• Technology,  Travel

    Mobile Service Abroad, Redux



    I’m a T-Mobile subscriber, a decision I made when moving to the U.S. a little over a couple of years ago.  While choosing a mobile carrier generally involves cost, coverage, speed, and technology tradeoffs, one thing I liked about T-Mobile was their fundamental business model; even in 2011, they’d started to move away from the standard but consumer-unfriendly model of inflating monthly plans by about $20/month – to cover the cost of offering a “free” mid-range phone or $200 high-end phone when you sign a new 2-year contract. I don’t know why that’s taken root in North America as the de-facto model, but I suspect it’s the factors that cause North America to have the highest levels of credit card usage and debt. It was thus refreshing to see a carrier make the actual cost of the phone clear, and to offer pricing plans that don’t effectively penalize you for sticking with an older device.

    When I traveled to Asia earlier in the year, I took a few notes on the relative difficulty / ease of getting local mobile coverage in the various places I traveled to. I mentioned that T-Mobile was pretty good about providing an unlock code that allowed us to use a local SIM; it was an easy interaction with their customer service department to get this done.

    However, they stepped things up in an unbelievable way with a recent change to their Simple Choice plans – unlimited, worldwide data at no extra charge.  Considering that Rogers was happy to charge upwards of $300 for data roaming in France for a week (on a Blackberry, where I was careful to use minimal E-mail only data, and where I couldn’t swap SIMs because doing so broke integration with corporate E-mail back then), this was a stunning and unexpected change.  Even a $25/month cap on roaming data charges would have been a welcome surprise; making it free was pretty mind blowing.

    I benefited greatly from this earlier this month, when I went back to Malaysia for my cousins wedding:

    • I traveled via Vancouver, and before the plane even arrived at the gate, I already knew what gate to head to for my ongoing connection. If you’ve ever been on a flight that arrives late when you have a tight connection, you know it really matters that you can walk off the plane knowing exactly where to go, versus getting on Wi-Fi once you’re inside the terminal, or finding the nearest departure information screen.  Plus if you’re just passing through a place, you’d never have arranged for a local SIM.
    • I spent the bulk of my time in Malaysia, and while it was easy to get local service with Maxis (via their Hotlink products) previously, being able to communicate while still inside the baggage claim area definitely beats that. Sure, speeds aren’t the fastest, but frankly for most uses you don’t really need the speed; I couldn’t have watched video, and maps sometimes loaded a little slow, but E-mail, searching, and light browsing were all fine.
    • On my return, due to a deviously hidden change in my flight schedule, I was stuck in Hong Kong for a day; fortunately Valerie noticed this in time for me to get a hotel, which sure beats spending more than a day in the airport. It was pretty empowering to be able to rely on connectivity while finding my way around on a largely unplanned stay where the short duration would have dissuaded me from finding local options.

    I have no doubt that with the plans I’ve had in the past, the data I used on this one-week trip alone would have run me many thousands of dollars.  So it’s quite the gift to get this for free.

    I also have to say that the value of Google Now is massively multiplied by an always-on connection that works almost anywhere in the world. I find Google Now occasionally handy here at home, but having up-to-the minute gate assignments, currency tools, guides to the place I was going, a quick translator (Malay-only labels!), and other such things was significantly more useful in a less familiar area.


  • Travel

    Mobile Service Abroad

    I recently returned from a trip to Asia with the family; we visited Japan, Malaysia, and Taiwan – though the main reason for the travel was my grandfather turning 100! Whereas in the past, traveling meant being disconnected or paying huge roaming fees, this trip was a learning experience in a few different areas. If you’re travelling to one of these three countries, perhaps something we learned will help.


    Japan was one of the first countries to see nearly ubiquitous mobile data access, with people regularly using mobile portals from feature phones way back in the late 90s when I spent a good amount of time there on business. Unfortunately, for a long time, it wasn’t possible to use a foreign phone in Japan; phones there used a TDMA system incompatible with GSM (for 2G voice and EDGE data) as well as an entirely separate PHS system designed for urban use. So even if you were prepared to pay through the nose for roaming, it wasn’t possible.  Fortunately, there is 3G support, so if you have a 3G phone (this chart says the 1700MHz and 2100MHz bands are supported), then you can at least roam there.

