Weekly Roundup, Friday 20 August 2021

I’m more a Lancaster kinda guy myself, but if this B-17E picture stirs something in your heart, good news. (See last item on retirement.)

 

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Good morning

I know it is not just my imagination.  The days are definitely getting shorter, aren’t they.  And possibly a bit cooler too, although we in the Seattle area have just had another “heat wave”, which for us means temperatures in the low 90s (ie over 32° C).

To swap this slight seasonal sadness for gladness, I stumbled across some great discounts on Bose noise cancelling headphones on Amazon at present.  They are selling my favorite of the current Bose range, the Quiet Comfort 35 II, at either $250 new or “renewed” for $179.

I don’t know how long this might last for, but if you’re at the point of needing new noise cancelling headphones, you might want to grab a set while they remain low-priced.  I fear the QC 35 will eventually be discontinued and disappear, leaving only the NC700 product which I don’t like nearly as much, and which sell for $379 new and $289 renewed.

Noise cancelling headphones are a clear example of a product being sold at a price that has no correspondence at all to its underlying product cost.  There’s about a ten-fold markup on the underlying cost of both the QC35 and NC700 headphones.  But, as outrageous as that seems from a “cost plus” perspective, from a “value received” perspective, it doesn’t take too many long flights and the brilliant reduction in background noise they give to appreciate their value and feel good about the purchase.

Talking about electronics purchases (clumsy segue…..) my series on buying a new laptop computer continues this week, with the release of the fifth part, discussing the various accessories you should get to make your laptop (and you) more productive.  This appears in today’s newsletter, of course, below.  I realized there’s still another article that needs to be written, and that should be done for next week.

Talking about computers, and following on from last week’s 30th anniversary of the internet, this week sees the 40th anniversary of the IBM PC.  That is something I remember quite vividly, as I was appointed NZ Marketing Manager for the competing micro-computer being released by Burroughs, a wonderfully exciting job back in the golden era of computer companies.  Back then they all were robustly profitable, paid their staff well and had generous expense allowances and benefits.  It was a great work environment for “bright young things” wanting to forge a fast path forwards and do well.

Burroughs had a personal computer vastly better than IBM’s.  It had a much better internal architecture, was much more powerful, and supported advanced (and really simple) networking right out of the box, a feature it took IBM and Microsoft the best part of a decade to emulate.

But we – and all the many other companies pushing their respective versions of some sort of personal/micro-computer – were simply out-marketed by IBM.  IBM presented as the institutional “safe choice” – there was a saying among IBM’s competitors “no-one ever lost their job by choosing IBM” – a comment of some validity with the unproven newness of PCs, and comforting to the IT managers who were struggling to come to terms with how to integrate PCs into their fiefdoms (and also how to tightly control their usage).

It took quite a few of the last 40 years for the PC to really reach its potential, and it can be a matter of debate as to if its potential, now, is primarily thanks to the hardware or software, but few among us could deny the impact and value of PCs in our professional and personal lives.

Also below is Thursday’s Covid diary entry.  Sunday’s is online, here.

And what else?  The usual assortment (a kinder word than “jumble”!) of items :

  • US Air Passenger Numbers Hint at Softness
  • EU/UK Travel Update
  • Canada and Mexico Travel Update, Too
  • Remember the “United Breaks Guitars” Videos?  United Doesn’t.
  • A Hotel Fee I Might Like
  • Europe’s Love/Hate Relationship With Tourists
  • Disney Rediscovers E Ticket Rides?
  • Two New Cell Phones – A Winner and a Loser
  • Talking about Phones – the FCC is Forced to Review its Safety Guidelines
  • And Lastly This Week….

US Air Passenger Numbers Hint at Softness

You can probably discern a recent very slight nudge downwards on the long straight line in the chart above.  The last seven days saw passenger numbers drop from 78.2% of 2019 numbers to 77.6%, so while there’s a very slight drop on the chart, in reality, it is essentially all within the same statistically identical range.

