Weekly Roundup Friday 25 May 2012

Our thanks to those who have selflessly served so we might be free. We appreciate that our freedoms come not from politicians and their rhetoric, but from our armed forces and, to paraphrase Mao, the barrels of their guns.

Good morning

It has been a harrowing week, with my hard drive (bought new in March 2011) slowly failing.

I should be grateful that it is a slow and graceful demise rather than a sudden and unexpected one, but the bottom line is that my productivity has unavoidably nose-dived during the week, with much/most of it being spent staring either at a rebooting computer screen, or at a nearly frozen computer that needs rebooting.  Yuck.

There has been a valuable lesson learned, however.  The concept of preventive maintenance and good backup of one’s hard drive.  Needless to say, with my ‘recycle everything’ approach to translating life’s experiences into Travel Insider articles, you get to read about it now (in one of the following articles).

A quick thank you to Dell – the computer is a Dell computer, but the hard drive is a Western Digital drive I bought separately, so the problem is nothing to do with Dell, but they’ve been extraordinarily helpful and attentive in helping me through this challenge.  Much appreciated.

Dell seems to have cycled back from a service low of several years ago to a service high, and I’m glad I stuck with them.  Indeed, they have sent me two couriered shipments of drivers and software, while I’m still waiting for the replacement drive from WD, even though I arranged for the warranty replacement drive before talking to Dell.

Talking about technology, this week marks the passing of Eugene Polley.  Who he?  Mr Polley appears to have been the original inventor of one of the most used and essential of all household gadgets – the chances are you have two or three (or maybe four or five) at home, yourself.  The wireless TV remote control.  Details here.

I also found time on Thursday to do a quick television interview.  If you’d like to see your fearless writer looking slightly out of his element and peering out from behind his computer screen, you can see me here.  These days, with the ability to carefully craft every comment and to revise it as I wish, and having no real limits on the amount of material I can present (on the website) it is very difficult to adjust to a television format where the ‘interviewer’ wants to do most of the talking and seeks merely a couple of short validatory comments from the interviewee.

And now, please read on for :

  • Reader Survey – Airplane Fashion Rules
  • Humorless Pilots in Brazil, Too
  • Alaska Now Requires Passengers to Tag Their Own Bags – Tells Us This is an Improvement
  • Bag Fees are Big Business
  • DoT Appoints a ‘Real Person’ to their Advisory Committee on Consumer Protections
  • Google Completes Purchase of Motorola Mobility
  • A World Record for the Largest Ever Amount Sued?
  • Amazing Amazon Refund Experience
  • New Amazon Service
  • Security Fee May Double
  • The Olympic Games Are That Dangerous?
  • This Week’s Least Surprising Headline
  • And Lastly This Week…..

Reader Survey – Airplane Fashion Rules

We regularly hear stories of airlines booting passengers off planes for not being sufficiently well dressed to meet the unwritten and highly variable fashion ‘rules’ as enforced by airline staff in a confusingly random manner.

Sometimes it is clear to any reasonable person that the airline in question is just plain nuts.  But other times involve more difficult judgment calls.  Here’s a situation where I can see both sides of the story; sure there are all the usual free speech issues (which only weakly apply, if at all, on an airplane), and the ‘creeping evil’ issue of when you start censoring some expressions of opinion in some places, how long before you start censoring them all, and everywhere.  On the other hand, there is surely also a right not to have a message that a person might find offensive thrust unrelentingly in their face for some hours.

It is strange in this case that the captain of one flight decided to act ‘on behalf of’ the captain of the next flight – that’s a further extension of the claimed authority of a captain – ‘I’m in charge of what happens on your next flight too’.

But let’s zero in on the woman’s t-shirt (see the linked article above).  Do you think passengers should be free to wear t-shirts with aggressively stated messages which, while some people will definitely agree with, others will definitely oppose – t-shirts such as this one?

Please click the answer that best represents your opinion; this will generate an email with your answer in the subject line.  I’ll total them all up and report back to you next week.

Passengers should be allowed to wear anything that isn’t lewd or obscene, and have any messages/slogans on their t-shirts they choose.