    Unfortunately, you can’t really get a prepaid SIM in-country, unless you’ve got resident status in Japan. You can apparently rent a phone or SIM, but you need to arrange this in advance, and the fees I saw associated with this were relatively high if you’re traveling there casually and don’t seriously need to remain connected.  Since we had just a few days in Japan, it wasn’t worth it so we skipped this altogether.

    Sadly, Google Maps doesn’t support offline maps for Japan yet, so in one case we had to rely on caching directions while in hotel Wi-Fi range before heading out.  Free Wi-Fi isn’t that prevalent there either, unfortunately.


    Connectivity in Malaysia was a much easier affair; as long as you bring your passport, a litany of stores in almost any major shopping mall (and KL seems to be 50% major shopping mall by area) will sell you a prepaid 3G SIM. Light research ahead of time suggested that Maxis and Celcom were the two recommended operators from a coverage perspective. Celcom doesn’t charge you for the SIM, it just requires that you do an initial top up of RM80 (a little over US$25). While that’s not a lot, we went with Maxis for four foreign phones we brought with us – there’s a initial SIM charge of RM5 ($1.60), but beyond that, you can top-up whenever you like. Local voice calls were about 0.18 sen ($0.06) per minute; per-KB rates for data are huge, but as long as you’ve got the balance, you can get 1GB of data to use within a week for RM12 ($4) – and if your stay is shorter, you can pay just RM2 ($0.65) per day for up to 200MB of mobile data usage! I wound up paying just RM25 (a little over $8) over 8 days – RM5 for the SIM, RM14 for data, with the remaining RM6 being sufficient for a few dozen short calls to stay in touch with fellow travelers.

    If you do go with Maxis, their current brand name for their prepaid offering is called “Hotlink”; you just need to pick up one of the packages that, as of our visit, looks like this:

    In both of the stores we went to, there were separate lines for Hotlink vs. Maxis’ regular postpaid service, and the Hotlink lines were shorter.  Coverage in KL was better than T-Mobile in the U.S. – though granted, we were right downtown not far from Maxis HQ, so it would be pretty sad if coverage wasn’t good. They’ll happily file things down to micro-SIM proportions if you need it, as we did for a couple of Nexus 4s.

    While there, we also signed her up for a data plan on her Nexus 4; I wish we had the option of a RM68 ($22) 5GB plan over here!


    Like Malaysia, Taiwan also has a number of operators that will gladly sell you a prepaid GSM SIM card, given the necessary identification. However, reading various message boards, Taiwan Mobile (referred to locally as Da Ge Da, and recognizable via a logo that looks like a colorful dodecahedron) was the recommended choice if you want both voice and data. While the information I found may have been out of date – and my 3 days in country didn’t make it worthwhile to shop around – other operators apparently offer mobile data intended for computers, or voice plans intended for phones, but not both on a single SIM.

    We paid just NT500 (roughly US$17) for an introductory package that included 1GB of data (to be used within a month) and NT400 of credit towards voice calls (to be used within 6 months). After the first month or 1GB of use, you had the option of buying additional data in 1GB / 1 month chunks, or switching to a postpaid plan if you wanted unlimited service. At least that’s the gist I got; here, the whole conversation was in Chinese, and my Chinese is… non-existent. Still, we left with a fully functional foreign phone that had a local number plus data service, all for under 20 bucks!


    Okay, the USA isn’t a foreign country, but there are a few things you should do before leaving home:

    • If you just want voice access in case of an urgent need, make sure to enable roaming. Even though I’d roamed (for voice) with T-Mobile in the past, they added something over the past year or so that turned international roaming off by default! It was easy enough to go in and turn it on – T-Mobile calls it “WorldClass International Service”, which you can activate for free online – but I didn’t realize that this was why even roaming didn’t work until after arriving in Malaysia.
    • Unlock your phone! Obviously, if your phone is still tied to your local network operator, you won’t be able to stick any old prepaid SIM in it. I had an unlocked Galaxy Nexus, but for Valerie’s myTouch 4G Slide, we needed an unlock code from T-Mobile. Fortunately, though I don’t know whether there’s specific legislation around this, U.S. operators seem to be pretty reasonable about unlocking your phone if you’ve owned it for a while and paid your bills. Still, it can take several days or longer to get the unlock code, so if you’re even thinking about traveling overseas, might as well get it unlocked ahead of time.
    • Use Google Voice. While you can’t forward your Google Voice number to the international number of your prepaid SIM yet (though this would be awesome), you’ll still get voicemail (with transcription) and SMS messages to your Google Voice number while traveling (if you have data service), and it won’t cost you a thing (besides a small amount of data use). And Google Voice is pretty awesome domestically too – being able to call anywhere in the world, at standard mobile voice quality (i.e. no reliance of Wi-Fi or VoIP-on-3G), at the same low rates you’d pay calling from your PC is mind blowing when you realize that you’re paying 1/10th or less what your operator would have charged you for international calling from mobile. However, if you do use Google Voice to make your calls domestically, you’ll have to turn this off while traveling, as it won’t work.

