Weekly Roundup, Friday 16 April 2021

His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth, Baron Greenwich, Royal Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Extra Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Member of the Order of Merit, Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order, Grand Master and First and Principal Knight Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, Knight of the Order of Australia, Additional Member of the Order of New Zealand, Extra Companion of the Queen’s Service Order, Royal Chief of the Order of Logohu, Extraordinary Companion of the Order of Canada, Extraordinary Commander of the Order of Military Merit, Lord of Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council, Privy Councillor of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada, Personal Aide-de-Camp to Her Majesty, Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom. 1921-2021, RIP.

 

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Good morning

It is no longer “new news”, but for me, it is the most impactful thing this last week.  I woke on Friday morning, as I usually do, and had my Alexa Echo unit start playing the UK Classic FM radio station.  I was surprised at the somber music, and then at the end of the piece, an announcer said, even more somberly “We switch now to our news room for an important announcement”.  Then, a second later, there it was.  The death of Prince Philip, the Queen’s Consort for 73 years, barely two months prior to his 100th birthday.  The radio station changed its entire day of programming and cancelled all advertising out of respect.

Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, was a bit of an enigma to many Britons, and of course, almost unknown and little thought of to people outside the British Commonwealth.  But within the Royal Family he was a tower of strength, and in the wider Commonwealth, he was a significant leader and much more than a figurehead.

There are many amazing statistics that attest to his dedicated life of service.  He averaged attending over 330 public events every year, until finally stepping back from public life at the age of 96.  He was associated with 992 organizations either as President, Patron, Honorary Member or in some other capacity.  He visited over 70% of the world’s 220 countries, including 229 solo trips, and joked that he was the world’s most experienced plaque unveiler.

He was known for his interests in scientific and technological research and development, the welfare of young people, education, and the encouragement of sport.  His greatest public achievement and gift to the Commonwealth would surely be the Duke of Edinburgh Awards scheme – awards given to young people who achieve a series of semi-self-set goals – sort of a modern day Scouting movement and Eagle Scout badge, but coexisting alongside the Scouting movement, and maintaining its relevance and popularity from when he founded it almost 70 years ago through to the present day.

He was a real “man’s man”, and didn’t suffer fools gladly, but had a softer side as well.  He was renowned for his kindnesses and considerations, and was an ardent supporter of conservation and the environment long before it became fashionable.  Although born into the Greek branch of the closely interconnected European monarchy – an institution not always known for producing people of towering intellect – he was a man of great intelligence and quick wit, who was blunt and direct and eschewed political correctness and loved to poke fun at such concepts.  He served bravely in battle during World War 2, and was a reliable and excellent husband and companion for that most extraordinary of all women, HM the Queen.

It is a terrible shame that his passing has not been able to be marked with the type of state funeral that the British seem to do better than any other country in the world, but concern over Covid has seen his funeral change from an event that likely would have seen tens, probably hundreds of thousands of Britons line the streets of his funeral procession, and the world’s greatest leaders come to the funeral service, but instead is limited to a small ceremony in St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle for a mere 30 people, and then a “funeral procession” of just a few hundred yards to his burial plot, also within Windsor Castle’s grounds.  I feel a sense of loss and inappropriate lack of closure that Prince Philip didn’t receive a funeral the equal to this other great man’s on 30 January 1965.

A London reader wrote to say

It would take a very dark heart to cheer the Duke’s death. And, truthfully, yesterday was one of the saddest I can remember.  Chatting with my twenty-something-year-old daughter about it last night, she wondered why.  I said I wasn’t completely sure: A mix of things really.  End of an era.  Foreshadowing of another end, the Queen’s eventual departure.  A reminder of my own mortality.

Regardless, the news was as shocking to this old republican as it would have been to any devout monarchist.  For good or ill, Phil has represented Englishness all my life.  I admired him for it, even the ill.  I’ll miss him terribly because the type of Englishness he embodied is dying with him.

I completely agree on all his points.

Recognizing that many Americans never really keyed in on HRH Prince Philip, I thought you might find a few of the profusion of YouTube video clips of interest.

What else for the week?  Political correctness and basic incompetence has again got in the way of our virus response, this time with the CDC and FDA together “recommending” a “pause” to the distribution of the Johnson & Johnson single shot vaccine, for the most ridiculous of reasons – reasons which the CDC/FDA didn’t even attempt to justify, describing it instead with that fatal phrase much beloved by idiots doing idiotic things – “out of an abundance of caution”.

I’ve commented before about the nonsensical elements of many countries’ fears about the AstraZeneca vaccine, but our imaginary concerns over the J&J vaccine are even more ridiculous and insubstantial, so much so that the negative consequences of slowing our vaccination program are massively greater than any negative consequences of the vaccine itself.

