eclipse! eh, or not

This eclipse thing was apparently a big deal. Folks cashed in their retirement savings to fly to a city within the path of the total obscuration. Only to pray to their deity of choice that there weren’t thunderstorms.

I on the other hand had a plane to catch back home for work. So I assumed I’d be airborne when the eclipse actually occurred. We get aboard the aircraft and the stewardess goes through the typical excruciatingly long six minute United introduction which includes instructions on air travel, United ads, and directions on how to construct your own log cabin. After she’s done, the captain actually leaves the cockpit and stands in front of first class to address the whole plane.

He basically says all will be well, both he and the copilot have eclipse glasses (which he shows us), and that the aircraft is rated as “100% capable of solar eclipse flight”. This got many chuckles from the passengers who weren’t mind melded with their smartphones. I didn’t laugh though, because I know what solar flares can do (in theory) to a fly-by-wire aircraft. Can a solar eclipse enhance a solar flare? I have no idea. But I had a lot of beer and coffee in the 12 hours prior to this flight, so in that psyche anything is possible. Even elves. So many elves in the forest. Run!

So based on my understanding of how the eclipse was supposed to play out, and the pilot’s comments, you would think the eclipse would have happened while we were aloft, right? Nope. First off, I was right side center seat. The guy on the window was a 300 pound former NFL headhunter with a Kansas City barbeque shirt. He played freecell for a half hour then fell asleep. All without ever opening his window shade. So I kind of had to peer around other windows. Did the sun darken? Eh, maybe, I wasn’t sure. But by the time I’d landed on the east coast I’d concluded that the eclipse was over. I was ready to get on with my day.

Then they’ve got CNN [sigh] on at the baggage claim and it shows the eclipse just beginning in Oregon. So I’m wondering if I traveled back in time or what. Nope, no eclipse while in flight. It seems the United pilot executed the verbal equivalent of a placebo. I wonder if the United corporate hacks told him to do it? Either way, it was entirely unnecessary because nothing actually happened while we were in the air.

So I get my car back from the haunted, overpriced airport parking garage and go pick up the dogs. Every once and a while I glance up at the sky to see if the sun has changed. Yes, I broke the dreaded rules. I looked at the bare sun with mine own eyes. Because nobody ever does this at the beach or on a regular basis. But the nannies of modern society would have you believe up to yesterday, that if you looked at the eclipse with bare eyes for three seconds your eyes would burst into flames and three kittens you did not know would die horribly.

Anyways, eventually I got home with the dogs and began to unpack, occasionally looking outside. Nothing ever happened. Did it get a little darker out? Maybe, or was that because of the scattered clouds? Who knows? I’m out there to get the mail and my neighbor Jimmy (who’s a little slow, but is a real nice guy) is like, “Hey [insert degenerate blog author name here], where is the eclipse?”

I told him I had no idea, that it was a bust, and that I’d given up. And so it was. I had 80-85% obscuration of the sun where I live, or so the Internets told me. But without eclipse glasses the sun is too bright to be able to see much of it at all. Go get eclipse glasses? Eh, maybe. But what’s the fun of looking at this through special darkened glasses. I might as well observe astronomy through a telescope with a lens made of aluminum foil.

Oh well, what a waste, whatever. I’ve developed one very specific conclusion from my only eclipse experience. It’s either total eclipse or bust. Anything less than 100% is like drinking non-alcoholic beer or driving below the speed limit. I have no idea when the next American solar eclipse is. Maybe I’ll be a bleached skeleton before it occurs? But if it does, and I care enough, I’d rather fly somewhere to see 100%. And pray to my deity of choice that there weren’t thunderstorms.

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Yep, didn’t see that.

an ode to flight

In the last three weeks I’ve been all over the map.  I have no idea how many individual flights it was.  I literally can’t remember.  Was it 8, 13, 17, who knows?  All I know is where I ended up.

But the thought occurred to me just how darn routine air travel is.  You show up, you fly, you get to where you need to go.  Sure there are delays and occasional customer service nightmares, but it’s statistically about 700 times safer than your drive to the airport.

