Posts Tagged ‘American Airlines’

Odds and Ends Monday

November 21, 2013

A Few Days Late…

Since September, it seems that I have been spending more hours a week in the air than I have spent on the ground working. This is a real drag on my lifestyle and relationships. I’m not a party animal type, but I do enjoy putting a movie on my 10 ft. screen, cranking up the volume just a bit, and sipping on a glass of decent Cabernet now and then – or spending a long lunch with a good friend and catching up on their going-ons. Instead, I pull up a cheap armchair in a hotel room somewhere more often than not for the news on an HD TV before turning off the lights. It’s not really so bad, I suppose. Heck, I don’t have HD TV at home – I need one for Christmas!

So, to the tid-bits:

My research on wireless security initiatives is progressing – I have a solid use-case set for airport communications along with a comparison of the various technologies that are applied on the airport surface. The AeroMACS WiMAX profile proves a winner compared to any other wireless technology being considered by the civil aviation industry today. The only significant shortcoming for WiMAX is the susceptibility to interference in the assigned frequency spectrum. A jamming signal in the same spectrum looks a lot like a very effective denial of service attack. I think this particular threat makes a good topic to focus on.

I am reading a fascinating book by Scott Anderson, Lawrence in Arabia. This is an historical account of T.E. Lawrence’s time in the Middle East during the First World War. Lawrence’s battlefield is familiar to me after my years in Saudi Arabia. Aqaba, Wadj (Wejh), Yenbu, Rabegh, Jeddah, Tabuk, Medina, and so many more. These cities on and near the Red Sea were all familiar to me in the 1980’s. There was something wonderful about the expanse of the desert and the variety of the landscape that I really found beautiful and absorbing. The people were hospitable, and some were anxious to meet me and talk over tea in the suqs (the markets). Most people I came to know on the Red Sea coast had no significant knowledge of their history. In Tabuk, there was a very old locomotive from the Hejaz railway from the World War that was sitting in a few pieces on its side rusting away in the sand. I convinced the Mayor and the local cleric at the principle Mosque to right and reassemble the locomotive and erect a plaque to tell the story. I was happy to have paid for the plaque. I wonder if the locomotive and my plaque are still in that Tabuk city park today.

Lawrence in Arabia is captivating, and it tells the story of Lawrence’s exploits so superbly that I can almost imagine my way back in time. Anderson is a sharp scholar with a keen wit who presents the historical context masterfully. Read this book!

My quarterly excursion to Rice University in Houston over the weekend allowed me some quality time with old friends. David and I recounted a few “sordid” stories of our college days. Marta and I automatically engaged in a very European kiss cheek to cheek three times for luck. Greg and Lissa filled the empty seats at our table for brunch, Davy swooped in at the last moment, and we all thoroughly enjoyed a few casual hours walking the campus after so many years away. The campus is still a comfortable place for me to stroll about in.  Ten hours driving and one night In Houston was quality decompression time after so many trips to Europe – and to DC, Montreal, DC, Cleveland, DC, Phoenix, DC, DC, DC, DC…

Speaking of Cleveland, that City is turning around a bit. There are nice renovations in the entertainment district on the lake, and there are new affluent developments and a wonderful nature park near the airport. The city is “abuzz” about it’s music scene, and the people of Cleveland are optimistic about their future.

A rant – air travel is horrible and getting progressively worse. The airlines cast new equipment and changes in procedures as improvements. Well, new and different don’t often translate into better as far as I am concerned. I have flown in new American Airlines Airbus 319’s several times in the past few weeks. These planes are a bit noisier than Boeing equipment, and the seats are more compact. Width aside, every other seat dimension is 3-4 cm (about 1-½ inches) too small. The armrest is particularly uncomfortable for me as it is too short for my elbow to find a resting place anywhere except for directly on the seat marker that has sharp edges sticking up above the surface at the end of the armrest, and it is too low causing me to lean sharply to one side or the other. Lumbar support as far as it goes is in the wrong place, the headrest is at my shoulders, and the upright incline is set too vertical at about 8 degrees instead of a more comfortable 12 or 15. These seats are designed for children! The power and entertainment system hardware is on the floor to one side of the seat bracket, and it is a huge assembly that takes away precious room under the seat with sharp edges that really aggravate my ankles. There is no storage place at the seat for a magazine or newspaper or tablet or laptop making a drink or food incompatible with anything work or entertainment-related – worse than before, if you can imagine… The entertainment system has an awkward user interface that requires a terrific number of selections to find – to fine what? There is no content available without making a purchase. What was airbus thinking? What was American Airlines thinking? The surface looks good, but it is simply bad design when you peel back the vernier… If you spend 40 hours a week in the air, you will quickly notice these elements, and you will grimace.

Last night’s Rice Alumni event was quite interesting. What lead up to the Cuban Missile Crisis? Well, we heard all about it in the Texas Theatre where Oswald was apprehended. What a neat venue for this event! The missile crisis was bluster and bluff by Niki, and plugging the military-industrial complex by Jack. When backed into a corner, Niki pushed missiles into Cuba to retaliate for US missile installations in Turkey that the president may not even have known about, and we had a real stand-off. “Want a war?” Khrushchev  asked, and Kennedy said, “No, but there are a few terms and conditions in that contract…” Cooler heads prevailed, and it was a good thing they did.

I am finally home for awhile. Good!

