Monday, November 28, 2005
Cross Country Fun
Today is a bit of a tough day. This morning, we had to visit with a local Austrian government office to take care of some year-end deals. I am also working on 4 different articles at the same time (with two more coming later). We are in the final phases of producing two different issues of CoDe Magazine today. I am preparing for 4 presentations I will give tomorrow and the day after (3 of which are brand new). I am working on a customer project that has a deadline this week. I am also trying to schedule technicians to finally fix my Internet connection which has not been working satisfactory for almost a week now. Oh, and this afternoon, I have to meet with a banker to figure out how we can finance my grandmother's move to a senior residence.
So not exactly a relaxing Monday. However, there is good news (and I didn't even save money on my car insurance): I went cross-country-skiing during my lunch break today.
The conditions were awesome. Unreal really, considering it is only November. Here are some pictures:
The blue dot is me.
Cross country skiing is really an awesome sport. I enjoy it very much. Not the "walk around in the snow" parallel kind... this is more like skating on snow (hence the name "skating style"). The only downside is that it is exhausting. Extremely so. I think it is because I am just not good enough and not used to the movement (some of the muscle groups I am using for this, I didn't even know I had). Part of the problem also is that I am just not in that good a shape. On the other hand, I can run for an hour or bike up a mountain without too much trouble, but cross country is different! After 5 minutes, I usually feel like my lungs explode, my arms burn up, and my legs are about to fall off. But I figure it gotta get easier over time...
Posted @ 6:54 AM by Egger, Markus (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
A Short Walk
The weather was pretty nasty the last few days. It constantly snowed and was wet and cold. Ellen still went for walks, but I didn't. Today is different though. It's a beautiful winter day (almost like January) and we decided to go for a nice walk. I brought our camera along and took a few pictures.
Here is Mr. Horse:
We walked around a little lake, which (to my surprise) is already frozen:
We also saw a little dog on the way and decided to throw a few snowballs for it to chase after:
It really is very much like in the middle of winter. They even already prepared the cross-country ski paths. Maybe we will get to go skiing on Thanksgiving.
Posted @ 9:28 AM by Egger, Markus (email@example.com)
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
Did I See Any Riots in Paris?
I traveled through Paris last week (as reported), and as a result, some people wondered whether I saw any rioting and whether I was concerned about traveling through Paris. In short: No, I didn't, and no, I wasn't.
It was somewhat interesting to see some of the reactions people had to these riots. Yes, it was pretty unbelievable to me too. I understand there were some real issues that these "kids" were trying to bring to light, and the French have a lot of work now to get things straightened out (*if* they choose to do so... this problem has existed for a long time now). I think they even have some good points, even though I completely disagree with how they went about the situation, of course! Rioting in some 300 towns certainly can not be the answer either.
A lot of people (end even the media) in the US made statements that basically came down to "See? Those barbaric French bastards!". I think some of these things need to be brought into proper perspective before people are judged. Here's a quick comparison:
- In 14 days of riots in 300 French towns, 1 person got killed
- In 5 days of riots in 1 US town (L.A.) in 1992, 58 people got killed
So yes, these kinds of riots are barbaric and unbelievable. From a US point of view, we should not be too quick in judging the French though, and if we do, we better be ready to take the comparison. Sure, the riots in L.A. were a freak occurrence, but so were the French riots. And sure, we have long forgotten what happened in L.A., but based on what I see on European news, the world has not.
Posted @ 6:57 AM by Egger, Markus (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Monday, November 21, 2005
Viva la Air France - Not!
Just a few days ago, I traveled from the US to Europe. And as is sometimes the case, we weren't able to avoid traveling on one of my least favorite airlines: Air France. The story behind this trip is worth telling (and spans a bit more than Air France, actually). So here I go:
The Overall Situation
When traveling from the US to Europe, I always try to go to Salzburg. This time, my trip is a business trip and I ultimately need to attend a software developers conference in southern Germany. Nevertheless, since it is so close to Austria, I like to fly into Salzburg and stop by at home. We could also fly into Munich (often a less expensive option), but especially in the winter, flying into Salzburg is significantly more convenient. (Flying out of a 7am flight from Munich in the winter means leaving home at 2am... not exactly the best way to start out a 30+ hour day).
