Weekly Roundup, Friday 22 October 2021

Glorious Sydney, its harbor, and Bennelong Point. But – the Opera House? See last item….


354 Supporters (+8 from last week)Target :  400 Please Join Here


Good morning

It has been an exceptionally busy – and happily also an exceptionally productive week.  Look at all the material released for you :

  • Review of the two new Google Pixel Phones
  • Update of the Phone Comparison Table (now with over 90 different phones compared)
  • Article on Packing Strategies
  • New Collation of Articles on Alexa/Echo Units
  • Greatly expanded version of the Alexa Commands Guide (now 34 pages)
  • Sunday Covid Diary Entry
  • Thursday Covid Diary Entry
  • Today’s Roundup

Have you ever seen such a huge compilation of material in a single week before?  I think it is a new record.  I’ve decided to make this week the last week of the annual fundraising drive, and wanted to end it on a very high note, to encourage a few more of you to respond and participate!

The first thing to point out is that all five green colored entries, above, have additional supporter-exclusive content within them.  Your much appreciated and much needed support of The Travel Insider is totally voluntary, as is the amount you might choose to contribute, and I never really know how to measure or value it.  But if we’re basing it on words alone, Supporters are sure getting a great number more words this week.

The other point is that everyone gets a lot of “words” – and hopefully, in direct proportion, lots of benefit and value, every week.  That is me “leading from the front” – I’m happy to give this to you, because it costs me nothing; quite the opposite.  It pleases me greatly to help you become more informed, better advised, and equipped to make good choices in all manner of things.

But, while the direct cost to me of one more reader is nothing, the opportunity cost in its entirety to me, is enormous.  This is my full time job.  I have no time to do other things, so I need to earn some semblance of a living wage from my work, and that is why, once every year, I turn to you and ask you for your Support.  For 20 years now, this approach has worked, please help us carry it forward another year.

It is quick and easy to join as a Supporter, and you get instant access to the extra content in the articles above and elsewhere on the site, too.  I hope you’ll choose to join with the 354 of your fellow Travel Insiders and help keep this going for the next year.  Thank you.

In between writing articles, I’ve been updating.  On Tuesday, Google released Android 12, and later the same day, my computer was invited to upgrade to Windows 11.

Android 12 – like the various iOS updates too – really is more of a “dot point” release than an entire new version.  There’s precious little difference between it and Android 11, leastways, not that is apparent to me as a user.  On the other hand, perhaps that’s a good thing, and preferable to “change for change’s sake” which seems to be such a large part of “new versions” of everything these days.  There are some more options for privacy and security, and some “color coordination” of screen elements that at first I thought to be trivial and ridiculous, but which I’m surprisingly myself by growing to like.

Which brings me to the Windows upgrade.  It too seems more like a marketing artifice than an actual and substantial re-imagining of anything at all – its key feature seems to be that windows now have slightly rounded corners rather than square ones.  That’s about as underwhelming a change as is possible, isn’t it!

The main two beneficiaries of Windows 11 are computer manufacturers (because unless you’ve a computer bought within the last couple of years, it probably won’t be eligible for the upgrade, due solely to an arbitrary decision on Microsoft’s part) and Microsoft itself (not only because newly purchased computers require a newly purchased copy of Windows, but also because Microsoft has taken the opportunity to fill the Start menu with a dozen unwanted third-party programs, with presumably the companies now featured each paying massively for the exposure).  Microsoft has also reset the default programs – for example, instead of opening PDF files in Adobe Acrobat (an extremely logical and sensible thing to do) Microsoft has “helpfully” changed that and opens them in their Edge web browser instead.  So I’ve got to wade into the (ugh – redesigned for no apparent reason or benefit) layers of the Settings menus to find out how to change the default programs once again.

Plus Microsoft has decided I want to give over a huge portion of my screen to some sort of X-box game interface.  No, Microsoft, I don’t want that.

On the other hand, Microsoft’s desperate “behind the eight-ball” push to try and get people to use its Teams product (or whatever it is called) instead of Zoom has meant they now hide Skype, one of the earlier video chat/conference products that Microsoft bought years ago and then consistently made worse and worse in the years that followed.  I don’t want Teams, I don’t know anyone who uses Teams, I simply want to continue using Skype, the same as before.

Surprisingly, there are also some “rough edges” in the new Windows 11; nasty little bugs that surely should have appeared in the Beta testing program, and/or in the two weeks of public release so far.  I downloaded an update to Windows 11 on Thursday, so maybe that update will clear some of these, but the product was far from polished to start with.

Microsoft is famous for its history of alternating between good and very bad Windows releases, I do hope that after the recent past (Windows 7 good, 8 bad, 10 good) Windows 11 won’t now end up as a bad version.

