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I’d like to start with a shout-out to the passing of a man who was one of the most creative and inventive pioneers of direct marketing in the US. You probably don’t know his name, but you surely will remember some of the dozens of products he not only sold, but also personally designed and created. To me he was one of the quintessential expressions of one of the most uniquely American aspects of this country. Ron Popeil died on Wednesday, aged 86 – details of his life and work here. RIP.
It has been a busy week this week. As I mentioned last week, I had to finally admit to the inevitable and administer last rites to my long serving laptop; the new one is taking a while to “bed down” and optimize; indeed, I even have a few small pangs of buyer-regret, and realize now I made one big blunder in my selection criteria.
I gave considerable importance to finding a light-weight laptop. I always struggle with both carry-on and checked luggage dimensions and weights when flying, and saw a chance to save four or so pounds of weight and some cubic inches of volume by getting a lightweight slim laptop. I also looked for the longest possible battery life, having plenty of nightmare memories of struggling with dying laptop batteries and no convenient charging opportunities.
Well, I did very well on both points, getting a laptop that weighs under three pounds and with a 19 hour battery life. But, now I have it in front of me, I realize there were some unavoidable compromises inherent in such a laptop, and I find myself wondering if it is as solid and “industrial” as my old Dell, and able to “take the punishment” that accrues from travel. And then I realized, with an embarrassed laugh, that here I am, choosing a laptop based on my travel needs, when in reality, I have not flown anywhere for 18 months, and have no plans to travel anywhere for, well, at the very least, not until some time in 2022.
I’ll tell you about the laptop and what I learned about the current “sweet spot” in laptops next week. This week I completed the article I promised you last week – the retrospective look at the extraordinary progress we’ve made in the last few decades in terms of our ability to watch movies of our choice at home.
I found this so interesting that I allowed the article to extend a bit in length. I won’t tell you exactly how long, but I can confess it got so long I had to split it in two. But I hope you might find it interesting (let me know yes or not, to help me in my future article choices). It is attached to this morning’s newsletter.
Also attached is yesterday’s Covid diary entry. I continue to see-saw between thinking the Covid situation has just about run out of new news and stories to share, and then finding myself inundated with new material that needs to be passed on to you. Thursday seemed to have another abundance of such stories, and if think my exasperation seeps through, you’re not imagining it.
Eighteen and more months into the pandemic, and we still don’t have a realistic handle on so many of the vital data points we must master if we’re to prevail and vanquish the virus. Our “experts” show themselves to be experts only at self-aggrandizement and making mistakes. And so on. As proof of our mishandling, Thursday’s new Covid case count in the US rose yet again, and for the first time since early Feb, is now exceeding 90,000 new cases a day. If it wasn’t for the usual weekend dip in case counting, we’d be back to six figure counts on Saturday. Have we learned nothing from the 35.6 million cases and 628,492 deaths in the US so far? It surely seems that way.
And, also, please keep reading for :
- US Air Passenger Counts Continue to Flatline
- EU/UK Travel Update
- Canadian Travel Update
- AA Allegedly Can’t Even Arrange Hotel Rooms for its Overnighting Flight Crews
- London’s New Tourist Aberration
- Tesla’s Semi Delayed Again – Might be Obsolete Before Released
- More Electric Vehicle Strangeness
- And Lastly This Week….
US Air Passenger Counts Continue to Flatline
On Wednesday this week (the most recent day for passenger stats) we were running at 78.9% of the 2019 count. On Wednesday last week, we were running at 79.2% – essentially the same. On Wednesday a week further back, we were at 79.3%, still essentially unchanged. The Wednesday before that was “tainted” by the end of the July 4 weekend travel, but from 11 July onwards, numbers have consistently hovered around the 79%.
Astonishing. But, even so, the airlines are still claiming to be struggling to catch up with unexpected strong demand.
EU/UK Travel Update
Just in time for the new JetBlue flights to London on August 11, England has said that vaccinated passengers from the US can enter the UK without needing to quarantine, from next Monday.
But they do need a negative Covid test prior to flying, and another negative Covid test two days after arriving, and the US will also require a negative Covid test prior to your return back to the US.
So that is sort of good news. Who only knows how long it will last – with the UK Covid numbers mysteriously dropping, they might switch to the depressive side of their manic/depressive approach to (mis)managing the virus and become very protective again, and decide to remove the special travel dispensation and require more stringent measures once more.
That’s also a concern that applies to the EU. For example, our ever-rising case numbers are already nine times higher than is happening in Germany at present (but lower than in France) and it is entirely foreseeable that if our numbers don’t stop rising, they’ll move us to a more restricted category of country.
Meantime, our “friends” in the State Department have now raised their travel advisories for Portugal and Spain to the maximum “Do Not Travel” level. They also added a do not travel warning for travel to Cyprus and Kyrgyzstan, but I’ll guess few of you are planning on upcoming travel to Cyprus and even fewer to Kyrgyzstan.