I’d predicted this topping out around the 80% point some months back, with there being three reasons for the prediction :

(a)  Business travel is still appreciably down on 2019

(b)  I don’t think leisure travel is fully back to normal

(c)  Much less international travel – both passengers from the US going internationally, and passengers from other countries coming in to the US

Indeed, when you think about the combination of all three of those factors, one could make a case for seeing 80% as high rather than low.  With growing sensitivity, I think, to the growing Covid case numbers in the US once more, and a slow dawning appreciation that the vaccines are far from a magic solution, it is hard to see any of these three factors rapidly rising in the next little while, and easier to see potential drops.

But, who only knows.  We’ll have to watch and wait and see.  Several of the US airlines have been loudly expressing concern about perceived weaknesses in forward bookings.  But Alaska Airlines seems to be very upbeat about its future.

This week it announced it was exercising options to order 12 more 737s from Boeing, and with early delivery slots – ten in 2023 and two in 2024.  Alaska Airlines has already agreed to receive 31 new 737s from Boeing in 2022 and 12 in 2021.

EU/UK Travel Update

The EU’s “unity” (always more of an aspiration than an actuality) largely vanished when there was a panicked and uncoordinated approach to responding to the first attacks of the virus 18 months ago.  Eventually, things calmed down and the EU managed to create some broad rules and guidelines for what its member states must do, and started making EU-wide policy for responding to the virus.

I mentioned last week how the US “dodged a bullet” and narrowly avoided being placed on the EU’s “red list” of dangerous countries with restrictions on who could travel from the US to the EU.  That near-miss will be replayed again in another week when the EU reconsiders the matter – currently our Covid case numbers are continuing to rise, although they tantalizingly hint they could stop rising any day now.

But Germany – one of the countries most insistent on unity – broke ranks with the rest of the EU and last weekend announced it was unilaterally placing the US on its own national red list.  The result is that only vaccinated Americans can travel to Germany.  No vaccine = no admission.  There were less than 48 hours between its announcement and its imposition of this partial travel ban.

This has been my concern all along – sudden unexpected restrictions appearing.  I’d recommend waiting until after the outcome of the August 23 review by the EU before planning any late summer/early fall travel, and, as always, I recommend great caution planning anything more than a month or so ahead.

No real changes in the UK, which is now experiencing slow rises in new Covid cases each day again.  Perhaps part of the reason for that return to rising cases might be the revelation that when visitors do a post-arrival Covid test, much of the time, their test results are ignored, even if they show a positive infection.

Canada and Mexico Travel Update, Too

Canada announced this week that all arriving visitors by plane will have to be vaccinated.  That’s fair enough, and they’re allowing some period of advance warning before it becomes mandatory.

But it has created a curious/amusing reversal.  Until recently, Americans could fly to Canada without being vaccinated, but could not cross the land border at all.  Now, Americans can drive into Canada without vaccination any time they like, but will need to be vaccinated to fly into the country.

Meanwhile, south of here, Mexico wants to remind us that anyone can visit Mexico, and these requirements are unlikely to change..  No need for vaccination, no need even for a Covid test.

I’m not entirely sure that encourages me to visit Mexico, but if it encourages you, then off you can go.

Remember the “United Breaks Guitars” Videos?  United Doesn’t.

Just over 13 years ago, United Airlines checked an expensive guitar for a band member.  United’s baggage handlers were then seen to be roughly handling the guitar in its case on the tarmac, and sure enough, at the other end of the flight, the guitar’s owner discovered the guitar to have been severely damaged.

After nine months of getting the run-around by various United customer (non)service people, who generally conceded that the guitar may have been damaged, but refused to offer any compensation, the musician gave up and instead wrote three songs about the experience.  The full story of the nightmarish Catch-22 events surrounding his attempts to make a simple damage claim is told, here.

The songs were made into music videos, the first one of which truly was a wonderfully clever and funny presentation, and it has now been viewed on YouTube nearly 21 million times.  It became a social phenomenon, getting articles written about it, television appearances by the musician, and so on.  United belatedly made some insincere apologies and promises, and, if I remember rightly, its stock price is thought to have dropped by 5% or 10% as a result of the tidal wave of bad publicity it received.

