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I’ve been wanting to fly on the Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” ever since I missed a chance to go on an inaugural junket aboard one before Boeing began delivery to the airlines. But I finally got my chance, three days ago, aboard United Flight 935 from London to Los Angeles.

Some context: United is my default airline by virtue of having flown 1.5 million miles with them, which has earned me some status. Specifically, I get on shorter lines, don’t get charged for bags, and have some choice about where I sit, which defaults to Economy Plus: the section of Economy that features a bit more leg room and is typically located which is behind business/first, now called Polaris.

I should add that I actually like United, and have had few of the bad experiences people tend to associate with big old airlines. And plenty of good ones. And not all the news about United is bad. For example, wider economy seats coming in refurbed 767s.

So. How about the 787?

It’s a nice plane in many ways, which Boeing explains here. Maybe the best in the air today.

But, hate to say, my experience with it was less than ideal.

The first problem is that, according to SeatGuru, the whole Economy Plus section is over the wing on both the airline’s configurations: 787/8 and 787/9. This means there is little or no view of the ground out the window. That view is one of the main attractions of window seats and why I love flying. See all these photos were taken out the windows of planes? Nearly all the planes I shot those from were United’s, and I have kindly tagged them #United as well. (See http://bit.ly/UnitedAerial.)

To be fair, all of United’s widebody planes (747,767, 777, 787) put most of Economy Plus over the wing. But in most cases a row or two is in front of the wing or behind it. Not, alas, on the new 787s.

So I booked a seat in the economy section. Fortunately, I don’t have long femurs, so leg room usually isn’t an issue for me. In fact, I like sitting in the back of plane, farther the better. That way as little of the wing as possible intrudes on the view. And the legroom actually wasn’t bad on this plane anyway, so that’s one plus.

The seat I chose was 37L, a window seat in a row that gave me 3 seats to myself, because the flight turned out to be less than full. This is another reason to book seats in the back. They’re the least likely seats to be filled on a less-than-full flight. (But be sure to check with SeatGuru, which warn me away from rows which have missing windows. Most planes do have some of those.)

My second problem turns out to be one of the 787’s biggest selling points: electronically dimmable windows:

It’s a clever system that eliminates the window shade, an ancient feature that actually gives the individual a simple manual control over the view, and of light coming in.

My problem isn’t with the windows themselves, which are relatively large (but with more added view toward the sky than the ground). My problem is with a loss of individual control, and an apparent preference by the crew for the equivalent of no windows at all.

So, for example, on this flight the crew turned all the windows dark just before the fjords and glaciers of Greenland’s coast came into view. They announced that this was so people could sleep or watch their screens without glare. But this flight wasn’t a red-eye. The plane left at roughly 2pm from London and arrived in Los Angeles at around 5pm, with daylight all the way. Yes, it would be the middle of the night (UK time) on arrival, but that was another six hours in the future, and the scene was amazing:

So I turned my window up to clear (which happens so slowly you wonder if it’s working at first), and a flight attendant came over. Here’s the dialog, as best I recall it:

“Sir, you need to darken your window.”

“I got a window seat so I could see outside.”

“But other people are trying to sleep or watch their screens.”

“I’ll darken it later. Right now I want to see Greenland. Have you seen this? It’s spectacular.”

“Please be aware of the other passengers, sir.”

In fact I was.

There were two empty seats in my row.The window seat wasn’t occupied in the row in front of me. (An older woman seemed to be sleeping in the middle seat.) And the only other passenger in sight was a guy reading in an otherwise empty middle row across the aisle from me. I was also talking geography with the people behind me, who were watching Greenland scroll by through my aft window (their row, 38, had no window) saying “Holy shit! Look at that! Look at THAT!” over and over. And with good reason. A United pilot once announced to a plane I was on that Greenland is the most spectacular thing one can see from a passenger jet.

So I really didn’t need to dim my window for others. But I felt like I was getting busted for some infraction of flight etiquette that made no sense, given that the 787, more than other planes was supposed to be about the joy of flying. (Louis CK enlarges on this kind of aviation irony with his “Everything is a amazing and nobody’s happy” bit. If you’re in a hurry, start about 2 minutes in.)

