Monday, December 31, 2012

Air travel: The new normal is no fun

Periodically, an air travel horror story makes the news. It might be a plane full of passengers stuck on the runway for hours and hours, or flights suddenly cancelled and people stranded, or outrageous on-board misbehavior. 

But the real issue of modern air travel is not the dramatic, headline-making events. It's the small irritants that add up, in a death-by-a-thousand-cuts style, to weaken the knees of even the toughest traveler.

Consider my family's recent flight home after Christmas. It wasn't the worst trip, certainly. In fact, with it's many little annoyances and frustrations, it was sadly typical of traveling by air today.

Arriving at Seattle-Tacoma airport for our flight we had two options for check-in: stand in line for a human or use an automated Alaska Airline kiosk. We chose to seek out a human, because our seat assignments were scattered in the plane and we wanted to see if we could get them together.

After several minutes, we saw that our line was not moving, so we dragged our belongings to a different line. Soon, an Alaska Airlines representative came along and told us that we should check in at the kiosk, then ask the person checking our bags in about seats. So we dragged our stuff to a kiosk.

I had everything we needed to check in or, at least I thought I did. But because I had bought the tickets through American Airlines, with the first leg of the trip "operated by Alaska Airlines," the confirmation codes I had didn't work. This forced us into a longer process of entering a last name, a flight number and a destination.

We worked through that, and just as we were printing out the final boarding passes, the kiosk abruptly shut down. We flagged down an Alaska rep, who told us the machine had probably run out of paper and to try again with another kiosk. So back through the process we went again in fact, twice more, because I forgot we need boarding passes for both legs of our trip. Eventually we got all the passes printed. Whew. This was just Step One.

We waited in another line to check our bags. Since the fee for checking each bag was $25, we decided to carry on one of our smaller suitcases. That still left us with $75 in bag fees; ugh. At the counter, we asked about moving seats but were told that nothing could be done. Sigh.

After wading through the security line and fending off one rude man who tried to cut ahead that small suitcase we had decided to carry on was pulled aside after being X-rayed. In it, they found a gel-filled plastic toy my 10-year-old son had received for Christmas. Not allowed, the TSA folks said, taking away the $8 toy.

Then we hit a smooth patch. Our flight left on time, arrived early, and soon we were walking the placid concourses of San Jose airport on our way to our next flight.

With some extra time, we stopped at a sports bar called the Shark's Cage where we encountered a leading contender for Surliest Bartender of the Year. He referred to my son as a thing ("Is this yours?"), and responded to simple questions about prices and offerings as if we had asked him to pack our bags up Mt. Everest. In the end, we were gouged for $11 for two Sprites and a small orange juice. Sadly, of course, outrageous airport food prices are hardly news.

Our next plane on Skywest airline was running late, but we boarded and were ready to go about 10 minutes after expected departure time. Then they discovered that a wheel was "a little flat" and needed to be inspected. You can't criticize them for the safety precaution, but you do wonder if they're pushing their equipment too hard and skimping on maintenance.

We finally left about an hour late. We gained back a little time on the way to Los Angeles International. But the surprises weren't over.

We taxied for 20 minutes after landing, eventually ending up at a isolated outpost that I never knew existed even though I've flown through LAX countless times. Exiting the plane, we discovered we had to wait in another line to board a crowded bus to get to baggage claim. After a surreal stop-and-go route through plane traffic on the tarmac, the bus finally turned us loose to retrieve our luggage.

And that was it. As I said, it could have been worse. But, boy, it sure could have been better.


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Monday, December 17, 2012

Gun control, Newtown and the unimportance of facts

I'm usually wary of getting involved in political discussions. Not only can you end up alienating your friends, I'm often discouraged because these sort of debates frequently descend into simplistic arguments and sound bites.

But the other day, shortly after the massacre of 27 people in Newtown, Connecticut, I saw a posting on Facebook that caught my attention. A woman by the name of Holly Williamson posted this:

"I fail to see how keeping guns from being owned by law abiding citizens would have kept this from happening."

To me, this was not so much a political statement, but a question of facts, so I tried to answer her.

I said, "Well, the assault weapon the shooter used was owned legally by his mother; he took it from her home. If assault weapons were banned -- as they were from 1994 to 2004 -- she wouldn't have had the gun."

Now you may support gun control or you may not, but I was simply stating the fact: If assault weapons had been banned, than Nancy Lanza would not have been able to obtain one, and her son Adam would not have been able to use it to slaughter 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. 

Holly immediately replied: "I stand by what I said. Period."

