Weekly Roundup Friday 29 July 2011

The IBM Selectric Typewriter

Good morning

Happy birthday this week to the IBM Selectric typewriter (pictured, left).

First released (obviously enough) in 1961 (on 23 July), the ‘golfball’ typewriter with dual pitch and a correcting ribbon was an enormous step forward for millions of typists all around the world, myself included.  I remember buying my first Selectric typewriter some time in the mid/late 1970s – it cost me NZ$1500 at the time, and then over the next year or so I eagerly filled up one of their special golfball storage accessories with maybe 20 different golfballs, ranging from Orator (even today people still type up speech notes, for some inexplicable reason, in an Orator style font which in truth is less readable than a regular upper/lower case font of the same size) down to tiny 12 pitch fonts (Prestige Elite and Letter Gothic spring to mind for no apparent reason) good for putting lots of text in tables.

The Selectric typewriter was without a doubt the ultimate expression of the basic simple non-electronic typewriter in terms of its capabilities – and its operation too.  It had so many different innovations it is hard to know where to start – I guess the other one that sticks in my mind (in addition to the swappable golfballs, the dual pitch, and the correcting ribbon, would be that the golfball typehead moved rather than the carriage).  It had the most marvelous ribbon in it too, giving an amazingly crisp type printed onto the page, although these ribbons could only be used a single time.  The precise high quality printing from the Selectric marked the start of the desktop publishing revolution, showing ‘ordinary people’ for the first time that they could create presentation level materials in their own office.

On the other hand, it was not very reliable – unsurprising considering the complexity of moving mechanical parts and the speed at which they moved (here’s a great video of a Selectric with its top cover off – indeed the typewriter in the video is desperately in need of a tune up).  IBM’s serviceman was a regular visitor in my office; because it seemed the typewriter(s) were in constant need of adjustment, and eventually I bought a service manual and service tool and started maintaining them myself.

IBM withdrew the Selectric from sale in 1986.  Does anyone still have one?  If you can’t get maintenance for them (I don’t know if there are companies still maintaining them or not) I suspect they’ve all been now long since retired.

The world has changed beyond anyone’s expectation in the 50 years since the Selectric first saw the light of day, and its back then futuristic appeal and awesome capabilities now seem of another era.  More details here.

The FAA partial closedown continues, and is about to complete its first week.  Although the airlines acted quickly to take the tax savings and make them their own (see the next item in today’s newsletter compilation) there’s another part of the puzzle that is becoming of increasing interest to more and more people :  What about the taxes you’ve already paid on tickets when you purchased them in the past, but for flights you are taking now while the FAA’s taxing authority is currently suspended?

Maybe you can get those back, but how, and from who?  The short answer is that possibly the IRS might be the place to go, and the slightly longer answer is to wait and see.  It is a very long time (about 15 years) since a similar situation occurred, and last time around, it was the IRS that refunded fees.

ARTA (the Association of Retail Travel Agents) says that the airlines should swap their usual role of FAA tax collector and now become tax refunder.  Their suggestion – like most things about ARTA (a truly great organization for travel agents and their traveler clients) – makes a great deal of sense, because the collection system that is in place to take your money when you buy a ticket already has most of the necessary smarts to make it possible to simply go back into the system and refund the applicable tax parts of those tickets.

But the airlines and their ‘Airlines Reporting Corporation’ clearing house for processing ticket payments are less than enthusiastic about giving back money, any money, and also currently lack the necessary permission to do so.  Let’s hope ARTA’s representations on behalf of their agencies and their agency clients bear fruit.

And here’s a free bit of advice to agencies who don’t belong to ARTA.  Well, two bits of advice.  First, you should consider joining ARTA.  Second, ARTA is giving excellent advice to its members – add a dummy ‘retention line’ itinerary item with a future date so the pnr’s don’t expire after travel is complete, so that you can queue the pnrs and work them for refunds if ARC subsequently allows this to happen.

And for passengers – pass this suggestion on to your travel agency.  What’s that, you say?  You booked your ticket direct with the airline?  Oh, sorry.  Good luck getting anyone at the airline to talk to you, let alone to help you get your ticket tax back!

UPDATE :  This news just in from ARTA –  The IRS now says airlines can (but are not required to) refund ticket taxes to those who bought tickets prior to the time Congress let the ticket taxes expire.