Please read the article about this massive misstep, and weep for the greatest loss of all during this pandemic – the loss of common sense and scientific logic.

I also attach Thursday’s Covid diary entry, and Sunday’s can be found online here.

I mentioned a few Sundays back about a computer crash losing half that Sunday’s diary entry.  The crashes are coming at an increasingly rapid rate, and Thursday evening saw not just one but two crashes, the first one causing the loss of both part of the Covid diary entry and this newsletter too.  With a computer expert’s help, last week I tried some new backup programs, but, as with other programs, none of them can back up data before it is written to disk, and that is the weakness with the Microsoft Expression Web software I use.  It doesn’t automatically save my work, and while I try to regularly do so, I sometimes forget, causing anywhere from minutes to days of work to disappear.

I see my current Dell E6540 computer dates back to 10 February 2014.  Seven years of generally excellent service seems to be coming to an end, and I’m amazed and delighted at its longevity, because it is on almost 24/7 and works hard most of most days.  I’ve never had a computer for seven solid years before, but this is also an interesting testament to the slowing pace of computer evolution.  I used to replace my computer every year or two, and I needed to do so in order to get beneficial new features or necessary performance gains. My present computer is still fast and capable and does everything I want of it, and I’m unwilling to bid it farewell just yet, and so will try replacing the memory sticks in the hope that solves the problem.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • Air Travel Numbers Surprise Rather than Rise
  • Travel Insider Aug/Sep UK Touring Still Looking Good
  • Controversy on Middle Seat Covid Risks
  • Oh No!  Another 737 MAX Grounding
  • Another Airplane Software Flaw
  • An Enemy of the People?
  • This Week’s Least Surprising Headline
  • Qantas Goes All-In on the A380
  • France Goes All-In on Domestic Rail
  • Not Just More Futuristic Battery Promises.  Fusion Too.
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Travel Numbers Surprise Rather than Rise

It was starting to become predictable, even boring.  Every day saw a steady increase in 2021 passenger numbers compared to the benchmark 2019 year.  We broke through the magic 50% point on 16 March, and quickly passed 60% a mere two weeks later on 30 March. But after reaching a high of 64% on 6 April, every day subsequently has seen a drop, most recently Wednesday 14th with numbers back down to 59.3% of 2019.  Not only is the percent of the 2019 numbers dropping, but so too is the absolute number of people flying – that peaked at a rolling seven day average of 1.45 million a day on 6 April and is now down to 1.39 million.

Why?

The steady rises seemed unsurprising and inevitable, and in line with the greater feeling of confidence, dropping new case numbers, and the splendid roll-out of our national vaccination program.

I’m totally perplexed at this surprising turnaround.  If you’ve a possible explanation, please do add a comment to the web version of the newsletter.

Travel Insider Aug/Sep UK Touring Still Looking Good

Britain, and lesserly Scotland and Wales, are continuing on schedule with their three different approaches to lifting their lockdowns, and the country as a whole is seeing virus numbers now stabilizing at around 2,665 new cases and 30 deaths a day (on a rolling seven day average).  A week ago, the numbers were 2,865 cases and 31 deaths, so that’s a further drop from last week.

The key next date to watch for is 17 May when the UK might start allowing its people to travel internationally, and possibly at the same time, start allowing international visitors in.  We’ll get a much clearer perspective on how this will unfold around that time.

After sharing our coaching itinerary for the Wild Wales tour last week, I’ll reveal the Scotland part this week.  Both of the touring maps and other details are on this page.

You can join the tour any time during the Wales touring, or when the coach travels north from Shrewsbury to New Lanark and Glasgow, or in New Lanark or Glasgow.  The tour ends in Edinburgh then Glasgow on the final day, and you can either leave at that time or continue on, by train, from Edinburgh to York that afternoon and then on to Salisbury the next day, where we join with the Overlooked England Tour.

A notable feature of our travel from York to Salisbury will be when we visit the Parish Church of St Martin Bladon, in the tiny town of Bladon.  Prince Philip is to be privately buried in Windsor Castle, but we can pay our respects at this church, at the grave of that other great 20th century Briton (and also American – don’t forget his mother was American), Sir Winston Churchill.

Stay tuned for the England touring map next week, and continued “reveals” of these three wonderful tours in the weeks that follow.

This article closely mirrors our thinking about Europe’s opening up to international visitors being likely to be a month or more behind the UK’s.

And this article wonders about the possibility of a UK/US “travel corridor” being created for this summer travel.  It comes to no clear conclusion.  A travel corridor is an arrangement where people can relatively freely (and without quarantine requirements) travel between two countries.

