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Friday 21 March, 2008
The normal pattern of my week changed
unexpectedly on Wednesday evening, when I suffered a fire at home. This was my first fire - and hopefully my last - and the
fire brigade tells me that I was within a minute or so of having the
fire spread and unstoppably take the entire house.
I learned some valuable lessons, and while
it isn't travel related, it is important, so as a 'Public Service
Message' here are some things that I urge you to check so that, if you
should ever have a similar problem, you can minimize the negative outcome :
Note : The following part
of the newsletter with the seven strategies have been
substantially revised and modified and can now be seen on
our page about Fire
Please ignore the following
section in black and instead visit the more complete
discussion on that page.
1. Smoke detectors : In my case,
none of my several smoke detectors went off until after I'd discovered
the fire myself (I was alerted to it by the sound of glass breaking).
Lesson learned - put smoke detectors everywhere in your house, not
just in one or two central locations. Be sure to place them in
'high risk' areas such as kitchens and other places where heat and or
2. Have portable extinguishers
close to but not next to potential fire locations. In my case,
when I discovered the fire, I couldn't get closer than maybe 15' or so
of the fire's base; a fire extinguisher in that area would have been
useless. Fortunately I had a fire extinguisher on the far side of
3. Buy the biggest fire
extinguisher(s) you can afford and comfortably handle in an emergency.
In my case, I had an 8lb capacity dry powder extinguisher. It
definitely helped save the day, but after emptying it at the fire and killing the flames,
as soon as the extinguisher was empty, the flames restarted. A
second one would have been really nice!
4. If you have gas, know where your
gas master valve is; be sure it is accessible, and also check that you
can turn the valve closed. If you can't readily close the
valve yourself, I suggest you attach a suitably sized spanner to the gas
meter with a plastic tie that can be easily broken in an emergency.
In my case, with a gas stove top that was on at the time, this was a
issue, and fortunately I could reach the stove top and turn off the
burner, but if the fire got closer to the gas lines, I'd have needed to
shut off the gas. Subsequent checking revealed that I couldn't close the
master valve on the meter by myself without having to go find a spanner
that fits (get an exact sized spanner - in the stress of a real fire,
the last thing you want to fiddle with is an adjustable spanner that
won't adjust properly!).
5. I'm not a fire expert, but the
oft-cited conventional wisdom about not spraying water on some types of
fire seems like nonsense to me. The two things that saved my
house were the fire extinguisher and a garden hose - by soaking the walls and
ceiling, I was able to stop the blaze from spreading. Sure,
try not to cause an oil fire to get worse by spreading the burning
oil around the place on a bed of water, but maybe try and hose down
the areas around the flames to contain the fire, and if it is a
small amount of burning oil, a lot of water will usually defeat a
small amount of oil.
you're not able to get into the room where the fire is, consider
smashing a window and sticking the hose through the window from the
outside. Believe me; while it might not seem so at the time, a
broken window is, alas, going to be the very smallest part of your
overall damage and hassle. In my case, the firemen happily hacked
away through walls and ceilings in a necessary process to check for and
control any possible remaining hot spots that might restart the fire.
They told me not to worry, because insurance would take care of
everything, and my earlier concerns at 'needlessly' breaking a window
became very insignificant compared to the final state of my kitchen.
Of course, don't undergo any risk in fighting the fire yourself (and
avoid smoke inhalation - I'm still coughing painfully twelve hours
later), but 'a stitch in time saves nine' - spray as much water as you
can everywhere. Oh - don't worry about water damage, either.
If the firemen need to use their high pressure hoses, just a few
seconds of water from their hoses will dwarf the amount of water
from many minutes of your garden hose!
6. If you have a choice, call 911
on your home phone, not on your cell phone. I used my cell
phone, which meant the 911 dispatcher had no idea of my location until I
told her. In my distress and excitement, she apparently had
difficulty understanding my accent, and it added another minute or more
to the time for the fire brigade to arrive while the two of us went
through a nightmarish procedure of getting her to understand my address
(with the added bonus of her then telling me that 'the computer' said
there was no such address!).