The taxes can be refunded the same way a refundable ticket is exchanged that wasn’t used.  The IRS is working on a procedure for handling refunds.  American, United, Continental and Southwest are directing customers to the IRS.  JetBlue invited customers to email refund requests to the airline.  Passengers who can’t get a refund from the airline eventually will be able to submit a claim to the IRS along with proof of taxes paid and travel dates.

This whole thing is a further windfall for the airlines.  They are counting on the majority of ticket holders due a refund to give up and they will keep the tax income and also gain from the fare increase.  A similar tax holiday in 1996 lasted nine months and another one in 1997 lasted three months.

Boeing’s 787 is now more than three years late for its first commercial flight, and questions remain about how many of the planes will be delivered this year (everyone expects at least a ceremonial one or two to be delivered to launch customer ANA at any cost, no matter what it takes).

But this is merely the first of the new series of 787 planes, which counter-intuitively is named the 787-8 rather than the 787-1.  Boeing has chosen to adopt ‘lucky numbers’ according to Chinese custom for its plane numbering these days – if ‘it has a lucky number’ is the strongest argument Boeing can offer for why any airline, Chinese or not, should buy its planes, then the company is in even worse shape than I thought.

However, let’s not overlook the second model of the 787; the 787-9.  This plane was earlier expected to enter into service perhaps in 2012, and more recently, the target date has been 2013.  The launch customer for the 787-9 is Air New Zealand, and their CFO mentioned in the course of other comments, this week, that they are now expecting it to be delivered some time in 2014.  See this report.

What does Boeing say in response?  Rather than blushing and admitting that, yes, there has been another delay, it denies the report of its own launch customer, and says the plane will still be delivered in 2013.  See here.

Apparently the maxim ‘the customer is always right’ doesn’t apply to Boeing.  Let’s hope Boeing is correct, for its sake, for Air New Zealand’s sake, and for the sake of every other airline relying on the present delivery schedules too.  But as strident Boeing critic Ben Sandilands asks in the two linked articles, who are you going to believe?  Continually over-optimistic to the point of mendacious incompetency Boeing, or New Zealand’s most respected public company?

On Wednesday Boeing reported on second quarter earnings and its future prospects, and remained more upbeat about its 787-8 and 747-8 (oh, look – there’s another gratuitous 8 in a model number – it should have been a 5 if following sequentially from the preceding 747 model numbers….) than industry commentators have been projecting.

Boeing also made the surprising claim that its decision to re-engine the current 737 ‘evolved over the last two to three months’.  I’d have said that rather than evolving in an orderly process over the last two to three months, it was urgently cobbled together in 2 or 3 days in a desperate attempt not to lose the entire 460 plane order from American Airlines last week, and is as yet still totally lacking in substantive detail.  See here.

Talking about Boeing, remember the very controversial bidding process for the new Air Force tanker that took almost ten years to conclude?  First Boeing was awarded it, then Airbus, and then Boeing again?

We’re now starting to see how it is that Boeing might have got an edge over Airbus in the final bidding round.  The cost of the project was targeted to be $3.9 billion, but it has already increased up to possibly $5.2 billion.  Boeing gets to absorb some of that, but the taxpayer cost is now at $4.6 billion – a 15% increase in just five months (the total contract runs for many years).

You have to wonder, when Boeing signs a contract to supply planes to an airline, if the airline is as willing to let Boeing push the price up 15% so quickly.  Or is it just our government that is so generous with its our money?

No wonder Airbus described the Boeing bid in February as ‘extremely lowball’.  Details here.

The more things change, the more they remain the same, or so it seems.

Here’s a lengthy but fascinating article lambasting the airlines and the bad service they provide.  But if you note something funny about the pictures, that is because the article, and its accompanying illustrations, date back to 1946.

Sixty five years later, and many of the problems remain the same, from flight delays to inability to get an airline agent on the phone, to uncomfortable seating and bad food.

I wrote last week about Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza UK introducing ‘Snore Patrols’ where staff will ask snoring sleepers to stop snoring, and mentioned my own pet hate – people who fall asleep with their television still playing loudly.