My final problem is also with the windows: they block GPS signals, I suppose as a secondary effect of the dimmable thing. This meant I couldn’t record the trip on my little Garmin pocket GPS, which I’ve been using for many years to keep track of where I’ve been, and to geo-locate photos.

So I’ll go out of my way to avoid United’s 787s from now on. They’re great planes, but not for me.

Nothing challenges our understanding of infrastructure better than a crisis, and we have a big one now in Houston. We do with every giant storm, of course. New York is still recovering from Sandy and New Orleans from Katrina. Reforms and adaptations always follow, as civilization learns from experience.

Look at aviation, for example. Houston is the 4th largest city in the U.S. and George Bush International Airport (aka IAH) is a major hub for United Airlines. For the last few days traffic there has been sphinctered down to emergency flights alone. You can see how this looks on FlightAware’s Miserymap:

Go there and click on the blue play button to see how flight cancellations have played over time, and how the flood in Houston has affected Dallas as well. Click on the airport’s donut to see what routes are most affected. Frequent fliers like myself rely on tools like this one, made possible by a collection of digital technologies working over the Internet.

The airport itself is on Houston’s north side, and not flooded. Its main problem instead has been people. Countless workers have been unable to come in because they’re trapped in the flood, busy helping neighbors or barely starting to deal with lives of their own and others that have been inconvenienced, ruined or in sudden need of large repair.

Aviation just one of modern civilization’s infrastructures. Roads are another. Early in the flood, when cars were first stranded on roads, Google Maps, which gets its traffic information from cell phones, showed grids of solid red lines on the city’s flooded streets. Now those same streets are blank, because the cell phones have departed and the cars aren’t moving.

The cell phone system itself, however, has been one of the stars in the Houston drama. Harvey shows progress on emergency communications since Katrina, says a Wired headline from yesterday. Only 4% of the areas cells were knocked out.

Right now the flood waters are at their record heights, or even rising. Learnings about extant infrastructures have already commenced, and will accumulate as the city drains and dries. It should help to have a deeper understanding of what infrastructure really is, and what it’s doing where it is, than we have so far.

I say that because infrastructure is still new as a concept. As a word, infrastructure has only been in common use since the 1960s:

In The Etymology of Infrastructure and the Infrastructure of the InternetStephen Lewis writes,

Infrastructure indeed entered the English language as a loan word from French in which it had been a railroad engineering term.  A 1927 edition of the Oxford indeed mentioned the word in the context of “… the tunnels, bridges, culverts, and ‘infrastructure work’ of the French railroads.”  After World War II, “infrastructure” reemerged as in-house jargon within NATO, this time referring to fixed installations necessary for the operations of armed forces and to capital investments considered necessary to secure the security of Europe…

Within my own memory the use of the word “infrastructure” had spilled into the contexts of urban management and regions national development and into the private sector… used to refer to those massive capital investments (water, subways, roads, bridges, tunnels, schools, hospitals, etc.) necessary to city’s economy and the lives of its inhabitants and businesses enterprises but too massive and too critical to be conceived, implemented, and run at a profit or to be trusted to the private sector…

In recent years, in the United States at least, infrastructure is a word widely used but an aspect of economic life and social cohesion known more by its collapse and abandonment and raffling off to the private sector than by its implementation, well-functioning, and expansion.

As Steve also mentions in that piece, he and I are among the relatively small number of people (at least compared to those occupying the familiar academic disciplines) who have paid close attention to the topic for some time.

The top dog in this pack (at least for me) is Brett Frischmann, the Villanova Law professor whose book Infrastructure: The Social Value of Shared Resources (Oxford, 2013) anchors the small and still young canon of work on the topic. Writes Brett,

Infrastructure resources entail long term commitments with deep consequences for the public. Infrastructures are a prerequisite for economic and social development. Infrastructures shape complex systems of human activity, including economic, cultural, and political systems. That is, infrastructures affect the behaviour of individuals, firms, households, and other organizations by providing and shaping the available opportunities of these actors to participate in these systems and to interact with each other.