The problem with flying into Salzburg is that one is very limited in terms of flight options. There are no direct flights from Houston, so one always ends up going through either Amsterdam, Paris, London, or Frankfurt. Since I am a Continental frequent flyer, the Amsterdam option is by far the best, since either Northwest or KLM fly into Amsterdam (both Continental partner airlines). KLM usually works out good. Northwest usually provides decent flights, but customer service is often a problem (it always seems a hassle to get milage credit for instance...).
Flying through London is not all that great an option. It means flying British Airways, which I really do not like very much. It sometimes also means flying into Gatwick and out of Heathrow, which is a major hassle. If you ever get that option, just don't do it! Also, flying from London to Salzburg is not that cheap, unless you fly an airline such as Ryan Air, but that means flying out of Stanstead airport, which really is not a good option at all. Getting to that airport is a whole journey all by itself. So long story short: I try to avoid London.
Another option is Frankfurt, which means flying Lufthansa. I used to avoid Lufthansa since everything about that airline seemed to be old. This seems to have changed though, and Lufthansa now seems to have some of the best planes. Wireless connectivity on the plane and all. So this seems to be a good option, but it never really presents itself, because they are not a partner airline of any airline I fly with regularly. Bummer.
And then there is the final, bottom of the pile option: Through Paris on Air France. I gotta admit, I just do not like this option from the get-go, and maybe I am too hard on Air France, but it just always seems to be a hassle. The airport in Paris is a mess too. And Air France just seems to be an underhanded airline. Example: My parents flew through Paris once, and even though they were at the airport 3 hours before their flight left, they were told they had missed the flight. Long story short: It turns out that they only had 12 people on the flight and they tried to convince at least 5 of them that they had missed their flight and had to go on a flight 8 hours later. The reason was that there apparently is some rule where if there are less than 8 people on a flight, they can cancel it. So it would have been much more economic for them to only fly one flight later that day.
But anyway: As I said, I may be too hard on Air France. I even like the french and Paris a lot. But that airline... well... I'll let you judge for yourselves...
Problems Start Before the Flight...
On this particular trip, the problems really started long before our actual flight. We had gotten our tickets from Expedia.com, as we often do. It was a bit of a weird flight: Houston-Paris-Salzburg on Air France (it actually turned out that the last leg was operated by Styrian Spirit). The flight back was supposed to be Salzburg-Amsterdam-Houston. A mixture of Air Alps (a KLM subsidiary) and Northwest. Not really that unusual a combination when it comes to international travel.
The trouble started when we got an email that announced that there were "changes to our itinerary". Ellen called up Expedia to find out what had changed. It turns out that the flight from Salzburg to Amsterdam on the way back had been canceled. Not by itself a catastrophe, but annoying, because basically, something we had already come to an agreement on and already paid for, was not available anymore. The main question at this point was "what flight were we scheduled to fly on now?". That was not a question anyone was able to answer within the first one-hour phone call. We were told to call back later that day. At that point, we were not too concerned yet...
When Ellen called back the same evening, not much had changed. Expedia was on the phone with Air France (technically the ticketing airline, because the first leg was on Air France), and Northwest (they "owned" the return flight since they are basically the same as KLM and Air Alps). And neither party involved seemed to know what to do next. Air France said it wasn't their problem, because they were able to service their flights as planned. Northwest said it wasn't their problem, because the the Air Alps flight was canceled, and that was not their fault. Expedia was in the middle in tried hard to resolve the problem, but with little luck. So we basically had a ticket that we could not use, but all parties involved claimed it wasn't their fault.
