Heavy Baggage Fees

A couple of days ago, I went to run a VizThink workshop in New York. For those who aren’t familiar with VizThink, our sessions often use things like paper, index cards, post it notes, markers, colored pencils, and other art and office supplies. Normally, I do everything I can to do carry-ons regardless of where or for how long I fly. This time, though, it was necessary to check a bag. On my way to New York, it turns out the scale weighed the case at 58 pounds, 8 pounds over the free limit allowed by Northwest. As an “Elite” member, I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to get an addition 20 or 25 pound allocation, which would have worked. Either way, I was prepared to pay the $25 fee (soon to be $50) for overweight items. First, the agent told me “you can’t take that” and I wish I could write with as much attitude as she said that. After I insisted that I’m quite sure I can take it, she said “Well, you can take it, but you can’t check it in here”. When I asked why, she was less than helpful in explaining the situation. The situation went on and on for about 5 minutes including her walking away in the middle of a conversation to work a different counter. Finally, she admitted she could check the bag for a $25 fee which was promptly paid and I moved on to catch my flight.

Frankly, none of this was suprising. Sadly, I’ve gotten used to the less-than-helpful attitude of all-too-many of the Northwest employees, so this wasn’t unusual enough to get me to write a post. What pushed me over the edge was my return trip. Other than approximately a pad of post-it notes, maybe 100 index cards, and 100 sheets of paper, I returned with what I brought to New York. The weight on the scale at LaGuardia? 54 pounds…a 4 pound difference. I wish I could loose that kind of weight that quickly. Clearly one of the scales is off, and my guess it was the one in Detroit. Now that Northwest (and the other airlines) are not allowing as many carry ons (causing more checked baggage) and charging even more for overweight bags, they stand to make a ton of money off from unregulated, inaccurate scales. If the case were only 4 pounds over, I probably could have redistributed the weight into my carry ons and saved the money. 8 pounds is a little harder to do that.

Here’s the advice…if you can, weigh your bag before you leave so you know how much to push back on the airline to try another scale.

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Do Something, Anything

This week, I had the chance to go to New Orleans for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. I don’t really have a way to count, but it’s probably about my 11th or 12th trip there. It’s a town I know pretty well and have enjoyed many times. We toured not only the largely unaffected areas of the French Quarter, but also the devistated areas of the 9th ward. It’s hard to really understand without being there in person. The devistation pictured on the news isn’t really conveyed until you actually step into one of the condemend houses in the 9th Ward and see the utter devistation. Lives up-rooted. Over 1/3 of the population gone. Homes and lives destroyed.

Then you talk to the people which I had the chance to do many times over the short trip. There’s an amazing sense of community…of neighbors helping neighbors…of hope. I believe that the shocking lack of outside support, which continues even now, has forced the community to work together and will create a bond that was even stronger than it was before. There are so many bad things that came out of this tragedy, but if good can rise from a tragedy, it’s certainly happening in the community. I saw many of the people fighting back tears as they told their stories. What was striking was how often the tears were tears of joy in how someone generously helped them out or met an urgent need without respect for reciprocity. It was truly inspiring.

I don’t know if Brad Pitt’s project is good or bad. It’s probably both. Should the money be spent on marketing and PR or should it be used to build more houses? Clearly much of the rest of the country has forgotten about the region, so maybe, but the need is so great, how many more houses could be built? Sure green and hurricane-ready design is essential, but shouldn’t the designs also reflect and respect the local culture rather than an overly modern look. I don’t know what the right answer is, and I’m not sure it matters. At least he’s doing something.

Kindle…The Single Purpose Device

In Mark’s recent post on the Kindle from Amazon. Now normally, I find myself agreeing with Mark which probably scares both of us. However, this time, I don’t think he could be more off base.

First, out of the many eBook attempts over the last 5 years, none of them have been even partially successful. In fact, calling them miserable failures is probably being generous. So, expecting this one to succeed is a gross over-expectation at best. Sure, it solves a few of the earlier problems…lighter, longer battery life, simpler technology. However it still misses the whole point. For it to be successful it needs to fulfill a market demand or unmet need of some sort.

Capacity: I don’t need to carry 500 books with me. I’ve already got a stack that I can’t seem to find time to get to. I don’t think I’m alone here, but carrying books with me wasn’t a problem that needed solving. It actually works quite fine right now.