    It’s actually pretty stunning when I look at my actual use of mobile voice and data to see how much more I pay here in the U.S. than I would on a prepaid plan in any of the countries I visited; I’m pretty sure I’d be below $25/month or so for combined voice, data, and text (I pay close to triple that now). I can only take solace in the fact that Canada was even more expensive!


  • Photography,  Travel

    The bag I’ve been looking for

    I’ve been really bad with posting consistency recently; I finally got to a backlog of things I had meant to mention a month ago, and haven’t posted anything since.  Though like last time, that’s meant there’s a queue of things I’ve been meaning to share, after which I should really try and be more consistent!

    The first thing I wanted to mention is a new camera/laptop bag I picked up. I already had quite an assortment of bags:

    • Think Tank Digital Holster 40 – great for walking around with the D90/D7000 or D700/D800 with a single lens attached.  I use this the most, but when traveling with more than one lens it’s not ideal.
    • Lowepro Rezo 180AW – small/medium shoulder back that was great with the D90/D7000 and most DX lenses, but too small for the full frame stuff I use now.
    • Lowepro Classified 250AW – huge shoulder bag that also takes a laptop. Great for transporting a bunch of equipment (camera + laptop) from A to B, but  is too big to lug around during the day.
    • Lowepro Flipside 300 – medium backpack that holds lots of photo stuff, but doesn’t provide quick access to your camera.

    I’d tried quite a few different approaches to travel, but nothing really worked well.  The Classified 250AW held everything I needed, but it was just too big; most airlines limit you to one carry-on bag (up to 9″ deep) and one personal item – a laptop bag, purse, briefcase, camera bag, or other such item (up to 6″ deep).  The 250AW was well over the personal item depth – in fact, it was pretty much 9″ deep if you brought much stuff!  Other configurations, like just bringing the holster and sticking my laptop/lenses in a regular rollaboard worked but weren’t great. Before a combined work/personal trip to New York back in May, I went looking for a solution to this issue, and decided to try out the Tamrac Rally 7 bag (aka Tamrac 3447).  It’s been great!

    It’s form factor is about as minimal as you can get when carrying a laptop + camera + lenses, and while it’s technically a tad over the 6″ limit, it looks and feels like a personal item and stows easily under airplane seats. Despite this, it holds a good amount of actual equipment; I just got back from Toronto, and packed it with the following:

    • 15″ Macbook Pro (which fits easily but snugly)
    • Nikon D800 with a 24/1.4 lens attached (the 24-70 2.8 would also fit)
    • Nikon 70-200/2.8 lens (though this wouldn’t fit if attached to the camera)
    • Nikon 50/1.4 lens
    • Nikon SB-800 flash
    • Chargers for both the camera and laptop, mouse, keys, wallet, etc.

    The shot above is with all of the above in the bag; it’s a great fit for a configuration like that. With the top flap open, it looks like this:

    It’s easy to pull out the camera whenever you need it, and having done several outings with the bag now, I’m pretty happy with the purchase – especially since it was just $90 on, which is well below what I spent on the 250AW.  The bag isn’t perfect, though; the following are things I wish were done better:

    • The strap is non-replaceable and the plastic ring you see on the left constantly causes the strap itself to bunch up; there’s no freely rotating rings that allow you to straighten the strap out while on your shoulder.
    • There’s a thin pouch (e.g. for a magazine) on the rear, but you can’t put a rollaboard handle through that area to walk securely with this bag atop a rollaboard.
    • The top handle you see in the first picture is really dinky and isn’t suitable for lifting the bag if there’s anything in it.

    Despite this, the bag works really well and I’m happy with the purchase!

