Monday, March 31, 2008

Where the Web Excels

Text and basic pictures can be distributed by newspaper, and there is some great photography in some magazines, but it is hard to share. Where the web really shines is in photographic compilations.

Especially since the proliferation of high speed internet.

Here are some unbelievably good photography web sites that border on addictive:

Dark Roasted Blend

English Russia



Cut The Cable And Improve Your Picture

A couple of years ago, when I had free cable in my loft, I visited a neighbor who was watching the Fox "news" channel. I told him that I didn't receive that channel, and he asked why. I told him I didn't believe a damn thing they said.

Flash forward a couple years to my life in a single family detached home, where I must pay the local cable monopoly or satellite company at least $40 for the privilege of watching head-on commercials on CNN, MSNBC and the like, plus another $5-10 a month for HDTV programming.

Now, my household is undergoing a bold experiment. In order to save money on monthly bills, we have decided to cancel cable television. We were spending about $60 a month in order to get the proverbial "57 channels and nothing on". When we translated the monthly cost to an annual cost, we got $720/year. If we looked at what kind of pre-tax income it took to pay for that, it was like giving myself a raise of $1000 a year!

As it turns out, I get a better picture over the air than I would with "digital cable". Both cable and satellite providers compress their signals, and lately they have been doing so even more, to squeeze in more channels. On the other hand, over their air digital HDTV uses far less compression.

It turns out that Comcast is downgrading their HDTV signal pretty heavily as you can see here or read a summary here. Honestly, you don't need to read the technical mumbo jumbo too much, just look at the last couple pictures and read the Comments section to get the idea.

I am just astonished by the quality of the digital signal I am receiving over a $30 antenna. There really is no way to tell that I do not have cable or satellite, except for the fact that the signal is perfect. Unlike the old days of over the air reception, you either get the channel or you don't, there is never any fuzz, snow, or distortion, just HDTV with 5.1 Dolby Surround.

In addition to all of the major networks, I am getting 4 different public television channels (read: commercial free), as well as a local weather channel that is far more useful than the mind numbing drivel on the Weather Channel.

Total Monthly Cost = $0.00

If that wasn't good enough, I was able to convert my old, non-digital TV with converter box subsidized by Uncle Sam. With the $600 a year we were throwing away on cable, we have been renting DVD's of our favorite shows and movies and still saving a bundle.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Profound Story

Quick, name the American cyclist with the most professional wins?

If you guessed Armstrong or even LeMond, you were wrong, it is Boulder Colorado's Davis Phinney. Davis married Connie Carpenter, a cyclist and Olympic gold medalist herself.

If you guessed that their offspring would be "the chosen one" in cycling you are right. Talk about picking your parents well!

The New York Times has a profound article about the Phinney family.

Their son, Taylor, now 17 is emerging as a cycling prodigy, while Davis himself is suffering from Parkinson's disease. This is an amazing story almost like having Muhammad Ali being Tiger Wood's father.

Remember the name Taylor Phinney, you will be hearing a lot more about this kid.

Monday, March 24, 2008

I Won at Travel/Web Searching/Geography Fun

My good friend Eric "The Razor" Meadows over at Meadows Lane may be the President of the American Poker Players Association, but it appears I have just won an AT&T Samsung BlackJack cell phone, plus $500 in service at the Conde Naste's Perrin Post Blog.

They are holding a contest called Where's Brook, in which each day they post a photograph taken by writer Brook Wilkinson. With the first picture, there was little way to tell what part of the world she is in, and it took some determined deductive logic to get anywhere close. Travel experience, geographic knowledge, and skilled Google image searching took me the rest of the way.

After I correctly identified the first photo as having been taken in Costa Rica, the contest got only slightly easier as I could narrow it down to a single country at best, region at worst.

I have also had the pleasure of competing with a highly determined competitor, who goes by LoriB, and who has won this contest before.

