Monthly Archive: April 2017

United Airlines and how to not treat any paying customer

By now many of you will have read or seen the story of a paying passenger who was physically removed by law enforcement from a United Airlines flight. The underlying cause of the issue was that airlines routinely overbook seats on flights, in order to take account of no-shows and people who fail to arrive at the departure zone on time for other reasons. In this case, passengers did not volunteer to give up their seats in order to address the overbooking situation, so the airline arbitrarily decided to bump a passenger who, since he had paid for a seat and was a medical doctor with patients to see, declined to be bumped. At which point United had him removed from the plane by law enforcement in a way that caused him bodily injury.
The United CEO has, inexplicably, refused to issue an unconditional apology and has instead chosen to defend the airline publicly.
There are a bunch of different backdrops to this issue, but here are a few that spring to mind.

1. United Airlines has a worse reputation than many airlines for customer service, in an industry that has a lot of deep-seated dysfunctions when it comes to customer service. There was a good reason why a disgruntled passenger started the website a few years ago. (This site is now being subjected to a campaign of lawsuits from United Airlines in order to shut it down.)
2. The airline industry routinely overbooks planes and (mostly) gets away with it. The strange thing in all of this is that buying and paying for a ticket does not automatically give a passenger the right to be carried on the flight that they booked. This is definitely at odds with most other industries, where if you book a service, you expect to avail yourself of the service at the specific date and time, and you can sue the provider for breach of contract if that does not occur.
3. Airlines continue to get away with these sorts of behaviors because, at the end of the day, their stock prices and business performance do not suffer. As this article makes clear, consumers are not willing to punish airlines sufficiently for poor attention to customer service to get the attention of airline leaders and stockholders.
Another article makes the same point using stock price diagrams. Bad treatment of customers pays off.

The bottom line is that airline behaviors will only change when consumers refuse to buy airline tickets from airlines who provide bad customer service, or who engage in devious business practices. So it is up to We The Customers.


Day 3 of vacation and we are in…Sin City

So, by a process of (mostly) straight-line driving, we have arrive in that most surreal of recreational locations.
Las Vegas.
My relationship with Las Vegas could fairly be described as ambivalent. For me, in terms of cities, Las Vegas is the equivalent of the major motorway accident that you come across, where you know you should not be looking at the mess, but part of you takes over and you start rubber-necking. I find Vegas to be equal parts fascinating, bizarre and kitschy. When I first arrived here in 1999 to see a Long-EZ at North Las Vegas airport, I found myself driving along the Strip in broad daylight, then North. The city seemed to be a collection of butt-ugly concrete jungles, interspersed with ersatz scale model clones of most of the Wonders Of The World. The effect was…jarring. That, plus the fact that I found a slot machine in a restoom at McCarran Airport.
It is difficult, at least some of the time, to fathom how a low desert basin became home to one of the great monuments to excess and self-indulgence. I suspect that what really enabled Las Vegas to grow into a major resort was the creation of the Hoover Dam, which created Lake Mead, a source of year-round fresh water, and generated electricity for the many high-consumption light arrays that would slowly appear on what is now known as “The Strip”.
So, thanks partly to government building programs (a lesson to all of the laissez-fair pseudo libertarians who persist in asserting that All Government Is Bad), I am sitting on the 27th Floor of Treasure Island Resort, looking out across the world’s largest mall-cum-hotel-cum-casino-cum-all-you-can-eat-watch-and-imbibe center.
Mary and Catherine have gone off to walk the Strip and then watch Cirque de Soleil, which leaves me time to reflect on the vacation thus far, and summarize some salient points.

