Weekly Roundup, Friday 19 November 2021

Ugly two-tone colors on an ugly and underwhelming car. Toyota’s first ever BEV, unveiled this week (see article, below).


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Good morning

Have you got your turkey yet?  I was reading, earlier in the week, that some of the traditional “fixings” are in short supply this year.  What will be the next thing to get in short supply, I wonder/worry?

I was at the local Trader Joe’s earlier this week, for the first time in a month or so, and because I was alone, without my daughter (she impatiently hurries me through the store!) I took time to linger and look at various things.  Everywhere I looked, the prices seemed to have gone up, and not just on turkeys.  Fifty cents on this, a dollar on that, and so on.  After a decade or two of wonderfully low inflation and steady prices, it seems we’re returning to the terrible era of every time you go to the store, the prices have changed.

I’ve been looking at a new Amazon Alexa product that is about to be released- it is an Alexa “Show” with a large 15.6″ screen and apparently can be used for additional purposes over and above the rudimentary applications of the smaller 5″, 8″ and 10″ Alexa Show units.  It is the additional purposes that has me most intrigued – frankly, the screens on the smaller units are not very well utilized at present.  But there are many ways a decent amount of screen real estate could be used – for example, a “control panel” of devices around the home to turn on or off (and to see which are currently on and off).  A window for monitoring one or more security cameras.  Another window to watch a YouTube video.  One for the weather.  And so on.

But will Amazon make good use of the large screen?  Is it really a good use of the $250 purchase price (or $280 with stand)?

Would you like to know the answers to these questions, too, rather than either spend $250 on a disappointment, or miss out on a useful new gadget?  I’ve decided to let you “vote” on if I review it or not.

If you’d like to see a review, please click this link and send in a contribution towards the cost of the unit.  If I get a reasonable amount of the cost covered in the next few days, I’ll get and review one.

I’ll let you know the outcome next week – well, the “voting” outcome.  The review would be forthcoming subsequently – the units don’t ship until 9 December.

As a semi-related comment, if you’d like to have one of the smaller sized Show units, the new 2021 version Echo Show 5 is on pre-Black Friday sale at its lowest ever price, $45.  The very much larger first generation Echo Show 8 is also on sale for $60 – for only $15 more, you get a huge amount more screen.  But unless you know you’ll benefit from the extra screen, if you just want a unit to experiment with, the Echo Show 5 is of course the better buy.

Other pre-Black Friday standout deals are the previous 3rd generation Echo Dot for only $20, and the current 4th generation lovely Echo for $60.  I’d recommend the full size fourth generation Echo – the sound is better; get a pair and you can connect them together through the Alexa App to stream stereo music.  It is easy to configure them to play stereo streams together (and instructions are also on page 13 of my current Alexa Commands Guide).

The Fire HD10 tablet is half-price – $75 instead of $150.  This tablet is a great way to watch videos, check email, social media, and do other similar things when traveling.  I always preload mine up with a dozen or so movies, both from Amazon Prime Video and Netflix, before going anywhere.  That way I don’t have to worry about internet availability, and can watch my own movie choices on planes and in hotel rooms.  Get the 32GB version.  Rather than pay $40 more for an extra 32GB of built in memory, get a massive 256GB MicroSD card for only $30 or thereabouts.

One more amazing deal.  I think it is still available, but can’t check, because I took advantage of it as soon as it appeared earlier this week (if you follow me on Twitter, you might have seen the tweet about this), and you can only do so once.  You can get an Alexa-controlled smart plug for just $3.49 and an Alexa-controlled dimmable color-changing light bulb for a mere 99c (normally $23 for the bulb!).  You need to order them through your Alexa app or Echo unit, though, by saying “Alexa order Kasa Smart Plug Mini” and “Alexa order Kasa Smart Bulb”.  I guess Amazon is trying to train us to do this prior to the main Christmas gift buying season.

Talking about reviews, you’ll be pleased to know I’m not also asking for contributions for a new fancy television set.  I’ve managed to create a two-part “Buyer’s Guide” about televisions for you; it looks at the complexity of new choices and issues in televisions these days, hopefully to prepare you prior to any tempting Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals.  In most years, it seems televisions are one of the product groups that enjoy some of the best discounts, so you’ll be well equipped with what you need to make good choices.