Anyways, now that I seem to have won four of the six rounds, I am looking forward to the opportunity to try out the BlackJack phone. In the past, I have only used cell phones for.... making phone calls, but with an upcoming trip to Israel, I hope to take pictures and send emails too. With $500 in free service, I have nothing to loose!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Industry That Doesn't Get Supply and Demand

Two pieces of business news caught my attention recently, if only because of their contrast. In one story, Starbucks is responding to falling profits by increasing the value of it's product. I am not much of a coffee drinker, let alone a Starbucks customer, but this does strike me as a wise business move. Produce a higher quality product with more features that your customers desire.

Then you have the airline industry. They are suffering from lower profits as well. Their response is the opposite. The airlines are seeking to reduce the quality of it's product, and either eliminate or charge fees for things that used to be free, such as pillows, blankets, food, luggage, etc.

This is very similar to their strategy after 9/11, when consumers were afraid to fly. In response, the legacy airlines downgraded their product. The results were predictable; many legacy carriers went bankrupt as passengers deserted them for low cost carriers that provided them increased amenities such as in flight entertainment.

I realize that the challenge to the airlines is different now. People are not afraid to fly, it is the cost of fuel is creating a supply shock. Costs are increasing far beyond revenue.

The solution is not to downgrade your product and annoy your customers with greater fees. I would argue that the solution is a relentless focus on controlling costs, while improving the customer experience. Grounding the older, less efficient aircraft is a start. I would then switch to larger, more efficient aircraft on domestic routes, rather than high frequencies of smaller aircraft. Perhaps they may even try to fly aircraft at economy cruise settings. Finally, most legacy carriers need to upgrade their web sites to allow customers to easily change flights, join standby lists for upgrades, and book award travel that includes partners, multi-leg itineraries, and other things they currently have to call customer services for.

For example, I am currently trying to move up a future award travel trip on United partner Lufthansa a couple of days. I had to deal with United customer service over the phone to even book it as their web site will not let you book partner award travel. Now that it is booked, there is no waiting list for an earlier flight that is currently unavailable. United's suggestion is to call them every day and ask if the flight is available. There's a great way to control costs and satisfy your customers!

Charging for a second check bag, as United and Delta are doing, is just putting them at a competitive disadvantage. In Denver and other Colorado markets, United competes with Frontier for skier traffic. I expect Frontier to pick up a lot of this traffic now that United is slapping customers traveling with skis or a second bag, virtually all skiers, with a $50 charge. This is going to result in more carry on baggage, and about the same weight. I imagine that couples and families will carry on more luggage, or simply travel with larger suitcases rather than 2 smaller ones. In the end, passengers are annoyed and inconvenienced, and the overhead bins are overflowing as passengers fight for space to put their carry on. This is going to delay both the boarding and exiting of the aircraft, increasing turn around time. In the end, any "profits" they make with this baggage fee will washed out by customers lost to the low fare airlines.

I just don't understand why airlines don't recognize the law of supply and demand.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Oh Wait, this is his day job

This article is both funny and sad.

If you haven't yet figured out the difference between Sunni and Shia, you probably shouldn't be running for President on a national security platform.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Good Article, Great Quote

"I don't think she'd be in a position to defeat Hitler's dog in November, let alone a popular war hero."
in The New Republic

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Can He Say That Without Irony?

From to today's Washington Post:

"I appreciate his endorsement," McCain told reporters, indicating he does not intend to distance himself -- at least not too much. "I intend to have as much possible campaigning events together as is in keeping with the president's heavy schedule."

Just three days ago in the same paper:

"Bush on Monday lodged his 879th day spent in whole or in part at Camp David or his sprawling estate in Crawford, Tex.

By comparison, the 40th president only -- only! -- spent all or part of 866 days at Camp David or his ranch in California during his eight years in office, according to the Reagan Library."

Oh the Irony!

Hero Pilots?

By now, you have probably seen the Lufthansa crosswind landing video from Hamburg.

Perhaps you have heard about the "Hero Pilot" who saved his aircraft and passengers from "150 MPH" winds.

