Tuesday, July 17, 2012

United Airlines, Who Else?

A mutiny ensued among furious, exhausted United Airlines passengers stuck for days in Shanghai, trying to get to Newark. United, of course, is downplaying the trouble but is nevertheless offering the stranded passengers a voucher.

Here's the report on the latest United fiasco, in the Newark Star-Ledger newspaper.

United put its deputy PR shitstorm first-responder Rahsaan Johnson on the case. Johnson is the guy they trot out on these occasions, and he's the least respected PR guy in the airline business, which is saying something. Says Johnson, ".... the situation clearly didn’t go as smoothly as we would like. We did not meet these customers’ expectations. We hope they will give us another chance." He added that the United stalwarts "did their best under those circumstances."


Monday, July 16, 2012

Thank You from American Airlines: Those Old Miles That Were Never Supposed to Expire? They're Expiring! !

I will never, ever understand the propensity of airlines for clumsily insulting the intelligence of their customers. The tin-ear syndrome is always on full display.

Here's a beauty that one Suzanne L. Rubin, who runs the AAdvantage loyalty program, sent out in e mails to customers, thanking them for their loyalty while advising them that those "miles with no expiration" will now expire. It's a "streamline," she says!


"For more than 30 years the American Airlines AAdvantage program has been making travel special. Thank you for your loyalty for so many years as an AAdvantage member.

In order to streamline our program, we are announcing a change to AAdvantage miles earned before July 1, 1989, also called Miles With No Expiration.

Starting November 1, 2012, these miles will automatically be converted to Miles Subject to Expiration, and because of your tenured loyalty, you will earn a 25% mileage bonus on every unredeemed mile earned prior to July 1, 1989. To have your Miles With No Expiration converted and to earn the mileage bonus, you do not need to take any action. For more information about this change, please visit AA.com/MileConversion.

Once your miles have been converted, as long as you earn or redeem AAdvantage miles at least once every 18 months, your miles will not expire. This is our normal mileage policy and more information can be found at AA.com/AAdvantageTerms.

It is easy to keep your account active! In addition to earning AAdvantage miles for travel, you can earn miles for making everyday purchases such as dining out, shopping and paying your electricity bill. Plus, you can redeem miles for hotel stays, rental cars, flight awards, and more! Find out more ways to earn and redeem miles by visiting AA.com/AAdvantage.

...Thank you for your continued loyalty!


Suzanne L. Rubin
AAdvantage® Loyalty Program"


The Red Light Camera Hoax

Here are excerpts from an anonymous (of course) comment from someone objecting to a recent post that ridiculed red-light cameras and the bogus claims being made for them.

"The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (which is not part of the "red-light camera industry") has done the best work in this field. The Institute found that the number of red-light fatalities ... decreased dramatically at intersections with cameras and significantly at other intersections in red-light camera cities. The Institute also found that a majority of individuals support red-light cameras, but opponents have become increasingly vocal. I trust that you don't run red lights with or without cameras, Joe."

Well, now. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is a lobby group funded by automobile insurers, a group of entities (not to put too fine a point on it) that would also have a financial interest in forcing everyone to drive 15 miles an hours in daylight hours only, and then only if the driver is between the ages of 25 and 55.

Our anonymous red-light camera lobbyist adds somewhat pointedly that he has "trust" that I don't run red-lights, with or without cameras.

Along with all of the other spurious and often bogus claims by the red-light camera lobby, that little hint is quite telling.

Of course I have crossed through intersections when the light abruptly turns red. Everyone has! Who among us has not suddenly found ourselves at a badly designed intersection, perhaps with a big truck fast on our bumper, and had to make an instant decision, based solely on a judgment about safety, when the light suddenly turns yellow?

There is a notorious intersection in a commercial district about three miles from my house where rear-end collisions are up by 40 percent in two years. Why? Because my city, tapping into the allegedly easy money offered by the red-light camera industry, has installed these insidious devices at that intersection. People I know now avoid businesses in that location simply because they do not trust the red-light cameras.

