February 23, 2012

Understanding economics is not that hard

You have been hearing just about everything about the current crisis. It's either the fault of the banks, capitalism, greed, lack of regulation you name it. The sad truth is that we are where we are today because our governments have been spending like crazy money they have no chance to ever collect. There is no need to go through complex math calculations. A simple division will suffice:

This is for the US, but the same exercise on any European country would give similar results!

July 09, 2011

Ryanair, the worst airline in the world

This week I took Ryanair again to go to Toulon in France. I was worried since last time I had taken the Irish company they had managed to have me to buy another ticket at the check-in because I had erroneously spelled my wife's first name when doing the booking.

I was therefore fully aware that a single mistake would generate a steep financial penalty. I had done the check-in in advance and printed the boarding passes having been warned that doing it at the airport would incur an extra £40 charge per person. To be honest, I'm not sure why they need a check-in process at all since there is no seat allocation. They could just collect all the required info upon ticket booking and issue the passes automatically. And forcing people to print those boarding passes seems like gratuitous harassment since most other airlines are happy to scan the soft copy from an iPhone or a Blackberry.

I had also made sure that none of us had any oversized hand-carry luggage and that the girls handbags would fit in those so that we would not exceed the one carry-on item allowed. I had purchased in advance the right to have my luggage carried in the plane not wanting to be charged an extortionate amount at the desk. Three suitcases of 15kg each. But for some reason I had assumed that having paid for 45kg worth of luggage, 2 suitcases, one of 14kg and and of 24kg would be fine. Obviously not. I was explained nicely but strongly that the extra 7kg in suitcase #2 would have be charged at £20/kg. Had those been in an other suitcase it would have been free. Got me!

Being nice the girl at the desk agreed to let me buy a suitcase instead of spending £140 in extra cost. This is where it helps to be early. I managed to find a suitcase store with a small suitcase on sale, found a scale where I was only charged 50p to weigh a suitcase and after transferring the 7kg of extra luggage into the newly purchased luggage, we were on our way.

The security process was another adventure. For some reason, even though we now know that we have to expect the worse, it's still a painful experience. The misery index during that process is sky high. You see people resigned as any attempt to complain would make it a lot worse. And you see airport employees doing work that they know is often useless trying to be polite while doing ridiculous checks. This time I was able to experience the process in more details.

At Stansted, they have what looks like a brand new scanning process that must have cost a fortune. So efficient that every other bag would be selected for manual checking. After the usual body check (for some reason I always ring even after having removed everything from my pockets... and no, I don't have a metal leg) I noticed that my bag had been selected for manual checking. I was lucky to be 10th or so in the line, so here I am, waiting for a bored attendant pretending to look for terrorists by checking toothpaste from old ladies. Yes, every time the issue was the same: some liquids not "conditioned" properly. The airport employee would then explain to the traveller the safety rules: all liquids have to be packed into one small plastic bag and it has to be sealed. Simple! Except when you have a perfume, a toothpaste, a shampoo and some shaving cream ... With Ryanair charging for luggage, a lot of people had obviously decided to only take a carry-on. Now they were faced with the ultimate decision: which of those items to garbage? Granted the attendant would help, like suggesting to remove a box here, a cap there or showing how to cram items in the small bag without tearing it open (in which case you had to go find another bag while everybody else waits). I felt so sorry for those passengers. You could feel the anger and the frustration but just like in communist Russia no-one would dare complain or ask for the rationale of such a stupid policy.

Anyway, after a good 30 minutes, it was my turn. My problem was different: I had too many cables in my bag! I guess it's very unusual to have someone carry a laptop, a phone and a camera... I was very careful not to show any disdain during the whole process and I was on my way to the plane. Just in time, and lucky not to have to wait an hour in line just for the privilege of getting 3 contiguous seats. I guess I'm being too cheap but paying yet another fee just for that privilege seemed too much at the time. Maybe I should have.

Anyway, here I was, waiting in line while the priority passengers are boarding when this friend just calls. I hadn't talked to him in a while and I assumed now was as good a time as any. Then we start boarding the rest of the plane and here I was, continuing my conversation as I move ahead. As I reach the entrance of the plane, I can see the steward making signs that I need to turn off the phone. But my party won't stop talking. Trying to put an end to the conversation, I hear myself saying: "I'm sorry, I have to hang up since this thing might blow up the plane otherwise". Not sure why I said that but the effect was immediate: the first row burst out laughing and the steward turned livid. Had I insulted him he would not have been as furious. I could see him ponder whether to expel me from the plane altogether. But it was my lucky day, I moved on in silence and he did not say a word. Whew!