As a commercially rated pilot and a flight instructor, I suspected that there was much more to this story.

First of all, the reported wind speed had to be exaggerated. I hadn't heard of a Category 4 hurricane hitting Hamburg this week, did you?

Secondly, what were they doing even attempting to land on that runway in those conditions? I would think that the airport in a city the size of Hamburg has a crosswind runway.

Well, now we know the rest of the story.

It turns out that our "hero pilots" were attempting to land in a direct 50 Knot (57 mph) crosswind.

Here is an illustration of the Hamburg airport using Google maps.

Any beginning flight student will tell you that our "hero pilots" were attempting to land on the Wrong Runway!


Hat tip/Cranky Flier

Monday, March 3, 2008

Health Care

I was asked to include a post on health care, a subject that I am definitely not an expert in.

I think both the Hillary and Obama plans are a step forward. In that sense, I think that even some of Bush's ideas would have been a step forward, if they could ever be enacted.

After such a prolonged national stalemate on such an important issue, I think that debating the fine points either plan misses the point.

No president will be able to enact any plan that they propose as candidate, and it will take great skill to enact some small part of any of their plans. Given that both Hillary and Obama have very similar plans, who do you think will have the most chance of getting something vaguely resembling their plan accomplished?

On one hand, Hillary's argument that she has tried and failed at health care does have some merit. I generally do better at something the second time I try it than the first. The problem I am not sure she appreciates is that her first attempt failed due to her complete failure to build a political consensus. Holding Cheney style secret hearings is the worst possible way she could have built support. I just don't see the nation uniting around her proposals this time around. The only group she may hope to unite is the Republican party.

Obama would have some brief window of opportunity to pass something like his plan, a more modest and incremental plan than Hillary's. Obama seems to understand the immense difficulty he face trying to pass anything at all.

I haven't mentioned McCain's plan because he really doesn't have one. His plan is basically to give a tax deduction for health insurance. Brilliant. McCain advocates whopping $5000 a year tax deduction for families. Please tell me where even a small family can find insurance for $416 a month. Even if you could find a family plan for $5000 a year, I imagine a lot of middle class people just don't have that kind of money just laying around.

You have to ask yourself, does McCain even know how hard and expensive it is to obtain private health insurance? More importantly, I am sure he doesn't know why it is so expensive. Hillary, Obama, and even Mitt Romney know that healthy people, specifically the young, tend to opt out of the market. Others, such as the poor, can't afford a health insurance policy. That leaves private companies with a smaller pool of more expensive participants, and expensive emergency care for the rest.

This is my favorite gem from McCains proposal: " Promote competition throughout the health care system - between providers and among alternative treatments." Yeah right. Here is a true story. My newborn baby is vomiting every meal. We call the pediatrician, the pediatrician says it is probably best to go to the ER, just to be safe. We go to the ER and everything turns out to be ok after a 5-10 minute consultation with a doctor. Six months later, we have bills totaling about $600 from the doctor and the hospital. No tests, no drugs, no procedures. We have insurance, but there is a $1500/yr annual deductible so the bill come out of pocket. The McCain "plan" does nothing for us as we already have a tax deductible health care savings plan. If we had more competition, we could have called up all of the hospitals in the area first, asked them about how much they charge for a problem with our daughter that we don't know and she may or may not have. What we are really paying for that night, was all of the other uninsured people in the ER, the vast majority of whom will not run out and buy health insurance simply because they get a partial tax deduction for doing so.

From that perspective, I do have to give a small leg up to Hillary's plan (which she could never get enacted). Her plan requires universal participation, whereas Obama's plan only does for children.

In my ideal world, we would all be covered under the plan that member's of congress have, but so what? Without huge political capital and the ability to create a consensus, nothing will happen. We have been debating this my entire adult life, and nothing has changed, except for getting worse. I will vote for the candidate who has the greatest chance of doing something, anything, to improve health care in our country.