Why aren’t specialty smartphones available?

The automobile market requires high capital investment, yet we don’t see just a handful of almost-identical models taking the entire market. Starting from Android, building a smartphone shouldn’t require anywhere near the investment that is required to build a sports car or niche SUV, but where are the niche phones?

Example: Pilots would surely appreciate a smartphone, maybe Garmin-brand, with built-in ADS-B receiver and AHRS. Now a full backup panel is available at all times. Frequencies for ADS-B are 0.978 GHz and 1.09 GHz, not too different from the 0.8-1.9 GHz mobile phone bands.

Readers: What other capabilities would make good additions to smartphones for niche users? Why don’t these devices exist in the marketplace?

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How to get rich in China: open a CVS clone

Merry Christmas Eve.

Suppose that you’ve been procrastinating or away on a trip. Your house is not decorated. You have not purchased any gifts. You don’t have any gift wrap. You are out of milk. You need a prescription refilled. You need a toothbrush and some shampoo.

Live in the city? Walk a maximum of 4-8 blocks to the nearest CVS (or Walgreens), likely open 24 hours. Live in the suburbs? Drive your pavement-melting SUV to the CVS that is 10 minutes away (maybe 20 in traffic?).

Suppose that you live in Shanghai, a city within a metro area with 35 million residents. Where’s the CVS or CVS-like store? Nowhere! A local friend said that Watsons was the closest, but it is more like the makeup section of a CVS. Note the lack of density in the photos below. Note also the air pollution mask section. (Also that the cash registers are at the back of the store; China seems to lack most of the anti-shoplifting measures that retailers have applied here in the U.S.)

(Also note the gender binarism in the restroom signage for the neighborhood mall in which this Watsons resides and the pedestrian overpass for the busy adjacent road.)

A Shanghai resident could likely get everything he/she/ze needed within less than an hour via delivery. Yet I think folks there would appreciate the serendipity of shopping in a CVS-style store.

For those who complain that the Chinese are trashing the planet via greenhouse gas emissions: Shanghai is actually saving the planet via government regulation. If you don’t bring your own bag, the merchant is required to charge you 5-10 cents for a plastic bag (as in the U.S., the result seems to be thick high-quality plastic bags, perhaps resulting in more energy use).

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Paul Graham: don’t hire anyone with children

From “Having Kids,” by Paul Graham:

Partly, and I won’t deny it, this is because of serious chemical changes that happened almost instantly when our first child was born. It was like someone flipped a switch. I suddenly felt protective not just toward our child, but toward all children.

You will have chunks of time to work. But you can’t let work spill promiscuously through your whole life, like I used to before I had kids. You’re going to have to work at the same time every day, whether inspiration is flowing or not, and there are going to be times when you have to stop, even if it is.

I’ve been able to adapt to working this way. Work, like love, finds a way. If there are only certain times it can happen, it happens at those times. So while I don’t get as much done as before I had kids, I get enough done.

I hate to say this, because being ambitious has always been a part of my identity, but having kids may make one less ambitious. … The fact is, once you have kids, you’re probably going to care more about them than you do about yourself. And attention is a zero-sum game. Only one idea at a time can be the top idea in your mind. Once you have kids, it will often be your kids, and that means it will less often be some project you’re working on.

In other words, if you’re an employer and want to hire someone ambitious and productive whose first priority is the company’s project… recruit from among the childless and, for long-term employer-employee happiness, the infertile.

Related (tough to find articles comparing productivity of childless men versus fathers, but motherhood is intensively studied):

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Two-thirds full airline idea

If you’re traveling today (at prices way higher in the U.S. than in Europe) on a jam-packed pre-holiday commercial flight, perhaps you’ll appreciate this business idea…

The Hainan Boston to Shanghai flight that I took was two-thirds full. The result was that the B787 loaded and unloaded faster than a full B737 or A320. Almost everyone enjoyed an adjacent empty seat.

