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Friday 24 December, 2004 

Good morning

Imagine my chagrin to learn that I messed up on the Hanukkah dates for this year in last week's newsletter.  However, once you've pondered how embarrassed I was about this mistake, please consider how much more embarrassed my Jewish friend, who gave me the wrong dates, was!

To my delight, we even have a Rabbi in Jerusalem among our readers, and I'm very happy to accept his gentle assurance as to the correct dates being from sunset on 7 Dec through nightfall on 15 Dec.  More details about Chanukah here.

Thanks for everyone who replied to the mini-survey about blogging last week.  Here are the results :

As you can see, a mere 4% of us are dedicated bloggers, while 27% of readers don't know what a blog is.  I'm surprised at how connected to blogs many readers are, which again confirms that you tend to be way out on the leading edge of new technologies.

Readers who don't know what a blog is are in good company.  Merriam-Webster reported that the word 'blog' was the most looked up word in 2004.  A blog is a 'web log' - a type of online diary/journal that anyone can publish easily themselves, using free software such as Google's blogger.com.

I've been considering adding a blog myself, and remain uncertain if this is a passing fad or a new core part of the internet ethos.  One source presently tracks 5 million different blogs, and estimates another 15,000 are being added every day.

With our daylight at its shortest once more, and our weather continuing to deteriorate into the depths of winter, a long time dream of mine is becoming more compelling.  My dream is to follow the sun and spend half of each year in the northern hemisphere and the other half in the southern hemisphere, so as to never again suffer another winter (due to the seasons being reversed).

Many people in the US and Canada ('snowbirds') make treks to warmer parts of the US each winter, but common destinations such as Arizona can often be ugly and not all that nice to live in.  Why not travel a bit further south - all the way to beautiful clean lovely New Zealand?

This dream is closer to being a reality for many people than they realize, especially, of course, retirees.  Best of all, it need not be enormously expensive.  I know of people who already do this, but for most of us, there are practical convenience issues needing to be resolved before it would be truly appealing.

With this in mind, I've been considering developing a residential estate in New Zealand for people from the northern hemisphere.  When the owners are not present, the estate managers will provide property maintenance, bill forwarding, etc, and could optionally rent the houses or condos out to casual visitors, much like what happens with many condos in, eg, Hawaii, reducing the total cost of ownership.  When owners are present, they become part of an instant community, with a mix of fellow ex-pats from around the world, and leavened with some NZers and Australians too.

Two bedroom condos in a beautiful part of New Zealand would probably sell for between US$150,000 - US$250,000.  Depending on how much of the year you lived in the condo yourself, and how many days/weeks it was let to short term guests, your above the line ownership costs need not be prohibitive, and you've purchased an appreciating asset that hopefully increases in value each year.

I need some real world feedback before choosing whether to press on with a broad project for many people, or just to quietly buy a single piece of property for myself.  Please visit this web page and answer the survey there.  Your answers will be very helpful and much appreciated.  (I'm using new survey software - please let me know if it malfunctions.)

There's no feature column this week (hey - it's Christmas Eve today, and after you've answered the survey, do you really want another distraction!).

Last week's politically incorrect editorial (yes, I wrote it) attracted the usual sprinkling of replies.  As is always the case when I make contentious comments, several things happen, as I'm sure happens to all writers, no matter what the subject or medium.  I'll detail this, because there's an important underlying issue.

Firstly, I notice a large increase in readers who report my newsletter to their email service as being unwanted spam.  This is a deliberate attempt on the part of such people to try and get their email service to block my newsletters for everyone in the future.  Shame on such people for their deceit.

Secondly, a few people (but even 0.1% of readers comes to a fairly large number, these days) write very nasty notes to me.  My 'favorite' last week was from a reader who called me a supporter of the KKK and White Supremacists, then blocked me in his AOL settings so as not to be able to read my reply.

Thirdly, fewer people write to express their support than write to disagree.  It is my perception that most of you nod approvingly (or, at least, neutrally) and don't realize there's any value to respond, even with a trivial reply like 'thanks for your comments'.  This is the large group known as the 'silent majority'.

What this means is that very small groups of people - 0.1% of readers - almost completely dictate the editorial feedback and pressures felt by most publishers.  This was recently confirmed by the FCC who disclosed that 99.9% of all complaints they get from television viewers and radio listeners come from members of one single advocacy group!

There are two morals to this story.

