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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Involuntary denied boarding - right or wrong?

For 35 years I've been a frequent flyer. Not once have I been denied boarding because of an oversold condition, much less been chosen involuntarily to "de-board" (what a word!). Three reasons why I've avoided this:
  • My status in frequent flyer programs. Airlines go out of their way not to anger their most frequent flyers.
  • People flying on business usually pay high fares because they buy their tickets on short notice. When administering an oversale, airlines often sort passengers based on how much they paid for their tickets: lowest priced, first off.
  • I avoid booking a flight if no advance seat assignment is available — an indication of a possible oversale. Although holding a seat assignment is no prophylactic against misfortune, holding a reservation without a seat advancement (except on airlines like Southwest that don't offer preassigned seats) is asking for trouble. By the way, Southwest does oversell.
Nevertheless, IDB (Involuntarily Denied Boarding) happens to other people and someday it may happen to me.

It's easy to criticize the airlines for overselling, but think about it. People who hold reservations sometimes don't show up at the last hour for a variety of reasons. Often times it's business people whose schedules get screwy; we rebook our flights at the last minute. Sometimes people traveling for personal reasons like vacations become ill or have a flat tire or don't arrive early enough at the airport to complete check-in and screening. No doubt, airline employees who work at ticket counters have heard 10,001 explanations, most of which are probably truthful, for missing a flight.

An airline could choose the most conservative policy to never, ever oversell. (For many years JetBlue took this approach; I don't know whether they still do.) The statistically likely consequence would be unused seats on flights. Some people wanted to travel on those not-full-at-departure flights, but a strict policy never to overbook would force them onto other flights instead. Those are silent inconveniences that you'll never hear about.

Furthermore, airlines run on relatively thin profit margins. They make their money with volume. On a 150-seat airplane, the difference between carrying 140 passengers and carrying 150 is often the difference between profit and loss for that flight. Why are airline margins so tight? The Southwest effect. Twenty years ago when Southwest was still an insignificant factor in the airline industry, ticket prices were relatively high and "load factors" — the average percentage of seats sold — could be as low as 60% for an airline to make money. Now ticket prices are relatively low, and filling an airplane is more important. Oversales help the airlines offer low fares. The government could absolutely prohibit overbooking, but the effect would be higher ticket prices. Is that what you want? Maybe, maybe not.

The attitude of the government has been that the free market should sort this out. The government does set minimums for IDB compensation, and the government does publish the rates at which each airline has IDBs. ("Involuntarily" means the gate agent could not buy cooperation by offering vouchers or, in the most rare of circumstances, hard cash.)

Let me make two other points. You might think your seat is safe after you've boarded, but actually your seat is not safe until the airplane leaves the ground. I've seen planes pull away from the gate, taxi, return to the gate, change passengers, and then leave the gate again. It happens, although seldom.

Lastly, an airline reserves the right to put its own employees on a flight and to remove you to make room for them. This can happen even when a flight has not been oversold. To illustrate, assume that 100 people board a plane that has 100 seats. There was no oversale. Suddenly and unexpectedly a replacement pilot is needed in the city that the flight is destined for. The airline has the authority to remove a passenger so that the pilot can take that seat. This happens every day, but usually the airline induces someone to relinquish a seat voluntarily. If incentives don't work, however — on the day before Thanksgiving, incentives don't — fewer people overall might be inconvenienced by denying boarding to one person.

Can this be abused? Definitely. A poorly run airline can find itself short a crew member simply because of the airline's own incompetence. And there's always the possibility that the CEO of the airline bumps a paying passenger. But think twice about eliminating an airline's flexibility to put its own employees on a flight that has no empty seat.

The last word: avoid United. American and Delta treat their customers better.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Getting elected is different from governing

Corresponding with a friend in the U.K., I found myself explaining why President Donald Trump did not have enough support from Republicans in Congress to repeal Obamacare. In countries like the U.K. that use the Westminster system, failure of a prime minister to win a big vote often leads to dissolution of Parliament and a new election. The U.S. Congress isn't like that.

