Virgin Australia is a disgrace

August 10th, 2012

Have you heard the news about Virgin’s seemingly-innocuous request for a gentleman to change seats? I am outraged.

I encourage all and sundry to report their complaint to Virgin management. One easy way is with this form. I submitted the below.

Attn: Corporate Affairs:

I read with abject shock and horror the article in The Age this morning regarding the blatant discrimination of an upstanding member of our community. I refer to:
http://www.theage.com.au/travel/travel-incidents/virgin-defends-policy-of-separating-men-from-children-20120810-23y7q.html

Aside from the obvious legal ramifications of violations to the Discrimination Act 1991 s20 inter alia (caveat: IANAL), this policy offends me as a human being. I have no doubt as to the report’s veracity, as your own spokesperson is quoted therein.

I previously held high regard for the Virgin brand and its, albeit corporatised, attempts at some moral authority in the marketplace. This authority has now been shattered. You may think this a minor issue of policy, or that even the inconvenience and embarassment to this man is outweighed by some ephemeral feeling of “protection” towards said unaccompanied minors. This is not just a naive view, but an illegal, immoral and socially destructive view. That this happened at all is an outrage. That you defened it afterwards is inexcusable. This is the 21st century, not the Salem witch trials.

I have already commited not to fly Virgin again. I will also be reviewing my other Virgin products & services in light of this incident. I have also distributed this note amongst my significant social media following, and will be encouraging people to take similar action.

I am proud to put my name up in defending not just the legal rights, but the moral fabric of society and the relationships people form therein.

If you are at all interested in corporate redemption, this incident should not remain within the confines of your PR department. It is a serious issue of brand integrity and trust and should be swiftly dealt with by your Senior Execute and Board. I can only hope, for your sake, that this “policy”, execution and explanation thereof is from the cadre of generally incompetent and self-serving Australian Middle Management, and not the true reflections of the corporate, personal, societal and ultimately economic ambitions of your leaders.

Regards,

David Kellam
Yarraville, VIC

As an aside, I also hope you have a defamation suit coming for the harm you have caused this gentleman.

10 years of advertising…

August 6th, 2010

After 10 years of ignoring them, I’ve finally earned the right to remove advertising from my slashdot page:
Slashdot remove advertising image

Whilst it’s a low-cost move (particularly as they can presumably make that offer based on me having clicked maybe 1 ad in 10 years), it’s an interesting way of building community… I wonder what the difference would be if they offered this as a carrot years ago.

Airline seat pitches

August 18th, 2009

In response to this article on The Age

Is seating space a big issue for you? Would you pay, say, 5% more for extra legroom in standard economy, instead of the high rates currently being charged for premium economy? Which airlines have given you the best deal on space – have allowed you to sit in an exit row without extra charge, for example? Which airline is the best or just “feels” the best for seating space?

The 5% figure just won’t cut it. Assume the difference between 34″ and 30″ quoted in the article is approx 30 seats – i.e. 20% reduced capacity. Assuming the airline is running at or near capacity, that means they need to charge 20% more to EVERYONE on the plane. I actually think this is a reasonable thing to do, as the current situation is a joke for probably 20% of the population (i.e. anyone over 6′) and growing. We spend more making things disabled-friendly.

Whilst an extra few inches might make a difference for some over 6′, it won’t for all. So you end up not capturing the long tail, but sticking to people between 6′ and probably 6’4 as your target audience. I think 6’4 is a much more reasonable ‘outlier’ than 6′, so is sensible in a policy sense. You still need a policy for the exceptions though.

If you were taking a full user-pays approach, that extra 20% leg room used by only 20% of the plane would mean lo and behold you double the price for those people (approximately what the deal is now).

I think a better system would be to acknowledge the height distribution of the population and provide different (varying by as much as 30%) pitches that do cost more, but are only available to people who are taller, and possibly their companions. Of course, if you find yourself in the situation where shorter people are lining up to pay more (up to 30% more, but probably better capping 20% extra room & 20% extra price, 30% if you’re greedy to make extra profit on the basis of better segmentation), then you know it’s time to deck out a whole plane that way, without risking profits. If not, then the varied pitch strategy will work.

DISCLAIMER: I am 6’2″ and always try to claim an exit row seat that is a) not next to the window, as these often cramp even a 5′nothing person and b) not behind a wall, as these provide more sitting room but NO stretch room.