Firstly, if you write to anyone, you are moving yourself out of the 99.9% category and into the 0.1% category.  Your voice has the strength of not only yourself but also the other 999 people who are sitting silently, doing nothing.  Giving good personalized feedback is a very powerful way of shaping editorial content.

Secondly, if you write to disagree, be polite and persuasive.  If you're rude and insulting, your views will be rejected and perceived as being from a fool and confirming that only fools disagree with the writer's views.  But if you're polite and positive, your views will be much better received.  Keep your note brief, and try and only make one or at the most two points.  For example, you could write something like the following :

Dear ----

Many thanks for airing some of the issues on the complex and contentious topic of ---.  This is an often misunderstood subject, and adding more public debate can only help everyone better appreciate the different opinions and perspectives.

I understand many people do indeed sincerely believe that (black is white), and I also understand the need for brevity in your (newspaper/magazine/tv program/whatever) means all points of subtle distinction can't be fully explored.  However, it seems your presentation on this topic overlooked a couple of important points - namely, that (sometimes black is not a pure white) and also that (sometimes there are shades of grey).  This recent (respected person/research/study/whatever) points out that, in fact, (something supporting your case).

Could I ask you to consider these issues if you revisit the topic in a future presentation.  I do have additional background and resources that I'd be pleased to send on to you if this is of help.

Sincerely, etc

You can have a far greater impact on shaping the political and social process by writing letters and making phone calls on a regular basis than by voting once every couple of years.

And so, a suggested New Year resolution for 99.9% of you - become more participative in shaping the world around you in 2005.

Dinosaur watching :  United announced its results for November.  The good news - UA lost $87 million.  The bad news - this loss of 'only' $87 million was after including a one time gain of $158 million from selling its share of Orbitz.  United's real loss for a single month - close on a quarter billion dollars.

And United's latest excuse?  Executive VP and CFO Jake Brace said 'Due to harsh industry conditions, we must urgently implement additional cost reduction initiatives'

Maybe someone should ask Southwest just how harsh they feel the industry conditions to be.

A while back, United hired Bridge Associates LLC to review its business plan.  This was done as a sop to its unions, presumably to reassure them that UA's management was actually competent (notwithstanding all appearances to the contrary).

Bridge Associates have now reported back to United.  They said they believe United's business plan is feasible, with certain caveats.  These include :

  • changing market factors

  • a possible rise in interest rates

  • the ability of United to increase revenues

  • the ability of United to cut costs

Although a reasonable person would think that Bridge's extremely weak statement of support ('feasible') has been neutered down to nothing by these four massive caveats, a United spokesman happily said 'We think that this is an endorsement that the plan that we put forward, assuming that we can get the cost savings we need, is a viable one.'

Even the United spokesman can't manage an unqualified statement of confidence!

Knowledgeable commentators have been talking about the looming pension crisis in the airline industry for many years.  Ignorant airline CEOs are apparently just discovering this problem now.  And how do they respond to their ignorance?  With shamefaced apologies and resignations?  Nope.  Delta's CEO obviously believes the best defense is a good offense, and so in a recorded message to employees, he said

Despite Delta's good intentions and best efforts, significant funding obligations will come due in the next several years. These will create enormous financial and competitive pressures on our airline unless we receive congressional relief

Why is it that Delta's only apparent salvation lies in government bailouts?  Is this the best that the airline's highly paid CEO can do?  To give up and ask for help from the government?

Continental has just been given permission to fly from New York to Lagos in Nigeria.  But Nigeria's own new national carrier, Virgin Nigeria, is being refused permission (by the US government) to also fly that route.

This refusal is nothing more than a sordid bit of non-financial US government support for US carriers.  Virgin Nigeria is 51% owned by Nigerian interests, qualifying it as a Nigerian airline (the other 49% is owned by Sir Richard Branson).  The US government is seizing on Branson's presence in the background and says that because Britain won't let more US carriers fly into Heathrow, it won't let this Nigerian airline fly between Lagos and New York.

If this seems fair and sensible, seek urgent medical help.

In related Virgin news, they are showcasing the 20 top nominees in a competition for new designs for airsick bags.  Bags with the 20 different leading designs are now available on their flights.

Boeing said on Monday this week it remains confident of getting 200 orders for its 7E7 by the end of the year.  A couple of days later Japan Airlines ordered 30 7E7s (although whether a firm contract has yet been signed is unclear).  Boeing said that, as of the end of the week, 56 orders are under firm contract, with 112 in total having been 'announced'.  Anyone want bets that Boeing won't get even half way to 200 by this time next week?