  • Customer Service,  Personal,  Travel

    Travelocity << Singapore Airlines


    I had intended to write three travel-related posts consecutively before getting sidetracked with the last post.  I figured that by going from bad (United Airlines) to good (Singapore Airlines) to awful (this post), I might avoid sounding like a perennial complainer.  And indeed, as I mentioned in a recent post on customer service, I really think it’s worth calling out and supporting great customer service (and the companies that provide it) so we get more of it – and less of companies like Travelocity.

    You already know that this story doesn’t end well, so I’ll caveat things up front. First, I technically booked through as opposed to; but were they to tell me that’s a separate corporate entity with a relation in brand only, I’d tell them that I don’t care and that they should be more careful with their brand. Second, this is just one experience; I am sure that some people have good experiences. Much probably depends on which agent your call is routed to, and whether they’re having a good day. Though having communicated with them many times via both phone and E-mail, I must have hit many bad days. Finally, there are definitely things I could have been more proactive about or attentive to. Still, I think customers deserve better.

    The context is simple – I needed to go back to Malaysia from Seattle for my mom’s birthday. Since I was no longer living in Canada or flying out of Toronto, which I was pretty familiar with, I had to look for different options and decided to give Travelocity a try (due to a slightly negative experience with Expedia, in which a flight booked with Expedia got cancelled, but I got charged for the hotel I also booked with Expedia anyways; understandable in some respects, yet unpleasant nonetheless).

    The first challenge was just finding flights. Like essentially all travel sites, you type in what you want and what feels like 5 minutes later, you get back a list of options (some of which have impossible connection times and other traps to watch out for). I look forward to the day when the awesomely fast Google Flight Search covers the whole world and not just the U.S. Now, I understand that finding optimal flight routes is something of an NP-complete problem, but taking 6 different airlines via different cities isn’t going to work anyways, so it’s unclear that the search space should be that large. Yes, arcane fare rules and airline partnerships probably make matters more complex, and I have no doubt that the people who work on this problem are very smart. But the results aren’t great, yet.

    What do I mean by not great? Searching for flights from Seattle to Kuala Lumpur turned up a few options, all with 2+ stops, that were not appealing and also quite expensive. Searching for flights from Los Angeles to Kuala Lumpur and then matching flights from Seattle to Los Angeles offered a whole host of viable options not returned by the first search. You can try it right now! Plugging in this same set of routes (SEA -> KUL versus SEA -> LAX -> KUL), with a random date, the two-part search found flights $70 cheaper – with the same number of stops (2). In my case, the difference was more than $70, and more importantly, I was looking for a decent airline (Singapore Airlines) and also a Star Alliance carrier since that would have put me at the 100k threshold to qualify for Super Elite status for another year. The added inconvenience and time of flying via LAX was easily worth it to earn those miles.

    But my gripe is not about the search process not being as good as it could (or should, or will) be. It’s about three things that happened next:

    • As I check in at Los Angeles for the flight to Singapore, the check-in agent tells me that in addition to only having middle seats (which I can accept), that I’m on a special fare that doesn’t qualify for miles. I’ve rarely ever seen such fares, especially not for international travel – but in all cases where I had, it was fully disclosed.  There was no mention of this in any interaction with Travelocity, and I did indeed read all the fare rules.  I read them again after discovering this, complained to multiple people at Travelocity about this, and all they could say was that it’s an airline policy, not their policy, and that I have to talk to the airline about it.  They were utterly uninformed, and this was a serious failure in disclosure.  The net cost of this was approximately 40,000 miles (I earn 2-for-1 through this year due to being Super Elite), which is enough for 1.5 round trip tickets anywhere in North America.  And it put me well out of reach of making Super Elite for next year (which historically meant 50,000 extra miles during the year – another 2 round trip tickets).  Of all the issues, this was the most serious – it still makes me angry thinking about it, especially given their clueless and uncaring response to the issue.
    • Several weeks after booking, I received several E-mails on both flights informing me about changes to the flight schedule – made by the airlines (Singapore and Alaska, in this case).  Flights, in particular the LAX -> SEA flight, moved several times, sometimes backwards, sometimes forward.  I knew I’d have to check this at some point, but assumed that it was just a change of schedule.  In actual fact, my LAX -> SEA flight had been moved earlier enough that there was absolutely no way I was going to be able to clear immigration and customs, walk between terminals (it’s LA!), and go through security to catch my flight. Once I realized this, I called to correct the situation.  Their response?  I should have called sooner, now I’m stuck with unworkable flights, and have to pay $200 to get something later.  I paid less than $200 for the entire round trip initially!  To add insult to injury, they spent a bunch of time trying to convince me that I initiated the change – when I was looking at E-mail directly in front of me that made it clear that I didn’t.  Thank goodness I was calling with Google Voice, or it would have cost a fortune to listen to them tell me that I decided to pick impossible flights for myself.
    • A day later, they get in touch via E-mail to say that my rebooked flight didn’t go through, because my credit card – the same one they had yesterday when they were on the phone with me – has now expired.  Note this isn’t a credit card I had given them; they asked if the same credit card was fine and I said yes, without actually thinking about exactly which card I had originally booked with.  Oh, and in the whole 24 hour period that went by that it took for them to discover what normally happens in the 10 seconds after you click the “Book” button, the fares have changed – upward – and now I have to fly through Portland.

