Sunday, July 20, 2008

Terminal 5

I was very critical of the chaos at Heathrow Terminal 5 when it opened.

I had a chance to look for myself today on my way from Steamboat to Johannesburg. Things seem to have settled down and to be working as the should. My baggage made the transfer and my flights were on time.

I was surprised how big it is. It's actually three separate concourses.

The British Airways first class lounge is a big improvement on the one at Terminal 4. Much larger, the wi-fi is finally free and it has showers. Not as nice as the Qantas first class lounge in Sydney though.

However the transfer from Terminal 4 takes forever. In a straight line it must be about two miles. But the route the bus takes seems to go around the airport about three times!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Great airline rant

There's a great airline rant in today's Wall Street Journal.

Written in response to the idiotic email that US airlines sent their customers (yes including me) earlier this month, it uses satire to expose US airline executives as the incompetent frakking fools that they are.

And the beauty of it is that they asked for it. That email was a giant electronic version of a "kick me" sign that the airlines pasted to their own backs.

Typical whining from another protected industry. They should get a spine and grow up.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Netflix Player gets five stars

I just got myself a Roku Netflix Player.

I've been a Netflix subscriber for a while now. After some initial teething problems I've found it an excellent service. We especially like the wide range of lesser known movies that they carry, including several quite obscure Australian movies like this one.

The only downside is because we're away a lot we often pay for a month's subscription without watching a single DVD, and there's no rollover of unused DVDs to the next month.

In recent months I've also begun watching some of the instant streaming movies and TV shows that Netflix have available. The range is still only a fraction of their overall catalog but I've been very impressed by the quality, at least on my computer monitor. Of course that's partly dependent on my Comcast cable internet connection which I am pleased to say has been steadily improving over the past four years - from typical download speeds in 2004 of 2-3 Mbps to consistent speeds of 10-15 Mbps now.

I'm also a big fan of my Roku Soundbridge so when I saw that Netflix and Roku were offering a "Netflix Player" that would let me stream Netflix video to my TV for only $99, I just couldn't resist (not to mention, being a typical techie, I love playing with new gadgets!)

I assumed that the picture quality would degrade somewhat in moving from my computer's 19 inch LCD screen to my 42 inch TV, so I didn't expect the video quality to be great. Boy was I wrong. It's certainly not High Definition (the Player supports HD including a HDMI connector but Netflix are not currently making HD content available) but it's pretty damn close to DVD quality and definitely better than my non-HD cable channels.

I also expected the occasional interruption due to network issues (either at Comcast's end or on my wireless network - the Player has a wireless 802.11g adapter built in) but I've watched several hours of content so far without a single interruption.

Like the Roku Soundbridge the user interface is excellent - simple and intuitive - and the setup was a breeze. And the unit is amazingly small. The website says it's the size of a paperback but I was still surprised. It looks positively tiny next to my other home entertainment components.

For a first release I'd have to say that it's almost perfect - five stars out of five. The only criticism I have is that you can't browse the catalog from the TV - you have to access the Netflix website on your computer and add items to your instant play queue for them to show up on the Player. But I'd be very surprised if they don't fix that in the first software update.

Here's the silly thing though, and it's silliness on the part of Comcast not Netflix. Here in Steamboat Comcast doesn't offer their On Demand service. I've been told by the local Comcast office that this is awaiting a trunk infrastructure upgrade (which will also allow us to receive the networks in HD). But Netflix and I are effectively using Comcast's infrastructure to achieve the same thing!

Monday, July 14, 2008

ACLU misses the point

The ACLU issued a press release today pointing out that the Government's terrorist watchlist now has more than a million names on it. They make the perfectly logical point that a list that long is effectively useless in screening for terrorists:

"Putting a million names on a watch list is a guarantee that the list will do more harm than good by interfering with the travel of innocent people and wasting huge amounts of our limited security resources on bureaucratic wheel-spinning."

Of course the ACLU has completed missed the point. Yes, if your goal is to catch terrorists a list this long is counter-productive. But if your goal is to convince the great mass of voters who don't want to think too hard that you're not taking any chances in the "war on terror", then the longer the list the better.

Hell, I'm surprised there aren't three billion people on the list. After all every one of the 9/11 hijackers was a man, so if you've got a Y chromosome you fit the profile. Better to be safe...

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Balloons again

This weekend is the annual Balloon Rodeo in Steamboat.

Marie and I walked down to the launch site yesterday, but we forgot to take the camera so I don't have photos like I did last year.