I know that running an airline is not easy and doing it while making a profit is even more difficult. The level of regulation leaves very little room for manoeuvre. But Ryanair has done a good job of inspiring a lot of self-inflicted hatred. The many testimonies at I Hate Ryanair show that it does not have to be that way. I don't believe that low cost has to mean terrible experience. I have nothing against selling ads from any available medium, nor about negotiating kick-backs from destination venues. But I find it disingenuous to pretend to be the cheapest around when none of those cheap fares are available or if they are they come with some many strings attached that you always end up paying much more. A trip with Ryanair feels much more like a obstacle course than the start of a vacation and it's too bad I believe they could be as successful if they treated their customers with more consideration! Most people are happy to do things if they understand the rationale behind them and if they are shown some respect. But for some reason this is a foreign concept to the airline industry in general and to Ryanair in particular...

June 14, 2011

Bye Bye Outlook and Exchange

We finally made the complete jump to Google Apps away from Outlook and Exchange. I had decided to move away from Exchange a couple of months back. Google Apps has all the functionality we need on the back-end, and even more (calendering is much better). But we were still using the Outlook client (if you are a premier customer, you can use the built-in connector to sync mail, contacts and calendar but even if not, it's easy to setup using IMAP for mail and gSyncit for contacts and calendar).

On the client side, the last hold up to moving away from Microsoft Outlook was screenshot copies which were so painful using the Gmail interface. That was solved this week with Gmail now allowing copying clipboard content directly in the body of the message when using Chrome. If you combine this new functionality with the slick screen capture extension, you have now a killer product in Gmail, including some features we never thought would appear in a web product (like speed, drag and drop and now image pasting).

There are still a few things that Outlook and Exchange do better. Contact management is one of them, especially the contact sharing. I'm sure that Google is fully aware of the limitations of their current implementation and that they are working on that too. But for us this is not a show stopper since we use Insightly to share contacts (and a lot more). And if you have installed the CloudMagic plugin in your browser, you'll have also lightening fast contact search just a couple of clicks away!

Google Apps has been growing in leaps and bounds, and while it's far from a feature complete replacement for the Microsoft Office powerhouse, it's getting there, one feature at a time. The addition of pivot tables in Google Spreadsheets for example has allowed us to use Excel in less and less instances.

It's easy to see a point where only the specialists will use Microsoft Office, just like only specialists use Adobe Photoshop today. Unless Microsoft moves aggressively on the pricing front, this trend seems inevitable, especially since a lot of the features that Google Apps bring to the table are difficult to replicate in a fat client.

May 21, 2011

iPhone still not quite ready for VOIP

The corporate market has moved to VOIP at an amazing pace in the last few years. Apple and most of their telecom partners have relaxed the rules recently allowing VOIP calls over 3G. However the VOIP user experience on the iPhone is still very poor. I have been using Skype, Fring, Viber and various SIP clients like Acrobits Softphone and Groundwire -- probably the best SIP clients out there. While the cost savings can be significant, the lack of proper iOS integration means that those tools remain immature. Here are some of the shortcomings:
  1. Bluetooth support is not always implemented. When it is the behaviour is different in the VOIP client and the default dialer (e.g. you cannot control the VOIP dialer from the handset). 
  2. If you receive a POTS call while on a VOIP call, the call will be put on hold right away. You are not given the option to reject the incoming call or tell your current correspondent to hold on. This is actually a show stopper for serious use. This is an iOS feature that cannot be overidden. 
  3. Receiving calls is still hit and miss. Some clients use background processing, some use notifications. Neither method is ideal. Again missing hooks in the OS make implementation difficult. 
  4. Putting the phone on silent does not put the VOIP client on silent. I am not sure if all clients are affected but I suspect again, that this is due to the OS failing to expose the proper API. Acrobits clients do exhibit this issue and this is a serious one: when you receive a call you have no way of silencing it!
  5. Lastly while the iPhone usually does a good job and moving from 3G to WIFI the other way round just does not work. It means that if you are on a call on WIFI and move away from the hotspot, you will  lose the connection.  
All those problems stem from the lack of hooks in the native dialer. Until Apple decides to build SIP connectivity natively, those VOIP clients will remain nice toys unable to deliver serious business benefits. 