The cameras don't just flash when someone overtly "runs" the light (and "runs" is a term favored by the camera-industry lobby, in that it implies wanton disregard for public safety). Oh no! The industry has devised new ways to catch motorists "running" the red when they are, for example, just stuck in an intersection behind someone who dawdles on a left-hand turn and the camera flashes or, even more infuriating, making a right turn and being stuck slightly into the intersection when, say, a woman pushing a baby stroller crosses in the pedestrian lane and the light suddenly changes. The choice? Get flashed and pay up, or force woman and baby off the road.

I have never had a red-light camera ticket. Yet. But the increasing number of people I know who have been trapped by these odious devices are all safe drivers -- not the idiots who actually do run red lights with disregard for public safety. To a person, they are outraged at the injustice of these devices. They claim that the red-light they allegedly ran was really a yellow light timed too fast (and lots of real studies have shown that normal yellow-light times are shortened at most intersections that have red-light cameras). And they are stunned to find that the ticket also includes mandatory attendance at a "safety" school where the fee is in the $300 range and the cynicism about the system, from attendees and "instructors" alike, runs shockingly deep. Everybody feels that justice is mocked. Everybody knows that red-light cameras are a scam!

Independent studies (that is, studies not funded by the industry or its accomplices) have always found that red-light cameras are simply a bad idea. And they are also a dangerous invasion of personal privacy, not to mention a base insult to legal due process. The dopey media, especially the local dimwits, can always be depended upon to parrot the red-light and speed-camera industry, mainly because the dopey media don't have the brains or even the courage to cogently evaluate research.

The National Motorists Association, a vocal and reliable opponent of these surveillance cameras (which gets some funding from the highway-engineering industry that lobbies for better intersection safety-design) does do intelligent evaluation of the data. I recommend that anyone interested in the subject peruse its Web site. This is its basic position on red-light cameras:


"NMA Objections To Red Light Cameras

The NMA opposes the use of photographic devices to issue tickets. With properly posted speed limits and properly installed traffic-control devices, there is no need for ticket cameras. They can actually make our roads less safe.

1) Ticket cameras do not improve safety.
Despite the claims of companies that sell ticket cameras and provide related services, there is no independent verification that photo enforcement devices improve highway safety, reduce overall accidents, or improve traffic flow. Believing the claims of companies that sell photo enforcement equipment or municipalities that use this equipment is like believing any commercial produced by a company that is trying to sell you something.

2) There is no certifiable witness to the alleged violation.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it may also take a thousand words to explain what the picture really means. Even in those rare instances where a law enforcement officer is overseeing a ticket camera, it is highly unlikely that the officer would recall the supposed violation. For all practical purposes, there is no "accuser" for motorists to confront, which is a constitutional right. There is no one that can personally testify to the circumstances of the alleged violation, and just because a camera unit was operating properly when it was set up does not mean it was operating properly when the picture was taken of any given vehicle.

3) Ticket recipients are not adequately notified.
Most governments using ticket cameras send out tickets via first class mail. There is no guarantee that the accused motorists will even receive the ticket, let alone understands it and know how to respond. However, the government makes the assumption that the ticket was received. If motorists fail to pay, it is assumed that they did so on purpose, and a warrant may be issued for their arrest.

4) The driver of the vehicle is not positively identified.
Typically, the photos taken by these cameras do not identify the driver of the offending vehicle. The owner of the vehicle is mailed the ticket, even if the owner was not driving the vehicle and may not know who was driving at the time. The owner of the vehicle is then forced to prove his or her innocence, often by identifying the actual diver who may be a family member, friend or employee.

5) Ticket recipients are not notified quickly.
People may not receive citations until days or sometimes weeks after the alleged violation. This makes it very difficult to defend oneself because it would be hard to remember the circumstances surrounding the supposed violation. There may have been a reason that someone would be speeding or in an intersection after the light turned red. Even if the photo was taken in error, it may be very hard to recall the day in question.

