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January 30, 2009 | 13 Comments

Why I will never fly US Air

You will have heard by now that US Air has offered the Hudson crash survivors a full year’s worth of upgrades for their trouble. “Sorry you nearly died. Here’s a coupon for extra peanuts when next you fly.”

Well, you can argue that the crash was not entirely, or even any, of US Air’s fault, so it’s not clear that they owe the passengers much of anything beyond paying for their lost luggage and refunding their original ticket price (no word whether they have done that). A coupon to upgrade is a particularly stupid palliative; at least, it sounds lame.

An “upgrade”, after all, means you first have to give money to US Air for a lower-class ticket. They will then, if possible, offer you a slightly roomier seat if they have it. Don’t forget that most US Air flights are on aircraft that have only one class: there is nowhere to upgrade to most of the time. Plus, most people only fly maybe once or twice a year anyway, and it’s not clear how quickly these water-logged people will return to the air.

But this incident of ham-handedness by US Air is not the reason I will not ever, under any circumstances, fly them. This is.

About three years ago I bought a round-trip ticket to visit a friend in Knoxville, Tennessee. Before I left for the trip, I was offered a job interview at the University of Florida. It made sense to go their first and then, from Gainesville, head up to Knoxville and then home. So I had the university buy me a ticket from New York to Gainesville, and from there to Knoxville.

When it was time to leave Knoxville, I tried to get my boarding pass from the US Air agents. They said my ticket was canceled. Why? Because I did not show up for the flight down to Knoxville. I explained that this was true, that I had gone elsewhere, but here I am now; plus, I have given you nearly $400 for the ticket.

They insisted that the ticket was null. The agent was even angry with me for asking for my ticket. She (and a he) said, “When you buy a ticket with us, you are agreeing to a legally biding contract.” I said, OK, that must mean that you are agreeing to one, too, so what about the $400 I gave you? They said I “broke my contract” by not having them fly me—and thus costing them money in increased fuel usage and attention by flight staff. If anything, I said, I saved you money.

But they would not relent. I kept asking: “What do I get for giving you $400?” They never would answer. They next claimed that it was I that was cheating them! How? Because my buying a round-trip ticket two months in advance was a way to avoid paying a higher one-way fare on the day of travel.

They acknowledged that I did in fact live in New York and that that strategy made no sense, but they insisted that I was trying to cheat them. I again asked what was I getting for the $400 I had already given them. They responded in two ways. The first was to offer to sell me, for roughly $600, a new ticket to New York. When I said that that was idiotic, they then threatened to have me arrested for causing a disturbance. They even called over the airport police. The policeman stood listening to us go back and forth, and thank God, he never seemed interested in arresting me for trying to get my money back.

After about twenty minutes of this, I left, exasperated. I went to the Continental counter and bought a ticket there (about $600, too).

I understand that some airlines attempt to use various complex pricing models to squeeze more money out of certain classes of passengers, but excessive reliance of these models can end up costing them more money than they make. Other airlines, JetBlue for instance, does fine without these oddities.

In any case, US Air is obviously staffed by inflexible, uncaring, heard-hearted half wits. Which is why they can only offer “free” upgrades after one of their planes crash.

January 28, 2009 | 15 Comments

Playing catch up

When I was out, a lot of people sent me leads and links which I did not have time to upload. Here are a few of them.

* Many people emailed me this article from the New York Times about the R statistical software platform.

R is my daily bread and butter. It is probably the most used piece of statistical software, in the sense that most statisticians have a copy of it. I am lucky, because I am independent and I can choose to use what I like, and my luck is extended because of the beauty of R. Many statisticians are not so fortunate, however, and are forced to use something ugly, and ridiculously expensive, like SAS. Remind me to tell you sometime why SAS is so awful.

* Tom Hamill sent this Time’s article about the failure of Value at Risk (VAR) models in the finance industry. Our friend, Black Swan ego-boy Nicolas Taleb is there calling everybody idiots and “intellectual charlatans.”

* Tom also sent this along. Just click and then come back. Yes, people have truly lost their minds. Except for scanning for metal weapons, everything about airport security is useless and even harmful as it gives a false sense of security. Liquids? Don’t get me started. Strap a plastic bottle full of explosive fluid to a woman’s leg; as long as she wears a skirt, it gets through, etc., etc.

* My Aunt Kayla sent me this article, subtitled “Who will wear the Chief Probability Officer hat in your organization?” I hereby volunteer to be the CPO at any large company as long as my executive compensation package is at least half as large as any other officer. I’m not greedy. I’ll sit in my office all day with my auguries and predict. Incidentally, JMP is software developed by SAS when they realized SAS stunk.

* Harvey Motulsky noticed that Dilbert’s creator Scott Adams is fond of statistical argumentation.

January 26, 2009 | 7 Comments

Just got back

Thanks to all who commented on the Dahn Yoga story, and on the Taiwan trip. I’ll be writing more about Taiwan over the next week.

I’m back a few days later than I had thought and am behind on a bunch of work, but I’ll try and go through the old comments and answer questions when I can.

January 16, 2009 | 16 Comments

Random encounters

(All the Chinese words are my own spelling.)

There are a lot of other akward, geeky white guys in Taipei, but apparently not too many because I find I am a bit of a spectable in many places. My presence has lead to some strange meetings.

One old man with just a few teeth left came up to me and stuck up his thumb and said, “Number one!” It was so sudden, all I could remember was Japanese—“Ichiban desu!” I put my thumb up, too. He said, “Number one good!” I finally remembered the Chinese, “Hao Ban!” He left, very satisfied, saying “Good, good.”

Another old man saw me from a distance and waited until I wandered near. He said, in English, “Do you speak Chinese?” I said, “Yi dian dian” (a little bit). Didn’t phase him. “Do you speak Japanese?” I said, “Hai. Wakarimasu. Skoshi desu.” He gave me a bg smile and walked off repeating “Wakarimasu“.

The last time I was here I was in a toilet and a guy was at the sink. I was about to wash my hands and he just stuck his hand out to me to shake. I did. He nodded and left. No expression on his face the whole time.

I was at a street fair and a businessman started to walk beside me. He finally worked up the courage to say something. “Why are you in Taiwan?” I said, “Vacation” He said, “That’s good.” I told him I loved Taipei, the food especially, and that I was very happy to be here. I could see his chest swell with pride. I made the man very happy.

A man at a Hakka rice wine stand saw me and said, “Where are you from.” I told him New York. He smiled and said, “Good bye!”

When I am at street food stands, the proprietresses (more women than men run these stations) often watch me eat every bite, so I feel like I have to put on a bit of a performance. I repeat “Hao chu!” (delicious) or “Hao hua!” (same for liquids). I make delicious faces and act as if I’m critically assessing the food. With the amount that I am eating, I am making friends all over the island.

The encounters aren’t always good, though, but only because my Chinese stinks. For example, I am so stupid that I can never remember the difference between the words Bukachi and Duebachi. This can lead to disaster. Yesterday, at a Japanese bakery, I bumped into an old lady and upset her tray of food. “Bukachi!” I announced. The look she gave me! It means “You’re welcome!” I did the same thing to a young woman whose foot I stepped on causing her shoe to come off, and to a guy driving a car that I stupidly stepped in front of. I keep telling people they are welcome for me making an idiot of myself. I should say Duebachi, which of course means “I’m sorry”.