April 17, 2011

Why I bought a Kindle instead of an iPad

I never thought I would buy a Kindle! I wanted to buy an iPad for a while and I had been resisting up until now. The problem is I like to identify a need before going out and shelling that kind of money. Business-wise, I don't really need it. I either have my laptop or my iPhone with me and I don't see the iPad filling a need between the 2 devices. Home-wise, again between my AppleTV and my other computers I'm not sure I can justify yet another gizmo.

But it's easy to imagine that I have been looking for half-a-decent excuse to purchase another toy. And this is when it hit me. Sometimes I can be in a situation where I have to do a presentation which I did not know about in the morning. I might be without a PC or a printed copy of that presentation. So having a tablet with me would be very helpful. A good start... And then I realised I needed an ebook too. Something I could load with the latest book and bring to the beach.

Here was my excuse to buy an iPad. Or was it? This is when I thought of the Kindle. To be honest the Kindle always seemed to me like a poor brother of the iPad. After all, if you have an iPad you can read ebooks too right? Well it turned out to be quite not simple.

For once, loosing a £150 device is not the same thing as loosing a £500 one! Remember, it's for the beach. Then I read about all those users raving about ink technology. And I needed something for the beach! I know how hard it is to see the screen of my iPhone with my sunglasses on and I suspected that reading in full sunlight on the iPad would be a less than optimal experience. But what really made me decide for the Kindle was the 3G deal. Going for an iPad with 3G requires a monthly fee and it only works in your home country. Going for a 3G Kindle requires and extra £40 on purchase and then not only do you get free data for ever but also free free roaming!  Granted webkit on the device is slow (it's experimental after all...). The screen is black and white. But you can still check your mail for free, check a map or do a search on Google...

I've had the device for a few weeks now, and I can understand why it generates so much passion. Yes on paper it is an low tech device (Java based OS, Black & White screen, no extensibility, single purpose etc...) but what it does, it does so well. The screen is amazing, especially outdoors. The reading experience is wonderful, especially with the lighted leather cover (yes, I know, I spent a bit more that what I intended to in the first place...). I am rediscovering the joy of reading in bed.

But it's not just about reading books. You can get free newspapers from all over the world delivered automatically to your device every day. You just need to install Calibre and leave it running on your PC and it will scrape most news web sites and generate the appropriate ebooks automatically for you. Calibre will also allow you to convert PDF or ePub files into the native MOBI format supported by the Kindle. Even though the Kindle will render PDF files natively, converted files are easier to read since you dont need to zoom and pan.

And then free worldwide 3G data is the icing on the cake. You just need to setup a few bookmarks to force the Kindle to display the iPhone/iPad version of those sites you need to visit often and off you go! Here are the ones I use the most:

Google Search
Google Local Search
Google Translate
Google Reader
Google News (you see the pattern...)

and the toolboxes...
Google Mobile Portal

I'm glad I made the plunge. Yes it's an underpowered device, yes it's not versatile but it's the best book reader out there!

January 29, 2011

The Bear-est Signs Of Intelligence

Here is a funny story that goes around the web...
The customer is buying one piece of jewelry. I’m all about the environment so I try to avoid giving out bags for small purchases.
Me: “Would you like a bag, or do you want to put it in your purse?”
Customer: “My purse is fine.”
Me: “Yay! You just saved a polar bear!”
Customer: *eyes go wide* “Plastic bags… are made out of… polar bears?!”

The question is not who is the dumbest one (even though the answer on this one might not be as obvious as the writer would like it to be) but who's the most dangerous. For most green organizations, the ends justifies the means, and if it implies that junk science has to be promoted, so be it. But the risk is an enormous backlash and a complete lack of credibility going forward. This poor scientific rigour also explains the explosion of conspiracy theories springing on all kinds of topics. How can you trust someone when you realise that his arguments have been fallacious?

I have nothing against reducing plastic in landfills, but I find the way it is being pushed down our throats quite revolting. And now that the polar bear population is increasing contradicting Al Gore's beloved theory, is it ok to take that plastic bag?

