Trains and Planes

Since I’ve moved to Germany, I have a new choice to make when travelling — whether to take a plane or a train when travelling medium distances. There are a few trip planners out there that will show you all of your options for getting from city to city, but they mostly focus on cost and schedule. They say you make what you measure, and in the two variables of time and cost, the train usually doesn’t come out very well, especially around Berlin where even the high speed lines aren’t very fast.

Why do people take these things then, when airplanes fly at 800 kph, and average train speeds including stops are very often less than 110 kph?  It’s all of the things that aren’t captured by that number.  The experience of taking an airplane is bad and keeps getting worse, but it could get better if we focused on what makes trains great and tried to adapt it to planes.

The problem starts when getting to the airport.  Most airports are far from the city center because they are so big and generate noise.  Newer airports only make the problem worse, because a new airport is always bigger than the old airport, and the land close to the city center is not available.  To allow high volume IFR departures and arrivals, the current thinking is to have a as many parallel runways as possible, with runways spaced 4300 feet apart to meet the regulatory spacing for simultaneous approaches.  10000 foot runways x 4300 foot spacing means at least 3 square miles at a minimum for a new modern airport, but technology could allow us to do better!  London City airport is the best example.  With a very small footprint, and a 5000 foot runway, it manages to move 30 million passengers per year.  The trick is using short takeoff and landing airplanes.  For the width issue, at SFO, they have 750 foot spaced runways and in reasonable weather can use both using a procedure called SOIA.  With more modern navigation technology, we could also have much more closely spaced runways and still safely land aircraft in IFR conditions.

The result is, airports are hard to get to, and usually have poor or time consuming train connections.  On the other hand, train stations are usually near the city center, and are almost necessarily connected to the city’s metro system because the metro can use the same rail rights of way as the intercity trains.  Furthermore, in bigger cities, the train will often call at two or three stations in the city, making it even more convenient to get to the train station.  Since the train can make quick stops, this doesn’t slow down the train excessively.

The second problem is loading and unloading.  Loading an airplane is slow and unpleasant, and has gotten worse.  Here’s why the train is better:  First, doors.  The typical second class train carriage has about 60 seats and has two wide doors, leading to a 21 inch wide aisle.  There are only four seats per row.  A 737 has a 17 inch wide aisle, which is not wide enough for two people to pass, and is usually loaded from a single ended jet bridge, leading to a small door.  What this adds up to is that you can load a train in 4 minutes, and it takes 25 minutes to load an airplane.  Worse, on an airplane, the procedure is to line up for boarding, have your ticket checked, only to have to line up in the jet bridge, to line up in the cramped aisle, put your suitcase overhead, and then ask the guy already sitting to get up so you can take your window seat.  On a train, you simply stand on the platform, and when the train arrives, you hop on, quickly get to your seat, and sit down.  Once you’re underway, someone will come around to check your ticket as you’re seated and relaxed.

If the airlines had more boarding groups, and called them slowly enough that there weren’t lines after taking tickets, the whole process would be much more relaxed.  Better yet, slightly wider aisles would allow people to pass in the aisle, greatly speeding up loading.  The biggest Duh of the airline industry is why major carriers aren’t loading from both ends of the plane.  Low cost carriers routinely do this with air stairs on the tarmac, and double ended jet bridges have been tried, but abandoned due to technical problems.  In practice, they reduced the total time to load and unload the plane by over 13 minutes!  That’s 13 aggravating, uncomfortable minutes per segment.  Wider doors would be another great improvement.  The ever controversial Michael O’Leary wants wider doors, but evidently has to go to China to get them!  The big elephant in the past few years is of course baggage fees.  Now that everyone is carrying on, we have to suffer with the unpleasantness of everyone putting huge suitcases in the overhead bins, and wandering around looking for overhead space.

Finally, there’s the airport itself.  When you do finally arrive at the airport, you must wade through lines to get your boarding pass if you need it, and check your bags.  Then, you wait in another line to go through security.  The security process has been made so absurd that a typical traveller will have to empty his pockets into his bag, remove his shoes, belt, and coat, put them in bins, take their laptop out of its case, put it in a separate bin, wait in another line for the metal detector/naked scanner, keep an eye on their possessions, and finally put it all back together.  The whole process usually takes about 10 minutes, but on an unlucky day, it will be 30.  Then, you must walk to your gate, which may be some distance from the security checkpoint.  At places like Heathrow Terminal 5, this is often a very long distance, and this is now by design.  Airports now resemble a shopping mall with an aviation division.  Older airports such as O’Hare and Berlin Tegel are much more efficient in walking distance, but sacrifice retail space, the profit center of the airport.