6) These devices discourage the synchronization of traffic lights.
When red light cameras are used to make money for local governments, these governments are unlikely to jeopardize this income source. This includes traffic-light synchronization, which is the elimination of unneeded lights and partial deactivation of other traffic lights during periods of low traffic. When properly done, traffic-light synchronization decreases congestion, pollution, and fuel consumption.

7) Cameras do not prevent most intersection accidents.
Intersection accidents are just that, accidents. Motorists do not casually drive through red lights. More likely, they do not see a given traffic light because they are distracted, impaired, or unfamiliar with their surroundings. Even the most flagrant of red light violators will not drive blithely into a crowded intersection, against the light. Putting cameras on poles and taking pictures will not stop these kinds of accidents.

8) There are better alternatives to cameras.
If intersection controls are properly engineered, installed, and operated, there will be very few red light violations. From the motorists' perspective, government funds should be used on improving intersections, not on ticket cameras. Even in instances where cameras were shown to decrease certain types of accidents, they increased other accidents. Simple intersection and signal improvements can have lasting positive effects, without negative consequences. Cities can choose to make intersections safer with sound traffic engineering or make money with ticket cameras. Unfortunately, many pick money over safety.

9) Ticket camera systems are designed to inconvenience motorists.
Under the guise of protecting motorist privacy, the court or private contractor that sends out tickets often refuses to send a copy of the photo to the accused vehicle owner. This is really because many of the photos do not clearly depict the driver or the driver is obviously not the vehicle owner. Typically, the vehicle owner is forced to travel to a courthouse or municipal building to even see the photograph, an obvious and deliberate inconvenience meant to discourage ticket challenges.

10) Taking dangerous drivers' pictures doesn't stop them.
Photo enforcement devices do not apprehend seriously impaired, reckless or otherwise dangerous drivers. A fugitive could fly through an intersection at 100 mph and not even get his picture taken, as long as the light was green!


Friday, July 06, 2012

Yo, British Airways: Google This

Some marketing genius at British Airways thought it would be a grand idea to nose around online information about its best customers to compile useful personal information, including private photos, that could be used to "essentially [...] recreate the feeling of recognition you get in a favorite restaurant when you’re welcomed there," as one British Airways marketing genius explained in the Daily Mail newspaper in the UK.

Yo, British Airways: That is a stupid, annoying idea, and whoever came up with it deserves the boot. Facebook users are already increasingly wary of corporations nosing around in their private matters, of course -- and this idea is absolutely nothing like a "favorite restaurant" where you might be known and greeted by name.

Here's another take from the useful Big Brother Watch blog in the UK.


Thursday, July 05, 2012

Border Patrol Nabs Castro Sneaking Dirty Bomb Into U.S. ... Oops! Make That Ex-Arizona Gov. Castro, 96, and He'd Just Had Radiation Treatment

[Photo: Mr. Castro, the suspect in suspected nuclear-bomb plot that was thwarted by vigilant U.S. Border Patrol agents]

The former governor of Arizona, 96-year-old Raul Castro, of Nogales, Ariz., was waylaid recently by intrepid agents of the U.S. Border Patrol in southern Arizona, where they don't have as much to do these days because fewer Mexicans are risking death illegally trudging 100 miles through the brutal heat of the Sonoran Desert.

A radiation detector, it seems, signaled some radiation on the elderly gentleman's person during one of those pesky stops by the Border Patrol agents who are all over the region.
Governor Castro, it seems, was emitting traces of radiation from a medical procedure. So he was detained and humiliated in the 100-degree heat because he could have posed a "nuclear threat" to the Homeland.

This occurred a good ways from the border itself on Interstate 19 north of Tubac, Ariz. (Border Patrol claims to have martial-law authority in a zone within 100 miles of the border, which includes the city of Tucson.)

You think I'm kidding? Read this.

Mr. Castro was elected in 1974 as the first (and only) Mexican-American governor of Arizona. He is also a former U.S. ambassador to Argentina, Bolivia and El Salvador.

