Our Solar Fireplace

Here comes the sun!  Haven’t you noticed those lengthening days?  Groundhog Day and the Super Bowl are behind us, and winter will recede regardless of Punxatawney Phil.  Whatever the vicissitudes of the climate debate, the sun is the primary driver of both the earth’s weather and its energy supply (both stored and “online”).

Space Videos has posted this streaming replay of our luminous neighbor, filmed from the International Space Station.  The video offers some spectacular scenes of activity on the solar surface, accompanied by soothing New Age style music.  So drop by when the mood strikes you and see the sights! What is office wi-fi good for, anyway? 🙂

Super Bowl 2017 – No Time For Hot Dogs

Houston plays host to Super Bowl LI on February 5.  America’s most prominent sporting event is a very big deal in the travel industry, and this year should be no exception.  In the video below (posted December 16), Bloomberg’s Nikki Epstein and David Gura explore the fine art of finding a deal.  The city has spent massive amounts of money preparing its entertainment districts for visitors, and if one can’t find a room in one of the hot hotels, there’s still the chance to book a reservation in the right restaurant and stargaze.

Of course, by now the bargains are gone and most of us will stay at home.  Gameday occupies an iconic place in American life, as illustrated by the decision of Kraft Heinz  to give its office employees the next day off.  Those that remain, that is.  Kraft recently acquired the Heinz ketchup empire in one of the decade’s mega-mergers, and the restructuring that followed was a particularly tough one.  The company has decided not to repeat its pricey Super Bowl advertising campaign of 2016, which featured pooches in hot dog outfits performing for condiment-clad owners, (The former had more dignity,)  Even the Super Bowl is not immune to the allure of saving a buck!


Transcon South! MIA-LAX

For most people “Transcon” means those long flights linking the northeast US to California. But the tremendous population shifts of the past five decades have added more city pairs that qualify for the title.  You Tube channel Backpacktrot offers a long-ish video look at Miami-to-Los Angeles flying business class on an American Airlines Boeing 767-300. (Use free or at least economical internet for this one!)  It offers great views of downtown Miami, the Florida keys, the Louisiana coastal flats and of course the mountain scenery of the west as the airplane heads towards LAX.  If you view the video directly on YT, the vlogger offers a chart of video times and corresponding sights.

Brexit: The Lady’s Not For Turning

British Prime Minister delivered a key policy speech on January 17 that set forth her plans for a definitive exit from the European Union.  Speculation had been growing that her Cabinet was struggling with the outcome of last year’s referendum, and that she could not deliver on her previous promise that “Brexit means Brexit”.  Her address laid out the broad principles governing the Brexit negotiation: restoration of full sovereignty to Parliament, exit from the EU’s customs union, recognition of British courts as the highest legal authority in the UK, and full control by Westminster over borders and immigration. The Wall Street Journal reports her declaration that:

“What I am proposing cannot mean membership of the single market. Instead we seek the greatest possible access to it through a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious free-trade agreement.

I want Britain to be able to negotiate its own trade agreements. But I also want tariff-free trade with Europe and cross-border trade there to be as frictionless as possible.”

Social Commentary Channel has posted the video of the entire 50 minute speech, which appears below.

Transport Strikes Snarl London

Strike activity broke out across London today, delaying commuters and illustrating the dependence of the British capital and world financial center on its public transfer system.  A union walkout shut down most of the underground, and hundreds of thousands of city residents had to find alternatives to the famous “Tube” (Reuters via Yahoo News).  Extra buses have been deployed to replace some of the lost rail capacity, but they are providing only modest relief for the many commuters whose daily routine has turned into an uncertain, frustrating nightmare.  (See video below by Al Jazeera).

Strike activity is expected to spread beyond the underground services to commuter rail and even British Airways.  Travelers to the UK should plan carefully and keep up-to-date about the latest developments.


2016 Airline Stocks-Of Presidents and Palaces

Stock investors enjoyed a nice ride on the bull during 2016.  That didn’t look to be the case for much of the year, notable for its mini-corrections and nerve-wracking volatility.  But the broader averages prospered in the end, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average in particular, with its basket of large cap stocks well positioned to be the beneficiaries of massive capital inflows in this Age of Liquidity, clocking in a VERY respectable 13% gain.

