The Hello Kitty Jet

Even the flight attendants look the part.  All they're missing is the Hello Kitty backpack...

I’ve noticed that most people not directly involved with the aviation industry assume that anyone who is (or aspires to be) a professional aviator wants to fly for a major airline. Even military pilots are believed to desire an airline career.

The logic behind this assumption has always escaped me. There are certainly many pilots for whom an airline job is the proverbial brass ring, and I say more power to them. Someone has got to fly those things. If it’s what you love, do it. For me, however, when I consider the seniority system, financial instability, surly passengers, tough working conditions, low pay, terminal & gate congestion, unions, strikes, and poor management of most scheduled airlines, it doesn’t hold much appeal.

The Hello Kitty jet

Nevertheless, all of that pales in comparison to the ultimate reason to avoid Part 121: the Hello Kitty jet. In the words of Cosmo Kramer, it’s burning my rods and cones.

Unusual livery on an airliner is not new. From Sea World’s Shamu and Disney’s Tinkerbell to professional basketball, it’s been part of the airline scene for thirty years. Travel much and you’ll find Snoopy, salmon, Simpsons, safari, Starcraft, and sex as special livery themes on airliners. There’s even a fleet of Pokemon jets out there. But Hello Kitty really takes the cake when it comes to detail and cuteness.

At Taipei’s Taoyuan International Airport, they receive Hello Kitty boarding passes and baggage tags. A Hello Kitty song plays as passengers board the plane, which is plastered on the exterior with a Hello Kitty decal made by 3M. All-female cabin crew members swap their usual EVA Airways-issued green uniforms for pink aprons and scarves. All seats (252 to 309, depending on whether it’s an Airbus A330-200 or A330-300), are covered with Hello Kitty headrest covers. Even the meals, ice cream, snacks, cups, utensils, milk bottles, soap, hand lotion, and tissues are designed in the image of Hello Kitty.

Hello Kitty-themed goose liver pâté.

I’m more than happy to carry my wife’s purse, buy her feminine products at the grocery store, and shop for clothes with her. But I draw the line at entering a Sanrio store, which are reminiscent of the sugary cereals of my youth that frequently made me ill. From a marketing standpoint, however, I have to admit the branding seems to be paying off.

The airway’s adorable marketing strategy has attracted some avid travelers from carriers that fly the same routes, says Nieh. The load factor on Hello Kitty flights averages 80 percent to 90 percent, about 5 percent to 10 percent higher than EVA’s average on those routes before the Hello Kitty jets were introduced. Duty-free, in-flight sales of 13 kinds of Hello Kitty products generate some revenue, too.

Even the flight attendants look the part. All they’re missing is the Hello Kitty backpack…

On a serious note, a 5-10% bump in revenue is huge for an airline flight. These companies operate with profit margins around 1%, so any measurable increase in passenger load is going to help the bottom line. One wonders how much Sanrio is making off this deal with EVA Air. In an era of slowing economic activity and brutal competition, I’d expect to see more marketing of this kind in the future.

Frankly I’m surprised it hasn’t happened sooner. Ever larger airliners are essentially gigantic traveling billboards. Oh, there might be something to be said for preserving an airline’s dignity — can you imagine this sort of thing on a Pan Am jet during it’s heyday? The idea would have been rejected outright by Juan Trippe, I’m sure. Alas, mere survival is the order of the day for most airlines.

The technology necessary for this kind of branding has advanced significantly, too. It’s relatively quick and easy these days since actual paint isn’t even part of the equation. Modern adhesives are strong enough to withstand the 500+ mph air flow over the airframe, so the “repainting” only involves placing custom-made decals on an all-white aircraft. General aviation airplanes are using the same technique.

Hello Kitty salmon. I am quite confident even my cat wouldn’t touch it.

My favorite quote from the article: “Hello Kitty is not just for kids either, if lingerie and vibrators are any indication.”

But that’s not half as disturbing as the fact that they have five aircraft painted that way, and “believe there is a market for Hello Kitty jet service outside of Asia”. That’ll keep me looking over my shoulder for quite a while! It pains me to think I might have to set eyes on that thing in person.

I know it’s wrong to deface an aircraft, but I might have to buy some spray paint and keep it in my flight bag, just in case…

When I Ruled the World

The Timex Sinclair ZX81

The topic of computers in my last post reminded me that this month marks the 30 year anniversary of the object which made me a bona fide rock star throughout the world. That’s right, the whole freakin’ world!

