Saturday, August 29, 2009

1919 Penny

I noticed the coin in a handful of change. It was a penny, a wheatback, its features fading with age. When tilted just so, the coin revealed its date: 1919.

In 1919...

I’ll be sure to spend the coin so someone else might happen upon this connection to a faraway time.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Proactive Safety from Flight Data

In the tragic event of a passenger airplane crash, there is always the search for the flight data recorder, also known as the black box. This device continuously record dozens, sometimes hundreds, of data points about the state of the plane. Analyzing this data is usually key to understanding what went wrong in a crash.

The typical black box retains data for up to a day, recording over the older data. However, some airlines download black-box data between flights, thus maintaining a complete data history for the plane. Doing so opens the possibility of aggregating a huge number of flights’ data to detect problems before they cause a crash.

The industry term for it is Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA). I discovered the topic because I met a pilot from one of the U.S. airlines that has a FOQA program. His job is to train other pilots, and one of his tasks is to bring findings from the FOQA data into the field.

For example, a notoriously difficult airport had an unusual number and variety of problems with landings. Because it was a difficult airport, extra problems were expected. However, analyzed over time, the pattern of problems suggested how the landing procedure could be changed to increase safety—which it was.

More generally, trainers can watch for trends in which crews are getting lax about certain procedures. This allows the trainers to identify where additional training is needed and to assess the effectiveness of that training.

As a frequent airline passenger, it was a pleasant surprise to hear about this proactive use of flight data in the name of safety.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Weird, Wonderful Comerç 24

The ice cream duo was cod and artichoke, but what could we expect? We were there for the unexpected.

The restaurant was Comerç 24 in Barcelona, founded by a chef formerly of El Bulli, the global shrine of innovative cuisine—think meat rendered as foam, cheese made from almonds, and “Kellogg’s paella” (Rice Krispies, shrimp heads and vanilla-flavored mashed potatoes). You may love those dishes or hate them, but you won’t forget them.

At Comerç 24, we had chosen the tasting menu. It did not deign to say what would be coming, all the better to surprise not just with the taste but with the concept of each dish: Sirloin infused with berries and roses? A winner. Consomme with gelatinized balls of egg, truffle, and parmesan? Intriguing. A tall shot-glass smoothie of mandarin orange, passion fruit, and mint, the flavors stacked like layers in a cake? Wow.

Of course, various foams made appearances. My favorite was the mashed potato foam that accompanied the sea bass. And then there were the gold-dusted macadamia nuts, a simple and satisfying interlude among complex dishes.

In total, we were served seventeen small-plate dishes, which sounds more outrageous than it was. Some were bite-size; others were more substantial yet still relatively petite. It certainly did justice, and then some, to the idea of a tasting menu.

We rated most dishes somewhere between very good and great. All had interesting twists of flavor and texture. A few went too far, like the cod and artichoke ice cream. However, such judgments are relative. The people at the next table claimed to like that dish.

Overall, the meal—or, should I say, culinary experience—was a unique mix of weird and wonderful. So for those in search of something seriously different, and who happen to be in Barcelona, you know where to go.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Penetration Confusion

From “Final Frontier for Wireless Hard to Break Through” in The New York Times: “In Botswana, cellphone penetration exceeds 80 percent, and in South Africa, it has topped 100 percent.”

Why does that sound wrong? We occasionally see percentages higher than 100, but those usually refer to growth rates (“iPhone sales up 150%”). In contrast, penetration implies a part of a whole. A fully penetrated market would be 100 percent penetrated.

So how does South Africa have cellphone penetration above 100 percent? Apparently, the answer comes from dividing the number of wireless subscribers by the population (49 million divided by 47.9 million as of 2008). There are more subscribers than people because some subscribers are double- or triple-counted because they have multiple subscriptions, such as one for a BlackBerry and one for an iPhone. A little Web searching indicates that this calculation is common for the wireless industry, and several countries have penetration above 100 percent.

The wireless industry probably started using penetration as a metric back when wireless phones were the size of bricks and the few people that had one indeed had exactly one. At that time, I doubt wireless executives dared to dream that people would one day carry multiple devices, and thus the traditional concept of penetration applied: Just divide the number of people with phones by the population, and you’ve got penetration that maxes out at 100 percent.

Many years later, the wireless industry is still using penetration—that part-of-the-whole metric—but no one knows what the whole should be. If we just use the population, we’ll get situations like South Africa where the part is bigger than the whole due to some people having multiple phones. However, at this point, changing the definition of the whole would be arbitrary: 100 percent penetration is when everyone has two wireless devices? Three?

Maybe the better answer is for the wireless industry to replace penetration with “wireless subscriptions per capita.” Botswana would get 0.8, and South African would have 1.02. Numerically, it expresses the same thing as the penetration metric, but it does not imply the part-of-a-whole relationship.

And since we’re on the subject, a few additional metrics would be helpful. For example, with penetration (or wireless subscriptions per capita), we don’t know whether Botswana’s 80 percent penetration is due to 20 percent of the population having four phones each or whether 80 percent of the population has one phone each. Something like “percentage of people with at least one wireless subscription” would help. From that and the already-known total number of subscriptions, we could calculate the average number of subscriptions per subscriber. Finally, we could multiply that number by the population without a subscription and, coming full circle, estimate the remainder of the market to be penetrated at that point in time!