Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Come Fly With Me

Tell someone you're going to LAX, and the reaction is predictable.

Eyes roll, sympathy is expressed along with best wishes for a safe return. It's the same kind of response you'd get if you told friends you were relocating to North Korea.

Let's face it, a trip to one of the busiest airports in the world is no stroll through the park.

Just getting there requires the kind of cunning and grit that comes with traveling freeways where gridlock is the norm.

Negotiating the traffic at the airport requires the skill of a grand prix driver and the patience of a parole officer.

Parking is a breeze provided you arrive between midnight and 5 a.m. Otherwise, it's an Old West shootout, every man for himself, be fast, be merciless, take no prisoners and watch your back.

The ambience ranks somewhat higher than a Greyhound bus terminal but not by much. One critic referred to LAX as a "1950s airport operating in 2007."

There is some good news:

They're updating the international terminal, a development that occured when some airlines reduced flights because it was outdated.

And there are very few weather delays.

Aside from that, the news is mostly bad. The new Zagat survey just released ranks LAX as the third worst airport in the U.S., just behind La Guardia and Miami International.

Zagat based its ratings on the opinions of 7,498 frequent fliers and travel professionals.

And who did the Zagatistas like?

Tampa, Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul were the top three favorites.

Of course, Tampa and Minneapolis handle far less traffic than LAX which tends make to make them attractive by comparison.

I've been to Denver numerous times. It's new and clean. It's also so far out in the sticks it's about a $50 to $60 cab ride to the outskirts of town and looks like a bunch of circus tents strung together.

Then there's the recent Forbes magazine survey which found that no airport in the United States ranks among the top 10 in the world, meaning that LAX has plenty of company in its misery.

(On the other hand, the Forbes survey rated the airport in Kuala Lampur as one of the best "now that they've rid themselves of the rat infestation.")

Meanwhile, the Zagat team also weighed in on the airlines, ranking them on a number of factors ranging from comfort and food to service and website.

Some highlights:

Alaska Airlines, "A refreshing alternative to the majors with a small airline feel with can-do crews who actually seem to enjoy their jobs."

American Airlines, "hit and miss can be excellent (especially in first) or disappointing, drawing gripes about snarly staff, pitiful food and seats the size of Katie Moss' backside."

JetBlue: Despite nightmare delays last winter, fans insist this snappy single class clarrier gets its right even when they don't since they own up to mistakes and work hard to fix them."

Southwest, "hecklers dub it a winged Wal-Mart and knock the open seating but to most its cheerful, comfy and consumer friendly."

United: "Economy Plus is a godsend for extra legroom but regular economy can feel more cramped than a clown car and it takes flak for sour staff, delays, lost bags and a buggy website."

US Airways: "Unhelpful as the DMV, schedule should be published under `fiction' and the Philly hub is the Bermuda triangle of luggage."

Other remarks from Zagat surveyors:

"They think nothing is too good for you and that's what they provide."

"Their planes make Larry King look young."

"When asked what kind of chicken they had, she replied, `the dead kind."

"They lose your luggage between Boston and Buffalo and give you someone in Manila to talk about it."

"First they make you need a drink, then charge you for it."

Of personal interest is the high rating accorded Continental which once lost our luggage, was hours late in departing and caused us to miss a connection, all in one day.

Happy landings.

Making a List

Christmas shopping used to seem so simple. You did two things: You descended with other parents on Toys R Us like flies on a rib roast, elbowing your way down aisle after aisle until either your patience or budget was exhausted.

When my kids got old enough to make lists of the toys they wanted, they would sit in front of the TV set on Saturday morning and jot down the names of every single advertised product they saw.

I did some of my best editing work on those lists.

After the toys were bought, you went to the Broadway or Robinsons or the May Co. and bought your spouse a sweater, a tie or shirt, a piece of jewelry and the deal was done. Neat and clean. After all, Christmas was for the kids.

In an act of absolute simplicity, my friend, the late columnist Jack Smith, once bought his wife an ironing board cover for Christmas because, he said, "it claimed to make ironing almost fun." And what could be a better gift than that?

You can't just buy toys any more. You need to check the country of origin, perform metalurgical tests and check the endless lists of recalled products your friends in the federal government provide for you. Whatever is left over, you buy, whether your kids want it or not.