(Um, it may be worth noting that at nine years of age, my “world” consisted of a three block radius around our house in Studio City.)

The year was 1981. I was in fifth grade and an unfortunate part of the desegregation busing experiment of the early 80’s. If you’re not familiar with this, the idea was to force students who lived in good school districts to attend an abysmal institution in the worst part of south-central Los Angeles while the kids from that area were bused each and every day to my neighborhood to attend a “good” school. To make matters worse, our class didn’t go wholesale. No, they split us up so we were in a strange neighborhood and cut off from our friends.

So I was separated from my classmates and sent to a virtual prison of a school in near L.A. City College called Dayton Heights Elementary School. In retrospect, I had an excellent teacher. One of the best in my entire educational experience, in fact. I still remember his name: Mr. Clifford Claycomb. To show you what an amazing instructor he was, when my father had a tough time making it to a parent-teacher conference, Claycomb invited him to his home for a meet-and-greet conference after hours. As I recall, Mr. Claycomb even cooked dinner for us. When’s the last time you saw that in a public school teacher?

The venerable Basic/Four computer console, circa 1980

Anyway, computers just weren’t around in 1981. Nobody had them. They weren’t in schools, homes, and only rarely would you find one at an office. If you did it was probably a mainframe or mini-computer like the Basic/Four machines at my dad’s office in Vernon. I recall going there as a kid are being mesmerized by the sleek looking blue terminals. The keyboard and monitor were built into one unit. The screen was monochrome, but to me it still looked like something right off the bridge of the starship Enterprise.

My cousin showed me a secret menu entry which would lead to a sub-menu of games that he had programmed. Instead of pressing a numeric key to perform a business function, he had programmed the computer so that if you typed in SEMAG (“games” spelled backward), it would lead you to the good stuff.

That’s how it was in ’81. Computers may have existed, but we never saw them. Sure, within a couple of years the Apple II would start appearing in “computer labs” at school, but when you’re nine years old, two years is another lifetime. No, computers that year were for a select few to use at work. The idea of having one at home was absurd. Who could afford something like that?

And then suddenly one day — I think it may have been Hanukkah that year — everything changed. My brother Neil gave me a fairly diminutive wrapped box which blew me away. It had a computer in it! Not a toy, not a video game console (only one neighbor even possessed one of those, the venerable Atari 2600), but an honest-to-goodness programmable computer with it’s own integrated keyboard!

The Timex Sinclair ZX81

The ZX80 was so small and light that, as I look back on it, it might have been one of those product displays you’ll see in a Target or Walmart tagged with the placard “Non-functional unit for display purposes only”. A mockup, in other words.

I wasted no time hooking it up to the small, ancient color TV we had on the kitchen counter. I didn’t even have a place to sit down — I had to program it standing up in front of the counter top, right in the path of traffic through the house. The counter was high, I was short, the TV was fuzzy, but it didn’t matter. I had a freakin’ computer!

I recall being amazed by the incredible memory space available, a whopping 1 kilobyte (the rough equivalent of one type-written page). It didn’t come with the optional tape drive, so any programs I wrote would immediate disappear as soon as power was shut off and the ZX80 would have to be re-programmed next time it was booted. It came with a primitive version of the BASIC language built-in. The membrane keyboard was challenging to use because there was no tactile feedback and it was not possible to type in commands directly. For example, a simple BASIC programming line might look like this:

10 IF LEN(A$) = 0 THEN GOTO 90

The difficulty with the ZX80 is that the machine wouldn’t accept the code directly. You had to use a series of multiple-keystroke sequences for each command. In the example above, the commands “if”, “len”, “then”, and “goto” would each require a multiple-keystroke sequence to insert that particular word.

It was an odd way to program, and there were no “Idiot’s Guide” books to help me out. At least, none that I had access to. There was no internet to search for programs or help. No neighbors, kids, or teachers who knew anything about the mysterious little black box.

Even at age nine, I quickly reached the programming capacity of the little Sinclair. To be honest, its primary value was in being a device I could take to school to show all my friends and make them jealous. Except the girls — for whatever reason, they didn’t seem impressed by it.

I’ve often wondered what happened to that little computer. It was probably lost in the mad shuffle of boxes and furniture after my dad died the following year. It may well have been crushed into a thousand pieces under the weight of the metal Tonka toys I threw around the yard as a kid. Or perhaps it was donated and made its way into a computer museum somewhere. I’d like to think that’s where it is, out there collecting dust but still amazing the kids who see it.