This woman went too far – not in the message itself so much as in featuring the ‘f-word’ on the t-shirt and so should be required to change it

Even if her t-shirt statement didn’t have the f-word, it is still too strong a statement on a topic that upsets many people, one way or the other, so she should be required to change it

Anything capable of offending fellow passengers – and on a plane, you have no choice of who you sit next to – should be banned

Passengers should wear clothing totally free of statements

Humorless Pilots in Brazil, Too

A foolish passenger, upon noting that one of the pilots of his Trip Airlines flight was a woman, proceeded to make some ‘loud sexist comments about women flying planes’ more or less directly to the pilot (or so the airline tells us).

Well, as we men know, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and so the woman had police remove the man not just from the plane but from the airport entirely.  Details here.

My goodness me.  In the preceding item, we see pilots now asserting their authority over other planes, and in this case, the pilot seems to be able to not just boot a passenger off a plane, but out of the airport entirely.

Consider yourself warned.

Alaska Now Requires Passengers to Tag Their Own Bags – Tells Us This is an Improvement

Alaska Airlines has a ‘customer focused initiative toward making travel easier’ – a multi-syllabic phrase that clearly means different things to them than to us.  In their view, requiring us to tag our own bags makes our travel experience easier.

Note this uncritical piece that implies AS is forward thinking in allowing us to do this ourselves.  It reminds me of how we were earlier promised that computer check-in terminals would reduce airport delays – delays that were of course caused by the airlines not having sufficient staff on the checkin desks.  Well, it seems airport delays remain much as always – any time I go through any terminal there’s always at least one set of counters/checkin screens with a queue of waiting passengers spilling out, all over the place.

How long before ‘check your own bags’ becomes universal at all airlines (Alaska is rolling this out incrementally at some airports at present), and how long before the queues for this become as long as the queues formerly were to have a real person do it for us?

You’ve got to admire the bare-faced cheek of the airline for telling us that no longer checking our bags for us is something that we wanted.  As for which cheek is being bared at us, well, you decide.

Bag Fees are Big Business

The ironic thing about Alaska Airlines now requiring passengers to tag their own bags is that it isn’t as though they are carrying our bags for free.  Back when you could carry three checked bags, each weighing up to 70 lbs, for free, the airline would also tag them for you too.

As a point of contrast, a roundtrip with three 70 lb bags on Alaska Airlines would now sting you $420 – probably more than your ticket cost you; plus you now have to put your own tags on too!

So you’ll be unsurprised to learn that in the fourth quarter of 2011 – just the quarter, not the full year – the major US carriers netted themselves a nice $3.4 billion in baggage fees alone.  Add another $2.38 billion in ticket change fees, then add all the extra amounts from seat assignments, early boarding, meals, and so on and so on.

Flying is expensive these days.

DoT Appoints a ‘Real Person’ to their Advisory Committee on Consumer Protections

The Department of Transportation announced the appointment of four people to their Advisory Committee on Consumer Protections.  Three of the people were the usual types of insiders and unlikely to rock the boat at all; indeed one of them is the senior VP at the airlines lobbying group – talk about the fox guarding the hens.  (The other two are the IL Attorney General and the Director of Aviation at Oakland airport).

The good news is the fourth person.  Charlie Leocha.  He is a fellow travel writer, and has made consumer rights his focus, working in a partnership venture with Chris Elliott, another defender of our travel rights, on a site Consumer Travel Alliance.

It is hard to know what the reality of this advisory committee actually is in terms of any measurable impacts on the DoT and the airlines they oversee.  Will the DoT stop approving code sharing/joint operating agreements?  Probably not.  Will it double the size of fines it levies?  Probably not.  Don’t get me wrong, it is a tremendous breakthrough to see a real professional consumer advocate appointed to this group, but don’t go expecting any major new policy initiatives.

But as a test case, I wonder what Charlie thinks of this request from the airlines represented by his fellow committee member?  The airlines would have us believe that an important safety modification to their fuel tanks, which the DoT mandated in 2008, while giving a six year grace period in which to have it done, won’t be possible to be done within the six year time frame allowed.

Google Completes Purchase of Motorola Mobility

Google’s plan to purchase Motorola’s cell phone business was first announced back in August 2011, at a price of about $12.5 billion.  Not quite a Facebook sized valuation, but a huge chunk of change, nonetheless.

The deal was of course subject to regulatory approval, and the last link in that chain has now been complete.  The surprising element of this is understanding where the last approval finally came from.  You’ll be unsurprised to learn that the deal required approval in the US and EU, but the slowest necessary approval, now obtained, came from China.  The EU approved first, in mid February, and as if by coincidence, just hours after the EU gave their okay, the US Department of Justice gave their approval too.