A related thing - don't hesitate to
call the fire brigade. Even if you get the fire under control
yourself, they will check for things you might not think of checking for
(like hidden hotspots), and they have high powered fans to blow the
smoke out of your house. I'll also guess that calling the fire brigade
registers yourself as a prudent homeowner with a valid cause when it
comes to the subsequent insurance claim.
7. Make sure you have your house
number clearly visible from the street. In my case, I'm down a
long and poorly marked driveway. I had to go and wait for the fire
engines so as to ensure they got to the right place (it seemed like such
a long time from when I first heard their sirens to when they finally
There are other smaller lessons I've taken
from this experience too (eg the importance of powerful flashlights with
fresh batteries), but if you work through these seven items, you'll be
much better prepared for a fire than most of your neighbors.
It is a bit of an effort to switch gears
from the events of Wednesday (and the insurance battles that are already
starting subsequently) and return to the usual train of thought on a
Thursday night, especially after a largely sleepless night on Wednesday.
Fortunately, I had already written most of this week's feature article,
This Week's Feature Column
: The Apple iPod Nano : Redesigned, but still small and
attractive, the iPod Nano offers improved functionality, but most of
these improvements are useless. With an increasing range of
different iPod models, is a Nano the right choice for you? Read
the review to find out.
Dinosaur watching : I was
thinking out loud last week about buying some Southwest
Airlines stock as a speculative investment last week. When I wrote
those comments, it was trading at $11.70, at close of business Thursday,
one week later, it had slightly risen to $12.26. If you acted on
my suggestion, you'd have got a
4.8% return for one week.
The Delta/Northwest merger continues
to recede back from reality. The pilots at the two airlines have
ended their talks about how to fairly integrate their respective
seniority lists without reaching any agreement.
This seems to have discouraged the two
airlines from moving further towards a merger, unlike what happened when
America West bought US Air and merged the two operations together,
deciding to worry about the details of the merger later. And worry
they have been, and still are, as the pilots from the two airlines fight
among themselves, and with management, about how to integrate into a
single new operation.
Maybe Delta has decided that if its pilots
won't settle with the Northwest pilots, the best thing to do is
retire the lot of them and approach a merger with a clean slate.
Whatever the reason, DL has offered voluntary buyouts to 30,000 of its
employees, encouraging them to take early retirement. Note however
that DL is not hoping that all 30,000 staff will accept its offer - the
airline says it wants only 2,000 people to accept buyouts.
There are two interesting things about these
types of buyout offers. Firstly, the DL offer is slanted most
towards people with more seniority in the company (the reason for
this perhaps being that they cost more to keep employed than do junior
staff); Delta is inviting its best employees with the most expertise to
And the second thing, confirmed in previous
studies of similar offers in other companies, is that when staff are
given this type of offer, it is usually the best and brightest people
who take advantage of it. These people think 'I can take the
cash-out offered by my present employer, and I can easily go and get
another job, working for a competitor (or for anyone else)' and then
leave to do exactly that. The people who are most readily
But the not so gifted employees think 'Well,
if I take this offer, I'm out of work, and there's no chance I'll find
any other company willing to hire me for what I'm currently making, I'm
going to stay put where I am'.
That means that these buy-out offers
cause the company to lose their best staff, while the people they'd
most like to see voluntarily leave remain firmly glued to their desks.
Bad move, Delta.
Part of Delta's strategy for managing itself
is apparently to cut domestic capacity by a further 5% this year.
Another incredible shrinking airline.
Another part of Delta's plan for the future
is to charge more for checked bags. DL has now joined with US
and UA in charging $25 - coincidentally, the same amount as charged
by the other two airlines - for a second checked bag.
The remaining trio of the big six - AA, CO
and NW - have yet to make similar changes, but I'd be very surprised if
we didn't see them also add the extra bag fee over the next few weeks,
carefully staging their announcements so to ensure that there's no
outward appearance of any collusion between the airlines with the
introduction of this new baggage charging paradigm.
