Want to be a hero? Be a pilot and not an engineer.


A Boston TV station interviewed me regarding Delta 1889, an Airbus A320 scheduled from Boston to Salt Lake City that encountered hail and diverted to Denver. Below is the big picture of NEXRAD data that one can see from a web browser and the plane’s track over the ground. The big picture is available for free to anyone with a web browser. Adding that capability to a little Cessna costs about $10,000 for the FAA-certified XM radio ($100 for a car?) and about $600 per year for the data subscription from XM. How much would it cost to put this $100 XM radio in a Boeing or Airbus? The regulator hurdles are so high that it would almost surely not be affordable to airlines. Therefore they rely on onboard weather radar that can see rain out the front plus advice from air traffic controllers who have at least local NEXRAD data on their radar screens.

Without the big picture the pilots would have had a tough time seeing that the space between thunderstorms was tight (the FAA says don’t get any closer than 20 nautical miles to a thunderstorm for fear of hail and turbulence, but that is just a rule of thumb) and that going south to Oklahoma or north through the top of Kansas would have been more prudent. Their onboard radar reflects wonderfully off rain but not so well from the dry baseball-sized hail that they encountered.

The primitive nature of electronics for aircraft was on full display during this incident. The pilots of Delta 1889 had cracked windshields that could have blown out at any moment, causing a depressurization. Their onboard radar was destroyed. But there was no way for them to have a dedicated communication channel to ATC. The controllers had to keep talking to other airplanes on the party line and giving what attention they could to the airplane with the emergency. (liveatc recording)

The pilots quite sensibly picked Denver, an airport with crazy long runways (one is 16,000′ long!). It is easy to fly any instrument-certified airplane, including an A320, down to about 200′ above the ground without being able to see out the windows. The final 200′ usually requires visual identification of the runway. However, due to their spectacularly foggy/misty weather, the British decided to build autoland systems starting in the 1960s. The typical domestic airline won’t maintain and test autoland to the extent required to make it legal to use day-to-day. Where autoland becomes a factor in the U.S. is for transoceanic flights. With the potential ability to land in fog they can cut down on the amount of reserve fuel that must be carried. However, even if autoland is not maintained and tested all the time it remains available to use and the pilots of Delta 1889 did use it (receiving a “nice job” from the control tower).

The pilots were heroes to everyone (including me, I think, since they sounded so cool on the radio after escaping the hail). But why weren’t the engineers who designed the windshields and the autoland system celebrated? Who went over to France to find the programmer behind the A320 autopilot and autoland system? Who found the glass manufacturer to find out how their product survived the pounding without subjecting passengers to depressurization?

delta-1889-big-picture delta-1889-close-up


Rename Uber to Insha’Allah


  • Road warrior 1: “You can’t rely on Uber because they could be shut down at any time by government regulators.”
  • Road warrior 2: “I never know if I am going to get there because most of the drivers are immigrants from Muslim countries and have at best a tenuous grasp of local geography.”
  • Me: “Maybe Uber should be renamed to Insha’Allah, as in ‘We will get there, Insha’Allah.'”

Easiest way to record three people for video?


Video nerds:

I want to interview two people. Maybe I will be behind the camera since nobody needs to look at me, though generally I am opposed to disembodied voices on video (I’ve got a 5-year-old trained to say “No talking behind the camera!”). A standard stereo lav mic setup is what I have used in the past. One for me and one for the interviewee with the two mics going to the LR channels on the camera (example from a video dating experiment). But what happens with three lav mics? Now the wireless mic receiver also has to be a mixer, right? And what is the right setting to mix three channels to two? Put the two interviewees on the left channel and the interviewer on the right? Does this product even exist? I don’t want to have two boxes in front of the camera if I can possibly avoid it.

Thanks in advance for any ideas!

Investing in the dumbest possible asset


“Total U.S. Auto Lending Surpasses $1 Trillion for First Time” is a WSJ story that shows (a) for all of the whining about how the American middle class is getting squeezed, it still has plenty of money (don’t think the one-percenters need to get car loans), and (b) Americans are putting a huge amount of money into the dumbest possible asset. Cars have always been a terrible investment due to rapid depreciation. On the other hand, that made them good status symbols because people could see that you had money to burn. But with semi-automatic and totally automatic (self-driving) cars just around the corner, how can it possibly be a good idea for a society to invest $1 trillion in yesterday’s technology?