But more importantly, the episode illuminates the difference between getting elected and governing. The former takes only a crude coalition of voters on a given day. In the case of Trump, he was elected by an uncohesive coalition:

  • Middle-class Americans aggrieved by lost economic opportunity, allegedly attributable to globalization.
  • Religious conservatives.
  • Secular but ideological conservatives (e.g. Ayn Rand followers, deficit hawks), many of whom lean Libertarian.
  • Upper-class New England elites (a traditional Republican constituency).
  • The wealthy who want their taxes reduced.
  • The military-industrial complex that wants an increase in defense spending.
Trump and his campaign operatives succeeded in getting such a diverse coalition into polling booths last November in sufficient quantity to win… a remarkable achievement, regardless of one's political persuasion. Governing, however, requires a carefully crafted, long-term coalition of politicians and political agents. The six groups I've identified have different ideas about what Trump should do in office. It's no surprise that the Trump administration appears inconsistent.

By the way, this situation is not unique to Trump or even the Republican Party. Democratic President Jimmy Carter had basically the same situation in 1977, and like Trump he tended to staff the Oval Office and his Cabinet with people from outside Washington. Although the post-1981 Carter became a figure beloved by nearly everyone, the pre-1981 Carter was so unpopular that he failed to win reelection. Indeed, Senator Ted Kennedy nearly defeated Carter for the Democratic nomination.

Will 2020 be a repeat of 1980?

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

What sportswriters do

Many of you follow sports. But if you don't, perhaps the next blog I write will be of interest to you.

These are things you should know about sportswriters, based on my personal experiences at Georgia Tech where I was sports editor of the campus newspaper, an occasional radio commentator, a liaison for radio and TV broadcasters of visiting teams, and a statistician for football and basketball. I also wrote the Yellow Jacket Confidential (a weekly, paid-subscription newsletter during football season) and was occasionally hired by newspapers in Georgia as a stringer. When I received my undergrad degree in electrical engineering in 1976, I briefly considered working for the Atlanta Constitution or Atlanta Journal but made a sane decision not to.

  • 80% of sportswriters don't care who wins. This is not merely an attitude; it's fundamental to the profession. 15% care but keep it to themselves and don't let it affect their writing. 5% are unprofessional and will be treated harshly by peers or weeded out by editors.
  • What sportswriters really want is a good story. They dream at night about getting an exclusive on a good story, and they don't care what kind of story it is: winning streak, losing streak, hired coach, fired coach, player who triumphs over personal difficulty, player who goes to jail, etc. Just give me a story to tell. The longer the story lasts and the more depth it develops, the better.
  • The worst game from the perspective of a sportswriter is when a heavily-favored team wins by exactly the spread, with no unpredictability, no controversy, no injury, no spectacular play, no human interest such as a sub finally getting a chance to play, etc. You pray that you don't have to write up a game like that.
  • Sportswriters know much, much more about the teams and athletes they cover than you do.
  • Most sportswriters don't care what you think about what they wrote, although some of them enjoy conversations with knowledgeable and objective fans. They care a lot, however, about what their peers think of their writing.
  • Many sportswriters happen to be writing about sports at this time in their lives but are broadly talented and may move on to other forms of journalism, books, etc. My favorite example is Lewis Grizzard, whom I met when he was little known.
  • Being a columnist is more challenging than covering a beat. Columnists are required to be interesting, insightful, moving, funny, or provocative every time they write. They must find their own inspiration for their columns and must not "go on vacation" (that is, have a dry spell) very often.
  • Sportswriters are people and, like you and I, they have natural reactions to the people whom they write about. Some coaches and athletes are likable and cooperative. Others are neither, but a sportswriter does not have license to ignore someone who is unpleasant. The story must be written.
  • Most sportswriters are good people who love what they do. They don't make a lot of money, they constantly tap their reservoirs of creativity, they travel on very tight budgets, they put up with obnoxious editors and publishers, they are criticized by readers, they are sometimes anathematized by athletes and coaches, etc. They don't always come across to the public as good people, but often that's attributable to a defensive persona which they feel forced to don or sheer lack of energy when they're off-duty.
  • (Caution: I am told by a sportswriter that this item is no longer true.) A few sportswriters hardly watch the game they're reporting on. Instead they eat the press box food, chat with their colleagues, etc. The real work starts when the game is over, particularly if there is a tight deadline. The teams' publicity departments provide statistics, play-by-play summaries, quotes from players and coaches, etc. If you read critically a writeup of a game, you may be able whether the author paid attention to it while it was happening or didn't. (Of all the press boxes I went into, only Tulane gave out free beer. A fair number of writers at those games were completely plastered as they finger-pecked stories on their manual typewriters.)
  • Sportscasters, except for the regional and national networks, tend to be less objective than sportswriters employed by media. Often the sportscasters are paid, directly or indirectly, by the teams whose games they announce. You can believe what they say, but the question is what are they not telling you that they know. The best sportscasters transcend their relationships with their employers.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