Form Factor: Look at the thing. It’s ugly. The technology _appears_ old school. (Yes, I know they’re using the fancy ink/paper thing). At 10 ounces, it’s still to heavy and way too little of the interface is used for the actual book. Sure, the integrated keyboard makes it so that a computer isn’t required, but they could have taken a lesson from Apple here and spent a few more dollars on design. Additionally, it’s not a standard size (either paper back or sheet of paper) so it won’t fit securely in the regular places during transportation.

Price: $400??? Are you kidding me? Plus I still have to pay the regular $10 for the book? Maybe if they worked it like the heavily subsidized razor/blade or cellphone/subscription models it might be more attractive, but please…at $400 the switching cost is way too high. Of course, I did hear one report (on Cranky Geeks) saying that at $400 it probably was already subsidized…which makes you wonder how much it really costs.

Single Function: When was anything anymore a single function device? For $400, it should have a scanner or a printer built in. Maybe I should be able to display and edit other documents. Hey wait, that’s a PDA or a laptop and I can do a lot more with those. In fact, I could even by a decent laptop for less than $200 more and it could do a lot more than read books.

Location: I often read when I’m in a spot where electronics aren’t allowed (like an airplane). So, with this, I’d still need to carry print with me. Great, now I have to carry both? How does that make sense?

Mark’s final point was that companies should by these for employees and put the manuals on them? Really? Mark? Come on now. First, who’s writing manuals anymore? Second, shouldn’t we really be talking about wikis, blogs, help systems, knowledge management, search, or any one of a dozen other approaches to organize structured and unstructured information rather than converting print manuals to an e-book form factor?

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Virtual Worlds as Social Simulations

In a recent article in the Escapist, Brian Easton discusses the use of virtual worlds like World of Warcraft (also a game) and Second Life for social experiments. He describes the impact of a “disease”outbreak called “Corrupted Blood” in World of Warcraft. The disease weakened strong characters and even killed some weaker characters. It was spread through proximity of characters with each other. What makes the simulation different from other computer simulations of disease outbreak is that the characters are all controlled by humans, which are notoriously unpredictable. By evaluating the simulation data, researchers are able to better observe how disease spreads in and out of communities. Certainly, the World of Warcraft example had it’s limitations. Some people play the game individually and only come into contact with people casually and generally not socially which doesn’t mimic the real world as well. However, worlds like Second Life are completely social (and in my opinion generally pointless by yourself) make a much better social simulation.

Brian says that Massively Multiplayer Online Games “are more than mere distractions. They’re social simulations, miniature economies and living worlds.” What if scientists tested the spread of a virus, first when people didn’t know they had it and then again when they did. Comparisons could be made on how people behave, how the disease spreads, and the impact of knowledge. Brian implied that it would be okay if people knew that their character wouldn’t really be harmed, but I think for it to be real, people would have to have more serious consequences (like the termination of an account) at least be implied, if not actual. Would people stop contact with others? Would they only associate with other infected people? Would they intentionally infect others? What if they were away from “home” when they found out they were infected? Would they transport home and possibly infect others along the way? What impact does severity of the disease have on behavior? How does the length of incubation (and therefore awareness) have on people’s behavior?

There are so many great questions that virtual worlds could answer, and it doesn’t have to just be about disease. The transfer of information, knowledge, money, or even power could be studied. As virtual worlds develop, they are clearly becoming ripe for research for the social and physical scientists. Obviously it would be impossible, dangerous, and even unethical to test many of these ideas in the real world, but understanding the behavior could save may lives in the real world. It will be very interesting to see how this develops in the virtual worlds in the coming years.

Increasing the Odds

As many of you know, I spent most of last year in Saratoga Springs. I went back late this summer to visit a great set of friends from my time there. While the water (it is named for that after all) is what it was once known for, horse racing is one of the things it is still known for. Yes, technically you can still drink from the springs, but how anybody ever considered something that tastes that awful to be healthy, I’ll never understand.

Horse racing in Saratoga is approaching 145 years old. That’s a pretty long tradition, in the U.S. anyway. For those who have never been to a race, it seems pretty basic…horses run, you bet on the winner, if you guess right you win. However, when you go to figure out and place your first bet, you learn what 145 years of organic growth causes…enormous complexity and completely unique terminology. Even the most basic bets–1st, 2nd, and 3rd which are known as Win (obvious), Place, and Show–get more complicated when you layer in boxes, daily doubles, exatcas, trifectas, quinellas (huh?), pick four, and pick six, and that’s only the beginning.