The end result is that you must arrive at the airport an hour before your flight, and much of that hour stressful, unpleasant, hurry-up-and-wait action.  On the train, 10 minutes is usually more than enough time to catch a train.  The security requirements of train travel are arguably the same as an airplane — both are fast moving, passenger laden, high profile targets.  At the very least, money should be spent on making the security process better.  This means bigger tables to unload your stuff into bins, more staff for less waiting, and staff to actually help you get your stuff in and out of the x-ray machine.  Absurd requirements like removing shoes, laptops, belts, and change still exist, when technology should be able to solve them.

This is a market ripe for disruption, and airlines need to take the lead.  The first step is better measurement.  Airlines need to stop posting schedules of aircraft door closing to airport door opening times, and start posting true door to door times — passenger enters the airport to passenger exits the airport times.  Then airlines can start competing on what really matters, and maybe even improve on their dismal profits.



01 2013

Runkeeper Exporter

As some of you may know, I’m into self-tracking, and Runkeeper has been one of my staples since I started running last year. Runkeeper is great software, but doesn’t have any export capability for the summary data. I decided to fix this, and thought I’d make a web service out of it for others in the same boat. Here it is. The page is self-explanatory — just make your runs public on Runkeeper, enter your username, and voila, you have a CSV file.


06 2010

What happened to California?

In my car I like to spend my time listening to things that are as interesting and useful as possible. One of the recurring items on my playlist is the Commonwealth Club podcast. A couple of days ago I listened to this lecture by William T. Bagley. Bagley was a California Asssemblyman for a number of years in the sixties and seventies, and he talks about how things were different back then, and particularly how much less polarized California politics was. What is interesting is that he essentially champions the old smoke filled rooms as being temples of good, pragmatic government and fair compromise.

There are a number of very specific laws and events that he cites that led California from good government to the near collapse that it is in today. The first is the lack of personal relationships between Assemblymen, especially across the asile. Bagley cites a few reasons for this. For starters, the asile itself! Before Prop 13, the Assembly was not segregated by party, so Democrats and Republicans would sit next to each other. Simply sitting next to someone every day fosters at least a basic level of cooperation, and it’s harder to turn the knife when you have to look the guy in the eye the next day.

Bagley makes special mention of lobbying rules restricting lobbyists spending more than $10 per month on an Assemblyman. This led to the end of the longstanding practice of legislators from boths parties meeting for lunch and at other social events that were paid for by lobbyists. Without the lobbyists, there was no one to organize and pay for all of these social events, so Democrats simply stopped socializing with Republicans.

The other big area Bagley thinks led to this travesty is structural changes in the composition of the Assembly. The six year term limit led to legislators that didn’t know each other, and didn’t have enough time to begin to trust one another. Furthermore, he thinks that six years isn’t enough to understand how the legislature works, to formulate a personal cause, and develop the alliances necessary to pass legislation to advance it. Worse, because these relatively junior legislators don’t understand the government well enough to make their own decisions on issues, they tend to vote strictly according to the position papers put out by their party, rather than trying to find a compromise across party lines.

The only ray of hope Bagley cites is redistricting. Some time ago, both parties got together to redistrict California to create virtually exclusively safe seats. This led to the primaries becoming the important election, and so candidates appeared that could win their party’s primary, but that were not necessarily appealing to the electorate as a whole. With a legislature full of members who only fear a primary loss, there is much less incentive to compromise with the other party. Luckily, California will be redistricting in a few years in a nonpartisan way, and hopefully we will see more competition from the center in these seats.


05 2010

RescueTime Orb

In 1911, E.L. Thorndike observed that “Of several responses made to the same situation, those which are accompanied or closely followed by satisfaction to the animal…will, other things being equal, be more firmly connected with the situation…; those which are accompanied or closely followed by discomfort…will have their connections with the situation weakened.”

I’ve been a fan of RescueTime for some time now.  It’s great for helping cross-check a time sheet for a client.  For an consultant who eats by making every hour worthwhile, it’s really good for squeezing out distractions.  However, I’ve often wanted a more immediate readout on how I’m doing throughout the day, both as an encouragement, and as a friendly reminder to get back to something that has a bigger payoff.

So last week, I decided to make it a small project, and learn PyObjC in the process.  The concept is simple.  A big glowing circle that smoothly changes color from green to red as your RescueTime productivity score changes.  It’s set to look at roughly the last hour, with a higher weighting on more recent data.

I call it the RescueTime Orb, and it’s available for Download (Mac only, for now)  You do need a RescueTime account, and you will need an API key for it.

To install, open the .dmg file, drag it to your applications directory, then go onto the RescueTime site.  Go to the very bottom of the dashboard page, and find the “Embeds and Data API” link.