I’ll always think fondly of the ZX80. It was the first of a long string of classic computers (TRS-80, Apple IIGS, etc) which have graced my desk over the years, and it represented a classic time in life. It was the year Reagan started setting aside that famous “malaise”. The year the space shuttle first took flight, MTV was launched, and the first woman joined the Supreme Court.

Good times indeed.

Goodbye, O.C.

Does wishing for the demise of a show set in my home town make me a bad person?  I hope not, because I was glad to read this:

LOS ANGELES, California (AP) — “The O.C.,” the once-hot teenage soap opera that saw its ratings plummet like a delinquent student’s grades, has been canceled.

Based in the affluent Orange County, California, city of Newport Beach, “The O.C.” caught fire in its first season, 2003-04, as the top-rated drama among advertiser-favored young adults and with a total audience of nearly 10 million.

“The O.C.” didn’t sustain its momentum, dropping to about 7 million weekly viewers during 2004-05 and then to fewer than 6 million last season. This year, returning in November after Fox wrapped its postseason baseball coverage, “The O.C.” has only drawn about 4 million viewers.

Somehow, the real Orange County became a magnet for producers of bad television over the past few years.  “The O.C.” scraped the bottom of the 90210-esque barrel from day one, yet somehow found enough of an audience that it spawned two Orange County-based reality shows:  The Real Housewives of Orange County and Laguna Beach.

I’ve seen all three shows, just out of curiosity.  There are definitely people who live that way, but they’re a relatively small number.  TV show fans do weird things sometimes; I wonder how many folks have moved here because of those shows, and what they think of the place after living here for a while.

The true reality of Orange County life goes down two seperate paths.  The high-life that everyone associates with O.C. is frequently a person with a $100,000 income living in an overpriced, rented apartment and driving a $150,000 car, leveraged to the hilt in order to finance an lifestyle they cannot afford.  That’s not going to last.

The other reality is comprised of ordinary people living normal, sensible lives.  I’d say that accounts for 95% of the county’s residents.

What you don’t see on TV is the sense of entrapment the real estate values place on homeowners here.  I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to who say that they couldn’t move even if they wanted to because the high cost of real estate and the step up in tax basis on their home would make even a downward move unaffordable.  They’re wealthy on paper, but that’s it.  There are homeowners with multi-million dollar homes on Balboa Island who couldn’t even afford to pay the property tax on their place if it wasn’t for Proposition 13.  They’ve simply owned the place for 30 years and bought when it was affordable down there.

I suppose these nuances don’t make for good television, but I dislike the reality shows because there’s a segment of the population that expects and wants Orange County to be as vapid and shallow as what ends up on screen.  It’s perplexing.  When shows like “Dallas” were on the air, nobody thought it represented the real city of Dallas.  Of course, that was twenty years ago; the definition of “reality” has undergone some plastic surgery since then.  I hardly recognize it.

I like Orange County.  I just don’t like the way it’s portrayed to the world on these B-roll TV series.  The sooner they go, the better.  Let the glare of Hollywood’s reality craze warp someone else’s community for a change.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

It’s not just a movie anymore.

Vaginal rejuvenation costs thousands of dollars and is done with a laser. It includes a variety of procedures, such as women getting their labia made smaller because it is uncomfortable for them to engage in physical activity or have intercourse, women getting their vaginal canal tightened as it was pre-baby delivery, and other women going one step further by getting their hymen (the gateway to the vaginal canal) tightened. This last procedure can, in a sense, make a woman a virgin again.

You’d think this would come from some scurrilous sex-related site, but alas it’s from CNN anchor Anderson Cooper’s “360” show weblog.

I know this kind of thing is common in parts of the world where women who aren’t virgins (and sometimes, even if they are) get a free stoning in the town square.  But isn’t it ironic that, although this procedure is available in the U.S. for largely cosmetic reasons, we share this odd distinction with countries like Saudi Arabia?  They’d never consider botox.  But a hymenoplasty?  Get thee to a doctor, stat!

Cooper’s article was sort of humorous, but many of the comments it engendered were just plain sad.  Here’s one:

In 1983 I taught English at the Women’s branch of King Saud Univ., in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Being a virgin when one marries (and it is always an arranged marriage) is, in many cases, a literal matter of life and death for a young woman in that country, and parades of men, led by a new groom bearing proof in the form of bloody sheets after the wedding night, were de rigeur in outlying districts. This type of surgery was, if sub rosa, not unusual at that time in the country, even if a woman was a virgin but had lost her hymen via other means, so that there would be no doubt in the groom’s mind. The attitude toward virginity was summed up by a male student I discussed this with: “Would you rather buy a new car, or a used car?”