Also attached this morning is yesterday’s Covid diary entry, and Sunday’s is online, here.

Plus, as always, more for you immediately below :

  • Air Passenger Numbers Rise
  • International Travel Update
  • Thanksgiving Travel
  • United’s New Polaris Cabins – Lovely, But……
  • Why Can’t Airlines Afford More Phone Operators?
  • First “Real” Air Show Since Covid
  • Electric Car Winners and Losers
  • NASA’s Ugliness, Exposed
  • The Danger of 5G on Planes?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Passenger Numbers Rise

Last week I was surprised there was no immediate lift in air travel numbers after we re-opened our borders on Monday.  Maybe it just took a few days for that to happen, because from last Wednesday to this Wednesday, numbers have gone from 79.6% of 2019 numbers to now 84.3%.

Soon we’ll be moving into the disruptive Thanksgiving period which throws normal travel patterns into a bit of a loop, but I’ll continue my daily tracking on Twitter of course, and will report to you next Friday with a weekly update.

See also the next but one item.

International Travel Update

Europe’s new Covid case rates continue to rise – see the more detailed commentary about that in the attached Covid diary article.  As a result, there are further re-impositions of restrictions – limited opening hours for some pubs and restaurants, and, in Germany, the Munich Christmas Markets were the first to announce they would cancel again this year.

Some of Berlin’s markets have also closed, and we gather (but don’t know the specifics) that markets in some other towns and cities in Germany are also closing.

But in general, Europe is remaining surprisingly open, even in the face of what, for some countries, are rapidly increasing daily new cases at levels never previously experienced.

Thanksgiving Travel

What will air travel be like next week?  This article takes a very negative view of what to expect.  It seems a perfect storm of, quite literally, bad weather, plus the usual crush of travelers, and – the huge wild-card – the threatened laying off of non-vaccinated TSA workers on Monday 22nd (40% of TSA screeners have not been vaccinated) could combine to make this year’s air travel and security lines something they’ll be talking about for many years to come.

My guess is the Monday deadline will be extended or quietly forgotten about entirely, but if the government holds firm, anything might happen on the busy Wednesday.

As for the roads, that is anyone’s guess, but with the way-high gas prices, there’s expected to be some curtailment of road travel.  My own travel plans, such as they ever were, are on hold.  My dear old Land Rover has a possible suspension fault, and if it should fail, I’d essentially need a flat-bed lift/transport to the nearest dealership.  Alas, it can’t be looked at until 2 December, so I’m sticking close to home.

United’s New Polaris Cabins – Lovely, But……

Will Allen, of Allen on Travel, has four times in the last six months or so flown in United’s Polaris business class cabin on 787 flights to/from South Africa.  In all cases, he noticed that the headphone sockets are strange – they are twin pronged, but whereas, a typical two-pronged socket has one hole for the headphones and the other hole for power (for noise cancelling), the “main” hole now no longer plays sound through his Bose headphones and connecting cable.  He writes about it here.

Needless to say, the United-supplied headphones are awful.  But if you want to watch a movie, you’re forced to use them rather than your own headphones.

He’s tried to find out, from United, why it is no longer possible to use one’s own headphones, but no-one will give him a sensible answer.  I guess it is another reason to get a half-price Amazon HD10 and load it with one’s own movie selection before travel!

Why Can’t Airlines Afford More Phone Operators?

275 minutes on hold?  That’s almost five hours.  Sure, the airlines love to tell you “you can go do what you need to do on our website” but as many of you know from bitter personal experience, there are times and situations where the website can’t answer your questions and help you.

Most of all, many times, the need to speak to an airline employee is time-critical.  You’ve had some type of “interruption” to your scheduled flights, and you need to work out what your options are, if any concessions can be made, and how best to make the best of a bad situation.  Five hours on hold – assuming your cell phone battery lasts that long – means that whatever your needs were when you dialed the airline, they’ve changed and got much worse in the meantime.

