Weekly Roundup, Friday 2 October 2020

Good morning

It has been another way-too-intense week, although there is plenty to show for it.  There’s a new article on Covid-19 testing, the relevance of which took a dramatic twist a couple of hours after I wrote it, with the news of first Presidential advisor Hope Hicks and then both the President and First Lady being tested positive for the virus.  Assuming the President caught the virus from Ms Hicks, clearly the daily testing protocol at the White House failed to detect her infection prior to the point that she started infecting others.

Testing is good, but as has now been shown, it doesn’t guarantee to detect every infected person before they start infecting others.  It helps, but when cruise lines and other organizations try to tell us that a single test up to three days before a cruise or flight or whatever will guarantee the safety of all other passengers, they’re oversimplifying and massively overstating the benefit of that test.

There’s also my regular Thursday Covid-19 diary entry, and I’ve updated the draft of my new virus book, adding another 19 pages to the published version, and additional content to the not yet published, with it now spanning over 100,000 words and 300 pages.  Sunday’s Covid-19 diary entry is online, here.

A request – if you’ve some involvement in the medical/health care field, I’d love to have you read, review, and comment on the book.  While positive quotable comments would be great, I truly have no vested interest, and simply want to provide the best, most complete, and fairest coverage to people who choose to read it.  So if there are additional perspectives I should add, or errors that should be corrected, that is helpful too.

If you’d be interested, please let me know and I can send you an electronic pre-release copy, hopefully early this coming week.

There’s one more article attached, too.  Warning – it is one of the longest I’ve ever written, although in reality, it is an article that has written itself (and, sadly, is still writing itself).  It is a transcript of a series of emails between me and a series of supervisors at Google Fi’s customer support center.

So far, there are 38 emails in this series (update – two more have now been exchanged since I published the article), all over what seemed to me a blindingly simple issue – a delay in Google sending me a replacement phone and my request for them to send another phone to ensure the timely receipt of a phone on the date originally promised.

This has been unbelievably frustrating, and I’m beyond appalled that now, more than two days after trying to get a resolution, the only development has been them trying to tell me “it is too late now” (it isn’t).  But it seems, if nothing else, it may be prime material for a stand-up comedy skit.  (But, sadly, nothing could ever be as funny, when it comes to email exchanges, as this.)

Talking about prime things, Amazon have now confirmed their “Prime Day” for special deals this year will be the two days starting from just after midnight Pacific time, ie on the morning of Tuesday 13 October, and running through until at least the end of Wednesday 14 October.  I’ll get out a special newsletter shortly after the start of things pointing out any must-buy deals.

But prior to then, there is already a must-buy deal on offer.  Unless you want to hold out for the new shape Echo Dot series 4 (currently $50 each, and probably dropping to $30 – $35 each on Prime Day), the previous series 3 Echo Dot is now at half price – you can get a pair for the usual price of one, $40 (ie $20 each). (Be sure to use the DOTPRIME2PK discount code at checkout – don’t do a “Buy Now” transaction.)

If you’ve got some rooms without Echo Dots in them currently, or if you’d like to finally start with these products, that’s a great deal.  I’ll update my 18 page PDF full of the best and most useful Alexa/Echo commands and get that live next week, so you can become a “pro” at using the units to best advantage.

As I said in my quick overview of the new Echo Dot last week, the current third generation unit seems to be every bit as good as the new unit, and with the new Guard security features, the concept of multiple units around the house becomes more compelling than it already was.

What else?  Please keep reading for :

  • Air Passenger Growth Continues
  • FAA Administrator Personally “Test Flies” the 737 MAX
  • Boeing Makes a Classic Blunder
  • Boeing Turns its Back on its Roots
  • Delta Deploys New Larger A220-300
  • When Does Clean become Too Clean?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Passenger Growth Continues

I observed last week that, apart from occasional blips, there was an astonishingly steady almost straight line increase in passenger numbers, every day, since things bottomed out in mid April.  This last week has been an almost textbook example of that straight line’s continuation, as you can see in the graphic at the top.

So I’m going to not stick my neck out, and guess the next seven days will see more of the same.  It won’t be enough to prevent the layoffs the airlines are threatening, but it should at least hint at happier times for the airlines eventually returning.

FAA Administrator Personally “Test Flies” the 737 MAX

The FAA Administrator, Steve Dickson, is a former Air Force and Delta pilot.  He has flown the 737 (and many other planes) during his time at Delta, and declared he’d not allow the 737 MAX to be recertified until after he had flown the plane himself.

