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23rd May 2015

8:07am:

A couple outside a polling station in Drogheda, north of Dublin, after voting in Ireland’s referendum on same-sex marriage on Friday. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images, via The Guardian

From http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/may/22/irish-voters-travel-home-around-world-vote-same-sex-marriage:
Ireland is on course to become the first nation in the world to legalise gay marriage by popular vote, leaders on both sides of the historic referendum campaign said on Saturday.

Early tallies from open ballot boxes across the Irish Republic indicate a strong showing for the pro-same sex marriage proposition. The trend suggests that there will be at least a 2-1 majority for the yes side.

A huge yes vote from the republic’s electorate would mark another major milestone in Ireland’s journey from a Catholic church-dominated state to a more liberal, secular society.

30th April 2015

7:46am: I really want The Luggage.

I'm surprised no one has yet written a crossover where the TSA encounters The Luggage and hilarity ensues.

28th April 2015

7:35am: This is a nice piece on how one woman was judged based on her apparel choices. It's from a few months ago but it just crossed my inbox.

26th April 2015

9:43am: Nationalists at Westminster: Ireland and Scotland a century apart
This is a good paper. If you believe as I do that the lessons of Ireland can provide insight into the current politics about Scotland, give it a look. It gives a helpful overview of the history of both cases and an analysis of the situation in the run-up to the 2015 general election.* I read it as an attempt to slow the SNP's clear momentum in the polls, but written to provide information and history in its arguments. Even if you don't agree with the paper's contention that the SNP is only progressive inasmuch as it advances the nationalist cause, its suggested compromise of removing Scottish MPs from Westminster, and its conclusion that the SNP needs to keep its alliance options open in order to maximize its bargaining leverage, it's still worth a read, particularly for its capsule history of Irish nationalist representation at Westminster. ([profile] cerebralpaladin, I'm looking at you.)
One sure prediction about this election is that it will have a strong territorial dimension. Indeed, it is set to be the first UK election since 1910 in which territorial issues are crucial to the result. While MPs from Northern Ireland could come to play a key role in post-election negotiations, they are relatively few in number. This pamphlet therefore concentrates on the Scottish National Party (SNP), which looks likely to become the largest of the small parties after 7 May. Despite their rejection of independence in last year’s referendum, significantly more Scots are saying that they will vote nationalist in this general election than in the last one.more excerpts behind the cutCollapse )Amusing pull quote: "The SNP is an insurgent party but, unlike the new Greek government, it is not guided by a game theorist."

Britain's voters go to the polls a week from Thursday.

*Here I'll borrow some disclaimers Neal Ascherson includes in his piece in the Guardian (also worth reading) comparing Irish and Scottish nationalism at Westminster: "Any comparison with Ireland rouses alarm in Scotland, so here come the disclaimers: Scotland was never a colony settled by foreign conquerors; England did not control Scotland by fire and slaughter; Scotland has no Fenian tradition of conspiracy in the cause of independence; and, best of all, Scotland has no political Ulster."

Edited to fix link to Ascherson piece.

24th April 2015

8:58pm: I have a hole in the front of my yellow polo shirt. And I have been a bit concerned about it.

Then I looked in the mirror and discovered that no one can see it from the front, only from above.

The things you are concerned about yourself may not be the way others perceive you.

On the other hand, the holes along the shoulder seam of this shirt are obvious.

23rd April 2015

10:52pm: As I write this, the music box version of the closing theme from Totoro is playing in the background.

I am very pleased at this. It reminds me of bedfull_o_books.

ETA: I think the actual version playing was this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OetmTQ-wPyE
7:38pm: In a followup post, the folks at FT Alphaville said this about China's equity markets:
Of course, as the FT’s Josh Noble says, there’s still room for this to run. Politics and momentum are powerful forces. Per Josh, “this market rally has something going for it that previous bull runs have not — central government support.” Whether that support exists separately to the need to prop up growth rates… who knows. For now it doesn’t really seem to matter — the Shanghai Composite was up 1.5 per cent, taking its gains for the year so far to nearly 32 per cent and you can’t knock the greater fool theory while it’s working.