1. The Grand Canyon is an example of the simple rendered impressive by sheer size
All young rivers, given enough time, wear holes in the bedrock on which they sit. However, it takes a special set of circumstances for a single river to relentless carve its way through thousands of feet of sedimentary rocks, finally reaching much older (Archaen) rocks, which it is now also carving down through, albeit much more slowly. This, in geographical or geological terms, is not in the slightest bit remarkable. However, the results are visually spectacular.
The Grand Canyon was probably formed in the last 6 million years by an at-times-very-large Colorado River, swollen by different palaeoclimates and the water run-off from the Pleistocene ice ages.
The youngest currently visible rocks that form the surrounding plateau are 270 million years old, but there were probably much younger rocks above those top layers that have already been removed by earlier erosion events.
The sheer size of the Grand Canyon (nearly 300 miles long) gives it a special place in the world’s great natural features. The size is only apparent when you actually stand on one side and look across to the other side. Below, there are numerous deeply dissected channels, some only flowing with water once every few years, some dry today. In the middle, the Colorado River looks insignificant from above, even though it is an impressive-sized river. The river is very slowly carving down through the much older bedrocks of the North American continent, rocks that have been altered over billions of years in a way that makes them very tough, unlike the much softer sandstones and limestones that form the variously colored layered walls of the canyon.
Like all large structures, one needs to hike down into the depths and explore. We had no time to do that, but I certainly want to do that.

2. Railway lines are friends, and information sources
For a large percentage of this trip, we have been driving in parallel with the main BNSF railroad across the United States. This is a busy freight line, with dozens of trains a day in both directions. It is partly double track, and partly single track with numerous passing loops. There are lots of trains stopped in loops awaiting other train arrivals at the loop so that the train can get back on the single track and start moving again.
These trains are like a microcosm of the transportation of goods and raw materials. We see commercial and private shipping containers, truck trailers of various types, raw materials carriers, petroleum carriers, ore and coal hopper wagons, all being pulled and pushed by multiple BNSF diesel locomotives. These locos are rates at between 4000 and 4400 hp each, and many trains have up to 6 locos, pushing out 24000+ hp to propel the trains.
Some of the trains are ludicrously long. We came across one train that comprised two separate rakes of mixed container wagons, heading west, but coupled in the middle. At the front were three diesel locomotives, in the middle were 2 more diesel locomotives, and two more diesel locomotives at the rear. The whole train was probably close to 2 miles long, rolling steadily west at around 50 miles an hour, presumably using LocoTrol to sync up and operate all of the remote locomotives from the front locos. It was so long that none of our camera lenses could cover its entire length.

3. Navigation style differences between men and women can be intractable
Mary and I have different approaches to navigation. I am adopting the careful interpretation that this is more to do with the difference between how the sexes tend to view driving.
Many men (myself included) regard driving as a skill to be practiced and refined. The art of keeping a car well balanced while negotiating curves, hills and bends, is one that I personally find to be fun.
However, when it comes to navigation input, I consistently and persistently struggle with both electronic navigation aids like GPS, and with humans.
GPS devices have a tendency to lag, informing you some of the time that you should have taken the exit that you just passed. I think we can all guess how welcome that message is likely to be. They also sometimes provide bizarre routes to a destination, which a local expert would burst out laughing at. I learned, via a couple of unpleasant incidents where a GPS device sent me in totally the wrong direction to an important event, to have a healthy skepticism for the accuracy and fidelity of GPS devices. I sometimes ignore the GPS if I know or suspect that it is giving me a bum steer.
This is going to be the subject of a much longer posting…but the main challenge for me when driving in a higher-intensity zone is that Mary does not consistently provide navigation directions in a way that I can rapidly incorporate into driving actions. (For the hold-the-wheel-straight straight-line parts of journeys, there is no navigation to speak of).
Here’s the underlying issue.
If I am focussing to a large extent on Driving The Car, I need short, concise and non-ambiguous directions that I can immediate translate to a car driving action. A direction like “Take Exit 12A, stay right” is instantly processable, provided it is timely. (Saying that instruction when I am passing the exit is a cardinal navigational sin, on a par with a cricket bowler chucking, or a baseball pitcher tampering with the ball).
By contrast, an instruction that comprises “You should have gone the opposite way” fails the usefulness test on just about every level. It tells me I just made a mistake. OK. But it provides no clear, unambiguous instruction about what I should do NOW. If I am on a road with a junction that I turned left onto, I could infer that I should perform a u-turn. However, that might not be allowed, or it might not be the best answer. What I need is another navigation instruction that is clear, concise and actionable. If it comprises “do u turn when able”, then so be it. We all make mistakes. But a lengthy silence or a string of “I dunno” responses is the sort of thing that rapidly causes me to want to stop the car and start screaming.
All of this has led to some…friction on this trip.
This issue is not exactly new. Many people have commented on the difference in navigation approaches between the sexes. The issue is sort of understood in the worlds of biology and science. I might be better at navigation (who knows? My spouse probably differs), but I sure as hell am lousy at remembering where I put my damn keys. (If there is one personal failing that is likely to drive me to a mini-meltdown, it is being unable to find valuable and/or important small stuff).
In the meantime, an uneasy tension always fills the air whenever the topic of navigation comes up. I have to admit that my patience is fairly miniscule on this topic. Probably not a good admission.