You can buy stuff on the Internet, a convenience we didn't used to have, but you run the risk of identity theft, privacy invasion and the besmerching of your good name, not to mention your credit rating, if you do.

If your kids are older, or for the adults on your list, a sweater won't make their book of memories any more. It's got to be high tech.

And if you, like me, enjoy feeling lost, out of touch and beyond usefulness, go shopping for the latest in technological gizmos.

The following were actually listed as gift suggestions on the Internet:

"A MegaRAID SAS/SATA offering from LSI addresses any data availability concerns associated with deploying large number of drives in mission-critical environments. It allows system builders to direct-connect up to 16 SATA II and/or SAS drives. Also, by leveraging SAS expander technology, this adapter can support up to 122 physical devices for the most data-intensive environments."

And gift wrap it please.

Nothing says Christmas like a "DTX CableAnalyzer which will significantly reduce your total time to certify. It all starts with a Cat 6 Autotest time that is faster than many other testers - and fiber testing that is faster as well. But that is just the beginning. DTX Series testers also give you Level IV Accuracy, exceptional troubleshooting diagnostics, 900 MHz of testing bandwidth, 12-hour battery life, and nearly instant set-up and reporting."

Any questions? I didn't think so.

Looking for something more simple? Try a PDA. I used to think PDA stood for Personal Digital Assistant. Now I know it means Permament Digit Apparatus. Walk through an airport waiting area some time and try find the person who's not using one.

So have Santa bring an "HP iPAQ hw6945 Mobile Messenger which provides phone, e-mail, and more secure access to business-critical information. At the same time, let your HP iPAQ keep life fun using GPS Navigation, the HP Photosmart Camera, and Microsoft Windows Media Player 10 Mobile to play your digital music and videos. Quad-band GSM technology delivers high quality mobile voice and data services with roaming capabilities across the world.
"A variety of integrated wireless technologies are provided including GPRS/EDGE, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth."

Don't know Bluetooth from the Blues Brothers? No problem. Try a video game instead.
Let's see what's available.

"Extreme Sports With the Bernstein Bears," "Custer's Revenge," (in which an almost naked General Custer is guided though a hail of arrows and fields of cacti toward a mostly naked Indian American woman tied to a post)" "Smurf Rescue" (in which one small mistake sends your cute little Smurf to a horrible death) "Super Columbine Massacre" (which is exactly what you think it is), "Communist Mutants From Space." All actual examples.

So maybe not.

Then there is a $24,000 gold and diamond computer mouse available from a Swiss firm, a Diamond MP3 Player for Dogs ($2000) or a 24K Gold and diamond encrusted hearing aid for $42,590.

Maybe a sweater isn't such a bad idea after all.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

An Alien Concept

IF the Tournament of Roses folks didn't have enough trouble with the Chinese Olympics float becoming a thorn in their side, now comes word that New Mexico's parade entry is causing a bit of a stir.

The good people from the Land of Enchantment plan to launch an entry called "Passport to Our World and Beyond" down Colorado Boulevard which will commemorate the alleged crash of a UFO into the desert near Roswell in July 1947.

The military said it was a weather balloon but those who embrace the double whammy of space aliens and conspiracy theories have made Roswell their Mecca.

Some in New Mexico think that if the state is going to drop $200,000 on a float, there are a lot better things to celebrate than those who claim to have an up close and personal relationship with Jabba the Hutt.

Such as beautiful scenery, a unique cuisine, a thriving arts scene and an ethnically diverse population, for starters.

But those who object to the float have been left on the pad. Plans call for three big-headed green space aliens riding in an open-air UFO. There also will be rockets, planets and a 24-foot conical tower on the 18-foot-wide, 55-foot-long float.

The last time New Mexico had a float in the parade, it was a more traditional concept celebrating the wonders of the state and featuring Gov. Bill Richardson, whose current presidential campaign appears to be an alien concept to most voters.

New Mexico tourism officials said there was a 16 percent spike in requests for information from Southern California residents in the week following their appearance in the 2006 parade.

Imagine the interest they could generate this year, especially if they featured presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, who acknowledged during a recent Democrat candidates debate that he had seen a UFO. Or Jimmy Carter (ditto). Or former Arizona Gov. Fife Symington, who said he was among hundreds who saw a delta-shaped craft with enormous lights silently traverse the sky near Phoenix in 1997.

Maybe these New Mexicans are on to something.

