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Friday 25 July, 2008
My computer's operating system slowly
imploded while I was in China, counting down the days until it expired.
I didn't even know that Vista would expire, but apparently in some
situations, it will. Unfortunately, I didn't have either a copy of
Windows with me or a DVD drive in the laptop to reload the OS, and all I
could do was watch and wait helplessly.
I've now done a low level reformat of the
hard drive and reloaded all my software and data. While this was
time-consuming and bothersome, it was not as challenging as it has been
in the past, because I now have a new service running on all my
computers that automatically backs them up continually, every time
anything changes, and which also synchronizes changes so that if I
change a file on one computer, it automatically gets changed on other
computers, too. For a person with a work computer, a home
computer, and a laptop, this is obviously an amazingly useful (and
There are more good things to tell you about
what really is a 'must have' program for most of us, indeed, so much
more, that a review and description of this program has grown to fill
two pages on the website. So :
This Week's Feature
Column : Sugarsynch your computers : The Sugarsynch
software has become one of my favorite must-have applications for anyone
with two or more computers. It automatically backs up and
synchronizes the data between your different computers. More
details - and a free 45 day trial offer - in the two part review.
Correction : In my
article last week about the twelve
year delay between the mid-air explosion of TWA's flight TW800 (a 747)
and the FAA's finally releasing a requirement for airlines to fit a
device to reduce the chance of other similar mid-air explosions, I
quoted the laudatory comments of the NTSB chairman, Mark Rosenker, who
was proclaiming what a wonderful step forward this new rule would be.
Mr Rosenker is correct, this is a good step
forward, and in my somewhat sarcastic comments about why it took twelve
years to introduce this good new safety rule, and why the airlines have
been given another nine more years to put the ruling in place, I may
have misdirected my ire at him rather than where it more properly
belongs, the FAA. The NTSB recommended this new requirement a mere
five months after the crash. But, alas, the NTSB is not
responsible for the enactment of its recommendations, that task falls to
the FAA, and it was the FAA who took 11 years and 7 months subsequent to
the NTSB's recommendation to do something about it.
The question about why it took so long for
this rule to be put in place, and why the airlines are allowed another 9
years to implement it, remains unanswered, and because it is not an NTSB
function to issue such rules, is not something Mr Rosenker could answer.
He probably wonders this himself just as much as we do.
Dinosaur watching : Last week
saw Delta announce a profit of $137 million for the second
quarter, prior to special one-off charges. This week sees
Northwest announce a profit of $170 million, prior to a one-off
non-cash accounting charge of $547 million.
So, think about this. The two airlines
that have been saying 'we must merge as the only way to survive these
tough times' are currently - unmerged - two of the most profitable
carriers in the country. Maybe they don't need to merge at all?
Well, perhaps in response to that thought,
the two carriers issued a new statement this last week that increases
their estimate of savings through the merger. Originally they said
the merger would result in $1.2 billion of savings, with merger related
costs of about $1 billion, making a slim $200 million net benefit.
Now, by some miracle, they are saying they'll get $2 billion in savings
and incur only $600 million in merger costs - making for a seven times
greater benefit of $1.4 billion. Details
By contrast, United Airlines announced a
second quarter loss of $2.73 billion, although it would have been
'only' a $430 million loss if it weren't for special one-off items.
US Airways lost $567 million, which would have been 'only' a $101
million loss if it weren't for their one-off items. And JetBlue
lost a small $7 million, which was actually better than the $21
million they lost in Q2 last year.
And one other airline announced a profitable
result. For the 69th quarter in a row, Southwest reported a
profit, this time of $321 million, up from $155 million in Q2 last
year. The profit comprised $121 million in 'normal' profit plus
$200 million in special items.
So get this - ignoring the special one-off
charges, Northwest actually made a bigger profit in this quarter than
the nation's most consistently profitable airline, Southwest.
Remind me again why NW and DL need to merge?
Here's an interesting statistic from
Continental. Now that they charge $25 for checking a second bag,
they have seen a 60% reduction in the number of passengers checking
two bags for a domestic flight.
But does that mean people are packing less,
cramming more into one bigger bag, or simply taking more onto the plane
United is taking some steps to improve
its available cash supply. They've sold $600 million worth of
frequent flier miles to Chase, its co-branded bank-card partner, who
gives out miles on the basis of one per dollar spent on their credit
If we say that Chase is paying perhaps
1.25c/mile to United (my guess, but probably not very far wrong) then
this represents 48 billion frequent flier miles. That's a
lot of extra miles, and in the situation with United reducing flights
and operating planes with fewer and fewer empty seats, it makes it
harder and harder for Mileage Plus members to redeem their miles.