Now, flash forward to the present day.  A musician with an expensive violin had to argue with United Airlines representatives – the reps tried to force the musician to check the violin as hold baggage.  She (the violinist) refused and pointed out that federal law requires airlines to allow musicians with reasonable sized instruments (such as violins) to taken them into the passenger cabin with them.  This evoked the classic response

We don’t go with the federal law. We go with the United…

You can just hear the person saying that, can’t you.  So many airline employees either invent laws that don’t exist to bully passengers into doing things they aren’t obliged to do, or else ignore the federal laws that do exist.

Fortunately, the violinist eventually prevailed.  Or maybe unfortunately – it would have been interesting to see her own YouTube treatment of the incident.

A Hotel Fee I Might Like

The aspect of hotel “resort fees” that most of us hate is that we are required to pay them, whether or not we use any of the “benefits” that we’re said to be paying for.  Even if we were using the facilities and benefits, the fees are typically excessive and sometimes can be higher than the hotel’s actual room rate.  In Las Vegas, a $45 resort fee per room per night seems typical at present, and sometimes the hotel room itself will be priced below the resort fee.

Hotels love these fees because they are non-commissionable and usually avoid the hotel taxes levied on room rates too.  Plus they only appear late in the booking/selection process, when a person has already mentally committed to the hotel.  If a hotel finds itself giving a discount on a room, then the discount seldom applies to the fee, just the room, and if they are giving away the room “for free” they’ll still try to get the resort fee from the guest.

But the resort fees do engender enormous ill-will.  So it is interesting to read this article about how some hotels are looking to start pricing for amenities and benefits rather than sweeping them all into a fixed resort fee.  As one who never uses the pool or gym in a hotel, nor the phone or television, that sure sounds like a great deal to me.

Europe’s Love/Hate Relationship With Tourists

Even European cities that didn’t bray loudly about having too many tourists (prior to 2020 and Covid) have been, to a greater or lesser extent, uncomfortable with the shift in dynamic such that town centers become more focused on visitors than on locals.

We, as visitors, don’t necessarily notice this, but if you think about it, you’ll realize that most of the stores in many city centers tend to be expensive international brand stores selling fashion and other high-margin high-price items – these are not the sorts of stores that get much local business at all.  On the other hand, fresh food shops, butchers, greengrocers – stores that locals would patronize but tourists decidedly less so – have become very scarce, being replaced by whatever local version of 7-11 type stores with mainly prepackaged food and, again, high prices.

Plus the locals struggle to find room in “their” bars and restaurants, and cringe at the noisy visitors and the inflated prices as a result of all the tourist traffic.

So the last year has given many European cities an unexpected chance to see what life is like without tourists everywhere all the time.  Many local residents have realized they much prefer the quieter ambience, the greater number of locals and the reduced number of foreigners.

Which creates the paradox of how to “save/rescue” cities from their tourists and tourism “success”, but still to keep the tourist revenues flowing in.  Invariably, and unrealistically, every city decides it wants to selectively target “better” tourists with higher budgets.  But if every city is trying to pitch itself upmarket, fighting over the wealthy 1%, what happens to the other 99% of tourists (and their money)?

No-one has a good answer to that, yet.  Here’s an article that talks some more on the issue.

Disney Rediscovers E Ticket Rides?

When Disneyland first opened, you had to pay for every ride you took.  Over the years, Disney stratified its rides into different price bands, with the ultimate rides requiring the most expensive “E” ticket (the less expensive rides requiring A – D tickets).  The ticket per ride concept ended in 1982, and we’re all familiar with the current arrangement and, partly in consequence, the huge long lines that fill up the bulk of any day at one of their parks.

News came out this week of Disney revamping its “Fast Pass” program.  In part, it was an ordinary and not very impactful announcement, and now involves paying $15 – $20 a day for a phone based equivalent of the Fast Pass system.  But also contained were vague references to extra supplements being charged to reserve times to go on the most popular rides.

That’s more than half-way to charging per ride, isn’t it.  It will be interesting to see which rides have reservation fees, and what the fees will be.  How much would you pay to avoid a 60 minute wait in line for a ride?  Especially on a brutally hot afternoon….

Two New Cell Phones – A Winner and a Loser

Do you know the brand of CPU in your cell phone?  Do you care?  Would you pay a hefty premium to ensure you had a Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU in your phone?

