Monday, March 31, 2008

BA are not alone, just worse!

A recent experience with my favorite airline of the moment, Air France, shows that no airline is perfect.  And as this story concerns baggage, it is appropriate to mention BA, my least favorite airline, and the ongoing saga at T5, Heathrow (which I note is now often called deathrow).

Well, the other day I flew from Africa, connecting at Paris CDG on the second flight of the day to Birmingham.  As usual my cabin baggage was left at the foot of the stairs to the BAe 146 as it does not fit into the overhead storage locker.  This bag had been lovingly toted by yours truly from check in at Pointe Noire, through the nightmare that is Brazzaville and on to Paris, where it was dragged onto three buses before being deposited at the foot of the stairs to the plane.  I had done sterling work in getting it that far and it was in as new condition.

Upon arrival at Birmingham my baggage arrived looking, superficially, like it was in good condition.  But the customs official knew better and pulled me over.  The zipper had broken and I was asked to open the case for inspection.  We examined every sock, every personal item, every dirty piece of laundry.  I asked why I had been singled out and was given the third degree treatment - had I been given anything to carry, etc. etc.  Truth is, they had seen the damage, probably even witnessed the conveyor belt at is ripped off the combination lock, now missing, and had decided that the case was now worth inspecting.

Once the customs official was satisfied I had no drugs, dried fish or other illegal substance, I went back to the baggage hall, the case now contained in a large plastic bag to prevent my soiled clothing from spilling out, and waited to make a damage report.  Which I did and where I was assured that a replacement bag would be provided.

But when I called the Air France baggage department I was told that my case would be collected, repaired and delivered.  No timetable on when this would happen, of course.

The case cost £50.  Even with packing and a replacement combination lock we are looking at no more than £60.  But the airline policy is to ship the bag twice and repair it.  Which, by the way, they will!  But meantime I need a new bag.

By the way, the phone calls took over an hour.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

British Summer Time

At last!  And a lovely sunny day to welcome the Spring Forward.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

T5

This just in from the Telegraph.  It paints a sad story or ineptitude, bad planning, lack of management and an expression of touchy-feely attitudes toward the hapless workers found in the middle of a colossal muddle.

The headline is a bit misleading as the story of a potential fine of £5,000 per passenger goes nowhere.  Besides, if BA was fined £5,000 per passenger, where would the money go?  You've probably guessed the same as me - the Treasury!

Dinner at the Natural History Museum

On Thursday evening I was invited to join a client's table at the Geological Society's Petroleum Group Dinner, a fine black tie event staged in the Central Hall of the Natural History Museum, shown here in a stunning HDR image by Robert Silverwood.

Our table of ten was located under the tail of Diplodocus, , so we were in the thick of things but with no chance of a coprolite landing on our table just as the main course was being served.

The company was great, the food excellent.  One possible criticism - the acoustics are terrible!  But then why would a building dedicated to fossils and minerals need to have good acoustics?

As a geologist I came away with the realization that the NHM is the cathedral of geology, the Vatican, if you like, for the disciples of evolutionary theory, of plate tectonics, of organic geochemistry.  A hallowed place indeed.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Digbeth Derailment

The news is all around Birmingham this morning but this was the original story by Alex Hughes so he gets the link.

Take a look at the pile of bricks (Staffordshire Blues) that fell from the parapet.  There is a car under there!  Fortunately no-one was in it at 6 a.m. this morning.

But what is particularly ironic is the fact that the car was parked in front of a "No Parking" sign.  Is this a new way to:

1.  Get people to travel by train?

2.  Fine drivers who park illegally?, or

3.  Bring meaning to the phrase "came down like a ton of bricks"?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Bullshit Telephone

As noted yesterday, it seems I am one of thousands.  BT, a.k.a. Bullshit Telephone, please call, we want to cancel our "service".  You have our number, we don't have yours, despite you being a telephone company.

Agostiñho


Augie (as he likes to be known) had a birthday last week.  Here he is on the phone to family during the evening as we celebrated at Villa Madiba in Pointe Noire.

