Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Skiplagged Saves Money on Air Travel

This year the airline industry is making record profits with some of the credit going to lower fuel prices and charging fees for almost everything, including luggage and inflight beverages like water and coffee. So it wasn't surprising to learn that United Airlines and Orbitz, one of the world's biggest online travel agencies, are suing an entrepreneur for developing a web system that helps flyers save money by taking advantage of a loophole in the pricing of flights with layovers. lets users find cheaper flight tickets. The website combs ticket prices and finds routes with layovers that stop in certain cities that end up being cheaper than simply flying directly to that city. For example, if a traveler wants to fly from New York City to Atlanta, a direct flight would cost a certain amount of money. However, because the way airlines price their tickets, a flight from New York to Miami that includes a layover in Atlanta might cost less than the shorter New York to Atlanta trip. Using Skiplagged, a flyer could book the cheaper flight to Miami knowing it passes through Atlanta, and then simply get off the plane and not complete the last leg. 

Last September, Skiplagged could have saved a traveller going from Toronto to Los Angeles almost 50 percent if the traveller had bought a ticket to another destination that involved L.A. as a layover. Of course, Skiplagged only works if you're travelling without any checked bags (because luggage would end up in your final destination). Also, you must be booking one-way ticket since if you fail to show up for a leg of the trip, the airline will cancel your return flight.

United and Orbitz are alleging that Skiplagged "intentionally and maliciously interferes" with their business and so they are seeking a legal end to Skiplagged. (What happened to free enterprise?)

In my opinion, United and Orbitz have a dubious legal claim, but that's inconsequential since they have millions to mount a legal challenge against the fledgling Skiplagged. United and Orbitz can simply outspend Skiplagged and force them into bankruptcy. Goliath beats David. End of story. 

You can help save Skiplagged by donating to their legal defense fund

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Pocket App for People on the Go!

If you're like me, you always have too much to read and not enough time to read it. Now there's help. It's the Pocket app, and it lets you save articles and videos to read and watch later.

One feature that I particularly like about the Pocket is its ability to save articles or videos in two ways. The first is a bookmarklet that you install in your web browser that automatically saves the item you're viewing when you click it; otherwise, you can simply email the URL to your private account for later reading or viewing. When you're ready to read a saved article or video, launch the app on your iPhone, iPad, computer, or android device, and you'll find a queue of all the articles and videos you've saved. It's quick, simple, and free!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

How Honest Are Online Reviews?

These days a lot of people, including myself, rely on online reviews to help make decisions about products to buy and business to patronise. Some of the reviews are very helpful, but often, I've felt suspicious of the ones that are just a little too enthusiastic or well-timed.

Recently, Italy's antitrust authority fined TripAdvisor €500,000 ($600,000) following complaints of improper business practices. The antitrust authority said that TripAdvisor had failed to adopt controls to prevent false reviews, while at the same time promoting the site's content as "authentic and genuine." I'm a regular contributor and follower of TripAdvisor, and the news that TripAdvisor had some authenticity problems begs the question: How honest are online reviews?

According to some studies, 89 percent of U.S. consumers read online reviews at least occasionally, and 39 percent do so regularly. In one famous incident back in 2004, Amazon's Canadian site accidentally revealed the true identities of thousands of its previously anonymous U.S. book reviewers. One insight the mistake revealed was that many authors were using fake names in order to give their own books favorable reviews.

Bing Liu, professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told the New York Times in 2012 that about a third of all Internet reviews were fake, and in a Harvard Business School study of online reviews, it was estimated that 16 percent of Yelp's restaurant reviews were fraudulent! And they are considered one of the best online review sites according to a recent article in Communications of the ACM

The effects of review fraud can be seriously harmful for both consumers and businesses. Sometimes fake reviews are posted by business owners leaving positive reviews for their own businesses, or even negative reviews for their competitors. 

Some online review sites have automated algorithms that watch for likely-fake reviews. Algorithms look to see if one reviewer's opinion consistently runs counter to the majority of reviews, whether multiple reviews share many of the same phrases and typos supposedly from different people, and if reviews have the same IP address for multiple reviews of the same hotel or restaurant.

Another red flag, which an individual can use, is to see if the reviewer has reviewed anything else. A single review could be fake. On the other hand, it's certainly possible for someone to legitimately post just one review -- for example, if they join TripAdvisor specifically to rave or complain about someplace they recently visited. In short, consumers should take online reviews with a grain of salt before making any spending decision.  

