Weekly Roundup, Friday 6 August 2021

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Good morning

It has been an exciting week, albeit in a simultaneously fun and frustrating way – trying to arrange my new computer into the most convenient and productive setup.  Plus, I’ve been writing on the topic, putting together a “Buyers’ Guide” to a new laptop.  Many of us are slowly coming to realize that our computers won’t be compatible with the new Windows 11 release, and are wondering if we should buy a new computer or make do with Windows 10 for a bit longer, so hopefully these articles are timely and helpful.

This writing project was made urgent by Costco happily offering major reductions in a short term sale on the family of laptops that are my favorite preferred laptops currently.  I felt I had to get as much as possible of what will become probably a five part article series to you now so that, if you wish, you can take advantage of the discounts on the LG Gram laptops I’m recommending.

So look for the first three articles in the series after this morning’s weekly roundup, which might give you all the guidance you need to grab or turn away from the Costco deals.  Yes, they seem to be equally open to non-Costco members, too, plus Costco ships from its website to anywhere; you don’t need to visit a local Costco store.

(No, I’m not getting anything from Costco or LG, I just think these are great laptops at a great price.)

Also attached is – yes, you guessed it – Thursday’s Covid Diary entry, and Sunday’s can be seen online here.

One more point to call out before moving on to this morning’s selected items – please do note and respond to the reader survey below.

So, continuing on below is :

  • Reader Survey – When Will Covid End?
  • Air Passenger Numbers – Still No Change
  • European Travel Update
  • Domestic Flight Disruptions
  • The Great (Space) Race
  • Whatever Happened to Amazon’s Delivery Drones?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey – When Will Covid End?

I asked you three times last year when you thought Covid would finally get “under control” and life would return back to whatever one can consider as “normal”.  I guess “normal” means no masks, no social distancing, easy travel, no vaccine or testing fuss, and no daily headlines about new Covid cases, etc etc.  It has been so long since we were last normal, it is a bit hard to remember, isn’t it!

It is a year since I last put the question to you.  May I ask you for your thought again now.  I’ll collate your answers, and next week not only show current thinking but also how it has evolved since the first survey in April last year (at that time, the most popular prediction was things would be back to normal by July – that is, July 2020.  Only 7% of responses thought we’d still be suffering the pandemic now, in August 2021.

If you’d simply click the answer which best represents your feeling about when we’ll be back to normal, that’ll create an email to me with your answer encoded into the subject line.

Many thanks for helping make this interesting for us all.  I look forward to sharing the results with you, next week.

Air Passenger Numbers – Still No Change

I became very excited last week, when over three days the daily percentage of 2019 people flying inched up from 78.9% to 79.9%, and prepared to greet the 80% barrier being broken on the fourth day.  But, no, numbers faltered and fell back down again, closing the last seven days at 79.3%.

As you can see, the straight line continues on with only the smallest of wobbles.  Yet, even though passenger numbers have remained frozen at this level ever since the July 4 weekend, airlines are still blaming “the unexpected strength of passenger demand over the summer” for their abject failings and inability to operate their flights as scheduled.

To further show the nonsense of the “unexpected strength of passenger demand”, let’s look at the “real numbers” rather than percentages.  At the end of the July 4 weekend, on, say, Thursday July 8, 2.61 million passengers flew.  On Wednesday August 4, 2.43 million passengers flew – the actual numbers have been, if anything, slightly inching down.

The airlines have no valid excuses, just lies, for their appalling performance.

More on that, below.

European Travel Update

It has been another “interesting” week.

While not in Europe, something happened in Israel that threatens to spill over to and be copied in other countries.  Israel has now started requiring mandatory quarantine for everyone visiting from “high risk” countries, whether the visitors be vaccinated or not.  The US is on their “high risk” country list.

Might Europe start doing the same?  That’s anyone’s guess, but as our active new infection rate continues to increase, the chances of something bad happening to how Europe treats US visitors, whether it be quarantine for all or outright bans, has to be viewed as increasing.

Amawaterways have now started requiring all guests on their European river cruises be vaccinated.  That is sensible, and I’d suggested it to them a couple of months ago when exploring the possibility of offering a group river cruise in August.

But, they’ve done something strange.  While they allow all three vaccines used in the US to qualify, they say you must have been vaccinated at least 14 days prior if you had the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, but 28 days prior if you had the J&J vaccine.

I asked why, pointing them to the FDA statement saying that J&J protection maxed at the 14 day post-injection point, and mentioning how just about every other place has a consistent 14 day requirement for all vaccines.  Their answer :

It is a very valid question! This advisement is more of an extra precautionary measure to ensure that all guests’ travel experiences are seamless. Our Executive Management Team and company owners have decided this is the best and safest way to advise our travelers at this time.

I don’t pretend to understand any part of that (il)logic and (non)explanation, but it is another example of how people, companies, and countries are liable to act semi-randomly and only semi-sensibly in the measures they adopt, leaving us at risk of being tripped up if we anticipated one type of response only to discover at the last minute a different type of response.

Meanwhile, the US has added Greece and Ireland to their highest level four “do not travel” warning, even though these countries have Covid case rates lower than we do.

