Weekly Roundup, Friday 11 June 2020

People continue to return to the skies.

 

Good morning

Lots for you today.  As you can see from the opening image chart, air travel is rebounding steadily, and the very short period of being almost the only person on a flight has already vanished, most of the time.  The airlines have finally got their flights whittled down to a point where most flights are operating with reasonable loads of passengers (from an airline’s perspective), so for us as passengers, we have to think some more about how safe it is to fly (see my two part article series on that important topic).

For a while, airlines were “promising” (it was never a binding legal promise) to keep middle seats empty.  But now they’ve more of a realistic chance to actually sell those middle seats, their “promises” have largely been abandoned – Delta is perhaps the very best airline in terms of keeping middle seats empty at present, and have undertaken to do so until September.

Airlines have done their usual self-justification, saying they can’t afford to keep middle seats empty, and if they were to do so, they would have to charge 50% more per ticket.  That stilled a lot of discussion on the matter, which was of course exactly what the airlines intended.

But would the cost truly be 50% more per ticket?  Being predisposed to treat most statements from the airlines with an, ahem, open mind, I got out my trusty old calculator (see below) and did some figuring.  The answer – and the explanation – now forms this week’s feature article, appended to the weekly roundup newsletter, below.

There were two more Covid-19 diary entries last week – one on Sunday and one yesterday.  The one yesterday in particular was a little more despairing than usual, because it is becoming increasingly impossible to ignore that instead of efficiently zeroing out the virus in the US, we are actually seeing an increase in cases in almost half the states, and due not to some super-virus capabilities, but due to inappropriate public policies by our public-health experts, and inappropriate non-observance of the policies in place by the public.

When will this end?  We’re not moving further forward at present.  If anything, we’re starting to undo and lose the minimal victories we’ve won against the virus during the last three months of “lock-down social-distancing”.

There’s more, much more, all in the Thursday diary entry, and also appended to the end of the weekly roundup.

What else?  Quite a lot about the future of automobiles, and some other things too.  Please keep reading for :

  • Reader Responses, Please – Your Oldest Still Used Gadget
  • Pakistan A320 Crash – “No Immediate Need for Operator Action”
  • Boeing’s Bad Year Continues Apace
  • NASA/Lockheed X-59 Supersonic Test Plane to Fly in 2021
  • Frontier, then United, now Alaska, to Quiz You About Your Health
  • Tesla the World’s Most Valuable Auto Manufacturer
  • Nikola – A New Tesla Competitor
  • A 1.2 Million Mile Battery for Tesla?
  • Making Gas (Petrol) Out of Air?
  • California High Speed Rail Slowdown
  • Costco’s Inexplicable Failure to Compete with Amazon
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Responses, Please – Your Oldest Still Used Gadget

Reader Fred sent in this interesting article about the oldest gadgets people have and still use.  We discussed the things we still have, and realized you may have some old gadgets you still use, too.

Can you send in your stories of the treasured gadgets you still use?  It can be anything, as long as it is powered – either by electricity or a motor or something/anything, other than yourself.  The point is not just to show something old that is still useful, but also something that has proven to be durable.

If we get some interesting entries, we might then have a reader survey to see which item is voted as the most interesting/unusual/distinctive/whatever.

So a calculator would qualify, but not an abacus.  An old electric toaster would qualify, but not a hand operated bean slicer.  An old gas-powered lawn mower – yes, but not a hand-pushed mower.  And so on.

To get the ball rolling, I tried to come up with an example myself.  I’ve stereo equipment dating back to the mid-1980s, but I thought I’d share a smaller and more portable trusty companion (actually I have three of them now in various different strategic locations so I’m never far from one), the Hewlett Packard HP12C calculator.  I forget exactly when I bought it, but I believe the oldest of them I brought up from New Zealand, so I’ve had it since at least 1984.

The best calculator ever made?

The amazing thing – not only does it still work perfectly, but the calculator, in exactly the same form, is still being sold today.

I love the calculator for many reasons, and particularly because I never have to worry about people borrowing and not returning it.  If they do borrow it, they quickly return it with a puzzled look on their face – “Where is the equals sign?”  Or, perhaps, if they didn’t get quite that far, “Where is the Clear key?”.  My answer to the former question is to adopt a look of puzzled surprise and ask if they’re playing a joke on me, because it was there just before, of course.  Where did they hide it?  My response to the latter question is to explain that I’d never noticed its absence, because I’ve never made a mistake.

So, please, send in an email about one of your older gadgets that you still sometimes use.  If you can add a picture or some narrative, so much the better, but never mind if you can’t.