So who's fault is it then? Ours? Certainly not! We had purchased a single ticket, and I could not care less how that ticket is serviced. Nevertheless, a solution to our problem was not forthcoming. At that point, Ellen had already been on the phone with them for more than 3 hours. Now here is what really ticks me off: Theoretically, there was no problem here. There were other flights to Amsterdam, and as we could see online (they tried to lie to us about this, but these days you can verify their claims online), there were plenty of empty seats and a different Northwest flight out of Amsterdam (which we would have had to take, since we would not have been able to make our original flight... hence the whole problem). However, Northwest refused to put us on that flight, because there were no seats in the same fare class! Hello?!? It's not like we were trying to change our tickets! We wanted our original flight that we had paid for, but we were willing to get moved on a different flight to accommodate the flight cancelation. Yet they refused to do that!!! At some point, Ellen even offered to pay the difference with miles (which I would have completely disagreed with, but anyway...) and they even refused that, since our original fair class was not upgradable.
So even though we tried hard, it seemed that there was no possible solution. So it came to a point where Northwest offered to give us our money back, but only for the Northwest legs of the flight! Air France on the other hand refused to do so (at least initially), because it was not their fault! So we could have gotten our money back, but only for half the flight. And on top if it, we would have had to book new tickets 10 days before our departure date, which would have been extremely expensive (if available at all). Why in the world would we have to pay for their problems?!?
Now let me add an additional explanation here that may shed light on some facts that may not be immediately obvious: Air France and KLM have merged and are in fact a single company. KLM own Air Alps (it is their "city hopper" airline). So when Air Alps canceled the flight to Amsterdam, it was indeed Air France's fault, because all three airlines are in fact one company. It gets better: KLM and Northwest have a joint venture that is very tightly coupled. (For instance, when you purchase a KLM ticket that is outbound from the US, you actually deal with Northwest, and when you buy a Northwest ticket that originates anywhere outside the US, you deal with KLM). So in fact ALL the airlines involved in the whole transaction are a single organization! (Except for Styrian Spirit perhaps, but they never played a role in all of this). So a single organization messes up, then claims that it all was the fault of different airlines (which are really just different brands of the same organization), and then simply offload the whole problem on the passenger. Awesome. I really wish someone would start a class-action law suit (possibly in multiple countries and continents) to get the whole airline industry straightened out, because they really jerk customers around any which way they want.
In the end, after several hours on the phone and after raising hell and going through a number of supervisor and management levels, we were able to get the flight changed to a different day without any cost to us. I guess we are supposed to be gracious.
The Actual Journey
So a few days ago, we actually drove to the airport in Houston and were ready to start our trip. Before we could do so however, we had to get our physical ticket re-issued (no e-tickets on these international trips). We had to check in with Air France, so they were supposed to do it (as arranged during the phone call). And of course, they are really the right people to talk to anyway, since Air France is really the main organization here, as we discovered above. However - surprise, surprise - they said they could not do it! "You should have done this ahead of time" the check-in lady said in slightly broken English. "No, we do not... we were told to come here". "Yes, maybe somewhere else in the Airport, but not Air France", she said. Nonsense! "We were on the phone with Expedia, Air France, and Northwest at the same time, and they told us to do it at the Air France check-in counter", we replied truthfully. Still, she refused to do it. After all, it meant a lot of work for her. We argued back and forth for a few minutes, and eventually managed to strongarm her into changing the ticket. We managed to do so because we had our facts straight and she wasn't able to just send us off by dishing us up some BS.
I wonder what someone would have done who doesn't travel as much as we do. This whole attitude (which all airline front-desk employees seem to have) of just "sending someone away, because when they figure out they were really at the right place, it is going to be too late", really sucks!
So we managed to get our ticket changed and we made it on the plane. At first, things seemed to be great. The plane was brand new. We think we heard a flight attendant mention that this was the second flight for that particular plane. However, things weren't quite as great as they first seemed. For one, everything in the plane was tiny! For instance, the seats are closer together than I have ever seen it before! The seats - which also seemed pretty nice at first - were the kind where the bottom slides to the front when the back goes back. Sounds good, but in practise, this meant that we could not move the seats back in a more comfortable position, because there simply wasn't enough room between my seat and the seat in front of me to move it forward. The diameter of my knee simply was greater than the space between seats (not to mention that my thighbone would have been too long as well). So no moving the seats back on this flight! Who'd want to do that anyway? It's only a 10-hour overnight flight...