Huh? She stands by what? She said she didn't see how gun control could have prevented the shooting; I explained how it could have. So she chooses to ignore the facts and stand by her, um, ignorance?


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Friday, December 7, 2012

Lame website of the week: National Junior Basketball of Long Beach

Suppose you're a parent in Long Beach, Calif., and you're considering putting your child in the local National Junior Basketball league .

As you visit the group's website, you might have a few questions, such as: How many games will there be? Where will practices be and when? How many practices will there be a week? How long does the league run? Are the teams co-ed, or are there separate teams for girls?

NONE of those questions are answered on the website, and what's worse, there is absolutely no way to ask them. There's no phone number, no email address, no contact form.

If you're wondering who runs the league, too bad, because there are no names at all on the site, even on the "About Us" page.

The site does offer a way for you to give them money, however.


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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A letter to the Los Angeles Metro rail system

Dear Metro,

Can you give me my daughter's songs back? The songs that I didn't get to hear
because of you?

On November 27, I left work in Los Angeles at 5 p.m. on my way to see my daughter sing in a school concert. I had plenty of time. If the Red Line and Blue Line trains ran on schedule, I would be at the auditorium at about 6:15, well ahead of the 7 p.m. concert.

But then a train stalled at the Blue Line-Expo Line junction, leaving myself and many others stuck at Metro Center. Eventually, our train did head out
but didn't get far. The train ahead of us broke down between Grand and San Pedro stations. After taking a bus to Firestone station, I boarded a new train only to have that one develop problems and go out of service at Del Amo.

In the end, I arrived at the concert at 7:30 too late to see my daughter sing.

It's not like you were unaware that the Blue Line has been having problems. In April, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa noted a distressing number of "delays, service disruptions and accidents along the Blue Line." He said the matter "requires immediate attention."

That was almost eight months ago.  It's time to fix the problems. Now. Before someone else misses out on a irreplaceable moment.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Book review: "No Easy Day"

If you want to know what happened on the 2011 U.S. military raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, "No Easy Day" is the book to read. It's not that this is a perfect book it's good, not great it's just that it's all we have

The military has offered only a handful of official details about the mission and even some of those have been shown to be doubtful. So until anyone else who was on the raid steps forward to tell his story, this is the only publicly available eyewitness account.

"No Easy Day" was written by former Navy Seal Matt Bissonnette, using the pseudonym Mark Owen, who says he was a part of the team that assaulted the Bin Laden compound in Pakistan on May 1, 2011.

It's quite a story. The mission, according to Bissonnette, did not go nearly as smoothly as the government claimed. The helicopter carrying Bissonnette and other soldiers almost suffered a disastrous crash. It actually DID crash, but miraculously hit the ground in a way that no one was hurt.

A team that was supposed to land from a helicopter on the roof of Bin Laden's home aborted that route, forcing the soldiers into a time-consuming entrance through a series of barricaded doors. One group of soldiers blasted through one of the compound's gates only to find a brick wall behind it. One soldier told to blow up the disabled helicopter mistakenly set up explosives to destroy Bin Laden's house instead (he was stopped in time).

While the soldiers collected many computers and documents that could have information on Al Qaeda, they left a lot behind because they ran out of time. On their way out, Bissonnette said, the helicopter he was on came perilously close to running out of fuel.

For all the danger, only one person at the compound fought back, according to Bissonnette. Shortly after landing, Bissonnette and two other soldiers were trying to get Bin Laden courier Ahmed al-Kuwaiti out of a guesthouse in the compound. Al-Kuwaiti fired an AK-47 blindly out the window, narrowly missing one of the Seals. The Americans fired blindly back in, killing him, and somehow managing not to hit his wife and kids.

Next, as they entered the Bin Laden's three-story home, Bissonnette describes the soldiers seeing a man's head sticking out of one room.

"The point man snapped off a shot. The round struck the occupant, later confirmed to be Abrar al-Kuwaiti, and he disappeared into the room. Slowly moving down the hall, the team stopped at the door. Abrar al-Kuwaiti was wounded and struggling on the floor. Just as they opened fire again, his wife Bushra jumped in the way to shield him. The second burst of rounds killed both of them."

This paragraph describing U.S. soldiers killing a wounded man "struggling on the floor" disturbed me probably more than anything else in the book. There's no indication the man was armed. And accidentally killing his wife is just tragic.

Moving to the second floor of the compound, the Americans killed Bin Laden's son Khalid when he poked his head out into a stairway landing and was shot in the face.

