Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Private property?

I was in the Australian capital of Canberra last week and got to thinking about the implications of their approach to land ownership for compulsory acquisition ('eminent domain' as it is called in the US, an issue which has been in the news there lately).

All land in the Australian Capital Territory is owned by the Federal Government and is only available for private uses (including housing) on 99 year leases. This decision was made when Canberra was first established in the early 1900's, partly reflecting the prevailing socialist Utopian philosophies of the time and partly for the practical reason that you don't want to sell land freehold thereby making it harder to acquire it back over the next seventy five years as you build your capital city from scratch (the place was literally nothing but a sheep farm).

Actually this is an object lesson for those who believe in the prescience of government planners. Canberra is the most planned city in the world. If government planners always get it right, then they could have just come up with a plan to begin with, stuck to it and this would never have been a problem, would it?

As you can see from this Bill, in 1997 the Government found it necessary to extend leases from 99 years to 999 years. Why? Well, by that time some of the older suburbs in Canberra had been settled for nearly 75 years and these home owners were finding it difficult to sell their houses because prospective buyers couldn't get 30 year mortgages on properties with less than that period remaining on their leases.

Now lawyers may be able to argue until the cows come home about the differences between freehold and a 999 year lease, but I can guarantee you that in the mind of any average person, and especially someone who owns a home sitting on that land, they are indistinguishable. And that means politically they are indistinguishable. The political reaction to any compulsory acquisition will be absolutely the same regardless of whether the land is held freehold or leasehold. If there is enough political backlash the government will back off and if there isn't they will go ahead, whatever the legal, economic and social merits of their plans.

Nevertheless, I find that there's something disturbingly socialist and totalitarian about a place where you can't own land.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Can't find a cheap room in Aspen?

Then come to Steamboat. There's an article in USA Today on families being priced out of holidays in Aspen due to the redevelopment of older, less expensive accommodation.

The tone of the article - that this development is somehow surprising and some sort of tragedy - irks me a little. C'mon. Everybody knows Aspen is expensive and becoming more so. And it isn't like there aren't plenty of alternatives. The skiing in Steamboat is just as good (if not better) and a fraction of the price. If that isn't good enough for you, if you must have the cachet of Aspen, then fine, but just shut up and pay the price.

Sure I would liked to have lived in Aspen, but equivalent properties are five times the cost of Steamboat. My condo - 1,200 sq ft and walking distance to the gondola - cost me less than $200,000 in 2003. An equivalent property in Aspen would cost you $1.5-2 million. Do you hear me complaining that Aspen is too expensive for me? Not at all. In fact, I like to brag about how good a deal I've got here in Steamboat.

Rental prices are similarly much cheaper in Steamboat. So if you can't afford Aspen, don't worry, we've got plenty of champagne powder and world class skiing for you here in Steamboat.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Paternalistic government?

Australia was one of the first countries to make it compulsory to wear seat belts (in the early 1970's) and has continued down that path by making helmets compulsory, not only for motorcycles but also to ride your bicycle. And yes, they do enforce it, as you can see from the photo below which I took outside my company's Canberra office yesterday.

The libertarian in me says this is wrong. But that same voice also tells me that if this grown man decides not to wear a helmet, lands on his head and ends up a vegetable, I shouldn't have to pay his medical bills. Unfortunately that's not the world we live in. Taking that as a given, I think forcing him to wear a helmet is the lesser evil.

When this gets really hilarious though is when the 'perp' is ten years old!

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

More bad web design

I just tried reloading the pre-paid cell phone account I use when I'm in Australia. In the process I discovered two problems with the design of the web page.

The first is that it requires you to "register" a credit card. That means you need to give the carrier your credit card details to store permanently, rather than simply entering it each time you want to perform a top up. It's fine to offer that as an option for those customers who want it, but I don't see why you would make it mandatory. Personally I would prefer that they don't keep my credit card number on file for all time for security reasons and anyway I may well use a different credit card the next time I want to add value to this account.

The second problem is with the design of the screen (shown below) for entering the credit card details.