My seat also was broken. The second flight, and already, the headrest fell off! Also, each seat had a fancy "personal entertainment center". This is a little touch screen in the seat in front of you, which is supposed to do things like show flight information or play movies on demand. Except, the touch screen didn't work well at all. I had to press buttons four or five times before they would react (if they would react at all). Of course, in the resulting frustration, one tends to tap the screen a bit harder than normal. This results in an involuntary massage of the person sitting in the seat in front of you, which is extremely annoying, especially if that person wanted to sleep. (In fact, this scenario is specifically pointed out in Alan Cooper's book "The Inmates Are Running the Asylum" as a laughable user interface choice). So there was no in-flight entertainment for me. I guess it would not have been so bad had I been able to move my seat back and had I had a headrest, which would have allowed me to get some sleep.
Also, the overhead compartments on this flight were the smallest I had ever seen. Before we boarded the plane, Air France personal told us that we could only have one item of carry-on luggage per person. Normally, the rule is "one item and a personal item such as a laptop computer". It wasn't a problem for us, but there was a business traveler who set across from us in the waiting area who had a relatively small bag and a laptop case with shoulder straps. They told him he couldn't carry both on. So he said "but the rule is one bag and a personal item, isn't it?". "Yes," they said "but your laptop is in a bag". No shit, smartie pants! Who carries a laptop without a bag?!? Once on the plane, we saw what the problem was though. Turns out that in a single overhead compartment that served 4 or 5 seats (to compartments for every 9 seats), they couldn't even fit 2 carry-on sized bags!
Eventually, the flight got under way. Shortly after takeoff, we got a drink (small glass of diet coke in my case). Later, they served a meal. I picked the chicken, but didn't really eat it, since I had brought some sub-sandwiches with me (for a while I was afraid I'd cause a riot...). I am not exactly sure why, but my section of the plane got completely skipped for drink-orders with that meal. After dinner, we encountered some turbulences for a while, and then no flight attendants came around anymore, and the end result was that I didn't manage to get anything to drink until breakfast. For that, I got a tiny amount of orange juice, which wasn't nearly enough (I tend to dehydrate on flights anyway). So the next time a flight attendant came buy I said (and I quote): "Excuse me. Would it be possible to get some diet coke?". She just looked at me with a blank stare and then said "In Europe, we do not drink diet coke for breakfast. You had your orange juice, didn't you?". And then she turned to the passenger on the other side of the isle and said "those Americans still have a lot to learn about Europe and international travel". Oh my! What a horrible human being I must be! At that point, I could not help myself and pointed out that I in fact was from Europe. "Why surely not from France", she said "because a typical french breakfast does not come with diet coke". That may be true. But a typical french breakfast comes with delicious white break and croissants and not with rolls so hard, they might have been left over from world war 2. I could have also pointed out that I was from a European country that was indeed so different from her own that we had complete freedom of choice for our morning beverage. I didn't though. I figured the case was hopeless.
I was really surprised by this, to be honest. I know that a lot of people think the french are rude, but on all my trips to France, I have never experienced that. Quite the contrary. Practically all the french people I ever met (even in Paris) have been extremely friendly. This flight attendant however was a completely different story. Not only was she rude, but she then added insult by discussing the stupidity of Americans with another passenger. Maybe there was no diet coke left or maybe she just didn't want to bring any. But a simple "no" or better yet "no, sorry", would have done the trick.
What an experience! The whole situation was just a mess. Maybe I am too negative about Air France, but how else would I interpret all of this? On future trips, I will do my best to avoid Air France whenever I can, and this may also mean avoiding KLM, an airline I have really liked in the past. Maybe it is time to give Lufthansa another chance, even if I do not get any miles...
Posted @ 7:58 AM by Egger, Markus (email@example.com)
Saturday, November 19, 2005
What a Difference a Day Makes...
Or a few days for that matter. 5 days ago I was in Las Vegas and as you can imagine, it was relatively warm. 2 or 3 days ago I was jogging in Houston at 90 degrees at 5pm. Today, I am in Austria, and when I look out the window, I see this:
Snow in mid-November, and more than enough of it. Not unheard of, but not entirely normal either. I guess I better go find my warm cloths...
Posted @ 8:41 AM by Egger, Markus (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
The Starving Children in Africa...