We take it all for granted.  The last major Western carrier to lose a plane was Air France Flight 447, an Airbus A330 which fell into the Atlantic on June 1, 2009 killing 228 aboard.

In other words, for nearly eight years the airlines have a crash record of 100%.  This is insane.  Given the complexities involved you’d think bad things would happen all the time.  Nothing ever works 100% of the time.  I think even washing machines hurt more people each year.

When you really think about it, it’s pretty cool.  It shows that when we’re serious, humanity can do some real awesome stuff.  It’s mind boggling that it’s this way.  Yet it happens.  Take a moment to relish it.

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safer than locking yourself in your own closet

the Giant Octopi are pleased

So I’m on a 737 full of live humans bound for Chicago Midway.  We’re all getting settled in for a quite brief flight of only two hours.  The flight attendant makes her usual announcements and then casually mentions that the aircraft wifi is not working.

About 1/3 of the plane gasps in frustration or offers a bunch of “ohh”s.  Kind of like if you’re at a hockey game, and the home team fires a shot that just misses and clangs off the pipe, and the whole hometown crowd yells “ohh”.  That’s what the plane sounded like.

I shook my head, and continued to read my paper magazine who’s design was originally modeled in 1632.  Apparently folks can’t do without access to the Internets for a whole two hours.  The Giant Octopi are pleased.  They’ve got humanity wrapped around their little finger.

At the time of this incident, Bezos, Zucky, and all the other Giant Octopi goons suddenly got the urge to smile.  They didn’t know why, but I did.

Gee wiz people, read a book, talk to somebody, stare at the back of the tray table and let your mind wander.  Anything at all will do.  But do please unplug from time to time.

algorithms are never going to drive your car

The wave of the future is you sitting in your car reading a book or drinking a beer on the way home from work. Man, that’d be sweet. Trillions will be spent trying to make this happen. But I still don’t believe it’ll ever happen in large scale.

Once upon a time I dabbled in computer science. It’s been so long since I did that, that in writing the word ‘algorithm’ in this post’s title I had to re-spell it like ten times. But I remember enough to know just how flawed computers are. It’s why everything eventually breaks, at least once. Or has to be restarted every now and again.

I mean, airplanes don’t tend to crash anymore, but remember those are always human input at the end stage. It’s interesting that in all these autonomous car dreams (experimentally on the road today) that nobody seems to be seriously considering autonomous airliners. I’d bet a substantial amount of my freestanding international gold reserves that your average person would be a hundred times more comfortable getting in a robot car over a robot plane. Even though the fatality rate on the roads is astronomically higher than the skies.

The challenge with the robot car is not the computer hardware, or the sensors, or even trying to rewrite thousands of federal, state, local, and insurance road laws. It’s the algorithms. These algorithms will guide the way the car drives, navigates, how it responds to failures, how it handles emergencies, dangerous situations, and so on. If the algorithms don’t work, or are flawed, at least some badness will always occur. And in my mind, since algorithms are always written by humans, the flaws are never going away. And you can’t restart your car while you’re driving 65 mph down the road. Though I suppose the car could pull you over and then restart, if the algorithm handles the error resolution correctly.

But also, it comes down to what humans are willing to entrust to an algorithm. For example, I heard this used in a play on that morals exercise, if you’re in a car at 45 mph and you go left you run over one person, if you go right you run over three people. What do you do? But in more relevant terms for our discussion here, at 45 mph if you go left you run over one person, if you go right your car hits a jersey wall. Your significant other is in the passenger seat.

Or, with different circumstances, what if you go left it’d be two people you’d hit. If you go right you still hit the wall, but it’s just you in the car. How does the situation change if you’ve got kids in the back? Do you go left or right? Both these options suck, but it’s a decision that determines the fate of other fellow humans, or you and your car partner.

Yet in the self-driving car world, the algorithm makes this decision for you. You have no say. Then the programmers have to turn around and pre-program (somehow) for the car to handle a limitless number of other eventualities. Would you let your car decide any of these situations for you, for your family? I wouldn’t. An algorithm doesn’t get to make those kinds of choices for me. Only I do.

why does your luggage need to do your laundry?

