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30 March, 2007  

Good morning

Technology has been a large part of my life this week.  On the positive side, I've been at the CTIA show in Orlando - a mouthwatering collection of the latest and greatest goodies for cell phones and other related products.  More on that in weeks to follow as I variously review some of the items uncovered.

One bit of uncomfortable news from that show - there is growing interest in technologies to send advertisements to your mobile phones.  Although we’re promised that if we agree to accept advertisements on our phones, we might possibly get a lower monthly subscription fee.

And due to being in Florida this week, the newsletter is shorter than normal.

On the negative side of technology issues, I did a foolish thing, and replaced my Office 2003 with a copy of the new Office 2007 software.  Although I'm writing this after only half a day's experience, that half day has been massively frustrating.

Outlook - the program I use in my constant struggle to keep ahead of the 600+ emails I receive every day - has gone from being responsive and fast in its 2003 version to sluggish and slow.  This is not due to a slow internet connection or slow computer -   not only do I have the lovely 5Mb fiber connection to the internet, but I am running this program on a screamer of a computer - it is nearly new, with dual core 3.4GHz processors, 2GB of memory, and more GBs of fast RAID hard disk than I'll probably ever need.  But the program has changed from being acceptably fast to unacceptably slow, and regularly freezes up entirely while new email is being received (something that happens non-stop all day) to the point that my overall productivity is nose diving due to wasting way too much time waiting for the computer.  Doing simple computer tasks is now taking me twice the time it was prior to this 'upgrade'.

I spoke to a Microsoft Support Engineer, and his response was that due to the increased complexity/sophistication of the new Outlook 2007, it was only to be expected that it would run slower.

The program is not just slow, it is also stupid, with Microsoft's 'being helpful' becoming more intrusive and interfering.  For example, some legitimate email is misdirected into my Junk Email folder by Outlook, same as before.  But whereas, before, if I found a 'real' email in the Junk folder, I could reply to the email normally, now Outlook won't let me, and instead I have to move it first back to the Inbox (which in effect makes it disappear into the sea of emails there), making it much harder for me to quickly answer emails.

With 600+ incoming emails, and 50+ outgoing emails a day, even a few seconds of extra time per email quickly translates to an hour or more of lost time every day.  This is progress?

Excel - I started the new Excel and instinctively moved the cursor up to the top left hand corner to click on the File button, then on the Open button, to open a spreadsheet.  Ooops.  There's no longer a File button!  Instead, there's a Home button, but clicking on that doesn't do anything.  How to open a file?  I also tried the Insert and the Data buttons, but they don't seem to lead to this essential option, and eventually discovered that a Windows logo button leads to a File Open menu.  This is an improvement?  This improves usability?  Or is this change for change's sake?

Word - I went to print a document.  Normally I'd click the little printer logo on the menu bar at the top.  But there is no printer logo and no Print option at the top any more.  What to do?  Yes - go to the Windows logo button again.  Then choose Print then choose 'Quick Print'.  Three steps instead of one to print a document is an improvement?

Creating a new document is similarly clumsy, and when saving a word document, there's another issue.  Office 2007 now comes with a new default format for word documents - .docx rather than the earlier .doc format.  A similar problem exists when saving Excel spreadsheets.  Gone is the near universality of support in just about every program for word documents.

And as for my least favorite program, FrontPage, the new version of FrontPage is - ooops, Microsoft has discontinued FrontPage.  And their new replacement program, Microsoft Expression, is proving to have some problem with my existing FrontPage web pages.

So, with so much to dislike, what is there to like about Office 2007?  I wanted to like Office 2007, but alas, I haven't come across a single good thing yet, and none of the other reviews of the product I've seen have pointed to any 'must have' new features either.

It is possible I'm suffering from the angst associated with learning a whole new interface - an angst uncompensated for by any apparent benefits - and I'll update my current negative opinion on Office 2007 in a couple of weeks when I may have grown more familiar with it.

Technology was also a challenge while staying at a disappointing hotel in Kissimmee, the Lake Suites.  The good news - free Wi-Fi in all rooms.  The bad news - the Wi-Fi wouldn't allow me to send emails.  Yes, I could receive them, and do most other things, but could I send one?  No.  A series of phone calls, every day of my stay, to their Wi-Fi provider's support desk brought no solution, just excuses and promises to resolve the issue at an undefined future time (I think they kept hoping that I'd be checking out the next day).

One more technological challenge was in the form of the GPS unit I've been reviewing for the last ten days or so.  Which brings me to :

This Week's Feature Column :  Via Michelin X-930 GPS Receiver Review :  This French designed unit, from respected travel services (and tires) company Michelin is compact and cheap, but proves the continued truth of the adage 'you get what you pay for'.  A quirky interface and limited map information make this a unit best left on the shelf.

