Monday, June 29, 2009

It Looks So Quiet and Peaceful ... NOT!!

As it happens, we had quite a beautiful sunrise yesterday morning and, since I was up early, I snapped a photo. That mountain just above the treeline is Maui's dormant volcano, Haleakala, which translates as "the house of the sun." Doesn't look it, but up there at the summit the elevation is 10,080 feet.

Last night, at 8:39 our time, somewhere about 10 miles in that same direction and down deep, Haleakala burped. There was a jolt and a thud and just outside in the pasture I could hear one of the horses snort and jog around for a few seconds.

The paper this morning reports it was indeed an earthquake, measuring a modest 3.5 on the Richter Scale. Barely worth mentioning ... unless, of course, you were here to feel it.

I've been through several earthquakes, thankfully none severe. Two in Los Angeles while passing through, the other three here in Hawaii. One that occurred a couple of years ago was centered on the Big Island and did something like $100 million in damage there. We were shaken for several seconds, but that was all.

Still, it leaves you with a feeling of unease ... aware that it can happen at any time, aware of the imense power that can be generated, and very much aware that there's really not a damn thing you can do about it.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

About Wine from Oz, Lawn Mowers and Mac Nuts

During my trip to Australia in February, I toured a couple of wineries in the Hunter Valley, located two hours north of Sydney. The other day, in an article in the New York Times, comes a report that the Australian wine industry has fallen on tough times. As always, the reasons are varied and complicated, but one major factor is that a huge portion of the Aussie wines were being bought by a few large supermarket chains in Britain. After establishing themselves as 1000-pound gorillas, these supermarkets have repeatedly forced the wineries to keep lowering their prices. To maintain even a razor-thin profit margin, the wineries had to cut corners and reduce quality. Thus a vicious circle was begun.

That sad tale reminded me of a great story about the guy who runs the company that makes Snapper lawn equipment. Walmart wanted to carry his stuff, which would have meant the sale of hundreds of thousands of units. But, after a lot of soul-searching, he turned them down. Reason: He knew that Walmart would keep demanding lower and lower prices from him and, to keep making a profit, he would be forced to lower his quality standards. So he told Walmart to go fly a kite. And good for him!

And that reminds me of a former client of mine when I ran an advertising agency in Honolulu. They make and market a high-quality line of chocolate covered macadamia nuts. These nice folks approached Walmart about carrying their line of candy and nuts. The Walmart buyers agreed to put the goodies in several hundred of their stores and my client was so delighted, he told the Walmart people he would pop for some modest promotion in several of the larger markets where those stores were located. Instantly, the Walmart guy said, "Never mind the advertising. If you can afford to do that, then you can further reduce your price to us instead." That's hardball, Walmart-style.

At the moment here on Maui, there is a ordinance pending with the County government that would limit the size of any new retail stores wanting to do business here. Good! These guys – the Walmarts and the others of their ilk – squeeze their suppliers without mercy, and drive long-time Mom and Pop stores out of business. They are also notorious for low pay and working people half time so they don’t have to pay benefits.

For what it’s really like to work for Walmart, check out this terrific book. Then go pick up that new power drill you need at your local family-owned hardware store.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Fair Is Fair: The Fat Will Have to Pay Extra

Some years ago, on a flight from Honolulu to the U.S. mainland, I was seated next to a woman who was – I can’t make my point and still describe her with any sensitivity – fat. Very fat. I was in Seat A, the window seat, and she was in Seat B on my right. The woman spilled so far over into my space that I had to eat my meal left-handed.

On another flight, a huge male passenger literally had to shuffle sideways down the aisle of the plane. Fortunately for the person seated next to him, the airline had put him in an aisle seat with a removable armrest. But that meant he bulged out so far into the aisle that passengers on the way to the lavetory had to do the sideways shuffle to get by him. And watching the crew maneuvering the beverage and food carts past his seat was more entertaining than the movie.

But this is a real problem and it’s getting worse, not better. More Americans are getting fat, the already-fat Americans are getting fatter, and airline seats are sure as hell not getting any wider!

Well, finally it appears that the airlines are going to do something about this. Apparently Southwest has been requiring obese passengers to purchase an additional seat for some time, although they provide a refund for the second seat if the plane is not full. (But why? After all, it take twice as much fuel to get a 300 pounder aloft as it does someone weighing half as much. Isn't that the very same logic they use to charge us for extra baggage?)

And now United Airlines is following suit. A representative for that airline says they received more than 700 complaints about overweight passengers last year. Just imagine how many passengers suffered through a fat-seatmate experience and didn’t go to the trouble of complaining.