The emphasis is mine, because I am curious about how shaping works. Specifically, How does infrastructure shape all those things—and each of us as well?

Here is a good example of people being shaped, in this case by mobile phones:

I shot that photo on my own phone in a New York subway a few months ago. As you see, everybody in that car is fully preoccupied with their personal rectangle. These people are not the same as they were ten or even five years ago. Nor are the “firms, households and other organizations” in which they participate. Nor is the subway itself, now that all four major mobile phone carriers cover every station in the city. At good speeds too:

We don’t know if Marshall McLuhan said “we shape our tools and then our tools shape us,” but it was clearly one of his core teachings (In fact the line comes from Father John Culkin, SJ, a Professor of Communication at Fordham and a colleague of McLuhan’s. Whether or not Culkin got it from McLuhan we’ll never know.) As aphorisms go, it’s a close relative to the subtitle of McLuhan’s magnum opus, Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man (Berkeley, 1964, 1994, 2003). The two are compressed into his most quoted line, “the medium is the message,” which says that every medium changes us while also extending us.

In The Medium is the Massage: an Inventory of Effects (Gingko, 1967, 2001), McLuhan explains it this way: “All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive… that they leave no part of us untouched unaffected, unaltered… Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments.”

Specifically, “All media are extensions of some human faculty—psychic or physical. The wheel is an extension of the foot.The book is an extension of the eye. Clothing, an extension of the skin. Electric curcuitry, an extension of the central nervous system. Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptins. The extension of any once sense alters the way we think and act—the way we perceive the world. When these things change, men change.”

He also wasn’t just talking communications media. He was talking about everything we make, which in turn make us. As Eric McLuhan (Marshall’s son and collaborator) explains in Laws of Media: The New Science (Toronto, 1988), “media” meant “everything man[kind] makes and does, every procedure, every style, every artefact, every poem, song, painting, gimmick, gadget, theory—every product of human effort.”

Chief among the laws Marshall and Eric minted is the tetrad of media effects. (A tetrad is a group of four.) It says every medium, every technology, has effects that refract in four dimensions that also affect each other. Here’s a graphic representation of them:

They apply these laws heuristically, through questions:

  1. What does a medium enhance?
  2. What does it obsolesce?
  3. What does it retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does it reverse or flip into when pushed to its extreme (for example, by becoming ubiquitous)?

Questions are required because there can be many different effects, and many different answers. All can change. All can be argued. All can work us over.

One workover happened right here, with this blog. In fact, feeling worked over was one of the reasons I dug back into McLuhan, who I had been ignoring for decades.

Here’s the workover…

In the heyday of blogging, back in the early ’00s, this blog’s predecessor (at doc.weblogs.com) had about 20,000 subscribers to its RSS feed, and readers that numbered in up to dozens of thousand per day. Now it gets dozens. On a good day, maybe hundreds. What happened?

In two words, social media. When I put that in the middle of the tetrad, four answers that jumped to mind:

In the ENHANCED corner, Social media surely makes everyone more social, in the purely convivial sense of the word. Suddenly we have hundreds or thousands of “friends” (Facebook, Swarm, Instagram), “followers” (Twitter) and “contacts” (Linkedin). Never mind that we know few of their birthdays, parents names or other stuff we used to care about. We’re social with them now.

Blogging clearly got OBSOLESCED, but—far more importantly—so did the rest of journalism. And I say this as a journalist who once made a living at the profession and now, like everybody else who once did the same, now make squat. What used to be business of journalism is now the business of “content production,” because that’s what social media and its publishing co-dependents get paid by advertising robots to produce in the world. What’s more, anybody can now participate. Look at that subway car photo above. Any one of those people, or all of them, are journalists now. They write and post in journals of various kinds on social media. Some of what they produce is news, if you want to call it that. But hell, news itself is worked over completely. (More about that in a minute.)

