated the take-off weight of their A340-600, and entered a weight that was 90 tons less than it should be into their airplane computer.

The A340-600 ranges in take-off weight from a minimum weight, before fuel and cargo, of 174 tons and a maximum fully loaded weight of 380 tons.  Noting that the plane was to fly from Johannesburg to Brussels, a 5400 mile flight, the plane probably would have had 110 – 120 tons of fuel on board, plus passengers, luggage and freight, so its weight would have been, at an absolute minimum, 285 tons and probably well over 300 tons.  A 90 ton error in calculating the plane’s weight should have been immediately obvious to the pilots, because whatever number they came up with would have been impossibly low.

But the pilots didn’t notice it, and the plane obediently accepted their input, and calculated a take-off power setting based on thinking it didn’t need as much power or speed to take-off due to its apparent light weight.  This meant that it barely managed to get off the ground, but apparently the two pilots didn’t notice this, either.

The next problem was when the pilots went to retract the flaps, at what was too low a speed, resulting in the plane threatening to stall and, at that perilously low altitude, there’d have been no room to correct the stall if it was up to the pilots to respond alone and unaided.

Fortunately the plane’s automation realized something was wrong, and it took over control of the plane from the pilots and made the adjustments needed.  It also sent automatic messages both to Airbus and the engine manufacturer (Rolls Royce) telling them that there’d been some sort of in-flight emergency that they should check out.

The pilots of course were supposed to report this to the airline and the airline was supposed to report the incident to South Africa’s equivalent of the NTSB and FAA – the SACAA.  This reporting was supposed to be done within 2 – 3 days of the event, depending on how serious it was judged to be.  But apparently no such reporting was done for three weeks – my guess being that probably by then, Airbus and Rolls Royce had blown the whistle on the event and the airline/pilots were forced to disclose it.

Details here.  There is a more technical description here, which adds some more details including the pilots denying it ever occurred and refusing to attend a meeting to discuss the event, and also the scandalous suggestion there is a long standing (five year old) bug in the airplane computer systems than can cause a 90 ton underweight calculation.

This is part of the reason why I’m eager to see fewer pilots and more computers in planes.  If you look at stats over the last some years, the number of crashes caused by pilots is much greater than the number of crashes caused by computers.

Talking about pilot blunders, here’s a delightful story of a Southwest pilot and his blunder – expressing his strong feelings about people who live in the San Francisco area, while not realizing his microphone was activated, and so sharing his thoughts with everyone else on that frequency.  This article tells more and has a link to a recording of his comments.

Nonsense About the New Norse Atlantic Airways

One of the oldest tricks in the public relations book is to “say something controversial”.  Ideally, you’re on the right side of the controversy when you say it, but remembering the adage that “any publicity is good publicity” that’s not quite so important.

I was reminded of that when I got a copy of this press release earlier in the week.  An “expert” started off by suggesting there is little interest in long-distance travel and international vacations at present (that’s surely not the message you’re sharing with me!), and then leveraged that suspect statement to attack the announced plans for the new startup airline I wrote about last week, Norse Atlantic Airways.  The expert uttered a series of platitudes to justify her negative view of the new startup, while ignoring that her statistics, if accurate, apply to now and the airline isn’t due to start operations until December this year, which hopefully will be very different in terms of virus impact than today.

She did echo my concern stated elsewhere about the need for any airline to have a mix of premium and standard cabin products, but we expect the airline will have at least a semi-premium cabin, the same as Norwegian did – their promotional material currently refers to wanting to serve both business and leisure travelers.

We wish the new airline well.  But that’s more than Congressman Peter diFazio, a Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, does.  He is shamefully urging the Biden administration not to give the airline permission to fly to the US.

Anyone and everyone who enjoyed the low fares, convenient flights, and positive service on Norwegian should be appalled that diFazio is arguing against another new low cost carrier and even at the same time suggesting the terrible and groundless delays prior to granting Norwegian its operating certificate – something the US was obliged to do under the terms of its Open Skies agreement with Europe – was wrong, too.  diFazio is pretending he is concerned that Norse Atlantic is trying to work around Norway’s labor laws and threatens to take jobs from American workers, but that canard failed to hold water the last time it was tried with Norwegian.  The reality seems to be diFazio’s own actions threaten to harm all American workers who wish to fly to Europe pleasantly and affordably.

I’m not saying he has been bought and paid for by the US airlines, who are doubtless eager to delay a new competitor, the same way they succeeded in delaying Norwegian for so long.  But why is diFazio spouting this nonsense?  He should know better if he has any sense, and/or any knowledge of the arguments for and against Norwegian’s certification.

And they wonder why we have such a low opinion of congressmen….

Is There a Special Name for a Ship Tunnel?

There is a special name for a bridge for ships – an aqueduct.  Our Wales tour will give you a chance to walk along one and marvel at a second one.  What about a tunnel for ships – is there a special name for that?

Maybe not, because this article claims the world’s first ship-tunnel is only now about to be built.