How times are changing.  The purchase by a US company of another US company not only needs US approval (we’re happy with that) but also EU approval (hmmm) and now Chinese approval too?

I am of course outraged by this imbalance.  As a New Zealander, how come the deal is not also subject to NZ approval?

What will happen now that Google owns Motorola?  That’s a very good question, the ultimate answer to which has to be ‘we’ll have to wait and see’.  Motorola has had only occasional and increasingly infrequent flashes of brilliance in the recent past; when was the last time you knowingly saw a Motorola cell phone in someone’s hand.

After the near ubiquity of the RAZR when it came out in 2004, and for the four year model life of that phone, which became, and still retains the title of best selling clamshell style phone in the world, and after previous successes going way back into the past, including the first small portable cell phone, and the first ‘portable’ cell phone (the ‘bag’ phone as it was known), the one-time dominance of Motorola in the cell phone industry is sadly a thing of the past.  The big two cell phone manufacturers these days are Samsung and Apple.

It isn’t only Motorola.  As for Nokia, the one time world leader in cell phones, and RIM/Blackberry with what seemed like a lock on smartphones, those two companies’ fortunes seem to be doing an excellent job of replicating those of Motorola.  Are they both in unstoppable terminal decline?  At this stage, there’s little reason to think not.

Back to Motorola; most people seem to think Google’s purchase was all about accessing Motorola’s ‘intellectual property’ – its patents – rather than buying a company that well, uhh, doesn’t really make all that much anymore.  The conflicts between Google as lead developer of the Android cell phone operating system and potentially Google also as a manufacturer of cell phones would seem strong and sufficient as to encourage some other manufacturers to cozy more up to Microsoft with its as yet unsuccessful Windows Phone 7.5 operating system.

Google will have a delicate balancing act to walk if it does choose to continue making phones through its new Motorola subsidiary.

A World Record for the Largest Ever Amount Sued?

In related news, Google is scoring some victories in the patent infringement lawsuit brought against it by Oracle.  Oracle claimed that some of the coding in the Android mobile operating system infringed on some of its patents and sued Google for $6 billion (no, this isn’t the record sum – that comes soon).  Strangely it didn’t do what most patent plaintiffs do and file in East Texas where there is a notoriously sympathetic judge; instead they filed in California and they have had a most unsympathetic judge – and jury too.

Oracle has now had two verdicts against it in the trial, and the $6 billion claim is now reduced down to arguing over nine lines of programming code that the judge says are trivial and obvious.  Bravo for common sense.

There’s not so much common sense present in the law suit I do want to tell you about, though.  The greedy fools at RIAA asked for damages of $72 trillion – against a company no longer in business, no less.  Their suit was strongly dismissed by the judge, who observed that this sum is approximately equal to all the money in the entire world.

Amazing Amazon Refund Experience

I ordered a $20 book from Amazon last week on Thursday evening.  As a Prime member, I get free second day shipping, so I’d have expected a Thursday evening order, with free second day shipping, to probably arrive on Tuesday (consider the order placed on Friday’s business day, add two business days, and that means Tuesday).  On this occasion, Amazon decided to ship the book to me via Fedex with Saturday morning delivery.  A nice bonus.

All I can say about that is Amazon must have an incredible contract with Fedex.  How much profit would there be on a book they had discounted from $29.95 retail down to $19.35 (answer – with a 50% margin, and with maybe a 2% credit card fee of 42c, this leaves Amazon slightly less than $4 to cover the picking, packing, shipping and processing of the order.  It is hard to see much profit at all.

Anyway, the book arrived, to my delight, on Saturday.  But to my disappointment it was massively disappointing, and for the first time ever, I thought I’d send it back to Amazon.  I’ve never done this before, so was stunned at how easy and generous to me the process was.

On Monday I filled out a very brief form on the Amazon website, and that caused a prepaid shipping label to be immediately printed on my own printer for me.  I took the package to the Post Office later on Monday, and expected to see a credit back to my credit card sometime in the next couple of weeks or so.

On Tuesday morning I woke up to an email telling me the credit had already been processed – way before Amazon could have received the package back.  They refunded me the full amount I paid, without any allowance for their shipping to me or shipping back to them, or restocking fee, or anything else.

