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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Library Redesign

I've gotten woefully behind in my book logging in recent months, to the point where Trent has actually updated more recently than I have. As this is obviously an undesirable state of affairs, I've decided to re-launch the site, as it were, doing some redesigning, moving it over to Blogger, and slightly changing the way I plan to approach it in the future. We'll see if that works.

I'm not changing the name, though: it's still The Library of Babel, even though the address is now different. If you're linking to the old site, thank you, and please update your bookmarks. If you weren't linking to the old site, well, here's your chance to get in on the new ground floor.

Posted at 4:48 PM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

Friday, August 20, 2004

Nihil in Moderato

It might be somewhat surprising to some readers of this blog to hear that I have actually voted for a Republican in my lifetime. It was back in 1996, when I was in grad school, and I voted for Connie Morella, who was then the incumbent representative for Montgomery County, MD. There wasn't much of an ideological basis for the vote: she was a very moderate Republican, and she had visited NIST several times while I was there and was generally a very nice person. There wasn't much difference between her and her challenger on any issues I was aware of (I paid very little attention to the race, which wasn't especially close), so I voted for her.

I wouldn't do that now, no matter how nice she was. Not because I've grown a lot more liberal, but because a vote for a Republican-- any Republican-- is, in the end, a vote to keep Tom DeLay in a leadeship role in Congress. At this point, it really doesn't matter any more what positions the candidates take on the issues-- no matter how moderate the candidate, they're caucusing with dangerous lunatics, and that's unacceptable.

I started thinking about this while reading Mike Kozlowski's comments on my earlier remarks about political evolution (it's not really on point over there, which is why I'm posting it here). I think that this is really the key to a lot of what I've been seeing, and what some of Mike's commenters are saying. It's not that my politics have moved leftward, so much as it is a matter of right-wing politics being taken over by charlatans and madmen. There are plenty of Republicans who are perfectly unobjectionable to me-- many of them simply because they are so lacking in personality that I can't work up real hatred (think George Pataki, or the elder George Bush), but people like Dole and McCain are at least worthy of respect-- but I can't in good conscience vote for any of them, because of the baggage they bring along.

This may be, at least from my persepctive, the signature achievement of the conservative movement over the past ten years or so: they've turned me into a straight-ticket Democratic voter. And that's not really a Good Thing, as there are some good people in the Republican ranks, some of whom might well be better representatives than their Democratic counterparts. But as long as they continue to caucus with maniacs, I won't even consider voting for any of them.

Connie Morella was a good person, and did well for her constituents, but given today's Republican party, I'm glad she lost her seat. And that's a shame.

Posted at 8:44 PM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Alternate Universe Assignment Desk

In the world where he's still blogging regularly, and I frequently call out other people, I bet it'd be fascinating to hear what Jim Henley has to say about Timothy Burke's thoughts on superhero identity and lines that should not be crossed in comics. I'm not a big reader of superhero comics, but I've heard Jim expound on the subject in an interesting manner.

Sadly, that appears to be a different universe than this one, and physics tells us there's no way to contact them. Any other comic book types who'd like to take a whack at it, though, I'd be interested to hear what you think.

Posted at 8:42 AM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Economy Air Travel

Picking up a dropped thread in the recent post complaining about first class, I found it really interesting to try to compare the flights we were on this weekend (on US Airways)to corresponding flights on my airline of choice, Southwest. One of the arguments offered as to why first class is a Good Thing is that the first-class passengers subsidize the airfare for everyone else, so I thought it would be interesting to see how much of a difference it makes.

The plane we flew from Philadelphia to SF had seven rows of first class seats (I counted, planning on writing a post like this. Yes, my hobbies are eating my life), each with four seats. There were a total of 32 rows (assuming I heard the announcement correctly), so that leaves 25 rows of coach seats, at six seats per row. That's 28 first class passengers, and 150 in coach. Taking the minimum fares for each class ($380 and $1038 from PHL-OAK), that's a total of $86,064 per plane.