Pakistan A320 Crash – “No Immediate Need for Operator Action”

Airbus is showing itself to be more tactful than Boeing.  When two of Boeing’s 737 MAXes plunged down to crash shortly after take-off, Boeing shouted for all to hear “It isn’t our fault, it is pilot error”.

But when an A320 crashes, Airbus puts it more tactfully, and describes the situation as one which has no immediate need for operator action (in the sense of no airplane problem needing urgent fixing).

I gave a fairly detailed analysis of the crash immediately after it occurred, and it still seems accurate now, although there has been one surprising revelation that I’m still trying to fully place into context.  We’ve not yet had any of the information from the flight data or voice recorders shared (this is expected to happen on 22 June), but it seems Airbus is now suggesting that the original problem – the landing gear didn’t descend and lock down correctly – was not actually a problem either.

We do know that when the A320 first tried to land its landing gear was up not down, which is how/why the plane’s engines impacted with the ground.  A recording of radio transmissions between the plane and tower seemed to feature the beeping of the gear warning indicator in the background of one pilot message, which suggested the gear didn’t lock down and so was retracted back up again, this being the reason for the aborted first landing attempt and all that followed.  After the go-around maneuver the pilot even radioed the tower to advise that it was a landing gear problem that caused the go-around.

It will be interesting to learn more about what transpired.

Boeing’s Bad Year Continues Apace

Boeing’s bad year continues.  In May, it delivered a mere four airplanes to customers – three freighters and one military plane.

It did receive nine new orders for freighters, but that was offset by having another 18 737 MAX cancellations.  This means that for the first five months of the year, its net new order count is a minus 602 orders – 602 more cancellations than orders.

Will this be Boeing’s worst year ever?  It is certainly shaping up that way, although of course, it is far from entirely Boeing’s fault.

Details here.

Boeing is now hoping to get the 737 MAX recertified in the third quarter.  Noting we’re 1/3 of the way through the last month of the second quarter, clearly third quarter is now the very soonest this might happen, but who knows when it will finally happen.

NASA/Lockheed X-59 Supersonic Test Plane to Fly in 2021

A new supersonic passenger plane is one of those perennial topics that always guarantees free publicity, but which never seems to come to anything real, no matter how many optimistic press releases are distributed.

But here’s a positive update on an actual plane that will start a series of test flights next year.

The test plane will cost $250 million, but that’s a bargain compared to many other airplane development programs.  It is so “inexpensive” due to recycling existing sub-assemblies where possible.  It has been desired to massively reduce the sonic boom noise (a 30 dB reduction).

This seems a great project, and we look forward to the plane first taking to the air next year – currently scheduled for the autumn/fall period.

Frontier, then United, now Alaska, to Quiz You About Your Health

It is dismaying how fast the airlines are to embrace pointless “feel good” concepts while going light on the “heavy lifting” of protecting us when we fly with them.

First it was the charade of taking people’s temperatures, and now it is another charade of asking passengers to certify they are well and not infected by the virus.

Frontier was the first airline to start asking its passengers if they are free of the coronavirus.  United followed suit, and now Alaska has joined in too.

As you can see, this is the new page of information and questions United puts in front of you when you are electronically checking in for your flight now.  We doubt many people will even pause to read it, and fewer will accurately and fully evaluate themselves.  Most of all, we really don’t see anyone volunteering “Oh, excuse me, but yes, I did have a sore throat 12 days ago, so I guess that means I can’t fly, huh?”.

More details here.

Tesla the World’s Most Valuable Auto Manufacturer

I continue to be absolutely flummoxed by the strength of Tesla’s share price.  It defies all belief (and most financial measures, too).  Many others have agreed with me.  Tesla has famously been one of the most shorted stocks ever, but almost anyone who has placed a short bet on TSLA dropping in value has ended up regretting it.

Wednesday saw yet another incredible record.  The market capitalization of Tesla now exceeds that of Toyota.  Toyota had been the most valuable auto manufacturer in the world, and many years also sells the most vehicles.  But Tesla how has a market value higher than Toyota.  Toyota closed on Thursday worth $173 billion. Tesla, which had grazed $200 billion the previous day, closed at $180 billion.  Tesla’s shares have doubled in price (I hesitate to say “value”) in little more than two months.

Nikola – A New Tesla Competitor

In case you missed the “joke”, the relatively new electric vehicle manufacturer Nikola took its name from the same inspiration as did Elon Musk.  The futuristic scientist’s name was Nikola Tesla.

Nikola, recently listed on NASDAQ, isn’t yet worth as much as Tesla.  It is worth “only” $22 billion (but that’s not too bad, Ford is only pennies more at $24 billion), even thouhg it has yet to deliver its first vehicle.