United has also negotiated down the amount
of cash its credit card processing company, Paymentech, has been
withholding. Paymentech now is only holding $25 million in
'escrow' rather than $350 million.
These two deals give UA close on a billion
dollars in extra cash, enough to fund a few more unprofitable quarters.
United has also quietly done one more
thing to give it even more cash on hand. Typically, in the
past, when booking higher cost tickets, you didn't need to actually pay
for the ticket until close to the date of travel, and generally they
were fully refundable if you didn't use them.
United sent out to its travel agents a note
that was received, at least by one larger agency group, on 16 July, that
advised of a change to its prepayment policy, which would take effect on
14 July - yes, two days earlier.
Now United is requiring full payment the
later of 24 hours after booking or three days prior to departure for
full fare first, business, and economy fares, and within 24 hours for
all other types of economy ticket.
The requirement for some of these expensive
fares to be paid sooner than previously will give United an unknown
number of extra tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.
It is puzzling that United increased the
amount of prepayments it would be receiving and its credit card
processor, although now having a much greater exposure in the event of a
UA bankruptcy, at the same time reduced its hold-back amount.
Much is often made of the airlines' very
effective lobbying activities and how they manage to keep Congress
largely on-side. But sometimes one wonders. In particular,
how positive an impression did Continental make on seven members of
Congress who were on a CO flight back to DC so they could vote on an
aviation safety bill?
The flight was first delayed about an hour
due to engine problems, and then, en route from Houston to DC, suffered
a sudden loss of cabin pressure, causing an emergency descent, the
oxygen masks to drop (and requiring them to be worn) and an emergency
landing in New Orleans.
Actually, maybe it was an ill wind that
blows no good. The seven members of Congress were sufficiently
delayed as to be unable to vote on the bill. Details
A Delta passenger said he had a stressful
experience with the airline. He was ensnared in the middle of
an airport worker's strike in Paris, and for some strange reason, Delta
wouldn't allow him to rebook his flights over the phone, requiring
instead he go to the airport (which was a chaotic mess, of course) and
rebook in person at a ticket counter.
Unfortunately for Delta, the stressed out
passenger is also an attorney, and so, once he'd calmed down enough, he
did the obvious thing. He filed a $5 million lawsuit against DL,
and - get this - is now trying to make it a class action suit so other
passengers, similarly inconvenienced, can also sue DL for
ridiculous sums of money fair compensation.
I'm a bit conflicted by this item. How
stupid of Delta not to allow passengers to rebook over the phone.
But is that really fair grounds for a $5 million lawsuit? I
suspect not. Details
Well done, Amtrak. Amtrak's
service from Portland ME to Boston increased ridership by 28% during the
last year. An additional 947 passengers rode the Downeaster every day
compared with the same period last year and revenue was up 33%.
Amtrak credits the increases to high gas
prices, increased frequency of trains, and better schedules.
Unfortunately, Amtrak's ability to add extra frequency to other trains,
elsewhere in the country, is very limited, because either it doesn't
have available extra carriages, and/or it doesn't have access to extra
use of the rail track, which is owned by the freight railroads in most
of the country, and is increasingly congested with slow moving freight
trains, that don't conveniently share a route with faster moving
Given a chance, Amtrak can succeed.
But, in most of the country, Amtrak does not have the resources it needs
to be able to succeed. And the vicious circle is that Amtrak's
problems cause short-sighted naysayers to refuse Amtrak the tools it
needs to succeed, thereby ensuring Amtrak's ongoing problems and
confirming, to the naysayers, their 'wisdom' in not more adequately
funding passenger rail traffic in this country.
With the 2008 Olympics due to start on
8/8/2008 at 8pm in Beijing (guess which number is considered a lucky
number by the Chinese), ie, very soon, it is interesting to try and
understand how it is that countries and cities, when winning the dubious
honor of becoming host for the Olympic games, go into raptures about how
it will transform their international reputation as a tourist
destination. It never does.
Tourism often drops for the year that the
Olympics actually take place, due to normal tourists wanting to stay
well clear of the price gouging and madness that goes on before, during
and after the Olympics, and then recovers only back to normal levels
subsequently. Most of the other promises, made largely to the
country/city's own citizens in an effort to make them feel good about
the huge expenses and disruptions they'll experience, are seldom
followed through on either.
Here, for example, is a
indictment of the outcomes of the $15 billion spent by Greece on
hosting the 2004 Olympics.
But apparently there is a better way to
boost your country's popularity and tourism profile. Have it
featured in a popular movie. Hotels.com reports that searches for
Greece and the Greek Islands are already up after the release of the new
movie, 'Mamma Mia'. Searches for the destination have
risen more than 70%. The film, based on the musical of the
same name, which in turn is a loose mix of Abba songs wrapped around a
lightweight plot (but enjoyable and well worth seeing), was shot in
various locations in Greece.
