Monday, July 30, 2007

Blame it on Kahn

There are only two emotions in a plane: boredom and terror. ~Orson Welles

It's not often you can look at a disaster that has taken years to unfold and say, "And there's the guy who did it." The disaster I'm considering is the U.S. airline industry.

Setting aside Southwest, whom we will discuss in a bit, the airline industry has been, if you'll pardon the mixed transportation metaphor, a train wreck. Delta and United have done the Chapter 11 thing; Northwester still is doing it. American managed to wangle concessions out of employees in 2003 to keep themselves alive, but you know that won't last.

To make up for the lack of solvency, the airlines have added a lack of service. Lost luggage, pitiful on-time rates, and whimsical cancellations are all part of air travel today. Thank god, I don't have to any more. We owe this state of affairs in great part to the deregulation of the airlines that occurred in 1978. And for that, you can, in large part, blame Alfred Kahn.

Mr. Kahn was a Cornell economist when he managed to con the gullible members of the Carter administration and the always gullible members of Congress to pass the Airline Deregulation Act. He now chortles about how, thanks to him, ariline fares are so low.

Well, to an extent, they are, although the costs due to improper maintenance, canceled flights, and general inconvenience have to be factored in. When they are, I'm not so sure how cheap flights are.

There is also the problem of "you can't get here from there." The one thing the airlines wanted to do was drop "unprofitable" routes. Deregulation provided the means to do that, meaning that a good number of people now either have to pay absurdly large ticket prices to fly out of someplace like Montgomery, Alabama, or they can't fly at all, having to drive long distances to get to an airport that is on a "profitable" route.

Actually, given the airlines current performance, there don't appear to be any profitable routes.

Southwest, of course, is the notable exception, although even their performance is not what it was. Southwest figured out that you didn't need to serve lousy food on a flight, you don't need separate classes, and you don't need to fly twelve different models of airplane. Oh, and you can fly to some of those places that the big airlines didn't think were "profitable."

Southwest employees are a lot of fun (at least they used to be; as I said, I haven't flown in several years). On one flight, the flight attendant was going through the safety drill that no one listens to. Suddenly, she said, "In the unlikely event that we lose cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the overhead compartments. After you've stopped screaming, plut your on like this."

Okay, now she had everyone's attention. If that wasn't good enough, she continued, "If the person next to you is a child or is acting like one, put your own mask on first, then assist the other person in putting theirs on." It was the only preflight instructions I ever heard that got applause.

She got us on the landing, too. We were flying to Brownsville, Texas, not something most people would do if they had the choice. Evidently, the attendant felt that way, too. As we rolled toward the terminal, she said, "Welcome to Corpus Christi!" The entire airplane went, "WHAT?!!"

On another occasion, I was flying back from Houston to Birmingham, and the takeoff was delayed in Houston, through no fault of the Southwest crew, who were ready to leave on time. We took off about twenty minutes late. We had a stopover in New Orleans. Most of the time, when the plane reaches the terminal, there's this annoying wait, while they get the tunnel thingy lined up and do whatever else they do. Not this time. I swear the attendants had the door open before the plane stopped, forming a human chain to grab the tunnel and drag it to the door. They then politely but firmly got everyone off the plane who was supposed to get off. Then they herded the incoming passengers into the plane, stuffing luggage into the overheads and seating about thirty or so people in record time.

We left the gate in under 15 minutes. We got to Birmingham all of five minutes late; the pilot evidently knew a shortcut. When we landed, the pilot got on the intercom and apologized for being five minutes late!

When was the last time anyone apologized to you for not delivering on a promise? More importantly, when did anyone last apologize to you and take responsibility for something that wasn't their fault?

Southwest mirrors the personality of its boss; the other airlines probably also mirror the personalities of their bosses, who only travel first class and get huge bonuses for coming out of Chapter 11. Perhaps deregulation gave us Southwest, but I think a Southwest could prosper in any environment. I do know that overall, deregulation has given us an embarrassing airline industry.

So let's re-regulate the airlines. This time, though, everyone has to run their outfit like Southwest. Low fares, on-time flights, no movies or plastic food.

Alfred Kahn won't care; he's 89 and stays home now.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Losers

If a tie is like kissing your sister, losing is like kissing your grandmother with her teeth out. ~George Brett

Bent

All right, we've had our orgy of Beckham-mania, brought to you mostly by ESPN. Enough. David Beckham earned the first few thou of his multi-millions by playing 12 pathetic minutes in a game where Chelsea beat his Los Angeles Galaxy 1-nil, as they say across the pond.