A recent poll by the Associated Press found that 34 percent of people polled believe in unidentified flying objects.

Just to put it in perspective, that's higher than George Bush's approval rating.

And if that's not enough, a CNN/Time poll shows that 80 percent of Americans think the government is hiding knowledge of the existence of extraterrestrial life forms.

Sixty-four percent of the respondents said that aliens have contacted humans, half said they've abducted humans, and 37 percent said they have contacted the U.S. government. Maybe that's why so many politicians have admitted to UFO sightings.

None of this is lost on the Roswell Chamber of Commerce which throws an annual UFO Festival featuring entertainment (this year staring the Alan Parsons Project, War, and Element 115 which bills itself as the only band with an alien drummer), dozens of guest speakers (sample lecture: UFOs and the Death of Marilyn Monroe), balloon rides, activities for the kiddies, etc. They claim to draw 50,000 to their sleepy little town.

Actually, the Rose Parade is no stranger to things extraterrestrial. George Lucas ("Star Wars") was a grand marshal. So was John Glenn and Apollo 12 astronauts Alan L. Bean, Charles Conrad Jr. and Richard F. Gordon Jr. And even William Shatner of "Star Trek." I doubt if it was for his acting prowess.

So welcome, New Mexico. Enjoy your stay in Southern California which many people consider a trip to another planet.

And if you don't think there are aliens among us, go to the Doo Dah Parade while you're here.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Worst of Times

JUST in time for Christmas, a group calling itself the Consumers International World Congress has come up with a list of the worst products for 2007 and the companies that make them.

Let me say right off the bat that I'm generally skeptical of organizations that call themselves "international" or suggest that their mandate is so large that they are, in fact, a "congress."

More often than not, they turn out to be a couple of zealots with laptops.

But in this case, the organization in question claims to be made up of 220 member groups from 115 countries whose goal is to "to secure a fair, safe and sustainable future for consumers in a global marketplace increasingly dominated by international corporations."

A noble cause.

It's just too bad they didn't come up with a name for their award, like the Corvairs or the Marlboros to commemorate a truly bad product.

This year's honorees include:

The Mattel company, "the makers of beloved children's toys, much of it covered with lead paint from its many manufacturing plants in China," according to the consumer congress. "The CEO first blamed China, then admitted the problem lay more with company product design flaws," the group said.

Actually, the folks at Mattel apologized to China for damaging its sterling manufacturing reputation. Two weeks later, Mattel announced it was recalling more than 170,000 Mexican-made toy kitchens sold in the United States and Europe because the pieces posed a choking hazard. Que lastima!

Coca-Cola "for unabashedly marketing packaged tap water. While the company rightly points out that the packaging on its popular Dasani brand bottled water doesn't specifically say it's spring water, it doesn't specify it is not, either," the group says.

OK, but guess who else got caught with their hands in the municipal water supply? Pepsi, whose Aquafina brand comes from the faucet, as it turns out. Indeed, about 25 percent of the bottled waters consumed in the U.S. come from municipal water supplies. The Natural Resources Defense Council recently released a study that included this tidbit on bottled water labels: "Spring Water" (with a picture of a lake surrounded by mountains on the label) was actually from an industrial parking lot next to a hazardous waste site.

Kellogg Co. "for selling junk food to kids. ... The company recently told the New York Times that 27 percent of its U.S. advertising budget was spent on targeting kids under 12," the group contends. "But with childhood obesity on the rise, critics charge the company has a responsibility to stop marketing its high sugar, high fat food to kids."

Take your kids for a stroll down the cereal aisle at the local supermarket sometime if you want to see this play out in real time. Of course, the Kelloggs and McDonalds of the world have been targeting kids for decades in their advertising. That's why God invented parents. To say "no." Try it sometime. It's grrreeeaaat! ...

Takeda Pharmaceutical Company "for pitching sleeping pills to kids." The U.S. arm of this $10 billion Japanese company took out a reminder ad ... using school buses, pictures of chalk boards and the like to remind users that "it's back to school season, time to reorder your sleeping pills," the consumer group writes.

Outraged critics screamed foul, but it still took the FDA six months to get the ad off the air.

But truth be told, this is a chicken and egg problem. According to the New York Times, the use of sleeping pills among children and very young adults rose 85 percent between 2000 and 2004 in yet another sign that parents and physicians are increasingly turning to prescription medications to solve childhood health and behavioral problems.