I entered my credit card number and then selected "American Express" as the card type. At that point the system changed the format for the credit card number from the 16 digits used by Visa and Mastercard to the 15 digits used by Amex and in the process deleted the data I had already entered. Most people will do what I did - start entering the data from top to bottom - so the page should have been designed so that the selection of the card type was above the box for entering the card number.

Shame on you Vodafone Australia.

However to their credit, I should mention that my wife had a very good experience with them yesterday when she wanted to activate the voice mail on her account. She called their customer service number and was connected directly to an operator (can you remember the last time that happened?) who was very helpful (or that?) and the whole process, including configuring her greeting and so on, was successfully completed in less than five minutes (Ok, I know, you should still be navigating the recorded menu). I suspect hell would freeze over before Verizon matched this level of service.

In Brisbane (again)

For the fourth time this year I've hauled my weary body across the Pacific in cattle class. It's spring in Brisbane which is a lovely time of year, and the AFL Grand Final is this Saturday which means I'll get to watch it with my friends Terry and Linda which will be more fun than watching it in Steamboat by myself, but I must say 14 hours in an economy seat is getting very old.

I watched a couple of movies on the trip over. Downfall, which tells the story of the last days of Hitler through the eyes of his secretary is very powerful even though it's in German with English sub-titles.

Monster-in-Law is a light comedy starring Jane Fonda as the mother-in-law from hell (or what Saddam would describe as the mother of all mothers-in-law) and Jennifer Lopez as the prospective daughter-in-law. It was sufficiently entertaining to pass the time, but at no point was it sufficiently funny for me to laugh out loud and disturb my fellow passengers.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Local service is good service

My wife and I took possession of a new condo yesterday. The previous occupant had moved out a few days ago so the electricity was already off. So we went down to local office of our local electricity company, the Yampa Valley Electric Association, around 3 pm and asked to have the power connected. When the agent told me it would be done the same day I didn't believe her, but true enough when we went back to the condo at 6 pm we had power.

If these guys can do it in three hours, then why is it that it takes at least 3 days to get anything done with the big companies like Qwest, Verizon, Atmos Energy, Comcast etc? Well I'm sure a big part of it is that they are local both in the sense that they actually have an office in which you can talk to a real live person, and in the sense that they are a local co-operative that is owned by the customers. Maybe this is not the most efficient scale of operation, but personally I'm willing to pay a little extra to have this wonderful level of service. It sure beats playing 1-800-Black-Hole with these other guys.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Somewhere a village is missing its idiot...

But I've found him. He's hard at work designing the Home Depot web site, in particular the Store Finder feature.

If I enter my zip code it comes back with nothing. Yes, I know there isn't a Home Depot in my town. I probably would have seen a great big box store just driving around if there was. What I want to know is where the nearest store is located. But it seems that the zip code search doesn't work that way.

So then I select the option, "Don't know your zip code" thinking that if I put in Denver, CO it will at least tell me the stores in and around Denver. That's way too logical it seems for the Home Depot web designer.

So what I want to know is this. What the hell does the Store Finder do if it doesn't actually manage to find stores?!!! I can't beleive people actually get paid to design crap like this.

Don't you hate it when...

You call a 1-800 number, they ask you to key in your account number, and then when you eventually find your way through the maze and manage to talk to a real live agent, they ask you again for your account details?

It's just bad/lazy design, because the technology to send information from a switchboard to an agent's computer (called CTI or Computer Telephony Integration) has been around for at least a decade, and now that most corporate switchboards are fully digital it's not particularly difficult or expensive.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive - Episode 5 (contains spoilers)

In tonight's episode of Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive, Brittny Gastineau and Haley Giraldo were appointed cattle captains by default since everyone else already had their turn. It would be an understatement to say that neither of them is even remotely acquainted with the concept of taking responsibility for anything. They've obviously grown up in a world where they don't ever do anything they don't want to do and someone always, always does for them. Not surprisingly they both displayed a total lack of leadership and the movement of the cattle was a fiasco. I doubt that either of them could even lead pre-schoolers to a sand box.