He did that earlier this week.  I’m far from uncertain if this was anything more than a publicity stunt to showcase his direct role in things, and a chance for him to enjoy some “stick time” that he’s probably been missing since joining the FAA in August last year.

I’ve no disagreement with him being allowed to have a play with the plane, but I don’t think his two hour flight will materially shift the needle in terms of the plane’s underlying redesign and new safety measures.  Although it is kind of nice to see a dynamic “man of action” approach to the issue, isn’t it.

Boeing Makes a Classic Blunder

It is a well known fact that when any company has a voluntary redundancy program, offering generous buyouts to encourage people to leave, this invariably results in the best and brightest employees leaving, and the deadwood resolutely staying.

The reason is simple.  High achievers have no difficulty getting alternate employment, or are keen to get a large lump sum to fund their own business in the future.  But low achievers don’t want to leave the security of their long service with the company, and realize there is no way they’d find a similarly well paying job elsewhere if they left.

Boeing has been running a voluntary redundancy program at present.  Now, to their apparent surprise, they’re discovering that many of their best people are leaving.

Boeing Turns its Back on its Roots

A “betrayal” that has been obvious and predictable for 11 years, but which still hurts now that it has been made official, is Boeing’s decision to close its primary 787 assembly line in Everett (just north of Seattle) and concentrate all future 787 production in its relatively new Charleston SC plant, even though the Charleston plant has been plagued with quality control problems.

The reason for this action is the company is cutting back on its 787 production rate, and no longer has enough volume to keep two separate production lines engaged.

This leaves Boeing with a lot of empty space in its enormous Everett assembly building.  The space allocated for 747 production will soon be vacant with the 747 production ends, and now the loss of the 787 production leaves only some 777 and 767 production.

Maybe it will close down its 737 production lines in Renton (south of Seattle) and move those 33 miles north to Everett – although that would be very unpopular with its Renton employees.  That could be a good move, because what was once low value land in Renton has greatly increased in value, and for sure, Boeing could appreciate a cash injection at present.

But, when looked at over the longer term, it is clear that ever since Boeing moved its head office from Seattle to Chicago in 2001, and then when it first opened the SC facility in 2009, Boeing has had a strategy of leaving Washington state.  We don’t like to see them go – they’ve been a great employer with up to almost 100,000 well paid jobs in the region in good years, but we do understand part of the reason why they are doing this.  They feel that WA state has taken them for granted – not an altogether fair perception because they’ve won some major tax rebates and other incentives to keep them in state, but certainly there has been a large element of taking them for granted too.

Due as much to maladroit management, their relationship with their local union labor has at times been terrible, and they’ve suffered several bruising strikes that could have been avoided if management had worked more closely and sympathetically with the unions and employees.  Their (currently….) non-union workforce in SC is probably cheaper, but that has been reflected in the production and quality control problems they’ve struggled with in SC.

One more thought – while their WA state labor is doubtless more expensive, if Boeing is looking for the largest unnecessary cost over the last twenty years or so, it is not labor.  It is inept management that caused it to repeatedly delay and mess up its 787 development – at a total cost of no-one-really-knows but guessed at perhaps over $20 billion.  That was due to management, not labor.  And then it was again management, not labor, that brought about the still-not-resolved debacle of the 737 MAX, probably representing a $10+ billion cost to Boeing.  It is also management, not labor, who are asleep at the switch at present while Airbus steals increasing market share from Boeing, due to Boeing not replacing its 757.

Shifting the 787 production line to SC might have some underlying sense.  But it will not solve Boeing’s biggest problem.  Boeing’s biggest problem is not on the shop floor.  It is in the expensive office suites in Chicago.

Delta Deploys New Larger A220-300

Talking about Boeing losing out to Airbus with mid-sized planes, that’s not their only area of loss.  It was Boeing management that forced Bombardier into Airbus’ hands when it launched a ridiculous trade complaint about Bombardier in 2017.  Once Airbus made the new Bombardier Cseries planes into its A220 line and put its marketing and support resources behind it, the plane started to get more orders, and while few of the smaller A220-100 plane orders represented sales losses to Boeing (the A220-100 was smaller than the smallest 737 and not really a competitor), the larger A22-300 is a competitor to the small 737 MAX 7, and has picked up 110 orders since Bombardier joined forces with, then was totally bought out by, Airbus.

Even a smaller A220-100 sale can get Airbus into a new airline that it has not previously had as a client, helping it to gain strategic footholds into new areas.

Boeing’s response to that was a maladroit attempt to buy Embraer which eventually fell through in April this year after two years of negotiating.