    I’ve probably traveled between 800,000 and 900,000 miles by air during my lifetime, but this qualifies as the single worst experience in that entire history of air travel. The only two that come even remotely close are benig told by the now-defunct airline Jetsgo that we our flight out of Newark was cancelled because it was snowing in Toronto (it was over 10 degrees Celsius, and an Air Canada flight was departing at the same time – this was just an outright lie), and being locked in a room for over four hours with my brother while on transit as unaccompanied minors in Los Angeles.

    I won’t be using Travelocity again, and I suggest that you don’t either.

  • Travel

    Singapore Airlines, Singapore Airport

    This is the second post in a series of recent travel experiences, the first of which was on how United’s policies almost seem designed to cause frustration. This one is more positive, before heading into the horror that was my experience with Travelocity.

    My mom turned 60 in November, so I went back to Malaysia to celebrate – though I’m still earning enough vacation days to come back to parity, since I had only recently started the new job. Now, while Seattle looks geographically closer to Malaysia, unless you get a very specific set of flights, it’s actually further way by travel time.  That’s because Toronto has a plethora of direct flights to various parts of Asia, whereas Seattle has relatively fewer.  For my timeframes, there was truly nothing convenient or economical.  And while I haven’t done a United international flight for a while, my experience with Asian airlines was overwhelmingly better, so I wanted to avoid them if possible, while sticking to Star Alliance if I could (that backfired too, in a different way).

    In the end, I wound up with a doozy of an itinerary: Seattle -> Los Angeles -> Tokyo -> Singapore -> Kuala Lumpur, a grand total of over 30 hours of travel.  The way back was even longer – 36 hours, an extra stop in Portland, and a 9 hour overnight transit in Singapore. The fare was pretty attractive – I had to pay around $200 to get to Los Angeles, but the route from there was under $1100, much cheaper than any other option besides Air China which I was unsure of (and isn’t a Star Alliance airline to boot). Equally appealing was that both long-haul legs – between Los Angeles and Tokyo, Tokyo and Singapore – were on Singapore Airlines.  I used to fly SQ on occasion when I was younger, and always recall it being a positive experience; they are consistently rated highly in studies, and they seem to be among the first to get the latest aircraft.  And they are a Star Alliance carrier to boot.

    When it came time to board in LA, I was not disappointed – the flight was on the relatively new, absolutely gargantuan Airbus A380:

    No, I did not miss my flight in order to get a picture of the A380 taking off.  Nor would I likely have gotten this nice a shot, even if I did – if you follow the link above, it will take you to an account of the first flight, by a photographer who posted that and a number of other pictures.  It’s good reading if you want to know more!  I’ll put a break here to save you if you’re reading on RSS and not interested…

  • Travel

    Artificial Discomfort

    There’s a series of three posts on travel that I’ve meant to make for some time, that I’ve had trouble getting around to – on United Airlines policies, Singapore Airlines and Changi Airport, and on why I’ll never use Travelocity again (and suggest that you don’t either).  I’ll start with this post about United!

    This was motivated by a flight from San Francisco back to Seattle that I did in October, though the picture above was during travel via Tokyo (and was mostly an experiment in hand-held mild HDR; unfortunately, it’s through glass, which is visible).  Now, there was nothing particularly terrible about this flight, but between the aforementioned flight and the original one down, two things struck me as rather poorly designed about the overall UA flight experience.

