Weekly Roundup, Friday 20 March 2020

Read immediately below how the example of invasive lilies on a pond can help explain exponential growth of viral infections.

Good morning

I made a major blunder on Monday.  I decided to start writing daily “diary” articles, chronicling the developments in the Covid-19 virus.  So much is happening, so rapidly, that comments once a week just didn’t seem adequate.  I sent everyone a note about this along with the Monday diary entry, so you may have already seen that.

My plans to reduce the diary entries to short telegraphic jottings, much like in a regular diary, have proven to be a spectacular failure.  The daily entries have been much longer than I’d hoped for.  But – and this is the thing – I feel that much/most of what I’m writing, analyzing, and reporting on each day is important and relevant and helpful for us all.  Yes, there’s an astonishing amount of material being written about the virus and its evolving impacts on us, but not all of it is sensible or accurate.  It is hard to make sense of the whole from a jumbled collection of pieces; I’ve tried to integrate all the separate threads into a more cohesive whole.

Perhaps the best piece of writing in my four diary entries so far was not actually written by me.  Reader Corey wrote in with an explanation of exponential growth and how hard it is for people to conceptually grasp the concept.  He starts off with an example and a question :

Suppose you have a 3 acre lake and 1 x 3 inch invasive lily pad species gets in.  It reproduces daily (so 2X per day).  The lake will be full of these lily pads in 48 days (and perhaps kills all the fish).  How many days until the lake is half full of Lily Pads?

Do you know the answer?

Most people get it wrong, which proves Corey’s point.  You can and should read his complete explanation here.  It helps to explain why we should, in Dr Fauci’s terms, “over-react” right now, because if we wait until the problem is perceptibly present, it may be too late.

So I’ve been writing the equivalent of a lengthy newsletter every day this week, plus tweeting at a hyperactive rate (29 tweets on Wednesday alone, more than an entire week some weeks) and am exhausted.  Hence a short regular newsletter this morning (well, is 2250 words truly short?).  I’m including the four diary entries after this, and also the introductory note in case you missed it.  The introductory note tells you how you can arrange to get the diary entries every day rather than needing to wait for Friday’s weekly newsletter.  They really are better if you can read them more or less “real time” rather than all at once on Fridays.

I’ve tried to keep the virus out of the rest of the newsletter, below.  So here are a few items reasonably “quarantined” from direct virus issues :

  • Airline Bailout?
  • Boeing in the News
  • The World’s Longest Passenger Flight
  • Gas Prices Dropping, But….
  • And Lastly This Week….

Airline Bailout?

The US airlines have asked for a $50 billion bailout due to the impacts of the Wuhan virus.  At the same time, they also asked for another $8 billion to be given to freight airlines, and $10 billion to airports.  Not to be outdone, Boeing quickly stuck its hand up for $60 billion for itself and perhaps some of its suppliers too.  Yesterday, the Airline Passenger Experience Association asked for another $12.5 billion, primarily for its members, suppliers of things like seatback video screens.

We expect this is just the start of a lengthy list of requests from all manner of industries, and we also note that as the Covid-19 related problems extend (as they surely will), there’s every chance of the airlines (and everyone else) coming back and asking for more, and more, and more.

But should the airlines be allowed to pretty much ask for a blank check?  Should it be a loan, a purchase of shares, or an outright gift?  If a gift, should the government ask for anything in return?

Readers have already volunteered some of their thoughts on this topic.  None are advocating a “no strings attached” gift.  I’ve commented on it in my Wednesday and Thursday diary entries, too.

Why not write in your comments/ideas/suggestions, and I’ll put together the pithiest of them into an article for everyone next week.

Boeing in the News

Have you ever watched a movie, or an interview, or in any other context been somewhere where there’s a guy who just won’t shut up?  Not only won’t he shut up, but he says all the wrong things, making problems and misunderstandings worse, not better.

Well, even though he is new into the role, I’m starting to get that feeling about Boeing’s new CEO, David Calhoun, might be that kind of guy.  Just when Boeing was starting to become humbler and less arrogant, and better at accepting the fair blame it deserves for its 737 MAX messup, he told the NY Times that it was underskilled pilots who were responsible for the two 737 MAX crashes.

The closest he got to admitting it was actually Boeing’s error was by saying that Boeing made a fatal mistake by assuming those flying the planes would immediately counteract software failures.

The NYT hints that he doubled down on those comments in off-the-record comments before refusing to repeat them on the record, while saying “you can guess” what his comments would be.

He is beyond wrong, for many reasons.  How could Boeing reasonably expect any pilot would know what to do when the company had not told anyone they had made changes to the software and created an entirely new automatic control that had so much “power” it could completely override the pilot?  This was a totally new development, and Boeing kept it secret, for fear that if it was revealed, their claim that no retraining was needed for pilots switching from the previous generation planes would be contested, and they’d lose a competitive advantage over Airbus when trying to sell planes to current 737 customers.

Furthermore, Boeing’s decision to activate this secret feature based on the inputs from only one of the two input sensors – devices known to sometimes have problems, and to rely on that single reading to such an extent that even the pilots’ most desperate attempts to defeat it were ignored – was either beyond stupid or a stunningly shortsighted cost-cutting measure.

Calhoun should have just said that his company “made a fatal mistake” and stopped at that point.  That much is honest and accurate.  The rest is not.  Boeing has tried to blame the two crashes on the pilots before, and every time they’ve tried, they’ve been confronted with a wave of rebuttal by pilots and safety regulators all around the world, and a perceptible increase in resentment against the company.