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A Good Engineer can Simplify the World in Time

November 30, 2012

Engineering is the challenge of making something complicated actually work the way you expect it to every time for everyone. This might sound simple – maybe even trivial – it’s not at all. Most people take it for granted that pushing a button has the result you expect every time you do it – on your phone, microwave oven, television, automobile, etc. But, it is a complicated world, and between you, me and the fencepost, well, maybe you shouldn’t take those things for granted…

Two events prompted this post:

American Airlines records for personal information were updated today again and again (and again) until successful.

Apple iTunes 11 was released – more than a facelift – a redesign…

These two events today were meaningful for me as an engineer.  I’ll tell you why:

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American Airlines – they need a good engineer to tweak their website. Type a number from a card into a blank – push SUBMIT – should be done and over with…  Nope.

Type in a three field number separated by dashes literally from the official card in hand. Press SUBMIT. Get a “success” confirmation. Log out, log in again, and no change was actually made.

Type the number in again. Press SUMBIT. Get an “error – not a valid number” message, and I am scratching my head… The number on my Government card looks precisely like the number I typed.

Type the number again – without dashes. Press SUBMIT. Get a “success” confirmation. Log out, log in again, and the change was made this time successfully. Were the dashes the problem? Or will I be plagued with issues because the dashes are necessary, and they aren’t there even though the entry was submitted successfully?

This should have been such a simple thing to do. But a false success status, then an error without any hints. And finally a true success status on the third try… BAD American Airlines needs a good engineer to make the website work the way you expect it to every time for everyone. I’ll volunteer – for a fee! It would be a simple matter to say, “Do Not Include Dashes” next to the field – if, in fact that was the problem. Frankly, I am not confident that the dashes were the problem, but they probably were…

The American Airlines website issues are deeper than this one issue. Make changes in your profile, and they do not “ripple through” to your reservations, and vice versa. There will be occasions when your profile information and reservation information differ, and the engineering challenge is to accommodate that. There will be occasions when the “ripple through” will require you to revisit some kind of resubmission or confirmation of something you did previously, and those steps must be presented to the user reliably and only when necessary – yup, challenging to do correctly. When a credential expires – a passport, for example, the website does not prompt you to update the stale record, and it should. Instead, every customer stumbles on these details in the website, and we all fume about it.

A good engineer could simplify AA.com greatly. It just takes time an money…

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iTunes – it was starting to look clunky in version 10 with all the sidebar stuff and then the cloud stuff. I was a little frustrated with this application. It worked quite differently on my Mac and iPhone. The iCloud features were sometime a little mysterious. It was becoming a complicated media application. And it was really two applications – one for the Mac and one for the iPhone. Yesterday, I was accustomed to its idiosyncrasies. Today, well, frankly, I am not sure what I think. Most people do not like change – change requires relearning, and many people don’t do that very well. Apple tasked a bunch of engineers to make this complicated clunker a much simpler application.

I’m relearning right this minute! The new iTunes tries to be more “contextual” – it tries to do what you want it to do in the most convenient manner possible for the task you are performing. It may display the same information to you several different ways depending on what you are actually doing. Browsing? Browsing to see “what’s around the next corner”? Or browsing to find something that is right on the tip of your tongue. Or browsing to find something specific. Browsing music? Movies? Podcasts? The new iTunes tries to present your library to you in the best way possible depending on just exactly what you are doing.

My take right now is that the new iTunes only halfway succeeds in using context to present your library. You can’t “train” it very well. You can set some preferences – many on the fly to sharpen its behavior, but there are not enough cues to the user, and there are not enough injection points for preferences. I can see what Apple is trying to do, and they will do better over time.

For now, I can’t find any way to turn on the old iTunes cover flow display of album covers, and I liked that feature…  Maybe it is gone. Maybe I haven’t discovered how to turn it on. Instead, there is a nifty array of covers like what you might see in the iTunes Store, and any cover can be “exploded” to show the songs. Nifty, but I liked the cover flow and the comprehensive songs list right below. Well, maybe I can “relearn”! But, maybe I don’t have to – maybe there is a way to do what I want, and I don’t know how, yet… iTunes gets a “thumbs up” – it is simpler (it IS simpler where it can be), and it seems to work just fine. Done by good engineers!

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Here is what we will see new in iTunes in the future, and I think that Apple will establish some challenging expectations for PC and phone application and website behavior in the near term:

Contextual features – subtle, intuitive differences in behavior for the same functionality depending on what you are actually trying to do at the moment:

Make it simpler when it can probably be simpler.

Say less when you probably just want to know the summary.

Say more when you want to know all the dirty details.

Know to do that all without the application asking or you telling.

Adaptive features – learn what you want to do and how you want to do it from what you just did. If you change a preference or setting, method or workflow, the computer will do one of four things depending on context and obtrusiveness and usage patterns:

Ask if this is “how you want to do it the next time, too?”

Or, ask the next time you do it if you “want to do it the same way you did it the last time?”

Or, just let the change “stick” or persist without a confirmation.

Or, revert back to the previous behavior without a confirmation.

You can imagine that contextual and adaptive features are rather “fuzzy”. Some shaaarp programmers and revolutionary new programming tools are required before software tries to do more than the new iTunes. It will take a couple of good engineers and some time for the next “spin” of iTunes.

My point here is that it takes a good engineer – maybe an exceptional engineer to truly simplify something complicated. As I work in this world day to day, I am convinced that money-making objectives tend to cast the exceptional engineer aside and opt for the mediocre instead of the refined from someone less talented and passionate. I have been told directly on more than one occasion, “Brian, we don’t need it to be as good as you want to make it.”

Well, a good engineer with enough time can be certain to simplify the world in some meaningful way and do something tremendous – and virtually unnoticed – because it just works the way it should every time for everybody.

So, “Stay tuned!”  Um, ah, “Stay iTuned!”