As they reached the third floor, Bissonnette describes himself as being second in line, behind the point man.

"We were less than five steps from getting to the top when I heard suppressed shots.
"The point man had seen a man peeking out of the door on the right side of the hallway about ten feet in front of him."

That was Bin Laden, who apparently was hit in the head, and fell back into his bedroom. Bissonnette and another soldier found him.

"Blood and brains spilled out of the side of his skull. In his death throes, he was still twitching and convulsing. Another assaulter and I trained our lasers on his chest and fired several rounds." The soldiers found that he was not carrying a weapon.

It's jarring how different this account is from the original White House story, which said the Bin Laden was armed and "resisted." The White House later backed off from the claim he was armed, but still insisted that he had resisted capture.

The Bin Laden mission is not the only event described in the book, though you can hardly be blamed for skipping to that section. The first half of the book is filled with Bissonnette's swaggering tales of other Seal missions he took part in, primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan. These can be interesting, though they're largely told in a cold military tone where people are "targets," helicopters are "birds," and dead enemies are "re-engaged" to make sure they're dead.

It's fair to wonder whether Bissonnette's version of events in the Bin Laden raid is true. Did he exaggerate his role in the raid, or perhaps hide mistakes he may have made? Still, the reaction of Pentagon officials to the book speaks volumes they've accused him of divulging military secrets and are hunting for a way to punish him. Clearly, he hit close enough to the truth to strike a nerve.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Book review: "Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson

There's two main points I want to make about Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs. First, it's an outstanding book. It's undoubtedly the best biography I've ever read, and is among the best books I've read of any kind.

Second, it's a LONG book. It's 571 pages, and it took me a good five weeks to read it (your mileage may vary). But it's long in a good way. It's filled with scores of interesting stories from Jobs' personal and professional lives, and packed with colorful detail. It's not a book to rush through; each section gives you something to stop and think about.

Isaacson interviewed over 100 people for the book, allowing him to faithfully describe countless moments throughout Jobs' life. We see the strange alchemy that allowed Jobs and Steve Wozniak two young men of virtually opposite personalities to create a computer company called Apple. It's amusing to read how Jobs avoided bathing as a young man, believing his vegetarian diet prevented body odor (it didn't). Later on, we see behind-the-scenes stories as Jobs butts heads with Michael Eisner, Bill Gates and other business heavyweights. One of the most amazing revelations of the book is that Jobs, who was adopted, unknowingly met his biological father, who owned a Silicon Valley restaurant.

The book works on various levels. On one hand, it's a history book, recounting key events at Apple, Next Computer and Pixar, and the development of such signature products as the iPod, iTunes, and iPhone. While I lived through these events, and often followed the news coverage, I discovered that I really didn't know the full stories until I read this book. I was surprised to discover how close Jobs and John Sculley were at first, before Sculley ousted Jobs from Apple in 1985. I was amused to learn that it was the success of Pixar's "Toy Story" that in many ways saved Jobs from oblivion and gave him newfound influence.

Also, the book is a fascinating look at business and management. Jobs brought a unique style to the workplace he was controlling, abrasive, demanding, and perfectionist. Unlike companies such as Google and Microsoft, he did not like trying a lot of things to see what worked. Rather, he preferred to focus intently on making small numbers of products great. He was both a long-term visionary, and incredible micromanager, fussing over the small details of products and driving many of the people who worked with him crazy in the process. "His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical," writes Isaacson

Third, the book is an intriguing look at a unique human being. He was abusive and bullying to many people, while still inspiring people to do great work. "He could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, and know how to relate to them, cajole them, or hurt them at will," says Isaacson. For all his faults in interpersonal relations, I found myself admiring his passion for accomplishing great things. It's disconcerting to be reading about Jobs' brilliance with making products that are easy to use, while in daily life we are all frustrated by all sorts of poorly designed technology.

As much as a I like this biography, no book is perfect and I have three small criticisms. First, the section in which Isaacson discusses Jobs' favorite music is completely unnecessary. Second, I wished that Isaacson included more dates in the book. Sometimes, I was trying to determine exactly when something happened, but it wasn't always clear. Finally, I wish there were more pictures of the other people besides Jobs and his family who are mentioned repeatedly in the book.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Stupid Files: Lowe's keeps you guessing

The Stupid Files are where we take note of all things, well, stupid. Today, we have three items.

First up is Lowe's, the hardware store. If you have a gift card from this retailer and you want to determine the balance, you might do a search online and come to this Lowe's page that tells you, "If you already have a Lowe's Gift Card and want to check your balance, you can do so online." Uh, OK. But where online?  There's no link to a page where you can the balance, nor any other indication where to go.