Some states require insurance companies to answer calls within something like five rings, with a “real person” able to help with general enquiries.  Why can’t the Federal Government, as a “quid pro quo” for the billions of dollars of free money they’ve been pushing at the airlines over the last 18 months, attach some obligations on the money – some of it to be used not just to retain staff, but to retain an adequate level of customer service staff such that no-one needs to wait more than five minutes on hold.

This article shares some frustrations from recent travelers and their attempts to get needed help from airlines.

First “Real” Air Show Since Covid

Dubai has been hosting the first major air show since Covid hit last year.  Both Boeing and Airbus have flashed some new orders in the hope of “encouraging the others”, but of the two companies, Airbus has been the hands-down winner in terms of new orders received.

Boeing received one nice order from a new Indian airline (plus some one and two plane type orders, mainly for freighters), but Airbus picked up a pair of large orders – a 111 plane order from Air Lease Corp and 255 from a holding company, Indigo Partners, that will see new planes for Frontier (91 A320 neos) and a number of other carriers.

The show closed with, I think, 408 orders to Airbus and 101 to Boeing.

Electric Car Winners and Losers

I wrote about new EV manufacturer Rivian’s sizzling IPO and ridiculously high market valuation, last week.  This week, another startup, Lucid, is clamoring for similar good fortune, and has managed to ring its valuation up to $76 billion – almost exactly the same as Ford.  Lucid started making EVs at the end of September this year….  Ford has been making its Mustang Mach E electric vehicle since almost a year ago.  It won the EV of the Year award earlier this year, and over 51,000 have been produced so far.  To say nothing of the millions of other vehicles it makes each year.

As I observed last week, the valuations on these new startup EV manufacturers seem divorced from reality.

Also this week, Toyota has finally and reluctantly allowed itself to join the BEV bandwagon.  Although one of the early and subsequently most prominent of the hybrid car manufacturers (with its Prius line-up), Toyota has refused to consider wholly electric powered vehicles, preferring instead to chase after the nonsense of hydrogen fuel-cell powered vehicles, a concept that can only survive when fed a generous diet of taxpayer subsidies.

But now, Toyota has announced its first battery powered electric vehicle, an ugly looking creation (sharing the same platform as the Subaru Solterra) with an even uglier name, the bZ4X (see the picture at the top of the newsletter).  You know it’s a severely unloved child with a name like that, don’t you.

Equally disappointing is the car’s specs.  It will have a range of about 250 miles in the two wheel drive option, and thought to be closer to 200 miles in the AWD option.  Industry wisdom is that the “sweet spot” of most appeal is to give buyers a 300 mile range.  The car will emerge next spring, with prices starting from about $37,000.  Actually, already, the schedule may have slipped.  Another source is saying “by the end of summer“.

Talking about range and range anxiety, the key solution is lots of charging stations, offering fast charging.  Joe Biden tossed $7.5 billion at the problem this week, but seems to have completely misunderstood the concept of fast charging.  He also has a controversial $4,500 government incentive that subsidizes the cost of new EVs that people buy – but, and here’s the catch and controversy – only if they are made by union workers.

That leaves out Tesla, of course, and also enrages Canada, who claims it to be unfair subsidies contrary to the new USMCA free trade agreement.

But, back to the $7.5 billion for chargers.  The government’s subsidy for new EV chargers covers the cost of slow chargers – low powered units that will only transfer enough energy for about 25 extra miles of driving per each hour of charge.  So, on a cross country trip, that would work out to slightly less than an hour of freeway driving, then slightly more than two hours of charging.  And so on, and so on.  Good luck with that.  A net of 50 miles driving every three hours.

Tesla has chargers that will give their cars as much as 150 or more miles of charge in 20 minutes.  Other fast chargers for most EVs can charge EVs at comparable rates to the Tesla chargers and cars.  But Joe seems to think the public is clamoring for S – L – O – W chargers.

The main use for very slow chargers is in shopping malls and other places, around town, where people will top up their cars if they need to.  But those sorts of chargers, while sometimes giving out power for free (because, after all, at their slow rates, an hour of charging costs a mall probably 75c – $1 – not a bad price to bring in a customer for an hour) may also sometimes charge high rates for their power.  If you’re not a shopping mall and need to actually break even or earn a profit on the installation and the electricity, that’s what you rationally need to do.  So people tend to avoid those and do all their charging at home, instead.   25 miles every hour isn’t so bad when you’re charging for 12 hours overnight.