I remain an outlier on many things, mostly because of my deranged nature. For luggage, ditto. On all my flights I figure 95% of fellow travelers are wielding the soft-side-roller-bags. I’ve still got me the 47 year old soft-duffel-bag. My prior-existence-ghost bought it for me from the Sears catalogue in 1969 and shipped it to my future self, Back to the Future style. It showed up on my doorstep one day about a decade ago with a short note saying, “Here you go,” written in blood red marker (at least I hope it was marker). The note also included various unwarranted written expletives and a big frowny face.

This bag is an awful shade of dark green, and as of about six months ago has a growing hole in the side of it. When the hole gets so big a pair of socks could ferociously escape my plan is to replace it. This bag has been kind to me. When that dark day comes, I’ll dispose of it in some kind of fitting ancient ritual involving fire, beer, and a worthy accelerant. That way, the bag’s spirit can live forever in Valhalla where a drunk thug will use it to hold his clubs and mead.

For its replacement, I won’t go with the roller bag though. I’ll still go get a fully soft-duffel-bag. Why?

1) I hate the way a roller bag constricts tight packing. The one roller bag I used for one or two trips could fit a pair of shoes, an outfit or two, and a toothpaste tube. That was it. By contrast, I can viciously cram 127 pounds of non-refined-coal into my soft bag if I so chose.

2) Poor maneuvering quality of roller bags. You could not imagine a more ridiculous design for moving forty pounds of cubic mass around a crowded airport. It’s easier to steer a canoe without an oar then turn a roller bag in traffic. I think the gross turning radius for your average rolling bag technically carries you directly through the nearby airport window and onto the tarmac. And the big baggage guy would just be standing there over your crippled frame, frowning, shaking his head, with his arms crossed.

3) Laziness. As best as I can figure, the primary advantage to using a roller bag is you can carry a lot of weight without having to hoist it upon your shoulders. In other unrelated news, 37% of American adults are chronically obese. I’ve never understood the acceptance to lose mobility, just so you can avoid throwing forty pounds on your back. Especially because people do this all the time. For example:

a) Hoist your five year old upon your shoulders through the airport.

b) Carry a bag of mulch from your car to the backyard, repeat twelve times.

c) Swipe a big bag of cat food from the till, running fast so you can get out the door before they notice your heinous crime.

d) Carry your laundry up and down the stairs, up and down the stairs, with a sock attrition rate of 17%.

e) When you were a little kid, you carried the equivalent ratio weight of forty pounds of books on your shoulders given your size at the time compared to today.

But now, all of a sudden we are incapable as a human race of carrying forty pounds for a 1/2 mile through the airport? Our future alien Overlords find this an appealing trait.

4) Carryon luggage. I’m just going to go ahead and say this (it’s okay if most of you or nearly all of you disagree), if I met the guy who invented the concept of overhead compartments, I’d punch him in the stomach repeatedly until I was physically restrained by a pack of elves. In order that the traveler may avoid an average of 11 minutes wait time upon arrival to said airport baggage claim area, the rest of us have to endure:

a) 17 extra minutes to departure time as people cram their trash into the overhead.

b) 23 extra minutes upon arrival time as people slowly and methodically retrieve their bags from the overhead.

c) Dummies trying to shove their bags into areas where a two year old would say, “won’t fit Daddi,” but they become aghast and angry at everyone when they keep trying to fit it, and it still doesn’t work.

d) Ultra-dummies who actually fight over bin space as if it were meat in a caveman world.

The only time I’ve used the overhead was when I did a whole four day trip using nothing but a small soft backpack. I had that thing so bulging there was nowhere else for it go. Otherwise, I have my small bag which goes underneath the seat, and the duffel gets checked. That’s it. Total inconvenience time towards fellow humans = less than zero.

I suppose you could make the argument that the airlines force folks’ hands due to the checked bag fee, and I kind of get that. But, I contend the overhead bin thing is not necessarily a checked bag fee fault. I mostly fly Southwest, which charges no fee, and yet I still see the same overhead bin insanity described above.

