Saturday, March 28, 2009

Trip to Bellvue

I just returned from spending 2 weeks in Bellevue, Washington (10 miles north of Seattle). I liked the place, if not the weather (gray and drizzling - just like London) and my customer's office was located inside a nature preserve, making the daily drive enjoyable. Work itself was interesting as well.

Here are a few non-connected thoughts and points (you'll have to excuse the quality of the pictures, I was using my Blackberry to take them):
  1. The Residence Inn Bellevue was a nice hotel to stay at. It's only 5 months old, and the suites are brand new, with LCD screens, new furniture and appliances, and nice views (which I'm sure will be less dreary in the spring). And an entertainment room with computers and Xbox 360s. I got to play Halo 3 on the 52" plasma with surround sound. Cool.

  2. Speaking of Halo 3, here's a snap I took in the parking lot:
  3. I was a bit surprised to see this sign posted all around my customer's office:
    Until I started seeing these crossing the road, :
    Hard to believe these creatures brought down that UA plane in NY a few weeks ago. Should we watch for them crossing, or should they watch for us flying? smile

  4. Nothing funnier than noticing the towel in your hotel room, 6000 miles away from home, is made in Israel:

  5. Finally, a tale of two doors. I was looking for the stairs. I got to a side corridor and saw this:

    Coming from the wrong side, you may think the right door is the stairway, and walk straight into the ladies room redface.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

yapta to Track Hotel Prices

I haven't used too much in the past, but I'm about to start now. yapta (Your Amazing Personal Travel Assistant) offers a service that allows tracking flight prices and get alerted whenever the price drops to an acceptable (to you) price.

Most of my flights are paid for by my customers and the others are on points, so I didn't find much use for the service. But today they've announced the same service for hotels, and this is interesting and relevant to my upcoming vacation. Here's the email I received:
Hi Guy --, the website known for airfare price tracking, tomorrow will announce the launch of a hotel price tracking service that for the first time, will enable travelers to monitor prices on more than 110,000 hotels around the world. Unlike "opaque" accommodation booking services (i.e. which do not allow travelers to see the specific hotel property they're bidding on, Yapta allows travelers to designate the hotel they're most interested in and then automatically be alerted when the rate drops. I've pasted a copy of the press release that will be issued tomorrow. If you’re interested in speaking with Yapta’s CEO about how this will benefit consumers, just let me know.

Rob Nachbar
(phone number redacted)
This was accompanied by a lengthy press release of the kind we all know and love. So there - use and enjoy.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Planet Earth in HD

I broke my promise and bought yet another HD-DVD. But this one is well worth it.

If you need to prove to anyone that HD is not a fad, but actually a new way to look at the televised world, look no further than Planet Earth.

This BBC series (narrated, as usual, by David Attenborough, with his usual enthusiastic voice, and music by the London Philharmonic Orchestra) shows you the earth in ways you haven’t seen before. Shot entirely in hi-def, it combines shots from space, exhilhrating "how did they shoot this?" flybys, time-motion sequences, amazing flora and fauna and some of the last shots you’ll see of species that are going extinct.

I got the HD-DVD set (4 DVDs) from Amazon for $29 (the set cost over $120 when it came out 2 years ago), but you can also get it in Blu-Ray (if that’s your thing) or DVD (just make sure you have an upconverting DVD player, or else you won’t enjoy the dazzling HD splendor). BTW, if you have an Xbox 360, you can now get the HD-DVD player for $29 – so you can get both for less than $60.

I only watched the first 2 episodes so far (there are 11 in all, and some bonus material). My favorite sequences are the colorful birds of paradise; a white shark leaping after a seal – slowed down 40 times; and one of the last snow leopards in the world (the real deal, not the Apple OS razz) hunting on a near vertical slope in the Himalayas.

Sadly, this might be the only way we’d be able to show our grandkids what the world looked like.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Reading Habits

I’m an avid bibliophile – I’ve been devouring books for years and have angered my parents many times by "wasting" my time and money on amassing a public library’s worth of books (some of which still reside at their home – hence the recent side of that anger).