Delta’s order of A220-100 planes, which precipitated the Boeing trade complaint, has seen both the airline and its passengers very pleased with the smaller plane, and Delta has also ordered the larger A220-300 planes, with the first of those due to enter service in November.

Boeing’s product range is getting more and more marginalized.  The 737’s reputation is in tatters, the 747 is no longer on sale, the 757 has disappeared with no replacement, the 767 is no longer really a viable passenger plane, the 777X progress is possibly on hold and might be deemed too big in this new era of small sized planes, and that leaves only the 787, which has been selling steadily and well (158 planes sold in 2019, its best year of sales yet), but is now being produced at lower monthly rates so as not to empty out the order book.

When Does Clean become Too Clean?

The airlines have been boasting about how they are cleaning their planes much more than ever before, even between every flight.  You’ve probably seen the pictures of people in white coveralls, masks and goggles, spraying some type of liquid in an airplane cabin.

But there’s a possible flipside to this much-publicized temporary obsessions with cleanliness.  Is it possible that disinfectants for killing viruses and bacteria might also be harmful to larger organisms, such as, for example, people?  Unsurprisingly, the answer to that is yes.  There’s a reason the cleaners wear their coveralls, masks and goggles – because breathing the disinfectant is harmful.

Reading the label on my bottle of lovely Virex II concentrate (now reasonably available again on Amazon) not only has the usual warning about not getting the product in your eyes, but has an astonishing line that if you get any on your skin, you should urgently wash your skin for 15-20 minutes.  Have you ever seen any other chemical that requires 15-20 minutes of washing to be removed?  Clearly it is powerful stuff, and not in an altogether good way.

But what about in planes?  There are two considerations.

The first is if there is any of the disinfectant in the air or still evaporating off seat cushions, carpets, and other surfaces when you enter the plane.  If you can smell disinfectant, then it is probably not a good thing.  That “clean” smell is not a desirable smell.  It is also worth noting that after the plane takes off and the cabin pressure drops at altitude, that lessened pressure encourages additional off-gassing of any remaining chemicals that might be remaining.

The second is there might be a build up of the poisonous products from the disinfectant on the surfaces that you then touch.  Remember the warning on my Virex II label?  Do you really want to be touching the chemicals directly?

When we consider also that virus transmission by touching contaminated surfaces is the least likely method of becoming infected, is this a case where the cure is worse than the problem?  Do we really need the seats and carpets sprayed with noxious poisons between every flight?  Couldn’t we simply use a wipe or a bit of hand sanitizer on the surfaces we are going to directly touch, and not bother about the parts of the plane we’re not going to touch, but which can soak up and then slowly release poisons for some time after they’ve been sprayed?

There’s also the issue of there being a range of possible viricides that can be used.  The most common ones use the most noxious chemicals – a family of chemicals known as “quarternary ammonium compounds”.  But simpler and safer chemicals such as citric acid (found in lemon juice) or hydrogen peroxide (you probably have a bottle of that in your medicine cabinet already) might do just as good a job, without the noxious consequences.

The airlines assure us there’s no need to worry, but what is the scientific basis for their assurance?  They can’t cite any.  In particular, the time when the concentrations of poisonous disinfectant might be strongest in the air is immediately after application – ie, when we board a plane, and before the plane’s powerful air filtering system is operating This article in the WSJ provides interesting additional information.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s a possibly better way to go through airport security at present.

This article poses an interesting question.  Why is it common to use phrases such as “car crash kills four” but we never say “gun shots kill four”.  Why do we never say “driver kills four” when we always say “gunman kills four” and so on.

The question is not actually related to gun control issues at all, but rather is focused on why do we not place more culpability on car drivers.

Talking about cars, more electric cars are coming to the US, but – as is always the case, not just yet.  VW have what seems destined to be a very popular car, the ID.4, with the first tranche of vehicles, due in Q1 next year, already sold out.  The next tranche will be in the middle of 2021.  And Chinese company Geely have shown a new concept car that they say will be sold internationally, probably therefore including the US, but the leadtime on that is unclear.  Meantime, the growing stable of Tesla models continues to have almost all the market entirely to itself.

I look at this, and while I see much to be impressed about with Tesla, the most astonishing part of their market dominance is the ineptitude of the established major car companies and their puzzling inability to respond with similar vehicles.

New power sources aren’t just limited to cars these days.  In Britain, a new passenger train has been undergoing trials.  It will be powered by a hydrogen fuel cell rather than diesel or overhead electricity.

Until next week, please stay healthy and safe





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