Fly upside down in a helicopter

“Chuck Aaron opens helicopter aerobatics flight school” (Vertical) is interesting news! The school is just NE of Charlotte, North Carolina. Perfect spring time activity!

(Separately, East Coast Aero Club is currently looking to hire a helicopter instructor. We don’t do aerobatics in the Robinson R44s, however. Email me if interested in the job.)

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Immigration is the Reverse Black Death?

Let’s consider the political goals of righteous Americans today:

  • higher wages for the average person
  • an improved environment with less human impact on the land
  • less concentration of wealth in the hands of real property owners
  • more affordable housing for the working class

While listening to An Economic History of the World since 1400 by Professor Donald J. Harreld, I learned that all of the above goals were achieved in the 14th century via the Black Death, which reduced the European population by approximately one third.

  • wages for workers, including unskilled agricultural workers, increased as much as 40-50 percent
  • food prices fell
  • land and housing prices fell
  • the least productive farmland was allowed to return to natural forest (contrast to conditions before, from the course notes: “By about 1300, Europeans had just about all arable land under cultivation, including marginal and poorly producing lands, to sustain the growing population”)

Is it fair to think of immigration as the reverse of the Black Death? We’re dramatically growing our population via immigrants and children of immigrants (see “Modern Immigration Wave Brings 59 Million to U.S., Driving Population Growth and Change Through 2065” (Pew)).

What seems surprising, then, is that the people who say that they want to see all of the economic results of the Black Death simultaneously say that they want to adjust U.S. demographics in precisely the opposite direction of the Black Death.

Is the apparent inconsistency resolved because only about 2 percent of U.S. workers are directly employed in agriculture?

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Certification process for the 737 MAX silent gradual pusher system

A reader was kind enough to send me “Flawed analysis, failed oversight: How Boeing and FAA certified the suspect 737 MAX flight control system” (Seattle Times), which gives some more detail on how the world’s first “silent gradual pusher” system was unleashed on airline passengers and crew. (See https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2018/11/11/boeing-737-crash-is-first-mass-killing-by-software/ for my description of how the conventional stick pusher works; it requires two sensors to agree before it will activate and the pushing is readily apparent to the pilots; disabling the pusher in a simple turboprop aircraft is as simple as pushing a button on the yoke).

The Seattle Times article describes the delegation process by which an employee of Boeing can actually do a lot of the work that members of the public imagine FAA employees would be doing. Boeing is an “Organization Designation Authorization” holder (“ODA”). A Boeing employee puts on an FAA hat periodically and checks work done by fellow Boeing employees.

Putting government workers in the critical path for engineering improvements slows things down so much that safety ends up being compromised. And having people pay designated or delegated authorities cuts the cost to taxpayers. But I wonder if it is time to say that certification scrutiny should be done by an independent private engineering team, not by engineers employed by the manufacturer.

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Now that the road network is useless, why aren’t subway system operators rich?

The other day I had to be in downtown Boston for a 9:00 am meeting. Our road network melted down circa 2005 and there is no way to know if a 20-mile trip from the suburbs will take 45 minutes, 1.5 hours or longer.

I decided to do the 15-minute drive to the Alewife parking garage, which required about 40 minutes when started at 7:30 am. As there was no way to know how long the next phase of the journey would be and I was going to fortify myself with a Dunkins coffee (sold right in the station, unlike other transit systems that try to discourage eating/drinking), it seemed a prudent time to use the restroom in the massive building (replacement cost $200 million?):

Note that at least one plumbing fixture and the only soap dispenser are missing.

This is where the trains start so I was able to get on and find a seat. At the first stop, Davis Square, enough people got on to completely fill the car:

Nobody could get on at Porter, Harvard, or Central. Only after some biotech slaves go out to stream into the new towers of Kendall Square did the train have enough room to accommodate folks waiting on the platforms. (I later learned that the pro tip for those commuting in from Porter or Harvard is to head outbound to Alewife first and then come inbound.)

I made it to my destination on time and was wrapped in an atmosphere of comparative calm:

(Of course, I criticized them for their cisgender-normative prejudice in assuming that it is only “mothers” who might want to use a room for feeding babies. See “Breastfeeding as a trans dad: ‘A baby doesn’t know what your pronouns are’” (Guardian), for example.)