The net result of the government’s $7.5 billion investment?  The manufacturers of EV chargers will be able to sell off their old-stock slow chargers that few people want these days, and make a lovely profit in the process.  But we, the traveling public, in the use case where battery range and recharging is most critical – road tripping with reasonably fast charging – will have our experience unchanged.

How can our government be so stupid?

Another non-solution to a complex problem, and still talking charging, is this article, celebrating the development of a cable that allows an EV to be charged faster than at present.

There’s just one small point that gets no mention until the article’s second to last sentence.  The charging cable is not the constraint on charging rates and times at present.  And, if it were, it is also the easiest thing to fix.  A heavier thicker cable or a higher voltage is all that is needed.

The real problems are two-fold.  The first is being able to get power from the utility company at the rates needed for truly fast charging.  To fully charge an EV in five minutes would require in excess of half a megawatt of power for those five minutes.  How much is that?  About as much as 400 – 500 heaters use.  Now assume you’ve got two cars both pulling up and needing to be charged simultaneously.  That will require more power than a small town consumes.

Utility companies charge both by the amount of power consumed and also a “demand charge” that looks at the peak rate of power consumption.  One MW of demand costs perhaps $5,000 a month, in addition to the power supplied.  Try telling that to an EV recharging site – “It will cost you $5,000 a month to connect to the grid” – except that the cost might be even higher because the utility company will probably need to run a new line to the facility, and give it a new transformer.

But that’s just one of the two problems.  The other is that ideally, batteries like to be charged slowly and gently.  They’re comfortable with an hour for a charge, and anything faster than that harms them.  Almost none of the present technology batteries could survive a full charge in five minutes, or if they did, they’d be materially damaged and after a few more charges like that, would need replacing.

But, hey, there’s now a cooled cable to enable that charging, if/when new batteries are invented, and if/when the utility companies will be robust enough as to see their loads suddenly double for five minutes before dropping off again.  I guess we’ll have to hope for appropriately timed gusts of wind to spin up the wind turbines, and for the clouds to part for the sun to shine brightly on solar cells.

Talking about utilities, not so stupid is Bill Gates, who is investing in a new type of nuclear power plant.  Less expensive to construct, creates less waste, and more compact in size.  Plus, he’s managed to persuade the government to pay for half the $4 billion cost of the first one he is building.  I guess he couldn’t afford to pay for it himself.

I know you’re wondering.  His reactor will generate 345 MW of power to start with.  Enough to charge about 600 EVS simultaneously, at the five minute/full charge rate.

One nuclear power station per 600 EV charging stations?  Hmmmm…….

NASA’s Ugliness, Exposed

If you’re slightly longer in the tooth than I am, please correct me if I’m wrong, but my sense is that in the 1960s, NASA could do no wrong, and was a stellar example of the best and greatest of American engineering, technology, know-how, and “can do” spirit.  Getting a man to the moon was an extraordinary achievement quite unlike anything before or since (I’m open to debate on that point, too).

But after the last Apollo mission in December 1972, things seemed to change.  It took more time, from then to the Space Shuttle launch in April 1981, than it took from Kennedy’s “Going to the Moon” speech in May 1961 and landing on the moon in July 1969.  Even after such lengthy development, the Space Shuttle was a financial disaster and spectacularly failed to live up to NASA’s promises about turnaround times and operating costs, to say nothing of two lost shuttles and the lives of all on board.

The Space Shuttles somehow kept on launching until July 2011 – in total, 135 launches (and 133 landings) over the 30 years.  That’s an average of just over four flights a year.  NASA’s earlier projection had been 50 flights a year, for each shuttle, which with between 3 – 5 shuttles in the fleet, should have been 150 – 250 flights a year, rather than the four actually achieved.

Since the end of the Space Shuttle program, NASA no longer has any rockets capable of manned space flight, and for ten years was forced to buy seats on Russia’s rockets to send people to and from the ISS.

