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January 24, 2004

Happy Birthday, Macintosh

20 years of thinking different.

As I type this on my PowerBook, I realize that it's been more than 13 years since I got my first Mac, the venerable Macintosh Portable. Looking at the sleek lines of my PowerBook G4 and the incredible contrast between OS 10.3.2 and 6.0.4, one can truly say, "you've come a long way, Mac."

Glad to be back with ya for your 20th.

PGP Signed Entry

January 17, 2004

End of an Era

As many of you already know, I did not make 1K on United this year. In fact, I didn't even make Premier Exec. Truth be told, I just barely squeeked in with Premier.

Last year got off to its usual start; I had 20,000 miles by the end of February. But then the downward spiral began. I flew no paid flights on United from mid-July until this month.

I am not sure if I plan to return to the former glory this year. Honestly, there simply isn't as much incentive. Certainly, I still love flying. And travel. But United? Not sure.

Understandably, they had to reduce a lot of the benefits becuase of their bankruptcy filing. I think they did a pretty good job of maintaining the basic benefits, although some key benefits are gone and do not appear to ever plan on being reinstated. The most significant of these is the 1K service centers in the hub airports. These were such wonderful places where someone who'd put in the "time," so to speak, truly felt appreciated. Not only was it a nice enclave in the airport away from the hustle and bustle, it was the one place you could go when the shit hit the fan and you knew that they would have the time and incentive to take care of you. While everyone else worried about having to spend the night in the airport after a flight cancellation, 1K's went to the service center and they truly did take care of us. It was civilized. It was the way everyone should have been treated, but because of market economics, only the select few were. It was a huge incentive to make 1K.

It is gone. Now, when a flight gets cancelled or delayed, I have to stress through the same bullshit everyone else does. No more high horse for me. I know (and knew; after all, I wasn't always a 1K) how it feels to be the 50th person a harried gate agent has to deal with on a cancelled flight. They don't care that I fly 20 times as much as the guy in front of me who just screamed his head off needlessly. They are in no position to make me feel like the airline appreciates my loyalty. Sure, I still have a slight advantage on everyone else... I have the 1K phone number. So I used to be able to call them on my way to the 1K center and they would have me protected on the next flight if a delay happened. Now, it's only 50/50 if I can convince them to do that, and even if I do convince them, I still have to stand in a huge line just to get my new boarding pass. Some of the reps claim that its a new policy. If it is, then I applaud the rogue agents who still protect me on delays when I call. Regardless, it's yet another hassle and another stress level that I didn't have to deal with before. And, I might add, it's yet another way that the airline has pissed me off and let me down.

Last year, they also reduced the effectiveness of Systemwide Upgrades. Mid-year, they probably realized that we were angry and it was affecting their business. So they sort of made up for it with a course correction that involved giving us four "real" Systemwides. I still haven't used mine, and they expire in a little over a month. As I'm saying, there just doesn't seem to be any incentive to try.

They also covertly instituted a "secret" program, outside of Mileage Plus, to reward high-revenue flyers. It's called United Global Services. The exact criteria for qualification are not well known, but rumor has it that you have to spend around $30,000 a year to be included. You know, I'm actually philosophically fine with that. They do need a way to reward those people who are contributing a great deal to their financial success, and they have kept the traditional program of rewarding us "po' folks" (and by "po'" I mean I only spent $8,000 to $15,000 a year to make 1K during the past four years straight) for our loyalty. Emotionally, though, it just adds fuel to the fire. I'm no longer as appreciated as I was. It's understandable that they didn't publicize this and it has that under the table feel... they don't want to stir more malcontent among the already agrieved "elite" flyers.

So towards the end of the year, even when United enticed me to make 1K on the cheap by offering double elite qualifying miles for all my flights between October 15 to December 15, I didn't do it. I thought about it pretty hard, but I ended up deciding not to go for it. If I had done it, I would have made 1K this year by spending less than $4,000. It just didn't seem worth it even at that price. In all, I spent just over two grand on United last year, and that's about enough. Every year, they've done something that made me wonder how much more it would take for them to lose my loyalty. I guess the answer is starting to reveal itself.