Biofuels Sustainability

Here is a damning article on the future of biofuels from within the environment "green" camp.  As suggested here before, I am amazed that the political mantra of being green has outstripped common sense and good science, but maybe I should be amaized?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Phone Companies need to be History

And I don't care whether they are land or cell, they all deserve to die.  Except maybe for MTN Congo, my lifeline to the rest of the world when in Pointe Noire.

BT, a.k.a. Bullshit Telephone, the company that thinks it knows what I want but never delivers.  Anything.

The Cell Phone Companies.  My god what a crew.  Apple should never have made all those national deals with the devil's daughters for the iPhone.  Big mistake.  I can buy an iPhone in the UK but I can't register with O2.  Why?  No UK bank account for a direct debit.  Result, no iPhone even though I crave for one like a post-modern consumerist (which I'm not, honest!)

I just hope there's a new player on the block.  No, Skype won't work for me as we are on the end of the DSL tether to the internet, the telephone entry point being approximately 17,499 measured units from the DSL sub-station.

The truth is, although I hold cell phone companies accountable for a lot, it is probably the government auctions that have spiraled costs and created the monsters we now have to live with.  Another stealth tax that doesn't even appear on the bill.

smtp.com

Sending e-mails from different locations around the world can be frustrating when there are firewalls and other impediments to a "strange" computer on the network.  But when your own mail server lets you down as well, as BT-Yahoo did on Friday, things get a whole lot more frustrating.  I do have backup with a .mac account but that e-mail address is not the one I use for business, etc.

BT-Yahoo proved to be impossible to contact.  The BT part offers no telephone numbers to call (except to sell you things and they are closed for the weekend) while Yahoo's log-in system has my Flickr password as the default which is not what I gave BT three years ago.

So I researched the internet and found smtp.com.  Not as cheap as BT-Yahoo, perhaps, but actually much more reliable, it would appear, and the help line was open over the Easter weekend.  The good news it works, which is all I ask of it.

My next problem will be to cancel the BT-Yahoo service.  That could prove to be a lot less easy.  Can anyone provide me with their phone number?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

An interesting journey - no photos :(

At 4 p.m. yesterday I left for Pointe Noire airport with the foreboding that this wasn't going to be the most efficient of journeys.  Well, I had been tipped off that Air France's flight from Brazzaville to Paris would have to divert via Kinshasa because there was no way to refuel the Airbus 340-300 in Brazzaville.  Which is what happened.  The story from there kinda went down hill.

Arriving in Paris at the same time the flight to Birmingham took off, I was rescheduled on the second flight, two hours later.  Except it was three hours later by the time they had fixed a 'technical problem' that necessitated the co-pilot descending through a trap door in the cockpit.  I subscribe to the practice that if the pilot will fly the plane I am prepared to fly in it with him.  And that is what we did.

Upon arriving in Birmingham my carry on bag which couldn't be carried on from Paris to Birmingham (small plane, small overhead bins) got damaged on the conveyor belt.  Customs got involved, as they should, because a tampered bag has the potential to be carrying something "extra".  The zipper was completely useless so I was given a large plastic bag to put it in and then went to complain to the baggage desk and received the good news that I will be given a new suitcase.

I also observed at this time that Birmingham International (BHX) is looking a bit seedy in places, particularly the toilets which don't seem to have seen chlorine bleach in years - is that a health and safety issue, I wonder - and smell as though they have been cleaned with second hand dishwater.  BHX, you can do better!

By this time I was running 4-1/4 hours behind schedule.  Good news - the car started and I was off in a snow flurry (second day of Spring!) down the M42, where I came across a heritage diesel locomotive on a transporter.  The number was 27066 and it looked in reasonable condition if a little rusty below the skirts.

