Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Month That Was - February 2007: As usual I can't keep promises. I said that other than these blog entries, I was going to write nothing but fiction, and sure enough I failed. I made a spur of the moment trip down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, which you can read about here. Alas.

U.S. Airways' Website From Hell
Worried About Vegas
I Got a Nikon Camera
U.S. Airways Demon Web Site: I am absolutely convinced that the designers of the U.S. Airways website are deeply disturbed individuals.

The U.S. Airways website is infuriating. For many years, when I was boycotting Northwest, I made U.S.Airways my first choice. Even back then, their website was a disaster. It would hang at random points when try to make a reservation. And even if it didn't hang, it would let you go through the multiple screen process to the very last step where you would click "complete reservation" and it would give you an error that the system was unable to make the reservation and unceremoniously place you back on the home page where you had to start the entire process over.

It got so bad that at one point I dashed off a witheringly sarcastic email to customer service that began, "After giving it careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that your website sucks!" I didn't get a reply.

Well, since I made my reservations through Expedia this time, I didn't have to worry about setting up the reservations, but I always make a habit of checking on-line the day before in an effort to get the prime seats. This I still had to do through USAirways.com.

The seat selection process seems to work fine. I was able to select exit seats (very cool) on the aisle -- always my first choice when flying coach. Except when I went to print the boarding passes, I found that I had not been assigned the seats I had chosen. They seemed to have assigned me random seats (including one in the last row directly across the aisle from the loo, thank you very much).

Huh? Wha? It turns out that U.S. Airways policy is that they will not assign exit seats on line. They will let you select them just like any other seat, but they'll assign you something random instead. Ha Ha! The joke's on you, stupid customer!

Fine. Well, I would prefer not to sit in the rear of the plane across from the loo, so I log back in to select the best non-exit row seats I can get. What an idiot! Did I really think it would be that easy? You see, once you have a seat assignment, you can't change it until you actually get to the airport and have it done by a gate agent. Gack!

WTF? I mean...WTF? What company in their right mind creates a system that encourages and entices their customers into spending a half hour to do something that, in reality, is just saving time for U.S. Airways, then pulls the chair out from beneath them thereby screwing themselves in the process. What a complete waste of time!

You know that old web meme Bastard Operator From Hell? Well U.S. Airways clearly employs the Bastard Web Site Designers From Hell. Seriously, I design software for a living and I have made every bone-headed mistake you can make, but I've never managed this level of inanity. This cannot be the result of incompetence -- it is malicious. It is the purest form of evil, done without excuse just for entertainment. There is a searing cauldron of boiling jalapeno sauce awaiting these clowns in the afterlife.

No wonder U.S. Airways is bankrupt.

Late Update: Since this little encounter, U.S. Airways appears to have been attempting to upgrade their reservation system. It looks like they mangled the proceedings again this time hammering the poor sods who try to get anything done at the airport kiosks. Surprise.
Ward, I'm Worried About the Vegas: Sshhh, don't tell anybody, but Vegas may have peaked. It is a fear I have. Tell me if I'm wrong.

The recent violence during the NBA All-Star game is really only one part of the concern. Oh it was bad. Shootings at strip clubs, a near riot at MGM, a brawl in a Wynn nightclub (Wynn, of all places!).

One of the key features of Vegas is that despite the Hieronymus Bosch-ian atmosphere, you feel safe there. You certainly can't go into a casino and cause trouble. It is not tolerated. Everything is monitored and security is everywhere. Yes, there is the occasional drunken idiot, but such situations are addressed swiftly and surely. Inside these casinos it is possible to indulge in just about any form of sin you want, provided to don't bother anybody else. Cross that line and you're out. It's really a remarkable thing, and worthy of an essay in and of itself.

Even outside on the Strip I have always felt pretty safe. I have walked the length of the Strip from Mandalay Bay to the Venetian at 3AM and not felt threatened at all. Safety is key to Vegas; it's what keeps average people coming back to sample the naughtiness. To be really successful, the naughtiness must be accessible to Mom and Pop, not just those who are bad-ass enough to survive. It is a perfect confluence of financial and moral priorities. That's why the shenanigans at the NBA All-Star game were so troubling. Bring that kind of thing to Houston or Atlanta and it's just another night. Not so in Vegas.

