Sunday, October 29, 2006

Contemplating Priceline name your own price for air travel

I use Priceline "Name Your Own Price" for hotels. It's great and gives great deals, assuming you take the time to figure out how to use it properly. It is extra work, but the savings always blow me away. Air travel on Priceline is a completely different story. For the most part, I am very schedule sensitive about air travel, or at least the ground transportation portion. Nonetheless, I have it in my mind to at least try Priceline air travel at least once.

The main problem is that I may have to allocate an extra day on either end of my trip, or add a cheap hotel stay at either end of the trip so that I'll be near the airport when ground transportation may be problematic.

If I simply want to be in a city a certain morning, I can simply accept any shcedule for the previous day.

But if I want to be in a city some evening, I can't simply request Priceline to travel on that day since the arrival may be very late evening or even in the middle of the night.

If I intend to leave on the morning of a date, I can let Priceline schedule me for any time that day.

But if I want to be in a city until mid-afternoon, I can't depend on Priceline that day since it may schedule the departure too early in the day for my own schedule, so I would have to ask Priceline to return me the next day even if there was a good chance that Priceline could have gotten me on an afternoon flight the desired day.

The next issue is that Priceline may schedule my initial departure or final arrival so that I am unable to use public transportation to get to and from the Airport. A 6:00 a.m. departure is a non-starter even if I am willing to get up at 3:00 a.m. Ditto for an arrival after 11:00 p.m. since the last bus may have left by the time I get to the bus stop, especially if the flight happens to be even modestly delayed or slow to deplane, which is very typical.

My thought is that the only way I can contemplate Priceline air travel is if I factor in the cost of a cheap hotel room on both ends of the trip. Maybe 60% of the time the schedule works out fine. Maybe 20% of the time I need a room on one end of the trip, and maybe 20% of the time I need a room at both ends of the trip.

What bothers me is that even at a budget rate of $65 (or $75 when you add in taxes), two nights hotel may be greater than the delta between the Priceline air travel and the "normal" air travel. But, that's the worst case scenario, and maybe that happens one out of evey three or four trips.

Still, it leads me back to thinking about whether saving $150 is really worth all of the aggravation I would have to go through to save that money.

Nonetheless, at least one time I would like to try it.

The difficulty is that I may try it and it works out great, do it a few times, feel comfortable with it, and then WHAMO, get a schedule which makes the whole trip really suck. Cheap hotel rooms are an entire crap shoot in their own right.

An alternative is to plan a stay in a reasonably decent hotel near the airport as an integral part of my whole adventure. Sounds great as a theory, but maybe in practice it's not as satisfying as on paper, and the overall financial cost will be significantly higher. Another great idea that may have to stay on the shelf.

And then there is the issue that Priceline may put you on connecting flights that significantly add to your travel time.

I was just looking closely at Priceline and for this coming Friday through Sunday, the "lowest published fare" for a roundtrip to San Francisco would be $380. I was thinking that $150 might be a good enough price to induce me to try Priceline. But, to get a price of $150, I would have to bid $125 for the ticket since the taxes and Priceline service fee bring that up to $150.60. If I had to get a $75 hotel room on each end to meet flight times, that would bring my total cost to $300.60. That still feels a bit pricey to me, but is modestly better than the $380 "published" airfare. Of course, I could get lucky and not need to two extra hotel nights. A $150 flight is a great deal. A $225 flight is also a rather good deal, but less so with all of this planning anxiety. And that's if I could actually get a $125 flight on Priceline. I would rate my odds about 50%. Priceline talks about the potential for up to a 40% savings.With hotels, I always have done better than that, but air travel is different. A 40% savings on $380 would be $228. A 30% savings would be $266. And taxes and the Priceline service fee need to be added to those prices. Add on the extra hotel nights and the prices are modestly attractive, at best.

I may just do this once simply to find out what it is like. Maybe. But not this week.

Thanksgiving weekend is a possibility, especially since travel on Thanksgiving Day is always a good bet. I just checked and a Thursday departure and Monday return is listed as $293. That's a semi-decent fare, so if Priceline stuck me we a lousy departure and arrival, even a $125 fare would expand to more than the straight fare.