But what to do when one is afflicted by a noisy neighbor.  I’ve generally called down to the front desk and asked them to sort the problem out for me.  But there’s more than one way to skin a cat.  Reader Duncan writes :

When I have been woken by an over-loud TV running in the next room, I have previously made a note of room numbers either side of me and then make an internal telephone call at 2.30am to the offending room, complaining about the TV noise ‘coming through my floor’, so the woken sleeper is less likely to come padding around in the middle of the night, to wreak vengeance!

Talking about hotels, the Tripadvisor.com website has become an internet phenomenon that can have a major impact on a hotel’s business.  A string of credibly positive reviews may materially lift a hotel’s business; and similarly, a string of credibly negative reviews may cause its business to drop.

After first trying to ignore Tripadvisor and hope it would go away, most hotels are now quite sensitive to its presence.  Some do the best they can at managing their Tripadvisor reviews, responding positively to favorable reviews uttering some platitudes of thanks, and responding full of apologies and excuses to negative reviewers.

And then some hotels have decided to ‘stuff the ballot box’ as it were by creating fake reviews (positive) for their own property, and even more naughtily, fake negative reviews for competing properties.  Other hotels have walked a moral fine line by asking happy guests to post reviews, and by incentivizing past guests who do write positive reviews, offering them future benefits the next time they return.

And then there are hotels like the one that threatened me with legal action because it didn’t like my Tripadvisor review of a regrettable stay I suffered at their property.  Needless to say, such a negative response didn’t surprise me in the slightest, because they’d been negative all through my stay as well.  And, again needless to say, my response to them was a modified version of ‘Bring it on’.  One more needless thing to say – no lawsuit ever eventuated.  But I hope they wasted some money consulting with their solicitor before not proceeding with a suit that would have been unlikely to bring them anything except legal bills and heartache.

The reliability of Tripadvisor reviews is of course integral to the ongoing success of Tripadvisor, and if people no longer feel they can rely on Tripadvisor’s ratings, the site will implode in on itself.  So Tripadvisor has made a big thing about its vaguely hinted at ways of detecting and preventing fake reviews.

How successful is it?  That’s hard to say.  But a couple of recent articles in London’s Sunday Times (regrettably only available to paying subscribers) report that there are advertisements on sites such as Craigslist and Freelancer.com from hotels seeking to pay as much as £3 ($5) or more for fake reviews.

On the other hand, students doing research at Cornell University have developed software which – they claim – can identify fake hotel reviews by analyzing its linguistic structure.  The software was tested on some 800 reviews of hotels in Chicago and the students were able to pick out “deceptive reviews” with close to 90% accuracy.

They asked people to write phony positive reviews of properties which were then compared with an equal number of verified truthful reviews. The students said truthful reviews were more likely to use concrete words such as ‘bathroom’, ‘check-in’ or ‘price’ while fake reviews included words such as ‘vacation’, ‘business trip’ or ‘my husband’.

The software analyses sentiment, word structure and grammar within a review to establish if the review should be flagged.  In parallel with previous analysis of imaginative versus informative writing, deceivers use more verbs and truth-tellers use more nouns.

The software is only ‘validated’ for hotel reviews at this time but the students see the technology being applied in the industry as possibly a first round filter, allowing sites to score potentially false reviews which require further investigation.

But – ummmm, now that the fake reviewers have read this, how long will it take them to adjust and to have a new ‘stylebook’ for their writers which says ‘talk about specific things, not about general feelings’.  Color me very cynical as to the validity of this software – I’ll wager I could beat it nine times out of ten.

So be careful; and while Tripadvisor is a resource and potentially a useful one, use it as part of rather than as your only approach to selecting hotels.

An island paradise?  Friendly noble savages running around in colorful ceremonial dress, enjoying tribal living in ornate quasi-primitive huts in a jungle clearing, holding daily feasts and ceremonies, with lots of laughing, music, and mildly hallucinogenic drinking of the national kava drink?  That’s the type of impression many exotic island nations seek to convey in an attempt to bring tourists to their shores.

And that’s all that some tourists see, or choose to see, as they travel in an insulated bubble from airport to resort hotel to beach to touristy native village and back to hotel, beach, and airport, stopping only at gift and souvenir stores inbetween times.