I finally arrived home 22 hours after leaving the office in Pointe Noire.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Adroit Minx

The Birmingham Post cryptic crossword last Tuesday carried an interesting clue:

Adroit minx turned out to be Miss Whiplash

It wasn't that difficult to solve, but I had to laugh!  (Solution in the comments)

Free WiFi makes sense

An excellent article on why cities should provide free WiFi.  Birmingham with its ICC and the desire to be "world class" should embrace free WiFi (as should the airport).

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Speed Demons?

Today's online Telegraph has a half-interesting feature on the British attitude towards the Internet.  Half-interesting in that it drags out the usual chichés and analogs concerning speed, etc.

But the truth is that speed is becoming increasingly important as content gets larger.  First we had text, then images, then sound, now video.  Video is the most intensive user of the internet and will continue to become greedier as high definition video moves up a notch or two.

The problem is that many of us users can't receive all those bits and bytes fast enough.  And, as the article points out, the providers are dabbling in false advertising to get us to believe we can.

I have gotten used to 60KB/sec downloads at home, where an iTunes full length movie can take many hours to download.  Here in Africa I may occasionally get that level of speed but basically I can forget all about Viddler, YouTube and other video providers.  Heck, it's just about impossible to view Flickr in anything like real time!

So if video content is the future of the internet it may be a good idea for those who are switching to video to consider a text version for those with slower connections!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Go Rockets

21 game winning streak.  Second longest in the NBA.  Way to go, Rockets!

Six Nations Observations

So here I am in Africa, watching the Six Nations Rugby, France vs Wales, the perfect finale to an interesting tournament.  With five minutes to go it looks like Wales is winning and the choir is at full strength.  Well done Wales!

Sadly the previous two games were not televised by Canal+.  Australian Rules seems to be more popular.  Quite why I don't know.  Probably those Parisian program directors who don't know what Rugby is!  (For the uninitiated, French rugby is not well represented in the capital but is a provincial affair being centered around Toulouse, Perpignan and Bezier).

As an Apple fan I am pleased to see the Welsh management team are very much into Apple computers.  Is that why they are winning?  Maybe, maybe not!

Even as I type the score is increasing in Wales' favor and the singing is getting louder.  29-12.

In search of a Legacy

Tony Blair refuses to disappear from the world stage.  Cynics say that, with a large mortgage on his London property, he can't afford not to.  The search for a legacy that couldn't be contrived after ten years as Prime Minister goes on.  First it was the Middle East.  That didn't seem to work.  Next there was the banking industry with fat cat consulting jobs to coincide with the sub-prime collapse.  That doesn't seem to be working.

So now he is embarking on another crusade, one that is quite familiar to him - global warming.

And the most preposterous idea yet - get the UN involved in fighting climate change!

The UN couldn't fight its way out of a brown paper (no, change that to plastic) bag.  It is the most inefficient of organizations, funded from a distance and because of that able to spend itself silly bolstering up the economies of countries like D R Congo while raping their children and being chauffeured from one meeting to another in air-conditioned buses.

Back to Tony Blair.  No doubt he's looking to join the UN gravy train; the funding would help to pay his mortgage while tilting at windmills in the modern age would be seen to be a lot more politically correct than in Don Quixote's time.

Legacy, must find that legacy. . . .

Friday, March 14, 2008

Unicef Tap Project

No need for me to comment other than to point out that this project means far more to the poorest billion people than all the politicians' rhetoric about combatting climate change.

T5

So, they've opened Heathrow Terminal 5.  Do I care?  Not a bit.

Why?

1.  I make every effort not to fly British Airways, it may self-style as The World's Favourite Airline, but it's not my favorite airline.

2.  BAA is another word for captive audience shopping malls.

3.  They want to fingerprint all passengers.

4.  Bigger is not better when flying.

5.  Heathrow still doesn't, and may never, have an integrated transport solution that satisfies passengers' needs.

I am sure there are plenty more reasons which would emerge after a visit, but I don't intend to rush down there to find out!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Legal Entry into the UK

No wonder there are so many people trying to enter the UK illegally.  The legal route for many people is tortuous, long-winded and expensive, even when the reason for visiting is business related and involves a company listed on the London Stock Exchange.