This is so complicated. And the net potential benefits so iffy and marginal.

Still, adventure does call.

Maybe, someday.

-- Jack Krupansky

The agony of air travel

There was a day... there was a day when I actually enjoyed air travel. Maybe that was back in 1984 or so. Checkin and security and boarding were so quick, painless, and anxiety-free that air travel was a joy, at least for me. Now, all of that is changed, and it is not simply because of 9/11. Part of it is due to the financial difficulties of so many airlines, where the equipment is too old and too poorly maintained and too poorly serviced. Maybe it is also due to an increase in demand that hasn't been met with a sufficient increase in infrastructure. Whatever. All I really know is that I now look forward to air travel as being quite a painful experience. Sure, some trips turn out to be reasonably pleasant, but it's a Russian roulette thing where you can almost flip a coin whether your travel experience will be heaven or hell, and betting on heaven is a loser's game.

It used to be quite easy to find an economical flight that departed mid-morning (from say Denver) and arrived by late afternoon (say in New York or Washington), but now such a flight tends to be outrageously expensive if even available at all, unless you purchase significantly in advance.

Now, most of the available and economical flights either depart very early morning or so late that public transportation is unavailable or exceedingly inconvenient. In the old days, a 6:30 a.m. bus was sufficient to catch an 8:00 a.m. departure. No more. Now, even a 5:00 a.m. bus is pushing it, and some places don't have service that early.

That's the triple anxiety: the service may not be available, or is too expensive, or too inconvenient.

That's it: three strikes and you're out.

The net result is that I do far less air travel than in 1984. This year, I took one business trip to San Francisco from Denver, one trip to Seattle for a job interview, and a one way trip to Seattle to move to the new job back in May. I've done no air travel for almost six months now. I was expecting a trip to Washington, D.C. this month, but that seems on hold, and I may go to New York City for Christmas and New Years, but that's it for me. And I'll actually be happier with less travel.

I'm living in the Seattle area right now and it would be nice to hop down to San Francisco for the weekend. In the olds days, I could leave work at 5:30 p.m. on a Friday evening and catch a 7:30 p.m. flight for $250 and arrive in San Francisco by 9:30 p.m. with plenty of time for a nice, pleasant, relaxing dinner. And, I would do that by stopping in to buy my ticket at my full-service travel agent at noon that same day. That was quite reasonable, and quite pleasant.

Let's see... if I go into, and check for flights from Seattle to San Francisco this coming Friday evening returning next Sunday afternoon, I see that the closest departure is at 6:40 p.m., costs $380, and there is only 1 seat left. I would have to get to the airport by 5:00 p.m. and probably have to leave work around 3:20 p.m. That is not exactly convenient.

Given my current financial situation, such an expense is out of the question.

And that was before I even started looking at hotel prices.

I know I can get a much better airfare with Priceline "name your own price", but Priceline doesn't give me any real control over schedule. If I am leaving late Friday afternoon, I need to say I need a flight that departs between 6:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m., and Priceline doesn't let you do that.

Hotels are different, since they have no arrival or departure times, so I always use Priceline "name your own price" for hotels.

In the old days, I would stay at the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero in San Francisco and pay a weekend rate of $99 to $129. Now, I see that the weekend rate for next weekend with be $275. I tried to compare that to the weekday rate, but the hotel is sold out so it wouldn't tell me. I checked for two weeks from this week and the weekend rate is $179 versus $259 during the week. Ouch. This is all way too expensive for me.

On the other hand, I'm sure I could get a semi-decent room in San Francisco for $79 with Priceline. Still, that's not as pleasant and convenient as the old days. Getting a great deal with Priceline is doable, but is actually hard work.

In the old days, I could simply call the hotel reservations the same day and still get a decent rate.

Old days: Airfare $250, hotel $99 times two, for a total of $448.

These days, Airfare $380, hotel $275 times two, for a total of $930. Yikes!! And that is simply the financial pain before that physical agony of the trip.

Maybe I simply find it a bit depressing that I can no longer take a quick weekend trip without a lot of pain.

-- Jack Krupansky

Sunday, October 22, 2006

People are such ****ing pigs!