...and elsewhere. There are starving children all over the world. A little while ago, I decided to sponsor a few of them, so I did.
Yesterday, I went online to update my payment information (the credit card I used had expired). While I was at it, I checked out what the organization I sponsored them through had been up to, and I ended up sponsoring two more children. Sponsoring a child costs about $15-20 a month, and makes a big difference for these kids. And personally, $20 a month make no difference to me. I am not exactly sure how good the organization is that I use, but from some of the research I did, they seem as good or as bad as most of the other serious charities. (However, if you were to do something like this yourself, I would recommend you do some research on your own...)
I mean, c'mon, how can you ignore a child like this:
I actually have a web page dedicated to the children I sponsor:
Posted @ 5:17 PM by Egger, Markus (email@example.com)
Saturday, November 12, 2005
A (Short) Culinary Expedition: Las Vegas
A trip to Las Vegas is always a bit of a problem diet-wise. On this trip, we had convinced ourselves that we would not overindulge too much. After all, we are here for business, and not to eat. As it turns out, we didn't quite stick to that plan, and in some ways it was worth it (although I am sure I won't think so next week when I will have to step up my exercise schedule). Here are some of the places we went to:
- The day we got here (Tuesday) we got here pretty early (before noon). We had an early flight out of Houston and had not had breakfast. So once in Vegas, we decided to get a quick bite before we went to our first business meeting. We settled for the Bay Side Buffet at the Mandalay Bay. This is a relatively small buffet, but the quality is good. I also like the setting OK. We completely stuffed ourselves. So our good intentions went out the window at the first opportunity. 1 out of 1 after 2 hours of being in Vegas.
- The same evening, we didn't feel like eating a whole lot. Lunch simply was too big. However, several of our friends went out and we agreed to go with them just to have fun rather than to have dinner. They were hungry though, so we discussed various restaurant possibilities. We considered everything from Smith and Wollenskie's to In-And-Out Burger. We settled on the Village Seafood Buffet at the Rio. (Note: This is not the the main buffet at the Rio. The main buffet is the Carnival World Buffet, which is probably the largest buffet I have ever been to, although I have never been too impressed with the food quality. But the variety is amazing). Anyway: The seafood buffet was very tempting, and I must have eaten 20 lobster tails. In the past, we have seen inconsistent food quality at this buffet, but more often than not, it is very good, and it was great this time. Long story short: We completely stuffed ourselves. 2 out of 2, and we had been in Vegas less than 12 hours...
- The next day, we didn't do anything particularly interesting. Business kept us pretty busy during the day, and that evening, we went to KA.
- Yesterday (Thursday), we started the day with room service, due to the lack of time (another busy business day). And yes, I ordered the obligatory club sandwich. In the evening however, we were in for a special treat: We went to the Sushi + Sake Japanese restaurant at the Green Valley Ranch resort and casino. This is a bit off the strip (about a $40 cab ride away) and as I posted previously, I am not too excited about staying off the strip. However, this was def. worth the trip just for dinner. They have a special where you can get all you can eat sushi for $27. This is not a buffet. It is a regular sit-down restaurant, but they have this special deal. The sushi was excellent. There were 6 of us, and we consumed at least 20 rolls, 8 orders of tuna sashimi, various appetizers, and a huge plate of soft shell crabs. In short, we completely stuffed ourselves. Third opportunity, third failure to restrain ourselves. But then again: This was worth it, and we will def. go back there the next time we come to Vegas. This was one of the highlights of the trip for me (second only to KA). Plus, there was "other entertainment" there. Let's just say some of the people you see in Vegas are pretty out there...
- Today we moved from the Mandalay Bay to the Aladdin. I am happy to report that not much has changed since Planet Hollywood has taken over and I still like the hotel. To make things easy on us (we are still pretty busy with business meetings) we decided to go to the Spice Market Buffet. Personally, I think this is the best buffet in Las Vegas. It is pretty large and at the same time has very good food quality. I think it is better than the one at the Paris, which many think is among the best. So long story short: We completely stuffed ourselves. 4 out of 4. Amazing.