But hold on there, there’s more! Oh my, don’t you wish this post was over! Oh please, do kindly end this.

I have recently noticed, and this Post article confirms, the growing trend of hard-sided-roller-bags.

This is (apparently) to ensure the bags can take damage, you can stake your belligerent overhead bin claim like an Overlord, and a hard case allows introduction of technology. You heard me right, the tentacles of the tech world Giant Octopus aren’t content hooking up your toothbrush to the grid. Your luggage needs to get in on the action too. For whatever reason.

And so, for several hundred $ you can have luggage that contains USB ports, self-weight assessment, remote locks, does your laundry while stored within, possesses linked Wi-Fi options, location tracking, anti-squirrel defense net, battery charging, and the option to mind link with the nearest zoo animals.

Why does your luggage need to do your laundry? Bags exist to carry your stuff from one place to another. That’s it. Why is any of this technology needed in luggage? Except perhaps, as a means to separate $ from your wallet and deposit it into the account of a private equity firm.

Please do, please do join me. Return to your travel roots. Soft bags only. Fight the power, or whatever, I can’t think of a decent motto for my non-existent movement. Soft bags only. Just do it. Or else.

we help the uninitiated to help themselves

Let’s face it, life can be complicated. You can’t even get on an airplane anymore with extreme confusion. That’s why we’re here to help. This post is actually written to aid this guy who boarded the plane right in front of me at Chicago Midway a few days ago. I didn’t catch his name, but I’m hoping he happens to be one of the three people who regularly read this blog. Let’s see if it works, because he was mighty confused.

Once upon a time Southwest Airlines sent a team of scientists, archeologists, sexual deviants, and armed horse lords into the darkness of the Eurasian Steppe. Their goal? To find the most obscure, unique, and simultaneously awesome & angering airline boarding process imaginable. Only one man made it back. As he slowly expired with great nobility in the hospital deep under the bowels of Southwest’s Dallas headquarters building, he imparted his hallowed findings which Southwest has implemented to this day.

You either hate this boarding style or you love it. I tend to be mostly on the love side. It’s pell mell style is very American. Everybody gets the same kind of seat regardless of their level of international gold reserves. Everybody rushes to get on the plane, so nobody’s left taking their sweet ass time getting that $14 iced coffee and holding up the rest of us. Contrast that with Delta or American which have eight different boarding groups based upon miles, straight cash, credit card status, blood type, and a list of favorite zoo animals. On my last Delta flight I think they offered to “now board our Unpolished Zirconia Status valued customers.”

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Though Southwest does take some getting used to. It took me a few flights to catch the rhythm of how I remind myself to check-in, where I wanted to board, etc, etc. But you get the hang of it. But on this last flight this guy seemed confused. I was B02. He was B36. Yet he stepped ahead of me and the Southwest guy just checked him in anyways. So now what I’ll do is go ahead and explain in detail how Southwest boards, so that this guy understands that for next time, …, oh, uh, wait. Hmm, maybe, no, no this can’t be true. Did he, did he do that on purpose? Did he cut in line? Did this horrible human being break the rules?! [throws chair]

That’s it! My Guests and I shall summon our good old friend Enforcement Drone Version 2.09 (ED209) as our assistant in resolving this matter.

1) Guilt

Person wrongly cuts in Southwest line. ED209 saunters up and wryly comments to the individual in his stale robot voice.

ED209: ATTENTION SIR, YOU ARE CLEARLY NOT AT YOUR APPROPRIATE PLACE IN LINE. IT IS REASONABLE TO ASSUME YOU HAVE DONE THIS DELIBERATELY. YOU ARE PATHETIC.

2) Shame

ED209 walks up, and demands production of boarding pass, observes man has cut in line. ED209 then activates his video streaming device while addressing the surrounding crowd.