The US is also refusing to lift its travel ban on people visiting from the EU and UK, no matter if visitors are vaccinated or not. There is no logic or sense of any sort about this refusal, and it raises a concern that the diplomatic doctrine of “reciprocity” (a polite way of saying “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”) will encourage the Europeans, few of whom like the US at the best of times, to create similar restrictions on our travel there – something we’re making easier for them to do with every passing day and our increasing new Covid case rate.
Question to President Biden – you were critical of this ban when President Trump first created it. Why aren’t you now ending it, something you can do with a pen-stroke?
One more thing to keep in mind. If you do travel internationally, you risk being tested positive for Covid prior to your return back to the US. That might suddenly see you being frog-marched into some dubious “quarantine hotel”, at great cost and even greater inconvenience, possibly for two weeks, maybe longer. Do you really want to risk an experience like these people had?
Overall, my advice generally continues to hold good – if you’re going to the EU or UK, go as soon as possible, while it is still feasible and likely to be enjoyable.
Although, one thing is for sure – the getting there and back may not be all that pleasant. I continue to hear only bad things about the state of air travel at present – canceled or delayed flights, totally absent airline support in such cases, full flights, and surly flight attendants.
Canadian Travel Update
For those of us in the more northerly states and itching for some “foreign” travel, but not wanting to suffer air travel, perhaps a trip to Canada might suffice?
Canada is re-opening its border, allowing vaccinated Americans to drive across and visit Canada again, from Monday 9 August. Yay for that. The Canadian dollar currently costs U$0.80 (or, if you prefer, a US dollar buys $1.25 in Canada).
But – wait. Before you start packing the car and preparing for a roadtrip, Canada’s border staff are likely to go on strike on Friday 6 August. Ooops.
Meantime, the Canadians remain unable to travel to the US. Canada might think we’re welcome and safe, but our authorities refuse to allow Canadians in, even thought the virus new case rate is fourteen times lower in Canada than here.
AA Allegedly Can’t Even Arrange Hotel Rooms for its Overnighting Flight Crews
We’re not sure how common this might be, but here is a story of how AA couldn’t arrange overnight accommodation for its flight crews, particularly when flight schedules got messed up.
To be fair to AA, there are unavoidably times, particularly in smaller towns, and when there are special events in the town, and with bookings being made at the last minute, when hotels will be all full. But, as I’ve observed before, the concept of “full” is always a vague and relative rather than an absolute one.
You can call a hotel and say “I want a room at your ultra-lowest discount airline industry corporate net rate” and the hotel will think “We can sell these rooms for $200 or $100 a night, let’s refuse the $100 booking request and keep them for the $200 people who will come in later today”. But if you call the hotel – or, perhaps even better, if you call the corporate office for the hotel chain and say “We book x thousand room nights a year with your hotel chain, and now need your help with some rooms in XYZ city for tonight. We’ll pay twice rack rate for the rooms, we’re not asking for discounts, just for the rooms at any price”; there’s no way any hotel chain would refuse that.
Some readers already know this because they have sufficient elite status in one or other of the hotel programs that give them a guaranteed room availability as part of their elite status. It seems certain that a corporate client booking thousands – in most cases, tens of thousands – of room nights would have much more negotiating power than an individual booking fifty nights a year.
So my guess is that the employee unions have a legitimate complaint here, and AA could do better if it was sufficiently motivated to do so (and willing to pay a bit more for rooms).
London’s New Tourist Aberration
If London is in your near-future travel plans, the people operating the Marble Arch Mound hope you’ll include a visit to their new attraction as part of your visit. In return for paying them £4.50 per person (about $6.30) you get to walk up a thinly planted 82 ft high pile of dirt plunked down alongside the Marble Arch at the Hype Park end of Oxford Street. Once you get to the top, you can admire the view of building rooftops, then go back down and out through the obligatory gift shop.
Great value for $12.60 (if you’re a couple)? Not at all! If you think so, you’d be in a very small minority of people. The “attraction” (which is apparently only temporary) is proving to be very thinly supported. You can look, via the live webcam on their website (a screen capture is at the top of this newsletter) to see how many people are thronging to it right now if you like (keep in mind that London is 5 – 8 hours ahead of us depending on if you’re in Eastern Time, Pacific Time, or somewhere inbetween).
Tesla’s Semi Delayed Again – Might be Obsolete Before Released
Doesn’t time fly. I was astonished to realize that it was way back in 2017 that Elon Musk first revealed his Semi – a battery-powered semi tractor, with a range of either 300 or 500 miles, and priced from $150k and up. At that time, he promised deliveries would start in 2019. In January this year, he said deliveries would start later in 2021.
Delivery is now said to start next year.
But there’s an interesting new concept getting close to being trialed in the UK which might invalidate a lot of the appeal of Musk’s Semi. The concept is a trolley/truck – Britain is thinking of adding overhead power lines, much like on rail lines, on its freeways where trucks travel in large numbers. This means two things – while the trucks are on the freeway routes with overhead power, they can run on the electricity rather than on internal power.
