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About Airlines and Air Travel July 15, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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As we discuss the world’s best airlines, my blood can’t help but boil. In my formative years (1970-1980s, I suppose), US airlines offered meals, generally polite behavior, and reasonable service. Except when they didn’t; I was certainly delayed often in my early days. I came of age in the 1980s, at the cusp of deregulation.

Guess what airlines also offered in the golden age? High prices and exclusionary practices. The average person in my early life didn’t fly. They either drove, or didn’t go at all. Flying was the provenance of the moderately (or better) wealthy, or the business traveler, and the rest of us made do.

I suppose there were two events that opened up air travel. First, of course, was deregulation, circa the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. The US generally stopped regulating who could start an airline, and when and where they could fly to. At the stroke of a pen (from Jimmy Carter, incidentally), air travel became something any American could do, and several times a year if they desired.  The other was People’s Express airlines, a short-lived experiment at opening up air travel at a low price.

The problem, of course, is that we believed (and oddly still believe) that we deserved Cadillac service on a Chevy budget. Today, flying is cheaper in absolute dollars than it was in the 1970s and 1960s, and grossly cheaper in inflation dollars. My business flight that cost $1000 30 years ago likely cost $500 today, and we still bitch of the price.

About prices. You used to have to pay a great deal to fly. That’s where you got the service. Today, we spend a couple hundred bucks to fly coast to coast, and complain that we aren’t treated like royalty. Sorry, flights are short, relative to what we do at our destination, and I am happy to trade a low fare for getting to a different location quickly. I’ve looked at train travel, and for price, time, and convenience, it doesn’t at all compare. Face it, even in the Northeast Corridor, where we have the most trains, train travel is an incredible time sink, even if I can get to the train station.

About people. I remember when we put on suits and ties to fly. We were out in public, after all, and cared about how we looked. Today we get all manner of dress, with the trend toward being down-market. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing (it’s good to be comfortably while flying), but it does speak to the change in demographic and attitude brought about by the change in regulation and frequency.

Of course, sometimes it is much more, often for the same seat, depending on when and how we book. Should all seats be the same price, no matter what? The egalitarian nature in us says yes, but the airline wants to fill all of the seats, all of the time. Is that such a bad thing?

I am not opining that today is better, worse, or indifferent. However, I am very much saying that we have a privilege today that we wouldn’t have had 30 years ago. I would not be a frequent traveler in the 1960s. That privilege has been made more difficult than it perhaps should be, based on the events of 9-11 and others, but it is still very much accessible to all of us.

Those who complain about the cost or service on flying today are simply small-minded (and I don’t say that lightly). We are very much getting what we are paying for. We could pay more for better, except that most of us will instead select a lower cost alternative. And please don’t tell me that Southwest or other airline provides better for less; I’ve priced them, I’ve flown them, and they don’t.

And as we compare US carriers with foreign airlines, let me say simply that others are subsidized, or are monopolies, or have not yet discovered the economic realities of mass air travel. Or don’t practice mass air travel for their populations.

That, I think, is the part that we miss as we pine for an earlier era. In that era, the vast majority of us simply would not have flown. To complain of declining service air today is, well, idiocy, sorry.

I Am a Wanted Man May 28, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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In Montclair Township, New Jersey, earlier this month. I was last in New Jersey about eight years ago, at Newark Airport changing planes. I have last driven in New Jersey over 20 years ago.

I have apparently parked in a handicapped parking spot, somewhere, with my car, which at 16 years old has never been to New Jersey.

Okay, I got a summons to appear in Montclair Township Municipal Court. The court clerk was nice enough when I called, which was the only reason I knew that I had supposedly parked in a handicapped spot. Still, she wouldn’t tell me much else, although if I faxed my car registration and a letter attesting I was not there, she would show them to the presiding judge.

I had two thoughts here. First, that this was a shakedown by a cash-strapped local government that just wanted to see how many people would simply pay the fine. Second, that I was the victim of snail mail phishing, or worse, identity theft.

Now, I think it’s mostly an innocent mistake, a misread transcription of a license plate, or a bad database lookup.

I mention all of this as a downside to our data-driven lives. We love it when available data makes our lives easier or more convenient. But it doesn’t always work that way. And when it goes horribly wrong, we believe the data in front of us, even if it was obtained by error, rather than the person on the phone objecting to it.

I think this will work out. But we really need to consider the validity of our data, especially since this may require a trip to New Jersey to straighten out.

I Am a Veteran May 7, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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Of the US military service. It was a while ago, and as an Air Force officer the only thing I flew was a desk. I served with mediocrity, but it gave me a perspective that all too few American adults have today.

But I am incredibly disturbed at the allegations and lack of response of veterans dying because of the machinations of the Department of Veterans Affairs. I have no knowledge other than what is in the press, but the government has already admitted to letting veterans die in order to make their statistics look good.