But that situation is easily remedied by simply not playing host to that event again. As long as things get back to normal I don't think the city will suffer. The long term trends that make me think Vegas has peaked are three-fold.

1. Infrastructure. McCarran Airport is completely out-gunned. Flying in on Northwest -- which lands at a midfield terminal requiring a shuttle ride to get to baggage claim -- I don't think I have ever waited less than 45 minutes to get my bags. A 45 minute wait for a cab into town is also a strong possibility. The security lines for flights back home are so long that where most airports suggest checking in 90 minutes early, at McCarran they recommend up to three hours. These huge delays essentially mean a dead day for travel on either end of trip. That's a big price to pay and there are no signs that it is being addressed.

Another thing that is very lacking in Vegas is mass transit. There is the monorail, which is inconvenient and limited. There are periodic threats to expand it all the way south to the airport and north to downtown, but don't hold your breath. I will admit they are doing a bit better here having implemented The Deuce, a well-run commuter bus service that runs up and down the Strip all the way to downtown.

But transportation needs to be a lot better. Getting visitors from their flights to their hotels and getting them around town should be top priority for the city. Orlando completely kicks Vegas' butt in this regard.

2. Macau. One thing that first timers to Vegas are often surprised by is the number of Asians gambling in Vegas. Not Asian-Americans, actual Asians from Asia. For a few years now, Vegas has benefited from a wave of Asian affluence that has translated to Asian high-rollers and Asian wannabe high-rollers flying across the Pacific and dropping piles of cash at Pai-Gow and such. Asian pop musicians regularly schedule shows in Vegas -- you'll see posters for them and say "Who?" It's been a huge inflow of cash for the city.

Now Macau (for the geographically challenged, that's in China, near Hong Kong) is billing itself as the new Vegas. In reality, it's not even close to that -- yet. But Wynn and MGM and others have properties opened there. More are sure to come. At some point it will necessarily eat into Vegas revenue. If you're an Asian gambler out for a few days of excitement, why fly all the way to Vegas when Macau is likely no more than a three or four hour flight? (Note to self: Time for a trip to Macau to check things out.)

3. Overbuilding The building boom in Vegas over the past decade has been like nothing the world has ever seen. And even now, there is no sign of it stopping. MGM is building something called City Center, which is an attempt to recreated Greenwich Village on the south Strip. It is an incredibly large project that will include hotels and clubs and shops. Not to be outdone, Harrah's/Caesar's has plans for something similar at mid-strip. Both companies have been buying up properties and scheduling renovations and re-workings in prep for an upcoming battle royale.

The two premier independent properties - The Venetian and Wynn - are building add-on properties to their existing enormous sites. The boom is steadily moving north, devouring what is left of the old rat pack properties and going full-on high-end all round.

It doesn't stop there. High-rise condo complexes are going up at an equally fast rate. And all this new building means construction jobs and service jobs, and all those new workers need to be housed and need grocery stores and car dealers and the various stuff of life to go with them. It has been a historic boom. You can check out Vegas Today and Tomorrow to get an overview.

But it is also possible that it has been a bubble. And if it is a bubble, the combination of loss of Asian business, insufficient infrastructure, and oversupply of building could bring about a very large pop. We don't know. I don't think there has ever been a test to see what the limits are of humanity's desire to sin in safety (which is the bottom line product of Vegas) but we may find out sooner rather than later.

And that's why I'm worried. It's also why, if you are one of the few who has never seen Vegas, you should go to see it soon, while it's at its (possible) peak. For the time being, it is something truly historic.

I should write up a newbie's guide to Vegas, shouldn't I? (No. No, I shouldn't. I should write fiction.)
I Got a Nikon Camera, I Love to Take a Photograph: After threatening to for ages, I finally stepped up. I upgraded from my ancient Kodak point-and-shoot. The Kodak served me well and I was able to take some good pics over the years, but its limitations got too, well, limiting. It fails miserably at night pics. It has a pretty narrow angle, so all my landscapes had to be made by stitching together multiple snaps in Photoshop which has its own pitfalls. It was a great starter camera and it served me well, but it was time to move on. I splurged on an SLR.