No $15 billion expenditure required.
Talking about hotels, each year there are
usually ice hotels somewhere 'up north' that open for guests until such
time as they melt. Now, this summer, there's an analogous but
opposite hotel being offered in Dorset, England - a sand castle hotel.
Although claiming to be the largest sandcastle-like structure ever built
in the UK, it is not very grand, even though it involved over 1000 tons
of sand in its construction.
Fortunately, at as little as £10/night to
stay there, it isn't very expensive, although intending guests should
note that the hotel doesn't include any toilet facilities. More
details and a video of the hotel
Global warming 1 : If one
accepts that temperatures are rising in Europe, then the most likely
culprit for this is - guess? No, not 'carbon emissions'.
Actually, it is the lack of pollution that is believed to be causing
European temperatures to drift upwards. The cleaner air allows
more of the sun's energy to reach the ground and heat things up.
Global warming 2 : There are
plenty of problematic things about alleged global warming, and
proponents of the concept tend to try and steamroller over them all by
presenting the concept of global warming (and our culpability for it) as
an accepted fact that only idiots would dispute (or ask for specific
But, increasingly, people who are not idiots
are disputing the underlying assumptions of global warming, and as
this article points out, the most recent group of dissidents is none
other than one part of the American Physical Society, an organization
representing nearly 50,000 physicists. Many of the APS members are
now expressing concern at the lack of scientific method that has been
applied to the global warming debate.
Let's also add another item to that other
massively under-reported topic - the danger of cell phones to your
health. This time it is the director of the University of
Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and UPMC Cancer Centers, who issued an
advisory to about 3,000 faculty and staff today about the possible
health risks associated with cellular phone use. He says, in the
note, 'Although the evidence is still controversial, I am convinced that
there are sufficient data to warrant issuing an advisory to share some
precautionary advice on cell phone use.'
The most sensible thing you can do (other
than not using your phone) is to use a headset with your cell phone.
interesting list of ten tips issued with this note that give you
easy simple steps to reduce your own risk.
This Week's Security Horror Story : Delays at one single border
crossing between Mexico and the US are estimated to be costing $7.2
billion a year in lost revenue. More than half the cars wait over
90 minutes in line, and a quarter are stuck for two or more hours.
What sort of a way is this to run a country and its border service?
'I have power, I have power, I have power'.
So yelled a TSA agent to a passenger who, in attempting to comply with
her directives, was standing in public in his underwear, with his
trousers around his ankles.
Note also in the
same article the proud claim by the TSA that 'out of 2 billion
passengers screened nationwide since 9-11, there have been only 110,000
abuse complaints'. But this is not a fair statement.
The TSA have not screened 2 billion
different individuals. They have screened some Americans very many
times, some only once or twice, and many Americans have not flown at all
since 9/11. The 2 billion screenings have to be considered instead
in terms of how many different people have been screened - perhaps 150
million people, maximum.
Is 110,000 complaints a proud record,
whether it be out of 150 million or 2 billion people? That's
almost 50 complaints every day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.
And we all know (even if the TSA doesn't) that the people who complain
represent only the very slightest tip of the huge iceberg of unhappy
people who don't complain (including many people who don't complain out
of fear of future victimization).
There was a bad link to the article about
the 'amazing coincidence' I wrote about
last week. Here's the
Your security horror story of the week reminds me of one of the funnier
security stories I have heard.
It was in the months after 9-11 and I was on a flight sitting next to a
sheriff from a county in Colorado. He was traveling on business, so he
was allowed to carry his firearm with him on the plane.
He told me that
as he went through security and they verified that he could, indeed,
carry his gun on the plane, the private security officials (pre-TSA
days) discovered a set of nail clippers with the attached file as he
went through the screening process. They informed him that they
would have to confiscate the clippers since they weren’t allowed
through security. The sheriff pointed out that the nail clippers
were infinitely less dangerous than the gun he was carrying, but the
security guards insisted that rules were rules and he was not going
to be allowed into the terminal with his nail clippers, but he could
go right ahead with his gun!
The other humorous part of this story is that to carry a weapon on an
airplane, a law enforcement official needs to have a letter from the
head of his/her agency stating that the officer is traveling on official
business. Since he was the sheriff, he was the one that signed the
letter giving himself permission to fly with the gun.
But if you think that TSA policies can be
stupid, and airline policies equally stupid, you obviously haven't
ordered a cup of coffee at
this DC coffee store recently.
Until next week,
please enjoy safe travels and good coffee