But, fake news, right?  I’ve been in ship tunnels that are longer than this one, and hundreds of years old, as part of Britain’s canal network.  Mind you, the canal tunnels are a lot less wide than the 118 ft width of this amazing new tunnel in Norway, and are for canal boats, not ocean going ships.

Much too Much Musk?

Elon Musk is becoming a central figure in three different technologies, which, to give him fair credit, is quite an astonishing achievement.  So, for a forward looking transport/technology type writer such as myself, it is hard to avoid him when roaming around these topics.

His first futuristic prominence of course is with Tesla.  Something many people, and I too, have predicted, is Tesla’s return back to reality, together with a punctured share price to match.  We’ve been consistently and spectacularly wrong to date, but this article suggests we might be getting closer to finally being right.

The most interesting part of the article is this chart

For the last 15 months, Tesla’s vehicle sales and therefore market share in Europe has been declining, and now three different companies have larger shares, including VW, on track to soon have twice the market share of Tesla.  In little more than six months, Tesla has gone from number one to number four.

We’d hesitate to describe VW’s new ID4 as a Tesla-beating car.  It seems comparably expensive to the Model 3, and not as richly featured; in particular with rear-wheel drive only until the end of this year, and a more modest range.  But the numbers are telling a story, and Tesla is thoroughly now on notice that its long-time first-mover advantage is coming to an end.

Talking about EVs, here’s yet another “revolutionary battery of the future” type article.  And, like all such articles, the battery technology actually isn’t quite as exciting as the headline suggests, and isn’t due to become a viable commercial product for some years to come.

Something that is simultaneously futuristic and also happening right now is Musk’s amazing Starlink service – the hundreds, soon to be thousands and ultimately tens of thousands of satellites providing a new way of sharing fast low-cost internet with everyone, everywhere.

This is the right product at the right time.  The coronavirus has caused and is still causing an exodus from cities to smaller towns and the countryside – places where the internet is slow and costly.  Having universal access to fast affordable internet service will revive small-town America in a way that no other previous invention ever has.

Several other companies have similar ambitions, but Musk is way out in front of the others.  Here’s an article about Starlink vs Amazon, and here’s an article about the British government buying into another rival.

We won’t say “the more, the merrier”, though.  Too many entrants risk making it uneconomic for any of them, much like what happened with satellite radio and satellite mobile phone service.  But, while we’d consider betting against Tesla these days, the fact is that Tesla has had almost a decade to enjoy the EV marketplace and dominate it; and so we’d not be surprised to see Starlink now steal some years of lead on its competitors, too.

The third Musk idea I’m mentioning today (there are many others) is his Martian colony idea.  I’d thought this to be 100% crazy, but now I’m no longer quite so sure.  Difficult – absolutely.  But impossible?  Maybe not.

Here’s a great article about plans for a sustainable Martian colony.  Mars might seem impossibly distant – six months away when it and Earth are best positioned, once every two years, but is that really much further than Australia and New Zealand were from the UK by sailing ship?  It took 3 – 6 months to get from England to New Zealand in the 1840s-1850s.

A Mars colony would seem, according to the article, to be very far in our future – it suggests construction starting in 2054 and complete in 2100.  But maybe Mr Musk will accelerate that timeframe with his own plans which anticipate landing men on Mars in five years.

And Lastly This Week….

There are so very many things to like about Australia.  It truly is one of my favorite countries to visit, and one of the few places I’d consider living if I were ever to be booted out of the US.  But one has to be slightly myopic about that great country, managing to ignore the poisonous snakes galore (which, as a New Zealander – a country which has no snakes at all, is a very big thing), the crocodiles, the lethal cassowaries, the box jellyfish, and the tragedy of the inexorably spreading infestation of cane toads.  And, oh yes.  While not as ostensibly deadly as any of the preceding, the mice.  “You can’t escape the smell” is the vivid headline of this article that tells you more than you really want to know of Australia’s mouse plague.

This is an interesting article about people who buy expensive cars then leave the keys in them, and the thieves who prey on such people and their vehicles.  Most astonishing – the couple where first the husband had his Ferrari stolen, and then, not long after, his wife’s Mercedes was also stolen – again with the key left in it.

I was puzzled by this article, about a new land speed record for a motorbike.  The old record was a mere 120 mph, and the new record 132 mph.

I gather the motorbike had to be a stock standard bike with regular fuel.  But even so, the speed seems ridiculously slow.  Not to boast, but I was exceeding both those speeds over 40 years ago on a lovely Triumph Trident T150V in New Zealand – so much smoother and nicer than my brutish Norton Commando 750 with Combat engine, Dunstal cam and mufflers.  I even sort of have certification of that feat – a police pursuit (no, they didn’t catch me, but they did radio ahead for a road block).  Plenty of other people were doing the same back then, too.

Ah, the good old days…..  When one was “young, dumb, and full of fun”, or at least, I think that’s what the phrase was…..

Until next week, please stay healthy and safe (and don’t try setting any speed records)





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