Recommendations :  Happily accept the new version of Android if/when it is offered to you.  Consider delaying Windows 11 a while for the remaining wrinkles to be ironed out.  You’re not missing out on any “gee whiz” great new features, just a few changes-for-change’s sake and pinpricks of gratuitous annoyance.

If your computer doesn’t qualify for the Windows 11 upgrade, do NOT feel pressured to junk it and buy a new one.  Windows 10 remains fully supported by Microsoft until October 2025, and, at the risk of repeating, there’s not really any new “must have” features in Windows 11 whatsoever.  Just new annoyances.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for

  • Air Passenger Numbers Move Mildly Up
  • International Travel Update
  • United’s Half Billion Profit from US Covid Grant
  • Southwest Surrenders on Vaccine Mandate
  • High Speed Rail Development, British Style
  • GM’s High Stakes Uncertain Commitment to EVs
  • Two Unsaid Things at Google’s New Phone Release
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Passenger Numbers Move Mildly Up

Last week we were reporting a rolling average passenger count of 77.8% of the 2019 matching numbers.  A week later (up to and including Wednesday this week) the number had inched up, ever so slightly, to 78.1%.

That’s a very slow rate of catch-up, but doubtless the airlines will agree that any growth is better than shrinkage.

International Travel Update

It now seems that Canadians will be allowed to start coming to the US again, with effect from 8 November, the same date that travelers from the 33 banned countries can start traveling again, too.

Adding further puzzlement to the relaxation of the ban is that many European countries are currently experiencing skyrocketing rates of new Covid cases, while we here are enjoying falling rates.  The “risk” – such as it ever was or might have been – from allowing visitors from many European countries – even the UK, where case rates are almost three times the rate they are here – is higher now than it has been in a very long time.  So we banned the countries while their Covid rates were massively lower than ours, but now that our Covid rates are lower than theirs, we welcome them in?

Calls are mounting in the worst affected European countries, including the UK, to start imposing new controls and restrictions.  Whether anything will be done or not is surprisingly unclear – many countries seem to be done with restrictions (although Russia is forcing the entire country to take a one week break in a week’s time in the hope of slowing their Covid growth).

We feel we’re returning back to our “If you’re going to go, go quickly before things get worse” advice.  But, who only knows what the situation will be next week and so on.  Things still continue to change, rapidly.

United’s Half Billion Profit from US Covid Grant

Most of the companies we know of have profited from the various Covid grants being offered over the last 18 months by the government.  Companies that made a larger profit than normal in 2020 got grants, the same as companies outlooking losses.

But United takes the prize for the biggest profit we know of.  They reported a $473 million profit for the latest quarter, and with a $1.13 billion Covid grant factoring in as part of their total receipts, it is as fair as it ever can be, when choosing how to attribute the source of a business profit, to say that this profit is all taxpayers’ money.

We won’t comment on the rights or wrongs of subsidizing business losses during this unusual time.  But should we, the US taxpayers, also give an additional $473 million so that United not only doesn’t make a loss, and can afford to employ more staff than it otherwise would, but also, after all of that, gets a $473 million profit, too?

Southwest Surrenders on Vaccine Mandate

After the airline’s “weather/operational problem” a couple of weeks ago – you know, the problem that caused all those flight cancellations, and which everyone told us was nothing to do with unhappy employees protesting about needing to be vaccinated; the airline has now, as an unrelated coincidence, told employees they can keep working even if not vaccinated and haven’t yet submitted a “made up excuse” (my words, not the airline’s, but clearly what it is hoping for) by the time the federal mandate comes into effect on 8 December.

It is unclear exactly how many hold-outs there are at Southwest.  Details here.

High Speed Rail Development, British Style

Nine years ago, the British government announced triumphantly that it would build a high speed rail line from London and going up the west of the country for several hundred miles, through Birmingham, and ultimately terminating primarily in Leeds and Manchester.

This was of course a contentious decision – in Britain, anything to do with transportation, other than walking, is always contentious.  But, while people now faced with a high speed rail line in their back yard remain adamantly opposed, the broader coterie of “save the planet” types felt unable to protest too strongly, realizing that if they caused the rail line to be cancelled, the alternative might see people flying or driving instead.  The plan progressed glacially forwards, and earlier this year, the government announced that everything was fine and going exactly according to plan.

Now, however, the situation is less clear.  Officially, it is still proceeding, although there’s a new “loophole” – “more work is needed to integrate it into other rail developments”, and, most significantly of all, there is no longer any work being progressed on the line sections rumored to be abandoned.  Details here.