The second thing is they only need a small capacity battery to handle the “last mile” parts of an intercity journey – the distances from when they start a route to when they get onto a freeway, and then the distance from getting off the freeway to ending their journey. Best of all, they can recharge their onboard battery while traveling on the freeway, further reducing the amount of battery they need to have onboard.
A 500 mile range Tesla semi has about 1,000 kWhr of battery. It probably costs $120,000, and weighs about 12,000 pounds. A truck with a 100 mile range would obviously need one-fifth that – an almost $100,000 saving and an almost 10,000 lb weight reduction.
That seems like a compelling concept to me, and I hope it will quickly be rolled out both in the UK and the US too. It could transform our diesel/hydrocarbon use, while not adding to the challenges of building more batteries from increasingly scarce materials, and going easy on our electricity grid – drawing power “real time” as the trucks travel rather than in very high-rate bursts when they recharge as quickly as possible at stops along the route.
It also seems like the sort of infrastructure development/investment that might be appealing to both Republicans and Democrats. It helps small business/private enterprise – truckers; and it helps make our country cleaner and greener. The costs could be recovered in large or whole part by the electricity usage charges levied on the trucks, and there’d be less wear and tear on our roads due to the saving of 10,000 lbs in battery weight.
Perhaps even a new form of Amtrak (or at least, low-impact public transport) could be electric buses on the freeways too?
More Electric Vehicle Strangeness
Electric vehicle manufacturer Rivian has its assembly plant in Normal, IL. But it feels the need, already, to create a second plant, and so announced plans this week for a new manufacturing plant, with an initial $5 billion budget to develop it, and probably to be located in AZ. Construction is planned to start in the fall of this year, and production to be online in the second quarter of 2023.
That’s amazingly positive news for Rivian. But also slightly puzzling, and perhaps this is the point at which you’ll confess to not recognizing the name or having seen any Rivian badged vehicles on your local streets. Don’t be embarrassed, there’s a reason you’ve not seen any Rivians driving around.
Although the company is about to start its second manufacturing plant, its current plant has yet to build or delivery a single vehicle.
That does cause one to wonder exactly how pressing their need is for a second factory. Details here.
And Lastly This Week….
Something that always makes us feel uncomfortable is seeing “grabby” companies trying to copyright/trademark overly broad phrases. Such as General Motors. They introduced a hands-free driving feature in 2017 which it calls Super Cruise. Ford has now come up with a similar product, and is calling it BlueCruise (as you of course know, the Ford logo is and has been, since at least 1912 and hinted at earlier, blue.
But GM believes the names are too similar – in other words, it wants to reserve any word or phrase with the word “cruise” in it exclusively for its own use. Never mind that the concept of “cruise control” is fully generic. Shame on greedy grabby GM. Details here.
No, it’s not a bribe. But it is an “entailed gift”, perhaps. The Bezos owned space company, Blue Origin, is still smarting at its loss to Musk’s SpaceX, when SpaceX was awarded the NASA contract for the next moon flight series. SpaceX underbid Blue Origin with apparently a $2.7 billion contract tender.
So, in another attempt to win the contract long after the tender has closed, Bezos is now offering a $2 billion discount on its current fees to NASA if they will take back the contract from SpaceX and give it to him.
Seems to us that if Bezos had $2 billion margin built into the contract to start with, and/or if it was that important to him to win the contract, he shouldn’t have been so greedy with the bid he submitted in the first place. SpaceX won. They deserve to stay the winner, now.
United Airlines justified its interest and very-very conditional “order” for supersonic jets by saying the jets will be very fuel efficient – at least, as measured by the Concorde yardstick. This is because the plane, to be called an Overture, will fly more slowly than the Concorde.
We’re not sure that the reason the Overture seems unlikely to live up to the original promises and claims of its developers in terms of speed is for it to save fuel, although for sure that’s likely to be a part of it. The thing is that people concerned about the fuel burn on their travels are unlikely to fly in any sort of supersonic plane, or even in a regular plane’s business or first class cabins. But people who want to get some quickly want to do exactly that. Reducing the Overture’s speed does not increase its appeal to people who will never fly on it, but reduces its appeal to the people who would fly on it, if there was a tangible benefit associated with the experience.
We think the plane, originally planned to be faster than Concorde, and cruise at Mach 2.2, is now planned to cruise at Mach 1.7, almost 25% slower.
A United flight was in the news for another reason this week. Apparently a teenager on board sent an “Airdrop” picture of an Airsoft BB type gun to people with Apple devices and open Airdrop settings. While such a thing was obviously nothing more than a silly prank, “out of an abundance of caution” United chose to delay the flight for three hours while evacuating the plane and searching it and passengers. No threats were found, and it is not even clear from United’s careful wording “Law enforcement officials were notified and our teams are working with them to review this matter” if the teenager will be charged with any crime.
Lastly this week, while there might be some doubt as to the validity of this Chinese hotel brochure, if you’ve been to China, the chances are you’ve come across similarly delightfully funny “Chinglish” translations.
Until next week, please stay happy and healthy