Corporate pride (and delusion) knows few limits, and Qualcomm, feeling increasingly anxious about its share of cell phone CPUs – not only Apple but now Google too are starting to use their own in-house CPUs – has decided to boost its image in front of the cell phone buying public, and to offer a high end phone with the self-proclaimed benefit of having a Qualcomm CPU in it.

As a result, enter the “Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders” phone.  Not the catchiest of names, and a phone essentially bereft of any distinguishing features at all, other than its price.  The phone is priced at a stratospheric $1499.

Here’s a review of the phone, but trust me.  You’re not likely to want to drop $1500 on a “me too” phone when you can get similar or better phones for half the price.

So much for the loser phone.  Now for the winner phone.  The new Google Pixel 5a 5G phone.

I have and love my Pixel 4a 5G phone, and indeed, when I think back to earlier Google Nexus phones I’ve owned, there’s never been a Google branded phone that I’ve not loved.  They are always highish-end, well made, first with new versions of Android, and free of clutter and proprietary complications that interfere with the consistent purity of the Android operating system and which are overlaid on top of Android by some companies (this means you, Samsung).

The new Pixel 5a 5G seems to be very little changed from last year’s 4a 5G model, but that’s pretty much in line with all phone model series, isn’t it.  When was the last time something major or a “must have” new feature appeared on a phone?  If you followed my recommendation of the 4a 5G last year, I suggest you do the same thing as me – keep it, happily, because you’re not really missing out on anything appreciable in the newer phone.  Sure, the battery life is a bit longer, but the battery life in the 4a 5G is already so ridiculously long, (especially compared to any iPhone), that there’s no need for more.  The new phone even has the same (Qualcomm Snapdragon) CPU as last year.  It has a very tiny increase in screen size, but nothing impactful, and, best of all, it is priced $50 below the 4a 5G list price of last year.  The new Pixel 5a 5G lists at $449.

Google is worried it won’t be able to source a lot of units, due to the worldwide chip shortages, so there mightn’t be many of the occasional discounts that sometimes came out for the 4a 5G (I think from memory I paid well under $300 for mine) but there is a good deal on it if you buy one as part of a Google Fi phone service package – pay $15 monthly for two years, totaling much less than the upfront purchase price, and own it at the end, plus be eligible for a new replacement phone on the same basis (perhaps the Pixel 7a then).

If you don’t yet have any of the earlier Google Pixel 5G phonse, and are thinking of moving into the 5G phone arena, this would be a great choice.  Motorola has a very keenly priced Moto One 5G Ace that probably dominates the bottom of the market, and there are plenty of phones for way more than the 5a 5G, but which offer largely inconsequential extra features/benefits.

Here’s a review of the 5a 5G in PC Mag, describing it as “the midrange, perfected”.

Talking about Phones – the FCC is Forced to Review its Safety Guidelines

As you know, I’m concerned about the harmful effects of the radio frequency energy emitted by cell phones.

The FCC has told us cell phones are all fine and safe, and even has (now effectively hidden) on their site data information about energy levels by phone model.  There have been some very credible suggestions the data on the FCC’s site is flawed, in part because it is, ahem, “self reported” by cell phone manufacturers and not checked by the FCC.

Yes, that does sound a bit like a certain airplane manufacturer and the FAA, doesn’t it, and we know how well that worked out……

I’ve attempted to correspond with the FCC, asking them to respond my analysis of these concerns, and they’ve not replied at all.

With that as quick background, the US Court of Appeal for the DC Circuit this week ruled that the FCC must reexamine its health and safety guidelines for 5G and other wireless services.

I don’t expect the FCC review to result in a sudden turnaround by the FCC.  But it is a positive step forward that a federal Appeal Court has now become concerned and interested in the matter.

And Lastly This Week….

You might have read this week about a group setting a new record for calculating Pi – this time to 62,800,000,000,000 digits.  If you did, perhaps one of your strongest thoughts was “Why?”.  This article attempts to answer that question.

It is very interesting to watch the evolution of Amazon.  Essentially it was a totally “virtual” online presence, then it surprised everyone by buying Whole Foods, and then started with small stores a bit like 7-11s, then added stores that are a bit reminiscent of what used to be the Sharper Image type stores.  Much of that sort of progress made some sense.  But what to make of this story, suggesting that Amazon is looking at creating larger “department store” type retail shops?