December 24, 2010

Why I migrated from Firefox to Google Chrome

I have been a loyal Firefox user. I moved away from IE to Firefox way back when I got my first mac, many years ago. The main reason at the time was to have a consistent browsing experience between PC and mac. I've been a loyal user for many years, enjoying each new release.

When Google came out with Chrome, I briefly looked at it and even though the speed was great, lack of extensions at the time kept me in the Firefox fold. I was itching to move over but ubiquity was the main reason I was still sitting still. It was a matter of time however, especially since ubiquity has now been demised and behaviour is more and more erratic with each new release.

I have now moved over for good. The features that made me change over are:

  • Integrated PDF viewer. That has been the real trigger. The plugin is still a bit rough on the edges and I still need to disable it once in a while (by going into chrome://plugins) in cases where saving a PDF is just impossible for some reason. However, when it works, it's great. The rendering is fast, and as close to web-like as you can possibly have with a PDF file. While you can have a similar experience by using a Google Docs extension in Firefox, it's not as fast nor does it work on private intranets. It's only available in the beta channel for now but it's just a matter of time until it arrives into the mainstream product. 
  • Real drag and drop. One of the great feature of Gmail is the ability to drop files in the UI to attach documents. With Chrome, that behaviour works even for regular sites. In most sites where you have an upload button, you can just drag and drop a file onto the button instead of opening the file dialog. A real time saver. That's probably the next best feature for me.  
  • Automated extension synchronization. That one is also a great time saver. If you have many computers, having to install your plugins in each one is really a pain. With Chrome you just have to do it once and all computers are automatically synced. Just login and all your favorite extensions appear!
  • Speed. While this one has been touted as the major benefit, and while it's been described as the main reason why you should move over, it was not enough for me. Still I do appreciate the speed and the process isolation that Chrome brings to the browser scene. 

They are many other features that will warrant the move for you, but for me those four were the ones that really made a difference.

September 13, 2010

Social media and the corporate world...

Social media and the corporate world don't mix and, according to Erik Qualman, the main reasons for that are:

No. 1: Lack of understanding = fear. The rapid rate of change in digital innovation has caused CEOs to feel extremely vulnerable around technology, because it's something on which we have become very reliant, but which we understand and "control" so little. This vulnerability leads to fear, and this fear to irrational decisions and suboptimal outcomes. When CEOs don't have the confidence in their staff to delegate, or lack the humility to admit their ignorance regarding technology advances, they get defensive and act out in fear - or fail to act altogether.

No. 2: I want control. I want to control my company! I want to control my brand! I want to determine my destiny! It's too important to leave it to chance (or simply be outvoted by the uninformed bourgeois)! Unfortunately, and tragically for us executives, the beauty and power of social media is only fully unleashed when we let it go, and that, my friends, is the hardest thing for us to do (…and also explains why we hate checking luggage at the airport).

No. 3: Fear of it being a fad. The truth is, I would love to commit to social media in a significant way, but so far nobody in my organization has stepped forward with a cerebral, strategic, multigenerational, integrated, systematic, and sustainable methodology and roadmap for synergistically capitalizing on this medium over the long haul.

Read the rest there.

September 02, 2010

Web passwords: a false sense of security

Nothing is worse than a false sense of security. Most people are familiar with password fields in browsers. And some people know better than to store those passwords in the browser. But most people are unaware that even if you don't store passwords in your browser, the information can be cached by the server and presented to you or another user the next time you open up the page. That would be the case if you go the settings page to change your password.

Having stars or dots instead of the actual text makes you think that no one can see your passwords. But if the passwords are actually returned to the browser they can be displayed very easily by just pasting the following javascript code in the address bar of the browser. It will work with most browsers.

Try it for yourself. Click on this link, copy and paste the code to your address bar and see your password being revealed for everyone to see.

They are ways to prevent this behaviour but unfortuantely, it is not quite common yet. A bon entendeur, salut!

August 25, 2010

Flying with El Al...