Britain seems unable to complete any type of transportation/infrastructure project within any sort of reasonable time frame.  It is still agonizing over whether to allow Heathrow to build a new runway or not, a debate which goes all the way back to 1947, and which I’ve written about most recently here, just six weeks ago.

Something not so often written about is the new underground metro line in London, the Crossrail project, now known as the Elizabeth Line.  This was first proposed in 1941 and was finally approved in 2007.  Some stations have come on line (mainly existing stations now deemed to be part of the Elizabeth Line, but the route is not expected to be fully operational until May 2023.

Talking about British trains, a new train operator started service between London (Kings Cross) and Edinburgh this week, operating two trains a day each way to start, and about a 4 1/2 hour journey time – in other words, much the same as the current trains (ie, not high speed), although with only two (sometimes three) stops along the way, and only one at a major city (Newcastle).

The new service – named Lumo – might not have many trains, but it is fully staffed with essential elements such as not just an environmental policy but also a modern slavery policy (modern slavery being a pressing problem on British trains) and have appointed the son of apparently some type of starlet as their “diversity and inclusion ambassador”.

Lumo’s main claim to fame is definitely very inclusionary, and they don’t need a special ambassador – they run a single class train, with very low fares – as low as £19.90 each way, although that fare requires 12 weeks of advance purchase.  Two other companies also operate trains between Edinburgh and Kings Cross, but, at least not prior to now, without such wonderful low fares.

Call us cynics, but if we had to guess, we suspect that Lumo’s walk-up no-advance-purchase fares will likely end up being just as unfortunately high as its competitors, even though it based its application for service rights on the promise of low fares making rail travel affordable and possible for more people.

GM’s High Stakes Uncertain Commitment to EVs

Believe it or not, GM was an early pioneer when it comes to electric vehicles.  Their EV1, launched in 1996, was by all accounts a great vehicle, but also a great loss to GM, who were leasing them at rates way under their manufacturing cost.  Then the company repossessed them all and crushed them, ending its timid toe-in-the-electric-water experience with outraged EV supporters in its wake.

Skip forward 20 years to the launch of its Bolt EV (ignoring the hybrid Volt of a few years earlier), and the initial excellent sales of the Bolt – on sale before the Tesla 3 – faltered, because for some never-clear-to-me reason, GM “couldn’t make enough to keep up with demand”.  That never made sense, but for whatever the reason, the car which started off outselling Tesla, failed to keep up with the times (much like the Nissan Leaf that was the most popular EV for years until Tesla started pushing the envelope and Nissan seemingly gave up) and now is almost an irrelevance, little sold.

But, like the other major car manufacturers, GM has continued to pay lip-service to the supposed essential nature of electric vehicles to its product line-up, and meantime, without any help from GM, the price of EV batteries continues to steadily drop to the point where the price-premium for an EV compared to a regular gas-powered auto is getting smaller and smaller and less a barrier to many potential buyers.

This interesting article covers GM’s latest bold plans to capture a share of the EV market.  But will it actually do what it says, and succeed as it hopes?  The company continues to promise 20 new EV models by 2023; last week’s announcements revealed about half of them.

Biggest takeaway from the article?  At the time it was written, a week or so ago, these were the market capitalizations of major auto companies :

GM $45.0 billion

Ford $28.1 billion

Fiat Chrysler $24.5 billion

Tesla $138.2 billion

’nuff said…..

Two Unsaid Things at Google’s New Phone Release

As you probably know, I love new gadgets, and I have to say, I really did like the two new Pixel phones announced by Google this week.  But it is always important to guard against the seductive appeal of features and specifications that are in excess of what you need or will use – that is particularly the case, I suggest, with the cameras on phones these days, with an abundance of amazing capabilities that are a cross-over somewhere between what you’d get with a high end regular camera, and an adept person using Photoshop.  But, 99% of the time, for 99% of us, all we ever need is to leave the settings on “Auto” and we’re delighted with the results.

Which leads to the first of the two points.  As lovely as the Pixel 6 ($600) and Pixel 6 Pro ($900) are, don’t overlook the third member of the current Pixel family, the 5a 5G ($450).  Not only is it all the phone most of us will ever need, and more besides, but it can also be purchased for much less than $450 if you have (or sign up for) Google’s excellent Fi phone service.  With Fi, they offer to sell you the phone for $9/month for 24 months.  That’s a total of $216, spread over 24 payments, for the $450 phone.  At the end of the two years, it is of course completely yours, although Google hopes you’ll then select whatever current phone is out there and do another subsidized two year plan with that.