Now, of course, Elon Musk has come to the rescue with his SpaceX rockets, and other private enterprise rockets are in varying stages of development too.  Have you ever paused to wonder how it is that a company like SpaceX can start with literally nothing and now be reliably launching rockets, both manned and unmanned, on a regular schedule, but NASA can’t do the same?

Sure, part of this is lack of steady funding from Congress.  But it isn’t Congress’ fault that NASA made such a mess-up of the Space Shuttle program, and has been unable to come up with a cogent consistent compelling vision for the future that engages with Congress and the general public.  Does NASA even need Congressional funding when companies such as SpaceX have been privately funded and are now profitable (albeit with contracts from NASA)?

The point I’m introducing, and here it finally is, refers to a still existing rocket development program that NASA can’t seem to free itself from – its Space Launch System.  This is a concept that has already consumed many billions of dollars since work started on it way back in 2010, with NASA hoping to do a first test launch next year, and then keep it operational for 30 years into the future, wedging it into the new Lunar program – even though it seems like “state of the art” in rocketry has long since left the Space Launch System way behind.

Just because the Space Shuttle limped along at a snail’s pace for 30 years does not mean it is a good idea for future rocket designs to also have a 30 year life, especially when they’re no longer needed before they take their first flight.

This is a good article on the subject.

The Danger of 5G on Planes?

I was fairly scathing in my criticism of the FAA for saying that 5G devices could interfere with airplane electronics.

From the little I know about radio signals and electronics (I’m being modest, I have the highest level “Amateur Extra” radio operator’s license from the FCC that includes broadcast privileges close to the “potentially dangerous” frequency bands being considered) it seemed unlikely to me there’d be a problem right from the get-go, and the “out of an abundance of caution” approach is one much loved by incompetent bureaucrats.

So I was delighted to see, and in USA Today of all surprising places, an article that clearly explains why the FAA is worried, and concluding

All told, there are numerous reasons why the FAA’s concerns around 5G deployment look to be more of a red herring than a legitimate technical concern. While it is true that some older radio altimeters with poor filtering might have to be updated and/or replaced to completely prevent interference, it’s not clear that the theoretical interference would even cause an issue.

While airplane safety shouldn’t be compromised in any way, an overabundance of unnecessary caution on this issue could have a much bigger negative impact on the U.S.’s technology advancements and economy than many realize.

I completely agree.  While there are “corner-cases” where problems could occur, if you’re going to chase every possible corner-case risk, no airplane would ever be allowed to push back from the gate.

And Lastly This Week….

Naughty Microsoft.  Apparently it is overdue for another scolding by the Justice Department.  It is hard-wiring connections to its Edge web browser as part of Windows 11, forcing you to use Edge when links from some of its materials are clicked (such as in help files).  That’s egregiously anti-competitive abuse of its monopolistic OS situation, and should be promptly and severely stomped on.

Talking about naughty Microsoft, here’s an article that suggests Apple is being nice for a change.  Apple has said it will start selling service tools and spare parts to people who want to repair their own iPhones and other equipment.

But do you see what the article doesn’t tell us?  The cost of the items Apple will sell.  The article also hints at the real reason for Apple promising to become slightly less restrictive in allowing us to fix our own electronics – concern that states are going to start introducing “right to repair” legislation.  Apple would rather allow people to repair their products on Apple’s terms, than become subject to state laws mandating it.

So, nice Apple?  Unlikely.

Where were you on November 16, twenty years ago?  Some of you may have been in a movie theatre – it being the date when the first Harry Potter movie came out.  I still remember the excitements of each new book release, going to get a pre-reserved copy at midnight, and such things.  (No, I’ve never worn a Hogwarts costume, but I know people who have!).  Twenty years – wow.  (The first book was published much earlier, of course, on September 1, 1998.)

Here’s a solution I didn’t know about to a problem I didn’t know about – people stealing Christmas trees.

I read an interesting headline earlier in the week.  A plumber was stating that the busiest day of the year for his company is always the day after Thanksgiving.  I hope, when you next read my weekly newsletter, next Friday morning, you’ll have enjoyed a great Thursday and that your toilets will have survived any extra work-out that ensued.

Until next week, please stay healthy and happy





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