ED209: ATTENTION FELLOW PASSENGERS, THIS MAN HAS CUT IN LINE WITH THE ASSUMPTION THAT HE IS BETTER THAN YOU IN THAT YOU MUST FOLLOW THE RULES BUT HE DOES NOT HAVE TO. THIS INDICENT IS NOW BEING POSTED LIVE TO HIS FACEBOOK PAGE. WOULD YOU CARE TO PROVIDE YOUR COMMENTS FOR THE VIEWING ATTENTION OF HIS FRIENDS?

3) Fear

ED209 walks up and shoots the individual in the kneecap.

ED209: DUE TO A RECENT INJURY, YOU ARE NOT MEDICALLY ELIGIBLE TO BOARD TODAY’S FLIGHT. DO YOU REQUIRE INFORMATION ON THE LOCATION OF THE NEAREST MEDICAL TREATMENT FACILITY?

4) Punishment

As the person walks down the jet bridge, ED209 breaks into the luggage compartment, pulls out the guy’s bag, pours jet fuel on it, and burns it on the tarmac so everybody can see it out the windows.

ED209: YOU WILL NOW BE ASSESSED THE VARIOUS DAMAGE, CLEANUP, AND ENVIRONMENTAL FEES FOR VIOLATING ESTABLISHED HAZARDOUS MATERIAL TRANSPORT REQUIREMENTS.

5) Morality

ED209 forces him to sit down for a five hour chat on the various moral considerations involved with cutting in line, making a clear case for the values of a balanced ethical society.

6) Apathy

ED209 slowly trots by the person as they walk down the jet bridge but offers no comment or correction, hoping over time the individual in question establishes some type of internal corrective action guided by conscience.

Which ones of these will work? I’ll let you decide.

ed209

“Great work on the jet bridge today!  Fist bump, my brother.”  [ED209 shatters every bone in my hand]

unfriendly skies

If you travel a ton, eventually getting on an airplane can just seem like an extension of your commute.  Unfortunately I’m on travel almost entirely for work vice fun, but it’s still the same feeling.  You get up at home, go to work, head to the airport, end up somewhere else, and conclude your day in some hotel.  It can become downright routine, and you have to do a double take inside your brain, oh, I’m in Chicago again, got it.  [looks outside hotel window to verify location is real]

The problem with this theory is that it can get short circuited.  When your commute home via road or train goes wrong it’s typically not catastrophic.  When things go wrong with the airlines it can be like getting hit with a brick.  Ancient Greek Anemoi wind gods can get angry I guess, because being deities they can’t consume beer like we can, so it’s easy to see why they get pissed off.

I usually get to book my own flights even for work.  So I generally go with Southwest due to price and service.  But this last trip work booked my flight to Chicago themselves, and went with, sigh, American Airlines.  Knowing the issues I’ve had with American in the past, I figured this was going to be a bad journey.  I had no idea.  It turns out when I woke up that morning American Airlines was under my bed armed with a pole axe, three cartons of cigarettes, and plastic bag full of rusted metal.

 

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 I wonder if it was ever, in any way, really like this?

 

– Half-hour flight delay before I’d even left work.  90 minute delay by the time I got to the airport.  Why have scheduled departure times?  [shrugs]

– My typical departure airport is not an American hub, so they only owned four gates.  Of those four gates, two of their aircraft broke down after they’d boarded the flights.  So they disembarked both planes and tried to reconfigure these passengers onto the other two flights, one of which was mine bound for Chicago.  But then they only had one poor gate agent trying to deal with all these passengers and the line stretched down the entire terminal.  Later we learned one of the broken aircraft was grounded because multiple structure screws were missing from the fuselage.  I literally laughed out loud, because it means the captain missed this on his shitty preflight walkthrough and was ready to fly an unstable aircraft.  I wonder what baggage or fuel employee making minimum wage noticed the error and kept everybody out of danger?  I’m sure he’ll get a letter of appreciation or something, if anything at all.