With constrained disgust I read the article in the NY Times by Jeff Bailey entitled "Beware of the Squish Behind the Jet Seat" about the great difficulty that all airlines are having keeping planes clean or at least sanitary. But, there was one important element left out of the story. Although I agree that the airlines themselves need to keep their planes clean no matter what, the real problem is the root cause: WHY ARE SO MANY PEOPLE SUCH ****ING PIGS?!?!


Sure, everybody makes a mess now and then, but what ever happened to the ethic of cleaning up after yourself?

Why do so many people feel so little compulsion to leave their environment as clean if not cleaner than they found it?

How... how did we become such a Nation of Pigs??

Geez... I'm half convinced that I must be from another planet.

-- Jack Krupansky

Are you learning or being trained?

Global traveler Shel Israel of Naked Conversations fame says "Learning should be joyful, but generally, it is not." I certainly agree, but I would drill down and distinguish between learning and training. I would suggest that true learning is always a joyful experience, but so often we try to force learning using a variety of tedious and painful tools and techniques more properly called training which focuses more on programming behavior than searhcing for enlightenment.

True learning is more like a journey of adventure, whereas mere training is more a trial by ordeals where learning is measured by the level of pain endured.

Learning can be measured as rising passion, whereas training is measured by seeking to eliminate fear and anxiety.

Learning build character, while training merely contrains it.

-- Jack Krupansky

IE 7 installed

Yesterday I did finally get around to installing the formally released version of IE 7. I held off since I only have dial-up at home and I already had the latest beta release candidate (RC) anyway. I was perfectly happy with the RC, so I didn't expect any surprises, either positive or negative.

I went out for errands at noon yesterday and kicked off the download as I headed out the door.

The installation went fine except for a minor glitch. The start-up screen for IE 7 lets you choose some initial options, but clicking "Save Settings" simply jumped me to the top of that page with no clue as to whether the settings were saved and it didn't take me on to my default home page. I simply closed the window and reopened it and everything seemed fine and I saw my default home page (MSN).

To be safe, I uninstalled the IE 7 Beta RC before downloading the release IE 7. This restored IE 6, which now looks rather quaint and primitive.

So, everything went fine. I don't notice any differences from the RC, and I don't have any unresolved issues.

I'm also happy that my bank, Wells Fargo, has finally updated their web site to support IE 7. I noticed this a week ago while I was still using the beta RC. Now, I no longer need to rely on Firefox to browse "older" web sites. I do have a choice of browsers and have used Firefox, but I see no compelling reason to choose Firefox over IE 7. I actually had switched to Firefox last year when I ran into a bad memory leak in IE 6, but I switch to IE 7 last year as soon as the first beta became publiclly available.

BTW, I rarely type in URLs anymore. I usually click in the "search box" and enter keywords and then click on the link in the search results page.

-- Jack Krupansky

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Getting ready to install IE 7

Sometime today I'll install IE 7. I've held off since I only have dial-up at home and I already have the latest beta release candidate (RC) anyway. I'm perfectly happy with the RC, so I don't expect any surprises, either positive or negative.

I see a lot of chatter and intense debate or criticism of IE 7 on the Internet, but so much of it is simply noise and rehashed noise. If you're happy with Firefox, fine, stay with it. If you have IE 6 and are interested in some of the "Firefox" features like tabbed browsing or the slew of bug fixes and feature enhancements, upgrade to IE 7. End of story.

-- Jack Krupansky

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

U.S. population: 300 million!

Not too many hours after I make this post, the U.S. population will cross over the 300 million mark. There is no fundamental cosmic significance for this milestone, but we get psychic satisfaction from hitting and surpassing big round numbers.

As I write, the U.S. Census Bureau web site reports that their estimate for the U.S. population is 299,997, 810. That means only 2,190 to go. A new person is born every 7 seconds, someone dies every 13 seconds, someone immigrates every 31 seconds, resulting in a net gain of one person every 11 seconds. Multiplied by 2,190, that is 24,090 seconds, which is 401.5 minutes or 6 hours, 41 minutes, and 30 seconds until we cross that magical 300 million mark.

