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Foul play from EK

6 October 2015

For what its worth I really, really dislike the new Jennifer Aniston ad from Emirates. And I dislike it on so many levels.

Here it is - have a look:

It is clearly a cheap shot at the main US carriers - part of the ongoing feud between the ME3 and the US3.

The ad sees the "Friends" (now-faded) star ridiculed by the cabin crew of an airline when she turns up (at the back of the airplane in economy) wearing a dressing gown, and asks where the shower is. The big reveal at the end is that it was a "nightmare" and she was actually on board an Emirates A380.

Boutros Boutros, Emirates divisional senior vice president of corporate communications, says in a statement: "In a departure from the usual airline industry ads, we chose to take a humorous approach to showcase the amazing products we offer on board. We couldn't think of anyone better suited for the role than Jennifer Aniston and we wrote the script with her in mind. Her professionalism and comedic talent shone on the set and we are very pleased with the outcome."

Oh dear - where to start.

First: the campaign costs US$20 million. Ouch. Ms Aniston apparently gets US$5million. She had probably never flown (maybe never heard of) Emirates until her agent told her there was some good money to be made.

Second: I hate celebrity endorsements. Miss Aniston probably did not even know Emirates was an airline until her manager came to her and said she can make some easy money doing an airline ad. I also have no idea why a paid for celebrity endorsement would influence anyone's choice of airline.

Third: let's compare like with like. Aniston is wandering into the rear galley of economy asking about a shower. The towel and peanuts gag is clearly aimed at the US airlines. They have big domestic networks where snacks or buy on board are economy catering. But Emirates does not have a domestic network.

Indeed on their international flights the US airlines do not operate a first class. Usually the choice is business, premium economy or economy. Their business products are probably as good as it not better than Emirates - especially the tired 2-3-2 economy seating.

Fourth: the portrayal of American flight attendants is offensive. There are three - how shall I say it - older crew. They are in the galley; eating. They laugh at their customer. This is not the crew that rescued all the passengers from Sullenberger's stricken A320. For the most part I have found US crews experienced and welcoming. There is only so much they can do with their onboard product. But their experience counts for a great deal when safety becomes an issue. 

Fifth: Why antagonise the US carriers? It simply is not a valid comparison The ad simply escalates the war of words. Sell the positive about Emirates. Do not go negative on other airlines.

So Emirates has a shower on board. It is only on the A380s. It is available to just 14 out of 513 passengers on each A380. just 2.8% of the passengers on each flight. And at a cost. A quick search on Emirates.com for a mid-week return flight from New York to Dubai in December yielded a ticket costing $26,950. Yes. That shower will cost you. The same flight in economy class is US$2,200.

I suspect 97% of Emirates passengers will stick with the cheap airfare and hold off on the shower until they land.

If Emirates wants to appeal to US travelers it needs to sell its economy product. Sell the movies and catering; sell the $1 wifi; sell the amount of space on the A380. But dont ever try to tell your economy passenger that the 777 experience is in any way better than long-haul on a US carrier.

Remembering IP Sharp Associates

6 October 2015

Watching the excellent "Halt and catch Fire" takes me back to the mid 1980s and to Reuters 1987 acquisition of IP Sharp Associates.

Halt and Catch Fire is a tv series made by AMC. Set in the 1980s it was a well-informed look into the roots of the technology boom...the dawn of the computer age. The show talked of old IBM mainframes; 3081s and 3090s; of timesharing; of networks and of communities. It was clever - showing how something that in the 1980s was almost hippy-ish has become mainstream. Even in the tv show the issue is funding; experimenting with new toys was far more fun that making money from them.

Which takes me back some 30 years ago to my first visit to IP Sharp Associates in Toronto in February 1986.