Backup – what you need to consider

August 5th, 2009

Ah a topic dear to my heart. Both my business partner and I care fanatically about data integrity and hence backups. I guess that makes us appropriate people to manage data for people :P

We address backup from multiple dimensions:

  1. Prevention
  2. Technology
  3. People
  4. Risk Events
  5. Recovery Times
  6. Economics
  7. Communication

1. Prevention
We use software RAID1 under Linux on commodity PC hardware. We also use different branded hard drives as this decreases the probability of simultaneous drive failure. We use hard-drive based backup (with monitoring to detect imminent drive failures) rather than tapes because of increased reliability. All our servers are under maintenance agreements and monitored (and yes, this is affordable for small businesses due to our process innovation). All of this means the likelihood of something happening to destroy your data in the first place is drastically reduced.

2. Technology
The technology used in your backup matters. Are you using tapes? They can have up to 70% failure rates when you attempt to recover from them! Are you backing up your whole system or just files? Do you know how long it will take to recreate your server from scratch with all the undocumented hacks your IT person has made? Are your backups actually working – are you doing test restores? How are you handling off-site backup? Does your backup software deal with open files (like your Outlook or Exchange databases)? Is all your data stored in one spot?

This makes backup much much easier. Are you using RAID5? On a hardware RAID device? You’ll be sold one of these if you ring up Dell and say you need backup, but do you realise that this scenario makes you MORE likely to lose data and incur considerable expense in attempting to recover it (as compared with RAID1, particularly software-baseder under Linux). Your Operating System matters too – Windows and its applications are a lot harder to back up and generally require more expensive hardware to run on too (which often means recovery time is slowed whilst waiting for replacement parts, or that you pay much more for fast warranty replacements).

3. People
People delete data. Deliberately or accidentally, it doesn’t matter. Design your backup system around this fact and you’ll be much happier. For example, some automated backup solutions simply mirror what’s on the fileserver. This includes mirroring any delete operations! Many companies only find out this was a limit to their system after the fact. Too late.

We automate solutions where possible, because leaving backup to busy overworked staff members is a sure way to guarantee it won’t get done, or won’t get done properly. Ask your IT person next time when the last time *they* backed up was. Chances are if they’re using a manual system it was months ago, and they supposedly care!

4. Risk Events
Consider the risk events you are exposed to. The most common are:

  • accidental file deletion
  • hard drive failure
  • other system component failure
  • virus/hacker attack
  • disgruntled employees
  • failure of your backups

The rarer, but still deadly events can include:

  • fire/flood/theft
  • dedicated hacker/industrial espionage
  • … and all the other weird and wonderful events you can dream up!

You need a plan to address each and every event you can think of. You have a choice of:
accept – you accept the risk of it happening and lose data
mitigate – you put processes in place to reduce the likelihood or occurrence and/or reduce the
cost of recovery when it does happen (ideally do both)
offload – offload the risk to someone else, e.g. an insurance company. N.B. This is tricky with data

5. Recovery Times
This is often overlooked. Assume you have a perfect backup, how long does it take to recover? Windows servers in particular can take days to recover. Even with an image (snapshot) of the whole server and separate file-based backup, you’ll run into trouble if you don’t have near-identical hardware lying around to restore the image to. This is particularly a problem when your server is more than 12 months old and you can no longer buy replacement parts for it.

What about off-site backup? How long would it take you to download 100GB of data from your off-site backup or to drive and get it? The list of acceptable recovery times needs to be correlated with the list of risk events. For example, if your building burns down you might accept everything taking a week to get back up.

But if your hard drive fails, you want your recovery to be in a matter of hours. Ideally this type of failure would have been prevented with RAID1 and drive monitoring.

5. Economics
Often overlooked, this is considering what’s worth backing up, how, how often and how expensive and time-consuming the retrieval process is. It’s not possible to have 100% secure data (although sending it to the moon $10,000/hard disk at a time might be worth it to some!), so considering the economics of what data you have and its value to the organisation is important.

6. Communication
As Mal said above, the disaster prevention and recovery process (of which backup is a part) needs to be communicated and understood by business owners. All too often we see half-baked backup solutions that we know will fail under so many situations, but the business owner is blissfully unaware. In my opinion, this is worse than no backup at all as it provides a false sense of security.