This appalling incident has been well-known in the area since it occurred three weeks ago, and I've been amazed that the national media ignored it for so long, till it got picked up out of a local Nogales publication. (The Phoenix and Tuscon media are too lazy and too craven to rouse themselves much and report this out. They're afraid some right-wing screwball might write them a stern letter of complaint, after all.)

Finally, Salon has got on the case. Here.


TSA 'Business As Usual," Defending the Indefensible. Again

I bend over backwards at times giving the TSA the benefit of the doubt, including in its remarkably timid responses to the guns that more people are trying to bring through checkpoints because those people think they have a God-given "right to carry" their firearms anywhere they choose, including onto an airplane.

TSA=We're vigilant about old ladies in wheelchairs, but we're terrified about upsetting the gun lobby.

Now here, as if to prove that the TSA just doesn't make sense many times, is the agency's intrepid mouthpiece, "Blogger Bob" Burns, defending the indefensible -- that is, he airily waves off protests about TSA agents waylaying passengers as they queue to board airplanes, and "testing" whatever beverages they have in hand.

Now, it's a given that if you have a soda or a bottle of water in hand at the gate, you have purchased or obtained that drink within the secure area of the airport, because they wouldn't have let you carry it through the checkpoint in the first place. The TSA says, as a matter of optics and a tactic of preemptively covering its butt, that of course nothing is "100 percent secure," yada-yada. Yes, that is correct. Except when the TSA has some asinine gate-theater to defend, and then it's "CSI Airport."

"Blogger Bob" is correct in saying that this is nothing new, despite the current outpouring of online protest about the agency testing drinks at the gate. And, let note here the absolutely predictable response from the Brigade of Official Reassurance on public radio that there's nothing to see here, folks. Why, silly, the government told us so!

Yes, they have had this ludicrous procedure in place for a while -- but my guess is that they've stepped up the performances lately of this particular comic act on the security-vaudeville playbill.

Agents waylaying passengers at the gate may be designed to present "another layer of security," as "Blogger Bob" says, but in fact what we, the public, see is another ridiculous manifestation of make-work for a vastly bloated federal jobs program, the TSA -- which is without doubt the most hated agency of the federal government. The most hated, yes. The possibly also the least trusted. And lack of trust in your security is a basic security flaw, as any expert in the field will tell you.

Here's "Blogger Bob" on the TSA blog today, pooh-poohing objections to this nonsense by insisting that this all is "business as usual." Business of security theater as usual, I would add.

Emphasis is mine:

"While browsing the web this morning, I saw that the topic de jour was that TSA was now screening liquids at the gate. We've talked about random gate screening here before, and if you travel frequently, you've likely experienced a gate screening. Not a big deal really... Heck, even I have been pulled aside for random gate screening.

So, the most popular question that comes up with this topic is: "Isn't this redundant?" On the surface, it does seem that way, and it's the first logical thought that many have. However, any security expert will tell you that nothing is ever 100% secure. So, gate screening is kind of like our safety net to keep up with anybody who might be trying to get things past conventional screening.

We stay away from static security tactics. Layered security is common practice, providing the necessary unpredictable measure that makes it more difficult to do malice to the transportation infrastructure. If everything we did was always the same, it would provide a checklist for people to know exactly what to expect. While this would be extremely helpful for passengers, it would also be useful to those wishing to do us harm. ...

As far as the testing of liquids at the gate, this is just one of the many options we have to choose from when deciding what additional tactics to use each day. We started using test strips back in the summer of 2007 and continue to do so. The test involves a test strip and a dropper containing a nontoxic solution. In case you're wondering, our officers don't place the test strips in your beverages/liquids. They simply have the passenger remove the cap/lid and they hold the strip over the opening of the container. Procedures call for moving the test strip to the side and applying the solution from the dropper to test the strip. If the test results are positive TSA will conduct additional testing to make a final assessment.

In a nutshell, liquid screening at gates is random and it isn't happening at every airport every day. So other than possibly taking a few moments of your time before boarding your flight, it's business as usual."