I’m truly stunned at this.  At a time when airlines charge massive cancellation and change fees, and take up to three months to ‘process’ a refund (with everything being electronic these days there is no reason why an airline ticket refund should take more than one minute to go through the system and be sent back to your credit card) it is amazing to find such extraordinary customer service still out there.  Thank you, Amazon.

New Amazon Service

As you can tell, I like Amazon very much indeed.  In particular, I am impressed with how they have evolved into many new areas of endeavor.  They’re not a ‘one trick pony’ like so many high-tech firms are, and it is amazing to see how diversified a company that started off with the simple premise of selling books online has become.

Indeed, you’re getting this newsletter today courtesy of Amazon’s cloud based computing services, in a manner that is totally user-transparent to you (and to me too).

The latest new Amazon product is another positive enhancement to our lives.  One of the unavoidable problems for both book publishers and movie studios is how to manage their ‘catalog’ or back-inventory.  After they’ve released a book or movie, and when the first rush of sales is over, many times the books/movies go out of print and languish in the back catalogs, unavailable, doing no good for anyone.  But the studios/publishers fear that keeping every title/movie they own the rights to in stock would lead to way too much stock keeping cost/hassle in return for way-too few extra product sales.

Printing on demand has provided a new way for book publishers to print books one at a time, and now Amazon is working with a group of movie studios to do the same thing for movies.  Its new service, ‘CreateSpace’, will make DVDs of movies, one by one, as needed.

Amazon is initiating the new service with an initial release of 2,000 movie titles that aren’t otherwise available on DVD.  There’s no reason why it can’t continue to grow the range of movies available still further in the future; let’s hope it does.  More details here.

In other good Amazon news, they are massively increasing the range of streaming movies available for free to their Prime members.

Security Fee May Double

The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved a doubling of the $2.50 per flight passenger security fee, up to $5.00, with a maximum of $10 per roundtrip.

Here’s the amazing thing.  The TSA says that the current $2.50 per flight up to a maximum of $5 per roundtrip only covers about a quarter of the TSA’s airport security related costs.  So each time you go through security, the TSA says it is costing almost $10 to process you.

Where does this money go?  You spend about 30 seconds while a TSA officer checks your ID, then your carry-on is X-rayed in a procedure that – once you’re done waiting – takes all of less than 30 seconds.  You walk through a metal detector of some sort that takes 15 seconds if a metal detector and a minute if an Xray scanner.

Add all that up and we have 1 minute and 15 seconds of direct contact.  Now add another person for shuffling empty tubs to the end of the X-ray machine line, another person for general crowd control, a supervisor, and another person as a floater, and allow 30 seconds of each of their time per passenger, too, and we are now up to 3 minutes and 15 seconds of time total.

Sure, there are all the TSA head office overhead costs as well, but the TSA said that its airport security costs alone come to four times the current passenger funding, so we can ignore those in this costing.

In other words, in a man-hour of TSA employee time, they can process 18.5 passengers.

How much does a man-hour of TSA employee time cost?  Let’s not forget these are government employees now, on generous salaries, and say that each man-hour represents a $60/hr cost after allowing for benefits.  So processing one single passenger costs $3.25 by this calculation.

The TSA says it costs nearly $10 – three times more.

So, which is it – they have three times more people than they should have, or they are paying their people $180/hr?

There is no way that it should be costing $10 per passenger per screening in airport related costs alone.  That is beyond outrageous, even for a runaway government department.

But, ignoring all that, I wouldn’t mind so much paying $5 per time I go through TSA screening if I thought it was actually making me safer.  Every week I have readers sending me in notes of amazement about how they discovered they accidentally took something forbidden through airport screening without it being detected; every week we read of another report showing the TSA can’t detect all manner of major security risks, and every week we learn more about the inadequacies of the expensive Xray scanners they seek to subject us to.

We’re paying three times as much as we should, for less than one third of the security we should be getting in return.

The Olympic Games Are That Dangerous?

Britain has announced that it will have a force of 12,500 police and 10,500 army troops stationed in London for this year’s Olympic games.  It will also have Typhoon fighter jets, helicopters, two warships, bomb disposal experts, and has already stationed surface to air missile batteries semi-randomly throughout London.

To get into the games venues, spectators will have to go through airport style security screening.  One wonders if they’ll also have airport style delays – that seems almost certain.

