Sunday, July 31, 2005

You know you're a second rate airline...

...when your trans-Pacific fleet, which regularly does 14 hour flights, still doesn't have individual screens in economy class, and somehow you still can't manage to schedule enough movies to fill more than half the trip. What, they couldn't afford an extra two or three videos? Or you're about the only airline (along with the other US legacy carriers) not to have upgraded your business class to flat bed seats.

But then again, there was never any doubt about United was there?

It never ceases to amaze me that the US legacy carriers charge twice as much as the Asian carriers for half the service and still can't make money, even though my rational mind knows why. In terms of United and the other legacy carriers becoming truly competitive, there are only three things that count: labor costs, labor costs and labor costs.

But it seems their staff don't get it. After two years in bankruptcy (or chewing through cash at such a rate that it's the only possible desitination) the legacy carriers have extracted labor concessions that have closed about a quarter of the gap with the cost structure of the likes of Southwest (or say Singapore Airlines on international routes). And some, like the United flight attendants, still don't get it. I know it's tough to face the prospect of a 50% cut in pay. But the world doesn't owe anyone a living. When you've screwed your employer to the point that they can't stay in business, you've got to take those lumps.

At the end of the day we don't need United and the others. Southwest and Jetblue have shown that there's a very viable and much more customer friendly model just waiting to replace them. And if international aviation wasn't an artifically regulated market, we wouldn't be flying US carriers anywhere.

Beautiful Colorado

We returned home today from Hong Kong. Since we weren't in any particular hurry on our drive from Denver to Steamboat we decided to take US6 over Loveland Pass rather than I-70 through the Eisenhower Tunnel for a change of scenery, literally! It was absolutely worth it for views like this.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

If you sit outside long enough...

...everything you need will come walking past. At least if you live in a local street, or soi, in Bangkok, Thailand as my brother does. We used some United miles for a Hong Kong to Bangkok round trip for the weekend so we could visit him and his wife and two year old son. We didn't feel like rushing around seeing the sights since we've been on the move so much the last few months, so we spent the weekend lazing in the front courtyard as you tend to do in the tropics. In the process we got an intense dose of the variety of sights, sounds, smells and tastes that we've been missing since we left Asia a little over a year ago, as all manner of vendors of food, household goods, furniture, plants and other stuff came wandering down the street transported on a variety of carts that were mostly motorcycles in a former life.

You do of course need to let go of your western desire for instant gratification, since stuff will come when it comes, not necessarily when you decide you need it, so a more patient approach is required. As a Buddhist monk might say "the ox is slow but the earth is patient".

Thursday, July 21, 2005

When it rains... pours here in Hong Kong. June to September is the rainy season here, and when it rains it really comes down - heavy torrential rain, not just for 30 minutes or an hour like a summer thunderstorm, but for two or three days. It can rain so hard here that they have a system of rain warnings and when it gets really bad, when the "black rain warning" goes up, schools and offices close down and Hong Kong comes to a stop, which is an amazing thing to see because that and a number 5 typhoon warning really are the only things that stop this town. Talk about a city that never sleeps. In fact a colleague who is making his first visit remarked on how the streets were teeming with people at 2am on a Monday night! As someone devoted to midnight snacks, I love the fact that you can always go out and find a place to eat.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Sleepless in Hong Kong

I spent my weekend travelling from Steamboat to Hong Kong.

Since we've driven to Denver several times in the past few months, we took the scenic route this time (CO 14 via Cameron Pass along the Cache le Poudre river to Fort Collins). A couple of extra hours, but worth it.

Steamboat to Hong Kong is unfortunately a similar distance to the trip to Australia. Fly 2.5 hours from Denver to San Francisco (which incidentally has a nice new international terminal that makes the Tom Bradley terminal at LAX look like the third world facility it is) and then 13.5 hours to Hong Kong.

As usual I was wide awake at 4am (Hong Kong time) this morning, and now in the middle of the afternoon the urge to sleep is almost irresistible.

We spent a significant part of 2001 in Hong Kong, but I've not been back since 2002. I had forgotten how much I like this place.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

A shining light

For all those companies I criticize, here's an example of what I'm looking for. Not infallibility, but simply a willingness to quickly admit that you've screwed up, a frank acknowledgement that your customers have a right to expect you to fix it, and prompt action to do so. How refreshing!