– Eventually after a two hour delay they boarded my flight and of course packed it up.  But Chicago had thunderstorms so they had to hold us on the tarmac for a half-hour before putting us back in line.  The woman behind me began to complain.  Then she got belligerent.  Apparently she’d earlier been on one of the planes that broke, and didn’t want to wait on the tarmac with her two year old.  Eventually she started to scream at the flight attendant and demanded the plane return to the gate.  This went on for ten minutes before the attendant threatened to have her arrested.  And they went back and forth for another five minutes or so.  The woman’s boyfriend and supposed father of her child kept egging her on, telling her to go back and talk to the attendant some more.  She tried to get past the flight attendant to try and bang on the cockpit door, and the attendant said she’d call 911.  So the woman laughed and went back to her seat and dialed 911 herself.  She then spent about fifteen minutes on the phone demanding the police order the airplane back to the gate because she didn’t want to fly today anymore and because “the plane is going to crash and all of us are going to die”.  Then she starts bawling uncontrollably to the 911 operator.  All the while, her two year old is crying too.  Her boyfriend is just sitting there playing with his smartphone like this is an everyday occurrence.  I hated him most of all.

–  After a half-hour of this the captain finally intervenes, but only to use a limp wristed passive aggressive voice over the intercom that passengers should be nice to the flight attendant and he was driving us back to the gate.  If I was that flight attendant, I’d have been pissed that my boss would basically refuse to back me in such a matter.  We got back to the gate but they’d returned us to a gate not configured to receive our aircraft model.  So we sat at the gate for another half-hour while they got the jetway part.  Then the air conditioner broke.  And the woman continued to scream at the flight attendant.  The captain never came out of the cockpit.  Inexplicably, this woman or her boyfriend were not arrested.  They simply let them and the rest of us get off.  Then they just cancelled the flight without explanation and told us all to go get our bags from baggage claim.

– We all spent the next two hours at baggage claim waiting while American tried to figure out how to conduct a task they normally perform dozens of times a day.  They first unloaded our bags and then put them on a flight to Charlotte, for whatever reason.  Then they took the bags back off the Charlotte flight and put them on baggage trucks where they apparently forgot about them for an hour or so.  Then they closed the airport tarmac due to lightning.  Then they claimed the baggage handlers were working on it when they weren’t.  So the baggage agent ends up having to go find them and it turns out the baggage guys were on the smoke deck, burning one, because why not.  Eventually the baggage agent is screaming at her manager on the phone for help.  The manager never showed up.  And eventually, somehow, the bags showed up.

– Then American told us all get on the road and drive to my city’s other major airport.  I called work and they told me to oblige.  So we all drove 45 minutes in our cars to the other airport and began to check in again.  By this point I knew half this plane’s people.  It was a decent cross section of America’s melting pot, mostly good people, we got through it by laughing and joking with each other.  By some thankful miracle, crazy lady and her boyfriend never made it to the other airport.  By the time we got to the other airport this was a 15 hour ordeal.

– The departure from the other airport went smoothly, but when we got to O’Hare they didn’t have a gate for us.  So they randomly drove the airplane around O’Hare’s tarmac for over an hour while American tried to find a gate.  When we did find a gate, we sat at it for an additional half-hour, because why not.  By the time I got to Chicago work, I’d been on travel for 21 hours.  I felt like I’d just come out of dry cleaning machine.  Thanks American Airlines, you’re swell.

 

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Frank endorses TWA, an airline absorbed and destroyed by American by 2003.  I wonder if it was ever, in any way, really like this?

 

Post Scripture:  People can be such jerks.  Beyond the antics of the crazy woman described above, dozens of other people took it upon themselves to harass or yell at flight attendants, gate agents, baggage agents, or even uninvolved random airport employees who did not work for American.  Attention Humanity!  Expressing your anger in a barbaric manner to a low level airline employee who likely makes far, far less money than you accomplishes less than nothing.  It’s positively deplorable.  They are not the source of your pain.  Instead, spend your hate on folks like American’s Operations dude Robert Isom or CEO Doug Parker who simultaneously can’t do their jobs while also making about 700 times the cash each year you do.  But hey, they each just bought that third boat, so they’re full of win.  We are not, but whatever.

 

aa lie

When you read this old ad in detail, you can start to get the idea of where American went wrong, decades ago.