[The article also shows that Americans are basing spending decisions on a machine with a 20-year life based on today’s oil prices:

“A lot of the gain we’ve seen is from light trucks, SUVs, cross-overs, minivans and pickup trucks,” said David Berson, chief economist at Nationwide Insurance in Columbus, Ohio. “Because gasoline prices have come down, it makes it less expensive to run the vehicles that use more fuel” and frees up consumers’ budgets to put toward more cars or higher car loan payments.



Collecting child support from a non-parent


Illustrating the depth of ignorance of family law in the U.S. is this advice column in the Detroit Free Press:

I have a 12-year-old daughter. Her biological father passed away when she was 2 years old. I got married when she was 5. He and I separated when she was 10. We’re now divorced. … He calls and asks to take her to dinner or to do fun things during the day. This is great, but he does not help me financially. … I sometimes feel resentful that I am the one paying for school activities, birthdays and necessities, and he still gets to spend time with her whenever he wants without helping me. I’ve always wanted to be kind, and I can provide on my own, but this has become a nagging thought. … I wish he … would give me a monthly amount, like child support.

The columnist responds that, due to the lack of any biological link between the potential defendant and the child, litigation to turn the child into a cash source wouldn’t work. But the “Post-Divorce Child Support Collection… from non-parents” section of http://www.realworlddivorce.com/PostDivorceLitigation shows that it is in fact possible.

[Separately, the article also shows the superior financial security enjoyed by successful child support plaintiffs compared to married parents. The biological father “passed away” and it is possible, e.g., if the seeker of advice had been married, that the widow suffered a loss of income as a result. Had she divorced the biological father and obtained a child support order, the father would have, at least in many states, also been ordered to purchase life insurance (at an additional cost, above and beyond the child support cashflow) with his plaintiff as beneficiary.]

The robots of North Carolina


North Carolina offers employers a relatively low-cost labor pool. Nonetheless a two-day trip showed how companies are able to reduce the number of workers. I visited one of the world’s most successful business enterprises, which enjoys tremendous pricing power and commensurate profits. The buildings had all been designed with receptionist-staffed lobbies. Their empty desks were still there (what to do with them?) but in front of each desk was an automated badge-printing kiosk with a keyboard for entering one’s name and the name of the employee being visited. The little guard houses at the drive-in entrances were vacant, having been replaced with an audio/video system to allow a single guard to run multiple gates from a comfortable air-conditioned office.

The Nordstrom department store cafe where we ate was designed like a Chick fil A . We ordered our food at the register and it was brought to our table when ready, thus enabling the waitstaff to be substantially reduced. I wanted headphones for the return flight to Boston. I purchased them from a BestBuy robot at the RDU airport.

Love for Ellen Pao


One of my classmates from MIT (we graduated when the Wisconsin ice sheet still covered most of Massachusetts) emailed to say how excited she was that young women were suing employers more frequently than women had in the past (unclear that this is true; it could just be that Ellen Pao-style lawsuits now get more press coverage than previously). Ellen Pao in particular is a hero to her. Why? “Lawsuits force men to listen up.”

I responded with “ask yourself why a U.S. company would want to hire women at this point at the same wage as a man. If every female employee comes with a statistical risk of being sued and spending $10 million defending the discrimination lawsuit, then the only way for the female employee to be equally valuable to the company if she is paid a lower wage. … So women like Ellen Pao actually lower the wages of other women in the workforce.”

Was she persuaded by this Econ 101/Accounting 201 argument? Apparently not because she responded with “This email of yours is wrong and ignorant and sexist.”

Hillary Clinton’s College Affordability Plan


Hillary Clinton has proposed to change the way Americans pay for college. The money collected by universities will stay the same, the teaching methods will be unaltered, and students will do the same things for the same amount of time. The big difference is that about $350 billion in additional taxes will be paid by Americans and then the government will make sure that (at least most of) the money gets to the colleges. Paying taxes instead of tuition will make college more “affordable” for Americans, according to Clinton and most of the media (e.g., nytimes), just as Obamacare made health care more “affordable” despite the overall cost remaining roughly constant as a percentage of GDP.