Coworking Melbourne

May 14th, 2009

I will be spending the coming weeks updating Coworking Melbourne to reflect my thoughts on vital aspects of this new and exciting community working exercise. Check out the twitter feed, blog and FaceBook page.

What’s wrong with this picture?

April 24th, 2009

I only read two web pages daily: theage.com.au and /. (The rest I either skim via RSS or only stumble across occasionally)

Normally relegated to the Herald Sun, the logic flaws in this article this morning astound me:

The bureau estimates that Melbourne’s population grew by 74,713 in the year to last June and, on revised figures, by 74,791 the year before that.

Hmmm ok, so that’s a fair few bodies. How’s that fit the bigger picture?

Bureau of Statistics figures show the city is on track to have 4 million people by the end of this year, after its population growth increased to an annual rate of 2 per cent.

OK, some context. 2%. Sounds like a lot.

Melbourne’s population growth last year far outpaced all other major Australian cities.

Hmmm… being the 2nd biggest city in the country, and a cheaper one than the largest, this isn’t that surprising. Still, good to know. I wonder how we compare quantitatively…

Sydney’s population grew by 55,047 or 1.3 per cent, Brisbane by 43,404 (2.3 per cent) and Perth by 43,381 (2.8 per cent).

Hmmm… maybe they mean more net peeps = good mkay? Out-pacing? Doesn’t look like it on population growth… maybe they mean something else…:

The label of Australia’s fastest-growing city might once have been one for which Melbourne yearned…

Sorry boys. Still is! Of the four cities listed, Melbourne has the 2nd slowest rate of growth. In order to “outpace” something, you need to move faster over time with respect to the thing being measured. Population Growth rate (i.e. expressed as a percentage) is a measure of acceleration, not displacement! (Wiki article)

If this were a physics problem, you’d be working with the following data:

Starting Point
Melbourne: 3,900,000 people
Sydney: 4,400,000 people
Brisbane: 1,950,000 people
Perth: 1,600,000 people

t = t + 1
After one year (unit of time), you’d have:
Melbourne: 3,900,000 + 74,791 = 3,974,791 people
Sydney: 4,400,000 + 55,047 = 4,455,047 people
Brisbane: 1,950,000 + 43,404 = 1,993,404 people
Perth: 1,600,000 + 43,381 = 1,643,381 people

Calculate Velocity:
The velocity of each of these movements is: (trivial, as the unit and quantum of time is the same in each above)
Melbourne: 74,791/year
Sydney: 55,047/year
Brisbane: 43,404/year
Perth: 43,381/year
Of these, Melbourne certainly has the greatest velocity (net displacement over time). It might be the fastest moving (if all were on the same starting line and you are measuring only net increase in numbers).

Calculate Acceleration:
However, it is not the fastest growing: (from the article):
Melbourne: 2%
Sydney: 1.3%
Brisbane: 2.3%
Perth: 2.8%

Conclusion:
At present rates, Melbourne will never catch up to Sydney, and Perth will eventually catch up to Melbourne (in approx 115 years).

Moving on to the rest of the article:

In a national perspective, it was the year of the west. Perth added almost as many people as Brisbane, growing by 43,381 people or 2.8 per cent. And south-western Western Australia grew more quickly than either the Sunshine Coast or the Gold Coast, its population rising by almost 9000 or 3.9 per cent.

Cairns had the fastest growth rate of the big regional cities, 4.1 per cent, but has since gone into a deep recession with the loss of Asian tourists.

Ha! Now we find that not only did Melbourne’s growth not even outpace Sydney or Brisbane, but it’s failed to keep up with three separate parts of Queensland as well! Seriously, the entire contention of this article is absolutely bogus!

The most surprising thing here is not that journalists have zero understanding of basic mathematical concepts. No, the most surprising thing is they then get the concept of pace/rate of growth right in the second page of the same article! (i.e. the Cairns quote above). So we’ve got a situation where Cairns with a 4.1% rate of growth has been “outpaced” by Melbourne’s 2% rate of growth. Someone had better teach me more quantum mechanics fast – I’m trying to reconcile two parallel universes here!

Of course, it’s possible they mean that the rate of growth of Melbourne’s rate of growth is out-pacing other cities, but that’s neither in the data nor the argument presented in the article.

Reminds me of Bob Cringely’s excellent post on the bailout of the US banks, back when he was writing for PBS.