And as someone who generally knows what they’re talking about said to us recently (and we are paraphrasing a bit since we didn’t take it down at the time): “Oh, for sure. It’s going to be an absolute disaster. The government has no idea what it’s doing. But in the meantime, lots of money to make!” Seems about right.
7:02pm: LJ is posting duplicate copies of my comments with a lag of a couple of hours. It's very odd.

This happening to anyone else?
8:47am: There's something very appropriate about having Postmodern Jukebox's Jazz Age covers playing in the background when you're having your morning cup reading about the markets in the FT.
8:33am: "I believe that the public wants to be lead, to be instructed, to be told what to do. They want reassurance. They will always move en masse, a mob, a herd, a group, because people want the safety of human company. They are afraid to stand alone because the pressure is to be safely included in the herd, not to be the lone calf standing on the desolate, dangerous wolf-patrolled prairie of contrary opinion." --Jesse Livermore, 1877-1940
8:04am: I missed this post when it came out. The Chinese stock markets are really booming. It's like 1929! or 1999.

Deutsche Bank, quoted in FT Alphaville:
Bubble watchers point out median earnings multiples for Chinese technology stocks are twice US peer valuations at their dot.com peak. More worrying perhaps is a health-goods-from-deer-antlers producer on 70 times, the seamless underwear manufacturer on 90 times or those school uniform and ketchup makers on 330 times!
From the same article in Alphaville:
It seems everyone in the country is racing to open a brokerage account – 1.67m new accounts in the latest week, according to the China Securities Depository and Clearing Co. That sounds a lot, although it is growth of only about 1 per cent a week in the total of new accounts: China, remember is big.
They go on to make some comparisons between the current state of the Shenzhen and Shanghai markets and that of the Russell 2000.

"Past performance is no guarantee", etc. I wonder when the music's going to stop?

21st April 2015

3:27pm: TIL...
Today I learned why Singapore's downtown Chinatown is called 牛车水 (niú chē shuǐ), or "Ox-cart water". Wikipedia says "because of its location, Chinatown's water supply was principally transported by animal-driven carts in the 19th century. The name is also echoed in the Malay name, Kreta Ayer, with the same meaning."

Like San Francisco Chinatown, Singapore's Chinatown is now mostly for the benefit of tourists.

20th April 2015

9:29am: One small advantage of polymer notes (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polymer_banknote) is that if you get them in change stuck together from the froyo bar you can just wash them off in water and they're good to go after they dry.

18th April 2015

11:33pm: What I am about to say may be heresy in some quarters, but after watching and using a water boiler at both my parents' and at our friends S and P's I have become convinced that I am more likely to buy a water boiler (https://www.zojirushi.com/app/category/water-boilers) than I am an electric kettle (http://www.housetohome.co.uk/product-idea/picture/10-of-the-best-electric-kettles).

I would likely turn off the annoyatron that plays the electronic tune telling you the water has reached set temperature, however.

13th April 2015

10:30am: Here's a partial screenshot of the odd ad I mentioned earlier. It's quite a departure from the usual assortment of consumer ads I see in my Facebook "Sponsored" feed.

Areva Nuclear Fuel Disposal Ad

12th April 2015

3:21pm: Facebook's sponsored link algorithms are very weird. I just got this link offered to me: http://us.areva.com/EN/home-3138/areva-inc-areva-tn--nuhoms-used-fuel-storage-system.html

Really, I have no nuclear fuel, used or unused, anywhere, much less any to dispose of.

3rd April 2015

5:13pm: A queue out the door at Pepe's, empty tables at The Spot.

It's the same pizza, folks.