My friend Avi recently answered a “reading habits questionnaire” on his blog (it’s in Hebrew). Avi suggested I do the same on mine.
Apparently, this questionnaire has bee making the rounds in the blogosphere for a while now. I urge anyone who loves books to take it. Feel free to post your replies as a comment. If you intend to run the survey in your blog, drop me a note and I’ll link to it.

Finally, as a service to the reader, I tried turning every book name to an Amazon link, so you can get immediate gratification, if you so choose. But feel free to buy the books elsewhere, or better yet, check them out of your public library and save money.

  1. What’s your favorite book?
    How can you answer a question like that? I had several favorite books in several times in my life. But 3 jump to mind:
    1. I, Claudius (and its sequel Claudius the God) by Robert Graves, the book that got me interested in the Romans and their times. It also let me to read The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, a highly gossipy book that confirms some of the key plot points of, the otherwise fictional, Claudius.
    2. The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King. A complete departure from his usual horror and gore trade, King tells a simple fairytale, that looks like it came from the Grimm brothers chest of stories – including the heavy hidden layers of adult subject matter. The story is told effectively, and has you find yourself identifying with the heroes, hating the antagonists and rooting for good to triumph. This book foresaw his Dark Tower Series (and indeed, if you read both, you know they may be tied on more than one playing field) and is the best proof that King is one of the most effective writers living today.
    3. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. This book took me by surprise. It has so many layers and stories within stories, that it reminded me of a recursive function. Yet it all ties together nicely in the end and you feel like you just took the most wonderful journey. I'm thankful to my friend Ilan for giving me this book.

  2. What book do you have by your bed right now?
    Several, actually. I’m notorious for starting a book and jumping to another one and back again:
    1. The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman
    2. The Children of Hurin by JRR Tolkien (stuck in the middle, will probably have to restart)
    3. The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey (finished first book in the trilogy)
    4. I am Legend by Richard Matheson (nearly done!)
    5. The Art of War by Sun Tzu (done!)
    6. Anime from Akira to Howl's Moving Castle, Updated Edition: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation by Susan Napier (struggling)
    7. An MSDN magazine that I finished long ago (fine, I’m messy :))

  3. Which book did you enjoy reading, but never admitted it?
    The Ninja by Eric Van Lustbader. Intriguing, suspenseful, but extremely sleazy :)

  4. Which book you never read, but never admitted to it?
    The Catcher in the Rye by Salinger. Also War and Peace by Tolstoy. Classics are easier to buy than to read.

  5. Which children’s book has burned into your consciousness?
    Flat to Rent by Lea Goldberg (it’s in Hebrew, but I found it on Amazon – maybe there’s an English translation, but it would miss all those amazing rhymes that stay with me until today). It contains everything a child needs to learn about loving the different, camaraderie vs. bigotry, and being a good neighbor.

  6. What quote do you remember the most?
    ”It is not that I object to the work, mind you; I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.” – Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

  7. With which fictional character would you trade places for 24 hours?
    My immediate answer would be Peter Parker (aka Spiderman) – I’d like to see NY from his point of view for a day. But if we want to take a deeper literary approach, I’d have to say Sherlock Holmes. To have that brain for just a day…

  8. Who affected your reading habits the most?
    My mom. She is also an avid reader, and some of the first full length books I read are hers. She also pushed me to our local library and taught me some “hacks” that allowed me to check out as many as 7 books at a time – something she later regretted.

  9. What’s the strangest place you ever read in?
    On a private beach in Aruba, in the Caribbean, surrounded by pink flamingos. They seem oblivious to the fact I’m there. Beautiful blue ocean and a devious sun that burns you to a crisp, regardless of how much sun tan lotion you’ve smeared on yourself.

    I actually have a much more bizarre place, but upon writing the experience down, I scared myself so much, I had to delete it.

That’s it. Waiting anxiously to see your answers.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Black Box

As a frequent flier, I take quite an interest in the machinery used to get me from place to place. I took a couple of flight lessons and visited the Boeing factory in Everett, Washington twice (the first time, years ago, they were just rolling out the 777-200. More recently, they were hard at work on the 787 "Dream Liner").

