The Thinker

Flying cross country on Virgin America

In spite of the rumors that winter gave the United States a miss this year, there is winter out there in parts of the country. These include Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming for sure, as evidenced by the white stuff on the ground viewed from a height of 36,311 feet. Of course, it is 36,311 feet because on Virgin America, at least, you know these sorts of things without having to ask. Even in Economy class you get a nifty personal information device attached to the seat in front of you, which shows you where your flight is on a map, along with the aircraft’s altitude and ground speed, all rendered on a ubiquitous Google Map.

Seeing where you at any moment is just one minor strategy in Virgin’s attempt to keep you distracted from the tedium of flying. You can also watch a host of satellite channels, watch on demand movies, listen to music or radio, and order your meal with the device. You can even do a text chat seat to seat, or so they promise when the feature is enabled (it wasn’t on our flight). What I can’t do on this flight, and what was advertised, is use the Internet. I was planning to work on this five and a half hour flight between Washington Dulles International Airport and San Francisco. I was looking forward to it, to relieve the tedium of a long flight, because it is work that needs to be done and it would be kind of cool to do testing at 36,311 feet over a VPN.

Virgin America is trying to drag airlines into the 21st century. They missed it on this flight by leaving out the Internet but otherwise they are getting it. Each seat comes with 120 volt power socket, a feature I have not seen on any other airline. Each seat also has a USB port and for those of you afraid to use the WiFi, an Ethernet port as well. Maybe it will be available on my return flight on Thursday.

Anyhow, I am being hurdled across the country at 36,311 feet to go visit one of the masters of the universe. That would be masters of the Internet universe, also known as Google, headquartered in nearby Mountain View, California. Yes, all this way and three days taken out of my week for a five hour meeting at Google headquarters tomorrow. It’s little known, but the mighty Google gives one percent of its profits to its nonprofit arm, google.org. And google.org has had mixed success getting my agency involved in its nonprofit mission. Google.org creates quick websites around major events, such as the Japanese tsunami last year. They are working to integrate more real-time information on emergencies into their search engine, so if you are on their search page and there is a tornado nearby it will tell you. It’s exactly the sort of information the U.S. government collects in abundance, so we have been seduced in spending a day in Mountain View with other agencies where they try to coax us to publish our emergency information in a rather obscure protocol called Common Alerting Protocol. Google hates developing and maintaining custom programs to acquire this kind of information. I can’t say I blame them.

So I am being hurdled across the country at 521 miles an hour. Meanwhile there is this flight to finish, all five and a half hours of it. At least February is a great time to travel, if you don’t like crowds. Washington Dulles was nearly deserted this morning, which meant getting through security was a breeze. If there is no precipitation there are no flight delays to worry about either. Moreover, this flight on Virgin America was dirt cheap, beating the other carriers by hundreds of dollars, and it was also nonstop as well. I am depending on Virgin America to be on time, not so much today, but on Thursday. I have to get home in time to teach a class that evening.

Virgin America is likely a more laid back version of Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Airline’s international wing. On Virgin Atlantic you get flight attendants who pass rigorous tests for grooming, tact and friendliness, or so I have read. On Virgin Atlantic: not so much. They basically try to stay out of your face. So instead of actually talking with flight attendants, you are encourage to order from a device at your seat instead, which also reads your credit card. You do get a round of beverages but at least so far no second round has arrived. The captain is not the least bit loquacious and to make this cross country flight even less interesting, the flight is amazingly smooth. This leaves me with time to kill. With no Internet I have few excuses to avoid blogging.

But I did my best anyhow. I spent much of the flight absorbed in my iPad, parked in Airplane mode. It is still a fairly mysterious device to me, but I’ve been making my way through its user manual, finding more things to like about the iPad and others to pan. I like its built-in cameras. It is so easy to take pictures and movies. I am trying it out with this quick business trip. With the camera and email program sort of integrated, it should be nearly effortless to take pictures, dress them up, and post them to friends. The same goes with taking movies. With luck I’ll be able to use it to take pictures and movies of the Google campus tomorrow. Reputedly Google doesn’t know what to do with all their money, so they have couches you can sleep in in their lobbies. I’ll know soon enough if the rumors are true.

Google is one of the centers of the Internet universe, so it’s sort of like going to visit the Vatican, if you are an Internet junkie. In short, I am glad to go on this trip. At least Google usually tries not to be evil, although their recently updated privacy policy and their blatantly ignoring of privacy settings on Safari browsers to collect personal information about you that they should not suggests they are pushing the envelope. How many of us could pass a background investigation if our browsing habits were part of the investigation?

It’s hard to argue too much with their success. Though we know all that data they are mining on us comes at a hidden price, we like the illusion of a free Internet better. Anyhow, Google is a big enough force that even the mighty U.S. government which I represent may deign to afford it a special accommodation, since its dominance helps us spread important emergency related news. Still, we have our ethics rules to ensure we cannot be bought off by Google and its billions. We have been assured that the free lunch in their cafeteria won’t be an ethical compromise, because it is valued at less than $20 per person and that’s the maximum amount we can accept from a company or organization per calendar year without getting in trouble. $21 implies corruption, but $20 does not. Go figure. We are also wondering whether we will be allowed to sign their non-disclosure agreement. Supposedly they won’t let you in their building unless you sign it. But we are the mighty government, mightier even than the mighty Google, and we have pricey lawyers too (just not as pricey as Google’s; they are living on a civil servant’s salary) and they are parsing their nondisclosure agreement and frowning at it. Google might have to cut us a pass. I’ll find out tomorrow.

Meanwhile I am flying over the partially snow covered peaks of Utah. Our descent into San Francisco cannot be too far away.

 

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