Monday, April 25, 2005

Sunscreen anyone?

I attended a football (Aussie Rules) match on Sunday at the Gabba. I won't mention the result (but don't worry, the Lions will come back). But I will comment on a missed merchandising opportunity.

Here's what you need to know.

First, Queensland is the melanoma capital of the world. A combination of a fair skinned population, lots of sun and an outdoor lifestyle means that skin cancer rates here are higher than anywhere else in the world - they're coming down due to growing awareness, but the cases we are seeing now are the result of past exposure.

Second, the temperature was in the high 20's Celcius (for readers in the US who are stuck using an antiquated system of measurement that's in the mid-80's F) and it was a bright sunny day.

Third, about a quarter of the stadium was not in the shade, meaning 10,000 people were sitting directly in the sun for three or four hours. Now do you think any one of the many merchandising stands in the ground were selling sunscreen? Why on earth would they do that?

But the real brickbat goes to the AFL who have been told by the Lions, the AFL Players Association, the media commentators and the public not to schedule day games in Brisbane during April. Unfortunately it seems that nothing is so important to them than scheduling games to suit the TV shcedule.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

#@$% I'm on the wrong side of the road

I'm back home in Australia at the moment so I thought I'd share my observations on how the human mind deals with a challenge like driving on the wrong side of the road.

Now 'wrong' all depends on what you're used to. When I first moved to the US I thought the wrong side of the road was of course the right. I quickly trained myself to avoid actually driving on the 'wrong' side (in this case the left). But for at least six months I'd be happily driving along and every now and then I'd suddenly panic. "#@$% - I'm on the wrong side of the road" I would say to myself, only to realise moments later that I was exactly where I was supposed to be!

So how long does it take me to adjust to driving on the left when I'm back in Australia? About 15 minutes. Strangely, the hardest thing to get used to is sitting in the front left seat without a steering wheel. After several days back home it still feels weird.

A few years back the suits from Detroit took a little trip to Tokyo with the US Trade Rep where they proceeded to berate the Japanese for not buying enough American cars, not realising that the Japanese drive on the left and didn't really warm to cars with the steering wheel on the wrong side!

Who else drives on the left? Well most of the British Commonwealth (except Canada which is this disconcerting mix of things American and British, which leaves one always uncertain what to expect), Japan as mentioned above and, for some reason, Indonesia. Here's an in depth analysis from Wikipedia. But they don't include the Philippines. I know they're supposed to drive on the right, but in my experience in Manila they tend to drive on both sides!

Can you spell "brain drain"?

Jane Galt at Asymmetrical Information has an interesting post on her experience with paying an effective marginal tax rate of more than 50% on her freelance work.

In Australia the top marginal rate is 50%. Actually it's 48.5% including a dodge called the Medicare levy which has about as much intellectual, fiscal and political integrity as the US Social Security Trust Fund, which is to say none, but for me that's psychologically indistinguishable from 50%. What's truly amazing though is that this rate kicks in at around $US50,000.

Think about it. For every dollar you earn over 50K you give half back to the Federal government in income tax, when you spend the other fifty cents you give another 10 cents to them as GST (consumption tax or VAT) and much of the other 40 cents is clawed back by all the other taxes, levies and charges that Federal, State and Local governments impose.

Talk about your indentured servitude. It's like a giant version of one of those mining towns in the remote Amazon rain forest where the workers end up spending their entire salary at the company store and become, in effect, nothing more than slaves.

As an expatriate Aussie I should point out that this is one of the reasons I left, and pretty much every Aussie professional I've met working offshore has told me the same thing. Can anyone in the Australian Government spell "brain drain"?

Monday, April 18, 2005

In flight entertainment

One of the greatest developments in civil aviation for those of us who regularly fly long haul (1) is the personal in seat video system. It doesn't give you any extra leg room but it certainly helps to pass the time.

Singapore Airlines (2) has the best system I've seen. What I really like is that it provides video on demand. You press play and the channel you've selected simply starts. If you need to talk to the flight attendant or make a bathroom visit then you just press pause and come back to your movie when you're ready. It's like Tivo (3) in the sky!

Other airlines, including the one which provides the only direct service from LA to my former home city of Brisbane (Qantas), have chosen to install a less sophisticated solution that provides a choice of a dozen or so channels which all start simulatenously and run on a loop (generally 2.5 hours) throughout the flight. A couple of things really annoy me about this.

My first complaint is that they took so long to introduce this (although not as long as their US-based transpacific competitor United who I am sure will be out of business long before they introduce any improvements to their cabin environment) supposedly because they were waiting for the technology to mature so they could install the best solution available. At least that was their excuse a few years back when I told them they were being left behind. But of course they didn't, although they may have had a good business reason for the choice they made (presumably it costs less that the state of the art Singapore Airlines system - but probably not as much as you think).