I. P. Sharp Associates, IPSA for short, was a major Canadian computer time sharing, consulting and services firm of the 1970s and 80s. IPSA is particularly well known for its work on the APL programming language, an early packet switching computer network known as IPSANET, and a powerful mainframe-based email system known as 666 BOX. It was purchased in 1987 by Reuters, in part for access to the extensive historical information database that the company had built. Reuters kept IPSA until 2005 as a data warehousing center for business data.

IPSA's eight founders had worked as a team at the Toronto division of Ferranti, Ferranti-Packard, which sold numerous products to the Canadian military and large businesses. In 1964 Ferranti sold off its computing division to International Computers and Tabulators, which almost immediately closed the Toronto office. Ian Sharp, the chief programmer, decided to found his own company, and named it for himself.

The company started with contract programming on IBM System/360 series mainframes, and to some degree took over Ferranti's former military work. In the early years, IPSA collaborated with its "sister company" Scientific Time Sharing Corporation (STSC) of Bethesda, Maryland, USA, each retailing the same services in their respective countries. IPSA and STSC jointly developed their software. Eventually they devised separate product names. They separated as Sharp APL and APL*Plus.

IPSA sold time on its mainframes by the minute to customers across Canada, and rapidly developed into a major time sharing service in the 1970s. Long before the Internet, IPSA developed IPSANET to provide cheap telecommunications between the Toronto data center and IPSA clients across North America, Europe and eventually to Asia. Packet-switching also made their transatlantic links much more usable, since on previous equipment, frequent "line hits" would produce user-visible errors. As the network grew, and as Sharp APL was available on in-house computers, Sharp clients with their own mainframes could join the network, access their own or the Toronto mainframe from anywhere on IPSANET, and transfer data accordingly. The network eventually provided "Network Shared Variables" that allowed programs running on one mainframe to communicate in realtime with programs on another mainframe. This was used for file transfer and email services.

I. P. Sharp Associates offered timesharing users access to a variety of databases, plus sophisticated packages for statistical analysis, forecasting, reporting, and graphing data. Databases included historical stock market time series data, econometric data, and airline data. All of these were available from the 39 MAGIC workspace, an easy-to-use time series, query, and reporting language, which among other things featured integrated high-quality business graphics from Superplot. In 1982, IPSA produced its first printed catalog of all online databases and proceeded to document for its customers the content and use of single databases or sets of databases.

These databases were of obvious interest to Reuters who provided real time data without the historical analysis.

IPSA was heavily involved in the development of the APL language, eventually employing its inventor, Ken Iverson, in the early 1980s. Roger Moore, a company co-founder and vice-president, won the 1973 Grace Murray Hopper Award for the development of APL\360 (along with Larry Breed and Dick Lathwell). APL\360 was later greatly enhanced and extended to become SHARP APL.

IPSA employed a team of expert APL implementors and contributors in its Toronto head office location, including Ian Sharp, in his role as enabler, Roger Moore, Dick Lathwell, Brian Daly in his role as marketing guy in Toronto, Bob Bernecky, Leigh O. Clayton, Doug Forkes, Dave Markwick, and Peter Wooster. This group was headed by Eric B. Iverson, Ken Iverson's son. It was affectionately known as the "Zoo" and was very well respected inside and outside the firm. The term "Zoo" is attributed to a visitor from the "establishment" who witnessed the long hair, beards and unconventional dress amongst some of the team. Sharp APL and APL Plus, and variants, were all based on the XM6 IBM program. Further extensive APL development was done in Toronto and elsewhere.

It is perhaps this group that most resembles the creative chaos of the tv show.

Later, in the 1980s, a branch office in Palo Alto, California, managed by Paul L. Jackson, made significant contributions to APL and later J. This office included Joey Tuttle, Roland Pesch, and Eugene McDonnell.

666 BOX, written in APL, was one of the first commercial email services, known colloquially by its users as the "Sharp Mailbox." The original 666 BOX was written by Larry Breed of STSC. It was later rewritten for higher security by a student hacker from Lower Canada College, Leslie H. Goldsmith. Eventually it was extended to support transferring email among multiple domains (mainframes) over IPSANET.