As the monopoly owner of the only means of reasonably fast and reasonably reliable transport between 7 am and 7:30 pm in the Boston area, I would expect that the MBTA’s financial condition would improve every year as the roads deteriorate. Shouldn’t they be able to extract huge $$ from desperate riders? If they want to preserve the low-cost-but-can’t-get-on-the-train option they can do that at the current fare ($2.25 or $2.75 depending on how it is paid for; see https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2018/01/09/our-local-public-transit-system-spends-more-than-a-year-of-revenue-on-cash-registers/). But they could also run VIP trains in between that cost $10/ride.

Subjectively it seems as though the trains are packed to the point where they couldn’t get a single additional rider on. Yet, from November 2018: “T notes: Ridership, even at peak times on Red Line, continues to decline”. Maybe they are running fewer trains per hour?

Readers: How is it possible that a system that has an amazing irreplaceable paid-for-100-years-ago asset (the tunnels) can’t be profitable in an environment of ever-worsening surface traffic jams?

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Evaluating trustworthiness; lessons from Theranos

From Bad Blood, the authoritative book on the rise and fall of Theranos.

[Jim Mattis, U.S. military hero and Theranos corporate board member] went out of his way to praise her integrity. “She has probably one of the most mature and well-honed sense of ethics—personal ethics, managerial ethics, business ethics, medical ethics that I’ve ever heard articulated,” the retired general gushed. Parloff didn’t end up using those quotes in his article, but the ringing endorsements he heard in interview after interview from the luminaries on Theranos’s board gave him confidence that Elizabeth was the real deal. He also liked to think of himself as a pretty good judge of character. After all, he’d dealt with his share of dishonest people over the years, having worked in a prison during law school and later writing at length about such fraudsters as the carpet-cleaning entrepreneur Barry Minkow and the lawyer Marc Dreier, both of whom went to prison for masterminding Ponzi schemes. Sure, Elizabeth had a secretive streak when it came to discussing certain specifics about her company, but he found her for the most part to be genuine and sincere. Since his angle was no longer the patent case, he didn’t bother to reach out to the Fuiszes.

Background: Roger Parloff, legal affairs reporter for Fortune, was intrigued by a story about Theranos hiring David Boies to sue a guy who had a patent that they would have needed to license if the blood testing machines had actually worked. Boies was given a fat slice of Theranos equity and a board seat in exchange for doing the company’s legal bidding. The author describes the lawsuit as entirely meritless, alleging that the inventor had somehow gotten hold of proprietary Theranos info because his son was a partner at the same huge law firm that had filed some patents for Theranos. The inventor spent $2 million on legal defense before caving in. (The big multi-office law firm’s records manager investigated the allegation and couldn’t find anything to suggest that the son/partner had ever accessed any Theranos-related information or even knew at the relevant time that the company was a client.)

The resulting puff piece hugely boosted the public profiles of Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes:

The story disclosed Theranos’s valuation for the first time as well as the fact that Elizabeth owned more than half of the company. There was also the now-familiar comparison to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. This time it came not from George Shultz but from her old Stanford professor Channing Robertson. (Had Parloff read Robertson’s testimony in the Fuisz trial, he would have learned that Theranos was paying him $500,000 a year, ostensibly as a consultant.)

Elizabeth was also quick to embrace the trappings of fame. The Theranos security team grew to twenty people. Two bodyguards now drove her around in a black Audi A8 sedan. Their code name for her was “Eagle One.” (Sunny was “Eagle Two.”) The Audi had no license plates—another nod to Steve Jobs, who used to lease a new Mercedes every six months to avoid having plates. Elizabeth also had a personal chef who prepared her salads and green vegetable juices made of cucumber, parsley, kale, spinach, lettuce, and celery. And when she had to fly somewhere, it was in a private Gulfstream jet.

To me so far the strangest thing about the story is nobody questions the premise that sending every human for more frequent blood tests would result in healthier humans. Anyone who has ever had an encounter with the medical system knows that test results are generally inconclusive. What difference does it make if the doctor gets a result from a legacy Siemens machine that requires a venous draw or an amazing Theranos machine that requires only a pin stick.

Even if Theranos had succeeded technologically, I can’t figure out how it would have made people healthier.

Circling back to the above quote, this is a good reminder that humans are terrible at figuring out who is lying!

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Sizing a UPS for cable modem and router; market opportunity for a long duration low power UPS?