Wednesday, July 04, 2012

On July 4th: Veterans By the Numbers, and a Grand Old Flag

I was at a minor-league ballgame in Tucson last night, on the eve of the Fourth of July, and was surprised when the 10,000 people at Kino Stadium were asked to "honor" the "active-duty and retired" military veterans in the crowd.

Yay for them. But hang on a minute, I thought. In jingoistic circles, it's become increasingly popular to exhort people to jump to their feet to salute "our veterans." But we seem to be forgetting (not just at this ballgame, but elsewhere) that our "military veterans" are mostly not active-duty and retired people on the government payroll.

I wish we would start better defining what we mean by "veterans." The fact is, most military veterans are not "retired," that is, receiving lifetime pensions from the government after being on the active-duty military payroll for at least 20 years.

Rather, the vast majority of living veterans are those who honorably did their service, usually at extraordinarily low pay, and then returned to civilian life after their hitches were up. In general, unless they were injured in combat, those veterans receive no benefits from the government. They don't even quality for treatment in veterans' hospitals unless they are flat-out destitute, with no other access to medical care. I think we're entitled to a free flag at our death, is all. Fair enough; that's the deal.

In 2010, according to the Veterans Administration, there were 21.8 million living veterans of the armed forces in the United States. Of those, 1.9 million were retired after having spent at least 20 years in the military -- and are receiving veterans pensions that totaled, in the 2011 fiscal year, $51 billion, not counting other benefits such as health care.

The rest of our veterans -- that is, 19.9 million of them -- are just men and women who were in the service, during World War II and Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf wars, and in peacetime as well, who did their duty and were honorably discharged and went on to normal civilian lives.

My concern here is that in professionalizing the military, which we have done, we've lost the grounding we once had in the idea of military service that once included the general population.

The jingoists have forgotten that many, many Americans served and then went quietly about their lives. They don't require public "honoring" -- but they still should at least count when we talk about veterans.

And speaking of ballgames, when did it become common to have the crowd stand at honor and sing "God Bless America" at the 7th inning stretch? I felt like I was at a religious tent revival and imagined that awful tub of lard Kate Smith in a star-spangled white gown, bellowing into a microphone while jack-booted American Legionnaires stand by with truncheons to whack those who don't obediently remove their caps. When did God, baseball and Kate Smith join up? Nietzsche said God is dead; I know Kate Smith is dead, and I suspect baseball is at least dying since it became patriotic audience-participation rather than sport.

You know what I wish our National Anthem was? "You're a Grand Old Flag," by George M. Cohan, which goes:

"You're a grand old flag,
You're a high-flying flag
And forever in peace may you wave;
You're the emblem of
The land I love,
The home of the free and the brave
Every heart beats true
'Neath the red, white and blue
Where there's never a boast or brag;
So should auld acquaintance be forgot
Keep your eye on the grand old flag!"

Happy July Fourth!


Sunday, July 01, 2012

Driving in France? Blow Into le Bag Starting Today

...or at least have le bag in the car.

Starting today, the nanny state of France requires you to have an approved Breathalyzer device in your car when driving there. Actually, they're recommending that you buy two, just in case you might use one -- and do not try to suss the logic of that or your head could explode.

Here's the link with all you need to know from the Breathalyzer industry, which no doubt is busy, busy, busy lobbying to try to have lucrative laws like that one passed elsewhere.

Not here in the U.S., you say? Well, not bloody likely, I agree. On the other hand, Americans in a lot of states do kind of passively accept those disgraceful traffic red-light and speed cameras, and the road to le bag is a slippery slope.


Whose Bloody Hand Ye Shakin'?

Depends on whose bloody hand is being shook, I suppose. But it's interesting that the old German lady Queen Elizabeth II (you don't really buy that name change to "Windsor," do you?) had no issue with ungloved hand-shakes when the Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad came calling in 2002.

But when the ex-Irish Republican Army leader Martin McGuinness came around the old castle last week, note that the Queen -- who sits on a throne that has known a lot of bloody hands -- was wearing protection.

And on my, the Irish-American twee brigade never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

And please, spare us the tears on the odious "Uncle Dickie" Mountbatten.