We’ve RETRIEVED gossip, which journalism, the academy and the legal profession had obsolesced (by saying, essentially, “we’re in charge of truth and facts”). In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper, 2015), Yuval Noah Harari says gossip was essential for our survival as hunter-gatherers: “Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bisons.. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest and who is a cheat.” And now we can do that with anybody and everybody, across the vast yet spaceless nowhere we call the Internet, and to hell with the old formalisms of journalism, education and law.

And social media has also clearly REVERSED us into tribes, especially in the news we produce and consume, much of it to wage verbal war with each other. Or worse. For a view of how that works, check out The Wall Street Journal‘s Red Feed / Blue Feed site, which shows the completely opposed (and hostile) views of the world that Facebook injects into the news feeds of people its algorithms consider “very liberal” or “very conservative.”

Is social media infrastructure? I suppose so. The mobile phone network certainly is. And right now we’re glad to have it, because Houston, the fourth largest city in the U.S., is suffering perhaps the worst natural disaster in the country’s history, and the cell phone system is holding up remarkably well, so far. Countless lives are being saved by it, and it will certainly remain the most essential communication system as the city recovers and rebuilds.

Meanwhile, however, it also makes sense to refract the mobile phone through the tetrad. I did that right after I shot the photo above, in this blog post. In it I said smartphones—

  • Enhance conversation
  • Obsolesce mass media (print, radio, TV, cinema, whatever)
  • Retrieve personal agency (the ability to act with effect in the world)
  • Reverse into isolation (also into lost privacy through exposure to surveillance and exploitation)

In the same graphic, it looks like this:

But why listen to me when the McLuhans were on the case almost three decades ago? This is from Gregory Sandstrom‘s “Laws of media—The four effects: A Mcluhan contribution to social epistemology” (SERCC, November 11, 2012)—

The REVERSES items might be off, the but others are right on. (Whoa: cameras!)

The problem here, however, is the tendency we have to get caught up in effects. While those are all interesting, the McLuhans want us to look below those, to causes. This is hard because effects are figures, and causes are grounds: the contexts from which figures arise. From Marshall and Eric McLuhan’s Media and Formal Cause (Neopoesis, 2011): “Novelty becomes cliché through use. And constant use creates a new hidden environment while simultaneously pushing the old invisible ground into prominence, as a new figure, clearly visible for the first time. Every innovation scraps its immediate predecessor and retrieves still older figures; it causes floods of antiquities or nostalgic art forms and stimulates the search for ‘museum pieces’.”

We see this illustrated by Isabelle Adams in her paper “What Would McLuhan Say about the Smartphone? Applying McLuhan’s Tetrad to the Smartphone” (Glocality, 2106):

 

Laws of Media again: “The motor car retrieved the countryside, scrapped the inner core of the city, and created suburban megalopolis. Invention is the mother of necessities, old and new.”

We tend to see it the other way around, with necessity mothering invention. It should help to learn from the McLuhans that most of what we think we need is what we invent in order to need it.

Beyond clothing, shelter and tools made of sticks and stones, all the artifacts that fill civilized life are ones most of us didn’t know we needed until some maker in our midst invented them.

And some tools—extensions of our bodies—don’t become necessities until somebody invents a new way to use them. Palm, Nokia and Blackberry all made smart phones a decade before the iPhone and the Android. Was it those two operating systems that made them everybody suddenly want one? No, apps were the inventions that mothered mass necessity for mobile phones, just like it was websites the made us need graphical browsers, which made us need personal computers connected by the Internet.

All those things are effects that the McLuhans want us to look beneath. But they don’t want us to look for the obvious causes of the this-made-that-happen kind. In Media and Formal Cause, Eric McLuhan writes:

Formal causality kicks in whenever “coming events cast their shadows before them.” Formal cause is still, in our time, hugely mysterious. The literate mind finds it is too paradoxical and irrational. It deals with environmental processes and it works outside of time. The effects—those long shadows—arrive first; the causes take a while longer.

Formal cause was one of four listed first by Aristotle:

  • Material—what something is made of.
  • Efficient—how one thing acts on another, causing change.
  • Formal—what makes the thing form a coherent whole.
  • Final—the purpose to which a thing is put.

In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan writes, “Any technology gradually creates a totally new human environment”, adding:

Environments are not passive wrappings but active processes….The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure.