This is from a blog called The Long Tail which has some incredibly profound insights into the revolutionary changes that are happening in the distribution of just about everything.

I suspect that most of the companies that appear here are locked in to the old model of scarcity and mass production (although the lock in is more psychological than real in most cases) where consumers are stuck with whatever they choose to serve up.

The real dinosaurs had an excuse - they had no way of knowing a giant meteor was about to wipe them out and even if they had there was nothing they could do about it. But these guys don't. They actively, deliberately and in some cases defiantly choose not to get it or do anything about it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Virtual workers of the world unite!

I work for a large multi-national firm which has its head office outside Philadephia and my division is headquartered outside Washington DC. But I live in Steamboat Springs, three hours drive from the nearest office in Denver, where I have never been. I'm what my company calls a virtual worker.

This is something that has been talked about for a while now, but I suspect many people are inclined to dismiss it as a niche phenomenon. Well a little while back Routt County, where I live, commissioned a study to identify what proportion of its residents work for an employee that is not located here. The answer of 10% surprised even me, but in retrospect it shouldn't have, especially given that Steamboat is a very attractive place to live but has a fairly narrow local employment base. There's plenty of jobs for retail clerks, construction workers, coal miners and ski instructors but not people like me who have a deep specialisation that can only generate returns in a national or global market.

How many people go to an office every day and spend most of it behind a computer screen or on the phone? Don't they have these things at home?

If this is you, ask yourself the following questions. Can I live without the commute? Am I living here because it's where I really want to be, or simply because this is where my office is located? Can I live without the endless hours spent in pointless meetings? Can I live without needing to wear a tie most of the time (ok, I hate ties).

Then ask your boss why you're not a virtual worker!

Hotel overcharging. It's not an accident...'s part of their business model.

I posted previously on unexplained charges that had appeared on my hotel bill when staying at the Charles de Gualle airport Radisson SAS. According to a recent article in USA Today nearly 12% of hotel bills are incorrect.

The article suggests that these are honest mistakes but also notes that the majority are in favour of the hotel. Anyone with basic training in statistics will see the inconsistency. Honest mistakes ought to have a normal distribution (the famous bell curve), with just as many in favour of the traveller as the hotel.

The only other plausible explanation is that hotel chains have gone to a lot of trouble to ensure that their business processes don't produce undercharging errors, but much less effort to eliminate the systemic causes of overcharging.

Either way, hotel customers deserve a whole lot better.

Fortunately business models that are based on ripping off your customers don't tend to be sustainable in the long run. Look for someone to open a hotel chain with a "no overcharging or it's free" offer.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Illegal parking?

Early this morning my wife and her sister took a balloon ride with our local commercial operator. It's a great experience and wonderful way to get a bird's eye view of our beautiful valley.

But as Steamboat becomes more developed it gets harder to find a landing spot and today the winds were a bit tricky, so they ended up landing on Pine Grove Road!

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Strings in the Mountains

Tonight we attended a performance of Steamboat's summer music festival, Strings in the Mountains. The program, "A Romantic Evening", consisted of works by two well known romantic composers, Liszt and Brahms, and a new composer to me, Taneyev, who at least according to the commentator is known as "the Russian Brahms".

I am not particularly knowledgeable about music - in fact my knowledge does not extend much beyond knowing what I like and what evokes an emotional response in me - but for what it's worth I especially enjoyed the performance of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 for Piano.

The challenge now is to see if I can purchase a downloadable version, or whether I'll have to do it the old fashioned way and buy a CD. Well not entirely the old fashioned way, because the first thing I'll do is rip the CD and then throw it in a box somewhere, plus I'll order it online from Amazon or something, but all in all still a lot less efficient that simply buying and downloading an MP3 file.

Update: I was way too pessimistic. It took less than 30 seconds via Google. Here's the free MP3 recording I found. Ten years ago you would have driven to the store, and in all but the largest cities with big record stores, waited one or two months for it to be ordered.

In the process I discovered a wonderful new site called Classic Cat, which in its own words "is a directory with links to over 2500 free to download classical performances on the internet..." Talk about serendipity (what a wonderful word).