Come to think of it – and I'm sure you saw this coming – this is just one more reason to take the train, isn’t it! Big, wide seats, plenty of room for everyone. Oh … with one possible exception. I once had a car attendant describe in hilarious detail the time it took three of them to pull a seriously overweight woman out of one of the Amtrak lavatories. I’d love to believe it was the lady from Seat B!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Amtrak News: A Little of This and a Little of That

Amtrak is currently looking into adding a train that would connect two of Ohio’s largest cities, Cleveland and Cincinnati. That has prompted officials in several towns and cities along the proposed route to begin lobbying for the train to stop in their town. One such is Columbus and that would sure seem to make sense. It is, after all, the state capital!!

After more than 25 years of waiting, there is hope. Or, more precisely, Hope (with a capital H), Arkansas. Amtrak and the Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the tracks, have apparently reached an agreement to include a stop in that town by the daily Texas Eagle. The train already makes five stops in Arkansas, but adding Hope will be more convenient for people wanting to visit President Clinton’s birthplace and a museum that’s there.

Some of the details are missing for what follows, but what the hell? Amtrak’s Southwest Chief was going to be a half hour at the Lawrence, Kansas, train station last Friday, so some of the locals organized a party on the platform with bluegrass music and refreshments. It was all scheduled to start at 11:30 p.m. and end an hour later – well, to be precise, at 12:32 a.m. – when the Chief was scheduled to depart. No reason given for the half 30 minute wait in the Lawrence station. Crew change, perhaps. Anyone know?

As mentioned a few days ago, earning points when you travel on Amtrak is a good way to get free trips. But you must be a member of Amtrak’s Guest Rewards program. And now through the end of August, bonus points are being given. Go here and click the "Earn Rewards" tab to sign up.

Yet another report about communities wanting passenger train service, this time from Iowa City where they’re hoping for a rail link with Chicago. Note, however, the comment that follows this brief article. Some people just don’t get it. This guy is driving on subsidized roads and flying on subsidized airlines, but doesn’t think taxpayers should help pay for rail travel. Maybe if we privatized pedestrian traffic and he had to pay a toll for walking on the sidewalks in his town he’d get the message!

Monday, June 22, 2009

But It Was Just A LITTLE Screw-Up!

A couple of days ago, a mom in Boston paid the extra fee to have Continental Airlines employees look after her 10-year-old daughter who was flying by herself on a flight to Cleveland for a visit with her grandparents. It all went off without a hitch … except for one small detail: the Continental people put the kid on a flight to Newark by mistake.

It took a while, but everything was finally sorted out. Continental flew the kid to the right city and, to make amends -- Are you ready? -- offered to refund the extra Unaccompanied Minor Fee.

I wonder how much more that “gesture” is gonna cost the airline when the lawyer for the kid’s parents gets through with them!

Friday, June 19, 2009

What Is It About ‘Simple’ They Don’t Understand?

Every morning when I turn on my computer, up pops a new page telling me to login to Windows Live Messenger. This all started about a week ago. I didn’t ask for it. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what it does. And whatever it is, I don‘t want it. But I don’t know how to make it stop!

I don’t want my computer or cell phone or TV remote to have a lot of “features.” I want simple. I want easy. And I want it in large type. Why can’t Sam Sung and others of his ilk understand that?

Furthermore, a helluva lot of people apparently agree with me. A couple of days ago, CNN began asking on line viewers to respond to the following question:

Does your cell phone have the features you want?

Of the almost 330,000 people who have responded so far, only 21% said NO -- clearly these were the technology addicts -- and 29% said YES. But 49 percent checked the box indicating “I just want it to ring.”

In other words, half the population just wants a phone that (a) makes calls and (b) receives calls. That’s it. Nothing else. What a freakin’ concept!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart?

I wrote a while back about how the privatization of passenger rail in Mexico more than ten years ago has resulted in the near-total collapse of any kind of decent, reliable train service in that country. At this time, the only regular passenger service is the train that runs daily in both directions between Chihuahua and Los Mochis through the Copper Canyon.

The Copper Canyon – actually a series of five connecting canyons – is five times larger and a mile deeper than our Grand Canyon. Clearly, and justifiably, it’s a major visitor attraction, but it does seem very likely that even this service would have disappeared were it not for the tourists who visit Mexico to ride through this spectacular scenery.

Well, what a surprise! The Brits are experiencing the same problems after privatization came to passenger rail in that country. Service declined, ticket prices increased, and gaps appeared in the national system since the private companies had to have financial incentive to connect their various routes. And here's the ultimate irony: the government is still providing subsidies to keep these private operators in business and essential passenger rail services running.