Thus railways were a formal cause that scaled up new kinds of cities, work and leisure.  “People don’t want to know the cause of anything”, Marshall said (and Eric quotes, in Media and Formal Cause). “They do not want to know why radio caused Hitler and Gandhi alike. They do not want to know that print caused anything whatever. As users of these media, they wish merely to get inside, hoping perhaps to add another layer to their environment….”

In Media and Formal Cause, Eric also sources Jane Jacobs:

Current theory in many fields—economics, history, anthropology—assumes that cities are built upon a rural economic base. If my observations and reasoning are correct, the reverse is true: that rural economies, including agricultural work, are directly built upon city economies and city work….Rural production is literally the creation of city consumption. That is to say, city economics invent the things that are to become city imports from the rural world.

Which brings us back to Houston. What forms will it cause as we repair it?

(I’m still not done, but need to get to my next appointment. Stay tuned.)

 

 

Here’s what flying in and out of Newark looks like right now:

screen-shot-2017-07-01-at-6-35-51-pm

That storm is very heavy, but narrow. It’s going to wash over New York like a big wave.

Hat tip to Flightaware.

favorite-peets

My loyalty to Peet’s Coffee is absolute. I have loved Peet’s since it was a single store in Berkeley. I told my wife in 2001 that I wouldn’t move anywhere outside the Bay Area unless there was a Peet’s nearby. That pre-qualified Santa Barbara, where we live now. When we travel to where Peets has retail stores, we buy bags of our favorite beans (which tend to be one of the above) to take to our New York apartment, because there are no Peets stores near there. When we’re in New York and not traveling, we look for stores that sell bags of one of the bean bags above.

Since our car died and we haven’t replaced it yet, we have also taken to ordering beans through Peet’s website. Alas, we’re done with that now. Here’s why:

screen-shot-2017-06-22-at-11-34-17-pm

I ordered those beans (Garuda and New Guinea) two Thursdays ago, June 16, at 7:45am. A couple days after I ordered the beans, I checked my account online to see where the shipment stood, and the site said the beans would be shipped on Monday, June 19. According to the email I got yesterday (a section of which I show above), the beans didn’t ship until the following Wednesday, June 21. Now the estimated delivery is next Wednesday, June 28.

While this isn’t a big deal, it’s still annoying because we just ran out of our last batch of beans here and we’ll be gone when that shipment arrives. Subscribing (which Peet’s e-commerce system would rather we do) also won’t work for us because we travel too much and don’t settle in any one place for very long. True, that’s not Peet’s problem, and I’m a sample of one. But I’ve experienced enough e-commerce to know that Peet’s shipping thing isn’t working very well.

And maybe it can’t. I don’t know. Here’s what I mean…

Way back in the late ’90s I was having lunch in San Francisco with Jamie Zawinski, whose work as a programmer is behind many of the graces we take for granted in the online world. (He’s a helluva writer too.) At one point he said something like “Somebody should figure out what Amazon does, bottle it, and sell it to every other retailer doing e-commerce.” And here we are, nearly two decades later, in a world where the one e-commerce company everybody knows will do what it says is still Amazon. (I’ll spare you my much worse tale of woe getting new air conditioners bought and shipped from Home Depot.)

So that’s a problem on the service side.

Now let’s talk marketing. A while back, Peet’s came out with an app that lets you check in at its stores for rewards when you buy something there. You do that this way at the cash register:

  1. Find the app on your phone.
  2. Click on Check In, so a QR code materializes on your phone’s screen.
  3. Aim the QR code at a gizmo by the cash register that can read the QR code.
  4. Hope it works.