A comment about this article and the CTIA show I was at this week.  Increasingly, high end phones are being offered with built in GPS capabilities.  I'd never understood how this would be possible until visiting the stand belonging to the company that makes most of the latest GPS receiver chips.

The size of these chips?  Small ones were about 0.3" x 0.2" x 0.05" - as small as a fingernail.  Incredible.  With chips this size, and which work very well, there's only a cost rather than size issue limiting where they can be placed.  Look for more and more GPS service being built in to more and more things.  An iPod with GPS?  Why not!  A calculator?  Absolutely!

Last week I mentioned BA's propensity to upgrade dead bodies to first class.  There have been several reports recently about passengers dying on BA flights and the flight crew moving the dead body (and sometimes grieving relatives) into First Class, to the consternation of the other passengers in First Class.  I asked you in an instant survey what you thought would be the best way to respond to a passenger dying.

Would you be unsurprised to learn that BA's approach - moving the body to first class - was almost the least popular choice, with only placing the body in business class being less popular.  Yet again (American's decision to allow everyone access to the first class toilets being the most recent earlier example) an airline manages to choose the course of action which the least number of its passengers agree with.

As you can see from this pie chart showing the suggested dispositions of the body

the most popular suggestion was also probably the most sensible - clearing a row in the back of coach class and placing the body there.  Slightly more than 25% of readers suggested putting the body either in the crew's rest area or in the cockpit's jump seat - perhaps there's a little bit of vindictiveness in those suggestions?

A number of readers wrote in offering 'other' suggestions, ranging from the aviation equivalent of a 'burial at sea' (yes, that does mean tossing the body out of the plane!) to amusing comments such as suggesting the crew simply continue to ignore the dead body the same way they do the rest of the passengers on the plane.  The instant survey was answered by 6.0% of readers.

By the way, the elegant colors and type in this chart are the result of the new Excel 2007 - that is probably worthy of comment as a nice improvement.  But I can't find out how to add a title to the chart yet (and neither can I change the number of decimal places shown in a number), so the net result is, again, frustrating.

Is it time to treat yourself to a new suitcase?  My favorite online suitcase vendor, eBags - a company with a huge range of bags, great pricing, and a good website to navigate around - is offering 20% off your purchases between now (Friday) and the end of Sunday.  That's a good discount off already great prices.

One suggestion :  If buying a new bag to check, consider buying one in a color other than black.  That makes it much easier for you to spot on the carousel, and harder for someone else to take by mistake, and easier for an airline to find when the bag is lost.

Correction :  Last week I carelessly wrote that the Spirit of St Louis was the first plane to cross the Atlantic.  Many readers wrote in to correct me about that.  The Spirit of St Louis, piloted by Charles Lindbergh in May 1927 represented the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic.  But prior to that there was a non-stop flight in June 1919 in a Vickers Vimy (a British WW1 bomber) by a two man crew, John Alcock and Arthur Brown.  Here is an excellent article with a detailed exposition of who did what, when, and where.

Dinosaur watching :  Shame on Southwest.  I wrote about their spurning the memory and legacy of the man who made them the airline they are today, Lamar Muse, when he sadly passed away in early February.

At the time I wrote about the inappropriateness of Southwest rewriting their history to relegate Lamar's massive contributions to obscurity, while making his successor, Herb Kelleher, into a godlike figure.  I asked why they chose to name one of their planes after (still living and still working) Kelleher while ignoring the requests from Lamar's friends and family to have a plane named in his honor, and suggested you pass your own disappointment on to Linda Rutherford, Southwest's VP of Public Relations and Community Affairs.

Many of you did, including people who knew Linda personally, and after another mention the following week, she wrote me a pleasant note, but without any positive resolution offered.  I wrote back to her on 23 February, and followed up with a reminder email on 19 March and again on last Sunday, but she's now ignoring my three emails and the two questions I asked her.

Specifically, she is refusing to answer these questions :

1.  Who Southwest has named planes after already (I believe there are possibly six planes named after people in their fleet), and what these fortunate people have done to get planes named in their honor.

2.  Did Mr Kelleher specifically ask for a plane to be named after himself?

Her observation that Southwest is choosing to honor Lamar's death by an article in a future issue of their throwaway in-flight magazine struck me as a sad and almost insulting way of marking the passing of the man who built Southwest up from nothing; the man who therefore ensured that Ms Rutherford, Mr Kelleher, and all other Southwest employees now have the good jobs they currently enjoy.

Southwest is being mean spirited.  Shame on them, although judging by Ms Rutherford's silence, they at least feel ashamed and embarrassed at their mean spiritedness.

