Polymath A (mostly) technical weblog for Archivale.com

November 20, 2012

The little electric car that should

Filed under: Personal — piolenc @ 3:00 pm

What the world needs is a low-cost, low-tech, short-range electric commuter car.

What it is offered is a $40,000 car that costs twice that much to build, has a battery pack that costs thousands of dollars to replace and lasts (maybe) three years and is loaded with expensive, high-tech gear that nobody knows how to fix. All this to satisfy a market that, if it exists at all outside the enviro-guilt-ridden, Global Warming true believer precincts of Hollywood, is a tiny fraction of world automotive demand.

This is the result of what the military calls “mission creep.” The taxpayer – not the seller or the prospective buyer – is paying for development, so why not set the bar a little higher – insist on 150 miles range between charges instead of the 50 that most commuters in the world will need. So what if that makes the car unaffordable to most motorists, even with subsidies – it looks great on a corporate brochure and it provides unimpeachable political “green” credentials for the company.

It doesn’t have to be that way. A century ago, clunky batteries and primitive drive trains controlled by simple switches propelled delivery trucks that served major city centers quietly and smokelessly. Electric cars got people safely from home to work, to the store and back. The greatest success story for electrics is one that is almost unknown in America, and that is the classic British milk float, making its early morning milk deliveries without even waking the family dog.

When the US government first got into the business of trying to revive electric vehicles in the 1970s, it sensibly concentrated on fleet vehicles, specifically local delivery vans. Its battery development effort emphasized updates to existing battery technology – longer-lived and lighter lead-acid, cheaper and more power-dense nickel-iron cells. Progress was made, but then the shortages ceased, petroleum prices dropped and program funding evaporated. The accumulated knowledge is still out there, though.

Now entrepreneurs like Jesse Blenn and his associates, operating on a shoestring, are trying to do something really radical, namely give the world a product that real people might actually want to own. Their product is the CambyoCar – small, light, cheap… and supremely adequate. Typically, while billions of dollars of the taxpayer’s money go into the sinkhole of politically favored “green” industry, Jesse is trying to raise a few tens of thousands of dollars – and having a really hard time of it.

The Bay Area Book Exchange – a new kind of bookstore

Filed under: Personal — piolenc @ 2:46 pm

Just visited the Bay Area Book Exchange site. It’s brilliant! My first reaction was to smack my forehead and say “why didn’t I think of that?” It is yet another way to make money while giving things away. The primary attraction of this store is a huge array of books free for the asking – books that were donated for that purpose.

People trying to sell worthless old books are a persistent nuisance of any brick-and-mortar used-book dealer, motivating many to move to an Internet-only business model. Unfortunately, that move also excludes good stock that would otherwise walk in the door under its own power, and forces Net-based dealers to spend time and money hitting the auctions, pawnshops, thrift stores and so forth looking for the one book in twenty or in one hundred worth having in inventory.

This new way of doing things leaves the Exchange with a graceful way to reject the worthless stuff – it goes on the giveaway shelves – while retaining the good stuff for sale. The giveaways attract visitors, some of whom will find what they want in the “sale” section and add to the Exchange’s revenue. It isn’t mentioned in the pages I’ve read, but I’m sure they’re not depending completely on donations, and do shell out cash for the odd really good item. They obviously also offer book searching and brokerage service.

I keep finding more advantages in their way of doing things. The giveaways are not subject to sales tax and all the related BS, like the 25-cent tables used by other book dealers to attract customers. That is tantamount to a profit, because what is saved in processing costs is more than what the 25-cent sellers earn.

Goodbye, OBL

Filed under: Personal — piolenc @ 2:36 pm

Before the late Osama bin Laden fades into obscurity, I think it’s important that we recall his contributions to human knowlege and to human relations.

It was he, future generations will recall, who led us to enlightenment by confirming the truth of anthropogenic global warming and firmly pinning blame on the industrialized world. In one of his signature audio tapes broadcast on 29 January 2010, he declared:

“Discussing climate change is not an intellectual luxury, but a reality. All of the industrialised countries, especially the big ones, bear responsibility for the global warming crisis.”