I’ve done this a lot, or at least tried to. Here are just some of the problems with it, all of which I offer both to help Peet’s and to dissuade companies everywhere from bothering with the same system:

  1. It doesn’t work at every Peet’s location. This is annoying to customers who break out their phone, bring up the app, get ready to check in, and then get told “It’s not here yet.”
  2. Workers at the stores don’t like it—either because it’s one more step in the ordering process or because, again, “it’s not here yet.” Some employees put a nice face on, but you can tell many employees consider it an unnecessary pain in the ass.
  3. The customer needs to check in at exactly the right point in the purchase, or it doesn’t count. Or at least that’s been my experience a time or two. Whatever the deal is, the narrow check-in time window risks bumming out both the customer and the person behind the counter.
  4. The customer reviews are bad, with good reason. On the app’s page in iTunes Preview it says, “Current Version: 17 Ratings (1.5 stars) All Versions: 94 Ratings (2 stars).” The only published 4-star review reads, “They are a little vague on the rewards system – do I get a point per visit, or a point per drink? Also not a very rewarding system, esp when compared to starbucks or non chains I know of. However, I’ve had no problems with the app malfunctioning, so although I dislike the system it’s not the apps fault.”
  5. It sometimes doesn’t work. I mean, bzzzt: no soap. Or worse, works poorly. For example, when I opened the app just now, it said “Hi, Peetnik” and told me I have 0/15 reward points, meaning I’ve checked in zero times. Then, when I clicked on the “>”, it said “15 more & your next cup’s on us.” Finally, when I fiddled with the app a bit, it woke up and told me “4 points until your next reward.”

Here’s the thing: None of this stuff is necessary. Worse, it’s pure overhead, a value-subtract from the start. And Peet’s is one of the all-too-rare retailers that doesn’t need this kind of crap at all. It has already earned, and keeps, the loyalty of its customers. It just needs to keep doing a better job of making better coffee.

In The Intention Economy I tell the story of Trader Joe’s, another retailer that does a good job of earning and keeping its customers’ loyalty. You know how they do that? With approximately no marketing at all. “We don’t do gimmicks,” Doug Rauch, the retired President of Trader Joe’s told me. No loyalty cards. No promotional pricing. No discounts for “members.” (In fact they have no discounts at all. Just straightforward prices for everything.) Almost no advertising. Nothing that smacks of coercion. And customers love them.

My recommendation to Peet’s on the service side is to ship as fast and well as Amazon, or to stop trying and let Amazon handle the whole thing. Amazon already carries a variety of Peet’s beans and other coffee products. Either way, there is no excuse for taking almost two weeks to deliver an order of beans.

On the marketing side, I suggest dropping the app and the gizmos at the stores. Save the operational costs and reduce the cognitive overhead for both personnel and customers. Personal data gathered through apps is also a toxic asset for every company—and don’t let any marketers tell you otherwise. Like Trader Joe’s, Peet’s doesn’t need the data. Make the best coffee and provide the best service at the stores, and you’ll get and keep the best customers. Simple as that.

You’re in the coffee game, Peet’s. Keep winning that way. For everything that isn’t doing what you’ve always done best, less is more.

 

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rankingstars

I’ve hated rating people ever since I first encountered the practice. That was where everybody else does too: in school.

After all, rating people is what schools do, with tests and teachers’ evaluations. They do it because they need to sort students into castes. What’s school without a bell curve?

As John Taylor Gatto put it in the Seven Lesson Schoolteacher, the job of the educator in our industrialized education system is to teach these things, regardless of curricular aspirations or outcomes:

  1. confusion
  2. class position
  3. indifference
  4. emotional dependency
  5. intellectual dependency
  6. provisional self-esteem
  7. that you can’t hide

It’s no different in machine-run “social sharing” systems such as we get from Uber, Lyft and Airbnb. In all those systems we are asked to rate the people who share their cars and homes, and they are asked to rate us. The hidden agenda behind this practice is the same as the one Gatto describes above.

I bring this up because yesterday my wife and I had our first less-than-ideal shared ride. To spare everyone involved, I won’t say whether it was with Uber or Lyft, or where the ride went. I will say the ride is normally around half an hour, and we’ve taken the same ride dozens of times.

First, the driver didn’t help us load our two heavy bags into the trunk of his car, which had a lot of loose crap in it.(And, to be fair, lots of shared-ride drivers have a collection of their own stuff in the trunk.) Maybe he declined because there was heavy traffic and we all needed to get a move on, or he didn’t see the bags; but let’s just say that wasn’t normal, or what drivers usually do when picking up people with sizable luggage.