I think this is going to be it. After all, there aren't too many dining opportunities left. Have we discovered restaurants you just can not miss? I think so. Sushi + Saki is great. The Seafood Buffet at the Rio was great. And the Spike Market Buffet is always a pretty safe bet. But of course, Vegas has a lot more to offer. I will report back on that on our next Vegas trip...
Posted @ 1:11 AM by Egger, Markus (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Friday, November 11, 2005
Two nights ago we went to Cirque de Soleil's new KA show at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. To make a long story short: It was fantastic!
This new show is the story of twins getting separated on a journey to foreign lands. It is told in the usual Cirque de Solei fashion with great choreography, unusual costumes, and great acrobatic feats. The show is not cheap ($100-125 a ticket, I think), but it certainly is worth it. The setup was extremely impressive. The stage itself is just enormous and gigantic. The technology that goes into that is amazing. The choreography was very good too, and - as always - the acrobatics are just beyond believe. I still think the guys on that "giant hampster wheel" are nuts! (It is called "The Slave Cage". Watch the video clip on the KA web site's video section).
Also, I want to point out the music! The unsung heroes (if you excuse the pun) of Cirque de Soleil are the musicians. The sound is great, and as far as I know, it is all performed live!
I think it is safe to say that we are Cirque de Soleil fans. We have seen Mystere at least 2 or 3 times. O at least 4 times, Zumanity once, and now KA. And that's just in Vegas. We have also seen several of their travelling shows. They are all very good. I think O is my favorite of the Vegas Cirque shows, but I now really also like KA. Mystere is also good. Zumanity was a bit disappointing. It is marketed as "Sexy Cirque", but it wasn't all that sexy, nor did it have many of the mind boggling acrobatic feats. I wasn't offended either (I am pretty hard to offend), but it was just kinda dull. A friend of mine put it well: "it's the weird part of Cirque that you don't really like... and a whole lot of it!". My recommendation: Go to KA or O. Or any of the travelling shows, really.
Posted @ 9:17 PM by Egger, Markus (email@example.com)
Tuesday, November 08, 2005
Riding a Stretch-Limo into Vegas
We are back in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, it is mostly business again, but since it is Ellen's birthday, we will also try to fit in a bit of fun. Overall, this should be a nice stay. I am here to speak at two different conferences, and they are well attended, which always makes them exciting. Plus, the conferences go along with the launch of a major new Microsoft product (Visual Studio 2005 and SQL Server 2005), which adds to the enthusiasm.
For the first few nights, we are staying at the Mandalay Bay. This hotel rocks and I can only recommend it. It is a bit on the expensive end, of course. The only other things you should be aware of is that it is way one one end of the strip (a.k.a. "Las Vegas Boulevard"), which makes it quite a hike if you want to walk to some of the "attractions". But it still is part of the strip, and that's where you want to be. I like it.
Later this week we will move on to the Aladdin, which is a few blocks down the strip (that translates to miles in Vegas). I also like that hotel a lot. However, I haven't been there recently, and since Planet Hollywood has bought it, things could have changed. I will report back once we are there.
We came in just before noon today. The airport was a mad-house. Normally, we take a taxi from there, but sometimes the line is really long. This was the case today, so we were looking for another option. Here's a tip: Try renting a stretch-limo! Sounds expensive, but isn't as bad as you would think. We paid $43 to get from the airport to the hotel, which is a bit of a rip-off, because the Mandalay Bay is about as close to the airport as you can get. However, you really rent limos by the hour, so if you have a bit of a longer trip, it is actually well worth the money (you will pay the same $43). Also, the drivers usually don't mind giving you a tour. Just ask them to take you up and town the strip a bit, which will not cost you anything extra. We usually do this when we go to Vegas with people who haven't been here before. It is well worth the money.
Today, I think it was still worth it for us, because we estimated that the taxi wait would have been well over an hour, and for limos, there was no wait at all. This meant that we were able to get to the hotel over an hour earlier. I had a very full schedule and was happy to be able to work rather than stand in line. I am sure that made me more money than the 20 bucks or so we paid more than normal.
Posted @ 6:56 PM by Egger, Markus (firstname.lastname@example.org)