    No, That Doesn’t Fit in the Overhead

    Like most North American airlines, there’s now a fee for checking even the first bag on United.  As if the relatively poor quality (at least if judged by personal experience with bag loss) of bagging handling at most U.S. airports (especially LAX!) wasn’t enough to dissuade you from checking a bag, there’s now an added financial incentive to bring all your possessions on-board with you.  I’m sure that somewhere, someone created a spreadsheet that projected reduced costs from fewer checked bags, and increased revenue from passengers paying for bags that they really did have to check.

    However, I’m not sure if airline executives bothered to take a full flight before coming up with this brilliant idea.  If they did, they might have noticed that overhead bins on a full flight are always over-capacity.  In fact, the sole reason for frequent fliers to get on the plane early – no, it’s not the comfy seats – is to ensure that they can stow their bags.  Literally, I can’t think of any other reason you’d want to get a head start on sitting down in cramped quarters; this is definitely the only reason I ever use priority boarding.

    Anyways, now people try to bring carry-on luggage that’s so big, it makes those baggage sizers that you are supposed to be able to fit your bag inside look like a cellphone case.  But who can fault them?  One failed attempt to stow your luggage, and you can hand it to a flight attendant who will gladly check your bag – for free – to your destination.  On my departing flight, the airplane couldn’t have been more than 2/3rds finished boarding, and the flight attendants were already helpfully announcing that if your bag doesn’t fit in the overhead, they’ll be happy to check it for you.  I’ve only once – on an Air Canada flight – seen the flight attendants enforce the size limit prior to boarding, and that was equally comical because hardly a single bag actually fit in that thing.  But don’t worry, if it didn’t, they were happy to check your bag for you.  For free.

    Of course, this slows down the boarding process for everyone, and since nobody really wants their bag to run the LAX gauntlet if it doesn’t have to, there’s lots of squishing and shoving and relocation of bags at the tail end of any boarding process when the flight is full.  It just feels like there has to be a better way.  And having done relatively short flights such as Kuala Lumpur to Singapore (about an hour), having fast, free, reliable checked bags seems to be a good option, but perhaps the cost of labor makes that untenable here.  Though I’m not sure the extended boarding process (during which time you’ve got to pay a pilot instead of a bag handler) is cheaper.

    Economy Plus/Minus

    For my long-time colleague and frequent fellow flyer, Adrian, there were few questions more important on a given flight than whether or not he (or we) might get an upgrade.  This was one of those things that just always seemed vastly more important to him than to me; if we were bidding on a business class upgrade, I’m pretty sure he’d be willing to pay at least 3 or 4 times more than I would.  But United’s economy “plus” concept gave me at least one plausible, simple reason for this: the discomfort inflicted by the crammed seating in economy grows exponentially as total legroom reduces to the point that your legs don’t physically fit.

    What does this have to do with United Economy Plus?  If you’re not familiar with it, it’s an added tier of service between business and regular economy, in which you get an economy seat and service, but a bit more legroom. Ostensibly, as the marketing material went when they introduced the concept, they ‘removed’ some seats to provide the extra legroom in Economy Plus.  And perhaps, at some point in time, there was some truth to that.  However, I can say with certainty that the “standard” economy seats on United – let’s call them “Economy Minus” – are significantly more cramped than the economy section of the Air Canada flights I used to take frequently out of San Francisco and elsewhere.  This isn’t subjective; whether or not you can actually open your laptop (and to what extent) is a fairly reliable measure of how much space there is in front of you.  In Economy Minus, I don’t even try taking it out of the bag.

    But saying that economy class is crowded is like saying that the sky is blue.  Where the ridiculous side effects of this scheme comes into play is with not full flights.  Roughly 40% of the economy section seems to be allocated to Economy Plus, but very few people are willing to pay the $39 that United asks (on a relatively short 2 hour flight) for the upgrade to Economy Plus.  So while you’ll find a few people up there – 1K members that are seated there for free, perhaps – you get a situation where regular economy is packed – every middle seat is full – and Economy Plus is sitting there, empty.  Unless you want to pay $39, you can’t move up there.  I’ve done a few more flights since watching this dynamic at work, and on every flight you see the flight attendants defending those seats, telling people they can’t move up there unless they pay.  Sometimes, they even announce make announcements over the intercom, explaining why nobody is allowed to sit in those seats.