30th March 2015

1:03pm: Bank of America's "ATM with Teller Assist" machines, from Diebold.
I just tried using one of Bank of America's "ATM with Teller Assist" machines. They've rolled 150 of these out in 61 locations around the United States. These use Diebold machines with integrated live videoconferencing. They've already inspired teller protests: http://abcnews.go.com/Business/bank-america-tellers-picket-atm-machines/story?id=20969888.

Right now, Bank of America's videoconferencing call centers are reportedly in Delaware and Jacksonville, Florida, but obviously, if they can teleconference, the tellers can be anywhere. Cebu in the Philippines is a popular place for call centers, as is Hyderabad in India. I imagine Diebold has to have made that a selling point, which in any case Bank of America can't fail to have noticed as well.

The selling point for me was that I'd be able to draw out money in other than $20s. They advertise that they issue $1s, $5s, $20s, and $100. (No love for $2s, $10s, or $50s, apparently.)

I'll say this right up front: my experience was a complete and abject fail.

I was hoping that I'd be able to simply use the machine, stocked as it obviously was with a variety of notes, and not have to interact with anyone. However, the branch manager who was hovering around trying to drum up business told me that in order to get the particular denominations I wanted I would have to talk to a teller. Strike one.

The first teller I talked to had connect problems in the first minute of the connection. "Do I need to hang up, or do you do that?" I asked. "I'll hang up," he said. I never saw him again. The screen went back to square one and I started with another teller. Strike two.

I told the second teller what I was here to do, withdraw money from my non-Bank of America account. It was difficult to hear him, and it was hard for him to hear me. This was clearly a recurring problem with these machines, because the first guy broke the connection because he was having audio problems as well.

Because I was doing a withdrawal from another bank, the teller asked me to put some ID in a scanner slot to my left. I put my drivers license in the slot and he presumably scanned it. In any case I had identified myself to his satisfaction so he could go ahead with the withdrawal. Already we had to go through a more complicated procedure than I would have had to do to simply withdraw money using my card, because I'd previously entered my PIN. But no matter. I was doing this as an experiment to try out the technology and this was useful data.

I asked for $750, my daily maximum withdrawal, but asked him what the ATM fee would be. I couldn't hear him clearly and thought he'd said $6. He'd actually said $3. I said my daily maximum was $750, so we probably wanted to draw something less than that so the ATM fee wouldn't put me over. He assured me, incorrectly, that this would be no problem, so through a process of mutual muddled incomprehension we settled on $756. This was the amount displayed on the screen as confirmation, and there was the usual "I agree to an extra $3 fee" button to push on the screen as well. I thought, "This isn't going to work because my bank isn't going to let me draw more than my daily maximum," but I let it go because we clearly were having communications problems, and this would sort itself out.

He attempted to put the withdrawal through, looked puzzled, and then apologized that the system had been unable to give me that amount. He proposed $750 instead. I said again that my daily maximum was $750 but he assured me that the ATM fee wouldn't count. I thought, "No, that's still not going to work, but maybe we can keep reducing the amount until we arrive at an amount my bank will release."

$750 (+$3 for the ATM fee) also failed. At this point the teller gave up, and said I should go inside the bank and talk to an live teller who might be able to help me. Strike three.

Now, if I wanted to talk to a live teller I could easily have done this some other way, but I was content to have failed entirely to get any money, since the point was to see how well this system worked. I felt I had definitely done that. Enough of everyone's time had already been wasted.

I went back to my computer and verified with my bank that no money has been withdrawn from my account, which was my only concern in all of this. (My bank rebates ATM fees.) I can go back to an old fashioned ATM and get some money that way, then walk into the branch and exchange it for the bills I want.

I'm unlikely to use their machines again. I'm also unlikely to be opening an account at Bank of America, despite the best efforts of the branch manager, who to his credit did stop his attempt to sell me on opening an account when I reached my multitasking limit with the machine.