27 years of online shopping

Gail and I enjoy a particular brand of shampoo. We buy it online by the gallon, which lasts two years. Every other month or so, I refill a dispenser in the shower from the gallon jug. Recently I had to buy another gallon. I wondered, when was the first time I bought it online?

To my astonishment, the answer: 1999.

I placed that order at www.discountblvd.com, according to the email receipt. They went out of business a few years later — as did many of the pioneers in online shopping. One month later in 1999, I ordered a pre-release Steely Dan CD from a vendor that was new to me, Amazon. About 400 email receipts from Amazon are filed in the "eCommerce" folder on my laptop. Buying from Amazon is now a weekly event, if not more often, in this household. The most recent order was for Tamanishiki rice, a fabulous product from California that we get in four-pound sacks.

Of course, Amazon is not the only online merchant I buy from. Some of the others: 1000bulbs.com, eBay, Big Tall Direct, StubHub, Ticketmaster, Dell, OfficeMax, Woot, LL Bean, JC Whitney, Penneys, Papa John's, USPS, and Joseph A Banks.

My first online order was a vanilla-flavored tea. I don't remember the name of the underlying merchant, only that they were located in Toronto. The order went through the Prodigy portal. This would have been 1990 or thereabouts; Prodigy had just released a client for the Macintosh, and in those days we were a Mac household. The tea was excellent but its price on Prodigy was outrageous. I did the order for the novelty of it. One of Prodigy's big mistakes, as it turns out, was an assumption that online shoppers would pay premium prices for rare items because of the convenience of online shopping. When Jeff Bezos started Amazon, he took the opposite view: online shopping should offer lower prices across a broad inventory. Books and CDs were merely his entry point. Prodigy dwindled to nothing, and Amazon is worth $400 billion. Sam Walton had the same idea: price does matter.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Tips for London

Many of my friends in the U.S. are thinking about summer vacation. The British Pound is down to $1.25, so it's a great time to visit the U.K. To put this in perspective, the pound was $1.70 just several years ago. The all-time low of the pound against the U.S. Dollar was $1.05 in 1985. No one can predict what will happen to the pound, but $1.25 is very attractive from the perspective of history. So if you've been thinking about the U.K., go now.

I have spent about one-quarter of the last six years in or around London. Here are a few travel tips:

  • If you fly into Heathrow and land in the early morning, bite the bullet and take the pricey Heathrow Express to Paddington station where you can easily get a taxi to your hotel. During the inbound morning rush hour, the less expensive Heathrow Connect trains to Paddington are packed, the M4 highway into London is clogged, and the subway ("tube" or "Underground") stations will be congested too. And be mindful that most tube stations do not have escalators or elevators ("lifts"). Dragging your heavy bags up one flight of stairs after another is no fun. With Heathrow Express you will not have to climb a single stairway between Heathrow and your hotel.
  • Instead of the traditional overnight flight eastbound, look for a "day flight" that leaves the U.S. in the morning and arrives at Heathrow in the late evening. These are so much easier on one's body! You may have to connect to a flight at New York, Washington Dulles, Boston, or Chicago, but it's worth the inconvenience.
  • Find a hotel in tube Zone 2. It will probably be less expensive than a hotel in Zone 1, it will probably be quieter in the evenings, and restaurants nearby are certain not to be overrun by tourists.
  • Wherever you stay, don't start a journey on the tube before 9 am or you will compete with a million plus people who commute into the center of London for work. By 9:30 the tube system has cleared out. Many tourist attractions don't open early in the morning, anyway. The evening rush hour is more spaced out and less of a timing challenge.
  • If you have any one-pound coins, be sure to spend them. New coins are being issued, and the old ones will become invalid for commerce in October. Likewise, if you have paper notes from long ago, you may find that they're invalid — but a bank might have mercy on you and exchange them for new notes. Americans are not used to thinking that old money becomes invalid, but that's how it works in most of the world.
  • Before you leave the U.S., order a London Travelcard or a visitor Oyster card. Almost all ticket windows at tube stations have been closed, and queues at the remaining tube stations can be quite lengthy during tourist season. For the Travelcard, zones 1-2 are sufficient. For four days or less, go with the Oyster card. In any event, don't plan to buy individual tickets on the tube; that's the most expensive way to go.
  • The bus may be as fast as the tube for some journeys, and you will see more of the city on a bus. But I mean a TfL (Transport for London) bus, not a tourist bus. I am not fond of the tourist bus.
  • Don't spend your entire holiday in London. It's easy to make day-trips by train. I recommend Brighton, Portsmouth, Bath, Bletchley (for Bletchley Park), Henley-on-Thames (via river from Reading), Whitstable, and Winchester. You can save a lot of money by buying your train tickets in advance. You can retrieve prepaid tickets from a machine at the departing train station in London. By the way, pay attention in the London train stations. Track information is often not posted until 15 or even 10 minutes before departure. When you see the track posted, move quickly.
  • Find a pub that still serves true English beers and ales on tap. Globalization has had its unfortunate impacts, and you will find that Beck's, Peroni, Heineken, etc. are everywhere. Authentic English beer and ale is a national treasure. If a pub sells only the continental European products, move on.
  • London has more things to see and do that you could possibly visit in a week. I've been to the following: Abbey Road Studios, British Library, British Museum, Buckingham Palace (State Rooms), Churchill War Rooms, City Museum of London, Corthauld Gallery, Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, Hampton Court Palace, HMS Belfast, HMS Wellington, Harrods, Imperial War Museum, Kensington Palace, London Canal Museum, London Symphony Orchestra, London Transport Museum, Millennium Bridge, National Gallery, National Maritime Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, Royal Observatory Greenwich, Saatchi Gallery, Shard, St Paul's Cathedral, Tate Modern, Thames boat tour, Tower of London, V&A Museum, Wallace Collection, Westminster Abbey, Whitechapel Gallery, Wigmore Hall, Windsor Castle, and 10 Downing St. They're all worth seeing. My favorites? Hampton Court Palace, Kew gardens, Wigmore Hall (closed for much of the summer), National Maritime Museum, London Canal Museum, Courthald, Saatchi, the V&A, and St Paul's.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Make American Great Again?

If your point of reference is military and economic might that exceeds any other nation's, I have only one response: Dream on. This is not 1946 when war had devastated every major country in the world — except us. The U.S. achieved military and economic dominance in the 1950s because there was no competition.

Given how few high schools in the U.S. teach history of the 20th century, I am not surprised by the small number of Americans who understand this. The world in 1946 was ours for the taking, and we took it. But as soon as those other countries began to recover, life got more complicated. First the competition came from Germany, whose automobiles were obviously better than ours. Then came Japan, whose electronics were obviously better than ours. Then came China. It took them longer because the Japanese did horrendous things to China in World War II and then Chairman Mao shredded his country with his Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. But the Chinese are resilient and persistent.

Meanwhile we now see that our purported adversary to the death, the Soviet Union, was an economic weakling all along. Deprivation during World War I caused the Russian Revolution. The Russian people had not recovered when Stalin's Great Purge killed a million or two in 1936-1938. In terms of casualties and destruction, the Soviet Union was the big loser in World War II in every respect. Although Stalin grabbed a lot of territory in 1945-1948 and the Russians did develop the bomb, they were never a serious economic threat. Only the late discovery of natural gas makes Russia relevant to today's world economy.

The late historian Stephen Ambrose made waves in the 1970s when he said in plain language that the U.S. was the big winner of World War II. Americans were not accustomed to hearing the message in those terms, but he was bang on. Prior to 1939, the U.S. was merely one of many players on the world scene; for decades after, we were the unchallenged number one. But now the U.S. represents only 24% of the world's economy. Europe has the same 24%. China has 12% and continues to grow rapidly. You cannot turn the clock back to the 1950s because that decade was a fluke.