Oddly, he refrained from pointing out that the most industrialized countries are also those with the smallest Muslim populations, thus missing a chance to demonstrate a clear connection between religious apostasy and environmental iniquity. Now, tragically, that chance is lost forever.

This great moment in world history has never received the attention that it deserved. Imagine the effect on subsequent events if this central figure had not revealed this truth. Millions – perhaps hundreds of millions – of the benighted and bemused might have doubted that Man’s exhalations and flatulence will soon turn the planet into Waterworld. It could only be OBL’s courageous advocacy that has kept Global Warming foremost in our thoughts and helped us banish the doubts that might otherwise have arisen there after the East Anglia scandals.

And while we’re giving credit where it is due, we owe it to History to mention his contributions to structural engineering. About halfway through the construction of the World Trade Towers, the asbestos ban came into effect and the steel columns supporting the building ceased to be sheathed in asbestos. Thermal protection, authority predicted, was not needed, or at least was not worth the danger that asbestos fiber might get into the lungs of the building’s occupants. In one brilliant stroke, OBL proved them wrong by the ingenious expedient of running fuel-laden airliners into the buildings just above the asbestos limit. He also showed that there are worse things to worry about than mineral fibers.

And as long as we’re on the topic of 9/11, it is only fair to point out that this generous act, scurrilously mislabeled “terrorism” by ignorant apostates, actually brought about an intellectual and spiritual renewal in America, land of the Great Satan. Where would we be without the 9/11 Truth Movement which, by seeking to give credit for the destruction of the Towers to the CIA, the Bush family, space aliens or Men In Black – anyone but OBL – has shown (obliquely, to be sure) its deep reverence for the sagacious founder of al-Qaeda.

Some things should never be forgotten.

Why I don’t feel sorry for municipal bond holders

Filed under: Personal — piolenc @ 2:31 pm

Thirty years ago, people were telling me to invest in government bonds for security and guaranteed yield, and wondering why I was too stupid to follow their advice. Now, people are wringing their hands over the plight of bond-holders facing default, and wondering why I don’t sympathize. Let me explain.

It all comes down to the question of what is a government bond. For the sake of contrast, let’s compare a typical “muni” or municipal bond, issued by a city government, with a bond issued by, say, a commercial bakery.

Both are instruments of debt; essentially, the bondholders are lending money at an agreed rate of interest for a specified period to the organization issuing the bonds.

The key difference between them is in who contracts the debt, and who pays.

When the Directors of ABC Bakery, Inc. vote to issue corporate bonds, they are, in effect, promising that at the appointed time ABC will repay the bonds’ principal, plus the agreed interest, out of what they make selling dinner rolls and cinnamon buns. If the appointed time arrives and the bonds are not repaid, ABC will be forced to repay them, and if they can’t, to liquidate and pay off bondholders from the assets of the company. The directors who voted the bond issue, being shareholders in the firm, stand to lose all of their investment in that event. If irregularities are found in the bond issue or in provision for repaying it, they may even be civilly or criminally liable as individuals. All of these circumstances tend to promote prudence and forethought.

When the City Council of Anytown votes to issue municipal bonds, on the other hand, the councilors are not incurring debt on their own behalf. Instead, they are promising the bondholders that, when the time comes, the Council will reach out and rob the taxpayers of the city of the amount needed to repay the debt. The councilors are not themselves liable except as individual taxpayers, and there is no recourse against them in the event of a default. They have much to gain, and nothing to lose by a bond issue. In effect, they can buy their constituents’ votes with the taxpaying citizens’ own money.

In other words, government bonds are a promise to steal and to use the proceeds of the theft for the purpose of bribery. By any consistent standard, such a bargain would constitute criminal conspiracy. Unfortunately for the honest taxpaying citizen, this particular crime is sanctioned by the very government on which he relies to suppress crime. And let’s be very clear on this: trust in government bonds is based on the fact that the taxpayer is not offered the option of not paying; he pays or else. This is no secret, and anybody who buys this debt knows that it is being contracted on behalf of third parties, without their consent. In the case of long-term bonds, those who will be forced to repay them may not even be born yet.