Nothing quite like a university student who is unable or unwilling to differentiate between a car and a human being.  The commenter was referencing events from nearly a quarter of a century ago, but I’d imagine it’s much the same there today.

Of course, if Saudi Arabia is a bit too far away for your taste, you may not have to travel that far.  Chad from Austin, TX writes:

There are still culturally rich places in America, like my birthplace in South Texas, where a woman’s virginity in the marriage bed is a source of honor for her family and groom; its absence had been grounds for annullment and disowning. I’ve seen billboards for vaginal rejuvination there for at least 3 years.
He didn’t mention anything about stoning, but perhaps it’s implied in south Texas.  I don’t know.

Foo Fighters Good; Sony Bad

Some of the most relaxing moments of the San Carlos dive trip were had during surface intervals on the boat. A ‘surface interval’ is a period of time spent on the surface in between dives. This time allows the body to naturally rid itself of excess nitrogen accumulated while breathing compressed air at depth. Without an appropriate surface interval, a diver runs the risk of having this nitrogen come out of solution in the blood and form bubbles which can cause pain, vomiting, paralysis, and even death.

Anyway, our surface intervals were typically in the 60-90 minute range. We’d use the time to eat lunch, fish, and just relax. Well one day, David put the new Foo Fighters CD, In Your Honor, in the boat’s CD player. It’s a two disc set — one hard rock, one acoustic. The acoustic side was just mellow enough to fit perfectly with that quiet contemplative time out on the water. I really loved it and made a mental note to pick up the album once we got back to the States.

I finally got around to it today, and the first thing I did was rip it to my hard drive so Retrospect could back it up tonight along with the rest of my data. Few people back up CDs for disaster recover purposes, but who among us hasn’t scratched a CD just enough to turn it into a $14.99 coaster? I also use the local copy to free myself from having to schlep the CD back and forth between the car and house.

So much for simple plans. I discovered that Sony uses a copy protection scheme on the album which prevents the listener from burning an archival copy of the CD. The technology, from Sunncomm International, is called MediaMax. It stops rippers (I tried Winamp, Easy Media Creator, Nero, and Media Player) from doing the deed. Some may appear to rip the tracks, but when you listen to them they skip incessantly.

Got an iPod or use iTunes? Then you’re out of luck, too. As Sunncomm explains it, “Apple’s proprietary technology doesn’t support secure music formats other than their own, and therefore the secure music file formats on this disc can’t be directly imported into iTunes or iPods.” You’re essentially limited to using Windows Media Player or another ‘secure’ player that MediaMax can get its claws into.

Needless to say, this stinks. Thankfully, J. Alex Halderman at Princeton University has dissected the MediaMax copy protection system and found an easy way around it.

Basically, MediaMax works by installing a proprietary driver as soon as the CD is inserted. This driver not only prevents ripping of protected content, but won’t even allow said content to be played unless the appropriate licenses are present. So disabling the copy protection is as simple as a) disabling the MediaMax driver, and b) ensuring the Windows auto-play functionality doesn’t have a chance to reinstall it.

For the nitty gritty, check out Halderman’s site. The instructions were stone simply and only took me 30 seconds to accomplish. Since then, I’ve been able to rip, archive, and play the Foo Fighters CD as though the copy protection scheme never existed. Because as far as my computer is concerned, it never did.

To the best of my knowledge, circumventing MediaMax neither immoral or illegal. I’m simply making an archival copy for my own use, and not doing anything I could’t do by simply carrying the CD around with me wherever I go. Reverse engineering the MediaMax software is prohibited by the license agreement, but then, I never agreed to it. And even if I had, I’m not reverse engineering anything. I’m simply removing a driver from my system — something I’d want to do anyway. Windows gets so cluttered up with needless software that it slows boot up times and consumes precious memory. Efficiency and security both dictate that any services not absolutely required for operation be disabled or downright removed from Windows.

If I’d known this copy protection junk was on the album, I never would have bought it in the first place. I love the music, but at the end of the day my money went to support — and therefore encourage — Sony’s adoption of intrusive software which prevents me from using music I paid for in ways which are completely legal.