I know some people perceive third world pilots to be inferior to American pilots, who for no apparent reason other than perhaps the size of their pay checks are thought to be the finest in the world.  Maybe those people are correct, and third world pilots aren’t the super-human super-hero pilots that American pilots are.

But – and here is the point – if that is true, Boeing needs to design its planes, its documentation, and its training protocols, so mere African and Asian mortals can fly their planes as well as the godlike American pilots.

It is also a curious way for Boeing to endear itself to its customers and prospective customers in much of the world – by saying that their pilots are no good.

Details here.

Some people have been wondering if President Trump might ditch Mike Pence in favor of Nikki Haley as running mate this November.  With the unsurprising promise by the soon-to-be-named Democratic candidate to have a woman as his running mate, and a further high probability, so as to maximize demographic appeal, that this may well be a younger “woman of color” – ie, not Hilary Clinton; the Republican ticket comprising two old white guys starts to showcase a much narrower demographic.

But I’m going to guess that Ms Haley might have her eye more clearly on 2024 than 2020.  On Thursday she resigned from her cushy job as a Boeing director (reputedly the directorships pay about $350k/year) “as a matter of philosophical principle” because she was opposed to the company’s request for, and President Trump’s apparent matching enthusiasm for, a massive federal bailout.

We can only guess she is playing a very long game here in terms of how she seeks to position herself for 2024.  It is rare for directors of companies to feel they need to resign every time a vote doesn’t go their way, indeed it would be ridiculous if they did.  Companies would have never-ending director elections.  She clearly has other reasons/motivations for leaving Boeing than the one stated.

The World’s Longest Passenger Flight

Well, sort of.  It was (is) probably a one-off, a bit like the various Qantas publicity flights.  But because the Qantas flights didn’t have any regular fare paying passengers on them, just a bunch of self-important sycophantic bloggers, they don’t count for the “longest passenger flight” record.

Air Tahiti Nui normally flies a 787-9 from Tahiti, via Los Angeles where it stops and refuels, and then to Paris.  But on Saturday, the US restrictions on incoming passengers made the Los Angeles stop somewhere between inconvenient and impossible.  Not a problem, you might think.  Simply add a stop somewhere else along the flight path – the Caribbean being an obvious choice, or a slight redirection up to Canada and somewhere there.

But the plane was “nowhere near full” of passengers, which meant it could carry more fuel and would burn less on the journey, and because the forecast was for strong tail winds up in the jet stream (some at 200 mph) the airline decided to have some fun, and so rescheduled the 9,765 mile journey to be a nonstop flight.

Just under 16 hours after takeoff (the jet stream helped) the flight landed, well ahead of schedule, having averaged well over 600 mph, and with jetfuel remaining, in Paris, at the end of its record breaking flight.  Well done, Air Tahiti Nui.

Details here.

Gas Prices Dropping, But….

The “perfect storm” of demand dropping precipitously as a result of Covid-19 issues, and a spat between Saudi Arabia and Russia (neither country would control its production because the other country wouldn’t agree to an appropriate matching cut) means that oil production is currently massively outpacing oil consumption.  The result is the price per barrel of oil is plunging, which is why President Trump announced his plans to buy up a lot of oil at bargain prices to add to the nation’s somewhat depleted strategic reserve.

At present, not only are our strategic reserve purchases helping soak up some of the excess production, but oil storage facilities everywhere in the world are filling up with oil.  But what happens when they are full?

This article says that oil prices could drop to as low as $10/barrel, which might equate to $1/gallon at the pump.  Those are unthinkable prices.  Oil last briefly dropped below $10 in 1998, and before that in 1974, and of course, a dollar in either of those years was worth considerably more than it is now.

These prices are “too low”, and rather than benefitting the economy, threaten to destroy our newly won oil independence, because there’s no way new oil well development can be profitable at such costs.  When prices recover, and depending on how low and for how long the prices drop, we’ll find ourselves with a destroyed domestic oil industry, an alternate energy industry that has stalled, and lenders who will be in the “once bitten, twice shy” category.

But, selfishly, the saddest thing about this is that with all the social distancing and travel restrictions coming into place, there’s little or no chance of enjoying a chance to “fill ‘er up” and go for a lovely long road trip and not worry about the mpg.

And Lastly This Week….

One of the surprise benefits of the Wuhan virus is that much of the pollution over China cleared up.  Now that Chinese industrial activity is starting to revive, the pollution is sadly returning – this page has a great animated graphic showing this.  But there is also a benefit now in Italy – without the constant surge and flow of motorboats in its canals, the waters have settled, with the mud falling back to the bottom of the canals, and the canals are turning from muddy brown to beautiful blue and even somewhat clear.

The other thing we remember from Venice visits is that sometimes, some canals can also be, ahem, a bit stinky.  We’re not sure if that also has improved.

Here are some fascinating maps showing the US from different data perspectives.  Well worth a browse through.

Culture vulture alert.  Free streaming of a brilliant Met production of Eugene Onegin on Sunday night.  Assuming, of course, that the internet can handle it – apparently Europe has had to ask Netflix to turn down their streaming data rates and serve lower quality video feeds because a surge in Netflix viewing, due to people staying at home rather than going out at present, is threatening to overload the internet.  Let’s hope it doesn’t happen here, too.

Lastly this week, many people poo-pooed the notion of stocking up on toilet paper as a response to Covid-19.  But perhaps they may have been mistaken, as this article points out.

Until next week – well, I can’t really say “please enjoy safe travels” can I.  But please do be safe, wherever you are.





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