Then, click “Setup Data API”:

Then, enter a name, and copy the API key. Take this API key, open your text editor of choice, and put just the API key into a file called .rt_api_key and save it in your home directory. For those not so Unix inclined, in Places in the Finder, the home directory is the folder with the picture of the house, and its name is your username. Make sure that the filename begins with a dot.

Now, fire up RescueTimeOrb, and get to work.


01 2010


Obama has given his speech, and Republicans and Democrats, we are all bastards now.  We’ve gone all in in Afghanistan, and one can’t help but looking back to 1964, or 1980, depending on which side of the Iron Curtain you lived on back then.  Now, I’m not opposed to making a big push in Afghanistan.  Obama’s campaign promise was to wind up Iraq so that we could focus on the real threat — Afghanistan.  It’s just that there is an immense fog between here and there.  No one seems to really know what is going on, and it’s not clear whether victory is possible.

But of course I’m getting ahead of myself.  What is Victory in Afghanistan?  Certainly we would like to kill all of the terrorists in Afghanistan, but the real goal of course is to set up a system there that is closer to our own than the one they currently have.  We need this because the political will to keep fighting will eventually wane for us, and the children of our way of thinking must carry on keeping the countryside free of overt terrorist scheming when we have left.  We think hierarchically.  Our system is a central government with limited, but defined powers, which exist in practice, and ensure basic minimum standards of behavior.  Our central government is accountable to the outside world, and we want a government there that will be accountable to us, meaning the United States, and the rest of the developed world who is scared to hell of more things blowing up.

The Afghan system as it has existed essentially forever, is not to do any of these things.  The central government’s practical power has never been enough to provide accountability to the rest of the world.  Without the U.S. Military there, if someone is building a bomb in the mountains, there isn’t much the central government can do about it unless they can find some reason for the local warlord to be interested in what someone eight thousand miles away thinks about it.

I have no solution for this directly, but there is one thing that has always worked to bring another culture closer to ours, and that is to go there and live in numbers, and for them to come and live with us.  Right now, the central government there is weak, partially because Afghanistan does not have a real professional military along Western lines, with a clear chain of command that is followed in virtually all circumstances.  Without the authority over a real force, there can be no accountability to the outside world. What we need to do is to bring their recruits to the United States to do their training.  We should bring them here by the thousands, to live on our military bases, and even to leave the bases, of course with appropriate precautions.  This will finally provide a real opportunity for many more people here to meet people from there, and get to understand their way of thinking, and to immerse them in ours.  Even better, by doing their training here, we save billions of dollars shipping supplies, and supporting an army there to do training.  Instead, training is done here, at dramatically lower cost, and in our environment, where they will be infected by our culture, and return to spread it.


12 2009

Notes on U-Verse DNS

I recently switched my internet service to AT&T U-Verse, and while the performance is as advertised, there was a problem I encountered.  U-Verse gives you a 2Wire brand router which is also the DSL modem, and as a modem, it works fine.  As a router though, it wants to make itself your DNS server and essentially act as a proxy DNS server.  I suppose that this is so that you don’t have to type the IP address of the router when you configure it.

Unfortunately, the DNS proxying adds about 1-2 seconds to the latency of the DNS query.  This makes using the web really sluggish when going to a site that isn’t in the DNS cache on your computer.

Since the usual way to get the DNS server address and your computer’s IP address is through DHCP from the 2Wire box, and there is no way of changing the DHCP behavior of the box, there are two solutions to this.  First, you can manually configure the DNS server address on your computer.

Unfortunately, on the Mac, this means that you won’t be able to use DHCP when you’re out of the house on someone else’s Wi-Fi.  My solution is to use a different Wi-Fi router, set the 2Wire box up in DMZ mode, and configure the second router to provide AT&T’s DNS server through DHCP, and use the IP address that the 2Wire router assigns.


10 2009

The Trade-Down Option

While the mortgage crisis has abated a bit, housing values are still significantly down from their peak.  The average sold price has gone from $322,000 to 273,000 since 2007.  This leaves a lot of people with underwater mortgages.  For recent buyers, this has created a wave of foreclosures.  In any economy, a certain number of people will be unable to make the mortgage due to job loss, medical problems, or just simple over extension from the beginning.  Most times, this is an extremely stressful situation, but not a tragedy, because the buyer put 20% down, and real estate prices have tended to go up.  Therefore, the person who got into trouble would simply sell the house for more than the balance on the mortgage, pay off the mortgage, and find a new, smaller house to buy or rent.

Unfortunately in our current economy, several factors make this impossible for many people.  First, in the past half decade or so, lenders were making a lot of loans with zero or reduced down payments, and amortization schedules that built up little or no equity.  This dramatically increased the pool of dollars chasing housing assets, driving up prices, and bringing buyers more likely to default into the housing market.  This meant more people who couldn’t afford their mortgages, and more of those buyers could not sell their house for more than the balance of the loan.