Soon as we were on the road, he asked if we’d mind if he stopped at an ATM, because he needed money for tolls. Seems his EZ-Pass transponder had a problem and needed to be sent in and exchanged, so he was operating without it. We said okay and took a slow parallel highway where he hoped an ATM could be found. He eventually found one at a gas station mini-mart, but the machine had a problem that took about 20 minutes, during which we just sat in the car.

After he got the money, we found our way back to the main toll road, and eventually to our destination. At one point on the toll road I reminded him that he should get a receipt for the toll he paid in cash. At our destination he did get out of the car to help with our bags, but I had already removed them from the trunk.

The whole ride took an hour and thirty two minutes, according to the Moves app on my phone. Since it was rush hour, I’d say the ride took about 45 minutes longer than it should have.

So that’s the down side.

The upside was that he seemed to be a genuinely good guy, trying to make a living and dealing with the world. He recently moved into the area to seek work as a recording engineer: a skill he learned recently at a trade school after tiring of an earlier career as a technician for a mobile phone company. His wife is pregnant with their first child, and they are struggling to make ends meet, which is why he was felt he had to work giving rides, even though he lacked two essential conveniences: an EZ-Pass or enough cash.

He had a lot of interesting things to say about working for Uber and Lyft (he drives for both), what makes a good or a bad ride (he’s had both as a passenger), and whether telling the story of their coming baby would make a good YouTube mini-documentary or podcast. We also talked about history, architecture, culture and travel. He speaks Spanish as well as English and would like to go to Spain someday. He also apologized for the delays, and thanked me for understanding his situation. (Or situations.) And I gave him a tip. (Which I always do, at least in the U.S.)

So, while the ride itself wasn’t great, the conversation was one of the better ones I’ve had with a driver. And I wanted to support the guy’s work.

But I couldn’t not rate the guy, or I wouldn’t be able to get a receipt or book the next ride. So I gave him four stars out of five. That’s the first time I’ve given any driver less than five stars. When I clicked on the fourth star, the app said what you see in the screen shot (from my phone) above. “Okay, could be better” was about right. Still, I would much rather have said nothing—or to have sent a note to the company. Anything but giving the guy some number of stars.

And no, I don’t know a better way. I am just sure that rating people is icky, and would rather say nothing than stroke or damn somebody with a star.

 

 

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I’ve been fascinated for years by what comes and goes at the Fort Irwin National Training Center

fortirwin

—in the Mojave Desert, amidst the dark and colorful Calico Mountains of California, situated in the forbidding nowhere that stretches between Barstow and Death Valley.

Here and there, amidst the webwork of trails in the dirt left by tanks, jeeps and other combat vehicles, fake towns and other structures go up and come down. So, for example, here is Etrebat Shar, a fake town in an “artificial Afghanistan” that I shot earlier this month, on June 2:

etrebat-shar1

And here is a broader view across the desert valley east of Fort Irwin itself:

etrebat-shar2

Look to the right of the “town.” See that area where it looks like something got erased? Well, it did. I took the two shots above earlier this month, on June 2. Here’s a shot of the same scene on June 25, 2013:

etrebat-shar3

Not only is the “town” a bit bigger, but there’s this whole other collection of walls and buildings, covering a far larger area, to the right, or east.

I also see in this shot that it was gone on December 8, 2014.

Now I’m fascinated by this town and the erased something-or-other nearby, which I also shot on June 2:

othertown

It appears to be “Medina Wasl,” which Wikipedia says is one of twelve towns built for desert warfare training:

One of the features of the base is the presence of 12 mock “villages” which are used to train troops in Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT) prior to their deployment. The villages mimic real villages and have variety of buildings such as religious sites, hotels, traffic circles, etc. filled with foreign language speaking actors portraying government officials, local police, local military, villagers, street vendors, and insurgents. The largest two are known as Razish and Ujen, the closest located about 30 minutes from the main part of the post. Most of the buildings are created using intermodal containers, stacked to create larger structures, the largest village consists of 585 buildings that can engage an entire brigade combat team into a fight.