As a practical matter, and especially for the sake of political self-preservation, politicians avoid imposing special assessments or earmarked tax increases to cover bond repayment, and try to stagger bond maturities – all so that bonds can be paid out of current revenues.

But now consider what happens when government revenues decline, as is happening nearly everywhere today. Faced with three alternatives: cut spending, raise tax rates or go deeper into debt, politicians typically dismiss the first alternative out of hand on the grounds that the people have a duty to maintain them in the manner to which they have become accustomed, reject the second because of political risk, and eagerly embrace the third. Now, instead of using bonds for capital improvements and paying for them out of revenues, debt is being incurred to cover shortfalls in the very revenue that is supposed to retire it. It doesn’t take a degree in applied mathematics to know that this is unsustainable, and that a point will soon be reached where the interest on the bond repayments will exceed revenue. At this writing, this is almost the case in at least one American city.

These days, buying government debt isn’t just a criminal act; it is also a stupid one. Yet people continue to “invest” in this cynical bargain, apparently confident that somebody can be made to pay it off.

And they wonder why I don’t feel bad when it doesn’t work out that way.

November 17, 2012

Free Flight: Personal Leased Air Transportation

Filed under: Aeronautics,Personal — piolenc @ 7:33 am

“The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” – Ayn Rand

In this day of no-fly (and soon presumably no-train, no-ferry, no-bus, etc.) lists the question of unimpeded personal long-distance transportation needs to be taken a bit more seriously than it was in a recent Feedback Friday (http://www.DollarVigilante.com), which read in part: “Sadly, you have to have your own sailboat, motorboat or airplane in order to get outside of all this…” implying that these were hopeless aspirations for most of us. Taking it strictly at face value as meaning owning a seagoing yacht or an aircraft with decent cross-country performance, it’s probably true. But the very technological developments that make possible nude scanners are also making possible the physical liberation of travelers on a very large scale.

Private (i.e. non-commercial) aircraft and boats get you out of the nude scan/grope line, but not completely out of the clutches of government. Where the bureau-rats get you as a boat owner is at the shoreline – forbidding anchorage in the open bay and forcing boat owners to pay outrageous slip fees and submit to ridiculous registration procedures, stopping boats for “safety” checks and to look for drugs, etc. For aircraft it’s the airfield for “papers” and outrageous hangar fees, not to mention the ridiculous cost of the vehicle itself (due to government certification requirements) and of government-approved training to obtain a government-issued license to fly it.

But aircraft have that vital, vertical third degree of freedom that gives them the potential to eliminate contact with officialdom, if only they can get away from using government-designated landing grounds. Very short takeoff makes that possible in many places*; vertical takeoff gives an almost infinite supply of off-airport landing areas. Specific aircraft to fulfill this need may come up in a later post, but I’d like to discuss the problem of Free Flight in general terms first.

Back in the 1930s and 40s it was generally assumed that airplanes (or aircraft of some kind) would eventually become as common as the family car or “flivver,” and serious effort was put into making the perfect “air flivver” for Everyman. Much of that effort, ironically, was sponsored by government, with many NACA reports coming out during that period concentrating on shortening landing and takeoff runs, making airplanes that were stall- and spin-proof, improving pilot vision, improving fuel consumption, reducing noise and so on. Much effort also went into seaplanes, flying boats and amphibians during this period, mostly for military purposes but also to the benefit of “bush” flyers.

The emphasis in all this was on safety, but every bit of progress also held the promise of improved access to air transportation. Low stall speeds and improved low-speed maneuverability make short, unpaved fields usable. Reduced noise makes it possible to operate near homes without causing a riot. Amphibious operation makes every sheltered body of water over a certain size into a potential airstrip, and every boat ramp a terminal.

