Weekly Roundup, Friday 3 September 2021

Perhaps the most “futuristic” of all the possible (and impossible) proposed new SSTs. Story, below.


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Good morning

Labor Day and “the call of the road” (or, perhaps, “the call of the airport”) beckons to many of us.  Unfortunately, although new Covid cases are running at nearly four times last year’s level, there’s little chance of a restrained approach to long weekend travel this year.

This article tells you the worst and best times to travel on every day through Tuesday next week.  The article hopefully quotes experts as saying “ignore the heavy traffic over Memorial Day and July 4; this time it will be okay and not too busy at all”.  Yeah, sure, right.

I promised, last week, not to write a feature article about computers this week.  Instead, the “something entirely different” that I hinted at is now available for your edification, education, and entertainment, below.  It is about kitchen (electronic) gadgets, instead.  Entirely different?  Well, maybe not entirely different, but hopefully of interest.  Next week might see a computer article again….

Also below is yesterday’s Covid diary entry.  I get fairly strong-worded in my opening comments; if you disagree and can defend the indefensible, by all means have a go!  Sunday’s diary entry is online, here.

What else?  Please keep reading for a few more items.

  • Air Passenger Numbers Wobbling
  • Air Passenger Predictions
  • EU/UK Travel Update
  • Yet Another Fanciful SST Project
  • The ISS is Falling to Pieces?  China is Ready.
  • Did Virgin Galactic Narrowly Avoid Disaster When Branson Flew?
  • A More Positive Space Story
  • Amazon Plays the Spoiler Role – and Tries a New Solution to Its Labor Shortage
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Passenger Numbers Wobbling

After some weeks of an almost unchanging percentage of 2019 numbers, the last week has seen some “wobbling” – the rate has gone up and down, up and down, but ends the seven days almost exactly at the same point it started.  We’ll see Labor Day weekend impacts appearing when Thursday’s numbers are reported on Friday morning, and so on through about Tuesday or even Wednesday of next week.

I’ve noticed some reporters with less knowledge than they have column inches to fill, speaking gloomily about the recent steady dropping in passenger numbers.  Yes, the absolute count of passengers is softening at present, but not for any Covid-related reason.  Numbers are simply going down because we’re moving out of the summer season and into the slower fall season.  Some reporters don’t seem to realize this, and that is why I don’t report absolute numbers, but rather express traffic in terms of relativities of 2019 (and, for the fun of it, 2020) numbers.

Air Passenger Predictions

Here’s an article that puzzles us.  It first talks about August being a disappointing month for the airlines – I guess the airlines are great at seeing their glass as half empty (and holding it out for the government to top up).  Personally, I think that having August numbers stay steady, in a month during which daily new Covid infections doubled and various restrictions and controls have been reintroduced, is an excellent result (for the airlines, albeit possibly not so much from an epidemiological perspective).

But then it talks about people trying to cram in “one last summer trip this September”.  Will that really happen to a noticeable extent?  I’m far from convinced, and what makes the entire topic rather difficult is that the “airline projections” the article refers to are generally not public knowledge, allowing the airlines to subsequently claim that numbers were more than, less than, or exactly as predicted.  It is only when the numbers are greatly at odds with the flights and capacity the airlines schedule that a variance becomes obvious, and even that can be blurred to a great degree simply by adjusting fare levels up or down to try and tweak a few percent more (or less) passengers onto flights.

Contradicting the article is this report that Southwest is cutting back on its schedule.  Ostensibly the reason for the cutback is to appease staff who complained of having to work too hard over the summer, but you can bet the main consideration is Southwest’s projection for demand levels during the rest of the year.

EU/UK Travel Update

Truly, the EU provides a master-class on how to achieve nothing when it comes to difficult “no-win” issues.

I’d guessed last week that their silence after meeting on Thursday to determine what status to give to US originating visitors was ominous.  Word slowly came out on Monday that the EU had indeed decided to remove the US from the list of “safe” countries.  But the EU then said it was leaving it up to individual member countries to decide what to do in response to the US no longer being deemed safe.  That was too big a decision for the EU’s faceless bureaucrats to take on their own, apparently.  So this Bloomberg article, headed “EU to Reimpose Travel Curbs on US” is actually totally wrong.  While there may be some future curbs, at the time the article was written, none had been imposed, and the only thing the EU “ambassadors” voted on was changing the status of the US from “safe” to “not so safe”.

There are several possible responses for the member nations to now take, ranging from just ignoring the EU’s determination, to completely banning all non-essential travel from the US.  One notch down from a complete ban, but almost as prohibitive, would be imposing mandatory quarantines on arriving visitors.

