Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Airline pricing (il)logic

Just booked a trip to Australia with American Airlines. The fare with American was around $2,000 while the same trip with Qantas was nearly $3,000 i.e. 50% more expensive. Here's the crazy thing. My American flight is actually operated by Qantas (who have the only direct service to Brisbane). It's the same seat on the same plane with the same ticket conditions, but a wildly different cost depending on who sells it.

If Qantas can sell the seat to American at a price which allows them to sell it to me for $2,000 (profitably I presume, although that's a dangerous assumption with any US carrier) then why can't they sell it direct to me for $2,000?

When Winston Churchill described the Soviet Union as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, he could have added "but less mysterious than the logic of airline pricing".

Monday, May 30, 2005

My favourite Steamboat restaurant

We went to dinner last night at our favourite Steamboat restaurant, Cafe Diva.

The food is always interesting and delicious. It's elegant fine dining without pretentiousness.

On Sunday nights in the low seasons (spring and fall) they run a special called "Date Night" which includes an appetizer, main course and shared dessert, as well as a glass of champagne for $19.95 per person. Unbelievably good value.

Their signature dishes are the crab and lobster bisque for the appetizer, surf and turf (elk medallions and scallops) for the main course, and creme brulee for dessert. These dishes are so good it takes considerable discipline not to order them every time!

Sunday, May 29, 2005

An artist in the family

On my recent visit to Australia I discovered that my sister Joanne is a very talented artist. I'm not sure whether this is a recent development or whether she's simply chosen to keep her talent hidden until now.

Actually I shouldn't have been too surprised since my sister's husband is a talented painter, as is my mother and as was my late paternal grandmother. But I was blown away by Joanne's ability to turn a piece of clay into a living thing in no time (the total process with painting and glazing and firings takes days, but the scuplting only takes her a few hours).

How do I exercise my creative drive? By designing business processes and software architectures (yes, I'm a geek and proud of it.) I get the same buzz from that as my more talented relatives get from creating works of art, plus I make pretty good money doing it.

Here's a picture of one of my sister's 'rejects' which I commandeered and have hung on my wall. Yes, I've taken out a call option on all future rejects.

This is the only frog my wife ever wants to have in the house!

Hanging up on the phone company

Obtaining phone services for our home in Steamboat Springs has been a major source of aggravation over the past three years.

When we first bought our condo in 2002 it was a second home and we were living in Asia. Neither of us were resident in the US and therefore did not have social security numbers. The only thing harder than dealing with the phone company is dealing with the phone company when your situation is out of the ordinary.

Anyway, they decided that as long as I faxed them some identification the could give me service. So I did that and waited three days like they told me. Still no phone service, so I called them. Seems the fax was too dark. Of course it didn't occur to them to call me at the number I had given them and ask me to refax the documents.

After about a week and half the phone was finally connected. Then we discovered we couldn't make any long distance or international calls. This seemed stranged since the local phone company had asked us who we wanted to select as our long distance carrier. This was a big problem, because by this time I was in Mexico and my wife had no way to call me.

It shouldn't have been a problem because we had rented a cell phone from PostNet while we were waiting for the phone to be connected. Unfortunately the cell phone company was in the process of switching over to a digital network and as part of that process was allocating new numbers to the cell phones. Stupidly they hadn't told their customers about this in advance, and by the time PostNet found out they had no way to tell us, because the cell phone they had rented us was no longer working. Can you hear me now Verizon, you idiots!

Anyway, we eventually found out from the local carrier that we needed to pay a $75 security deposit to get long distance service, which we did.

At the time I didn't think too much about what the long distance and international rates would be. So I was shocked a few months later to receive a bill for nearly $400. It seems I was being charged $3 a minute for calls to Australia. Let me put that in perspective. My local carrier's rate on a $4 month long distance plan is 9 cents a minute. So when you go out of business, which you so richly deserve, I'm going to dance on your grave AT&T.