Fabian Basabe continued his petulant, spoilt behaviour. "I'll call my lawyer", "I'll call my daddy", "I've got diplomatic immunity", "I'll sue", "I expected to be sleeping in a proper bed". These guys keep complaining how rough it is, but I can't help thinking that anyone who has done army boot camp would be thinking what I'm thinking - Joshua is a pussy cat compared to the average seargent-major ('drill sergeant' in America) and tents and camp beds sure beat three, maximum four, hours a night sleeping on the ground, and spending all day marching in the hot sun carrying a pack and a rifle. Hmmm, I think I have an idea for a reality show!

I did think calling Routt County's finest (the local sheriff) because the three who went AWOL in episode 4 were supposedly trespassing was a little bit dramatic. I suspect it was pretty much staged for the show, because my guess is that our local cowboys would have more direct methods of dealing with you if you pissed them off (that's not an assumption that I plan to personally test).

One funny twist which is so typical of our small town. Noah, Alex and Alexander got to go to the rodeo and within 30 seconds of arriving Alex Quinn had zeroed in on a pretty young local blonde cowgirl. Well it turned out that she's the cousin of Jared, the ranch owner's son!

Towards the end of the show, the celebs got a visit to our local hot springs as a treat. Alex Quinn grossed out everyone - he must have read the "clothing optional after dark" sign - stripping off as he entered the pool and parading around naked. Any woman who gets involved with this sleazbag has no excuse - the whole world now knows what he's about when it comes to women.

Noah, George and Fabian stayed back to guard the cattle (despite the fact that Noah and George deserved to go to the hot springs way more than Brittny and Haley). Things took a really dramatic turn when the others returned to find that George and Fabian had gone AWOL again. I can't wait to see what happens next!

Previous posts: Introduction, Episodes 1-4

Update: later reviews of Episode 7

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Coffee, always to go?

They've just finished a major renovation of our local Safeway supermarket in Steamboat Springs and as part of the improvements they've installed a Starbucks.

That wasn't too big a shock since I'd seen a supermarket with an in-store Starbucks before. What really left me gobsmacked was the fact that they've also installed cupholders on the supermarket trolleys (ok it's a 'cart' here in America). Yes, you read that correctly, the supermarket carts have cupholders so you can buy your Starbucks and drink it while you shop, and if you have any left I'm sure you can drink the rest in your 12 cupholder SUV on the way home. Of course then you'll have completely missed the entire point of coffee, which is the experience of sitting quietly at a table with a good book, or with an old friend (or an old book / good friend if you prefer), and savouring the moment, but I'm sure life's too short to actually stop and enjoy it.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Brown out

I don't think I've ever seen a senior government employee with his head as far up his ass as Micheal Brown at FEMA. A week after he and his agency completely and utterly screwed up before a live television audience of billions, this guy isn't even smart enough to figure out that he has a problem. He thinks the priority of FEMA employees ought to be public relations - that somehow telling people that FEMA did a good job will make it so. Right up there with "War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength."

As the New York Times and others have reported, his only qualification for the job seems to be political connections. And this chicken ought to come home to roost in the lap of the man who appointed him, George W. Bush. As the NYT points out, political loyalty and relevant skills do not have to be mutually exclusive. But if like our current President all you care about is loyalty then relevant skills and competence don't even come in to the mix.

I do take issue though with those commentators who argue that the only relevant skill set for the FEMA Director is previous experience in disaster management - since it's such a specialised field that will tend to reduce the field of suitable candidates to a tiny handful and may also create an unhealthly adherence to traditional approaches. But if we look at the underlying skills required - in planning, logistics and distribution - we can quickly see that there are plenty of places to look. Apart from retired military, there's always Wal-Mart which seems to have done a better job than FEMA without even breaking a sweat.

What I can tell you is that the least relevant skills to the job are those possessed by spin doctors and political sycophants.

Update: I forgot to mention that Michael Brown is a lawyer. Lawyers have their place. It's practicing law. Being a lawyer doesn't qualify you for anything other than being a lawyer. It's a tragedy that so many people think that because elected representatives pass laws, and appointed officials administer them, that somehow being a lawyer is a relevant qualification. That thinking mistakes form for substance. Lawyers can help with getting the form of legislation right, but they have no special skills relevant to the real challenge - ensuring that the content of a law is good policy or in ensuring that it is efficiently and effectively implemented.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Movie review: Timeline

I watched a DVD on the weekend of a movie called Timeline. It's based on a Michael Crichton book of the same name although after reading a synopsis of the book I would have to say it deviates very significantly from the original story.