One interesting new complication might be if you are planning to travel first to the UK and then to Europe.  As part of the ongoing hate between the EU and its now departed member, Britain, the EU is looking to create and extend travel restrictions for people flying from Britain to Europe.

The good news, overall, is that Europe remains open for vaccinated American visitors, and their own case rate levels remain much lower than US rates in all countries except France, Iceland, Britain, and Spain.  I continue to suggest if you’re hoping to go to Europe, do so as quickly as possible.

Domestic Flight Disruptions

It has been a grim week for air travel in the US.  Spirit Airlines imploded, cancelling 19% of their flights on Sunday, 42% on Monday, 61% on Tuesday, 60% on Wednesday, and another 53% (at least) on Thursday, with cancellations already being announced for Friday, too.  Spirit blamed weather, technology products, and staffing shortages for its problems.

American Airlines also cancelled hundreds of flights on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, and delayed many others.  American blamed the weather, but its pilots union disagreed, saying that AA’s flight crew scheduling system makes flexible responses to schedule disruptions impossible.

According to this article, there have been at least 5,000 delayed flights almost every day since early July.  This is all the more astonishing because there are fewer flights operating within the US than two years ago, but even with a less stressed air traffic control system, and after receiving billions of dollars in government subsidies to ensure the airlines could keep their talent employed and be ready to quickly return to their 2019 levels of operation, the airlines are colossally failing us.

The Great (Space) Race

Two titans of industry and one wannabe – between the three of them, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson are certainly changing the image of the space industry from one of decay and stagnation, where the US had no way to send people even just up to the International Space Station, let alone into higher orbit or further away, and was reduced to paying top dollar to ride on old Russian rockets that, while overpriced and anything but state of the art, were stolidly reliable and functional.

Now we are seeing three different aggressive new approaches to developing all types of fanciful new rocket launch capabilities, with NASA struggling to keep up and sensibly hitching a ride on the coattails of the billionaires and their passions.

This article looks at the three different ventures now underway.  But it is totally wrong to compare what is happening now to the efforts of Bill Boeing and Donald Douglas when they were first developing airplanes.  Neither Boeing nor Douglas was an extravagantly wealthy individual with unlimited money and resources and mega-cash flows from other ventures to fund a dalliance with a side venture; plus the efforts of those two individuals were being duplicated by dozens of others, both in the US and elsewhere in the world, too.

It seems that for the first time in 50 years, the US actually has a realistic chance of returning to the moon, and not due to any funding largesse from Congress but more as a result of the competitive energies of Bezos/Blue Origin, and Musk/SpaceX.  Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin company are still smarting from losing NASA’s moon contract, and this week Bezos made an extraordinary series of criticisms about the SpaceX moon rocket program, calling it “immensely complex and high risk”.

In all probability, he is likely to be completely correct in his observations.  But so what?  When has innovative new space programs not been both immensely complex and high risk?  The Apollo program was orders of magnitude more complex and high risk than anything that had gone before, and still stands alone as an extraordinary example of an explosion of new technologies of every possible sort, all fused together into a glorious hodgepodge that got men to the moon in record time, while barely beating the odds in doing so (and indeed having tragedies and near tragedies as part of the program).

The Space Shuttle, as everyone knows, lost two shuttles and their crews due to catastrophic failures, and rumored “near misses” on occasion too.  While a colossal disappointment compared to the program’s early promises, it was futuristic, complex and, self-evidently, risky.

We’re as certain as can be that Musk’s plans will be similarly innovative and also similarly risky.

Maybe Bezos has some valid criticisms, but they’re so thoroughly buried under a huge pile of stinking sour grapes that they’ll probably never be fairly and fully considered.

Meanwhile, the ringer of the trio has been uncharacteristically quiet for a while, but his company announced this week that it was starting to sell tickets on its upper-atmosphere joyrides again.  The price has slightly changed since the earlier prices of $200k and $250k per person per flight.  The price is now $450k.

Actually, this is probably a sensible (and necessary) move.  The reality is that the sort of person who would be prepared to spend $250k on such an activity would probably be equally likely to spend $450k.  And for those of us who would never spend $250k, who cares that we’re doubly unlikely to spend $450k.

It is being suggested that the Virgin craft has been downrated from carrying six passengers to four, and while their objective is to evolve to daily launches in the future, that is so far different from their current glacially slow pace as to be irrelevant.  The company plans another flight in September, then one more test at an unspecified time before commencing commercial flights about a year from now (in the third quarter of 2022).

Whatever Happened to Amazon’s Delivery Drones?

Remember all the futuristic plans, predictions, and promises from Amazon (and other companies) in the mid 2010s about how we’d get our orders even quicker that we already do, placed on our doorsteps by delivery drone?

This had always seemed like a very futuristic concept (I’m trying to use a positive and kind phrase instead of saying “wildly improbable and impractical”) that would struggle with a number of challenges – drones of sufficient lifting capacity, range, navigation capabilities, and so on.  But who would wish to second guess Amazon and its awesome ability to fund and develop whatever it wished.  So we all watched and waited, optimistically.