Here in Western Africa I have come across such an example.  In the interest of personal security I am going to mask a few of the details but believe me this is a true story.

An African national who lives in the US with his family, and therefore has a Green Card, is currently working in Africa.  On his way back home later this month we planned for him to stop off in London for business meetings at Head Office.  He needs a visa to visit the UK which we thought would not be a problem.  However, the first step would be to apply for the visa at the UK Embassy in another African country.  If approved he might be required to travel there for an interview.  The application then goes to another UK Embassy in East Africa where processing could take between 4 and 5 weeks.  Given that he is a citizen of yet another African country (that's four if you're counting) this is getting seriously complicated.

I often complain - to myself - about the cost of visas to visit and work in Africa but to be honest the situation is far worse for Africans wishing to visit Europe or North America.  I have heard of another example where the Canadian Embassy has held a passport for 5 months with no end in sight.

For all the talk by the politicians about helping Africa, doling out billions of dollars in aid that seems to disappear or is linked to sales of expensive infrastructure that plunges economies into debt, the opportunity for Africans to visit and benefit from what so-called developed countries have to offer has been abandoned.

And the most ironic aspect of my story is that the person involved received part of his higher education as an engineer at a British polytechnic.

Monday, March 10, 2008

SXSWM

This stands for South by Southwest Midlands.  The website is sxswm.com.  What's it all about?

Well, six representatives from Birmingham/West Midlands are representing the region at the SXSWi (the i stands for interactive), a geekfest in Austin, Texas.

I've been following the six as they explore various forums, meetings, presentations, get-togethers, parties and so on, via an aggregating site that is almost up to the minute in its immediacy.

There's a lot to think about just with what they are finding out - the bleeding edge of internet technology and ideas along with some of the hoary chestnuts of the internet (like who actually invented the word "blogosphere").

What is particularly interesting is the way sxswm.com is able to aggregate text, photos and video from six people, add in communication and feedback, and keep people half a world away informed of what is going on.  It's not quite the same as being there but then I haven't had to suffer the pain of travel, not to mention the hangovers, that the team have endured!

What is interesting is the description of the kit they are using and the availability of free wifi in Austin.  Portable computing is obviously the way to go, but surely we will soon be speaking of iPhones rather than MacBooks, instantly uploading video and so on.  All very exciting.

Power Outages

The current situation weather-wise in the UK is an interesting storm that is moving east across southern England.  Last night we had phase 1 with winds up to 80 mph and rain.  A lull as the front went through and now phase 2 is giving us rain and 50 mph winds.

Needless to say there have been some disruptions to our electric supply.  An hour long outage makes you begin to think about preparing for the worst.  No, not quite the hurricane party atmosphere - where you cook everything that is in your freezer and invite the neighbors over - but a concern that the contents of the freezer might not survive the outage.

And then there's the light.  It was getting dark so we began to unearth our supply of candles (mostly imported with our effects from Houston) and readied for the evening ahead.  The lights came back on shortly afterward, even though a call to the emergency telephone line told us to expect 12 hours of delay.

Life in the modern technology-heavy world takes a bit of a knock during an outage.  However, the following tips are offered to anyone in similar circumstances.  Though of course, if you are in similar circumstances you won't be able to read this.

1.  The phone still works, but only if you have a phone that doesn't need a power supply.  We have one old-fashioned tethered phone.  It worked when we needed it.  The modern wireless units failed.

2.  The best way to call the light company (I am not sure what they call them in the UK) is to find an old bill.  This always worked in the States and it worked here.  Rather than speak to a person the light company had already recorded a useful message.  Impressive in the UK, normal in the US.

3.  The cell/mobile phone may still work if the mast is in a different area to the one affected.  Always worth a try.

4.  No TV, mains radio or internet.  I could not help but recall the 1982 Hurricane Alicia in Houston when we were without electricity for over a week.  The only utility that worked was the phone, so we got lots of calls from out of state friends - "My god, it looks awful on TV!"  Except we had no idea what they were talking about, being marooned behind fallen pine trees and other problems.