I do information technology for a living and I'm still constantly amazed at what is possible.

Balloons, balloons and more balloons

It's rainbow weekend in Steamboat and that means the 25th annual balloon rodeo. Balloonist from all over the country come to Steamboat for a mass launch. Our valley is blessed with currents that easily allow the balloons to navigate around and generally end up back where they launched, something it seems that is very appealing if you are flying a balloon.

The only downside is that you need to get up at 6 am. On a Saturday! But I'm sure you'll agree, it was worth it.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Mountain picnic

I took a couple of hours out of my work this afternoon to ride the gondola, which you can do for free during the summer on your season ski pass, and have a picnic on the mountain. The squirrels were itching for some table droppings, but while it would liven up this post, I'm glad the aroma of our lunch didn't attract any bears.

The columbines, Colorado's state flower, are in bloom at the moment. Here's some we saw on the mountain today.

Up above, some hang gliders were riding the thermals and I reckon one of them had made it as high as 12 or 13 thousand feet, which is pretty good when you launch from the top of the gondola at 9 and a bit thousand.

Finally, we took a drive out to Oak Creek this evening to try out Chelseas Chinese restaurant. Now that I've tried every Chinese restaurant in the Yampa Valley I can say with certainty that while there are a million good reasons to visit, the Chinese food isn't one of them. Fortunately we're off to Hong Kong in a little over a week, so I'll soon get my fix of some real Chinese food!

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Selling disinformation?

Wired magazine recently reported on a speech by the CEO of Equifax in which he objected to recent legislation (the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act) requiring credit agencies to make available personal data to the person in question at no charge every 12 months.

"Our company felt, and still does ... that it's unconstitutional to cause a public company who has a fiduciary responsibility to return profit to shareholders to give away the product" he said.

Apart from the moral implications of collecting information on individuals and then making them pay to see that data, there ought to be a practical incentive for the credit agencies to let me see the data they have collected about me. What easier and cheaper way is there for them to validate the data they have?

I wrote in an earlier posting about the issues that arise when the credit agencies provide their customers with inaccurate or incomplete data. Does the CEO of Equifax care if the data he is selling to his customers is correct? Or is he happy to sell them complete and utter crap? What does he tell his kids when they ask him "what did you do today Daddy?" Well he ought to answer "I sold a bank some inaccurate information. I screwed the bank and I screwed the individual that the data was about."

Perhaps he would prefer that people start suing his company for the damages they incur when he sells inaccurate data about them. How can such a short-sighted idiot be worth what his company is paying him?

If you are selling disinformation then you are not adding economic value, you are destroying it. You are nothing more than an economic parasite, sucking up the value being created by others and giving nothing back.

Evil is afoot in the world

Today's terrorist bombings in London remind us that the epic battle between good and evil is not reserved for stories like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, but is present with us now and has been for much of human history.

In the twentieth century it was the battle between liberal democracy and totalitarianism in all its forms and in the twenty first century the battle is clearly against religious fundamentalism.

The sad thing is that the forces of evil are always completely convinced that they're doing good. What makes them evil is the belief that the ends justify the means. Today we are battling people who believe that it is not only just, but also necessary, to randomly kill men, women and children whom they have never met and know nothing about, in pursuit of their vision of paradise.

The challenge for us is not to make the same mistake, to remember that if we compromise our principles in the "war on terror" we too will ultimately be seduced by evil. Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib are evidence of what happens when one begins down that slippery slope.

I hope this latest terrorist outrage serves as a wake up call, and instead of more of the same, our leaders are prompted to step back and ask themselves what we've really accomplished since 9/11 and whether there is a better way to fight the war on terror, an approach that we can be proud of rather than bringing us shame.

How can you be so bad...

...that you make the airlines look good. Seems like an impossibility doesn't it? Well I've discovered an organisation that has achieved the impossible.

In an earlier post I discussed my experience with airlines losing my luggage. As frustrating as it is when it happens, what I didn't mention is that every single time I've had my luggage back within 24 hours.