Things that our neighbors hate more than Donald Trump:

  • cell towers
  • underground power lines

Power failures are routine and, when they happen, we lose all communications capability (since a mobile phone won’t work inside the house and only barely works out in the yard).

I’m thinking it might be nice to back up our Verizon FiOS service, including the Internet. Then, in theory, we can at least use our landline and our smartphones or laptops that are charged.

A friend in town says that this is a fool’s errand: “when we had power failures, it turned out that the fiber switch on the street would go down.” On the other hand, this FiOS customer had 72 power outages with Internet in a 6-year period (great advertisement for U.S. infrastructure!).

I’m wondering how to size the UPS to run the latest ONT (corresponding to a cable modem) and VZ’s WiFi router. Verizon sells a ghetto backup battery system, just for the ONT (to run the landline for 24 hours), based on 12 D cell disposable batteries. Wikipedia says a D battery has 18 amp-hours of capacity at 1.5V, so the total of 12 would have 324 watt-hours?

If we assume that the WiFi router draws a similar amount, and will have both boxes plugged into a UPS, we therefore need a UPS with 650 watt-hours of battery? Add another 20 percent for the efficiency losses in converting from DC up to 120V AC down to DC, so now we need 800 watt-hours of battery inside the UPS to run for 24 hours?

It seems to be tough to find this information. UPS vendors spec them in volt-amps or watts and then bury the battery details. Also, maybe Verizon is selling its own thing because the appropriate product does not exist in the market? To get a beefy battery one needs to invest in crazy high max VA, which is irrelevant in this application. A $200 UPS rated at 1500 VA is backed by only two feeble $20 8.5 Ah 12V batteries (204 watt-hours; less than Verizon’s 12 D cells). We bought one to try out and it supplies the ONT and router for 2.5 hours, less than half as long as expected. The higher-capacity machines seem to be marketed as “generators” (without the generator!), e.g., this 412 Wh 11 lb. box for $550.

APC makes a box with a replaceable lithium ion battery for only about $71, which they say is intended to power routers, but it stores a pathetic 41 Wh. Lithium-ion is just not a sensible way to buy watt-hours, apparently.

Readers: Is there a market opportunity here? Apparently providing even the power of 12 D cells on a trickle-out basis is crazy expensive right now. How about a device that holds 24(!) D cell batteries and, in the event of a power failure, will supply power from those batteries to a router and ONT or cable modem? A brief interruption in the power supply is acceptable. Amazon sells D cell Energizer alkaline batteries for about $1 each, delivered. Instead of buying a $500 lith-ion battery that will be garbage after 3 years, just buy $24 of D cells every year or two.

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New Zealand 1993 versus now

I was buried in work yesterday so missed the news about the shooting in New Zealand.

I was there only once, back in 1993 (my travelogue and photos), and it seemed decades removed from any of the world’s disputes. The population was 3.5 million back then (about 5 million today), fewer than the greater Boston area. In a lot of places there were only two kinds of cheese available. I met a 21-year-old who had never seen a U.S. dollar bill.

Readers: Who else wants to share a fond memory of the country?

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Totally unqualified students were admitted to our most intellectually rigorous universities based on bribes…

… yet none of the unqualified admittees had any difficulty in doing the required coursework or graduating, perhaps with honors.

“College bribery scandal: students sue elite schools in class action” (Guardian) says that second-rate students went to Yale and Stanford, for example, but there is no mention of them encountering any struggles with the academics.

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Why aren’t defeated American Presidential candidates snapped up by other nations?

Here’s a conundrum: in a ratio of 500:28, Hillary Clinton was endorsed by our smartest citizens (journalists, editors, and publishers) as the best qualified person, out of more than 325 million, to lead the United States government. After November 2016, however, she didn’t have any pressing job responsibilities and her family foundation was also winding down. Why wouldn’t a country of 5 or 10 million have tried to persuade her to come over and be their leader? From a statistical point of view, assuming equal intelligence and education levels, it is unlikely that a country of 10 million would have a better person available than someone who was #1 out of 325 million.

We could ask the same question about Mitt Romney, John Kerry, Carly Fiorina, Al Gore, Sarah Palin, Bernie Sanders, et al. These folks rose pretty close to the top in the American electoral system, so tens of millions of people thought that they had tremendous abilities. Why aren’t they sought-after by smaller countries as leaders?

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