Scrabble…

November 10th, 2008

Yes, I am addicted to Scrabble. It seems I’m not the only one:

Gotta love XKCD… except this particular comic bugs me. A veteran scrabble (tm, c, r, wheres-my-capital-letter get-lost-and-die-under-a-torrent-of-lawyers-scrabulous all-rights-reserved-hasbro) player would never play OSTRICH for a mere 13 points, not even making a second word and destroying the beautiful bingo-potential set of {O, S, T, R, I, L} (or even more potent 5-letter subsets thereof).

A veteran player might play a small word to keep the bingo potential and get rid of the less-valuable C, e.g. COL forming HI & LI for 17 points. A small score, but good strategic play. A less-experienced player may make HISTORIC, using up the mid-right triple for 42 points and still leaving {L,T,S}. Not bad. Heck, even CHI if they liked the prospect of keeping their other 6 letters (but there are plenty of more valuable non-bingo moves, letter turnover is good).

A seasoned strategist would spot the morphological possibilities and may eventually come up with COISTRIL (thanks to a decent medieval vocab) for 63 points. A zoologist might end up with TROCHILS for 64, but that’s possibly a long shot.

However, even a superfluous superficial (although the former typing slip makes it seem more erudite :P ) knowledge of Roman History would instantly reveal the prospect of LICTORS in no less than 7 locations on the board ranging from 64 to 71 points. (If you’re struggling to find the 71, yes CH is a valid word).

So CLITORIS is only the 3rd-best possible word (9th move) on sheer points alone. How much one adds for amusement factor is a separate issue :P

I had 24 lictors in a past life.

DRK

P.S. In case you missed it, all XKCD comics have a final comment shown if you mouseover the image. It’s often a fine display of paraprosdokian.

Seasons Greetings!

December 23rd, 2007

It’s a while since I posted on this blog, quite possibly because I’m too busy with my new company and reading much better or funnier blogs. Oh well, in the spirit of the Festive Season, I thought I’d share a few gems from the last year of RSS:

There, this blog post is now more informative than the sum of all blog posts before it ;-)

The Internet is a small place

October 3rd, 2007

Sometimes The Internet is just too small. Or too young*. Whatever it is, sometimes it’s a very small world. I’ve often had conversations about the best cartoons I remember from a kid (born 1981 in Australia, to give some perspective to that :P ) but rarely bothered to take those conversations online.

The Mysterious Cities of Gold (Cites d’Or) manages a significant cult following online, including
a Facebook group and heaps of other sites:

  • 120,000 hits on Google for “Mysterious Cities of Gold” or 1.65M freeform
  • 137,000 hits on Google for “Les Mystérieuses Cités d’Or” or 240,000 freeform

You can also find the entire series – in decent quality here, lower quality elsewhere such as YouTube:
http://stage6.divx.com/Children-of-the-Sun/videos/

In short, a great show adequately preserved in Internet History.

Next, however, comes A.E.I.O.U.. This was an absolute classic. It used to air on ABC in the early eighties for a few minutes between shows – which shows I can’t remember, but I recall it airing around 1988. I managed to find the following:
The animation company
A Blog post
Reference to the series
However I can’t quite believe that the Google search results for “Francesco Misseri +aeiou” in English returns only 5 results, of which 3 are the same. Does nobody else remember this show or its stupid catchy theme song – nothing but vowels!

In this case, the Internet is too small: someone should post a video of this series online so that when people think I’m crazy for breaking out into random child-like song comprising nothing but 5 vowels, they will understand.

* Yes, I’m aware I’m referring to events post-Internet and pre-Web, but I’m using the term “Internet” holonymically for “the Web”.

Desire

June 3rd, 2007

In response to Richard’s post

Companies create objects or services that they hope consumers will desire. They also must create, to truly succeed, a space, mental and physical, for the potential client to form a desire. The easiest way to do this is to understand desire at the conceptual stage of the project and push to match that desire. It’s remarkable how often exigencies distract from this process. In the space of desire, there are still many unfilled holes. The ideal mobile phone for instance. While perfection is asymptotic since desire is never satisfiable (whatever you are presented, desire is always elsewhere) bring on the businesses that shoot for what the consumer wants to buy, not what can merely be sold.