Here now is an excellent article chronicling the challenges and collapse of Amazon’s drone program in the UK, where a lot of the development was being done.  Amazon, as is typical, is not admitting to or acknowledging much of the story the article shares, but it seems clear that drone deliveries remain some way out in the future.

And Lastly This Week….

I wrote last week rather negatively about a bizarre new tourist attraction in central London – “The Mound” which was almost literally a pile of dirt in the middle of London that hoped people would pay substantial fees to climb up.

A day after I wrote the piece, The Mound closed.  (No, I’m not saying it closed in response to my piece.)  You can read someone else’s opinion about what seems to have been a stunning waste of about $3 million in public funding here.

Do you have an old Kindle?  Old as in “really old” – the first couple of generations of Kindles, where books were sent to the devices over the AT&T cellular data network?  Due to the network service being obsoleted and discontinued, these devices are about to lose their connectivity, making them useless.  The good news is if you have one, you can probably get a $50 credit towards the purchase of a new Kindle, plus another $15 in eBook credits.  Details here.

You just know that any bill that takes 2,700 pages to write out on paper is going to be a minefield of pork, waste, and opaque impossible-to-understand and ill-considered provisions and requirements.  The so-called “Infrastructure Bill” is of this size, and is already becoming a thing of legend, stretching the concept of “infrastructure” comically so far past breaking point as to be an unmistakable signal that our elected representatives don’t care at all about spending money, their only care is to ensure that their own special interests get at least a “fair share” of the pork.

An example?  This article talks about a buried-in-the-bill requirement to fit all new cars with alcohol-interlocks, using an assortment of technologies to decide if the car’s driver should be allowed to drive it or not.  This is nothing to do with infrastructure, of course, but who cares?  No-one in DC, that’s for sure.

I’m not advocating for uncontrolled drunken driving.  But this is a major new step in the fight against drunken driving, and deserves its own bill and its own full and formal discussion – particularly the part which will specify the type of devices that will be allowed to be fitted.  As the article notes, industry groups standing to benefit have been lobbying at a furious rate to try and get this provision slipped in, and there’s every chance the result will be devices that create a slew of false positives meaning we can’t get our cars to work when we need them to work, even if we’re stone cold sober.  The traditional “blow for 20 seconds in a tube” that is sometimes fitted on the cars of convicted drunk drivers seems to be foolproof and effective, but is also intrusive and unlikely to be accepted.  New concepts like “sampling the air in the vehicle” seems sure to be fooled if a designated (sober) driver is taking a car-load of his well-sozzled friends back home after a night out.

Of course, the devices will also add to the cost and complexity of our cars.  The current “blow in a tube” systems cost something like $1,000 or more a year to rent, hopefully these won’t be so ridiculously overpriced.

Talking about really bad and stupid ideas, here’s an article about “hidden power outlets in airplane bathrooms”.  It is not only stupid because the outlets aren’t hidden, but the implied suggestion that if you’ve a mobile device low on charge, you can simply go lock yourself in an airplane toilet for 30 minutes while the device charges is beyond irresponsible.  You and I both know people who are so selfish and uncaring that they’d do that – even if it wasn’t a case of a zero charge phone needing to be taken up to 10% so you can call an Uber upon arrival, but rather a case of someone with a 90% charged phone wanting to top-off just because they saw an outlet and couldn’t resist the temptation.

How much would you pay for a pair of business-class lie-flat airplane seats – these being former Qantas seats on their A380 planes?  Qantas auctioned them off for frequent flier miles/points, with the winning bid being 2 million points.

What is 2 million points?  Well, it is the credits you’d earn from 215 flights between Sydney and London, or 2,500 flights between Sydney and Melbourne.  Details here.

To close on a positive note, good news for electric car enthusiasts.  The Nissan Leaf has had a strange life – for a while it was the best selling electric vehicle in the world, until Tesla came along.

But, it wasn’t only Tesla that toppled the Leaf from its perch.  Just about every other electric car that was developed (even the Bolt, a surprisingly good car from stodgy staid GM) ended up beating the Leaf in every respect – range, performance, appearance,  and even price.

After too many years falling further and further behind, Nissan have spent the last couple of years struggling to catch up, and this week dropped the price of the car massively down to $27,400.  The Leaf has sold so little over the last few years that it still qualifies for the full federal tax credit of $7,500, so the entry level Leaf can now be yours for, effectively, $19,900.  That’s about half an entry level Tesla Model 3, and now the Leaf no longer looks quite so distinctively ugly, might be worth considering, especially with gas prices high and showing no signs of returning back down to the prices of the previous few years.

Until next week, please stay happy and healthy





2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 6 August 2021”

  1. I know a billion here a billion there isn’t much money to the super wealth. But how is NASA funding SpaceX $2.9 billion for the moon project align with “not due to any funding largesse from Congress” ?

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

      NASA’s annual budget has been over $10 billion a year every year since 1989, and over $20 billion a year since 2018. Adjusted for inflation, it has been getting over $20 billion a year since 1989.

      The $2.9 billion for the moon project, spread over presumably three years, is just a rounding error in NASA’s annual budget. There’s no sign of any special increase at all for this.


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