The only cast members I recognised were Frances O'Connor (one of the many Aussies invading Hollywood) as the female lead and Billy Connelly whose talents are seriously underutilised in this role.

The story started quite slowly and was somewhat confusing in the early stages, but in the end it did have some interesting connections between the future where the heroes began their journey and the past (1357 to be exact) to which they travelled. Also, as you would expect for a film released in 2003 the special effects were good and the historical period was captured fairly authentically, but apart from that there is little positive to say. The plot is mechanical, the characters two dimensional, the acting totally without feeling and the theme or message non-existent. The great strength of science fiction and historical drama is that by placing us in another universe or time we can get a new perspective on contemporary problems and issues. This film completely fails to sieze that opportunity.

It was worth what I paid for it, but then I picked it up for free when a tenant left if behind. Now I know why.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Labor Day in Oak Creek

Today is Labor Day in the US. It's not such a big deal in Steamboat with its ranching heritage (most farmers are still waiting for an eight hour day) but in nearby Oak Creek with its history as a coal mining town they take their Labor Day parade pretty seriously.

At all these parades I love the pride with which the old veteran's march. Reminds me of ANZAC Day back home in Australia.

No use blaming the Feds if you're dead

I discussed in an earlier post on the lessons from Hurricane Katrina the need to develop more effective evacuation plans. Along those lines is this New York Times editorial discussing local disaster planning in Hampton Roads on the coast of Northern Virginia.

What is most striking about this in comparison to the recent experience in New Orleans is not the amount of money being spent, or the race of the local residents or their wealth. The real contrast is simply that the local communities accepted that they were the ones who were responsible for their own safety and planned accordingly.

These coastal communities, unlike New Orleans, are not below sea level, but they're much better prepared for a hurricane. Officials have plans to run school buses and borrow other buses to evacuate those without cars, and they keep registries of the people who need special help.

Instead of relying on a "Good Samaritan" policy - the fantasy in New Orleans that everyone would take care of the neighbors - the Virginia rescue workers go door to door. If people resist the plea to leave, Mr. Judkins told The Daily Press in Newport News, rescue workers give them Magic Markers and ask them to write their Social Security numbers on their body parts so they can be identified.

It's a little like stepping onto a pedestrian crossing without looking for traffic first. It's no consolation that the drivers are supposed to stop if they fail to do so and you end up dead. Whatever the wrongs and rights of the Federal Government's failure to fund the Army Corps of Engineers to maintain and improve the levees it doesn't do you any good to simply point out that fact and to take no action. Rational and accountable state and local governments in Louisiana would have realised at some point in the past twenty years that they needed to act in the interests of their own citizens if the Federal Government wouldn't. If the New York Times with its centralist, big government philosophy can see it then it ought to be self-evident.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Wild West Air Fest

One of the fun Labor Day activities in Steamboat is the Wild West Air Fest held at the Steamboat Springs Airport (Bob Adams Field) where a number of historic aircraft and cars are on display. Here's some of my favorites from today's visit.

Here I am with the most beautiful aircraft in the history of aviation, the Supermarine Spitfire. Did you realise the aircraft that won the Battle of Britain was so small? This is a twin seat trainer variant and the second canopy unfortunately ruins the smooth lines of the single seater.

Here I am with a time machine DeLorean. "Hmmm, the flux capacitor seems to be missing". I love those 'gull wing' doors.

Below is the Adam Aircraft A700, a new entrant in the VLJ (very light jet) market. Aircraft like this could potentially revolutionise charter services into places like Steamboat. If I had $2.1 million spare I'd definitely buy one!

And here are some more historic aircraft.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

"Nobody at Home" Depot

I took a trip last weekend to my local home improvement store to look for a shower screen. When I say 'local' you need to understand that means a 180 mile round trip from Steamboat Springs to Avon/Vail. I found one I liked but unfortunately they didn't have it in stock.