It occurred to me that a politician could promise to raise the average American’s tax bill by $70,000 and then buy each family a Mercedes or BMW at list price. This would be called “The Mercedes and BMW affordability plan.”

One of the interesting provisions of the bill is that, if not paid back via a modest percentage of “income,” loans will be entirely forgiven after 20 years (or 10 years, if working in an official do-gooder job). Consider a Massachusetts citizen who goes through 10 years of college and grad school or professional school, learning a lot of interesting but not very practical material. Towards the end of grad school, the citizen has casual encounters with two different members of the opposite sex earning $250,000 each, and retains custody of the two resulting children. Under the Massachusetts child support system, this will lead to a comfortable $80,000 per year in tax-free payments, none of which count as “income,” plus additional court-ordered amounts to pay for direct expenses of the child, such as daycare while in grad school or college tuition if it isn’t entirely free by then. The payments end when the youngest child turns 23, at which point all of the student loan debt has been forgiven.

What can the well-educated child support profiteer do during those 10 or 20 years post-graduation to maintain skills and also accumulate savings for retirement? How about… work? To get the 10-year “do-gooder” schedule of forgiveness, the citizen starts a non-profit corporation and accumulates tax-free profits inside the corp. (see this article for some numbers on Planned Parenthood, which is apparently able to bank over $100 million per year in profits) Perhaps the citizen pays himself or herself a minimum wage for 10-15 hours per week. After the loans have been forgiven, the citizen can then use the accumulated profit (“surplus” in non-profit argot) to contribute to a tax-deferred retirement account and/or to pay a much higher salary.

What if the citizen doesn’t have any non-profit ideas? The citizen forms a C corporation and works through the C corp., which pays corporate taxes on any profits but retains or reinvests nearly all after-tax earnings. This may not be tax-efficient because if the money is eventually taken out as salary the citizen will also have to pay individual income tax on previous years’ income (this pain could be reduced by moving to Puerto Rico (Forbes)). But, on the other hand, skipping out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt should provide a boost to overall financial health. Essentially the citizen meets day-to-day personal expenses from child support and saves for retirement by building up value in the C corporation.

A separate question is how this would work for an American who graduates from college and emigrates to, e.g., Singapore. If he or she renounces U.S. citizenship how does the U.S. then get income data sufficient to calculate the former citizen’s student loan repayment liability?

Readers: What other interesting strategies and outcomes would you expect based on the percentage of income cap and the forgiveness-after-20-years policy?


Learn about the Ferguson shooting


One of my personal strategies is to ignore the most exciting news and wait until there is a New Yorker story explaining it all. It has been a year since the shooting of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson and Jake Halpern has delivered an excellent way to catch up: “The Cop.”

Readers: What new facts did you learn from this article?

[The article touches on a couple of issues that have previously appeared in this weblog. Darren Wilson isn’t highly employable currently. How do he and his wife pay the grocery bill? The 37-year-old wife retired from her police officer job and collects a public employee pension. She previously obtained custody of two children and presumably collects Missouri child support. As has become standard for a lot of American child support plaintiffs, she secured a custody victory with a domestic violence allegation against the father of one of her children (Missouri’s child support formula makes two children more profitable when they have different fathers). What happened to the gun-carrying police officer who was patrolling some of the country’s toughest neighborhoods? “Barb testified in court that John ‘pulled my hair,’ ‘choked me,’ and ‘punched me in the face.'”]

Michael Moore sells one of his nine houses


A friend from this Midwest sent me this… Michael Moore is selling a house that a realtor characterizes as “an appealing spot for corporate retreats” (nypost). The lakefront house near Traverse City, Michigan is 11,058 square feet and is on the market for $5.2 million. The value was listed as $2 million during 2014 divorce litigation (“MICHAEL MOORE OWNS 9 HOMES”). (Moore sued his wife in Michigan and, despite the 9 houses, apparently there wasn’t a major dispute regarding venue because the trial was also scheduled to be in Michigan)

How does this house compare to Al Gore’s? The Gore mansion is just 10,000 square feet (snopes.com).

What do readers think? Does the celebrity ownership raise or lower the value of this particular mansion?


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