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Real Message of "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer"

Most people think that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a cute Christmas story about a little reindeer with a shiny nose that has a happy ending. Think again.

As a child, watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was an annual TV event. It signaled the beginning of the Christmas season. It was one of my favorite Christmas movies, but watching it recently, I discovered that it's really a story about ostracism and exclusion. Weirdly, it doesn't seem to come down very forcefully against this type of behavior. 

The treatment that Rudolph receives from his parents, community, and even Santa Claus is tantamount to bullying and even child abuse. The movie sends a terrible message to children, and especially children who are different, by telling them that they won't be accepted unless they conform to society's norms or do something extraordinary. 

In the movie, we see that Rudolph's father is ashamed of his own son. It's seems that having a red nose will preclude Rudolph from being on Santa's sleigh team. Rudolph's dad even tries to cover up Rudolph's defect. When Rudolph tells his dad he doesn't want to cover up his nose because it's painful and uncomfortable, Rudolph's father grabs him and tells him coldly that "there are more important things than comfort - self respect," and then shoves the cover back on Rudolph's face. The implication is that Rudolph has let everybody down because of his oddity.

Later, when Rudolph is playing with the other reindeer kids and his nose cover falls off, the kids and even the coach make of fun of him. The coach informs Rudolph that he is now forbidden from interacting with the other reindeer or any member of his species. Moreover, all the other adult reindeer react in exactly the same way, including beloved Santa Claus

Throughout the show, Santa is portrayed as a rude and impolite grouch. For example, Santa's elves spend the whole year making toys for Christmas. In their precious spare time, they practice singing songs for Santa Claus. When they have the nerve to ask Santa if he would like to listen to a song they wrote for him. He replies that he's "busy, so they better make it quick." Granted, Santa is probably stressed out, especially so close to Christmas. After they have finished the song, the elves ask Santa: "How did you like it?" To which Santa brusquely responds, "Well, it needs work. I have to go," and then storms out of the room and slams the door. 

When Rudolph is lost, his father, mother and girlfriend go searching for him. When Rudolph return home months later, Santa tells him that his family has been gone all this time. Uh ho, Santa must have sent out a search party. There must be flying reindeer scouring the countryside to help find the missing trio. No? Apparently not. Santa merely whines about not having Rudolph's father to help pull his sleigh and then wanders off. It's left to Rudolph to try to find and save them. Selfish Santa!

The ending of Rudolph is not much better. When bad weather potentially forces the cancellation of Christmas, Santa reluctantly asks Rudolph to help. Rudolph agrees and saves Christmas. Everybody comes to accept Rudolph because he has saved Christmas; yet nobody's really sorry for how they treated him, or repentant for their harsh words. It's a given that Rudolph should be grateful he's on sleigh team despite the appalling treatment he has received. 

Christmas movies are supposed to be heartwarming, and above all, teach us the value of selflessness, kindness, and charity. Rudolph fails on all counts.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Ho Ho Ho and a Glühwein with Rum

Magical Nativity Tower 
Now that Advent has begun, the Berlin Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas Markets) are in full swing. The weather in Berlin has been unseasonably cold the past few days. I don't remember a late November where the daytime highs have hovered around freezing with a wind chill making it seem more like 17 F ( -8 C). The weather has made the Christmas Markets uncomfortable. Even so, I did manage to visit a few of the Markets and sample the Glühwein. (This hot glowing elixir makes the cold bearable.) This year, I tried it with rum and amaretto. I think I like the amaretto better. Perhaps tomorrow, I'll go into the cold again and sample a Glühwein with Cointreau.

The highlight was seeing Santa and his reindeer fly over the Christmas market (absent Rudolf). Apparently the sleigh is suspended from a cable that runs the length of the market about 40 feet above the ground. Every and then, a real-life Santa ascends the heights and braves the bitterly cold wind as the sleigh zips along the cable, pausing for a few minutes in the middle so that he can wave to the crowd below as the announcer introduces him on the PA system telling us about Santa's annual journey (and also suggesting food, sweaters, and other retail items we can buy at the market stalls). Seen from below it creates a wonderful illusion of an actual flying sleigh. If I had seen this as child, it would have blown my mind.