How do you pick the horse? How does the horse’s previous performance matter? How many races have they run? What kind of track’s did they run on? What were the conditions? How did they do? How fast were they? How long were the races? Is it the jockey? Is it the trainer? Is it the owner? What about the horse’s lineage? How’s the horse’s short distance speed vs. long distance? Grass vs. dirt? When was the horse’s last race? How does the horse behave in the paddock (i.e. the staging area)? Has the horse raced at this track before? To horse racing veterans, all of these factor into their bets. Their forms for each horse look something like this:

However, for newbies (like me) that amount of data is way too overwhelming. So the New York Racing Association puts together another form about 1/3 the size that probably should be called Horse Racing for Dummies (but that probably already exists). These forms make excellent use of visuals to simplify the process of selecting a horse. Pictured below, somebody selected the 7 most important categories that will determine a horse’s success. Are they the most important? I don’t really know. Hopefully, somebody ran a regression analysis or something to figure it out. Anyway, if the horse performed in that category, they get an icon. Of course it’s still up to the bettor to determine how to weight the 7 categories, but it certainly makes the process much easier.

For this bettor, in my 4 trips to the track, this form has allowed me to come out even each day after betting on 8 or so races each time. OK, so coming out even may not speak for this being the best process to win lots of money, but I think not losing lots of money is better than most of the people there. And best of all, you still have a fun afternoon with friends.

For more information on Visual Thinking approaches like this, check out

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New Southwest Seating Plan

OK, so Southwest finally took my advice! Back in early December 2006 I blogged about Open Seating on Southwest Air Pt 1 & Pt 2. I was complaining about the cattle call set up for Southwest and how people will stand in line for hours even when there’s no plane at the gate and it’s been delayed for two hours just to save their place in line for open seating. I gave a bunch of ideas how to fix it, and they actually took one of my ideas!

OK, so it probably wasn’t the most original idea ever, but I think it will make things better. In Pt 2, I suggested they assign numbers to people and have them line up by number. That would eliminate people standing for hours in the cattle gates waiting for the plane and that’s exactly what they’ve done! Check out this quick performance support piece on the new way to board the plane. (Nice visuals too, with the usual Southwest sense of humor). Somebody should have told them that performance support pieces are better when available in the moment rather than hours or days before they’re needed, but, hey, it’s a good attempt.

I’m flying Southwest in a few weeks, so, if they’ve implemented it by then, I’ll report back on how it went.

Networking the Old-Fashioned Way

I know we all work in virtual networking environments, but I don’t think we can ever underestimate the power of getting together face-to-face. Sure, everybody reading this uses the phone and e-mail. A little fewer use chat/IM and web conferencing (Elluminate, WebEx, Connect, etc) from time to time. Then a yet smaller group is involved in one (or likely more) social networking tools like LinkedIn, MySpace, etc or involved in writing blogs, editing wikis, or contributing to social bookmarking (i.e. My point is we’ve got a lot of ways to connect virtually.

Yet, with all of these tools, I enjoy the face-to-face encounters so much more and ASTD was no exception. It was great to run into all the usual faces and also to make quite a few new friends. Maybe I enjoy it more because it’s a time almost exclusively focused on networking without the distractions of day-to-day work. Maybe it’s because the conversations move faster or that the reactions are more immediate. Maybe it’s just really cool to hang out with smart people who can challenge my thinking and collectively generate a bunch of great ideas on where we should be going both as individuals and as an industry. Maybe Innovations (September), DevLearn (November), or TechKnowledge (February) will be good times to catch up.

Thanks to everybody who contributed to all of the great conversations. I’m looking forward to doing it again.

Creating Community: At the Library

As a follow-up to my post a couple of months ago which was a response to Don Clark‘s post , I’ve now been to libraries in 4 states (Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee) ranging from urban to suburban to rural, and I have to say the story is consistent. The libraries I’ve been to are a hub of community and activity. Sure there are a lot more things to do at today’s library then there were 20 years ago, but there have been lines of people checking out books at every single one of them, and they all were well staffed for their various sizes. In fact, there’s more activity going on in libraries now than I ever remember in the past.