Next up is Long Beach Futsal, an indoor soccer facility. If you wanted to arrange to use this facility, you would logically come to their "Parties and Field Rental" page. The page encourages you to "CALL NOW TO BOOK A PARTY OR FIELD RENTAL."  But for all that allcaps enthusiasm, there's one problem: There's no phone number on the page.

Finally, there's a Los Angeles Times story on a high school football game that says, "It was the fourth consecutive season the Crespi-Notre Dame game had ended on the final play." Um, call me crazy, but doesn't every football game end on the final play?  That's why it's called the final play.

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Sunday, October 14, 2012

Title insurance: You pay, others party

Why does title insurance cost so much in California?
Blame Elton John, Paul McCartney and Gwen Stefani. And lingerie.
Title insurance would be significantly cheaper, consumer advocates say, if the industry didn’t spend so much money wooing and rewarding real estate agents, loan officers and builders who bring them customers.
Title insurers have a long history of plying these real estate intermediaries with cash and gifts, including football, baseball and concert tickets, catered meetings and events, vacations, cruises, cigars, wine, rounds of golf, gift cards, electronics and even, yes, ladies undergarments.
Giving money or anything of value in exchange for referrals in a real estate transaction is illegal, but millions of dollars in government penalties have done little to discourage the behavior in the $16-billion-a-year title insurance industry. Washington state investigators who probed illegal incentives and inducements there were stunned to find that the practices continued unabated even after title companies were aware they were under scrutiny.
“Some of the major offenders view the law as little more than a nuisance,” the investigators concluded.
In California, title insurers have found creative ways to reward those who bring them business. Consider:
In 2007, Santa Ana-based First American Title Insurance Co. was ordered to pay a $10 million fine after the California Department of Insurance turned up a host of illegal gifts and payments to real estate agencies, builders and lenders.
Regulators said First American spent over $41,000 in 2005 on such gifts as college and pro football games, chartered fishing trips, riverboat dinner cruises, Del Mar racetrack trips, baseball tickets, soccer tickets, musicals, comedy club tickets, Teen Choice Award tickets, and concert tickets to Gwen Stefanti, U2, Elton John, Velvet Revolver, the Eagles, and Paul McCartney.
First American also paid $113,000 for food and beverages for real estate intermediaries’ grand openings, open houses, Christmas parties, birthday parties, broker caravans, cocktail parties, Halloween parties, Monday night football parties, broker of the year ceremonies and a chocolate fountain for a Re/Max Grand Opening. Other gifts included chartered bus trips to casinos and racetracks, amusement park and department store gift certificates, and computer monitors..
First American also paid $106,000 in cash to Frontier Homes from 2003 to 2006 for bringing in home-buying customers, the state found.
In 2006, Orange Coast Title was ordered to pay $800,000 in fines and penalties related to a variety of illegal rebates and inducements.
Investigators said the Santa Ana company spent $82,000 in 1999 and 2000 on such gifts as DVD players, radios, TVs, cups, table cloths, table decorations, birthday cards, birthday gifts, wedding gifts, baby gifts, retirement gifts, Christmas gifts, barbecues and lingerie. It gave gift certificates for massages, spa treatments, and facial treatments, the state found.
The company also spent $44,000 giving away trips to Mexico, Hawaii, Napa, Carmel, Las Vegas, Legoland, Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, Magic Mountain, Anaheim Pond, San Diego, Point Loma, Indian Wells Country Club, Del Mar Meadows, Orange County Performing Arts Center and Dana Wharf.
It also paid for Christmas parties, ice cream socials, bird houses, forest service permits, wedding decorations, photo albums, film, film processing, champagne glasses, floral arrangements, candy, tree decorations, wine, trophies, and disposable cameras, the Department of Insurance found.
From 2004 to 2007, California’s four largest title insurers were ordered to pay a total of $39 million in penalties and refunds to consumers after state investigations accused them of using sham “reinsurance” arrangements to funnel millions of dollars to realty agencies, builders and lenders who brought in title insurance customers.
The four firms – First American Title Insurance Co., Fidelity National Financial Inc., LandAmerica Financial Group and Stewart Title Guaranty Co. – were giving real estate agents, builders and lending firms as much as half of the consumer’s premium purportedly to share the title insurance risk.
But investigators found that such intermediaries never paid a single penny to cover insurance claims; all claims were covered by the title insurers. State investigators concluded that the arrangements were simply conduits for kickbacks.