I don't know how they fix their communications problem. I was in a relatively quiet ATM vestibule area, but the ambient noise still made it hard for me to hear the teller and the teller to hear me. It's not like they really want to turn up the volume on the speaker because I was already speaking up so the remote teller could hear me. There are multiple machines in this vestibule. At my raised speaking voice I could already be easily heard across the vestibule. If there had been anyone else trying to talk at another machine we would likely have interfered with each other. As it was anyone waiting nearby would know that I was soon to have $750 in cash on me. Not a happy result.

There is a handset next to the screen. It's labeled "optional". Were I to use the machine again I would definitely consider its use mandatory, but I still think I'd be able to be heard by another user. I think a closed booth is necessary for this system to offer both intelligibility and transaction security. If I had been trying to do anything more complicated I think the muddle could have been significantly worse.

Moreover, I am not the average user. I am reasonably technologically competent and was interested in giving this system a chance. If I think it fails, its chances of success with the average user can't be great.

All in all, I think my experience is a nice demonstration of the limits of videoconferencing, particularly in systems where cost and installation size are significant constraints.

29th March 2015

8:52am: WOW air to Europe via Reykjavik.
Speaking of transatlantic low-fare airlines, WOW Air just started flights five days a week from Boston to Reykjavik on Friday, with fares starting at $150 one way.

They start flying from BWI to Reykjavik five days a week in May. Those fares start at $179 one way.

Connections are available on WOW to Berlin Schönefeld, Copenhagen, Dublin, London Gatwick, and Paris Charles de Gaulle.

They're a low-fare airline, but they are ticketing the through connection, so they'll probably take care of a problem if you're connecting at Keflavik airport.

The seat pitch on their A321s is 30". According to routehappy, this is average.

(Edit: corrected number of days of week for Boston to Reykjavik flights.)

21st March 2015

1:47pm: One single piece of advice I would have given to my high school self:
"You have to ask. If you don't ask, you won't get."

You still may not get what you want if you do ask, of course, but if you don't ask you almost certainly won't.

19th March 2015

2:20pm: I was thinking about doing this drive up from Florida. However, I now have another plan.
Hertz needs to get some of its cars out of Florida after Easter. This happens most every year. Their fleet goes to Florida and other places people escape to during the winter, but at the end of that season the cars need to be moved north. Rather than pay to have this done, they simply put up a promotion:
Drive Out from participating airport and neighborhood locations in Florida.

Drive In to participating locations in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Basically, the deal is that as long as you pick up the car from some location in Florida they need to move cars out of, you can rent it for $9.95 a day and drop it off without paying any drop-off fees. I checked some locations and couldn't find any that weren't airports, but all the major airports I checked (Tampa, Orlando, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach, Fort Meyers) had cars that were eligible for the promotion. Some more research revealed that the maximum rental period was two weeks; if I tried to reserve a car for longer than that the rate went to the normal rather high rate.

I thought about flying into Key West and driving back up north. Key West is as far as you can go in Florida, so that's why I decided that would be a good place to start. This far out, tickets to Key West aren't bad: $185 one-way on US Airways was as cheap as I could find, with more sane routings for around $219 on American. Add that to the $202.08 the rental will cost (after all the fees and taxes, you're actually paying just under $14.50 a day), and 50 or so gallons of gas, and you're looking at about $525 to $550 to fly down and drive back. If you have a AAA card Hertz knocks another $15 off the two week rental, so if you have that you can do this for just over $500.

Obviously you have to eat and stay somewhere. Key West in particular has some pretty outrageously high room rates. It's also cheaper to fly to one of the larger Florida airports, so if you didn't care about the Florida Keys you could pick up a car farther north, which would also reduce your fuel cost. If all you wanted to do was to Cannonball Run your way up, you could certainly do it in two days.

Alamo is running a similar offer, at similar rates, but their maximum rental period is three weeks. However, you can't combine their deal with any other discounts the way you can with Hertz's AAA member discount.

All in all this could be a neat little two week road trip up the East Coast, particularly if you have friends to share driving.