In the PDA world, that used to be Palm. It is no longer. They succumbed to forcing their products on people inherently unsuited to their way of thinking. In order to keep this new group happy, Palm had to change who it was and what it did. Instead of a loyal Apple-like followship (which it had), it now subjects itself to the wider market with an ever-diminishing list of unique features (case in point: recent move to Windows Mobile-based devices); an ever-diminishing ‘core’ market of users and an insufficient marketing* budget to address this expanded, diluted trigger-happy market.

* where marketing is defined holistically as the process of figuring out what your customer wants and delivering it.

As I’m in this space, I think I can say with some personal experience that the reason this happens to companies like Palm is the vast majority of the business world is ill-equipped to deal with the hard, risky decisions that come as part of a startup. Palm hit a natural equilibrium in the market defined by its core market times its average marginal benefit. This roughly equates to its economic surplus or profit. Where you face decreasing marginal returns and relatively unchanging costs of capital, economics tells you to start looking elsehwere for your profits, usually in the form of diversified investments (to eliminate systematic risk). What it doesn’t teach you, at least not directly, and what you have to learn is that some risk is a good thing. For Palm, the risk of being a small player in a larger market would have been a good one to adopt. Apple has been doing that for the last 20 years quite profitably, with a few Amelio-esk exceptions. For the directors and senior managers at Palm, most likely with significant degrees of hidden incompetence, keeping their high-paying jobs and cushy lifestyles and not having to make any particularly hard decisions (the kind that either get you sacked or make you a truckload of money), the road less travelled is the dangerous one. Unfortunately for the company and its shareholders, it’s usually the only long-term viable one.

This problem is a manifestation of the Agency Problem, but it intersections nicely with market economics. Few companies realise let alone strategise for the fact that their shareholders and customers have choice. By being open and resolute about who you are and what you do, you abstract away the individual desires (inherently illogical/unpredictable) of your shareholders and customers and shift the choice back to the market, allowing you to focus on your most profitable intersection: size of customer interested in your core offering x marginal benefit of that core offering to those customers with respect to the competition. A large company should be doing this in parallel over and over again across different industries and products, leveraging a common operational base. A small company should do it just once (then sell and start again elsewhere or use the operating surplus to rinse and repeat). I’ll write more on this some day, but in time it will be shown that this is a far less risky strategy to adopt than attempting to predict where the market will go. The only difference between most product/sales operations and share traders/fund managers is that everyone knows the risks of doing the latter. Fewer than 10% achieve super-market (sorry, couldn’t help myself) returns. What the hell are the rest doing?

Anyway, for companies like Palm, the problem is essentially one of existential choice. The rational economic decision may be to stay the same size (in which case, how are those options going to grow quickly so the executive can get a quick cashout?) or to start up new business (in which case, how is the executive going to get a quick exit when the new venture probably won’t show its mettle until years down the track?). The agency problem can be eliminated but it requires compromise on the capital structure front. It’s inefficient for owners of capital to actively work their capital, and it’s ineffective as the intersection of capital owners with business managers is but a subset of this overall market. Small is the new big. For these reasons and many more, small business is the way of the future. That is, of course, until we figure out some new structure (think project matrix organisational structure mixed with some as-yet-unknown capital structure) that maintains both the flexibility and risk-adopting attitude of successful small businesses.

I predict we will look back in 50 years at our current capital structures and think “What the hell were they doing? That’s just so obviously wrong!” the same way we look back at underpaying workers and miraculously expecting productivity gains. But by then, like now, the game will have changed. Today we have technology and service-based business. Tomorrow we will have access to cheap and plentiful capital, and an increasingly diminishing need for it. This is already changing the game rapidly. A start-up can be done in someone’s spare time on an average salaried income. Sure, maybe only 0.1% of this capital-poor type succeed, but there are millions trying. A startup used to take millions of dollars in hardware and hosting just to be able to handle the load of scaling globally. Now we have services like mosso.com which aim to give you your fair share of that for US$100 per month. Or mediatemple.net for US$20. Sure, these services are in their infancy and have plenty of problems to deal with at the moment, but the point is they’re examples of disruptive technologies that change the nature of the game. Reinvigorate.net is able to compete product-wise with Google Analytics with the addition of $20/mth worth of hosting cost. Sure, their market sizes are orders of magnitude apart, but market size is not what will dictate the profits of the 21st Century.

Watch this space.