Now I’m slowly going through my other shots over the years to see if I can find Razish and Ujen… if they haven’t been erased.

It would be cool to hear from military folk familiar with Fort Irwin, or veterans who have worked or fought mock battles in those towns.

4-1-06 detroit & ccs 005 web

Once, in the early ’80s, on a trip from Durham to some beach in North Carolina, we stopped to use the toilets at a roadhouse in the middle of nowhere. In the stall where I sat was a long conversation, in writing, between two squatters debating some major issue of the time. Think of the best back-and-forth you’ve ever read in a comment thread and you’ll get a rough picture of what this was like.

So I sat there, becoming engrossed and amazed at the high quality of the dialog — and the unlikelihood of it happening where it was.

Until I got to the bottom. There, ending the conversation, were the penultimate and ultimate summaries, posed as a question and answer:

Q: Why do people feel compelled to settle their differences on bathroom walls?

A. Because you suck my dick.

That story became legendary in our family and social network, to such a degree that my then-teenage daughter and her girlfriends developed a convention of saying “Because you suck my dick” whenever an argument went on too long and wasn’t going anywhere. This was roughly the same as dropping a cow: a way to end a conversation with an absurdity.

The whole thing came back to me when I read Pro-Trump Chalk Messages Cause Conflicts on College Campuses in the NYTimes today. The story it suggests is that this kind of thing regresses toward a mean that is simply mean. Or stupid. For example,

Wesleyan University issued a moratorium in 2003, after members of the faculty complained that they were being written about in sexually explicit chalk messages.

So I’m thinking we need a name for this, or at least an initialism. So I suggest BYSMD.

You’re welcome.

 

 

 

subway-speedtest

At the uptown end of the 59th Street/Columbus Circle subway platform there hangs from the ceiling a box with three disks on fat stalks, connected by thick black cables that run to something unseen in the downtown direction. Knowing a few things about radio and how it works, I saw that and thought, Hmm… That has to be a cell. I wonder whose? So I looked at my phone and saw my T-Mobile connection had five dots (that’s iPhone for bars), and said LTE as well. So I ran @Ookla‘s Speedtest app and got the results above.

Pretty good, no?

Sure, you’re not going to binge-watch anything there, or upload piles of pictures to some cloud, but you can at tug on your e-tether to everywhere for a few minutes. Nice to have.

So I’m wondering, @TMobile… Are those speeds the max one should expect from LTE when your local cell is almost as close as your hat?

And how long before you put these along the rest of the A/B/C/D Train routes? (The only other one I know is at 72nd, a B/C stop.) Or the rest of the subway system? In Boston too? BART? (Gotta hit all my cities.)

Meanwhile, thanks for taking care of my Main Stop in midtown.

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Sacramento SunriseMade a dawn run to the nearby Peets for some dry cappuccinos, and was bathed in glow on my return by one of the most spectacular sunrises I have ever seen. It was post-peak when I got back (to the place where I’m staying in Gold River, California), but with some underexposure and white balance tweaking, I was able to get the shots in this set here.

Alas, the shot above is not in that set. It’s a screen shot I took of an adjusted raw file that Adobe Photoshop CS6 simply refused to save. “The file could not be created,” it said. No explanation. I checked permissions. No problem there. It just refused. I just checke, and the same thing happens with all files from all directories on all drives. Photoshop is suddenly useless to for editing RAW files. Any suggestions?

[Later…] An Adobe forum provided the answer here. All better now.

prague-balls-question

One of the things that fascinates me about Prague are the skewers atop the spires of its many iconic buildings, each of which pierces a shiny ball. It’s a great look.

I am sure there’s a reason for those things, other than the look itself.

I am also sure there is a word for the ball. The skewer too.

I know it’s not spire, because that labels any conical or tapered point on the roof of a building. Prague is said to be the city of a hundred, or a thousand, spires. Most of those have these balls too, and I’ve become obsessed, while I’m here, with finding out what the hell they’re called.

I’m sure more than a few people out there on the lazyweb know. So tell me.

Thank you.

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