Let's get something straight right off the bat: David Beckham is essentially over the hill. He looked like it in the World Cup and was such a non-factor for the English national team this year, they told him, "Thanks, but no thanks, old boy. We can muddle on without you." His other team, Real Madrid actually won a championship but fired their coach because he didn't do enough to try to keep Beckham.

Perhaps he realized there wasn't much point.

Understand this: I grew up a soccer fan. My father played the game as a high-schooler in Hungary and knew the game exceedingly well, thank you. My father also though that soccer as played in the various American leagues was pretty pathetic.

You have to realize that in the post-war era, many teams adopted the English style of play, which is very, very defensive. With the exception of the Germans, Argentines, and Brazilians, everyone seems to have adopted the style, which leads to an utterly dull game. I used to watch German soccer on PBS. Two things stood out. First, the German teams play aggressively; even a low scoring game would have a lot of scoring chances. Second, Europeans know how to televise the game, utilizing long shots most of the time so that you can see play developing.

In the good ol' US of A, of course, we are into closeups. Most of the time you can't see anything but the player with the ball. David Beckham can't do much about that, but he will be bringing that awesomely dull English game he's grown up playing to the MSL.

Oh, yeah, he also brought Posh Spice.

Of course, Beckham is in it for the money. If he can find a sucker to pony up $30 mil plus a couple of hundred mil for his endorsement packages, more power to him. But, he ought to at least make an attempt to rehab his ankle. So far, he hasn't even practiced with the team, other than in the Terrell Owens manner of sitting on the sidelines with a trainer. Perhaps a little less time spent taking skin pictures with his wife and a little more time getting some physiotherapy might have been in order.

American soccer leagues have tried bringing in big names past their prime (Pele and Beckenbauer come to mind). There was always a surge of interest, followed by the same old crowds made up of family, friends, and a few passersby. I'm not the only one who feels that this whole Beckham thing will do little or nothing to help the pathetic state of American professional soccer. Jay Mariotti of the Chicago Sun-Times does a very nice job of summing it up:

"At least he'll have our attention until Lindsay Lohan's next rehab visit. After that, I'm making no promises."
 


Broken

There was a lot of todo about how the Philadelphia Phillies reached the 10,000 loss milestone last week. That is, the Phils have lost 10,000 major league baseball games since their inception in 1883. Now, a lot of sports types had a lot of fun with that, but I couldn't help thinking that their have been some teams that went for long periods without doing very well. The classic example to anyone my age would be the Washington Senators (who are now the Minnesota Twins; don't confuse them with the Senators that ended up as the Texas Rangers). The Senators were bad, really bad, for a really long time. A joke that has probably been around since Will Rogers used to go, "Washington: First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League."

That, brother, is institutionalized losing.

Then there's the Cubs, the lovable losers. Or the Indians. Or the St. Louis Browns (now the Baltimore Orioles). I mean really now, how far ahead (or behind, depending on your point of view) could the Phillies be?

So, after a bit of searching, I located this lovely site (looks like a must for any baseball stat freak) that had, in a nice concise table the all-time records of all the major league teams. After a perusal of the records, I came to one inescapable conclusion.

The Phillies are that bad.

They have the worst win percentage of any of the long-time teams. Only the Rangers, Rockies, Padres, and Devil Rays are worse, but they haven't been around very long (and the Rangers were owned for a while by George W. Bush, so they had an unfair additional burden to carry).

As for my other candidates for mediocrity, only the Cubs are "close" to the Phillies--and they're 575 losses back! It would take them 5 years of losing 115 games a year to catch the Phils, and that's assuming that the Phils didn't lose any games.

The team closes to the Phillies was actually a surprise to me -- Atlanta. The Braves have lost 9686 games to the Phils 10003, a mere 317 games behind. I suppose the success of the last 10 or 15 years for the Braves has led me to forget that, prior to leaving Boston, they were pretty awful. But, then, the Phillies really haven't been that bad in my lifetime. I can remember Robin Roberts and Richie Ashburn during the 50's and 60's. I can also remember the legendary 1964 collapse, which I reminisced about here. But to collapse to third place, you still had to win a bunch of games. Evidently, over time, they lost 'em in bundles.

It gets worse. When people think of World Series futility, the Cubs, once again, leap to mind. They haven't been there since 1945. So the Phils must have the edge in World Series appearances, right? Sorry, of the original sixteen, the Phils have the fewest appearances in the Fall Classic. Even the Indians, who I thought wouldn't be in the Series in my lifetime have been there one more time. In fact, the Mets, who started 79 years after the Phillies, have one more appearance in the Series than the hapless Philadelphia team.

