Archive for August, 2010

 Hey Airline Industry!

Recent surveys have indicated that the airlines are getting worse instead of better when it comes to customer satisfaction, one of the key areas being on-time arrivals. Now it doesn’t take a genius to realize that arriving on time is heavily dependent on departing on time, so it follows that anything an airline can do to reduce the amount of time a plane sits at the gate will serve to improve this valuable metric. And yet, the airlines continue to make decisions that will most likely have the opposite effect.

I travel fairly frequently, so I get to see the impact of these decisions first hand. First, the whole charging extra for baggage thing has had a direct impact on the time it takes to load the plane and push back from the gate, as passengers now have incentive to carry on luggage that was never intended to be carried on. This holds up other passengers, while they try to figure out how to wedge a 60-pound steamer trunk in the overhead bin. Second, you have American Airlines implementing new policies allowing coach passengers pay extra to reserve the prime seats closest to the exit, essentially creating a new class of passengers — Super Coach? First Class Lite? This will only serve to further clog the aisle in a process that was not flowing all that smoothly to begin with.

Which brings me to the point of this rant. I’m used to being assigned a group number that determines what order the passengers are allowed to board the plane. Has anyone else noticed that membership in these groups seems to be completely random, and that your seat assignment seems to have no bearing? Here’s an idea: if you’re going to go to the trouble of breaking us up into groups to board your lousy airplanes, why not do it in something approaching a logical manner? For instance, American Airlines has six groups (not counting First Class, and all the other priority seating classes). It seems to me that Group 1 should be all windows seats in the rear half of the plane, Group 2 should be all window seats in the front half. Group 3 should be middle seats in the rear, while Group 4 is middle seats in front. And finally, Groups 5 and 6 should be aisle seats in the aft and fore respectively.

If the airline industry cannot manage even simple steps such as this to streamline the boarding process, then they are doomed to continue failing to meet customer expectations. And don’t even get me started on lost luggage.

 The Market Cannot Fail

I came across this article by author Henry A. Giroux recently, and I found myself drawn in by the first paragraph or so, strongly agreeing with his words, and then the cracks began to show. He rails against the invective of the talking heads on television, and the mindless jingoism of the current Tea Party movement, all of which is to be applauded, but then he concludes by claiming that in light of “the most painful evidence imaginable of the failure of laissez-faire economics and the destructive force of the alliance of big business and government against the interests of ordinary Americans … the Tea Party movement wants to abolish government and expand even more the deregulated capitalism that has unsettled the lives of so many of its members.” I’m not sure how he got here from there, but I am not willing to make that leap with him. The failure of the free market is not a foregone conclusion, no matter how much the pro-regulation movement would like to believe it to be true.

My first question is, how does laissez-faire economics fail? By what criteria is the author judging it? I contend that the market cannot fail. It does exactly what it is desgined to do. You can go into Wal-Mart and not find what you’re looking for, and call that a failure of the market. But in reality, the market has provided exactly what customers want, with the constraint that those things can be provided at a profit. When you do not find what you’re shopping for, it simply means that there is not enough profit in providing that good or service.

I see two problems with this author’s assessment. First, our economy is not laissez-faire. Quite the contrary, government regulation of markets has never been more burdensome, and it gets worse on a daily basis. Here is a definition of laissez-faire:

1 : a doctrine opposing governmental interference in economic affairs beyond the minimum necessary for the maintenance of peace and property rights

2 : a philosophy or practice characterized by a usually deliberate abstention from direction or interference especially with individual freedom of choice and action

Can anyone claim that this is an accurate description of the marketplace in the United States? Hardly. Second, even if it was laissez-faire, a market that rewards only those entrepreneurs who satisfy their customers is, by definition, a success.

I completely agree with the evil collusion of corporations and government, and it is interesting to me that we can agree on something like this, and yet be so far apart on the other aspect of his statement.

How about the recent example of Apple’s tribulations with the iPhone 4 and its poor reception? Consumer Reports came down hard on Apple, claiming the problem seriously hampered the abililty of the device to function as a phone. Within days of this poor review, Apple responded with a fix (or at least a work around), to mollify its angry and disappointed customers. No government intervention was necessary. No regulatory agency stepped in. Just a well-respected free market watchdog organization, whose opinions are valued by millions of consumers. That was enough to cause many to question Apple’s reputation in the marketplace, and that potential damage to their reputation was enough to motivate them to address the issue. This incident is a perfect illustration of how the free market is self-regulating. Many might argue that this regulation is not strong enough or does not go far enough. But anything more than this places an undue burden on the market (which consumers experience as higher prices) and serves only to distort the market signals that would otherwise cause self-correction (which consumers experience as problem resolution taking longer than it should).

I am wary of anyone who looks at the major problems our economy has experienced in recent years and wants to affix blame to the market itself. How can anyone look at the sub-prime mortgage market and claim that it is laissez-faire? The mortgage industry is one of the most highly regulated areas of our economy, so you cannot blame the free market and call it a failure. The market as it is currently configured is not free, so the source of failure must be elsewhere.

 Google Sketchup

This has been on my todo list forever, and today I finally got around to it. I’ve been wanting to learn how to use Google Sketchup ever since it was released and they are now on version 7, so that should tell you how long I’ve been putting it off. Sketchup is a free CAD/CAM software package for doing 3-D design work. It is really easy to learn, especially after viewing the tutorial videos that Google provides. After watching about 20 minutes of video and playing around with it for about an hour, this fancy end table is my first creation. Not bad, huh? I’m going to continue playing with it until I improve my skills and then I plan to use it to sketch some home improvement projects that I have brewing.

 Netopia 3347 DSL Modem/Router

At the suggestion of an AT&T technician, I upgraded my old router and DSL modem to this Netopia 3347 combination unit, and I am very glad I did. He notified me that my old DSL modem, a Slipstream 4100 B that I purchased at Best Buy about a year ago, was actually two or three generations old already and that upgrading to this particular device had solved a connection problem for another customer he had helped.

I had been experiencing the same connection problem when streaming video from the internet. Since setting up our Home Theater PC, and saying goodbye to DirecTV, we have been watching a lot more streaming content, Netflix in particular. The video from Netflix and a few other sites (CNET, YouTube, etc.) would frequently stutter or pause for long periods to buffer content, making it unwatchable, but upgrading to this new hardware has solved all of those problems. It’s also one less box taking up space and electricity.