Our guess is that most countries will say “if you’ve not been vaccinated, you can’t come, and if you have been vaccinated, you can come only if you also have a clear Covid test within three days of arrival”.  They might add a requirement for a follow-up Covid test either on arrival or a day or two subsequently.

However, the only thing we know for sure is that we don’t know anything for sure, and whatever we think we know could change almost without any warning.

The good news is the EU’s own internal rates of Covid cases are generally easing (although Germany in particular is still experiencing steady growth each week) and our rates of Covid case growth in the US have almost stopped, too.  So there’s not a lot of panicked pressure acting on anyone to do anything.

If things get worse, either at our end or their end, they might tighten their requirements in a month or two, when they are no longer inflicting so much self-harm to their tourism industries.  The EU continues to regularly review the status of all countries.

Yet Another Fanciful SST Project

A company with the positive name Leap Aerospace has announced plans to build a new supersonic passenger jet.  The word Leap is actually an acronym that stands for “Leading Edge Aviation Propulsion”.  It certainly is a better name for an SST than one of the other contenders, calling itself Boom.

The company was founded by a controversial billionaire, Priven Reddy, and claims that their new plane will adopt vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) technology while also being 100 times quieter than a helicopter.  I’ll pause here for you to clean up the coffee you just snorted through your nose after reading that unlikely statement.

It not only will have VTOL capabilities, but also will have a “safe landing mechanism” that, in the event of something serious like a complete engine malfunction/failure, will safely land the plane, either on the ground or on the water.  I’ll be polite and observe that would be an astonishing breakthrough – it indeed would be, as they acknowledge, a world-first.  I’ll also observe there are two reasons why passenger planes don’t have such technology at present – first, there’s no need – the very few crashes that happen are usually not the types of crashes that would activate this type of system; second, there’s no easy way to create such a system that doesn’t become cost/weight/space prohibitive.

Other amazing claimed features include a “bladeless technology for managing the hypersonic aircraft”.  Ignoring the fact that it will not be hypersonic, just supersonic (supersonic means between Mach 1 and Mach 5, hypersonic means faster than Mach 5 – the plane is promised to fly at Mach 1.9, slightly slower than Concorde), we have no idea what type of bladeless technology might be used (and still provide an efficient economic means of propulsion).  We’re also told that, while bladeless, it will have small propellers to help with landing and takeoff.  Actually, for a commercial passenger jet, it will need an enormous amount more than a few small propellers for a vertical take-off/landing capability.  Plus, presumably space to stow them somewhere during the supersonic flight phase.  VTOL is another thing that is absent from current passenger planes for very good reasons – cost, reliability, power, and how to avoid melting most surfaces with the jet exhaust during the take-off/landing.

A VTOL capability requires engines developing more thrust than the weight of the plane.  A typical 737 comes with engines that develop about 50,000 lbs of thrust, and weighs three times that (150,000 lbs).  Imagine a 737 that needed six instead of two engines, but only for five – ten minutes during take-off and landing.  Except, for safety reasons, it would need seven or eight, so you could lose one engine and still have the plane ascend, and lose two engines and still have the plane hover.

The plane is projected to carry 86 passengers, and to enter commercial service in late 2029.  We’ll be, ahem, surprised if indeed that does happen.

You can read more about this apparently amazing plane here and here.

The ISS is Falling to Pieces?  China is Ready.

After occasional articles in past years talking about the International Space Station not aging gracefully, and its propensity for leaks and other challenges, this week has seen a couple of articles becoming more and more negative about its future longevity.

The first article talks about cracks that might become larger and more serious, and a potential “avalanche” of failing equipment happening, starting in 2025.  The second article puts it more bluntly, talking of irreparable failures.

The surprising underlying challenge seems to be that when originally designed and constructed in 1998, the ISS was designed for a 15 year lifespan.  So we’re already 8 years past its designed lifespan, and its ongoing operation has been authorized through to 2030.

Surely that demands a question (and answer) – why was the ISS designed with such a short lifespan in the first place?  The probable answer?  The politicians funding it were happy to ensure the ISS lasted until after they left office, but after that point, didn’t really care, and if they could trim costs up front, they’d be keen to do so.

These tales of gloom and doom are originating from Russia, and have to be considered in the context of their stated intentions to end their relationship with the ISS in 2024.  They have mentioned taking some of “their” parts of the ISS and using it as a foundation for their own exclusive space station.