No wonder those people boo Santa Claus.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

After Sports Center -- Competition Sudoku!

The attempt and not the deed, confounds us. ~ William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Oh, lawsey, lawsey, lawsey, what has become of ESPN?

I've watched ESPN since it's inception. I enjoyed Australian Rules Football, demolition derby, track meets, guys in kilts tossing telephone poles, and all the other weird and wonderful sports that were liable to turn up. ESPN actually took ABC's Wide World of Sports and turned it into a 24-hour-a-day festival of the thrill of victory and agony of defeat.

But those days are gone.

It started really when things like Aussie Rules Football vanished. Why, I'll never know. The Australian game is a whirlwind, roughneck combination of rugby, soccer, and a gang fight. But, for some reason, ESPN decided to eliminate it years ago. Maybe it was the goal judges wearing those white coats and fedoras; perhaps the thought was that they were too cultural.

Once they had all manner of motorsports. True, they've finally gotten NASCAR back, at a time when stock car racing is becoming more and more non-competitive. Perhaps they got it back because coverage is so much easier now. Show the Hendricks cars and whoever might have snuck up front; that's so much easier than trying to find where the actual racing is happening on the trak.

Then they started doing the drama thing, producing docudrama tripe about Pete Rose, Dale Earnhardt, and now the New York Yankees. And we won't even mention the "Desperate Football Players" series.

Then came the poker tournaments and billiards. To some extent, this hearkened back to the good old oddball days. But, after a while, the poker tournaments consisted mostly of building up some smartmouth to get the audience rooting against the jerk. Billiards, after brief flings with straight pool and eight ball, are now only nine-ball, and women's nine-ball at that, which, frankly, is pretty damn dull.

But at least they have some resemblance to sport.

Somehow, the folks at ESPN decided that the National Spelling Bee fell into their purview. One would think that Public Television would be a more likely venue, but ESPN got it and handed Mike Green and Mike Golic, of Mike and Mike in the Morning to handle the "play-by-play" duties. Now I happen to like the two Mikes, but I dread to think of what their coverage must have been like. I didn't watch it because, despite being an absolute spelling nazi, I'd find watching my lawn grow -- at night -- more exciting than watching some kid spell acetylcholinesterase.

As if that wasn't bad enough, we were recently treated to the Hot Dog Eating contest. Now, I'm an immigrant and my parents, coming over in 1949 from post-war Europe instilled a horror of wasting food in me. Watching people stuff pounds of food in their maws, in some cases only to upchuck it, does not strike me as "entertainment" or "sports." And they showed it about a dozen times.

But now they have gone too far. This very afternoon, after watching the Rolex GT race in Iowa (which is the kind of thing that should be on ESPN), I was scanning the on-screen program guide when I came to the ESPNs. One of them, ESPN or ESPN2 was showing the ... Lord, I don't know if I can even type this...They were showing the Rock, Paper, Scissors Championship.

I swear that this is true. I couldn't make up something like this.

With a mixture of curiosity and outright fear that this might be true, I switched over to the channel. There on the screen I saw a man and a woman staring intently at one another, when suddenly they slapped their fists into their palms and extended their hands toward one another. A guy standing between them screamed, "Paper! Paper! Tie!"

That was as much as I could stand.

Years ago, there was a Tank McNamara cartoon, in which the likable ex-football player cum broadcaster had gotten a gig with ESPN to cover the National Egg Toss Championship. In the last panel, Tank, who is thrilled with his "big-time" assignment, looks out and says, "The thrill of victory and the agony of broken eggs."

It doesn't seem so funny any more.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Cutting Ties

If men can run the world, why can't they stop wearing neckties? How intelligent is it to start the day by tying a little noose around your neck? ~ Linda Ellerbee

If the necktie is not the most useless article of clothing on earth, it's gotta be in the top 10. Let's see, what might be in the same category?

  • Platform shoes
  • $400 sneakers (especially the ones with little lights in them)
  • Bellbottoms
  • The "layered" look or the "I'm wearing my whole wardrobe today" look
  • Gold chains (not the little subtle ones; the Mr. T look, complete with Mercedes Benz hood ornament)
  • Cuff links
  • Cowboy hats (unless you're a real cowboy)
  • Big foofy neck bows, the woman's equivalent to a necktie
  • Huge belt buckles
I will plead guilty to have worn some of those things. In the sixties, I wore flared slacks, which would pass for bells today, although they were modest compared to some of the floor sweepers people wore. I used to wear cowboy hats until I realized how dumb I looked, although one got me a friendly cabbie in Boston, who let me ride up front where his air conditioning worked. He said he normally wouldn't do that, but he figured a guy getting off a plane in Boston wearing a slightly beat up cowboy hat must be a nice guy. Translation: I looked like a hayseed who wouldn't mug him.