Controversy on Middle Seat Covid Risks

We actually feel a bit sympathetic for the airlines with this story.  The CDC released a study on Wednesday showing that leaving middle seats open could reduce the risk of virus infection by 23% – 57%, compared to if the plane was full.

That’s a substantial impact on risk, and certainly speaks to the benefit of keeping middle seats empty.

The airlines immediately reacted, as you’d expect, and claimed the study was unfair and unrealistic.  No surprise there.  Except for the surprising reality that the study was indeed unfair and unrealistic.

The biggest problem was that it assumed no passengers were wearing masks.  But other problems existed, too – for example, the lab simulation of an airplane cabin they used had much higher humidity than in an airplane cabin.  The dry airplane cabin air (and lower pressure) means virus droplets more quickly dry out and become aerosol particles, which means they might stay suspended in the air longer and possibly present as a greater risk, although this would suggest the CDC model is under-stating rather than over-stating the risk of filling middle seats.

In reality, the effect of humidity on virus particles, and their droplet and aerosol carried forms, is complex rather than simple, and quite possibly is not linear, meaning that as humidity or temperature changes, virus risks may increase for a while, then decrease for a while, then increase again, or vice versa.  About the only real point we can draw from this is that the CDC study did not accurately model and mimic an airplane environment, making their results less persuasive – maybe they were too high, maybe they were too low, but probably, whatever the reality, it will be different to the CDC model.  That’s of course an unfortunate outcome and points to a poorly planned study.

There were still more study limitations – so many as to make one wonder why it was conducted in the first place, although some of the other limitations may actually be in the airlines’ favor.  Basically, the study is almost worthless and meaningless, and an unfair hit on the airlines.

Oh No!  Another 737 MAX Grounding

The good news is it is nothing to do with the MCAS trim system that caused the two crashes that resulted in the 20 month worldwide grounding of the plane.

It is instead an electrical issue that affects some but not all 737 MAX planes.  And it is a Boeing initiated selective grounding, not an FAA blanket mandatory grounding.  So not nearly the same scale as the earlier one, but still has an unpleasant overtone to it.

Here’s a good overview about where the 737 currently is in the marketplace overall.

Another Airplane Software Flaw

This story is really rather funny, although the outcome could have been almost serious.

As I’ve sometimes commented on before, while airplanes carefully weigh all the baggage and freight they put on an airplane, they’re much too polite to weigh passengers (except on small planes with very narrow margins for error).  Instead, they set average weight numbers for adult men and women and for children.  They then work out how many of each category of passenger they have, multiply by the standard weights they use, and the resulting number is close enough for most commercial airplanes in terms of determining how much remaining weight capacity they have for freight, how much fuel they’ll need to load, and how fast the airplane will need to get to before it can take off, and the power setting on the engines needed to accelerate the plane to that takeoff speed before the runway is used up.

But a recent TUI flight – probably a Boeing 737 (they have an all Boeing fleet mainly of 737s) – encountered an unexpected computer glitch.  The computer worked on the assumption that women are given the title “Ms” and girls are given the title “Miss”.  But on this particular flight, a lot of adult women had the honorific “Miss” and the computer assumed them all to be girls, which resulted in an error of almost 1.35 tons in calculating the total weight of passengers.

Fortunately the plane wasn’t overloaded and still took off safely.  Details here.

An Enemy of the People?

Let’s be blunt about this.

Anyone who opposes any new airline starting service on trans-Atlantic routes is not only ignorantly flouting the mandates of the open-skies agreement between the US and Europe that requires all countries to allow airlines to operate between them essentially free of restrictions, but is maliciously seeking to restrict our choices, reduce the already almost-nonexistent competition across the Atlantic, and of course, inevitably enable the big three airline cartels to push prices up without any competitive constraints.

In other words, while such people might well be serving the airlines, they are not serving the people of the United States.  They are an enemy, acting against our common good.

That description seems to fairly fit with the actions of Rep Pete DeFazio, the Oregonian congressman who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and who is already starting a battle to keep promising new startup Norse Atlantic Airways, out of our skies.

I’d always thought it was supposed to be the Republicans who were in thrall to the big corporate interests, and the Democrats who stood up to protect ordinary people.  Someone should explain to DeFazio he is choosing the wrong side in this battle.

This Week’s Least Surprising Headline

To be fair, climate changers are seldom familiar with mathematics, science, or logic.  So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to learn of their shock! horror! discovery – some people fly more often than others each year – with the implication being, of course, that these people are selfishly destroying the planet through their endless unnecessary self-indulgent airplane travels.