Meanwhile, the chortling you here in the background is probably coming from Beijing.  China this week announced it was looking into building a super-sized space station, almost 1,000 yards long, ten times the length of the ISS.  If the other two dimensions are also proportionally larger, that would give their structure 1,000 times the cubic capacity of the ISS.

China is already singlehandedly constructing its first (and small space) station, known as Tiangong; this would be a second one.  The ISS was a joint project involving the US, Russia, EU, Canada and Japan.

Did Virgin Galactic Narrowly Avoid Disaster When Branson Flew?

You surely know how every step in Virgin Galactic’s still not completed path to commercial joyrides to almost-space has been substantially delayed, and almost every deadline has been missed.

This is not just because they are lazy.  The obscured truth is more because they keep finding issues and problems that need to be resolved.  It turns out that building a high-altitude re-usable plane is harder than they’d originally thought and hoped – something that while possibly surprising the professionally optimistic Sir Richard Branson, is less surprising to the engineers tasked with seeing his visions through to reality.

After the apparently triumphant and safe 15 minute flight that took Sir Richard and two other passengers into the upper atmosphere in July, the New Yorker magazine broke a story this week about how the flight narrowly averted disaster, and was forced to deviate so far off course that the FAA is now investigating, and probably with a somewhat negative perspective because Virgin neglected to notify them of the deviation.  The excellent article also discloses other near-disasters in recent test flights.

But perhaps the most concerning revelation in the article is how the company fired their long-time and respected throughout the industry flight-test director, apparently for being too conservative and safety conscious.  The company – like all private space companies – is walking a tight-rope between safety and profitability, with much less clear guidelines for how to create an acceptable balance between the two than is the case with regular civil aviation.

A More Positive Space Story

Branson might have been the first entrepreneur to fly his “own” craft almost into “space”, but Elon Musk is quietly chalking up plenty of “firsts” too, and looks set to soon be launching the first all-civilian spaceflight, and into real space not pretend space, and for three days rather than 15 minutes.  Details here.

It would be hard to pretend that this “first” will actually serve any useful purpose or is the precursor to something substantially valuable, but neither was Branson’s “first” meaningful in any way at all, other than to himself and the hopeful Virgin Galactic investors and ticket holders.

But, while not momentous, it does mark another step (even if not the first step) in a progression from government-only space flight to an increasingly free-enterprise approach to space and its “conquest”.  I don’t know about you, but I now have a sense of palpable progress for the first time since 1981 (when the first space shuttle flew).  Only in the last year or two, some 40 years after the space shuttle finally took to the skies and then proceeded to miss every target and objective, and disappoint us all, has the field of space exploration and even, dare I say, space commercialization, started to get some forward movement again.

As soon as Jeff Bezos stops squabbling about SpaceX being given the Moon contract, we can realistically start to count down to returning to the moon, and perhaps this time actually staying there.  Mars has gone from an aspirational impossibility to almost within reach and something that the irrepressible Elon Musk continues to promise himself.

These are exciting times indeed.

Amazon Plays the Spoiler Role – and Tries a New Solution to Its Labor Shortage

We love competition.  It excites and encourages companies to do better, sooner, than they would if left to their own devices.  Sure, competition can also be merciless, and sometimes leaves failed competitors in its wake, but that is the nature of the beast, with, at least in theory, us as perpetual winners.  In theory.

But those failed companies are sometimes slow to own up to their failures and die quietly.  One such example is Amazon, which seems to increasingly be getting into a grudge match with Elon Musk.  As mentioned above, Amazon is trying its hardest to overturn NASA’s apparently appropriate decision to award the Moon project contract to SpaceX, based on the SpaceX’s positive track record and experience, realistic proposal, and great price.

Unfortunately, a bit like Boeing’s successful struggles against Airbus for the Air Force Air Tanker contract, Amazon these days has a huge amount of political clout, although (unlike Airbus) Musk has a reasonable political voice too.  So, for now, Amazon is definitely playing the spoiler role, with the Moon project on hold, meaning the eventual return of men to the moon is being delayed and of course, when the go-ahead is finally given, the total project cost will have risen.

Amazon is also trying to do the same thing with Musk’s beyond-brilliant Starlink satellite-internet service.  By all accounts, the rolling out of Starlink is going outstandingly well, and I’ve not seen any expressions of credible discontent by any of the users.  Well, one person complained at the cost, but no-one was forcing him to sign up for Starlink, and when the alternative providers are actually, ahem, more expensive (as well as incredibly inferior) it seems a bit unfair to complain about the cost.