I also wore cuff links, mostly because my dad wore them, but I got over it. He never did.

And I did have a couple of medium sized belt buckles, but I gave them up when Jerry Glanville, who was a clear demonstration of the theory that one's intelligence is inversely proportional to the size of one's belt buckle.

But the necktie is simply stupid. What started out as a garment to help keep warm during the little ice age evolved into the defining element of "white collar worker". Over time, with the standard two or three piece suit, it has also come to identify management or at least those with management potential. Fortunately, there are those who recognize the foolishness of the necktie as an identifier of authority or competence.

Over the years, I have aggravated a variety of managers by finding ways to avoid wearing them, even though I was "white collar." At one company, I spent a lot of time in the factory, where there were machines that would eat neckties and the head contained in one, so I started taking off the tie, like some of our engineers. When my boss raised the issue, I said, "When you get the engineers to wear one, I'll wear one." Believe it or not, that bit of teenage reasoning actually worked.

Even in work situations where I could escape the tie most of the time, I had to keep one around for visitors, especially when bigwigs came by. The bigwigs, of course, had their Armani ties and during plant tours looked as out of place as fine Corinthian leather in a dump truck.


Thanks to the Director of IT for the state of Alabama Department of Human Resources, I haven't worn a necktie for any reason since about 1998 or thereabouts. When I got into IT, I was a "consultant", an employee of a company contracted for some time to the Alabama DHR. Most of the time, I wore a tie, which I wore pulled away from my neck. They could make me wear the thing, but they couldn't make me look good in it.

One day, a notice went around from the DHR IT director, who signed our invoices, saying that the department dress code was now "business casual." Now, no one is ever quite sure what that means except that it usually means "no blue jeans." And it always means "no neck ties." When my boss came to me with the memo, I looked at him and quoted chapter and verse from our company manual which, slightly paraphrased said, "Employees will wear solid color shirts and neckties at all times unless the client's dress code says otherwise."

And then I ripped my tie off. It was a glorious gesture, which would have been even more glorious had I not given myself a neck burn in the process. Not only are those things uncomfortable, they're dangerous. At any rate, after our gig with the state ran out, I went to work for the City of Birmingham, which, in a moment of whimsy, decided it wanted to hire me permanently. My boss's dress code is simple: If the clothes are clean, not torn, and are covering everything that needs to be covered, wear what you want.

The man is a trend setter.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Actually, It IS News

If it needs to “break pots in public” or “tear off your clothes” or “bray like a donkey” to get attention, just do it. ~ from Sanskrit Quotes About Blogging

The quote is supposed to be related to blogging, which is a bit of a stretch, but it certainly does seem to apply nicely to the media environment these days.

I was prompted to think about this the other day when I came across some selected quotes from Drew Curtis' book,
It's Not News, It's Fark: How Mass Media Tries to Pass Off Crap As News. Drew Curtis, for the terminally uniformed, is the creator of Fark.com, a news aggregator that provides links to all sorts of news items, some weird, some wonderful, some just news. You can find headlines about politics, sports, science, and just strange stuff about naked people getting arrested. The tag lines are often much more interesting than the items themselves, often written in a code familiar only to regular visitors to Fark.

The mainstream media, with its fascination for the Internet, is always ready to jump on something hot, and Fark has been hot. People used to get Slashdotted; now they get Farked. Both terms refer to one's blog or website being brought down by a huge influx of traffic thanks to a reference on one of the news aggregators. At any rate, Drew Curtis has been the subject of endless interviews, and now he has his book. Because Fark is so successful, Mr. Curtis is now a recognized media expert. At least, he is recognized as an expert by the media he purports to despise.