So what's a Big Pharma company to do? Listen to its public, obviously.

These firms are all well deserving of this recognition. But there are so many recalls and consumer alerts these days, it's a wonder we get through the day alive.

Consider these recent recalls:

Susan Bristol Inc., of Boston, Mass., recalled about 1,100 christmas sweaters with feather trim. The marabou feather trim on the sweaters is dangerously flammable.

Homelite Consumer Products, Inc., of Anderson, S.C. recalled about 6,900 chainsaws. These saws can operate while the engine is at the idle setting, posing a risk of serious lacerations to the operator and bystanders.

Life Fitness Division of Brunswick Corporation, of Franklin Park, Ill., recalled its exercise treadmills. The treadmill can unexpectedly accelerate, possibly causing the user to lose control and fall.

Ethan Allen of Danbury, Conn., recalled about 7,000 American impressions and new country rectangular dining tables. These dining room tables can be missing sufficient stability blocks that could result in the table collapsing.

And, of course, Sony's lithium-ion laptop batteries overheated to the point where they actually set laptops ablaze. A few of the flame-ups were caught on tape, including one at a conference in Japan, and quickly showed up on the Internet. The result was a massive recall.

Ain't progress grand?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

There's Something About Mary

I have a friend with a fear of flying.

It's not the takeoffs or landings, the claustrophobic seating, the
turbulence, the lousy movies and even worse food.

The problem is much more basic.

Her name is Mary Smith. Honest. And when she flies, that name sets off
more red flags with the Transportation Security Administration folks than if
she ran through the airport yelling, "Allah Akbar."

I guess that should come as no surprise. According to a new report, the
government's terrorist watch list has swelled to jaw dropping 750,000 names,
growing by more than 200,000 names a year since 2004.

At this rate, it will easier to compile a list of people who are allowed
to fly.

While there are undoubtedly some genuine bad guys on that list, many
common American names have been included under the theory that the next
terrorist attack might be engineered by someone calling himself Joe Jones. Or
Mary Smith.

If 750,000 names seems unwieldly, counterproductive and sometimes
downright silly, you're right. Consider:

U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy was denied permission to board several years ago
because his name popped up on a list.

So was a 4-year-old boy named Edward Allen.

So was Kernan O'Dwyer, who happened to be a pilot for American Airlines.

So was Daniel Brown, a Marine returning from Iraq, who was prevented from
boarding a flight home because his name matched one on the No Fly List. The
rest of his company refused to leave the airport until Brown was allowed to

Is this any way to run a war on terrorism?

About 53,000 people on the list were questioned since 2004, according to a
story in USA Today, which said the Homeland Security Department doesn't keep
records on how many were denied entry or allowed into the country after
questioning. Most were apparently released and allowed to enter, the story
said, quoting a Government Accountabuility Office report.

We can all agree that eternal vigilence, as they say, is the price of

But misguided vigilance is dangerous and ineffective.

The terror watch list clearly needs to be made more accurate. With three
quarter of a million names, the quality of the information comes into

In the meantime, innocent people are being snared. As it stands now,
getting off the list is difficult. The government won't confirm if a person
is on a list or not, and the TSC doesn't take responsibility for names placed
on the list by a law enforcement or intelligence agency.

There is a Homeland Security website where you can fill out a form and
submit notarized copies of birth certificates and other personal documents.

If you are successful, you get a letter from the Transportation Security
Administration saying you have been cleared. But your name remains on the
list. On its Web site, the agency says, "While T.S.A. cannot ensure that
these clearance procedures will relieve all delays, the procedures should
facilitate a more efficient check-in process."

And, of course, the 800 poound gorilla in this room is the paranoia
caused by the fact that the government is keeping secret files of American

Typical is the story told by Walter F. Murphy, professor of jurisprudence
at Princeton and a retired Marine colonel.

He reported that the following exchange took place at Newark where he was
denied a boarding pass "because I [Professor Murphy] was on the Terrorist
Watch list."

The airline employee asked, "Have you been in any peace marches? We ban a
lot of people from flying because of that."

"I explained," said Murphy, "that I had not so marched but had, in
September 2006, given a lecture at Princeton, televised and put on the web,
highly critical of George Bush for his many violations of the constitution."

To which the airline employee responded, "That'll do it."