Is it possible the company that in large part triggered the decline of traditional retail department stores can now compete against itself and actually succeed at what seems to be a terminally-failing business model?  If it was any other company, I’d say no, but one has to be wary of betting against Amazon.

Talking about Amazon, you probably know how children’s names go in and out of fashion.  And you’re probably unsurprised to learn that one particular girl’s name has become a lot less popular of late – Alexa.

Truly lastly, if you are retired, or contemplating retirement, perhaps you’re looking for a hobby or pastime.  If you’re not sure what might appeal, here’s a suggestion for you.

Until next week, please stay healthy and happy

 

David.

 

 

3 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 20 August 2021”

  1. Hi David,

    Regarding the Pixel 5A….I was looking for a new phone last year.

    In the past, whenever I traveled somewhere new, I would buy a SIM card for one of the the local companies, take out my ‘home’ SIM, plug in the new one, and use it until it was time to go home. Problem was, you had to make sure not to lose your ‘home’ SIM while it was removed as they are so small, and you also ended up with a collection of several SIMs if you visited several different countries. You also had to remember which SIM went to which country if you returned there.

    I am not one who needs the ‘latest and greatest’ phone, i.e. I am not someone who regularly upgrades my phone every time a new model comes out like it’s a status symbol.

    Nor do I live on my phone…I simply want a device that I can make calls and texts on, with the occasional internet access when wi-fi is not available to check email.

    As such, I do not have a data plan, actually ANY plan….I buy pay as you go cards.

    I know I am in the minority…go ahead, laugh, and call me a dinosaur ( you won’t hurt my feelings, I have an ex-wife, I’ve been called much worse ).

    After looking around, the phone I ended up purchasing was a BLU G5 from Amazon.

    It comes unlocked, so you are not tethered to one provider. And best of all I got it on sale for 90 bucks ( Canadian ).

    But honestly, the biggest feature for me was it being dual SIM. Now I can leave my ‘home’ SIM in one slot and not have to worry about losing it when I travel. In the second slot, I purchased a travel SIM good for 200 countries. Both SIMs stay in the phone all the time.

    There are several travel SIM companies out there…you really have to research them as with many of them the unused airtime expires quite quickly, so if you only travel once a year you would lose out if you had unused time.

    Eventually I chose Wraptel for my travel SIM. There are no contracts or fees, and airtime doesn’t expire unless you go 15 months without using it.

    As previously mentioned, every now and then I find myself without wi-fi, so the odd check of my email using my travel SIM even though I am at home, ensures I don’t have to worry about my time expiring.

    And the data rates with the travel SIM are a lot less than having a data plan with my local company, so I get the convenience of data without having to pay some of the highest rates in the world…the best of both worlds.

    As this is a travel forum, just thought I would throw this out there to anyone looking for an economical cell solution for travel…check out BLU phones and http://www.wraptel.com for the SIM. As I purchased both the phone and SIM over a year ago, I am sure there might be even better deals out there, but I feel these are good starting points.

  2. UPDATE:

    Just signed on to my wraptel account and was greeted with the following:

    We have just been informed that the number provider has ceased trading. This is due to the impacts of Covid over the last 18 months.

    Unfortunately we are no longer able to provide UK numbers. All UK numbers will be withdrawn by tomorrow and replaced with US numbers but at $1.00 per month. If you currently have a US or Canadian number it will remain the same. If you are experiencing any issues with your existing Canadian or US number please create a ticket through your online account.

    This change is unfortunately totally out of our control and has come as a shock to us, we can only apologise for this situation and for this short notice given.

    As I had a UK number assigned to me, it was changed ( without my knowledge ) to a US number, at a charge of a buck a month. Not a big deal, or deal breaker, but it would have been nice if they informed me I had a new number, rather than me finding out by accident because I logged into my account. Still a good deal overall.

    1. David Rowell – Seattle, WA, USA – New Zealander now living in the United States.

      The number of things that blame Covid for a negative outcome are staggering, aren’t they – although to be fair, travel related products are particularly stressed.

      Glad you still consider it to be a great deal, and – hey – US numbers aren’t all that bad! 🙂

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