Is there is a business idea here? Start an airline called “Two Thirds” with Hainan-style reasonable legroom and a guaranteed empty middle seat (exception: a family group of three that actually wants to use the whole row). Charge 50% more per seat (still a great deal compared to business class, which can be 3-7X the price due to the low density of seating). By paying 1.5X the lowest possible fare, the customer is guaranteed not to sit next to a morbidly obese person, overflowing into one’s space. At fares that are 1.5X what is currently charged, I think an airline could make superior profits. Airplanes will turn around faster at airports, so capital asset utilization will be better. Some flights wouldn’t have had more than two thirds occupancy anyway, so the aggregate revenue from a flight would be higher than the average revenue from an airline pursuing the minimum cost, maximum discomfort/crowding strategy.

Readers: Since nobody has tried this, I am going to assume that it is a bad business idea. But why?


  • the Europeans do this already just by calling coach with an empty middle seat “business class”; they’ve proven that people will pay extra for this service, but it isn’t directly comparable since the back of the plane may be jammed and therefore take a long time to load and unload
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After killing local newspapers, the NYT mourns their death

From “How the Collapse of Local News Is Causing a ‘National Crisis’” (nytimes):

The loss of local news coverage in much of the United States has frayed communities and left many Americans woefully uninformed, according to a new report.

The report, “Losing the News: The Decimation of Local Journalism and the Search for Solutions,” paints a grim picture of the state of local news in every region of the country. The prelude is familiar to journalists: As print advertising revenue has plummeted, thousands of newspapers have been forced to cut costs, reduce their staffs or otherwise close.

And while the disruption has hampered the ability of newsrooms to fully cover communities, it also has damaged political and civic life in the United States, the report says, leaving many people without access to crucial information about where they live.

Who is responsible for what the New York Times calls a “national crisis”? (does this replace the “national emergency” of Trump being President or is it layered on top?) New Republic suggests that it is the New York Times itself that has killed local newspapers by wooing away their audience that had value to advertisers:

In fact, two economists studied this in 2006—at basically the peak of national newspaper ad revenue, just before the collapse—and found that “as Times circulation grows in a market, local newspaper circulation declines among college-educated readers.” In other words: The Times peeled off the elite readers from the local papers, leading them to read less about local news and more about national politics.”

Is it just that the NYT is doing a better job? What about the hysterical tone of the NYT in reporting national politics. The average American reader’s life will be turned upside down depending on who wins an election for President or Congress. Yet this is fundamentally a lie. The laws that affect the typical individual are state laws.

Consider the American who has sex with an already-married dermatologist. Will obtaining custody of the resulting child yield the spending power of a primary care physician’s salary (Massachusetts) or require going to work to supplement the roughly $200,000 in tax-free child support over 18 years (Nevada). The “lifetime of leisure” versus “lifetime of work” outcome following the sex act is entirely a function of state law, decided by state legislatures and officials. Consider what happens when the child of this brief, um, union reaches school age. What will be taught to this child, by whom, and in what kind of building? All questions of local or state law and/or local and state votes. Suppose the child becomes a teenager and is in possession of marijuana? Whether or not that is a crime and results in a prison sentence will be a question of state law (though with laws such as “Trump signs animal cruelty act into law” it is unclear why the entire criminal system isn’t federalized (animal cruelty is not related to interstate commerce or any other Constitutional provision as far as I can see)). What if, despite the dope smoking, the child is ready to go to a reasonably priced university? The funding and direction for that state-run university will be a function of state-level political decisions. The child graduates and, despite holding a degree in Cultural and Gender Studies, vies for a job at the local Starbucks. To the extent that minimum wage is above the local market-clearing wage, that will be a question of state law. After 22 years of life, it is difficult to see how the issues on which the NYT reports hysterically have had a major effect on this person.

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Boeing’s attack on the Bombardier fly-by-wire regional jet

“How Boeing Tried to Kill a Great Airplane—and Got Outplayed” (Daily Beast) has a lot of good background on the Bombardier CSeries (Airbus A220), an evolution of the Canadair Regional Jet that I used to fly. I knew that the airplane had a geared turbofan engine for fuel efficiency, but I hadn’t realized that it was fully fly-by-wire (as long as the software works, impossible to have a Boeing 737 MAX-style catastrophe).

The article shows that critical importance of political connections in the U.S. business world:

Boeing’s formidable Washington lobbying machine swung into action. Dennis Muilenburg, the Boeing CEO, had already cozied up to President Trump by agreeing to cut the costs of the future Air Force One jets. In September 2017, the Commerce Department announced a killing blow to Bombardier, imposing a 300 percent duty on every C Series sold in the U.S.