The other problem with their system is simply the result of lousy design that would have cost nothing to do right. In my view, that's inexcusable. Here's the problem. You have no way of knowing when the movies will start. So what you would like to do is select the channel you want and simply wait until the movie starts. No such luck. The system stupidly responds with "the service is currently unavailable" and drops you back to the main menu. So you're stuck repeating this every minute or so hoping that you'll eventually catch the beginning of the movie. What's even more annoying than this idiotic design (which unfortunately would now cost money to fix) is that the flight attendants absolutely refuse to make an announcement when they are starting the movies which would cost them the grand total of Nothing. Zero. Zilch. I know this because I've asked several times (very politely of course) and always received a negative response.

(1) For my American friends who link LA to NY is long haul, I'm talking travel all day to get to LA and then take a 14 hour flight to Australia. I'm talking 8 hours from Australia to Singapore and then connect with a 13 hour flight to Europe. Oh, and it's just as far from Australia to US as it is from US to Australia. So stop talking about it. I know you'd all love to visit Australia because you keep telling me! So make like Nike and 'just do it'. We'd love to have you. Paul Hogan will even "throw another shrimp on the barbie" for you.

(2) If the guys running the US legacy carriers would like to know how to operate a profitable airline that provides pleasant, efficient and well priced air services to the traveling public, I suggest they take a look at Singapore Airlines which is, without a doubt, the best airline in the world (at least of the 40 or so I've experienced. Can't speak for Air Kazakstan, but my guess is it's about as good as a US legacy carrier).

(3) It really is as good as Tivo owners claim. No, it's better.

Thursday, April 14, 2005


The credit rating system used in the United States is really tough on recent immigrants (like me).

Now let me begin by saying that I recognize how important this system is to oiling the wheels of the US consumer economy. Businesses can assess the credit worthiness of their customers with remarkably low transaction costs (both in terms of dollars and in terms of time).

So what's the problem? Well it is simply that the system treats you as if you didn't exist before you emigrated to the United States. It doesn't matter where from. It could be from the poorest third world country which has no reliable financial institutions or credit records, or it could be from an advanced country like Australia as it was in my case.

Where does all this lead? It leads to me having a discussion like this with my bank:

Me: "I'd like a credit card."
Bank: "Sure. We just need to get some background information. Who do you work for and for how long?"
Me: "I've worked for a large US company for the last five years."
Bank: "OK. How much do you make?"
Me: "Six figures."
Bank: "Great. Do you have any assets."
Me: "Sure. I have clear title to my condo. I have clear title to my brand new car. And as you can see, I have a very substantial balance in my checking account here at your bank."
Bank: "Any debts?"
Me: "None."
Bank: "Wonderful! Now the computer will perform a credit check. It will only take a moment. Ok, here we go. The answer is NO."

So who is a fault here? I'm not a customer of the credit rating agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) so they don't owe me anything. But my bank is their customer and and these guys have served them very poorly by telling them not to give a credit card to the most credit worthy customer they've probably seen in months.

We live in a world where high income individuals are increasingly mobile, and not surprisingly many emigrate to the United States where they are all denied credit. How big is the problem? Well according to US government immigration statistics, even in 2003 (which was 25% down on previous years due to security screening delays) nearly 100,000 people were admitted for permanent residence on the basis of professional skills preference - people likely to fall into the high income category. But this is permanent residence only. It doesn't include for example the foreign executive who is transferred temporarily to the US, or the foreign MBA graduate who is sponsored for an employment visa by a Wall St firm. So it's likely that 200,000 or more people on substantial incomes are being denied credit every year!

And what about Wells Fargo my bank? It's great to have efficient, cost-effective and highly automated processes. But computers are dumb. Really dumb. Sometimes, just sometimes, you need a living, breathing, thinking human being to get involved. What should have happened is someone should have said 'This doesn't make sense. Let's dig a little deeper. Ok, you've recently moved from Australia. Of course you don't have a credit history. But obviously you're very credit worthy. Of course we'll give you a credit card.'

I'm a great beleiver in our capitalist system, but there's clearly some signficant market failure here. Looks like a perfect opportunity for a venture capitalist to start a niche bank targeting this group. Just remember you got the idea here!

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

A blast for the gas company

Last month I needed to open a new account at the local gas company, Atmos Energy. I'd been a customer for nearly three years, but until recently the gas was billed through my condo association. So I called my local gas supplier who decided that I, as a "new customer", should pay a $295 security deposit (which supposedly I'll get back in 12 months - I bet there'll be a posting on that this time next year as I chase these guys all over the place trying to get my refund).

First beef. I discovered later that there was a $3.95 charge for the priviledge of paying by credit card. Nice of the agent to tell me. And how else do they expect you to pay an upfront fee, on the spot, over the phone? Here, let me send you a check and wait a week for heating?

Anyway, that was a small problem compared to their next SNAFU. I received my first bill and there's a charge of $295 for the security deposit (yes, the one I'd already paid). Email correspondence with them revealed that my payment "was posted to the wrong account and is in the process of being corrected." It was eventually but it took two weeks.

Now here's what I want to know. Who on earth would design a system that let's you take a deposit payment as part of establishing a new account without ensuring that the payment is credited to the said account? And is this such a common occurance that you don't even feel the need to include in your response the most cursory apology (even if you don't really mean it)?

Oh, and by the way. Since they gave me gas service for a month even though they thought I hadn't paid the deposit, what's the purpose of the &*$% deposit in the first place, huh?