One fact stuck in my mind from the last tour: every airplane is flown by test pilots for several hundred hours, before it's delivered to the airline that ordered it. During the test flights, the pilots simulate turning each one of the 4 engines off, and finally all 4 - to see how the plane would handle it. Talk about a job from hell - purposefully trying to crash a jumbo jet.

That and some recent accidents (and morbid curiosity) prompted me to read about the Flight Recorder, aka "Black Box". Here are some facts that might interest you, about a the only device on an airplane that is completely useless to its occupants:
  1. A black box is actually orange colored, so it'd be easier to find in a wreck.

  2. There are actually 2 flight recorders on every airplane. One records the flight data from all the gauges (FDR) and one records conversations in the cockpit (CVR).

  3. The recorders are placed in the tail of the aircraft, statistically the part of the plane that will survive most crashes (and to think I usually tell my travel agent to seat me up front).

  4. The recorders have a locator beacon to aid in their retrieval.

  5. The FDR records all the data points in the aircraft every 5 seconds, unless something goes wrong, and then it switches to 1 second or 0.2 second interval. It can hold up to 25 hours of data.

  6. The voice flight recorder retains the last 2 hours of conversations, using a cyclic buffer.
    Which brings up the question: with today's storage capacity and minimization, you can literally record hundreds of hours of flight data and voice without losing anything. Why isn't the technology upgraded?
In my opinion, the whole flight recorder aspect may be a bit outdated. With available wi-fi and radio technologies, you could, conceivably, transmit all data to several ground stations (for redundancy), so no on-board recorder will be needed (think about it: some of the airlines already have onboard wi-fi. Data can be easily transmitted). That way, many more people and much better computers on the ground can monitor planes in real time, and alert whenever something goes out of whack, long time before the pilots notice a problem (pro-active, rather than reactive, approach).

It's hard to put a number on how many accidents were prevented and lives saved due to lessons learned from black boxes salvaged from past accidents. From a pure, scientific point of view, this looks like one of the single instances in human progress where learning from past mistakes actually prevents repeating them.

Read more about flight recorders here.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Consumer Rants: Continental

This post may single out Continental airlines, but is targeted at all airlines using code-sharing as an excuse to deny people of their hard-earned miles.

At the beginning of the month, I traveled to the UK on a Continental airlines flight operated by Virgin Atlantic. Since then, I have not been credited my miles (about 10k of them).

The Continental site provides an automatic way to add uncredited miles. I could still see my trip in my online account. I went through the form and got "an error occurred - please call the office in Houston". I called their office, waited on line for 7 minutes, and got a rep who spent 10 minutes trying to find my flight in her system. No matter what info I gave her, she claimed she has no way to confirm i actually flew on that flight. Finally, she told me to mail my receipt and boarding passes, if I ever want to see those miles. She blamed Virgin for the mishap.

Few things irritate me:
  1. In this day and age, why mail stuff if you can email it (or fax it, if Continental doesn't have access to email)?

  2. I haven't touched a paper ticket in years. I only use eTickets and printouts and other online means of checking in. Yet time and again I'm being asked for that little piece of paper called "boarding pass". Why have computers been inveneted? To allow people to trade in paper more easily???
    (And since I am in California, I'm mandated by law to add: "think of all the trees dying for those pieces of paper..." razz).

  3. Why do companies blame their code share partner for missing miles? I bought a ticket from Continental. They chose to fly me with Virgin - and now they refer me to Virgin to prove I was on the flight?
    This is the kind of shoddy behavior used by web sites that sell merchendise and then let you to fend on your own against an unknown 3rd party when the merchendise misbehaves. Where is the BBB when you need it?

  4. Finally, and this is the most irritating point: Continental got paid for this flight. They charged my credit card before I set one foot on that plane. How can they ask for proof? Proof of what? The way I see it, I'm entitled to those miles the second I pay for the flight. Me being or not being on a plane has nothing to do with that benefit.
In summation, let me say this: Continental (or any other airline): if you can't find proof I was on a flight, please refund my money. You must have charged it by mistake. Oh, and please send my money back by mail.