Authoritarianism, grifting and what it should teach progressives

Back in 1992, I watched from the UK as Ross Perot came from nowhere to capture a significant share of the vote in the Presidential Election campaign.
While I liked a lot of the overall approach of Perot, it was very easy to see, even from 5000 miles away, that he would have made a poor President. Like many entrepreneurial builders of corporations, he saw government as just like a business, only bigger, and relished the chance to impose his own brand of “business discipline” on it, not realizing that the US governmental system is not built to facilitate command and control by a single person. He would have been a miserable, frustrated POTUS.
Now we have an even more extreme example as POTUS, and it is every bit as bad as I feared. Donald Trump makes Ross Perot look like a genius every day.
However, Donald Trump is not some left-field aberration. His appearance on the national political scene is the end result of over 40 years of progressively more strident resentment politicking from the GOP.
Which brings me to a more detailed consideration of what is known as “grift”.
A lot of the promulgation of resentment politics has been via talk radio, and other forums dominated by aggressive, contentious commentators at the authoritarian end of the political spectrum. Those kinds of channels require money to operate, and there is plenty of money fuelling that communications process. Some of it comes from rich donors, some of it comes from advertising, but some of it comes from old fashioned grift. Call it begging or pleading, or call it the selling of snake oil, asking for money is as old as the hills, as organized religions show us.
The history of grifting by authoritarian groups affiliated with the GOP and other organizations in that area of the political spectrum is a long and sometimes sordid one. Almost every crackpot website that I read by End Times proponents, and SovCits, contains some variant of the crawler at the bottom of the browser window saying “send money”.
In some cases, the money is not going to any useful political activity. There is an entire infrastructure of web sites and movements whose leaders are living off of grift, just like the televangelists, whose tactics they often adopt. They trade in FUD and demand money to “protect the USA from evil”.
Unfortunately, as we have seen in the USA since 9/11, fear sells.
The obsession with persuading supporters to cough up money is interesting on another level however. It shows that authoritarians, unlike many progressives, realized a long time ago that if politics runs on money, they should be collecting as much of their own as possible. In politics, money is always very useful.
A lot of the issues that the progressive end of the political spectrum has with messaging are due to lack of money, which is in turn fuelled by a conviction that politics ought not to be driven by money, so they will refuse to go grubbing for dollars.
This is somewhat self-defeating.
The current alternate universe information dissemination echo chamber in the authoritarian area of the internet has become pervasive due to the application of large sums of money over a very long period of time by rich individuals and PACs. The contrast with progressive communication channels is an instructive one. There is no progressive talk radio infrastructure worth a damn in the USA since Air America ceased operations. At one time, by virtue of having progressives in the IT innovation space, progressive organizations knew how to use the internet better, but those days are gone, and there is a lot of evidence that outside authoritarian entities have learned how to manipulate the online world in order to distort messaging and simulate popularity.
The reason for a lack of progressive channels has a lot to do with both lack of money, but also the lack of a progressive power structure that matches the networks of authoritarians. Authoritarian followers are always more cohesive than progressive followers, since many of them are happy to be told what to do. Progressives are, almost by definition, mostly freethinkers. Think “herding cats”. Many of them also believe that money is grubby and that ideas should speak for themselves.
There is a somewhat complacent worldview in many progressive groups that believes that America is undergoing a demographic transformation which will see the regressives die off. This is a flawed analysis. It assumes the continuation of a level electoral playing field, and as we are seeing, the GOP is not interested in a level playing field. It wants to tilt the playing field in its favor, distorting the electoral process at all levels to enshrine a permanent GOP majority. (The ends justifies the means as far as the GOP is concerned, since they see progressivism as an existential threat, and are often unable to distinguish between dissent and disloyalty).
The 2016 election should have been a wake-up call to progressives in the USA. I fear that the message has still not been properly absorbed.
In order to avoid the permanent distortion of the electoral process, which will lead to decades of authoritarian rule, progressives need to be able to do several things that they have shown themselves to be poor at doing in the past:

1. Organize around a simple set of coherent, short, appealing messages
2. Repeat the messages and not get trapped into using the other side’s terminology (see Lakoff, George)
3. Be prepared to FUND FUND FUND. Call it grifting if you must, but money makes the political process go round.
4. Be prepared to use economic power in other ways such as boycotting corporations who align themselves with their opponents, or do not behave equitably. If there are 60 million progressives in the USA, and 6 million of them stop buying goods from a major corporation, that will have a significant impact.