Still, there are plenty of people in this country – ideological zealots and others who simply are ignorant of the facts – who still grumble about federal and state government subsidies to Amtrak and who continue to propose privatizing some of the routes.

Why is it we simply refuse to learn from the experiences of others? Oh, wait … now I remember … it's because we’re bigger and better and smarter than everyone else, right?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

“If They Build It, People Will Come.”

The four-hour, 275-mile drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas is pretty awful – up through Victorville and Barstow, then on and on through lots of hot, dry nothing, often with heavy, speeding and frequently drunken traffic.

For years there has been talk of high-speed trains linking those two cities. One idea is for a magnetic levitation line that could support trains reaching speeds of 300 mile-per-hour. Another idea being promoted is a more conventional high-speed train that would run at 150 mph -- half as fast, but still cutting travel time in half.

Of the two schemes, the maglev is much more expensive and the technology is not yet proven over time. As far as I know the only such line operating on a regular basis is in China – a 7-minute, 20-mile run from Shanghai’s airport into the city.

The other proposal is less costly and is being proposed by a private company, an attractive idea in these lean times.

It doesn’t matter which rail alternative is chosen because it will beat the hell out of that miserable drive.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Absolute Ultimate Model Train Set-Up

Like most guys, I've always enjoyed model trains. My parents had a friend with an elaborate set-up in his basement, with track running in every direction. Just as you started down his basement stairway you passed a half-dozen hooks, with an engineer's cap hanging from each. No one was permitted in the basement without wearing one. It was very cool!

Several years ago – before the Iron Curtain came down – my wife and daughter and I arrived in Nuremberg, Germany as we returned to the West by train after visits to Hungary and Prague. Our daughter was not quite seven at the time and we had promised her a new toy at the end of our trip.

There is a wonderful toy museum in Nuremberg and we paid a visit there as soon as we were settled in a quaint little hotel. It was, as I recall, a five-story building and when we arrived at the top floor I was startled to find a wonderful model train layout laid out on a platform that was probably 30x50 feet in area. And get this: It was a replica of the Omaha, Nebraska rail yard! (This photo is of another display in that city.)

But speaking of model railroad layouts, take a look at this video. Without question, this has got to be the most fabulous, most elaborate, biggest, most unbelievable …

Well, click and see for yourself!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Getting a Free Ride on Amtrak

A lot of us are into the various awards programs run by the airlines. I’ve been in American’s Aadvantage program for years and we have used the miles earned for several free flights to the U.S. mainland and once for a round trip to Europe.

Amtrak also has an awards program – called Amtrak Guest Rewards – and I’m using some of the points I've earned during a cross country rail trip in July when I go back to Boston to see the Red Sox in a three-game series at Fenway Park.

I’ll use American Airlines mileage to get to the west coast, and am paying for my Amtrak tickets from there to Boston, from Boston down to Baltimore (where I’ll see two Red Sox-Oriole games), and back to Chicago. But my Chicago-to-Seattle ride in a sleeper on the Empire Builder comes at no cost this time, thanks to points I have accumulated in the Guest Rewards program.

Definitely worth the effort.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Here Come the Back-Stabbers. Why Are We Not Surprised!

This comes under the category of "Other Things."

Remember how the health care industry made a big public show of promising to work with Obama to lower health care costs and reform the system?

Well, fuggedaboudit!

Check out the Crooks and Liars web site where there is a video clip of a TV spot put out by the health care industry – the first of many to come -- knocking Obama’s plans for reform. The person looking into the camera is a crud by the name of Rick Scott, a pal and heavy contributor to George W. Bush and the former head of a hospital chain that was nailed for cheating Medicare out of millions of dollars.

Crooks and Liars has also published a list of the top ten highest paid CEOs in the health care field for last year. Number One is Ron Williams of Aetna (photo above) whose total compensation for the year came to more than 24 million bucks. And, in the meantime, my co-pay for a single office visit has gone up from $10 in 2007 to $24 this year.

What a bunch of slimy bastards! And how stupid are we to even consider their “arguments!”

Monday, June 8, 2009

More Trains? Great ... But First Things First!

For weeks now, there has been a lot of talk about new Amtrak routes: A second LA to Seattle train, New Orleans to Florida, a second route across southern Montana, restoring the Pioneer from Denver to Seattle, and several other shorter routes.