    The hilarious thing is, their rationale is that some people paid the $39 to sit there.  When you look at the variation in what people sitting next to each other paid for a given seat, this is pretty laughable; depending on when and how you booked, there might be hundreds of dollars in fare differences between passengers, but there’s still going to compact you into the Economy Minus section.  So ironically, like the baggage scheme, it’s not clear that many people actually ever pay to sit in Economy Plus – but they sure do force a lot of people to sit in the middle seats in Economy Minus as a consequence.

    I think I understand now why Air Canada often says it’s rated the best North American airline – it probably is.  Just don’t compare against the Asian airlines!

  • Personal,  Travel

    Changing Money

    Although the Euro countries are discovering some of the economic downsides to having a unified currency, moving from Canada to the U.S. highlights the personal downside to a non-unified currency – when you convert your savings from one currency to another, it’s impossible to avoid losing a significant amount of cash. Having purchased a home in the U.S., the looming need to make a down payment had us searching for options to  do this in the most efficient way possible. Here are the options we considered, and what we ultimately used.

    This wound up being a slightly lengthy post, so I’m going to put a break here to save your RSS reader if you don’t care about this topic. You might at least be amused by the picture of the place I ultimately went with, though :).

  • Travel

    Frequent traveller programs – worthwhile?

    I travel – a lot. Not as much as many salespeople, but enough that I’m sure I laughed harder than most at several parts of the movie “Up In The Air“, starring George Clooney – in particular at the parts poking fun at the rituals of checking in, clearing security, and so forth (the movie is worth watching, if you haven’t seen it). While I’m not even a tenth of the way to the 10 million mile threshold that is a theme in that movie, I’ve done about 20 trips and 100,000 miles of traveling per year for five years running now – about 80% business, and 20% personal.

    “Up In The Air” lampoons the obsession of some of its characters with loyalty programs; the amusing thing is that there are many with real-life levels of obsession not far off from what the movie depicts. Indeed, recent studies of social gaming (Farmville, etc) show that whenever you succeed in creating a sense of accomplishment that’s visible/measurable, people can wind up in a near-addictive state in pursuing achievements that are often meaningless. Like the goal I mentioned of reaching 1v1 Diamond in Starcraft 2, though at least that’s based on some kind of skill development…

    But how useful are these loyalty programs, anyways? A recent experience prompted me to write this post to share some thoughts on the topic…

  • Photography,  Travel

    France and HDR, Again

    Although I actually post much more often than I thought I would when creating this blog, it’s been a little while since my last post – in part, because I spent much of last week in France on a business trip to try and reduce the complexity of some of our products. Most of this trip was spent in Strasbourg, France – a city with a population of under 300,000 that sits at the easternmost point in France, very close to the German border. The thing that’s amazing about France – and about Europe in general – is that it seems like every time you turn a corner, you might just be staring into the face of an intricate, beautiful, historical building. Strasbourg is no exception to the rule; look down an alley, and you might see this:

    That’s an entrance the main cathedral in Strasbourg, at 6:30am when I was walking around before the start of the meetings for the day. Being close to the summer solstice is nice; in the winter, it’s dark when you head the office and dark when you leave. Here’s another view of the same building:

    In an attempt to make these posts more RSS-friendly, more thoughts and the HDR comments are after the jump… if I configured WordPress correctly.

  • Travel

    Places I went in Beijing

    A main purpose of this blog is to externalize my memory before it fades, and while I intended to do that for my trip to China in the previous post on the hotel I stayed it, it just got too long. In any case, these are the places I went around Beijing, and what I thought of them!

    The Forbidden City

    One of the first places I went was, of course, the Forbidden City (now called the Palace Museum):

    This helped enormously in understanding the scores of Chinese Kung Fu movies set in the time when this was the palace of the emperor and his consorts, in which one or more Kung Fu masters go charging through a succession of palaces and staircases, en route to the emperor (or empress) themselves. Now I fully grasp the setting, and boy, if you’re going to fight a Kung Fu master, there’s no better time to do it than after they’ve spent all their energy sprinting from the south gates to the northern end! If those sequences were shot in a single unedited cut (like the O-Ren Ishi entrance sequence near the end of Kill Bill 1), the palace entrance scenes would eat up a good chunk of the entire movie!