But, Mr. Curtis is himself a bit confused about how people perceive the mainstream media. Consider these quotes:

  • "Readers assume information carried by Mass Media is true solely because it appears there. While Mass Media asks its audience to treat all media matters with a degree of skepticism, no one actually does. People expect Mass Media to do that for them, but it doesn't. Whether it should is another issue entirely." -- P.95-96

    Then there's this:
  • "In theory, "Equal Time for Nutjobs" should be harmless. The people being interviewed are obviously out of their gourds. The problem is that a Mass Media mention gives them instant credibility. The media audience automatically assumes that the Mass Media wouldn't give coverage to anything they knew was patently false." -- P.131

    But, then there's this:
  • "Mass Media will respond that media issues are of great importance because they impact the public trust in news organizations. This ignores the fact that most people already believe Mass Media either makes stuff up, is biased one way or the other, or constantly gets information wrong. Finding out that journalists sometimes invent stories just confirms their preexisting viewpoint." -- P.248
Well, Drew, make up your mind. Either we believe everything the mainstream media dishes out, or we don't believe any of it. The fact is that people believe what they want to believe. The problem is that Internet sources and the mainstream media have so much space to fill that they are putting huge amounts of pure dross in front of us. Both are adept at making up facts and stealing liberally from each other. The trick is for us to try to tell what is legitimate and what isn't.

The Internet has proved to be a little better at filtering than the mass media. While the Internet is often the source of outlandish stories that prove to be false, the falsehoods are discovered reasonably quickly. In the case of the mainstream media, it may be months or years before we find out, although the presence of so many readers on the Internet is beginning to cut down the lag.

This is why the mainstream crowd is getting nervous.

This nervousness manifests itself in the constant drumbeat of criticism by "journalists" toward blogs. I normally enjoy reading "The Luddite", but a recent attack of his on Web 2.0 (which deserves derision) in general and blogs in particular is typical of this kneejerk reaction to Internet content. But at the top of page 2, Tony Long (aka The Luddite) says:

First, a caveat: Journalism is in trouble as much as it is in flux, and the professionals bear their share of the blame. The mainstream American media, bloated to unimaginable size across the worlds of print, broadcast and cyberspace, is largely under the thumb of corporate interests more concerned with profit than mission. Largely because of this, it can be accused of failing, in varying degrees, in two of its age-old mandates: to inform the people and to watchdog the government.
In other words, the professionals aren't doing the job any better than the amateurs are.

I like the immediacy of blog and on-line commentary reactions. If you read something stupid, you can quickly respond, not pen a letter to the editor that may never see the light of day. Not only can you respond, but you can get a quick response from the author (should he/she elect to do so) or from others who may agree or disagree with you. Consider a couple of recent examples.

Michael Tierman, a VP at RedHat, was shocked, SHOCKED I say, to discover that AT&T was asking for Social Security numbers when people were activating their beloved iPhones. Apparently, Mr. Tierman has never applied for a loan, started utility service at his home, or applied for a credit card. He also apparently thinks (although in a comment he amends himself) that AT&T could pass this information on to the--GASP--Federal Government.

Last I heard, they already had that information, since I got my SSN from them.

Then, there's Steve Tobak, a consultant, who considers what happens when "founding CEOs go bad". Now, aside from demonstrating a particularly poor understanding of how Boards of Directors work (especially when he thinks they are poorly paid), he misses the point that entrepreneurial CEO's are often lousy at running an established company for reasons that have been discussed since I was taking business courses back in the Dark Ages.

I think the point that he is trying, poorly, to make is that boards are too often in bed with the CEO's. In fact, he has the cart before the horse. It's the CEO who is along for the ride with the corporate directors. Sometime I might dive into that subject, but all one has to do is look at the fiasco at HP to realize that the Board of Directors is still very much in control.

Both authors were ripped mercilessly by comments.

Now these guys are not journalists, but magazines and newspapers have used people of their stripe (executives and consultants) to write columns for years. Just because C/Net chooses to call their contributions blogs rather than columns doesn't change the type of writing they are doing. Had these pieces appeared as columns in a publication, a week or a month later, we might have read some rebuttal. Thanks to the immediacy of the Internet, we could see that the majority of readers out there regarded both writers as being so far out in left field that they had left the park.

On the one hand, these articles would support Tony Long's assertions, but I would answer that the ability to respond quickly and directly to the authors demonstrates how well the Internet and blogging software can work. On the other hand, Drew Curtis can look at these pieces and realize that the Internet is as full of misinformed opinion as the mainstream media. He can, though, take some pleasure in the self-correcting nature of the blog format.

That doesn't mean that there aren't lazy people out there who use a single news source and believe everything they hear. But they existed long before the Internet. William Randolph Hearst and Horace Greely owed much of their success to these sorts of people. It's just possible that crazy news aggregators and equally nutty bloggers might be able to reduce the number of gullible types out there.

It could happen.