I used to fly just to fly. Yes, even on commercial flights. One of the big reasons for this was because United made it such a pleasant experience. These days, I'm pretty much flying commercially only to get somewhere. Certainly, I still enjoy the journey at least as much as the destination, but the journey by itself is no longer incentive enough to take a trip. I blame United for this, but for now I am going to sit and wait.

They are emerging from dire financial straits. Their actions over the next year as they recover will determine whether they intend to restore the airline to its former glory. If I can tell that they are, I'll probably come back. Otherwise, you can expect me to maybe make Premier Exec and that's it this year.

One trend I wrote about in the entry linked to above is already manifesting itself. Ted is the "Greyhounding" of United. Another trend is the use of regional jets to cover a distance of half the continent. When I fly United Express, all of the onboard benefits of elite status go out the window... it's very rarely pre-boarded, no First Class, no food, no alcohol... And now they're using these planes for mid-continental flights. It's a disturbing trend that I knew would happen, I could see all the signs. But it's another reason why I simply don't feel any incentive to make 1K anymore.

What good are these benefits when you can't use 'em on a growing number of flights? Answer: they're not. And I'm going to find other fun things to spend my dollars on. It's my power as a consumer. Don't forget... it's your power too.

PGP Signed Entry

January 11, 2004

Legends, Losing, and Last Words

I was thinking about not making a Vegas report this time, but an article I just read inspired me to go ahead and make the effort. All in all, this was probably one of the most fun trips I've ever taken to Sin City. I was pretty short stacked going in, but it wasn't hard to figure out how to have a good time without spending tons of money.

As it turns out, though, it might not be possible to have the same good time the next trip. The Feds have shut down Binion's Horseshoe, home of the World Series of Poker, and the locale at which Vince and I spent the majority of last Saturday. We went there for the good Blackjack rules, and for the poker. As it turns out, we were one of the last to make contributions to the back taxes and pensions owed by the Horseshoe, as well as one of the last who had our asses handed to us in the poker room under the gaze of the Gallery of Champions. It's a real shame to see this place go, because of the history associated with it, but also because it's just a fun place to gamble in Vegas. The real shame, personally, was that I didn't discover it until this trip. Well, at least I'll be able to tell the grandkids one day that I played in the same saloon as Stu Ungar once did.

Speaking of ass handings, this poker thing is the Next Challenge. Over the years I've picked up Craps and Blackjack pretty darn well, but there's an allure to poker that is mystical and powerful. Okay, not really... I got sucked in when I told Vince that I would watch him play. As I read somewhere, playing poker at the Horseshoe is like taking the mound at Yankee Stadium. It's the big time. So I wasn't about to go and make a fool of myself... Well, after about an hour of watching Vince pretty much tread water, I decided this Texas Hold'em thing wasn't that hard to grasp and I said what the hell... what's a two hundred dollar buy-in going to hurt at a 2-4 table? For a good three hours, nothing. In fact, I was up! This from someone who has trouble remembering that a flush beats a straight. I mean, sure, I was getting pretty friggin' lucky... I mean, I had pocket aces and pocket kings within a couple hands of each other, and the coup d'├ętat, a Royal Flush. I had the Ace and King of Spades and some other guy had the 9 of spades and another spade. The flop came down all spades, Queen, Jack, and the 8, I think. The turn was nothing special, but we both had at least a flush so we were raising like crazy. Then the 10 of spades comes down on the river. He's got a stright flush and thinks he's got it, but I turn over my cards for the royal. Needless to say, that was a huge pot. Kept me going for quite a while, but then Vince came by and said that he was hungry. I should have left right then. But instead, I said, "Okay, I'll join you in 10, 15 minutes..." Yeah right. I got completely stupid after that, losing a good 2/3, maybe 3/4 of my stack in the next hour. And it was all because I was just being dumb... going in on hands I should have folded just because "oh it'll be my last hand" or not leaving the table saying to myself "just one more little pot and I'm done..." Yeah, stupid, alright. Anyway, Vince finally comes back to get me and he's like "dude! what happened?" "Don't even ask..."