A possibly more sensible part of Delta's
strategy was revealed on Tuesday when Delta added yet another price
increase onto its fares. Last week the airlines added up to $50 to
their fares, and less than a week later, DL was already adding a further
$10 on top of last week's $50. Indeed, such was Delta's hurry
that, for the first time in memory, they announced an airfare increase
not on the traditional Thursday or Friday, but on a Tuesday instead.
So far this year (and remember we are only
11 weeks into the year) there have been nine attempts by the airlines
to raise fares, of which six so far have succeeded (and the $10
increase this week is currently showing every likelihood of succeeding
I really don't mind if airlines put their
fares up, but what I do reject is the hypocrisy where, on the one
hand, they're layering increase after increase onto their fares, while
at the same time, they're worrying in public about the rising cost of
Their fare increases have massively more
than compensated for the extra cost of fuel; so much so, in fact, that
they're starting to risk shrinking the amount of travel people do.
And if fewer people fly, the massive fixed costs of the airlines will be
spread over fewer passengers, meaning each passenger has to pay a larger
share of fixed costs that not only include aircraft ownership but also
such essential things as multi-million dollar bonuses to senior
executives. Higher fixed costs per passenger mean, invariably, the
airlines will increase ticket prices still further. Which means
fewer people will travel, which means higher costs per passenger,
and so on and so on.
This is not just me theorizing.
Airline executives are bracing themselves for massive reductions in
passenger traffic (think 10%, 20%, perhaps even 30%) - but of
course, they won't blame this on pricing air travel above a level that
is fair and sensible. Instead they'll blame it on the economy, or
whatever other convenient scapegoat they can find.
While the good news is this will reduce
airport congestion quite remarkably, which would you prefer?
Full airports and affordable airfares, or empty airports and tickets too
costly to buy?
The dinosaurs are also typically not
considering external factors as they resolve to push up fares and shrink
in on themselves. By offering fewer flights and at higher fares,
they're creating rich pickings for current and potential new startups.
Any startup airline typically looks for two things - routes where
there's a lot of unrealized demand, and routes where fares are currently
high. In good times, it is not easy to find such things, which is
why startups are sometimes forced to base their business plan on flying
peculiar routes (eg between Columbus and Bellingham, WA - an
unsurprisingly unsuccessful launch route offered by Spirit when it
started flying last year, and now long since discontinued).
But as the majors cut back service even on
core routes, and push the fares higher, it gets easier for new startup
airlines, with fixed costs geared to their smaller size, rather than the
unnecessarily inflated fixed costs of a dinosaur painfully struggling to
shrink itself, to move into even major markets, as we see with Virgin
America at present (welcome to Seattle, Virgin America). Virgin
America is confidently moving into hotly competitive routes - this
is not to predict their success, but merely to point out that every fare
increase and service cutback by its competitors makes it easier for the
new startup to survive and thrive.
You may recall that JetBlue has been
teeter-tottering (what I'd call see-sawing) on the subject of the
legroom offered with its seats. It first added extra legroom to
the seats behind the exit rows (because the exit row seats can't be
moved, it is possible to sometimes have slightly different seat pitches
in front of and behind the exit row seats, just due to 'rounding errors'
in terms of how you fit the rows of seats into a plane). Their
reasoning then was that passengers now had a positive trade-off to
consider - seats in the front of the plane were desirable because they
were close to the exit, and seats in the back were desirable because
they were more roomy.
Then JetBlue changed the seating again to
give more space to the seats in front of the exit row, making those
seats doubly valuable - closer to the exit and more spacing (38" seat
pitch, compared to 34" pitch behind the exit rows, and a typical 31" -
32" on most other airlines), and making the seats behind the exit row
Did someone say 'doubly valuable'?
Yes, someone at JetBlue has now had the sensible enough idea that if
some of the seats on its planes are more valuable to passengers than
others, they should charge extra for them. And so from 1
April, you'll be asked to pay $10/$15/$20 (depending on if it is a
short, medium length, or long haul flight) extra for the forward roomier
seats. Due to how they worked the seating plan out, seats in rows
2 - 5 and exit rows 10 and 11 on their Airbus A320s will have the extra
space, and in the exit row only on their Embraer E190s.