The one factor that prevented the flowering of Everyman’s Airplane was the need for skill. Make a ‘plane as safe as you like, it still takes much more skill and discipline to operate one than a car, and the penalty for error tends to be greater, too. Forgetting to check your automobile’s fuel level before departure leads to a humiliating roadside call to the Auto Club; forgetting it in your airplane can result in “catastrophic terrain intersection” in the language of modern accident analysts. These constraints cannot be blamed on the State; they are imposed by Nature. Flying an airplane from water requires additional skill and judgment. As for the helicopter, a priori the ideal “air flivver” because of its ability to take off and land vertically, even more skill is needed to fly it, to the point that not every candidate for a helicopter license is able to achieve the necessary level of skill despite the expensive instruction.

The means of overriding that obstacle didn’t exist in the 1940s, but it is ubiquitous and cheap in our day. I’m referring to the digital computer, of course. It is true that much effort has gone into analog autopilots over the years, and many airplanes are equipped with them, but they are essentially cruise controls – they allow the pilot to relax a bit in the middle portion of a long cross-country journey. The most difficult and dangerous phases of flight, namely takeoff and landing, are still the pilot’s full responsibility, and he still has to perform every detail task related to communication, information gathering and navigation, using primitive methods and in the cramped, noisy and often drafty confines of a cockpit.

More recently, digital computation and control have entered the cockpit, with the benefits that we all know so well in other phases of life, namely programmability and expandability. This has led to a vast reduction in pilot workload in commercial airplanes, because the complexity of the tasks assumed by the flight controller has enormously increased, aided by much more extensive sensor input and its ability to directly control the servomechanisms that already exist to amplify the pilot’s control effort. Certain commercial airplanes now can literally land themselves, with the pilot standing by to take over if something goes wrong with the navigation aids or the controls themselves, or some obstacle appears on the runway.

The homebuilt,  experimental or sport aircraft movement has paid attention to these developments and is already making extensive use of digital electronics in navigation and trip planning, but applying electronics to direct control of the airplane is more difficult because most homebuilt and small factory-built airplanes still have direct manual operation of the control surfaces via mechanical linkages, so all the actuators have to be retrofitted and plumbed into the airplane’s existing systems. Besides the expense, there is the question of motivation: the sport airplane crowd probably don’t especially want an airplane that flies itself. Their joy comes in exercising and improving their piloting skills, not merely in getting from point A to point B, and most sport flying originates and ends at the same airfield in any case.

Factory-built airplanes, which in a free market would quickly incorporate every technical advance making flying easier, instead lag decades behind experimental aviation. This is entirely due to the State, which requires every component of a certified aircraft, down to the last rivet, to be government-certified for use in aircraft. This makes the cost of aviation electronics astronomical, further shrinking a market that was small to begin with, and ensuring that mainstream manufacturers will never invest the development costs to bring any truly modern gear to the civil market. Barring a revolution, then, the solution to our problem will not come from the “spamcan” vendors.

Accessible personal air transportation will have to originate outside the usual civil aviation channels, even though it will draw on aviation knowledge and technology. The controls component will originate almost entirely outside of commercial, general and sport aviation because its purpose will be to take the skill out of flying and essentially make the operator of a personal cross-country aircraft a passenger who decides the destination and may make some routing decisions (“stay away from Milwaukee,” “pass Mt. Shasta to the south”), but takes no part in direct control of the aircraft’s flight path. Interestingly, this kind of autonomous control is currently in existence for one application only – unmanned aircraft, mostly used by the military. Digital autonomous and semi-autonomous controls exist for drones, including rotary-wing drones, which can be ordered to follow a certain flight path, the remote operator intervening only to order deviations and to engage targets (and even then he only designates targets, and does not have to directly control weapons). The same controls can work equally well – better, in fact, because they don’t depend on communication links – with the operator on board.