So the POTUS didn’t ask for permission from the Legislative Branch before bombing Syria? Well No Shit Sherlock

Folks here is one of my lessons in practical US governance.
The House of Representatives and the Senate have no real interest in requiring any POTUS to get permission before committing US forces to action around the world. Never mind what some elected representatives might talk about or proclaim as part of their regular public strutting, watch what they actually do (HINT: Nothing of consequence).
Part of the reason is that many specific operations are covert, and so cannot be disclosed or debated in advance.
However, the main reason is that if the HoR or the Senate does not intervene, they get to have it both ways. If the military action is seen to be a success, they get to pass motions congratulating US forces, attend parades and homecomings in their states or districts, and generally bathe in reflected glory. If the action is perceived to be a failure, then they get to walk away and blame the POTUS for “misadventure” or some such, while burnishing their credentials as Real Americans (TM) by attending funeral and memorial events.
Cynical, moi? On this subject, yep. Very.


Phrases that are useless and dangerous that need to be retired

Folks, there are a small number of phrases which I look for in postings and comments on the internet as part of my process of trying to determine whether I ought to take the posting or comment seriously.
Apart from juvenile nonsense like “libtard” and “drumpf”, I look for accusations based on strawman stereotypes (“you libs” being a classic example).
I also tend to discount people complaining about tone and style instead of substance. If they want to complain that I hurt their feelings, they need to have a damn good reason that shows I was unnecessarily unpleasant to them, or I am going to wave that off. There is a term for it in discussion forums. It’s called tone trolling.
However, there are some words and phrases that are certain to trigger my bullshit detector and give me a powerful incentive to discount the words I read.
Here is my current list of words and phrases.
Political Correctness
Absent a clear definition for this in the context of the posting or comment, it’s a slogan that has no clear meaning. I will also observe that a significant percentage of the people complaining about “political correctness” usually proceed to write like juvenile jerks.
Fake News
This is a term which usually means “anything I read on the Internet that I don’t like or agree with”. It’s use shows laziness in thinking and argument.
This is used most of the time by people engaging in weapons-grade projection.


Rule #1 of capitalism and internet privacy elimination

You may have noticed that the House of Representatives has passed legislation this week that essentially allows ISPs (those people that bring you your internet access) to sell your personal information (including your postings, browsing history etc. etc. ) to third parties.
A lot of people are up in arms about this. Superficially, this is a gross breach of personal privacy.
And it is.
It was inevitable.
And here’s why.
Since the Internet first became visible and usable (around 1994-95), one of the underlying paradigms that it implemented is that Everything Should Be Free.
The online world is full of social platforms all competing for your patronage. The vast majority of them are free of charge.
Now, I remember Rule #1 of capitalism. The one that says “there is no such thing as a free lunch”.
The likes of Facebook, Twitter et al have not been running a charity. They are, just like all businesses, trying to make money. If they cannot or will not charge users directly, there are only two ways that they can make money:
1. Put adverts into the content that they serve and manage
2. Sell your personal information to third parties (remember: everything you post on a site like Facebook becomes their property, to do with as they please. Read the small print).

There really is no other way that they can survive.
So, if you are surprised that the HoR passed the legislation that it did, you should not be. How else are these social platform providers going to make money?
Of course, you have a choice. It will require a mindset shift, but it could result in your private information not being sold to third parties.
The choice is to actually, you know, start paying for internet services.
I do this today, by donating to bloggers and news platforms.
If internet users are not prepared to actually pay for social platforms on the internet, they have no right to expect that their privacy will be respected. Simply, in an “everything is free” paradigm, your personal data is one of the few assets that a social platform company has, so it will be monetized.
We need to grow up about the internet, and understand reality.