The 299,997,810 number is as of 12:55 a.m. EDT, so the milestone will be reaches at roughly 6:36:30 a.m. EDT, Tuesday, October 17, 2006. The press release on the Census web site reports the milestone time as 7:46 a.m., the discrepancy is probably due to "rounding error" for that 11 second number.

The U.S. population is currently growing at a rate of about 0.96% a year.

-- Jack Krupansky

Sunday, October 01, 2006

More on smart people causing more trouble

When I ponder whether smart people cause more trouble, the question of how you define "smart" comes up. A related question is what constitutes "real science". Some suggest that "math" ability is an indicator for being "smart". I would suggest that a commitment to true scientific process is a better indicator for being "smart." You can come up with all manner of wonderful ideas and prove them in your head, but analysis of real-world data is a more powerful metaphor.

To me, science is supposed to be all about experimentation and analyzing results, and most importantly refraining from drawing conclusions which are not fully supported by the data. Unfortunately, real science has gotten watered down with far too much posturing and rhetoric and pandering to political interests (on both sides of the fence).

Take global warming. Sure, it is intuitively obvious that modifying the composition of the atmosphere will result in changes in weather and climate. That said, real scientists aren't even close to have a validated model of how the atmosphere, weather, and climate work over extended periods of time. Thus, the wild claims of some "scientists" (e.g., that the polar ice caps and Greenland will completely melt in the coming decades) simply aren't supported by "real" science. Extrapolation from sketchy data is not science.

It is one thing to come up with a "brilliant" theory that seems to be supported by fragmentary data, but it takes decades and even numerous generations of real scientists to fully test a theory and to eliminate biases that may have poisoned the science. The power of a true theory is that it accurately forecasts outcomes over an extended period of time.

If a scientist really follows the data and faithfully pursues the experimental process, their religious (or political or cultural) beliefs matter not one wit. The problem is that a lot of so-called scientists have a lot of trouble focusing on that "real", experiment and data-driven science.

Maybe that's why I would modify a faith in math as an indicator for "smart" to a faith in real science.

So, the problem with the guys in Washington, D.C. (the "other" Washington!) is not that they aren't "smart" in a math and intellect sense, but that they don't use enough real science in their decision-making.

A big part of the problem is that politicians and those who are at their mercy have no room for patience. The political process of frequent elections simply doesn't square with scientific process that depends on excruciating patience.

Whether it is Iraq (or Iran) or terrorism or global warming, the rhetoric of "smart" people is a poor substitute for real science.

A "real scientist" would have said to wait and see how Afghanistan holds up over five, ten, or even twenty years and then decide whether the experimental results support a conclusion that radical democratization really works.

BTW, Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the infamous Iraqi National Congress (INC) which was a big part of the lobbying for the "liberation" of Iraq is... a math guy! He got a BS from MIT and a PhD in mathematics from the University of Chicago. His dissertation was On the Jacobson Radical of a Group Algebra. Would anybody suggest that he's not a smart guy?

Although the truth may be that if the administration had actually listened to and followed his literal advice, Iraq might be in much better shape.

Maybe that's one limit for even the smartest and best advice: if you start cherry-picking it and combining it with other "advice", the "proof" of the original advice is likely no longer valid.

Chalabi was originally part of one of the coup attempts in Iraq back in the early 1990's that the CIA promoted and then the higher-ups refused to support, back under the first Bush administration. That's covered in the book See No Evil which was credited as the basis for the movie Syriana which starred George Clooney, but that portion of the book did not find its way into the movie.

-- Jack Krupansky

Smart people cause more trouble

Smart people cause more trouble.

They do.

The near-meltdown of hedge fund LTCM back in 1998 is a perfect example. And they had two Nobel laureates to guide them.

Now, this giant hedge fund Amaranth (and hedge funds are the kind of firms that hire a lot of the *top* "nums") has failed, lost tons of "smart" investor money and now liquidating.

Meanwhile, down in DC, we read that:

“Look, this is a war, and you are going to have a lot of really smart people with completely different opinions,” Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, said at a briefing on Friday afternoon.

Being smart is neither good enough nor a guarantee of success. Unfortunately, a lot of people really do believe that it is both. Being smart doesn't assure invulnerability. And it is not an immunity against hubris.

-- Jack Krupansky