A typical trip scenario, freedom fashion:

When Mr. Freeman wants to make a business trip to a distant city, he orders an aircraft, which lands at the appointed time on his back lawn or any convenient rendezvous such as a nearby park, rooftop or sports field. He hops aboard, identifies himself to the aircraft’s computer and makes himself comfortable. The aircraft weighs itself (by reading sensors in the landing gear struts) and informs him that, although he and his luggage are within the weight limit for the trip, he will need to stow part of his luggage forward as the aircraft is currently tail-heavy. Mr. Freeman moves one of his bags to the forward bin, the computer confirms that the machine is now within its center-of-gravity range, and the aircraft takes off without further delay. During the flight, he enjoys the view, which is panoramic because the flight altitude is low to keep away from government-controlled aviation corridors. If he gets bored with the scenery, he watches a movie on the built-in displays, catches up on his electronic correspondence using the aircraft’s built-in networking facilities or reviews the presentation he will make at his destination. If the flight is too long for the aircraft’s fuel endurance, it will land itself at a suitable refueling stop – probably the back lot of a truck stop or fuel dépôt, as the aircraft will probably be burning diesel fuel or heating oil. Depending on the level of service contracted for, Mr. Freeman will either have to pump the fuel himself or an attendant will do it for him. Likewise, contractual arrangements will determine whether Mr. Freeman uses his own funds directly to buy the fuel or the fuel is paid for by the aircraft leasing service and included in its charge to Mr. Freeman. Upon arrival at destination, he will either be deposited right at his hotel, if the hotel has a pad and is willing to accommodate non-government-sanctioned transports, or at a suburban taxi stand where a taxicab contracted for by the leasing service is waiting to take him and his luggage to his final destination. If the aircraft is amphibious, landing on a convenient river or bay and using a dock or boat ramp might also be an option.

It is clear from the scenario that a very different ownership structure from that currently existing in general aviation is assumed there. One of the many reasons that private aviation is currently so expensive per mile traveled is the very low rate of utilization of the aircraft – a fewscore hours a year, usually. All the aircraft’s overhead (much of it incurred by compliance with government regulations) and debt service gets charged to those very few flying hours, and the arithmetic result does indeed make it look like a rich man’s indulgence. Of course there are rental aircraft fleets in existence today, but they consist of overpriced “certificated” aircraft which are required to be maintained by overpaid licensed Airframe & Powerplant mechanics and are only eligible for rental by government-licensed pilots, so the savings expected from our hypothetical unregulated rental fleet, serving the general public, are not realized. All that changes if the aircraft is part of an autonomous rental fleet that is rented out to multiple non-flight-qualified customers on a per-trip basis over the course of the year, spending only enough time in hangar for regular maintenance.

Where would these unlicensed aircraft come from? Not from Cessna, Piper or Beechcraft  – not for the foreseeable future, anyway – because those General Aviation manufacturers are under the thumb of government and would likely be punished if they built aircraft intended for use off the plantation. At first, production would likely be a cottage industry, with small producers specializing in various hardware components, specialized software firms providing flight control programs and data files such as digital terrain maps. Assembly and checkout would likely be carried out by the customer – the leasing service – or by a specialized assembly firm working directly under their supervision.

The rental scenario and the decentralized production scheme both imply comprehensive standardization. This tends to raise strong doubts in many freedom-lovers, who associate standardization with coercion and centralized authority. It is worth pointing out, however, that voluntary standards existed long before government stuck its oar in the water, and that even today the most effective and widely followed standards are still voluntary ones – think Internet Protocol, WiFi and USB connectors – adopted because it is in the best interests of the adopting parties to use them. Today, there are many de facto standards in effect within the homebuilt aircraft movement, administered (if at all) by membership-based organizations operating without government sanction. This is the closest thing to a free market that exists in aviation – homebuilders who want proven hardware go with the standard offerings, leaving the risk-takers and pioneers free to think and work outside the box.

Initially, somebody is going to have to take a financial risk, but it need not be a very big one – certainly not like the risk exposure of launching a new “spamcan” or factory-built personal airplane. Imprimis, there will be no up-front “compliance” costs which are a major component of cost of any new certified aircraft venture, and a disproportionate component of the cost of bringing a small aircraft to market. Secundus, the infrastructure required for promotion and administration already exists. Tertius, production tooling will likely be paid for by the individual manufacturing subcontractors, each of whom will be taking on only a small part of the project and therefore risking relatively little capital.