The story of how Airbus outfoxed the high-paid Boeing executives is interesting.

One thing that the article does not explain is why Boeing executives moved the HQ from Seattle to Chicago. Why would high-paid workers want to be in Illinois with a 5 percent income tax rather than in Washington State with no income tax? (the family law is radically different in the two states as well; Illinois offers plaintiffs unlimited child support profits while Washington caps revenue at about $400,000 (tax-free) for one child)

I’m not sure that I agree with the conclusion:

Boeing provides no end of a lesson in how a great company can lose its moxie because of an indecent lust for short-term gain. It used to be the classic American can-do company. Now it can’t do anything right.

How do we know that Boeing is imploding due to a decision to seek short-term profits? Since the company’s problems are primarily engineering failures, why couldn’t it be that the quality of engineers the company is able to hire is not as high as in the 1960s? Americans with excellent quantitative skills have a lot more career choices today, most of which pay better than working at Boeing.

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Crazy cheap solar power plant

“World’s Largest Solar Power Plant Switched On” (Forbes):

The $870 million project was the result of a competitive tender process that will see electricity from the site sold to the Emirates Water and Electricity Company (EWEC) for around 2.4 cents per kWh, a record at the time of the auction and a record for any completed solar project. It was built by the Indian firm Sterling & Wilson with nearly 3000 people working on site during the peak of activity.

Can this be right? These profit-driven folks can recover their $870 million by selling power at 2.4 cents/kWh? That’s more or less free (the average cost in the U.S. to consumers is about 13 cents/kWh, which of course includes distribution).

Most parts of the U.S. are not as sunny as the UAE, but some parts are. Could we build a monster plant like this in Arizona or Nevada and run the power back to the cloudy East Coast? A friend who used to run a mutual fund that invested in this area said, “It would be a no-brainer economically to run a DC high voltage line from wind farms in Oklahoma to New York City. You could shut down every fossil fuel power plant in New York. But the U.S. power grid is fragmented and the people who stand to benefit from that have enough politicians in their pockets to keep it fragmented. So you’ll never see that power line built.”

Vaguely related: This investor considers Jeff Immelt to be the most incompetent executive in recent American business history. “GE actually made windmills so they knew that the price was going to drop below that of coal-fired power plants,” he said. “Yet still, GE bought Alstom, which has been disastrous. Even if the market for fossil fuel plants had held up, GE was locking itself into French labor, which any rational businessperson would seek to avoid. It is fair to say that the folks at Alstom were a lot smarter than anyone at GE.”

For the rest of the world, where they aren’t as plagued by cronyism in power transmission as we are, will it be time to go nuts with electricity (cars, planes, heat pumps, etc.)?

Also, does this mean we don’t have to worry about about climate change and CO2? Who is going to bother burning fossil fuels for any reason if they can get electricity for 2.4 cents/kWh plus reasonable transmission fees? (Aviation? Just turn the electricity into hydrogen and then run your electric motors off a fuel cell!) We were terrified in the 1970s about burying ourselves in nuclear waste. Then it turned out that we couldn’t operate nuclear plants economically, so the amount of waste generated was much smaller than anticipated (we just burned natural gas and dumped out CO2 instead!).

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Vendor of Chinese-made items congratulates Team America

From Apple.com just now, a graphic to celebrate the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team:

The products are made in China. The taxes are paid (sort of) in Ireland. But the soul of the enterprise is red, white, and blue?


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Does it make sense for Boeing to rebrand Embraer?

“Boeing drops Embraer name from Brazil commercial jet division” (Reuters):

Boeing Co on Thursday said that after taking over Brazilian planemaker Embraer SA’s passenger jet unit, it will call the division Boeing Brasil – Commercial, dropping one of Brazil’s most iconic company names.

The name change comes after Boeing agreed to pay $4.2 billion to buy 80% of Embraer’s operation making passenger jets with fewer than 150 seats. Embraer will retain a 20% stake. That division is still Embraer’s most profitable and considered a gold standard of Brazilian engineering.

Boeing has not made a decision yet about whether to rebrand the small and mid-sized planes, which currently carry the Embraer name followed by a model code.

Given the recent 737 MAX debacle, a far worse failure of engineering design than anything Embraer has ever done, does this rebranding make sense?

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