Equally unfair are Amazon’s complaints about Starlink allegedly breaking some FCC rules, which may or may not be valid complaints, but in no way seem to harm Amazon’s own attempts to create an alternate service, Kuiper, and seem to be based on technicalities rather than outright and outrageous violations, and intended purely to harm Starlink.

Starlink points out that Amazon’s own satellite-internet service seems to be stalled, going nowhere, and suggests Amazon should focus on positively creating its competing system rather than trying to cripple the one service that is working well and providing essential internet now to probably well over a million grateful users, all around the world.

Amazon is also struggling with a shortage of delivery drivers for its ever-growing last-mile package delivery service.  In largest part, it is a result of the general shortage of workers everywhere, particularly in relatively unskilled positions.  Other companies, confronted with such challenges, have improved working conditions and increased rates of pay.  Junior retail workers here in WA state are now earning up to $20/hour, and with a generous range of benefits, too.

But Amazon doesn’t really want to have to pay more or work its people less hard.  So instead, it has decided to limit its drug screening programs, allowing marijuana smokers to be hired.  Quoting some math that makes little sense and seems to come from nowhere other than perhaps a drug-haze, Amazon says that allowing marijuana users to drive would increase their hiring pool 400%.  But, go the other way, and exclude marijuana users, and they say that would shrink their hiring pool, not by 80% (the reciprocal of 400%), but by only 30%.

Oh well.  At least they didn’t say that drug screening is racist…..

Talking about paying drivers more, here’s an interesting article about how a former Flybe (now closed-down UK airline) pilot is earning more as a truck driver than he did as a passenger-jet first-officer.  He had been earning £30k/year at Flybe (about $40k), and now earns £40k/year as a truck driver (almost $55k).

But don’t feel sympathetic for “underpaid” pilots.  The article doesn’t tell us how many hours a week truck drivers work, compared to how many hours pilots work.  Truck drivers probably work appreciably longer hours.

And Lastly This Week….

A month to go.  Until Windows 11 appears, that is, with its initial launch set for Tuesday 5 October.  Don’t despair if your PC isn’t immediately upgraded (and, of course, that assumes that it is capable of being upgraded in the first place).  Microsoft plans for a long and slow roll-out, apparently upgrading “easy” computers first, and slowly moving into harder and harder territory subsequently.  It hopes to have all eligible computers upgraded by the middle of next year.

This is an article on a subject we occasionally see – the authorities seizing cash from a lawful citizen, with no reason to do so other than simply “because they can”.  It is at best semi-legal and definitely un-Constitutional theft, but the thieves are wearing badges and carrying guns.  In this case, the man who had his money stolen only got it returned after the Washington Post told the authorities they were doing an article on the theft.

There’s also another factor to consider.  None of this would have happened if the man did not voluntarily consent to a search of his vehicle, and further volunteer the presence of the cash in the first place.  I’m strongly pro-police (well, at least, the honest ones!), but I’ll tell you the same thing that honest police will also tell you (and also all criminal-law attorneys, without exception).  No matter how innocent you may be, never, ever, consent to a police officer’s request to search anything, and never ever volunteer any information not narrowly focused on the subject of the interaction with the police officer in the first place.

Allowing a police officer to search your car, for example, might result in your car ripped to shreds and left in pieces by the side of the road.  The police aren’t obliged to put it back the way they found it.  Even the most lawful of us have no control over what might be found in our vehicles.  Even if you know every person who travels with you, do you also know about every mechanic and parking attendant that also accesses your car?  Do you even know what you have in your car that you think is lawful, and which might be lawful in your home jurisdiction, but which is not lawful in some other jurisdiction?  And so on.

Here’s an article and short video clip of some different flight attendant uniforms.  Is it just me, or is there a general trend, all around the world, for flight attendant uniforms to become more drab and institutionalized, with less “personality” than before?  A bit like their wearers and employers, perhaps.

Not nearly so drab is ABBA.  The band is to make a comeback album and show/tour.  The album includes two new songs.  As you surely know, ABBA dates back to the 1970s, and disbanded 40 years ago.  The four singers are in their early and mid 70s, so they no longer look quite as we remember them, and in recognition of that, their “performance” features “digital avatars” recreating the way they looked in 1979.  The album will be released on November 5, and the show will go “live” in London, in May 2022.

Truly lastly this week, here’s an extensive set of inventions, all apparently from the one person, and with a common theme running through them all.  Creative, but, ahem, crazy?

Until next week, please enjoy the long weekend, and stay healthy and happy





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