US Government, stop this. Today. President Obama, stop this now. You can, but you appear unwilling. I won’t say unable, because of course you are able if you cared a whit. Clearly you don’t. The lack of response is worse than incompetent; it is evil. My blog post won’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but it is my blog, and I suppose I can have my say. Apparently I cannot on the VA website, which bizarrely directs me offsite to ask a question. I never realized. Stupid, both me but more importantly them.

I realize that CNN is probably sensationalizing things for their own benefit, and I give allowances for loose journalism. But there is clearly something here that the US government has responsibility for, and is falling far short of that responsibility.

I am not political. I don’t blame this failing on any major or minor political party. But make no mistake. It is a failing. And I can blame those currently in power for not having the desire or courage to do the right thing. This is wrong. You have the power to make it right, and decline to do so. Why do you think your citizens hate government? Most of us really don’t care about the political parties, we would really just like to see a little bit of competence and responsibility.

Is it too much to ask?

My Ongoing Love Affair with Maps May 28, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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As a youth, I traveled vicariously to random parts of the world with paper maps.  My circumstances were such that I had no chance to travel more than a few miles from home while growing up, so my imagination ran free (and largely inaccurately, or at least grandiosely) with my maps.  I requested free maps from government agencies and cajoled maps from various parts of the world with meager funds from my rural paper route.

Today, Google Earth and Bing Maps transport me to distant locals, and much more realistically than a paper map.  The ability to see satellite and equivalent photos of distant lands is more realistic, but leaves less to the imagination.

In April, I chanced to be in Maui; specifically Lahania, walking along the main drag and looking at the shops, mostly selling dreck t-shirts and such.  In such a rarified setting, it is only fitting to discover a gem or two.

(One such gem was a Peter Lik gallery on Front Street.  He’s truly a great photographer.  Apparently he set a record by selling a single print of a photo for one million dollars.)

But I’m writing today about maps, and a few doors down from the Peter Lik gallery was Oceanica, a unique map store that takes old (from the early days of European exploration of Hawaii) maps, digitizes them, and incorporates them in more comprehensive works of art, such as old drawings and photographs.  The combination of art and Hawaiian history in map form is both beautiful and educational, and does far more to stimulate the imagination than Google Earth.

Regrettably, I didn’t want to purchase at the spur of the moment (they weren’t cheap), and the website was difficult to find, woefully incomplete (it still contains lorem ipsum text), and offers no facility for online sales.  I’m hoping that the website soon offers online examination and purchase of some of the store’s works.

Over the last couple of years, I’m finally getting to see some of the places I’ve imagined in my youth, at least in Europe and other parts of the US.  But maps represent my best way of visiting the places I will likely never physically travel to.  And combining that pleasure with art in an historical context is both brilliant and compelling.

Can Airport Security Be Improved? April 15, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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I fly a fair amount, perhaps a dozen or so times a year, and usually to distant locales.  I’ve been to Europe five times in just over a year, and have two more such trips queued up.  I know people who travel much more.  My friend Jim, an application performance management architect, has been home for only two weeks since mid-January.

Unlike many people, I’m generally okay with airport security.  I usually get through pretty quickly and with a minimum of hassle.  I’ve committed the occasional faux paux (most recently, a 5-franc coin at the bottom of my pocket at the checkpoint in Zurich), but the response from security personnel has invariably been polite and exacting.

Clearly that hasn’t been everyone’s experience.  The problem is that we are all unique in our travel needs and expectations, but inspecting thousands of people a day tends to make everyone pretty much the same.

To be fair, the security people don’t like it any more than we do.  It’s a boring, monotonous job that few people respect.  Kip Hawley should know; he headed the TSA for almost four years.  And he’s written about how it is broken, as well as how to improve it.

His primary point is that we are striving for complete safety, when we should be looking at how to manage risk.  There is no catastrophic risk in letting people bring knives on board a plane, as long as they can’t get into the cockpit.  And X-ray machines today can tell if any liquid is a potential bomb, but our security masters don’t want to change a process that is just barely functional to begin with.

There’s no big revelations in his article, but it is a shift to start thinking about how we can adapt airport security to be both functional and level-headed.  Part of the problem is political, of course.  But in a world where we would rather inconvenience all for the sake of past offenses, his words are a welcome change of pace.

An Anniversary of Space Exploration February 18, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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Monday is the 50th anniversary of the first orbital space flight by the US, conducted by John Glenn, fighter pilot, astronaut, and former United States Senator.  While the events of the day were glamorized in the movie (and book) The Right Stuff, these astronauts were more than simply passengers.  They made real time decisions and acted upon them, at the risk of their lives and the success of their mission.  They are permanently ensconced in history in a way few ever experience.

I had the honor of seeing John Glenn once, circa 2001.  He was giving a filmed talk at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum and I happened to be within about 20 feet of him as he talked about the wonders of space flight.

(Many years ago I also shook hands with Neil Armstrong, who spoke at my Boy Scout Council’s Eagle Scout dinner).