Good luck to them. I'd certainly pay
extra, particularly in these days of crowded flights.
Here's an interesting story. A small
group of American Airlines skycaps are taking the airline to court,
suing the airline for the loss of tips they formerly earned when
curbside checkin was offered for free. Now that airlines charge
for this service (typically $2 or $3 per bag), skycaps are commonly
finding that passengers object to both paying an airline fee and also a
skycap tip to have their bag checked at the curb, and so their tip
earnings have massively reduced.
It is certainly true that skycaps used to
make extraordinary amounts of money for this service. Think
about the time dynamics - how many bags an hour could a skycap check?
One a minute - 60 an hour? Maybe more? Let's just take the
one a minute figure, though, and think about the implications of that.
For a 40 hour week, that means a skycap has checked 2,400 bags.
What sort of average tip did they formerly get? At least $1/bag,
more commonly $2, and sometimes more (eg two bags for $5, sometimes even
three bags for $10). It was an open secret for many of us
travelers that if we were over the limit on bags, the thing to do was to
check them with the skycap and tip generously, thereby avoiding any
excess baggage charges.
So, if a skycap averages $2/bag checked, and
checks 2,400 bags in a week - yes, get this. He was formerly
earning almost $5,000 a week in tip income (I wonder how much of
that was reported to the IRS?). Impossible, you say? Work
the math any way you like, and I'll wager you still come up with the
'poor' skycap earning a great deal more each month than you do yourself.
People that say 'oh, they need the tips to survive' seldom do the maths,
because if they did, they'd find out that many of these types of
positions end up earning the people a great deal more in tips than the
people paying the tips earn themselves.
Case in point - I was staying at an upmarket
hotel on the outskirts of Windsor, in England, a few years ago. I
noticed a lovely new BMW parked prominently at the front of the hotel,
and one day in conversation with a hotel staff member, asked who owned
it. I guessed that the hotel owner or manager was the proud owner,
but I was wrong. The owner/manager had a well used sensible mid
sized Ford station wagon. The brand new Beemer was owned by the
hotel's Head Porter. Local taxi drivers subsequently explained to
me how much of every cab fare they had to give back to the Head Porter
in return for being allowed to pick up passengers from the hotel (I
could never understand why the fare to go into town from the hotel, in a
discount service mini-cab was more expensive than the fare, in a
full-fare black cab, to go from the town back to the hotel - the answer
being it was the Head Porter's fee that pushed the minicab fare up over
the regular black cab fare).
Back to the skycaps, I'd heard rumors, in
years gone by, that budding skycaps would pay as much as $50,000 (I'm
not entirely sure who to) in return for getting a job as a skycap.
And what a sensible investment it was, too - little more than two
month's income to get a job they could hold for as long as they liked,
paying over a quarter million in cash a year.
But this is no longer the case, apparently.
And so these poor porters are now suing AA for their lost tip income,
although they're having to tread very carefully, because none of them
really wants to admit to the extent of their former earnings, but of
course, the more they understate their former earnings, the less they
can now seek in damages. Bizarrely, their attorney would not give an estimate on how much in tips the skycaps
claim they have lost because of the fee. But she said the lawsuit seeks
restitution for all tips skycaps were deprived of since the fee was
imposed in 2005 (even though she is not saying how much this is).
Apparently her strategy is to never disclose this amount, and instead to
seek a transfer of the millions of dollars in income that AA is now
getting directly from its curbside bag check fee.
And, in a lamentable bit of job-description
inflation, she adds 'Some of these guys have worked for 20, 30 or 40
years as skycaps. This is their profession. These guys' lives were
devastated by this'.
Apparently being a skycap is now a
profession. Inasmuch as it formerly commanded a professional level
income, I guess the attorney is quite right in so labeling skycaps.
Computer Issues : You win some,
you lose some. I allowed myself to be persuaded to buy the
successor product to Microsoft Frontpage for writing my newsletters and
webpages - their Expression Web software. Alas, it seems to be
almost unusable if I have the spelling check turned on.