The 5a 5G is numbered with a “5” rather than a “6”, but it was announced just a couple of months ago, in August.  It is nearly brand new and definitely state of the art in all the important things.  A recommended alternative for you to also consider.

The second point is what was missing from the release event.  Sure, Google now has a stable of three wonderful phones – fully featured in every possible way, and at prices that are all much better than similar phones from either Apple or Samsung.  But it doesn’t have anything in the way of tablets or watches.

Google used to have tablets – I still have a Nexus 7 tablet in my growing pile of devices purchased primarily to review for you and little touched subsequently.  But Google no longer sells its own brand of tablets, leaving Apple with a puzzling lack of competition for decent fully-featured tablets.

As for watches, that’s an even more significant omission.  Samsung makes watches, which more or less partner with a Samsung phone, and of course, Apple makes excellent watches to partner with an iPhone.  Google makes a watch OS, “Wear 3.0”, but has not yet released its own fully featured watch.  Why not?

Here’s a good article that hopes to see a Google watch, maybe next year?  But, in truth, people have been hoping for a Google watch “next year” for many years already.  Hopefully, Google’s purchase of Fitbit earlier this year, and of Fossil’s watch technology in 2019, suggests perhaps “next year” might finally arrive.  In 2022.  Or perhaps 2023….

And Lastly This Week….

Reader Steve offered an alternate way to experience weightlessness, and at a lower cost, than the expensive $450k way of flying with Virgin Galactic (or the unknown cost on the Bezos or Musk rockets).  He writes

Wanted to comment on your discussion about the cost of the short space flights and the amount of weightlessness.  You are probably aware of Zero G, where, for a fraction of the price of Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin, you can experience about the same amount of weightlessness that those companies currently provide.  It’s still not cheap, but $5,000 per person for 4-6 minutes (in 15-20 second increments) of weightlessness is still an amazing experience.  I did it several years ago, and their tagline of “Like Nothing on Earth” is really true.  The closest you can come is the top of a bungee cord bounce, when you are simply floating in air without a sense of falling.

Zero G’s website is https://www.gozerog.com/

I’m not a spokesman for them, not getting anything for this email, just thought it was one of the coolest things I’ve done in my life and want to make sure they continue to be successful, so more people can experience it.  And they can do 36 people at a time and if necessary, probably 2 flights a day, so the number of people that can experience this is so much greater than going to the edge of space.

Seattle has a not entirely deserved reputation for enjoying a lot of rain (yes, it is raining as I type this).  But sometimes that can be an advantage, as Amazon found out when needing to find somewhere with lots of rain for the next stage of testing its self-driving vehicles.

Here’s an unfortunate story of how Hertz pursued an inappropriate charge for the late return of a car (it wasn’t returned late).  The entire story shows Hertz in a very negative light, but the uncommented on element that caught my attention was that the charge for an alleged two hour late return was $201.05.  $100/hour for a minor late return?  Even if the car was returned late, that seems way beyond excessive.

If someone says “Sydney” to you, what image immediately springs to mind?  Almost all of us will think of the glorious harbor, maybe the harbor bridge, and of course, most of all, the iconic Opera House.  Like most “iconic” designs (eg, the Eiffel Tower) it was roundly criticized at the time, but also like most such designs, it has now become an inseparable part of the city’s identity and character.

This article shows some of the other short-listed designs that were also proposed and nearly chosen, and shares some of the history of its troubled design and construction.  233 designs were originally considered.  I think, for me, the actual design, by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, was the right choice – indeed, that thought is echoed by the World Heritage List, which added it to their list of treasures.

I like to talk about how there is a never-ending series of articles about supersonic planes and convertible car-planes.  Not quite so common are articles about personal “jet packs”.  For a few exciting years, it seemed that the company with the most practical and promising solution was a New Zealand company, Martin Aviation.  Alas, after 30 years of development, the company ran out of money.  Its assets are shortly to be auctioned off, and the items seem to include eight working jetpacks…..  Details here.

And lastly this week, you can just imagine the planning meeting in Riyadh.

“Let’s build a massive new tourist attraction.  Something that encapsulates the essence of our Kingdom.”

“Okay, that’s a great idea.  What do you have in mind?”

“Well, it has to be distinctive but with an obvious link to us.”

“Ummm, something with sand?”

“Wait, I’ve a better idea.  Let’s take an unused oil rig and turn it into a 35 acre amusement park.”

“Allah be praised.  That’s a great idea!”

And so – this.

To end the week, and also to end this year’s annual fundraising efforts, please, if you’re not already a Supporter, you can still become one.  Simply click to here, and after a few more clicks, you’ll be a Supporter, and be truly helping us to keep on keeping on.  Thank you.

Until next week, please stay healthy and happy





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