But the reality can be very different.  The natives are usually wearing dirty blue jeans, and live in shanty towns made of corrugated iron roofing material or cardboard.  To be polite, notions of ‘communal property’ sometimes extend to a confusion as to their entitlement to what we as visitors would consider to be our own personal property, in actions which we culturally insensitive people might simply categorize as theft.

As I write these words I’m thinking in particular of a country close to my homeland of New Zealand – that of Fiji.

In 1987 this sleepy peaceable little country surprised the world by experiencing not just one but two military coups d’etat.  And since that time it has been twice ejected from the British Commonwealth (no mean feat when one looks at some of the other countries who have maintained their eligibility through thick and thin), and had an increasingly confusing series of subsequent coups and constitutional crises.

The root cause may relate to the tension between the relaxed easy-going Fijian natives and the minority population (about 40%) of people who were brought in to do work by the British in the nineteenth century from India.  These immigrants proved to be very hard working indeed, and little by little came to dominate the nation’s commerce and then its political system too, and then all of a sudden, the native Fijians cried foul at what would seem, to most detached observers, to have been a lawful and legitimate series of commercial and political evolutions, and so the Fijian native dominated military called time out and set about establishing some constitutional preferential treatments for native rather than immigrant Fijians.

It just gets increasingly more complicated from that point forward, and from time to time Fiji has suffered very strained relations with its nearby neighbor nations, including both NZ and Australia, and I don’t even start to understand the present issues there.

Some of the time these internal tensions are well hidden from tourists, but on occasion matters break through the surface and Fiji suffers a sudden dive in tourist numbers.  This is something all Fijians deplore, because tourism is either the country’s largest or second largest industry, but some of the political ructions have had the threat of civil unrest and violence very close to the surface.

Things in Fiji have been fairly quiet of late, but now there’s a possible explanation why.  According to the Sydney Morning Herald, three recent deaths of foreigners (including a New Zealander I vaguely knew) have been hushed up in Fiji so as not to harm inbound tourism.

People traveling to the South Pacific might wish to consider Tahiti or Rarotonga (The Cook Islands) as alternatives to Fiji.  Tahiti is fearsomely expensive,  and there’s precious little to do in Rarotonga, but maybe that is a good thing rather than a bad thing.  Otherwise, do what I’ve usually suggested to most people (and done myself) – simply spend more time in either NZ or Australia.

A quick heads-up for people planning on renting a car in Italy.  If you have a driving license issued from a non-EU country, it is now mandatory that you have an International Driving License as well as your home country’s license.

There are two traps here.  The first is the need for an International Driving License – most countries around the world are perfectly happy accepting your home license.  An International License can probably be obtained from your local AA store – there’s no need for any test or anything, you just pay a fee, provide a photo, and they issue you an International Driving License which basically does nothing more than translate your home license into a dozen or more different languages.

The second trap is that countries which require an International Driving License also require your original home country license too.  There used to be a loophole whereby if you were anticipating losing your home license due to some driving offense, you could quickly get an international license, then after surrendering your home license, you still had an international one which you could rent cars with elsewhere in the world.  So that loophole has been closed, too.

I wrote yesterday about Jetblue’s regrettable Panty Police and the unfair situation where we as passengers run the risk of being subjected to totally ridiculous accusations from irascible and irrational airline employees, and how the full force of the law invariably sides – without question – with the airline passengers.

Here’s an interesting report of a Supreme Court decision a couple of months ago, which declined to interrupt a group of ten first class passengers suing Alaska Airlines after AS took them off a flight, alleging them (apparently without a shred of truth) to be ‘out of control’ and then backing up that unfair complaint with referring them to the FBI as potential terrorists.

The lower court sided for AS, saying flight crew have wide latitude to decide if passengers pose a safety risk to a flight.  This was overruled by the Court of Appeals who said that flight crew can not arbitrarily kick passengers off a plane and have them arrested if no crime has been committed.  The Supreme Court agreed.

Lastly this week, there are two reasons why we’re not allowed to smoke in airplane toilets.  The obvious one is because smoking is not allowed anywhere on planes.  The less obvious one is the danger of a not completely extinguished butt being dropped into the trash container there and setting fire to the paper towels it is normally full of.

But could there be a third danger?  Methane buildup?  While previously considered unlikely, how else to explain this incident?

Davidsig265 Until next week, please enjoy safe travels


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