Late last year I decided to change over to a voice over IP service (VOIP). Lingo is not perfect, but the service is certainly no worse than traditional phone companies, and it is phenomenally good value. $19.95 a month and I get unlimited calling to US, Canada and Western Europe and 3 cents a minute to Australia. To make sure you understand how cheap that is, it means my wife can talk to her mother for an hour and it costs $1.80!

And finally, just to make sure I'd never forget how bad they are, Qwest managed to keep billing me for three months after I'd cancelled my service.

Meeting the neighbours 21st century style

Our neighbours Dave and Jenn invited us over for drinks last night. We'd only met them in passing before but we knew a lot about each other. You see Dave and I have been reading each other's blogs.

I figure blogging is the 21st century equivalent of talking to the neighbour over the fence, whether they live next door or on the other side of the world.

You can read Dave's blog here. Punctuation zealots be warned, Dave can't seem to find a keyboard with a shift key.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Noise cancelling headphones

On my recent trip to Australia I was able to fully test my new Bose noise cancelling headphones. These things are incredible. They reduce the roar of the aircraft engines to a soft whisper, making it much easier to relax and sleep. They also produce wonderful crisp sound from the in flight entertainment system. Now all we need to do is fix the tiny, fuzzy screen.

I had put off buying these, mostly because of the price (US$299) but recently I discovered that they were available in the American Express Membership Rewards catalog and that I had enough points (35,000). Now I'm saving my Amex points to get a pair for my wife! But even if you have to fork out cold, hard cash, they're absolutely worth it.

A guy, a ski town and how many pizza places?

We wanted to have lunch Thursday at the Gobi Grill, one of the few places in Steamboat that does passable Asian food. Alas we discovered the Gobi Grill is no more, replaced by, of all things, another damn pizza place. Now how many pizza places does a small town like this need? A quick count by my wife came up with 14, but I'm sure we missed a few (not being big pizza fans).

One of the toughest thing about living in the US is definitely the food. After living for two years in Singapore with its wonderful diversity of food at amazingly cheap prices, the blandness and sameness of most of the food here is hard to take (not to mention the pain of adding 8.6% sales tax and 15% tip to the menu price).

It seems even paradise is not perfect.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Big time jet lag

We returned from Australia on Wednesday night and here I am at 2 am wide awake and blogging. The time difference between Brisbane and Steamboat is currently eight hours, so as far as my body clock is concerned it's 6 pm and my stomach is beginning to ask 'what's for dinner?' Plus we didn't wake up until 1.30 pm today (well yesterday now) which is not helping to reset the sleep cycle.

The jet lag for this trip is second only to Singapore to Steamboat where the difference is usually 10 hours. I find it takes the best part of a week to fully synchronize with Steamboat time when returning from Australia or Asia.

It was hard leaving Brisbane after seeing friends and family, even if the Brisbane Lions did lose all three of the games I managed to attend. But if you've got to leave behind people that you miss, there's no place better than Steamboat to make you feel it's worth it. It's late spring here now and it's green, peaceful and the weather is beautiful. Warm and sunny during the day and still cold enough at night to appreciate a warm bed.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Bye Bye, Jar Jar (Reprise)

In an earlier post I discussed my desire for someone to take advantage of the recently signed Family Entertainment Copyright Act to release a version of Episode I: The Phantom Menace without the most annoying character in the history of cinema - that ridiculous Jar Jar Binks.

Well to refresh my memory I rewatched Episode II: Attack of the Clones on the weekend and discovered to my horror that he's in that as well. And the early news reports on Episode III: Revenge of the Sith indicate he's still around for the final act. So I suppose I'll just have to wait for the boxed three DVD Jar Jar-less set!

At least the universe's greatest mystery - why Annakin Skywalker turned to the dark side and became Darth Vader - has been resolved. He didn't want to be on the same side as that idiot Jar Jar Binks!

It seems they can spell it

In an earlier post about usurious marginal tax rates driving high income Australians to migrate, I posed the following rhetorical question:

"Can anyone in the Australian Government spell 'brain drain'?"

Well it seems they can. The recently announced 2005-06 budget (the Australian financial year begins on 1 July) included an increase in the threshold for the top 48.5% tax rate from AUD70,000 to AUD125,000. Still not great by international standards, but a big improvement. So credit where the credit is due.