Airbus has already landed its first order for its 7E7 competitor, the new A350.  Spanish carrier Air Europa signed up for ten of them.

It is common myth that Airbus wins more orders than Boeing simply by discounting its prices more than Boeing.  This ignores the fact that Airbus is a profitable operation, and simply gives better service.  In talking about his airline's recent order for 40 A320s, AirAsia's CEO Tony Fernandes said

It isn't just about discounts in our case. The people from Boeing are great, but to sit there and just say it's discounting is not the answer to why they are losing so much market share. It was a mixture of many factors, including the huge Airbus organizational support.

Adding to Boeing's problems is a bad paint job on the taxi-way at Boeing Field, where glass beads came out of the paint and were sucked into the engines of new planes being tested prior to delivery.  Total damage is estimated at $50 million.

The US government is increasing by 61% the passenger fees for the Agriculture and Plant Health Inspection Service.  This fee is levied on all arriving international travelers.  Sounds outrageous?  The Air Transport Association certainly thinks so, and attacks the government for 'sneaking through' the increase.  The ATA, lobbying group for the US airlines, is strangely using the issue of taxes that travelers pay to the government as a reason for the government to give cash to the airlines.

Oh - the 61% increase :  The actual dollar rise is a mere $1.85, up to $4.90 per person.  Plus the per plane fee - what the airlines actually do pay to the government themselves - is increasing from $65.25 up to $70.00, which strikes me as the biggest bargain in the sky.

Here's an amazing new safety idea for planes that apparently, most of the time, actually works.

The latest scary study on the dangers of cell phone radiation has now come out, determining that cell phone signals harm body cells and damage our DNA (sounds like the SteriPEN water sterilizer I reviewed last week - maybe if you stick a cell phone in a glass of impure water it will kill off all the bugs!).

In a statement that could have been taken word for word from a fifty year old archive of cigarette company denials, Motorola and Sony Ericsson said more research is needed in order to determine whether cellphone radiation harms DNA.  A Motorola spokesman told Reuters the company was 'awaiting evaluation by the scientific community'.  They presumably do not include the four year research project they were commenting on as being 'evaluation by the scientific community'.

Remember - if you have a choice, use a landline.  If you don't have a choice, use a headset (see the first item in my Christmas Gift Giving Guide for a supplier of nearly free headsets).

It is probably a good thing that the US has fewer cell phones per person than the rest of the developed world.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  The TSA just doesn't know when to quit - when it comes to dissembling about its shoe removal policies.  A follow-up Washington Post story (original article discussed here) gives more delightful quotes from the TSA on this topic.

Unfortunately, with the discovery on Tuesday of a box cutter blade glued into the sole of a man's shoe when he went through security in Honolulu, it seems likely the TSA will redouble rather than relax their shoe inspections.

Bizarrely, the TSA and police won't reveal the excuse the man offered for having the blade in his shoe.  Which of course means the man probably had a perfectly believable excuse.  The 33 yr old man, who was traveling with his wife and four children, has been arrested and is now in federal custody.

But the TSA does know when to quit when it comes to female body searches.  This is actually a difficult issue to take sides on.  On the one hand, as this ACLU article fairly points out, it is close to impossible for a light back-of-the-hand touch to distinguish between real breast, padded bra, prosthesis, or explosive, making the whole procedure at present rather pointless.

Terrorists regularly use women as suicide bombers and the ugly fact is that there's a great opportunity to hide a dangerous amount of explosives in a full figured woman's 'curves'.

The TSA is backing down from its recent policy, and it seems now screeners will not touch the breast area at all.  Effective yesterday, screeners will keep their hands to the "chest perimeter" of women unless detection equipment picks up the possibility of hidden explosives.

Screeners are being told to pat down the perimeter of the chest, backside and abdomen.

Equal justice for all?  Two screeners have been 'disciplined' after the fake explosive slipped through Newark's security screening recently.  They have been transferred to other posts.

Meanwhile the entire family of a teenage boy has been banned for life by bmibaby after he joked that there may be a bomb in his aunt's handbag.

This story postulates the demise of the company car, being replaced by the company bike.  But if you'd prefer a more man sized vehicle, perhaps this item would make an ideal stocking stuffer (I saw one of these recently going down the motorway in Britain - an amazing sight).

And if you do find yourself receiving such an item, you'll probably need help opening the presents.

Please everyone have a very Merry Christmas and safe holiday travels.

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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