But I did take this one today with my phone camera while I was out rollerblading.

Dead trees

Since the mid 1990's Colorado's pine forests have been affected by an infestation of pine beetles which eventually kills the lodgepole pine trees that the beetles attack.

I've been vaguely aware of the problem and even noticed a few dead trees on the mountain whilst snowshoeing this Spring, but I was shocked when we returned home at the beginning of July to see great swathes of dead, brown trees all around the valley.

Fortunately much of the Steamboat ski mountain is covered by a mix of pine, spruce and fir trees so the death of the lodgepole pines won't leave it completed denuded. Nevertheless the dead trees do pose a hazard that the Ski Company and Forest Service will need to tackle one way or another.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Citizenship test

Yesterday I went for my US citizenship interview - another 450 mile round trip to Grand Junction.

I studied quite a bit of American government and history at University. How much? Well, for example, I've read every volume of President Woodrow Wilson's memoirs. What a mama's boy. Not my favourite president. But I digress from my main point, which is that I didn't expect to have any trouble with the test.

Nevertheless I was disappointed at how easy it was, consisting of the following four very easy questions:
  • What do the stripes on the flag represent?
  • What is the White House?
  • What are changes to the Constitution called?
  • What is the highest court in the land?
I was at least hoping for a question about the Declaration of Independence so I could quote one of the most beautiful phrases in the English language: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

But fortunately I wasn't asked if I like baseball. I would definitely have given the wrong answer!

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Airline hell

We've just arrived home after seven and a half weeks on the road, involving trips to Australia (vacation), the Philippines (work) , Lebanon (my father-in-law's funeral) and two trips to South Africa (work).

Here's what that looked like in terms of flights:

Denver to Los Angeles (economy)
Los Angeles to Brisbane (economy)

Brisbane to Canberra (economy)
Canberra to Brisbane (economy)

Brisbane to Sydney (business - complimentary upgrade)
Sydney to Hong Kong (economy)
Hong Kong to Manila (economy)
Manila to Sydney (economy)
Sydney to Brisbane (economy)

Brisbane to Singapore (business)
Singapore to Abu Dhabi (business)
Abu Dhabi to Beirut (business)

Beirut to Dubai (business)
Dubai to Johannesburg (business)

Johannesburg to Sydney (first - mileage upgrade)
Sydney to Brisbane (business)
Brisbane to Sydney (business)
Sydney to Johannesburg (business)

Johannesburg to Sydney (business)
Sydney to Brisbane (business)

Brisbane to Los Angeles (business - complimentary upgrade)
Los Angeles to Denver (economy)

That's 63,504 miles between May 10 and July 1.

It went smoothly until the trip to Manila. Our flight from Brisbane to Sydney was delayed due to mechanical problems so Qantas moved us to another flight (with a complimentary upgrade which was nice) which was also late due to mechanical problems meaning we missed our connection in Sydney (only by 20 minutes which will be relevant later).

Their initial solution was for us to hang round in Sydney all day and then put us on an overnight Philippines Airlines flight, not an option I was happy with, so after some encouragement from me they booked us on a flight to Hong Kong with an overnight there and then a morning connection to Manila. Unfortunately the flight to Hong Kong was also delayed due to mechanical problems (four hours!) so our overnight in Hong Kong turned into less than 4 hours at the hotel.

Our flight back to Sydney went smoothly enough, but I've learnt that arriving at Sydney airport on a Friday morning is to be avoided at all costs, especially if you have a domestic connection. The international to domestic transfer at Sydney is third world at the best of times, but on a Friday morning you need to allow at least three hours. Of five connections through Sydney on this trip I made one successfully and that was only because I flew from Brisbane to Sydney the night before!

After missing the connection to Manila by 20 minutes, I was not amused two weeks later to be sitting on the aircraft in Sydney waiting to leave for Johannesburg when the captain announced that we would be delayed half an hour waiting for connection passengers from Brisbane! I wish the hell Qantas would be consistent on this, either wait or not wait.

Even worse was our trip to Beirut which wasn't under the best of circumstances anyway, but to arrive and find that our luggage had not been transferred in Abu Dhabi and wouldn't arrive for another 24 hours. Not what you need when you've got a funeral to attend. Between this and some of the most disinterested staff I think I've ever seen in a front cabin, I wouldn't recommend Etihad's business class.

The one major plus on our trip was receiving a complimentary upgrade on our flight from Brisbane to Los Angeles. Not something Qantas are known for.