I’ve beat this dead horse on multiple occasions, but I’ll do so again.  Sure, the space program creates jobs, but they are pretty much tax-funded jobs, so it’s difficult to distinguish it from other government programs.

But what the space program really does is create technology.  We have technology that we take for granted today that was developed specifically for use in the space program.  We know things about our planet and our universe that we would never have known otherwise.

As Larry Niven said, curiosity is a survival trait.  Let’s continue to invest in our survival.

Where Your Humble Author Travels Europe February 7, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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I’ve been incredibly fortunate over the last year or so to make multiple business trips to Europe.  A significant part of what I do these days involves speaking at software conferences, and I’ve fooled enough people over the last year to manage trips to Zurich (twice, soon to be three times), Germany, and Austria (London is a definite later in the spring, and others are on the horizon).  In the past, I’ve also been to Ireland, the UK, Amsterdam, and Prague.

There are a lot of things I like about Europe.  I regrettably don’t speak any foreign languages beyond a smattering of old high school Spanish, but it turns out that most of Europe speaks at least some English.  I’m especially impressed with Zurich, where most people will address you in German, but switch to excellent English in the middle of a sentence without missing a beat once they see your confused look.

The European cities I’ve seen are wonderful.  My favorite is Zurich, with Vienna in second place.  Potsdam has incredible history and beautiful architecture.

I’ve universally been treated well by everyone I’ve come in contact with.  I’ve heard tales of boorish behavior, but have neither given nor received such responses.

I’ve seen a lot of airports.  Despite ongoing criticism of old and obsolete airports in the US, the ones in Europe are really not noticeably better.  Rhein Main is old, Schiphol is crowded (and security at the US departure gates is slow), and Schwechat is dreary.  Tegel is about to close, and for good reason.  My last flight from Tegel was cancelled, leaving me in the dark as to how to even begin getting home (I did, and I was even early).

The streets in most cities are mazes (though you can say the same thing about Boston), but the public transportation is largely better, more useful, and better utilized.

My world smartphone does well there, with its GSM SIM providing a quality of service that makes it seem like science fiction.  I am old enough to remember that you knew when you were having a transatlantic phone call.  Not anymore; the US is right next door.  Itinerant Internet access costs more, and seems to be even more unreliable than in any random city in the States.  I’m told that Europe doesn’t have Netflix streaming or video by mail, so you have to buy many of the movies you want to view at home.

The food in Germany is a bit heavy for my taste; while similar in Austria, it is somewhat lighter and more enjoyable.  As long as it is cooked, I’ll pretty much try anything once, an amazing reversal for someone who was once the ultimate picky eater.  If that’s not your speed, American comfort food is readily available, and pizza and US fast food are regrettably ubiquitous.

The world is largely a good place; go visit it.

Google and the Culture of Technology Sales January 27, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Strategy, Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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I have a lot of respect for professional salespeople in the aggregate, especially in the technology sector.  It’s not a skill that I have, and I am well aware that their efforts and results pay for my services.  When push comes to shove, tech companies only need people who make the product and people who sell the product (and I am neither).  And they really don’t need people who make that product, at least in the short term, because a good sales person can sell last year’s product, or sell a product that doesn’t yet exist.

But the culture is one that is foreign to me.  Salespeople are both encouraged and incentivized to remove barriers to a sale, and that’s largely a good thing (a sales engineer friend cynically refers to this as “lie until they buy”).

But barriers can also exist for legitimate reasons.  For example, lowering the price until the sale is no longer profitable makes sense only in the most exceptional situation, such as if there is a strong expectation of future business at a better price.

Or there may be legal restrictions on a sale, such as certain pharmaceutical sales of unapproved drugs in the US.  It turns out that it is also a crime to advertise such products, which is what got Google into hot water not long ago (sorry, great article, but largely behind a paywall).  In the sting described in this article, Google sales executives enabled a man playing a role as an illegal drug provider to bypass the company’s own restrictions against such advertising.  In the end, Google paid a $500 million fine rather than be prosecuted.  Apparently there was some evidence that problems with these advertisements were well known within the company up to an including Larry Page.

The incentives to making the sale can be significant.  Certainly there is the individual component, both in sales commissions and in the recognition of your peers and management.  In most tech companies, the best sales professionals go to “Club”, a fully-paid motivational trip to an exotic locale (Hawaii and Caribbean resorts are common).

But the pressure on sales professionals can be significant.  They have quotas that are often unrealistic, and sometimes don’t get good support from the rest of the company.  They are often the “first up against the wall when the revolution occurs”.  And sometimes the line between legitimate and illegal doesn’t seem all that clear.

None of this is meant to condone Google’s likely illegal behavior in this matter, or to apologize for boorish and occasionally illicit sales behavior in general.  But I want to point out that at ground level, it’s at least understandable, if often ugly and ambiguous.

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