My sister-in-law came to visit last week after taking an Alaskan cruise out of Seattle. Somehow her bag was lost between the ship and the shore and wasn't located in time to make her flight from Seattle to Denver. Unfortunately the cruise line's policy is to send the bag by ground and only to addresses within the US and Canada. Otherwise, they will send it by sea to your home address, which in my sister-in-law's case is Australia and would have taken 3 months! Fortunately her next stop was our place in Colorado and she's here for two weeks, because with the 4th of July holiday in between, the bag only arrived today after six days. In the meantime she's been wearing clothes borrowed from my wife for a week.

This policy may be OK for the 90% of their customers who are residents of the US and Canada and are heading home after the cruise. In those circumstances you can usually get by without your bag for a few days. But for the other 10% it seems to be a completely inadequate attempt to rectify what is, after all, their mistake.

Clearly it would be better if they shipped the bag by air. Sure it would cost a bit more, but they could restrict it to customers who are not residents of the US or Canada. Anyway, does this happen so often that the additional cost would really matter? If it does, then they really need to fix their processes. It can't be rocket science moving a bag from a ship to an adjacent terminal.

Shame on you Celebrity Cruises.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Holy Affagoto Batman!

I'm sitting here in my home office in Steamboat Springs sipping on an affagato, the sun is shining outside and I'm thinking 'it doesn't get any better than this'.

Affagato combines two of my favourite things - ice cream and espresso - and the whole is definitely more than the sum of the parts. Unfortunately this is not a general principle, so ice cream and scotch whiskey don't work (but you'd be surprised how often people fall for this "ice cream and whiskey" fallacy).

I take my coffee very seriously. I buy the beans online from Cafe Britt in Costa Rica, grind them myself and have my own 15-bar espresso machine (saving myself about ten bucks a day at Starbucks) but not as seriously as my friend Jon. At one stage Jon was living on a 32 foot boat in Port Moresby harbour. If you've never been inside a 32 foot boat, let me tell you it's small. Really small. You need to go on deck to change your mind. But such are Jon's priorities that he had somehow found room inside his boat not only for a magnificent espresso machine but also for a coffee roaster so he could roast the green beans he was getting direct from the plantations in the New Guinea highlands. That's true caffeine dedication.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Happy Birthday America

Today we immersed ourselves in Independence Day activities beginning with the July 4 parade through Steamboat's main street and concluding with an impressive fireworks display at Howelsen Hill, Steamboat's original ski mountain and the location for our Olympic standard ski jumping hill.

Americans tend to be much more overt in their expressions of patriotism than Australians, but today's activities seemed to me to strike just the right balance. The parade in particular was simply people getting together to celebrate and express pride in who they are and what they do, and to thank their neighbours for their contributions as well.

To top it off, the weather was just awesome. There can be few places more idyllic than Steamboat Springs on a perfect July day.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Weekend on the "Front Range"

My wife and I spent the past three days on what is referred to in Colorado as the "Front Range", specifically in downtown Denver and Boulder. We needed to collect Marie's sister and mother from DIA on Friday and we wanted to attend a performance at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder on Saturday night, so we decided to make a weekend of it.

On the recommendation of my neighbour Dave, we checked in to The Brown Palace, one of Denver's most famous landmark hotels. Built in 1892, the hotel has preserved the best of Victorian style and hospitality. I stay in way too many hotels and have become very jaded by the whole experience, but I'd very happily spend a weekend at The Brown Palace again. The weekend rate of $169 a night for a queen room is less than I've paid many times for hotels with a fraction of the character, service or amenity. We at least need to return to try the traditional English style high tea. Thanks for the recommendation Dave!

We arrived in Boulder a couple of hours before the performance, so we decided to eat at Boulder's Dushanbe Tea House. The building was a gift from Boulder's sister city of Dushanbe in Tajikistan and is elaborately decorated in the traditional Tajik style. The setting is amazingly tranquil and the food is a varied mix of exotic ethnic dishes and totally delicious.

As for my impression of Boulder, well if I had gone to college there, I don't think I would ever have wanted to graduate!

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival performances take place at the University of Colorado's Mary Rippon Theatre which is outdoors. After a one hour delay while a thunderstorm passed over, we spent a very enjoyable night under the stars on a lovely cool summer's evening.

The Winter's Tale is not one of Shakespeare's more popular works. Having seen it performed I don't understand why. It combines the best of both Shakespeare's tragedies and his comedies in one fast moving story. What a wonderful night.