5.  No generator.  Half the time I am in Africa I am aware that we are actually not running off the power supply but the office/hotel/staff house back up generator.  Every desktop computer has a PSU.  If this happens more often in the UK a small generator might be worth the expense.

6.  We still have to eat.  Our kitchen design included a gas hob that is independent of electricity.  A sound philosophy in that gas hobs also create warmth as well as provide hot soup!

7.  Although we have solar heating (a ground source heat pump) it doesn't work without power.  But at least the floors retain warmth for a considerable period.  And we also have a log burner that is rated at 7 kilowatts.  We won't freeze!

Friday, March 07, 2008

The Professional Blogger

I am very proud of Pete Ashton, professional blogger, for being recognized by the Guardian last night.  On Monday there will be a feature article - how do I know?  It's here already!

Apple and the Enterprise Market

For a long time I have viewed the "Enterprise Market" as a closed shop for job preservation among IT specialists.  Anyone who lives in the Mac world will know what I mean.  Those with more popular operating systems probably will not as they more or less depend on IT specialists.

So it is no surprise to me that IT executives have come out with ridicule for the iPhone SDK.

A quick translation for some of their comments:

"What we really want is a system we can control, Apple likes to have too much control and that is not a good thing (for us)."

"We wanted to tell Apple how to design its SDK but they wouldn't listen.  So we're going to spoil their party by refusing to allow our employees to use the iPhone even though that is what they want."

Thursday, March 06, 2008

If you don't like reptiles. . . .


. . . . then don't have them on your TV show!

Tip of the hat to Kathy in Houston

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

London by Road

We just arrived home from London, having taken our road trip instead of the usual rail journey.

The verdict?  Traffic not good on Sunday afternoon into London, excellent departure from London on Wednesday evening when it seemed all the traffic lights were synced for us!  There was a nasty bus accident on the M4 but otherwise the journey was as easy as by train and took about the same time door to door.  No First Great Western to screw things up!

On the way up to London we stopped for lunch (a bowl of soup) at the National Trust's Stourhead property, something you cannot do by train.  But the A303/M3 corridor is not the best route even though it is shorter in mileage.  Parts of the A303 are still single lane each way, unbelievable after all these years!  And the journey in to London from Sunbury Cross (the end of the M3) was tortuous, tiring and tedious.

The weather was fine on both journeys which undoubtedly made a difference.  If it had been wet, foggy or icy we would have been better off in a train.  But with fair weather and the chance to stretch our legs at Stourhead, the car was marginally better.  But if a better train operating company had the train franchise, we would support it over the drive.

Premiership End of Season Prediction

The BBC Sport Page has an interesting predictor where you can work out the remaining football results from now until the end of the season.  The details are then summed up and formulated into what the end of season table could look like.  No two predictions will be the same and the chances of mine being right are about 1 billion to 1.  But what the hey, it will be interesting to compare this prediction with the truth come the middle of May.
What comes across here are the wishes and desires of a true Bluenose with Birmingham City moving up to 12th!  Actually I will be very pleased if they are anything above 18th, but on the showing of City's thrashing of Tottenham last weekend, I have to feel optimistic!

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Congestion Charge inaccuracies

London's congestion charge had become a political hot potato, a sort of tirade against so-called Chelsea Tractors, etc.  There's another side to this, though, that represents why so many people are questioning the need for government data bases on just about every facet of life.

18 months ago I paid a congestion charge by phone.  At the time the customer service representative persuaded me to obtain a "fast track card" that would allow future payments to be made more easily.  I gave all the details and waited for the card.  When it finally arrived the envelope had the wrong post code while the card itself completely misspelt my name and even had the wrong registration for our car!  Which means, of course, that the card and the registration number recognition system will not jibe and I could receive a huge fine!

There is good news, however.  Our planned trip to London will mean arriving and departing the CGZ outside of operating hours!  No charge at all!