Another inexplicable (and unacceptable)
example of a product that has a very 'in your face' bug that should
never have been released to market. Shame on Microsoft.
Reader Eric sent in a
link to an excellent page that lists free software alternatives
to big name programs. Amazingly, these free programs are
sometimes better than their commercial competitors. If you're
unhappy with your software, or about to buy some new software, consider
some of these free programs as an alternative to the over-priced and
often buggy name brand products.
My other Microsoft problem at present
relates to the spam filtering in Outlook no longer working,
causing what I thought to be 1000+ spams to land in my inbox along with
the 'real' email, and taking much of my time just to wade through the
spam to find the real emails.
I've given up on waiting for a fix from
Microsoft, and am currently trialing an interesting 'Spam Firewall' that
intercepts spam before it is downloaded to your email on your computer.
It has only been up a little over a day so far, and it is taking a while
for email to redirect to feed through the new process, but in the last
24 hours, it has handled 2291 pieces of email, of which a massive 2078
were rejected as being spam, causing a mere 213 to be sent on to me.
Wow! What an incredible difference that makes. My life is
almost under control again, and what I'd thought was something over 1000
spams a day is actually something over 2000 spams a day. What
an enormous productivity boost.
I'm still working through some issues with
this new piece of equipment (it is another complete computer, not just a
program) but if it continues to meet or exceed expectations, I'll tell
you more about it.
This Week's Security Horror Story :
No, it isn't an April Fools Day joke released early. A Canadian
company is seriously suggesting that all airline passengers should be
fitted with special bracelets prior to boarding their flight. The
bracelets could be triggered remotely by a flight attendant, causing a
debilitating electric shock to course through the passenger's body.
That'll surely encourage you to have the
correct change when you're paying for your sandwich or drink on board.
And there'll doubtless be close to complete compliance with requests to
buckle seatbelts, stow tray tables, turn off cell phones, and anything
else we as passengers may be ordered to do.
But is it really a good idea? Some
sensible commentary, both in the article and by readers below, is
here. And the company's website and video presentation on
their proposed new technology (apparently waiting for a financial
backer) can be seen here.
An Arab politician in Israel is trying to
force El Al to stop passenger profiling. He seems to believe
that elderly Jewish grandmothers should be treated as posing an equal
threat to the safety of El Al's planes as young Muslim men.
And, after all, that is the way we treat
people in the US. We're blessed with a 100% equal opportunity,
politically correct, TSA, and if it is good enough for us - and has kept
us terrorist free for 6½ years so far, surely it is good enough for
Fortunately the politically correct
disease hasn't yet fully infected Israel. Proponents of
Israel's approach say checking all passengers equally would require
manpower and resources many times greater than are needed today and
would needlessly extend the time passengers spend waiting for flights -
hmmm, just like what happens in the US.
Ariel Merari, an Israeli terrorism expert
who has written about aviation security, wasn't scared to do some
straight talking when he said ethnic profiling is both effective and
unavoidable. 'It's foolishness not to use profiles when you
know that most terrorists come from certain ethnic groups and certain
age groups,' he said. 'A bomber on a plane is likely to be Muslim
and young, not an elderly Holocaust survivor. We're talking about
preventing a lot of casualties, and that justifies inconveniencing a
certain ethnic group.'
Reader Warren writes in :
Thought you'd enjoy this. These idiots
can't count to 10 w/o taking off their shoes. I requested a text-msg
notification re my AA flight from DFW to RDU tomorrow morning. So they
sent me the item below. They say eight-digit confirmation number.
Confirmation Number: 312D89225
Thank you for using Flight Status
Your request has been submitted. Please save this eight-digit
confirmation number for future reference so that you may view or delete
Lastly, I mentioned an interesting twist on
a regular wedding proposal last week.
For this week, here's
another story of an unexpected outcome to a planned proposal.
I hope you have a wonderful Easter weekend,
and a great week ahead.
And, most of all, until next week,
please enjoy safe travels