Southwest, on the other hand, offers a minimum PHL-OAK fare of $318 for the same dates. Making the half-assed guess that they could get ten rows of coach in in place of the seven first-class rows, that's 210 passengers per plane, for a total of $66,780 per plane. That's really pretty mind-boggling-- Southwest makes $20,000 less per plane (on this particular route) than US Airways, and they're expanding service, while US Airways seems headed for bankruptcy.

Now, there are some dodgy things in this model-- assuming the minimum fare for all the Southwest passengers, for example. They offer only a limited number of those seats, and they're frequently unavailable, so many people pay a higher fare. This is true, but it's also true for US Airways-- that minimum fare was available only on a couple of flights, at inconvenient times. Most of those passengers will pay more for their seat as well. Lacking any real evidence about the distribution of fares, I'm inclined to call this a wash.

There's also the frequent-flyer miles issue. Another comment made frequently regarding the previous post was that most people flying in first class didn't actually pay the extortionate first-class fare, but rather upgraded with frequent-flyer miles. This may well be true, but I have two comments on this: 1) the airline must feel that they've gotten equivalent value from overcharging for the previous flights, or else they wouldn't give those expensive seats away (unless they're just stupid, which can't really be ruled out), and 2) if the people in those seats really haven't paid the full price for them (because the airline is stupid), that sort of undercuts the "first-class passengers subsidize other fares" argument, doesn't it? If they're not paying the high fare, they're not providing any money that can be used toward other fares.

So how do they do it? Commenter agm helpfully provides a link to a CBS piece on how discount airlines control costs. (The list: Point-to-Point Flights, Lower Wages, Lower Overhead, Fewer Types of Planes, Newer Planes.) It's interesting reading, and also points out that when discount airlines enter a new market, the fares on older airlines drop dramatically (something that's obvious to anyone who has compared prices between airports with and without discount service-- Southwest in the airport is worth a good $200). This tends to suggest that that extra $20,000 isn't just going to pay the bills.

I should note that economy isn't the only reason I prefer Southwest (indeed, if it were the only reason, that would be pretty surprising as-- and Kate will back me up on this-- I'm not really a frugal person by nature). I prefer them because I find flying with them to be vastly more pleasant than flying with any of the major airlines.

This is really an across-the-board thing, starting from the fact that their website is better than any of the other airline websites I've attempted to use. There are also vaguely political reasons (the lack of first class), purely pragmatic reasons (say what you will about their cattle-call boarding system, it gets the planes loaded and off the ground faster than any other airline I've dealt with), customer service reasons (I've never shown up for a Southwest flight only to be told that the flight was overbooked, and I would have to hope that some other people didn't show up if I wanted to use the ticket I paid for), to minor efficiencies (they don't block up the aisles with those stupid carts when they do beverage service), to stupidly cosmetic issues (they let their flight attendants riff off the safety messages, rather than reciting the script in the most robotic manner possible, or showing a silly videotape). From start to finish, I just like them better.

But that $20,000 difference is pretty impressive, too.

Posted at 8:53 PM | link | follow-ups | 8 comments

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Aging in Reverse

There's an often-quoted political aphorism out there that runs something like "Anyone who isn't a liberal when they're young has no heart. Anyone who isn't a conservative when they're old has no brain." It's obviously not all that accurate, given the number of teenage Randroids infesting the internet, and probably says more about the aging process than it does about politics, but it's a common enough saying that I'm no longer sure who to attribute it to (and I'm too lazy to look it up-- Churchill, I think).

Anyway, by the logic of that statement, I appear to be aging in reverse, becoming more socialist as I get older. I get more irritated at cockamamie economic policies tilted toward the wealthy than I used to, I'm more bothered by social and educational policies that seem bent on stratifying American society to a greater degree, and even literary class politics can get me seriously torqued off-- I find the racial and class politics of The Lord of the Rings so loathsome as to make the books difficult to read (see the reviews on this page for more detail).