As a result of this situation, the number of defaults has increased dramatically.  This caused lending standards to tighten up again, reversing the price increase caused by the looser standards.  The price decline further exacerbated the problem of low equity, as no or low equity became negative equity.

This creates quite a problem for the person who is not necessarily in dire financial straits, but needs to move for a job or for other reasons.  Many people are now effectively locked in their current home unless they are willing to default and rent somewhere else.

Let’s take a typical example.  Jones buys a $300,000 house in 2007.  In 2009, he loses his job, and he’d like to move to another city where jobs are more available.  His house is now worth $240,000.  Unfortunately, he only put 5% down, and got an interest only loan, so he would have to pay $45,000 plus a real estate commission of $14,000.  Being unemployed with little savings, he doesn’t have a spare $59,000 kicking around.  Therefore, he stays and tries to find another job, perhaps eventually defaulting.  Alternately, he might decide to live in the house, not paying the mortgage while waiting for foreclosure to save his money.   The lack of a mortgage payment and the cost of the foreclosure, of course, will cost the bank up to 50% of the value of the house.  Either way, the default ruins Jones’ credit, may keep his life on hold, and costs the bank a six figure sum.

One solution is to allow Jones to do a short sale.  This costs the bank $59,000, which is better than $150,000, but still a lot of money.  The bank will not want to do this unless it thinks Jones is very likely to default if they don’t agree to the short sale.  The bank also doesn’t want to create a prescient for other borrowers that might be able to keep making payments.

Jones might not even be in serious danger of default.  He might be able to get a lesser job that will pay the mortgage, but he would really rather move where he could get a new one.

Ultimately this all leads to the conclusion that the bank should let him move.  The bank has already lost its security for the loan — It can recover some of the lost money, but not all, and so the loan is only partially secured by real property.  The bank doesn’t want to just let Jones sell the house and write them an IOU for the balance, because Jones has a lot less incentive to make the monthly payment on that loan than he does on the existing one.  Furthermore, with current lending rules, Jones would probably have to come up with a 20% down payment on the new house, which he almost certainly does not have.

So why not have the bank let him move to a new house with the old mortgage?  The bank would require that he sell his existing house first, and then would allow him to buy a new house with the proceeds from the sale.  Any money left over would pay down the balance on the existing loan.

This way, the bank keeps its security — the remaining unsecured balance is constant or down, and Jones gets to move.  Furthermore, with the new job, Jones is much more likely to continue to make payments on the existing loan.

If Jones was overextended, he would move into a smaller house, trading down in house, but with the lower loan balance, getting a lower payment in the process.  The bank might require this if Jones did not meet current income guidelines in the new house.  The lower payment would make Jones much more likely ultimately repay the loan.

The bank might even ask that he move into one of the foreclosed bank-owned properties that are littering their balance sheets.  This solves two big problems for the bank simultaneously.

With the huge advantages to banks and Jones, why aren’t we seeing this as an option?


09 2009

Where’s the opportunity in the ruins of Detroit?

Detroit has been on a long downward spiral for the past twenty years, as domestic auto manufacturing has moved overseas and south.  The reasons for this are many, but the result is tragic.  What Detroit needs is a new industry, and that industry is Retirement.

Detroit has a huge housing stock that is now available at low prices.  With a lack of jobs and housing for many more than can be employed, prices have plumetted.  Most people need a job in order to move to a new city, but retirees are price sensitive, and do not need jobs.  In fact, retirees have social security income and savings which are spent in the local economy.  The only things keeping retirees from moving to Detroit are crime and the weather.

We can’t do a whole lot about the weather.  Short of building a gigantic climate controlled dome over a portion of the city, Detroit is going to be cold in the winter.  Some retirees are used to this though and would do just fine in a colder climate.  The crime though, is a solvable problem.  If an enterprising developer bought up a square mile or so of blighted housing, and turned it into a gated retirement community with good security, crime in the retired area could be kept to a minimum.  The retirement area of course would have lots of recreation and activities for retirees, just like the sun belt communities do.

Even better for Detroit though is the economic effect that such a community would have.  Although the homes in Detroit are older and better constructed than newer homes, older homes do need maintainence.  The older population would not be able to do as much as younger home owners, and so the home maintainence industry would have to expand to keep the homes of the retired in good condition.  Lots of other services would be required, too, just as any other retirement community.

So who’s going to be the first to jump at this?  Interest rates are low, and the price of a city block full of homes has never been lower.  The population keeps getting older, and the boomers haven’t saved enough to move to Boca.  It’s time to pack up for Detroit.


06 2009