Its first vehicle is a battery powered pickup, named the Badger, and viewed by many as a strong competitor to Tesla’s upcoming truck.

We continue to be puzzled at how the most exciting competitor to Tesla is not an existing auto manufacturer, but instead is another startup.  How is it all the big guys seem to be overlooking where the market is moving?

A 1.2 Million Mile Battery for Tesla?

In other Tesla news, here’s an interesting item about one of its battery suppliers.  The supplier says it can now make batteries guaranteed to last 1.2 million miles and/or 16 years.  As always, there’s a catch – the batteries will be slightly more expensive (but only 10% more, which makes them a tremendous bargain) and, ahem, aren’t currently in production.  But the company says that it could start making them any time someone wants them.

A 1.2 million mile battery is astonishing.  Heck, with that sort of life, you could even “take your battery with you” – buy a new car and put your old battery into it.  And again.  And again.  Most people drive 12,000 – 15,000 miles a year, so 1.2 million miles represents 80 – 100 years of normal driving, something like perhaps 4,000 full recharges.  It could become a family heirloom!

When these batteries start to appear, they promise to be another reason to consider electric rather than internal-combustion technology.

Making Gas (Petrol) Out of Air?

One of the appeals of a hydrogen fuel-cell powered vehicle (possibly the only appeal), at least to some people, is that it silently “burns” its hydrogen and emits nothing more harmful than water vapor out its tail-pipe.

We all know the oft-repeated mantra about “carbon emissions”, etc.  But what about a process that creates petrol, for free, out of the abundant air everywhere around us?  Wouldn’t that help restore the bona fides of traditional internal-combustion engines?

It surely sounds like a con-man’s narrative, doesn’t it.  But it is actually quite feasible, and BMW has just been announced as lead investor in a funding round of $12.5 million for the company developing the technology.

The driving “big idea” behind the company is that for some of the time, in many countries these days, there is a surplus of electricity being generated.  In simple terms, there is no easy and inexpensive way you can save up and store electricity.  If you are generating electricity, you either have to use it right away or else lose it.

With wind and solar power generating becoming more and more a part of our grids, and with the power from both sources being unpredictable, there are times when we’re getting more of such power than we need or can use.  That is one of the two reasons you often see wind turbines with their arms/wings motionless (the other reason being that they break down all the time).

The other part of the puzzle is, as you may remember, the formula for petrol and other hydrocarbons is something that has some carbon atoms and just over twice as many hydrogen atoms, and nothing else.

So, this new company realized – why not use all that wasted and hopefully free electricity to do something useful and valuable.  Use electric power to extract carbon from the carbon dioxide in the air – there’s not very much CO2 in air, only about 0.04%, but there’s an awful lot of air, and it is all free, and removing CO2 from the air is something any eager eco-enthusiast would thank you for doing.  So take the carbon from carbon dioxide, then either get water vapor also from the air or simply from the tap, and take the hydrogen from that, stick it together with the carbon, and instant hydrocarbons – methane, ethane, or any other hydrocarbon you wish, including petrol.  As a bonus, you’ve also created some oxygen that you could sell separately as a profitable byproduct of the process.

As long as the electricity cost is very very low, the cost to almost literally get petrol out of thin air is matchingly low, with whatever small process costs that are incurred possibly being covered by the oxygen sales.

The company believes it will be able to sell gas through regular pumps at regular gas stations, and at the same price or lower than gas-from-oil now.

Don’t get too excited, though.  We don’t know the details of their process, but we’ll guess the energy required to get enough petrol to power a car for, say, ten miles, is almost certainly more than the energy required to simply run through the power grid to a battery recharging station and recharge an electric car’s battery with ten miles of extra charge.

And, for sure, all that “free” electricity will stop being free just as soon as competing uses for it come along.  As well as the new idea of making petrol out of air, there’s the potential to store the electricity in rechargeable batteries, car batteries, and other interesting ways of capturing the energy (for example, make hydro-electric power plants run backwards and pump water up to the top of the dam when you have spare power, then run it back down again when you need more power).

So sooner or later, it will boil down to the most energy efficient way to take available electricity and store it – either as hydrogen, petrol, battery charge, water pumped back up the dam, or whatever else.

But the basic premise of “making petrol out of thin air for less than it costs out of the ground” sounds very appealing, doesn’t it.  More details here.

California High Speed Rail Slowdown

The California Assembly is being forced to introduce legislation forbidding the California High Speed Rail Authority from entering into a contract for the next stage of construction of its “from nowhere to nowhere else” rail line between Merced and Bakersfield.

It seems the Assembly is concerned the CHSRA might try and force the Assembly’s hand and create obligations, even though the funding for this next stage has not yet been agreed to.  Surely they wouldn’t do that, would they?