Of course this produced predictable bleating from the bleeding heart left about how it was "tax cuts for the rich". And if all the high income, highly skilled and highly productive Australians continue to move offshore, who do they think is going to fund their beloved welfare state?

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

A map of visited countries

If you want to understand the awesome power of the internet, imagine if you said to your friends 10 years ago "I can generate in 30 seconds a map of the world showing the countries I have visited, and in another 30 seconds or so, I can make that map available to anyone, anywhere in the world who wants to see it." Impossible. But of course now it's entirely possible. Here's my map (current as of now - I'm expecting to add Portugal and Morocco in the next few months):

And here's a version showing the states of the US I've visited:

Notice how assiduously I've avoided all the boring places in the mid-west, especially Iowa - I've never met anyone who had a good word to say about Des Moines (this is for you Jon).

If you want to try it for yourself check it out here.

If civilisation is the triumph of knowledge over ignorance, then the internet is the most civilising invention in human history.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Bye Bye, Jar Jar!

President Bush recently signed the Family Entertainment Copyright Act, which provides legal protections for those wishing to edit commercially released movies to remove material they don't like.

At first my reaction was "typical pandering to the religious right". But on reflection it seems like a pretty good idea.

First, it's a whole lot better than me being forced to watch (totally boring) movies without any violence, adult themes and language or any of the other stuff that tells us about real people and life's real challenges. "Each to his own" is the path to liberty. So go ahead and chop movies to pieces if you like, as long as you leave me alone to watch the version I want.

Second, it's a joy to see the movie studios take it between the eyes on copyright law for change.

Finally, the co-incidence of this event with the impending release of the final (or should that be third?) Star Wars movie, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith got me thinking about the possibilities for rectifying the greatest creative blunder in the history of cinema. I just can't wait for someone to release a version of Episode I: The Phantom Menace, without the ridiculous Jar Jar Binks!

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Explaining regression and CEO compensation

There's an interesting discussion posted at Marginal Revolution on how you go about explaining regression analysis to people not trained in statistics in the particularly challenging context of a late night television show where the attention span for anything not involving naked women is probably 15 seconds or less.

I don't think the writer nailed it, so here's my attempt:

Most real world outcomes are caused by multiple factors. To understand the effect of any one factor we need a way to control for the other factors, that is, we need a technique to let us figure out how much of the change in the result is caused by changes in the factor we are studying.

Or as Bert and Ernie demonstrated in an excellent Sesame Street episode, the fact that there are no alligators in Sesame Street does not mean Ernie's technique of sticking a banana in his ear to keep the alligators away actually works.

One of the most egregious violations of this principle occured during the dotcom boom / late 90's stock market bubble, namely the linking of CEO compensation to stock prices without controlling for the general effect of a rising market. Shame on those boards who lined the pockets of their CEOs with millions of dollars in bonuses and stock options when they should have been compensating them only for that part of the rise in the stock price that was caused by the CEO's performance.

What must it have been like to sign such a contract? Well, for a CEO who understands statistics, it must have been like knowing in advance that you've bought the winning lottery ticket.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Cultural ignorance or insensitivity?

I went to the movies yesterday. The movie (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) was OK. Actually, to tell the truth I was a little disappointed. I enjoyed the movie, but I loved the books and expected the movie to be as good. Plus my wife who hasn't read the books had a lot of trouble following the story, so I felt bad having dragged her along to see it. Actually the BBC mini-series from the mid-80's was way better.

Anyway, the point of the post is that a couple of trailers advertised films coming "this summer" and "next winter". This really annoys me. Are the movie studios so dummb that they don't know that the seasons in Australia are reversed, or simply too lazy to bother creating a version of the trailer in which "next summer" is changed to something like "this July" since the climate in Australia has much less distinct seasons, so Australians tend to talk in terms of months or specific holidays (so "this Christmas" would work ok).

In fact, that part of the trailer could simply have been removed, because it communicated absolutely nothing to the audience about the expected release date.