Actually, an SLR wasn't my first choice. My top pick was a Sony DSC-R1; a very SLR like camera but with a fixed lens. The main reason it was so attractive was the lens itself. It could go from a very, very wide angle to a 5x zoom. (I find zoom overrated and wide angle underrated for my needs.) A similar lens for an SLR would have cost more than the entire Sony camera.

The problem was that these models have been inexplicably discontinued by Sony, in favor of their own line of SLRs. The only place I was able to find these cameras was eBay and as usual, some sellers were fairly sketchy in the feedback department and digital cameras and supplies are a notorious playground for scam-meisters.

Instead, I began researching SLRs with the understanding that I wanted a kit lens that had a big range, since I really don't know where I'm going to go with this whole photography thing. I plan to spend some time learning the ways in which this camera lets me be creative, but there's the outside chance that a good deal of the time I'll just use it in automatic mode, meaning the lens that came with it had to be as versatile as possible.

Also, I was unconcerned with megapixels. Unless you are going to print huge prints -- and I have never made a print, just posted to the web -- you really don't need more than 5 or 6 megapixels. At 6 megapixels you can create a 7x10 print at 300 dots per inch; that's an exceptional quality print. And you can even get a perfectly satisfactory looking (say 150 dpi) 11x14 if you want. Now, things like cropping come into play (I tend to be a cropper) as does original image quality, but on the bottom line, I would economize on megapixels.

Well, I ended up with a Nikon D70s. It has a pretty good range -- excellent wide angle, only so-so zoom (around 4x equivalent), but it was a little more versatile that other SLRs I looked at. I saved a bit of money by buying the D70 which has been superceded by the D80 which has 10 megapixels vs. the D70s 6, and a few other advantages that weren't worth the extra money for me. I ordered from beachcamera.com which had the cheapest price coupled with the most reliable rating at pricegrabber.com. Of course, I subsequently went out and bought a 2gig memory card and carrying case. (The spending never ends, does it?)

I've only started to learn how to use it, but you can expect to be inundated with photos over the coming months and years.
Readings: Last month I said I was going to talk about what I have been reading, but I really don't have much interesting to report.

I continue my multi-year quest to work my way through the entire 20 novel Patrick O'Brian Aubrey-Maturin series (link: Patrick O'Brian at Amazon). I recently completed novel number 15, Nutmeg of Consolation. They continue to be entrancing, and I continue to believe they will, in time, be seen as one of the great literary achievements of the 20th century, although in tone and topic they are very much 19th century novels.

Do not take up reading them other than at the beginning and do not underestimate the days and weeks of your life you will spend plowing through them. However, if you are willing and able to put in the time and effort, you will be rewarded with wonderful stories centered on two of the most complete characters in the history of literature.

I have been using Ian Fleming's original James Bond novels as my staple distraction for airplanes and hotel rooms. They are uneven, but they are what you might call quality escapism. They don't require a lot of involvement, yet they aren't embarrassingly shallow like most genre fiction. At times they are a fascinating look into the mores of a bygone era and Fleming was a better than average stylist who knew how to structure a story. These books bear varying resemblances to their associated movies and of course have none of the campy irony, Bond having yet to become a cliche.

If you're interested, I would suggest starting at the beginning with Casino Royale, of which I wrote a review ages ago. Most of the remaining efforts are above average episodic action thrillers -- like I said, good travel reading. If you want to take a short cut, the exceptional selections from the series are what might be considered the "Blofeld trilogy": Thunderball, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and You Only Live Twice. These might benefit from a back to back reading and will cover whatever humanity there is in Bond's character. (link: Ian Fleming at Amazon)

At the moment I have just dived a few chapters deep into Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore. I won't even begin to try to describe it yet, but I'm sure you will hear all about it once it is digested. You can read my now ancient review of a couple of other earlier Murakami books over at Slashdot (of all places). I sense that this one will along the same lines.