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April 1999
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June 1999

Scary Airline Story

If you're like me, you probably assumed that the airlines were run by people who were, perhaps stupid, but probably not malign or evil. Joe Brancatelli has some news for you.

Joe is an old friend (and now a columnist) who writes the Brancatelli File column at His May 13 column, Running on Empty" tells the scary story of a Malaysia Airline flight that landed at Heathrow with the equivalent of a pint of gasoline (in a car) left in its fuel tank.

But the Aviation Daily trade newsletter reported Tuesday that Malaysia Airlines pilots have been under orders for more than two years to carry minimal fuel to save on costs. Worse, the newsletter reported, the near-disaster on the MAS flight coming into Heathrow was "nothing new." Malaysia and other airlines routinely carry less fuel than safety regulations require and "ground staff attending to the aircraft keep it quiet."

You don't think a jetliner could crash because it ran out of fuel? I was there. I covered the crash of a United Airlines flight in Portland, Oregon in 1978 that ran out of fuel 10 miles short of the runway. The crash killed 5 people--a remarkably low death rate for an airplane crash--largely because there was no fire afterwards. And because the pilot deftly landed in a grove of trees, avoiding killing people on the ground.

The problem in Portland was human error (something about liters and gallons). Apparently, it's human error at Malaysia Airlines as well--they forgot to hire human beings to run the airline.

Fingerprinting Web Commentators

You may have noticed that most often good articles mentioned in this column are pointed out to me by someone else. Well, this time I actually spotted one on my own. And it's a doozy.

Ruling May Mold Online Advice Giving, by Jon Swartz, appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on May 17. It chilled me to the bone. Here's what we in journalism call the "nut graf:"

At issue: whether the Commodity Futures Trading Commission is trampling the rights of Web sites, newsletter publishers and software developers that give investing advice by subjecting them to stringent licensing procedures that include taking fingerprints and conducting background checks.

Thank goodness, someone did make a federal case out of it. Now, the question is, will the good guys win? And I don't mean the CFTC. It is a thought-provoking article.

The Plot To Get Bill Gates


This is going to be my letter from the editor in next week, but you can see it early here at PSACOT:

My track record for predicting buzz is so awful that I won't even go into it here. But I just finished reading the galley proofs of a forthcoming book, The Plot To Get Bill Gates, An Irreverent Investigation of the World's Richest Man...and the People Who Hate Him by Gary Rivlin, slated for publication on July 12. You can place your order now, if you want; Amazon and Barnes and Noble already have the book in their database. I mention this because you should place an order now.

Here's my prediction: this will be a hot book, widely excerpted and much talked about. I can't formally review it at this point --that's against the rules. On the other hand, I am usually an outsider, the last to hear what's hot and what's not. Maybe you are too. Here's your chance to knowingly refer to something that isn't here yet, and isn't just some piece of vaporware code.

This is a work of non-fiction, and it isn't really about a "plot" per se, in the organized sense. It does discuss, in detail, the obsessive dislike for Gates among such major industry figures as Ray Noorda, Larry Ellison, Scott McNealy and Philipe Kahn, as well as the different "versions" of Bill put forth by Microsoft over the years.

That's all I feel comfortable about saying at this time. Check back after July 12, and you'll find out more about what I think of the book; we'll run a formal review of it as well.

I know no one has time to read, but there are a few really good books each year that are worth your time. This is surely one of them.

Web Site of the Week: Barnes and Noble

Barnes and Noble

Perhaps is an entrenched habit with you. If you, like me, are the kind of person who rents from Avis sometimes, just because you want to keep Hertz honest, have a look at Barnes and Noble's web site. It's a nice place to buy books. Of course, I still buy all my used books from Powell's, but that's because they stocked my book when it was in print--and even for a few years after it was out of print.

Prairie Home Companion Humor


I heard all these on the May 23, 1999 broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion. I loved them. These are somewhat shortened versions.

Brother Hugh has come to town to investigate reports of fake Franciscan Monks selling flowers door to door. The Abbott told him, "Hugh, only Hugh can prevent florist friars."

Actually, they were selling palm leaves that prevent constipation. With fronds like these, who needs enemas?

You heard about the biologist who tripped his creation because he wanted to see an obscene clone fall.

The harpist who wanted great seafood and 70s music after her performance found it, then left her instrument behind. She left her harp in Sam's Clam Disco.

I want my attack chicken to go after Maggie Thatcher because I've always wanted to see a chicken catch a Tory.

You've heard of the new BMW with no seat and no steering wheel, for yuppies who have lost their ass and don't know which way to turn?

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

A Top 5 List Rumination of the Day:

If people are worried about the whole Y2K thing, just wait until they try to get technical support the day "Phantom Menace" opens.

Just the facts (courtesy of the Internet Movie Database).

Written and Directed: George Lucas. Tagline: Every generation has a legend. Every journey has a first step. Every saga has a beginning.Cast: Liam Neeson: Qui-Gon Jinn; Ewan McGregor: Obi-Wan Kenobi; Natalie Portman: Queen Amidala; Jake Lloyd: Anakin Skywalker; Frank Oz: Yoda. Rating: PG for sci-fi action/violence. Running Time: 131 minutes.

I liked it. I was amused at the reviews, which ranged from tepid in the San Francisco Chronicle (which defensively went back and discovered that it has not slammed Lucas' previous films, even though that's the way he remembers it) to outright scabrous in the New Yorker (which called the film crap).

It ain't Shakespeare, but it ain't crap. I've seen crap. I've reviewed crap. This isn't crap. This is a well-written, well-directed, well-paced, slightly-too-long action adventure movie with more than the usual amount of philosophy behind the action, some amusing comic relief, a refreshing lack of stupid, pointless gore and sex, and the finest sound effects and visual effects of any movie, ever.

I am not going to waste my entire review countering other reviews. Suffice it to say that there is a plot and there is dialog, and you don't have to be a raving Star Wars obsessive to enjoy it.

What we have here is the back story for the original Star Wars trilogy. It is hard to think of anything I can say about the plot that hasn't been said in a thousand ways, in a thousand places, already.

Phantom Menace does not live up to its hype; the second coming could not live up to this quantity of hype. But while Lucas coaxed pretty good performances out of the mostly unknown cast of his first trilogy, he has hired actual professionals for many of the roles this time, and they do not disappoint. Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor are first class Jedi Knights, delivering even some of the silly lines with a refreshingly straight face. Jake Lloyd can and does act rings around most child actors. I always thought the Princess (despite the Danish on her ears), not Luke, not Hans, was the core of the original trilogy, and I see the same kind of keystone role shaping up for Natalie Portman as Queen Amidala.

C3PO's single-scene appearance is way too brief, and probably was solely to fulfill Lucas' previous boast that C3 and R2 would appear in all six films (except, as we know, that he once spoke of 9 films; I hope he changes his mind and decides to go ahead with 7, 8 and 9 someday).

There are at least a couple of plot points I could give away, but I'm still angry at the guy who walked by me while I was in line for The Empire Strikes Back and told his companion, "Who knew Darth Vader was Luke's father." And that was 20 years ago.

So, let me just say: go. Take the family. Enjoy yourselves. This is entertainment.

Tom and Ray Vs. Clinton

A brief note from Harrison Klein:

So tell the truth: would you rather have been in the Class of '73 and got to hear Clinton at the 25th reunion commencement, or '74 and hear Tom and Ray?

That actually is a tough one. For sheer entertainment value... even that's tough. Tom and Ray, hands down. Always take a pair of professional entertainers over an amateur.