And if you smugly say that the U.S. retains technical superiority, are you aware that one-third of the patents filed worldwide last year came from China?

Yes, we still have a measure of military superiority, but at no time since 1945 have we been able to impose our will anywhere without cost. North Korea still exists, our intervention in Vietnam was a total failure, and more recently our interventions in the Middle East have done little to entrench peace and tolerance. Note that to achieve such a measure of military superiority, we spend $10,000 per household in America on our military each year. Other nations are able to spend that money on infrastructure, health care, education, or quality of life.

I am no fan of the messiah of many hardcore conservatives, Ayn Rand, but I believe she would puke in the toilet if told that Americans are taxed at $10,000 per household per annum to sustain a standing military. That's not what she left Russia for.

As for making America great again, I prefer this version over President Trump's (language NSFW):

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Michael Peterson is not free

If you don't know the Michael Peterson story, read this Wikipedia article.
Kathleen Atwater was my good friend. Both of us had engineering educations yet loved the arts and discussions far afield from telecommunications. Her office was a few doors down from mine. We shared the frustrations and the occasional victories of middle management in a large corporation. We shared the uncertainties and fears that pervaded the business after the Internet bubble burst in 2001. We shared the ups and downs of raising teenagers. We flirted without intent.

And on a few occasions, I went to her house for a party and interacted with her husband Michael Peterson. He was enigmatic, both accessible and inaccessible in an odd way. When it became known that he had exaggerated his military decorations, I didn't trust him. But, I thought, live and let live. Although I had heard Kathleen say that her marriage was troublesome, many people griped about their marriages at work. Michael was always cordial to me, and I respected his profession as a newspaper columnist — a job I envy. I read one of his novels that Kathleen gave me. Not Dostoyevsky, but good.

When I first heard that Kathleen had died in her home on a stairway that I myself had walked down, I assumed she had fallen while inebriated. Despite weighing less than 100 pounds, I'm certain, she could put away wine. Remember Raiders of the Lost Ark? The Karen Allen character, Marian — also a lithe, short, feisty woman — twice drank a man under the table. That was Kathleen, and she could have a lot of fun and generate a lot of fun for everyone else in the process.

A day later the reports of Kathleen's death became ominous. As the facts came out, there was no doubt in my mind that Michael had killer her.

I went to Kathleen's funeral at Duke Chapel. Those of us who believed Michael guilty, sat on the left. Those who believed Michael innocent, sat on the right. We stared across the aisle uneasily to see which side our acquaintances had chosen while the organ played Barber's somber Adagio for Strings. The two sides kept separate when leaving.

Months later I was interviewed on background by a reporter from the News and Observer. Placed on the list of potential witnesses by the prosecution, I was never called because I had no unique insight or facts to provide. I took a day off from work to attend the trial with its circus atmosphere and to see Michael in person from the back row of the courtroom. Much of the time, the movie crew from France blocked my view.

The verdict was announced while I was at my desk at work. Guilty! I found myself surrounded by blood-thirsty comrades who hoped that Michael would get the death penalty. I refrained from that; I've demonstrated at Central Prison in Raleigh for abolition of the death penalty. Besides, the Durham County prosecutor had already ruled it out. Michael went to prison pending appeal, and I believed justice had been done —  not merely for Kathleen, but for Michael's first wife.

You know what happened. The conviction was rightfully overturned because of procedural errors. Last week Michael submitted an Alford plea to voluntary manslaughter. He and his lawyer maintain innocence, but don't be misled by courtroom procedure in North Carolina. He did it.

The public and the irreversibly alienated families of Kathleen and Michael are spared a second trial. He was sentenced to less time than he had already served, and he now walks the streets.

But I say he's not free, and thus I can accept the outcome. He stands convicted of intentionally taking another person's life, and he will live with that infamy for the rest of his. Tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, perhaps he will kneel and seek forgiveness, but he's not free of his memories. He never shall be. Nor will those of us who knew Kathleen.