Perhaps I should be careful what I say about Southwest.  Last week my comments about Airbus' new A380 and the lack of forward progress this represented over earlier model planes might have been misinterpreted by a veangeful Airbus employee as criticism of Airbus (it wasn't meant that way).  My website monitoring software reported a possible hacker attack on the website last Friday morning in the minutes prior to 8.25am my time.

The location and identity of the hacker?  Someone using an IP address of, which is registered to Airbus in Saussens, France.

Lucky Glenn Tilton.  Mr Tilton, CEO of UAL, received compensation worth $39.7 million in 2006.  This included a one time stock award worth $20 million when the airline exited bankruptcy (compare this to Delta's CEO refusing any bonus when DL shortly exits bankruptcy), then another $18 million paid over the four weeks subsequent to UA leaving bankruptcy, and the balance being 'ordinary' earnings, benefits and bonuses.

Although they're pretty much wasting their breath, five of United's unions issued a statement protesting this and excessive executive compensation in general, as well as complaining about short staffing and their own low pay.

Will this make Mr Tilton change his mind and give back some millions of his earnings?  Not very likely.

When I flew, on American Airlines, down to Florida this past weekend, I signed up for their email notification of changes to the flights I was on - changes in departure or arrival times, gate numbers, etc.

The service worked excellently, but for one slight flaw.  Yes, I did get a series of emails advising me about changes to my two flights.  But - the flaw?  The emails were sent to me 24 hours after the flights.

And a friend had an interesting experience attempting to change a ticket on American.  They had been booked to fly from Washington to San Diego, and then returning (I think) San Diego to Dallas, connecting with a flight back on to Washington.  They wanted to change their travel to fly earlier, but only from San Diego to Dallas.

They were told they couldn't make changes to their return ticket, so they would have to cancel that and then apply the remaining credit against the cost of a one-way ticket to Dallas.  Okay - you mightn't agree with that, but those are the rules, and so my friend agreed without too much complaint.

Now for the amazing part, and he had me call, pretending to be him, to hear this for myself, because I found it impossible to believe, thinking he must have made a mistake.  I was told by an AA reservations agent that there was a credit balance due my friend as a result of the cancelled return half of his original ticket, but the agent said he didn't know how much that balance was - the computer would reveal how much it was only when it was applied to a future flight.  Eventually, the agent reluctantly revealed the credit balance was $128.80.

That was strange, but that isn't the point of the story.  The cost of a ticket from San Diego to Dallas was $265.  And the revised cost after the $128.80 credit balance on the cancelled ticket was applied to this new booking?  $475!  Yes, the $128.80 credit balance actually caused the ticket price to go up by $210.

The agent saw nothing strange or unusual about this - maybe it happens all the time?

Bad news if you enjoy the occasional tipple, are budget sensitive, and on a Carnival cruise (and isn't everyone on a Carnival cruise budget sensitive by definition?).  Carnival has made changes to its take-aboard beverage policies, and now prohibits passengers from taking any beverages - alcoholic or non-alcoholic - onto their ships.  You'll have to pay full price in their bars instead.

Yahoo is shortly to start offering unlimited free email storage to people with a yahoo.com email address.  Three years ago it was limited to 4 MB, then - under pressure from the wonderful free Gmail service from Google - Yahoo increased the limit to first 100 MB and then to 1 GB.  Yahoo's new unlimited capacity offer makes it the most generous deal out there - at least until Google may respond, which it almost certainly will.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Are we winning or losing the War on Terror?  By one measure, we're losing it.  According to the Washington Post, one of the databases of suspected terrorists has grown from about 100,000 names in 2003 to 435,000 names today.

That is approximately 1600 extra terrorist names added every week - 230 every day, or, if you prefer, one every six minutes.

Of course, not all these names are of bona fide terrorists.  But, for all of 2005, the GAO reports that a mere 31 names were removed from the list.

So, is the count of America's terrorist enemies truly increasing at an implacable rate of one every six minutes?  Or are our databases completely out of touch with reality?  Alas, neither answer fills one with confidence.

Here's an interesting article about armed pilots.  It opens with the terrible statistic that nine times out of ten, tests of TSA screening resulted in the testing individuals succeeding at smuggling box cutters, knives, ice picks, explosives, and other assorted illegal weapons through the screening process.

At present, air marshals are present on an estimated 5% of US flights, with the program costing $700 million a year.  But arming all pilots could be done at a cost of about $30 million a year.  That sure seems like a cost effective security enhancement to me.

Here's an interesting article for those of us who take pride in our ability to 'multi-task'.  Bottom line - we're not as good at it as we think we are.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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