Airline stocks, dogs for much of 2016, wound up all over the place.  Of the majors, United staged the most impressive recovery, rising 27% after management changes and an increasingly visible marketing campaign.  Reliable, well-capitalized and never bankrupt Southwest also did very well at close to 16%,  while American and Alaska have apparently calmed down investors’ fears regarding capital spending (AAL) and merger complications (ALK) .

The notoriously sensitive airline sector did well considering the turbulence of the political season and its focus on trade, industrial policy, terrorism and immigration, all of which have a big impact on travel. Yet it’s also remarkable how little attention was paid to two other variables, the rise in energy prices and the strange movements in interest rates.  Oil prices are up sharply at 45% compared to the beginning of the year.  Despite all the talk of raising rates, long-term treasury rates FELL during much of the year, and were as low as 2.3% in June. They essentially returned to the status quo by year-end.  If one had a suspicious mind, one might surmise…smoke, mirrors and election year manipulation.  But who has a suspicious mind? 🙂

Image: Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, by Myrabella






Documore! Empire Of The Tsars

The holidays provide a great opportunity to catch quality documentaries, and this BBC special, now available via Netflix, explores the fascinating history of Russia under the Romanov dynasty.  They ruled the Eurasian colossus from the seventeenth century to their downfall during World War I.  Host Lucy Worsley examines the notable reigns: from dynamic (and ruthless) Peter The Great to enlightened (but sensuous) Catherine The Great to Alexander I, who led the empire to victory over Napoleon.  The series then covers the ill-starred Alexander II, who freed the serfs, and finally the tragedy of Nicholas II, whose attachment to autocracy doomed the dynasty once it became embroiled in the first global war.

During the recent US presidential election Russia featured more prominently in the public discourse than it has at any time since the end of the Cold War.  This three part series, with great visuals and engaging narration, sheds a lot of light on the history and culture of one of the world’s most important powers.

Guilt Trip! Boarding The Cat(s) At The Vet

Holidays mean travel, which is stressful for just about everyone.  But there’s an extra dose of angst for the voyaging cat owner.  Kitty has highly developed internal radar that warns the feline mind when you are about to convey him or her away from the safe spaces. Talk about drama!  I used to travel regularly between Dallas/Ft Worth and New York around the holidays, and the trip to  the vet with 2 cats was about as fun as clear air turbulence. The You Tube cartoon series Simon’s Cat captures the dilemma of every cat household as departure time nears.  Just add 30 minutes to your trip to the airport to drop your furry friend at the cat hotel?  Good luck with that!

Oh, and if you have two or more cats, there is no such thing as being on-time!

Carry On Complaining!

United Airlines probably did not anticipate the  robust reaction to their proposed “Basic Economy” fare. CEO Oscar Munoz rolled out the product in the video announcement posted below.  Purchasers get the lowest boarding priority, seats assigned only upon departure and no right to change bookings. The product also limits carry-on bags to one item small enough to be stowed under a seat instead of the overhead luggage bin (Daily Mail). Social media jumped all over this, and the announcement was misinterpreted as a decision by United to charge all passengers for the coveted overhead space. This prompted a testy denunciation by incoming US Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY).  The resulting publicity even prompted fact-checking site Snopes to analyze the story.

In the short run, the market will eventually decide the fate of this initiative, as it does with everything else.  But the intensity of the reaction should alert the industry that passengers, although attracted to bargains, are becoming increasingly resentful of the “nickel and dime” approach to amenities, and the increasingly startling comparison between what’s on offer up front and the cattle car experience in the cheap seats. Airline executives should remember that, despite the pro-business tilt of the incoming administration, Washington DC will generally respond to popular ire, from Donald J. Trump on down.

Image credit: Sqcelestar

Airline Stocks-Out Of The Doghouse At Last

What a difference one month makes!  November was very kind to airline stocks, which had been laggards for most of the year.  Most of the group finds itself in positive territory on a year-to-date basis, while some have posted double digit gains. (The change in UAL is particularly striking.)  The sector’s performance is all the more impressive given both the recovery in energy prices and the arrival of long-anticipated increases in interest rates.  Even the famously skeptical Warren Buffet is moving into the group, with  a particularly large position in American.  The market in general is enjoying a post-election spurt.  The jury is still out as to the durability of the “Trump rally’.  There are a lot of big decisions awaiting the new administration, and events overseas (such as a potential Italian bank crisis) can always complicate life for the best portfolios.