17th March 2015

5:22am: My personal rules for low-fare low-service airlines.
theloriest posted a Buzzfeed article saying that Ryanair is planning to offer low-fare transatlantic flights. They claim they'll won't be doing this for another four or five years, but we'll see. In any case this is that time in the industry again where low-fare low-service carriers try to break in to that market, what with Norwegian Air Shuttle throwing a few flights across the ocean, Air Transat doing its best to turn itself into a scheduled airline (as opposed to a mainly charter one), air berlin getting in there with a few transatlantic routes, and WestJet flying the occasional 737 from Newfoundland to Ireland and back.

Every few years, some venturesome souls make a crack at breaking into the lucrative (and thus heavily-defended) transatlantic air market. Mostly what happens is that they get some flights going and initiate a bitter and hard-fought price war with the legacy carriers. Trench warfare ensues, the newcomers get run out of business, bought out by other carriers, or end up in a niche. After the dust settles everyone decides that maybe going head-to-head with the legacy carriers who own the vast majority of landing slots isn't going to work in the present business environment, and ticket prices rise again. This has been happening at least since the time of Freddy Laker's Skytrain and PEOPLExpress, which is when I first experienced it first-hand. Sir Richard Branson actually managed to make a go of it, but now Virgin Atlantic is as established as any of the legacy carriers, and in any case (possibly not by coincidence) has decided they'll compete on service, not price.

Anyway, this time Michael O'Leary and Ryanair are considering entering the market. This is big news because Ryanair is a big airline: the largest European airline by passengers carried, and the largest international airline, again by passengers carried. It's a bus with wings, but it's a lot of buses and a lot of bus passengers. If they actually do enter this market, the price war that ensues will dwarf all the previous ones. You may not ever have to fly Ryanair to take advantage of this war, because every legacy carrier competing on a route Ryanair flies will match whatever price Ryanair charges. No matter what it takes.

I've flown Ryanair. More than once, even, and I have a few thoughts. Ryanair is the carrier everyone loves to hate, and there's good reason for that. They nickel and dime you even worse than Spirit Airlines, who are pretty much the worst in North America in that regard. They even charge you a fee to pay them by credit card. (No, you can't get around this by paying cash, although they do take debit cards.) Michael O'Leary is the guy who famously said he'd put coin-operated bathrooms on his planes if he could (he can't, and later claimed he was joking).

The thing about low-fare airlines like Ryanair is that if everything goes right, you're okay. But if something goes wrong, you're screwed. Miss the flight? Too bad, buy another ticket. (To be fair, the whole point is that their tickets are cheap, and the price of the new ticket plus the ticket for the flight you miss may still be cheaper than any alternatives.) More baggage weight than you guessed you had? Start tossing out stuff at check-in or get hit with a penalty fee. And you may find recovering your lost bag a bit of a chore. So the trick is to minimize the chance of a problem affecting your trip plans, because you should not expect them to fix any problem that arises. Service is not part of the ticket price.

After a few experiences with this breed I came up with some personal rules for low-fare, low-service carriers.
1) If anyone else is flying the route, make sure that whatever total the low-fare airline quotes includes all the fees you'll be using: credit card fee, checked bag fee, reserved seat fee, and whatever else you'll be using. Then compare the total cost. Often, you can take advantage of the existence of a low-fare carrier's fares without ever flying on them by flying with the legacy carrier who's trying to drive the low-fare carrier out of competition on that route.

2) Remember to add in the cost of their dedicated shuttle bus to the cost of getting to wherever you are from the remote secondary airport they use. Ryanair tends to fly into and out of airports that are converted Cold War airbases that local governments are desperate to get flights into and out of. Thus they pay much less for landing rights, and they don't have to fight for crowded slots.

This is particularly important when you're flying to someplace like Beauvais, which is a Paris airport the way that Manchester is a Boston airport. Difference is, there are painfully few alternatives to Ryanair's shuttle at Beauvais. You could rent a car, I guess.

I can imagine Ryanair flying to Providence Portsmouth and calling it Boston, or flying to Stewart and saying they fly to New York, for example. For Miami they could fly to Fort Lauderdale or Palm Beach. Mitchell International, here comes Ryanair! You get the idea.