I must be missing something.  I thought the Olympic games were an assembling of the world’s finest amateur sportsmen and a chance for them to engage in friendly competition.  For this we need 23,000 police and army personnel, as well as all the other extraordinary paraphernalia of war?

This is another expression of why the huge hoax that the Olympics are these days is something best experienced from one’s own living room television, thousands of miles from the madness of wherever they’re actually being held.

This Week’s Least Surprising Headline

Just under a year ago, Apple announced its latest iPhone – a very lackluster model with little improved over its predecessor – indeed, it was such a non-event that Apple didn’t even go through the motions of giving it a higher number.  The previous iPhone 4 became the current iPhone 4S.

Despite its lack of much hoped for (and expected) new features, the phone has sold like hot cakes, better than any previous iPhone.  But we’re now getting close to when we can start expecting an announcement for this year’s iPhone model, probably to be called the iPhone 5, and the rumors so far are very exciting indeed – a larger screen, higher resolution, and faster 4G wireless capabilities.  All of us who held off on swapping our earlier model iPhones for a 4S are starting to develop a permanent drool out of the corner of our mouths.

So, with that as background, winning the prize for this week’s least surprising headline is this :  4G iPhone 5 Will Be Immediate Hit, PCWorld Study Suggests.  If the headline excites you, here is the article it introduces.

And Lastly This Week…..

I predicted last week that the funniest thing this week would be Facebook’s listing.  But, no, I didn’t have inside information advising me of the screwup on NASDAQ that interfered with its listing and early trading, and frankly, while I thought the share price laughably lunatic at $38, I had no idea if the price would go up or down, because clearly normal rules and reality had been suspended.

What has been amusing has been the second guessing, the flipping and the flopping of analysts who were muted in their criticism but who rushed to get on the bandwagon of attacking Facebook when the share price was dropping, only to then turn around again and suggest the price has bottomed out and will now start to rise.

Perhaps the biggest unwritten story, at least on this side of the Atlantic, was that at the end of Friday’s first day of trading, three of the underwriters had been so active in shoring up the sagging share price that they ended up owning two thirds of all the shares issued.  Although this was disclosed in the UK, it has been little commented on in the US.

While there’s no law against anyone buying or selling any share, buying up two thirds of the Facebook issued shares, not as an investment, but to try and preserve the ‘optics’ of the share launch, strikes me as something going beyond being an underwriting partner and instead actively trying to distort the public perception of the share price.

One has to wonder what would have happened if the three underwriters hadn’t bought up anything that threatened to sell for less than the issue price, and if they had not done all they could to get the share price to end the day above its opening price.

Now, truly lastly this week, the ‘two fly rule’ is being adopted in Beijing.  What is that, you might wonder?  Ah, well, for the answer to that important question, you’ll have to click here, won’t you.

Best wishes for the Memorial Day weekend, and if your travels require you to make stops en route, I hope that all such stops easily pass the two fly rule.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







6 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup Friday 25 May 2012”

  1. Amazon truly is amazing with their service. However, I’m sure you would be equally stunned if you would read the Mother Jones article from earlier this year: “I was a warehouse wage slave”. An undercover journalist got a “temp” job at one of the warehouses from where books and 1000’s of other come. China has nothing on these places when it comes to humane work place conditions.
    Here’s the link:

    1. Hi, Steven

      You need to be careful with uncritically accepting everything you read, whether it be written by ‘Mother Jones’ (or even The Travel Insider!).

      This was a hit-piece that is full of emotion rather than fact, and was published in a magazine not well known for its love of corporate America.

      I’m unshocked and unhorrified to learn that some companies still require their workers to actually work hard at their jobs. Has that now become un-American?

  2. Hi

    You are indeed correct, 1972 was a very long time ago – 40 years ago in fact. Prior to that time, and subsequent to that time, there have been no terrorist attacks on Olympic events, of which there have been 19 (apart from the strange and never really understood thing in Atlanta).

    Should we cripple our freedoms because of a one-off event 40 years ago? And, equally on point, why is it with each successive Olympics the military preparedness seems to escalate more and more, even though the one past terrorist attack moves further and further into the past.

  3. Pingback: Weekly Roundup Friday 1 June 2012 » The Travel Insider

  4. Pingback: Weekly Roundup Friday 26 October 2012 » The Travel Insider

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