09.30.10

Bad curating

Posted in at 1:33 by RjZ

I don’t know, I just don’t think these should be exhibited together like this. Individually they’re fine. Together I think they elicit something unintended.

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09.23.10

Miles to go before I sleep

Posted in Travel at 15:38 by RjZ

It’s not a question recreational travelers have to answer very often, but it begins to plague many a business traveler around this time of year. Should I try to squeeze a few more trips in just to get to the next level of preferred frequent flier status?

I may be spoiling things but, to spare you having to read the whole post, the answer is “no.” But, ask me again in a few months. For, chance are, I will be in the lofty United Airlines, is typical of many airlines with a basic level, “premier” which means absolutely nothing, an elite level, “premier executive”, which comes with a few perks, but means almost nothing, and finally, an elite level, cleverly named “1K” which is supposed to stand, somehow, for 100,000 miles flown in one year.

Frequent flyer programs are collapsing under their own success. I’ve been at the second (it’s actually the third, if you count just joining the reward program) level many years and, at least, I’ve gotten a taste of this luxury class. It’s not without benefits, but don’t expect too much if you’re new to reward programs. Practically everybody on the plane is a frequent flyer these days and, it seems, the majority have more miles than you. Typical rewards such as preferred seating, boarding, or being on the top of a wait list when you miss your flight, don’t amount to much when there are dozens and dozens of people filling those spots before you.

More valuable benefits such as business class upgrades don’t filter down to the lower levels of frequent flier status and are almost never available on domestic U.S. flights anyway. Ditto for red carpet admiral gold silver and platinum clubs, which are often noisier than the main concourse anyway because of all the well dressed business people who think talking loudly on their cell-phones will get them their next big job offer.

I do appreciate cutting past the long lines (only to wait in a shorter one for people with still more miles, but hey….) I actually like boarding sooner. People who don’t fly that much don’t get the point of this. They wonder why you’d want to get on the plane any sooner than you have to. What they don’t notice is how much baggage people take on the plane and how many places they find to stuff that roller or extra coat that aren’t under the seats in front of them, also known as “you’re primary luggage space.” If you’ve brought anything with you that you think needs to go in the overhead space, then getting on ahead of the cattle at least gives you a fighting chance at the spot you paid for in the first place.

I also don’t mind the delicious breakfast or snacks at various lounges I’ve visited, or even the perverse pleasure of pretending to be jetsetter and having a martini in the morning (it’s happy hour somewhere, right?) It’s free! (Frankfurt’s Lufthansa lounge has everything including a couple of different vodkas and campari sodas, all at a self service bar. Love that place, at least as much as you can love something in an airport.) Will any of this change when I hit 1K? Is there a secret, even better lounge with geishas? (answer: I hope so.)

Surely you’re asking “What about all the miles?” Yeah, about that. If you’re asking it’s because you haven’t noticed how hard they are to use these days? See, in addition to all the frequent flyers, everyone has these credit cards with miles, yet the reward programs don’t have any extra seats to give away. A tip from some reward savvy friends made me hip to booking with the maximum advance time (almost a year!) in order to get a flight that doesn’t include three or more different planes or is any where near the date you had in mind.

A certified 1K colleague of mine says he gets greeted by a flight attendant when he boards the plane. They ask him if he needs anything and offer him a beverage, regardless of whether he’s in economy or business class. He gets four system-wide upgrades per year; now that’s definitely worth something! Lay-flat seats! If only I were still flying international next year. I’ve only got two more international flights to go and one of them is already booked, so there’s a good chance I’ll experience the luxury class and reveal, once and for all, if there is a lounge with geishas, but I can already tell you, there are better ways to spend your time than up in the air, in a coach seat, for eight or more hours at a time. Not to mention the radiation danger!

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09.10.10

The legend of Moroccan hospitality

Posted in Travel at 3:09 by RjZ

All of the guidebooks raved about how friendly Moroccans are. “Don’t be surprised if you are invited into the home of a complete stranger for dinner.” It’s true, and here’s how it happened, but first, we have to set the scene.

Fresh off the plane, with only a little bit of time to kill before the bus will whisk us away from Rabat, we decide to take a walk, maybe see some quick site. It doesn’t take long at all before a very friendly gentleman approaches us with his warm smile and friendly “where are you from?” questions.

I’ve been around a little so I am a bit weary of this line of questions as it often proceeds a scam, but I am in Morocco, and the people here are famously nice. The gentleman is kind and insistently invites us to tea around the corner. Well, that’s all the time I’ve really got anyway, and isn’t this a site? A Moroccan mint tea in a Rabat tea shop? Quickly he orders the sweet tea and is sitting with us at the table, pouring, chatting, and explaining Moroccan tea culture. We’ve just about finished and it’s time to pay up. Since we’ve only just arrived, we only have large unfamiliar bills, but no problem, he’ll run and get change–here, yes, that one…just a minute…

Out he goes incredibly, it suddenly starts sinking in; there goes my $20. Was it a $20? Yes certainly, but it’s gone, when suddenly, he reappears. He’s paid for the tea, alright, but where is the change? Um, well, he gave it to this shop next door, but the shop is now closed, the owner will be right back, maybe in a half hour or so. Couldn’t we wait a minute? So sorry. I’m getting angry, finally wising up and he’s playing the fool, insisting everything he has done is quite regular and it will only be a minute, wouldn’t we mind waiting? Come on, there’s no other place to get change? It’ll only be a minute. But we have to get going. Couldn’t you wait? I promise he’ll be right back. He should be there now, let me check…no, he’ll return around 2. How about another tea?