This is then transmogrified to the belief that people who fly more than “normal” must be rich, and so therefore, they can and should be taxed as a penalty for their frequent travels, and the more they travel, the higher the tax rate on each of their sinful flights.

This BBC article barely conceals its greenie outrage at the imbalance whereby 15% of the British population – a percent it dubs “wealthy” – do 70% of the flying.  It also quotes generally similar numbers from other countries showing that this atrocious imbalance is commonplace – not everyone travels exactly the same amount as everyone else.

But anyone who has done a bit of math will immediately notice something about the “15% do 70% of the flying”.  It is more or less a restatement of an observed occurrence that is omnipresent across so many different fields and types of measurement – the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 Rule.  In this context, it would suggest that 80% of all air travel is done by 20% of all air travelers (and therefore the other 20% of air travel is done by the other 80% of travelers).

The huge assumption is that this imbalance is unfair and “against the natural order” but in reality, a Pareto Principle type distribution is more universal and natural than an even distribution, as exemplified in this article.

Even some of the other examples in the BBC article – “3% of Indonesians take 56% of flights” is actually very closely part of the Pareto Principle, where as well as 80/20, you can then apply a second order of 80/20 factoring, which gives you (80% of 80%) of flights are taken by (20% of 20% of passengers), in other words, 4% take 64% of flights, which is almost exactly in line with the 3%/56% quoted.

It is certainly unfair to see an economy where 0.01% of people control 99% of the economy – that’s way beyond a Pareto Principle curve.  But it is a strange trick of nature that so many things end up with a 80/20 split, and not a reason for outrage.

Qantas Goes All-In on the A380

Many airlines have been using the Covid crisis as an excuse to accelerate the retirement of their fleets of lovely A380 planes.  That’s a terrible shame for us as passengers, and possibly also for them as airlines.

But not so, Qantas (and similarly, Emirates).  Qantas announced this week that it expects to return all twelve of its A380s to full active service.  Bravo.  But who knows when that will be – while the airline has been hoping to restart international flights on 31 October this year, that is becoming less likely due to Australia’s low rate of vaccination.

France Goes All-In on Domestic Rail

This has been discussed before, but is now almost a reality.  France’s National Assembly has voted to approve a ban on internal flights where it is possible to travel by train instead, for journeys of up to 2 1/2 hours (by train).  Their second chamber, the Senate, needs to approve it, and is expected to shortly do so.

That’s actually not as big a deal as it might seem.  Most people in France will sensibly choose a train over a plane for short journeys like that, because a 2 1/2 hour train journey is usually quicker than the equivalent air journey.

You might think “In 2 1/2 hours, a train can only travel 300 miles or so” and you might also think “at 550 mph, a plane can cover that distance in 33 minutes”.  Yes, but there’s a bit more to consider than just that.

For the train journey, you simply walk on to the train with your luggage, a minute or two before departure, usually in a convenient train station close to your home or office.  For the flight, you’ve got to get to an airport that might be 30 minutes or more expensive drive away, then check in, go through security, wait, board your flight 20 minutes before departure, then wait for the plane to push back, taxi, get its turn to take off, and then the opposite process at the other end.

The extra time costs, over and above the 33 minutes of cruising time, easily exceed the total 2 1/2 hour train travel time.  And let’s not forget the respective comfort of a train and roomy seat and easily to walk through carriages and reasonable food service and choices, and cell phone service, and everything else, compared to the experience on a plane.

So France’s seemingly bold mandate to ban short flights merely recognizes that few if any people were taking those flights, anyway.

Except for one group of people.

If you’re actually on a multiple sector flight – first a feeder flight from a regional airport to a hub, then a flight from the hub to somewhere else, how will you do that by train instead?

In theory there’ll be a waiver allowing people on connecting flights to take the shorter flights too.  But if the airlines have lost much/most of their short sector passengers because of the 2 1/2 hour rule, will they still even offer those short flights for the few remaining passengers wishing to connect on to another flight?

Details here.

Not Just More Futuristic Battery Promises.  Fusion Too.

A bit like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, articles abound, on a regular basis, boasting of amazing new battery technologies that will (at least) double a battery’s capacity, halve its size, double its rate of charge, halve its cost, and double its life.

But every one of these articles concludes with the admission that the battery is still being developed and it will be some years before the batteries start commercial production.  And while I’ve been seeing such articles for way more than a decade, I’ve never seen a single such battery revolution appear in commercial production.  Instead, there’s been a steady slowing of improvements in current Li-ion technologies, albeit combined with continued reductions in unit costs (although price drops are slowing too now).