The biggest obstacle is, sadly but predictably, the human factor. To be commercially successful, this business must be marketable to people who have not adopted the freedom philosophy. To be a technical and production success, people who don’t necessarily share our principles have to be persuaded to participate, or people who do share our principles have to be persuaded to acquire the necessary skills. This is so because, sad to say, most people in aviation, including the sport aviation/homebuilt phase of it, are conformists when it comes to obeying government regulations, which they associate with safety and order. They are of course far from being the only ones to make this error, but it is inconvenient that a skilled workforce that would be most helpful in this project holds mostly negative views regarding the actual practice of freedom. We may have to build a skilled production and operating force entirely outside current aviation circles. We will have to market the service to travelers purely on the basis of cost and quality, and let the lesson of liberty teach itself by experience.

Fortunately, this should not be too hard. Convenience is hard to beat: pickup à domicile or nearby at a time of the traveler’s choosing, and delivery to destination, or to within a cab ride of the destination. The latter is a pretty strong selling point if the destination is other than a major hub, because the cost and the time in transit both rise drastically in that case, when flying commercial. In fact there are no direct commercial flights to smaller cities and towns; the traveler first flies to the nearest hub, then changes, not just flights but also airlines and terminals usually, retrieving and re-checking his luggage in the process, then flies on to his final destination, often after cooling his heels in a major airport, with his baggage, for hours. If the enhanced convenience, privacy and comfort of a free flight service can be accomplished at or below the price of a commercial ticket, it should be an easy sell. Even if sanity returns to commercial travel and the TSA goons are forced to seek honest work, the service should survive for decentralized travel and for feeder service to major airports. In our hypothetical trip, for example, Mr. Freeman’s autonomous air taxi ride might be the first leg of an international journey.

“Bootstrapping” is an option. The first increment of the business developed could be a franchised chain of local pinpoint aerial parcel-delivery services – the aircraft smaller, short-ranged and not man-rated. Most of the software – particularly close-quarters piloting and dispatch algorithms – developed for this phase will be applicable to later phases. This would be followed by local air taxi and airport feeder service in areas of high traffic congestion, infrastructure bottlenecks or both. Both would form the basis for development of still longer-range vehicles and for building a network of service depots across the country.

* A late and much lamented, very eccentric friend liked to go “camping” with his nimble and somewhat modified Aeronca Champ, a high-wing taildragger in the proud tradition of the Piper Cub, but larger. He would fly out into the countryside at low altitude, pick out a pleasant-looking spot – a country road, a meadow, a ridgetop – and land there. He would then conceal his Champ, which was painted a dull grey (or perhaps that was just the color it had turned over the years), and spend the night sheltering under the wing, eating whatever he’d brought with him and reading by flashlight. (His rudimentary airplane lacked an electrical system, and I had helped him rig up an external battery for his handheld VHF radio, which he would take home for recharging between flights.) If he was feeling too lazy to pack a picnic he would seek out a nice spot close to a truck stop on the Interstate and thus gain access to the truck stop’s café and rest rooms. He loved to point out that he could find clean air, tall grass, peace and quiet a short walk from a freeway that was at times jammed bumper-to-bumper with vehicles. If he felt the need for fuel he would buy some at the truck stop, having brought along a jerrycan for the purpose. When he wanted to move on he would push his machine out of its hiding place, swing the propeller of its sixty-five-horsepower engine to get it started, leap in and take off before anybody was the wiser. His arrival would not have been noticed because he would glide in with the engine barely ticking over, so his departure would come as a complete surprise to whoever was in the neighborhood. This is not a solution for Everyman – Ed could get away with it because of his intimate familiarity with his very low wing loading, balloon-tired airplane and because of the flying skill he had accumulated over decades – but it does point up the possibility of operating a nominally very noisy aircraft in places that are generally thought to be too densely populated for such an activity.

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