Details here.

Costco’s Inexplicable Failure to Compete with Amazon

One of my absolutely most favorite stores is Costco.  I’ve been a member since first moving here in 1985, love their pricing, love their products, and admire the generally high quality staff and the service they provide.

Admittedly, my appreciation of Costco has slipped a bit over the last year or so.  Their wonderfully low priced batteries have a tendency to leak inside devices, years before their “good until” dates.  I’ve lost several bits of kit that way, and so eventually went to the bother of taking a failed battery, spewing caustic chemicals every which way, in to a store.  I wasn’t asking for a refund for a 25c battery, and didn’t expect them to compensate me for the failed product, but thought they might find it useful to be aware they had an ongoing quality control problem with their batteries.

As soon as I said “I am not asking for money” the person behind the counter lost interest.  Didn’t want to take the battery and send it to whoever cares about such things, didn’t want to make any sort of report, and just shooed me away.  She suggested I send an email to “corporate”, but didn’t give me an email address or anything.

The amusing thing is that if I’d asked for money, I’m sure I’d have been given any amount eagerly, but by saying “I don’t want money” I ended up in a unknown category of customer and service response, and the person had no idea what to say or do.

But that’s not the main point of this piece.  While I like Amazon, I hate the way they are becoming more and more the only online retailer.  Walmart seems to have failed at every turn to create a credible alternate presence, notwithstanding spending billions of dollars to no good effect.  Sears Roebuck, the pioneer of mail-ordering, proved totally unable to embrace the successor to the catalog.  I’d have expected another “most likely to succeed” company would be Costco, taking their retailing, product and pricing excellence and moving it out of their warehouses to online.

I ordered some Pepcid from them recently (it is an unlikely but possible virus cure).  Their site told me, before placing the order that it would ship for free, and the order I was placing on Tuesday was promised to arrive on Monday the next week.  This was restated in their confirming email.

If I’d ordered on Amazon, I might have got the order on Wednesday or Thursday – ie the next day or two.  But I didn’t need it urgently, and Costco had a better sized quantity of pills.

On Sunday (ie after the Tuesday order and before the promised Monday delivery) I got a shipping advice notification, happily telling me the Pepcid had shipped and would arrive on Wednesday.  Nowhere did it concede that rather than being a happy-making advice, it was actually the opposite, and that Wednesday was two days after the promised delivery date.

I had an opportunity to respond to the email, so I ended up on one of their webpages where I tried to send them some feedback.  I noticed it appeared there were no identifiers about who I was, and when I clicked to send, their form crashed.  So I guess Costco are marking my silence up as another satisfied customer.

Two key problems – the first is that taking six days to deliver a product just doesn’t compete in the wonderful new world of same day/next day/two day delivery through Amazon.  The second is that if you say you’ll deliver something on Monday, own the commitment, and if you can’t make it, acknowledge your failing.  Don’t try and slip it past a customer and hope they won’t remember when the delivery was promised.

In actuality, the package arrived on Tuesday.  Only one day late, but another example that Costco just doesn’t understand how to ship a product and when it will arrive.

Please, could a retailer, any retailer, become a valid Amazon competitor.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s a fascinating bit of trivia about some English words that are struggling to survive.

Have you ever been pickpocketed?  I have, although only once (on the London Underground).  I was particularly chagrined because after discovering my missing billfold, my then wife said “Oh, I bet it was the guy on the Underground.  I thought he looked really shifty at the time.”

My response – “I wish you’d have warned me at the time”.

Some people underestimate the skill of pickpocketers and the ease with which they can take things from you.  Here’s an interesting YouTube video that shows a pickpocketer giving a demonstration.

Last week I ended up the newsletter with a fascinating video analyzing the UA232 crash in 1989, all the more fascinating because the gentleman presenting such a cogent and captivating presentation was a programmer, nothing to do with the airline industry.

Here’s another of his presentations.  This one is about the development of the Lockheed Skunkworks.  Well worth watching, at least until the final bit where he tries to connect it to the programming world.

The most astonishing statistic – Lockheed had a team of 75 engineers to develop the A-12 (aka the SR-71) in the late 1950s.  This was a revolutionary new plane that really had no precursors to build upon, and which required doing almost everything from scratch.  Most of the calculations would have been done with slide rules.  30 years later, Boeing had 10,000 engineers, and super-computers, to develop the 777 – a plane that was merely a slight tweak from previous very similar planes.  The presenter didn’t say how long both development processes took, but it seems the A-12 development took about two years, which is about half the time the 777 development took.

Progress is a funny old thing.

Until next week, please stay happy and healthy

 

David.

 

 

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David.