With El Al and JetBlue having signed an agreement to provide connecting options for customers flying between the United States and Israel, Andrew Silow-Carroll brings us a memo written by El Al to JetBlue employees reminding them of some of the cultural specificities of the Israel National Airline and their passengers:

Security lines: Passengers are instructed to arrive at the airport six hours before a flight. This may seem excessive, but Israel’s crack security service demands it on the theory that no terrorist would be dedicated enough to spend six hours in a crowd of Jews. Kidding! The six-hour time period allows our security team to ask essential questions of our passengers, including “Do you have family in Israel? Where do they live? What is the purpose of your visit?” It also allows time for the person behind you in line to ask the very same questions, in even greater detail. What you might call “intrusive rudeness” is merely what our people call “Jewish geography.”

Luggage: We allow each passenger to stow luggage weighing up to 6,000 pounds. Again, this may seem generous by American standards, but it is in response to our passengers’ need to bring books for their cousins in B’nei Brak, appliances for their neighbors’ in-laws in French Hill, and industrial-size boxes of M & M’s for Israeli soldiers.

Boarding: We board our flights for maximum efficiency, in the following order: Families with young children, families with six or more young children, families with eight or more young children, individuals with physical limitations, individuals with aches and pains that may be something but they won’t know until they see a specialist, individuals who cut in line, and gentiles.

Carry-on luggage: You may not think a double stroller, six Borsalino hat boxes, and a Samsung flat-screen television are able to fit in an overhead bin, but please don’t underestimate our passengers. During this portion of the flight it might be a good idea for flight attendants to retreat to the galley and have a beer. Or two.

Safety instructions: Hebrew is written from right to left. Similarly, in order to accommodate our passengers’ unique sensibility, our instructions are delivered backward. When we say, “Please do NOT stow items under the seat in front of you,” our passengers think, “I’ll damn well stow my items anywhere I want to,” before stowing them under the seat. When we say, “Please move freely about the cabin,” our passengers respond, “If they think I am budging from this seat, they have another think coming.” It works like a charm.

In-flight behavior: At some point during the lengthy overseas flight, bearded men will crowd the aisle, wrapped in leather straps and white shawls. Do not be alarmed! They will not ask you to join them!

Food service: As a Jewish airline, we serve clientele with unique dietary needs. Our choices include kosher, glatt kosher, kosher dairy, kosher meat, kosher pareve, glatt kosher dairy, gluten-free kosher meat, lactose-free kosher with nuts, lactose-free kosher without nuts, low-salt kosher pareve, high-salt gluten-free kosher meat, and “just bring me a box of cereal and some milk.” Remain calm and do not reach for the emergency chute.

Landing: Passengers will often burst into applause when the plane touches down in Israel. This is because a) they are deeply moved by the thought of arriving in the Land of their Ancestors; b)they are still surprised, even after 60 years, that a Jew can safely pilot an airplane; or c) they are relieved that they no longer have to listen to the guy in the middle seat complain about Obama.

So if you haven't flown El Al yet, don't be surprised when you board the plane and welcome to Israel...

August 08, 2010

The broken window fallacy

The broken window fallacy was debunked by Frédéric Bastiat more than a century and half ago and yet it continues to endure today. Sam Selikoff has now produced a very easy to understand video. I doubt it will make the world notice but for those willing to educate themselves, it's definitely worth the 3 minutes it takes to view that video.

August 06, 2010

Why Obamacare will fail: a picture is worth a thousand words

A lot of pundits have applauded Barak Obama for bringing to America what most Europeans hate about their medical care system: Socialism. Everybody knows the issues the English have with their NHS or the Canadians with their Universal Healthcare. And the French are discovering that no amount of money will allow them to fix their cherished and yet broken Sécurité Sociale.

The problem with nationalized healthcare is no different than with any other nationalized institution: the lack of accountability. You can try and analyze the reasons for the failure of any system and god knows that people have tried in the past. But at the end of the day we have yet to find anything better than the sanction of failure: no dashboard, KPIs or the likes can replace a P&L statement.

Unfortunately, Obamacare is bound to follow the lead of the previous failed attempts at creating a nationalized healthcare. You just need to check the chart created by The Republicans of the Joint Economic Committee to understand the kind of monster created by the Obama administration and realize why very soon those same pundits will now say that while the idea was good in principle, the execution needs adjusting... just like for socialism. Everyone knows however that socialism cannot be fixed!

July 23, 2010

Shit always flows downhill....

For those still in the corporate world...

When top level guys look down, they see only shit. When bottom level guys look up, they see only assholes...

Hat tip to Savill.