This was brought to mind by our trip to Berkeley this weekend, to visit my sister for her birthday. Specifically, by the flight out, which was the first time in a good while that I've been on a plane with a first-class section (my airline of choice is Southwest, about which more later).

When I was younger, I thought the idea of first class was sort of cool, but these days, it just pisses me off to no end. Granted, this is partly an issue of a change in my grasp of economics-- back then, I had no real idea what those tickets cost, and just assumed I'd be able to afford the good seats someday. Now that I'm older, and have some idea of the actual cost, I don't think I'd buy them even if I had the money (and I say this as a 6'6" person, who does not have an easy time with coach class airline seats).

Taking US Airways as an example airline (because that's who we flew with this weekend, as my parents have frequent-flyer miles with them), the round-trip fare for basically the same flights (Friday to Tuesday, similar times) that we took from Albany to San Francisco was $470. The first-class round-trip fare for the same flights was $1537. The cheapest fares on those dates (I picked October 8th and 12th, to put it in about the same advance purchase window as when our tickets were purchased) are $351 and $1449.

As a large person, I would gladly pay more for a more comfortable seat-- I'd probably cheerfully shell out another $100 for a bigger seat with more legroom, and I might grudgingly go for an extra $200. But four times the price? You've got to be kidding me. There's just no way I'd ever go for that (and believe me when I say that I am far from the most frugal person you'll ever meet).

Of course, the bigger seats are far from the only enticement offered to justify the insane price. For the extra money, first class passengers also get to board first, get off the plane first, eat better food, and act as if they're just better people than the unwashed masses in coach. One of this weekend's flights hit a new low in insulting, when the flight crew announced that "for security reasons, the restrooms in the front of the cabin are for first-class passengers only." Yes, it's apprently a threat to the safety of the plane for some peasant from row 27 to use the facilities up front. (More reasonable airlines had a general ban on loitering in the area of the front restroom, as it's right next to the cockpit door.)

People flying first class aren't just buying better service, they're buying a sense of entitlement, and that's what really irks me. Especially because I think that's really the only way they manage to sell those seats at that price. If you were to fit out an entire airplane with first-class seats, you wouldn't be able to get people to shell out $2000 for a ticket-- I think it needs that extra thrill of lording it over the passengers in coach in order to wring those last few dollars out.

Some of the same thing is at work in the occasional calls for a separate security check for first-class passengers (who are clearly too good to spend time waiting in line with plebians). The pay-for-entitlement factor also comes into play in the separate check-in desks for first-class passengers, which will often tie up one ticket agent to serve a scant handful of people while one or two other agents struggle to deal with five or ten times as many coach passengers. (I've come close to throttling a few business tycoons while waiting on line to check in-- happily, Kate was there to take my place in line).

The most extreme example (worse than the security thing) came on a TWA flight from Las Vegas to DC, back when I was in grad school. We had a stop in Phoenix scheduled, and spent an hour sitting on the runway while the crew worked to repair the oven in the galley. Once we were airborne, a stewardess came by and handed me a cold ham sandwich.

"Why did we just spend an hour waiting for you to fix the oven, if you were planning to give us cold food anyway?" I asked. "Oh, the people in first class get hot food," she replied brightly, and moved on.

I griped about this on a mailing list, and a guy on the list who frequently flies first class say nothing wrong with this. His response was, "Well, if I were in first class, and didn't get a hot meal, I'd be pissed." (To be fair, he's an arrogant bastard in many other ways as well.)

Call me crazy, but I think I'd rather be home on time with a cold meal, than an hour late with hot food. But then, I'm the sort of crazy wild-eyed socialist nut who won't pay three times what a ticket is worth, just for the chance to feel superior.

Posted at 8:52 PM | link | follow-ups | 21 comments

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