The timesharing business started to deteriorate in mid-1982, as some key timesharing clients moved their operations from timesharing to in-house Sharp APL. Around that time, IBM started offering smaller mainframe computers, such as the IBM 4300 series, which could be leased for less than the cost of using external services. Clients who did not depend on the network were the first to migrate to small mainframes. Initially, the presence of the IBM PC posed little threat to the timesharing industry as the computing horsepower and storage capacity offered by these small machines was insufficient. As a major slice of Sharp's business was buttressed by database business, this had the beneficial effect of delaying the eventual downslide. IPSA also started to build value added financial applications such as Instant Link and Blend that made use of the existing network infrastructure.

Reuters purchased I. P. Sharp Associates in 1987, partially for the historical financial data. Ian Sharp continued as president until 1989, when he retired. In 1993, IPSA's "APL Software Division" was purchased by its employees from Reuters and renamed Soliton. Reuters closed the Toronto facility in 2005.

Timesharing has had a rebirth with the concept of cloud computing and teh need to store, access and use massive amounts of data. Lib Gibson who was one of the Soliton team that acquired Sharp APL from Reuters wrote on her blog of "a pioneering software and network communications company, led by the brilliant and unassuming Ian Sharp."

Her description of the company can be found in a review of Stev Job's biography. It maybe a little rose-tinted but it is instructive; "Ian's penchant for hiring bright people resulted in a company full of them. Like Jobs, many 'Sharpees' had dropped out of university  (often leaving the US motivated by the Vietnam draft).  Like Jobs, some of them had nevertheless earned a BA (brilliant & abrasive) or a BE (brilliant & eccentric).  Ian exhibited huge tolerance of eccentric behaviour as long as people were contributing and were respectful of their colleagues and focused on solving customer problems.   Jobs' success arose, at least in part, from the diversity of his interests and his appetite for ingesting ideas from many fields. Ian's disregard for people's area of specialization meant that I.P. Sharp was seething with people from diverse backgrounds - computer science as well  as education, mathematics, biology, music and many fields.  (It was also full of 'minorities', because Ian seemed blind to nationality, religion, skin colour, or sexual orientation)."

It was a unique and talented culture. It had also run itself financially into the ground and by 1986 it needed a white knight to re-finance the business.

Reuters mistake was not in buying the company but in trying to fit it into the Reuters geography rather the the business units. IPSA was initially supervised by Reuters America who had no interest in a business when they had not been involved in its acquisition. Existing management was left in place; Reuters was seen as the new banker. It was a year before real change could start and an integration of the businesses could commence.

Of course it is telling that IPSA had a 50th anniversary reunion in 2014. It appears that not one person from Reuters was invited. Given how many of the company's employers were shareholders they had a lot to thank Reuters for. But memories can be selective.

The York University IPSA online collection is here.

History of I P Sharp Associates Timesharing and Network

Stealin' All My Dreams: A Modern Day Protest Song

29 September 2015

"I didn't want to talk about it, so I wrote a song about it." Greg Keelor

Compelled to add their voice to the chorus of voices protesting Prime Minister Harper's Conservative government, Blue Rodeo has written the modern day protest song "Stealin' All My Dreams".

Recorded and filmed on September 9, 2015, the song and video chronicle the failings of the current government and asks the question, "Have you forgotten that you work for me?"

"Blue Rodeo does not always speak with one voice. However we feel collectively that the current administration in Canada has taken us down the wrong path. We do not seem to be the compassionate and environmentally conscious nation we once were. As respectful as we are of the variety of opinions held by our audience, we felt it was time to speak up and add our voice to the conversation." Jim Cuddy

The song and video are available for free download on BlueRodeo.com. The facts included in the video are also on the site accompanied by articles encouraging the reader to delve further.

The key message to all Canadians is please vote on October 19, 2015. And ideally vote for change.