However the clerk looked on the computer and told me they would be getting some more stock during the week. So stupidly I went back today. What I discovered was that they didn't get any more stock this week, and they were never getting any more stock this week. They had sold out of this item in mid-August and had never re-ordered any more.

That was bad enough, but that was probably just your basic careless screw up (maybe the clerk entered the wrong item number or something). What really annoyed me was that they couldn't tell me when they would be ordering some more and worse they couldn't order one for specifically for me, even if I paid for it up front. If I paid now they could hold it for me once it arrived, which would be some time between tomorrow and the heat death of the universe. Plus if I wanted the same model in a different finish (different colour metal or different glass) they could special order it for me, but otherwise it was, "we can't actually help, but have a nice day!"

How do corporations get so stupid? I can understand an organisation making a rational decision that their business model doesn't accommodate special orders for individual customers. But when you can order it for me if I want the textured glass but not if I want the clear glass then it's not the glass that's cloudy but your brain.

Shame on you Home Depot.

Friday, September 02, 2005

A first world country with a third world government

I blogged earlier this week on lessons from Hurricane Katrina on the assumption that the relief effort would be swift and efficient and that we could therefore turn our minds to the longer term lessons to be drawn from this disaster.

Unfortunately I was wrong. It seems the greatest lesson to be drawn from the past five days is that the United States is a first world country with a third world government. The response from the government of the world's richest and most powerful country has been nothing short of pathetic bordering on criminally negligent.

Four years after September 11, having spent trillions on "Homeland Security" and pushed through the largest re-organisation of the Federal bureaucracy in three generations, we're unable to address the basic requirement to ensure that those affected have food to eat, clean water to drink and the urgent medical attention many of them need.

People are dying while the Homeland Security boondoggle continues. But at least we can all sleep well knowing that our aviation system is safe from nail clipper toting terrorists.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Is the FDA above the law?

It seems that politics has trumped science at the FDA where the head of women's health has resigned in protest at the agency head's decision to defer indefinetely proposals to make Plan B (the "morning after pill") available without a prescription.

The FDA is chartered by Congress to consider the safety and efficacy of drugs, neither of which is at issue here. Until and unless Congress change that charter, isn't it totally inappropriate, if not illegal, for the FDA to take other (political) factors in to account?

Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive - Update (contains spoilers)

I blogged previously on a new reality series, Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive, set in my home town of Steamboat Springs. Well we're now four episodes in and here are the highlights:

  • Biggest threat to civilization as we know it: Confiscating the brat's cell phones (at least that's what they seem to think)
  • Biggest dummy spit (1): Three of the brats got fed up and went AWOL. They were found at our local cinema
  • Grossest scene: checking the cows to see if they're pregnant
  • Best line: the trail boss Joshua describing the Ecuadorian brat (Fabian) as "a ten year old in a man's body"

The celebrities are beginning to divide clearly into two groups - those who are willing to make an effort and the whiners. The first group consists of Noah Blake, George Foreman III, Alexander (the English lord) and to some extent Alex Quinn (I'd be more positively inclined to like him if he hadn't inherited his father's tendencies towards being a slimey womaniser). Amongst the girls I have some hope for Courtney Semel, and the Incredible Hulk's daughter if she can learn to control her aggression, but the other two are such stereotypes of vacuous, spoilt, lazy bimbos it's beyond amusing.

A couple of interesting facts about the ranch where this is set. The ranch owner (Wayne Iacovetto) is the third generation in the Yampa Valley. His grandfather settled here from Sicily in the nineteenth century. Highly recommended in the winter is their "steak and sleigh" rides which involve taking a horse drawn sleigh out to a cabin the woods (seen in the first episode) where you're served a traditional cowboy meal, including Wayne's own special recipe for cowboy beans which my brother-in-law managed to wrangle from him last winter (yes, I know that was a terrible pun, but I couldn't resist) but still hasn't cooked!

(1) In Australia a baby's pacifier is called a "dummy". Imagine the baby deciding it's not going to co-operate and spitting out the dummy. Thus when adults decide in a dramatic manner not to co-operate we call it a "dummy spit".

Update: later reviews of Episode 5, Episode 7