So it is with more skepticism than certainty I read of the latest battery breakthrough – one which Bloomberg went somewhat over the top in announcing and championing, because they apparently negotiated an exclusive deal with the battery developer’s PR department (aka “a scoop”).

For sure, it is an exciting technology that other companies are working on too, but the article concludes weakly with the hope we might start to see cars using the new technology in 2026.  I’ll believe it when I see it.

Here’s a slightly less forward looking battery development – a larger size battery as the building block of Tesla cars.  When will it appear in new Tesla vehicles?  The article doesn’t even suggest a date, so no time soon.

The ultimate in power sources, at least at present, seems to be nuclear fusion, especially if fusion reactors can be made small in size and inexpensive in cost.  Neither has been achieved yet, but this article suggests we might be turning that corner.  Small simple fusion reactors would totally transform the entire world – at present, just about anything and everything ends up as being a function of energy cost and availability, to a larger or lesser degree (and usually a larger degree), and the shift towards electricity and batteries makes electricity generation – for example, via a fusion reactor – a key link in that chain.

The article, alas, shares something in common with battery articles.  There’s no certainty about the claims, and no details about when the fusion reactors might start commercially appearing.

And Lastly This Week….

Crazy cabin concepts – we always look interestedly at new cabin layout designs – sometimes with horror (the bicycle saddle semi-standing up type seats) and sometimes with sadness (spacious luxury that will never come to pass) and sometimes with mirth (seat contortions that try and make a 3 across row of seats give more width than the inches allow).  Here are some interesting new designs that we don’t expect to see any time soon.

The lamest thing in Vegas“.  Ouch.  That phrase was used to describe the much boasted about new Elon Musk designed transportation system for getting from one side of the LV Convention Center to the other.  Sadly, most of the searing criticism seems fair and deserved.

Do you recognize yourself at all in this article?  Please don’t feel the need to ‘fess up and tell me if you do!

Here’s a less-exact-than-you-might-think sketch and commentary on the US Air Force’s “secret” new fighter jet.  It can’t be too secret if details are appearing in Popular Mechanics, can it!

The one point though that struck us as genuinely stunningly amazing is the claim that the airport designed, built and had a first plane in the air, all in the space of a single year.  We’ve always thought that CAD/CAM and new technologies such as 3D printing should accelerate the pace of airplane design/development, and have been surprised at how the time it takes to design a new plane seems to be extending rather than shrinking.  If the one year from start to finish claim is true, that’s an amazing accomplishment – are you taking note, Boeing?

Talking about speeds, there was a time, seemingly a few hundred years ago now, when Branson’s plans for his Virgin Galactic flights were the closest thing to real space flight that anyone could ever hope for.  But flash forward through all the many years, failed promises, and delays, and while VG is still promising “next year” for actual flights, other startups are catching up and possibly accelerating ahead of the VG schedule.

SpaceX is about to have its third astronaut launch in under a year.  More directly competing with VG is Blue Origin, which says it could begin passenger flights by April – the headline says 2021 but surely it must mean 2022?  This similar article says “soon” so maybe it might be some time this year.

Talking about travel excitements and travel firsts, this article reminds me vividly of my first honeymoon, when my new wife’s father unwisely lent us his car for us to drive around in while honeymooning.  I achieved two “firsts” in it that I’d long wanted to do.  One involved getting the car airborne – it took several repeated passes over a hump in the road before my bride managed to capture the event on film, with air clearly between all four tires and the road.

The other first?  Well, that was more private and definitely not filmed.

Until next week, please stay healthy and safe

 

David.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 16 April 2021”

  1. I have to confess that I was unexpectedly more upset by the death of His Royal Highness than I expected to be. I certainly knew of his life, but not nearly as much as I have learned this past week. While I have always enjoyed my visits to the UK, I am hardly a British subject. So I was a bit puzzled by it.

    But as I learned more about him I began to understand why. He was one of the last great examples of our Greatest Generation. Someone who wasn’t always that demonstrative but still charming and very loving and protective of his family. Someone who was clearly a self-sufficient man, and not a whiner (or whinger as I think the Brits like to say). Who started life in very challenging circumstances. And someone who had been tested in WWII.

    In short, he reminded me very much of my own Father, who had all of those characteristics. His loss was also very much of a reminder of my own loss. And I could sympathize with the grief that Her Majesty must be dealing with. I wish her and the Royal Family well.

  2. Exactly right, Peter. He reminded me of my dad too. It hadn’t occurred to me, consciously, but buried down beneath the detritus of subsequent years, the Duke’s passing resonated so strongly because he was of my father’s generation. And yes, they were made of tougher stuff back then.

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David.