All of these ideas have merit if we are to ever have a truly national rail passenger system. But they all overlook one critical problem: Amtrak doesn’t have the rail cars to add any new service!

What’s more, there are no new rail cars on order and even if an order is placed, there will be at least a three year delay while a manufacturer gears up and work actually starts before any new cars are actually put into service.

So up steps Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. Hey, she says, we have idle factories and laid-off workers here in Michigan who are ready to build those rail cars.

Yes! Good for you, Governor! Let’s use some of that stimulus money to start adding rolling stock to Amtrak’s fleet. It will create jobs and will be an important – no, essential – first step to expanding and improving our national passenger rail system.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Why Can’t We Ever Learn From Past Mistakes?

Like ours, the Canadian government is facing financial difficulties. So their Department of Finance is looking at selling off some government owned and government supported entities … such as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the National Arts Centre.

(Picture for just a brief, horrible moment, what would happen if someone like Rupert Murdoch , the owner of Fox News, outbid eveyone else and took over our PBS!)

Included in their list for possible privatization is VIA Rail, Canada’s equivalent to our Amtrak.

This is a very bad idea.

Privatization does not, will not, cannot support a money-losing enterprise, and nowhere else in the world does a national passenger rail system make money.

Case in point: Ten years ago, the Mexican government privatized all the passenger rail service throughout the country. Today only one passenger train remains, running twice-daily from Chihuahua to Los Mochis through the scenic Copper Canyon. And it would almost certainly shut down without the tourists who pay top dollar to ride it.

Privatize VIA Rail? Stupid … short sighted … and destined to fail.

What the hell are they thinking??

Thursday, June 4, 2009

What Do They Got That We Ain’t Got?

Most people are aware that when it comes to high speed train service, France has led the way with its TGV. They’ve been at it a long time and are acknowledged as probably the best in the world in terms of operating a passenger rail system that effectively and efficiently services the entire country.

But look out … here comes Spain! After pretty much starting from scratch in 1992, the Spaniards will have an integrated 6,000-mile high-speed system linking the entire country by 2020 … and they will have done it all in less than 30 years.

The AVE trains run at speeds up to 300 kilometers an hour -- that's 187 mph -- and link many of the major Spanish cities. And the system has already changed the way Spaniards travel, drawing business from the airlines and inducing people with a reputation as home-bodies to get out, move around and see the rest of their country.

Our politicians are constantly bragging about this being “the greatest country in the world.” Well then, surely we ought to be able to build a decent high speed rail system linking our major cities … especially if the Spain and France and Japan and Poland and Russia and Germany and damn near every other industrialized country in the world has already done it!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A New – and Excellent – Idea for the Sunset Limited

Several posts back, I wrote about various proposals floating around out there that would, in effect, restore passenger train service between New Orleans and Florida. That segment, as most of you probably know, was provided by Amtrak’s Sunset Limited until Hurricane Katrina tore up miles of track in Mississippi and through the Florida Panhandle. CSX has long since rebuilt the track, but Amtrak has never reinstated that part of the Sunset’s route.

A bit of background: Pre-Katrina, the Sunset Limited ran three times a week between Los Angeles and Orlando, via New Orleans. I rode the train several times and, although it was a magnificent trip, ridership between New Orleans and Florida was never much to crow about. Most people agree there were two main reasons for that.

First, the train only operates three days a week, making connections inconvenient … indeed requiring in some cases a two-night layover.

Second, the Sunset runs on track owned and controlled by Union Pacific and CSX, and while things have improved the two freight railroads often made the Sunset wait while giving priority to their freight trains. So arrival and departure times were unreliable – and often a joke – resulting in inconvenience and often extra expense to passengers and Amtrak alike.

But, as a practical matter, any rail route of 3,000 miles is a difficult proposition. Even if the train runs on time, it will necessarily pass through some cities along the way in the wee hours of the morning.

The quarterly magazine Passenger Train Journal has come up with a proposal in their latest issue that seems to make a lot of sense. They suggest Amtrak should operate the Sunset between Los Angeles and Dallas-Forth Worth, and link there to a new train that would go on to Orlando. They even suggest a name for the new train – the Cajun King.

Having Dallas-Fort Worth as one terminus for both trains makes sense, too. The DFW area is a big market and that means lots of potential riders. The Sunset now goes much farther south, through San Antonio and Houston.

I’d love to link you to the PTJ story, but as far as I can tell the magazine itself isn’t on line.

The positive thing about all this is that, after years of cutbacks, there is finally some serious talk about expanding Amtrak service. That is indeed good news.

And dontcha think Cajun King has a nice ring to it?