    The scale and scope of the Forbidden City is truly quite incredible; there are apparently thousands of rooms, and while after a while they do all start to look the same, there’s intricate work on almost anything you look carefully at. Since I just went in and walked and walked without a guide or a map, I never got that clear a sense of how big the place was until I was looking at it afterwards from the hillside:

    I’m sure I missed much of what the palace has to offer, but it was still quite an amazing thing to see.  Each small area or even object within the palace seems to have its own story, and while some of these are printed on plaques outside the bigger buildings, the tour guides would often be going through a much longer explanation – usually in Chinese, because domestic tours vastly outnumbered any foreign ones.  The plaques themselves were often quite interesting, because many of the fairly large halls would have names like “Hall of Ultimate Wisdom”, then have a story of sorts, and then conclude by saying “this palace was used as the residence for the emperors concubines”. Somehow, the assigned names didn’t always seem to match the actual usage!

    I’m sure it would be quite interesting to hear all the full explanations, because some explanations had all the tour members trying to touch the object, whereas others, like this picture below, had elaborate explanations of how it was not good for the emperor to sit on his throne and face a wall (even at great distance), so they put a block of jade there – but decided that it was necessary for him to still see through the jade, hence a hole in the middle:

    For some strange reason, I actually like the above photo (though you’d have to click it for a larger version to see any detail).

    Jingshan Park

    This is a small park on a hillside just north of the Forbidden City, which is where I took the picture above from a higher vantage point.  There’s a series of 5 pavilions on the top of the hill, which provide a really nice view of Beijing – except for the fact that even on a good day, it’s smoggy enough that visibility is somewhat limited.

    The defining thing about Jingshan Park, however, seems to be highlighted in this sign:

    A pavillion, a garden, a restaurant… and The Spot Where Emperor Chongzhen Hanged Himself.  Not to be missed!  (It’s just a tree, if you’re wondering).

    Beihai Park

    Continuing on my walk, the next thing that looked interesting – since I wasn’t following a map or trying to go anywhere in particular – was Beihai Park, which is just beside Jingshan Park on the northwest side of the Forbidden City.  It’s basically a big loop around a lake/river, with a temple atop a small island in the middle of the river, and a fairly peaceful trail to walk around. Lots of people were out in pedal boats, just enjoying the nice weather we had that day.  Perhaps the most memorable thing for me was the Wall of Nine Dragons.  I originally mis-captioned the picture as the Wall of Seven Dragons; Wen later mentioned that there’s actually supposed to be a Wall of Nine Dragons in Beihai Park that perhaps I missed, so I went back and actually counted the number of dragons in the picture… and yup, it’s nine:

    I’m still not any good at B&W conversions, but hey, keep trying right? After Beihai Park, I’d been walking for about 6.5 hours and figured I should walk back to the hotel – which is when this happened.  Still, a nice day with lots of sights!

    Temple of Heaven

    I already mentioned the Temple of Heaven, where I (and a dozen other people) took pictures of people doing their wedding shots, but there was lots more to see there. The main attraction was a series of three actual temples laid out from North to South; the northmost one is where the bridal couples were hanging out, and looked like this:

    Amazingly, it looks deserted from this angle, but the bridal groups were on the left side of things, and there is actually a huge crowd of people in the area to the right. As with the Forbidden City, the tourists were overwhelmingly domestic (or at least Chinese). I was quite fortunate to have purchased the right ticket, since you can apparently purchase a grounds pass that doesn’t grant access to the three temples, or a package ticket that does. So if you’re there, buy the more expensive one!

    There were quite a few people who just got grounds passes, to enjoy the gardens that surround the temple area. It’s actually quite a serene place in the middle of Beijing, perfect if you need some space for martial arts practice:

    Other people were flying kites, hanging out, and even gathering to sing some songs using an archway to provide natural acoustics.

    Walking Around

    The streets around the hotel were full of contrasts as well; one moment, you’d be in what felt like a true Asian market:

    But literally 1-2 minutes later, you can be standing in front of a Hermes store if you feel like blowing $1,000+ on a wallet. It’s a fairly amazing juxtaposition, like the motorbike conversion vs. Rolls Royce dealership I mentioned earlier. I guess that whatever you’re looking for, you’re likely to find it!

    That was basically the sightseeing I was able to do on this trip (it was a business trip, after all), but I’m glad I had the opportunity. I used larger images than I usually include, but that’s because there was so much detail in almost everything I saw there that using any smaller size obscures it completely (as always, you can click on the pictures for larger versions). Sorry if you’re on a slower connection or a small screen!