The true irony of this would not manifest itself until the next day, when we decided to play poker again, but this time at the Monte Carlo. Once again, I had my ass handed to me, but this time was just plain bad playing and bad hands. No up and down this time... just down and more down. What can I say? I was a complete rookie who had no idea what he was doing. I didn't feel as bad losing at poker, though, and I think it's because you're losing to other people instead of the house. It's almost like, hey that's cool... you're beating me because of skill and luck, not because you're a bastard and have the rules rigged so you can't lose... But the worst part about this was that I learned that at the Monte Carlo, the house pays special bonuses for high hands, starting with 4 of a kind and going up to... Spade Royal Flush... which pays... $3200!

Alas, the timing was not to be. Speaking of timing, just before the trip, one of Vince's friends told him to play 28 black on the roulette wheel. Overhearing this, the bartender at the bar they were at told him to play 36 red. Just before the trip, he'd bet on 36 red at the boat and the wheel came up 28 black. Go figure. Well, 28 black was all over the wheels during the trip too. Sure, it could have been one of those "you see what you're looking for" things, but explain this: at some point after my ass-handing at the Horseshoe, we went back to the Mirage and I watched him play Blackjack while recovering from the stupidity. Well, he's pretty much going head to head against the dealer and he's way up after just one shoe. I'm talking like up 500 when sitting down with 1000. So he hands me a quarter and tells me to play 28 black on the roulette wheel down the way. I run over there and put the bet down. What comes up? 36 red. Okay, then, on our last day, he decides he's going to beat this curse by playing both. We go up to a pretty crowded wheel and it takes a little while to try to squeeze into the action. Finally the croupier tell him that instead of trying to crowd into this table, there's another one right across the way. As we walk up to the second wheel... what number is flashing at the top of the wheel history? 28 black. Vince has since sworn off roulette.

The game of choice on this trip, though, was definitely craps. It's your first love that stays with you, right? In fact, the only time I left a table up on this trip was at craps. It was just that kind of trip. Because I didn't come in with a big bankroll, my gambling was fairly limited. This meant that I wasn't an active participant in The Legend, Part Two: Vince's Vengeance.

In contrast to the Original Legend, this one was much more subdued. It was almost surreal. Usually, when a craps table starts hitting and someone gets on a hot streak, the place goes wild and it's hard for passers-by not to notice. Craps had been pretty kind to both of us earlier in the trip. I'd had a couple of good runs at one point, making 3 or 4 points in a row. So had Vince. But on our last evening, after the ass-handing at the Monte Carlo, I said I was done with gambling for this trip. Too bad. Vince ended up making 7 points in a row, including two hard eights when he had a quarter on it. The thing is, there were only two other people at the table, and one of them didn't even play until the fourth or fifth point had been made. So it was quiet, and the dealers paid bets pretty quickly. So we weren't even there that long... The odds of making seven points in a row are more than 1 in 9000, which more rare than the original Legend (which we calculated as something like 1 in 5000). The thing is, it's hard to compare the two because we made a lot of assumptions to make that original 1 in 5000 calculation. Assumptions we didn't have to make this time around because I kept track of how many points he'd hit since I wasn't playing and could take the time to make such observations. In any case, it was once again quite amazing, and of course, the Legend grows.

All in all a great trip, especially considering that we got the hotel and most of the food comped. Basically all I really had to pay for was airfare and ass-handings. I could even claim that I played perfect Blackjack strategy this time around. I made no mistakes, to my knowledge, including changes to the strategy when we played single deck at the Horseshoe. And after I stopped gambling myself, I helped Vince with some of the trickier plays when he was playing. I wonder if there are "gambling consultants" out there?

PGP Signed Entry