Right now, I’m sitting at the Southfield Public Library. It’s a library in a relatively diverse (at least ethnically and economically) part of suburban Detroit. From the time I pulled into the parking lot, I knew this wasn’t the library of my childhood. From the outside, it looks more like a modern art museum or maybe a brand new science center. The inside is an awesome combination of form and function. Here are just a few of the features:
  • Dozens of cozy sitting areas with seating for small or large groups
  • Free wireless throughout, with wired and power connections run to each of the clusters of chairs and tables
  • Free conference rooms of all sizes from 1-2 people to over 150, with lots of A/V options
  • Balconies, patios, and gardens again all with appropriate seating and access
  • A cafe for food, snacks, and coffee
  • Plenty of open access terminals for those without their own computer
  • Multiple 3D-themed story areas for the kids
  • Oh yeah, tons of books, multimedia, and resources

What they’ve really done is create a community where people can gather around resources and information in a comfortable environment. Students are doing homework together. Business people are having meetings. Communities are forming and dissolving right while I watch. What’s also interesting is the library’s location. It’s right in the center of other city offerings such as the golf course, tennis courts, volleyball courts, swimming pool, ice hockey arena, auditorium, recreation center, senior center, and on and on and on.

While certainly this library is exceptional, it’s not the only one I’ve seen moving in this direction. Even one of the “smaller” Ann Arbor branch libraries has incorporated many of these same features and even serves as a teaching location for new concepts in “green” building design with features such as a turf roof, heating and cooling with natural convection, and landscaping that helps minimize the impact of rain runoff from the parking lots.

Kudos to all that’s going on for civic development. Maybe these aren’t the same as the old downtown areas that used to exist, but they certainly are designing great spaces for community.

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Learning = Fun

I’m just getting settled back in from my trip to Boston last week for the e-Learning Guild Meeting. While I’ve been a member for 6 or 7 years, this is the first time I went to the annual conference. Conferences and conference sessions can often feel redundant for those who travel the conference circuit as a vendor, speaker, or attendee. At this conference, though, there were far fewer misses than there were hits like ProtonMedia’s solutions, some great thoughts on immersion, and the Guild’s new research tool. I’ll try to write about them over the coming days.

However, last year I began to understand that the conferences are not about the sessions at all. The real work and, yes, the real learning almost always happens outside the sessions…in the hall, eating lunch, over dinner, and most certainly solving the industry problems over a few drinks. I’m honored and humbled to be able to hang around the brightest and best in the industry. Many thanks to Tony, Tony, Judy, Mark, Brent, Lance, Jay, Gabe, Linda, Adam, Ron, and all the rest for challenging my thinking and providing new insights to our little corner of the world. I learned a lot and that certainly equated to a lot of fun. I can’t wait to do it again.

Special thanks goes out to ProtonMedia,, and an extra special thanks to NexLearn. Without them, the trip and all that went with it wouldn’t have been possible.

Get Out of the Classroom and Learn: Travel and Learning

One of my favorite times growing up was our annual summer vacation. Every year we’d take 1 or 2 weeks and travel the country. At times it was a bit like the Griswold’s (“Big Ben, Parliament…Big Ben, Parliament“), but at others it was some of the best experiences. Over the years, we covered all of the states bordering and east of the Mississippi River.

There’s some perspective that presence brings. I did pretty well in school, and I attribute a lot of that to our travels. While I still don’t understand why knowing about the detailed troop movements in the various U.S. Civil War battles is important, I can certainly say that standing in the middle of a battle field gives much better perspective for why troops moved the way they did…certainly more than red and blue arrows on a map ever could, which I believe helped dramatically when it came to test time. The same is true for the grassy knoll and the Texas Book Depository. Sure, I’ve watched the videos, heard the descriptions, and read about the analysis, but there’s nothing like being there to truly understand the location and the events. When combined with other learning, the various locations almost have an eerie presence of the events that unfolded there.

Certainly, virtual worlds have something to offer by providing some of the same perspectives especially in places that no longer exist or are difficult to get to. Check out sites like 3D Ancient Wonders, Institute for the Visualization of History, and Free 3D Acropolis. I’m sure there’s even some work in Second Life. It could be even more enhanced by quality virtual reality. However, there’s still nothing like the perspective gained by being there in person whenever possible. So, get out of the office or classroom, and learn.

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