And suddenly my anger fades away. I was scammed. I know it now. Those were some very expensive teas, but a fairly cheap lesson. I’d not yet been scammed during travel, and this one had me so upset because of how silly it was, but in the great scheme of the unfair universe I was out only $20. What had me worried was the seed of mistrust for Moroccans planted in my gut only minutes after we’d arrived.

Only a couple of days later, we’re exploring the Roman ruins of Volubilis, outside of the city of Meknes. The amazing ruins feature rows of columns and impressive mosaics in a small area less than a square kilometer. Guides swamp the tour busses as they arrived, but we’d taken the local bus on our own, so they were less interested in us and we were able to wander around the ruins by ourselves. A couple of young men with a budding professional camera company asked to take our picture and sell some of theirs to us, but we put them off until later.

Volubilis columns, Morocco

Volubilis columns, Morocco

We finished the ruins with more than enough time till the next bus and between tour busses the two photographers struck up conversation. I was apprehensive, my little seed of mistrust germinating in my stomach, but they were incredibly friendly and before we had to leave had invited us to their home for dinner. “Which hotel do you stay in? We can pick you up there? At six? Great!”

As the time nears for our hosts/thieves/murderers to arrive, we go through all the gory possibilities. Should we leave our valuables in the hotel room? Not a good idea. How about if the hotel has a safe or something? What if the photographers are in cahoots with the hotel owner and will empty our our rooms while we’re gone? What if they’re going to take us and rob us or sell our organs? We tell the man at hotel reception what we have planned but he doesn’t seem to care and we decide to take what little valuables we have with us, without looking like we’ve packed for travel just to drop by for dinner.

And right on time, one of the photographers arrives in compact, beat up, car. He’s weaving through the streets of Meknes, out of the old town, with lights and carts and markets glowing, through suburbs, and past dusty, darker, outlying neighborhoods. “Don’t you live in Meknes?” “No, we live in the next town, it’s not much further.” But outside, it’s getting darker and emptier. We’re going to be robbed and dropped off at the middle of nowhere. You’d think I could actually learn the lesson from the first day. The seed of mistrust is now a small bush scratching at my insides and putting out poisonous fruit.

We pull into a run down apartment complex and he parks. We’re escorted into the building and to their place, a two room apartment with a small, low table, between the two rooms which have little furniture outside of low, futon like beds which serve as our chairs. The place is a mess, with clothes lying about and unmade beds. The kitchen, off to the side is no bigger than a closet, and all the more cramped by dishes and utensils piled around. The tea is brought out while one of the friends starts cooking and chat pleasantly with the other. Delicious smells begin to fill the tiny apartment.

When the traditional tajine of cous cous arrives, we gather round to eat together. There’s just a large, over-flowing plate in the middle filled with cous cous and vegetables and a few pieces of lamb which they keep rotating towards us and offering. We have to explain that we don’t eat meat, which causes their eyes to widen in disbelief. ‘But meat is a gift from God, how can you refuse his gifts?’ We sample a small piece, in an effort to avoid offense and insist they join us in enjoying God’s gifts. God was pretty stingy by American standards, with only a few chunks of meat, but the generosity of these two poor students was killing my mistrust bush better than any herbicide.

A lovely evening concluded, we get back in the car (a few mistrust leaves still hanging on to life I wonder if my little video camera and I are finally going to be dropped off in the middle of nowhere) and brought safely back to the hotel in downtown Meknes where the somnambulant reception takes little notice of our return, or the fact that we never gave him the key to the room.

Turns out Moroccans really are some of the most hospitable people I’ve traveled amongst. A similar story was repeated yet again in our short ten day visit. There are scammers all over the world and it’s not only a travelers hazard, but a homegrown one as well, wherever home is. I struggled not to eat the poisonous fruit from mistrust bush in my stomach, but the effort has been rewarded time and again throughout my journeys since.

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09.07.10

New member in the CEO club

Posted in at 6:13 by RjZ

Back in this review of Nassim Talib’s Fooled by Randomness I mentioned the CEO Club.

Well, here’s a pretty good example of it again. Mr. Hurd admits to serious enough ethics failures that he leaves HP and once he’s gone, widespread stories claim HP’s recent success may not have so much to do with him after all (they would say that, wouldn’t they?) Meanwhile, looks like questionable performance and ethics failures don’t bother Oracle at all; once you’re in the CEO club it’s pretty hard to get kicked out.

Maybe it’s just HP. Former CEO Ms. Fiorina was elected to several company boards once she got canned for almost driving a world renowned brand name in technology into the dirt, and is currently running for senator of California.

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