3) Never try to make an immediate connection on either end of a low-fare flight. I use them for point-to-point trips, and schedule a couple of days on either end of the flight if I have to go anywhere. Usually, this is fine. If you're going from Stansted to Hahn, for example, you probably want to visit London for a couple of days before your flight. And you probably won't mind visiting Frankfurt for a day or two after. But trying to use them to do something like Edinburgh to Beauvais with a same-day connection in Dublin is rolling the dice. And connecting between two low-fare flights from two different low-fare carriers is even more fraught. JetStar from Perth to Singapore and then Singapore to Chennai on Tigerair? Good luck with that. At least if they strand you, you'll be stranded at Changi. Better just to get yourself a bed in Singapore for a couple of days and try all the tasty food.

4) The seats are small. Personally, my measure of a small seat is one where I'm not comfortable. As I'm a small person the only time I've really been in a seat that was too small for me was five hours on a second-class bus from Aranyaprathet to Bangkok. (Thai and Vietnamese non-luxury buses are sometimes built for people smaller even than me. Ever since, I've waited for the first-class bus.) But anyone not fun-sized like me should be aware that low-fare airlines pack the maximum number of passengers into the minimum amount of space. For me, that's sometimes pretty snug. You may call it something less friendly.

5) I seem to have just gotten email from flydubai with their latest deals. That reminds me of another point: even when they're not in some remote secondary airport as in point 2), low-fare airlines are often relegated to a far-off terminal away from all the "real" airlines that's not easy to get to or from. flydubai is a great example. They operate out of Terminal 2 at Dubai International.

Dubai International has three terminals: Terminal 3 is for Emirates and its friends. It's brand new and very nice. Terminal 1 is for most airlines not in a special arrangement with Emirates, and is showing its age but generally okay. Most importantly, you can walk between Terminal 1 and Terminal 3, and both of them are connected to a Dubai Metro station.

Terminal 2, not so much. Terminal 2 is basically a large shed on the other side of the runways where they stick all the low-fare carriers. Getting to and from Terminal 2 is a non-trivial operation, as it only gets bus service. So much so that sometimes it seems getting to Sharjah International, fifteen miles away, is easier than getting to the other terminals.

There are any number of other multi-terminal airports which do this to their low-fare airlines, Paris Charles de Gaulle included. Check before you fly, or end up miles from where you expected with time running out before your flight and no way to get to the other terminal except an expensive taxi.
All that said, I fly low-fare carriers quite a lot. I haven't ever taken Spirit myself, because there are too many alternatives with competitive prices. But in Europe and Asia, sometimes the low-fare airline really has a great price, even after all the fees and inconvenience are added in. JetStar, Tigerair, SpiceJet, AirAsia, Air Arabia, Ryanair, EasyJet, they've all been part of my itineraries and they likely will be again someday. I even have some pleasant memories of flying on some of them. But it's best to use them judiciously, eyes open about their limitations.

Those are five of my rules. If I've missed anything, tell me in the comments. :)

9th March 2015

8:48pm: I am cranky today.

Putting away the social media before my general irritation finds a target of opportunity.

5th March 2015

6:17am: Lantern Festival (元宵节)
Today is Lantern Festival (元宵节).

In Hong Kong and Taiwan, Google has a Doodle for it:


Traditionally one celebrates the day by, among other things, eating tangyuan (汤圆), also called yuanxiao (元宵). I always liked them but often burned my mouth when I was a kid because I couldn't wait for them to cool down.

Perhaps I'll try and find some today. And try wait long enough not to scald my mouth. :)

(Google has a number of doodles today. In some countries, the doodle is for Momofuku Ando, founder of Nissin Food Products and inventor of the instant noodle.

In other countries, it is for Gerardus Mercador, inventor of the cartographic projection which bears his name, and the man who coined the term "atlas" for a collection of maps.)
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