Saturday, December 17, 2016

When Will We Learn...?

We used Executive Orders to subvert the legislative process, and now we're worried we'll use Executive Orders to subvert the legislative process.

We said it was "OK" to have all this surveillance, because we trusted those in charge of the information. Now we're worried about all this surveillance because those in charge of the information.

We quashed the fillibuster with the "nuclear option" to grunt through legislation, and now we're worried we'll quash the fillibuster with the "nuclear option" to grunt through legislation.

We pushed through legislation without any bipartisan support, and now we're worried that we'll push through legislation without any bipartisan support.

And now, we are encouraging "Faithless Electors" to over-ride the results of a Presidential election.

When will we ever learn...?

Thursday, December 15, 2016

On the VW TDI "Scandal"...



By now you are well aware of the Volkswagen “TDI Scandal”: In September 2015 VW got caught by a West Virginia University lab[1] cheating on its emissions testing procedures for 2009 – 2015 VW 2.0L TDI-equipped cars. Simply put, the EPA accused VW of putting code in its ECU to recognize that the car was being officially tested by the EPA and adjust the engine appropriately to pass the tests[2]. However, when the car was being driven normally by the consumer, the ECU code would revert to different emissions levels to improve drivability and fuel economy.[3] The result was increased emissions of NOx, claimed by the EPA to be “of 10 to 40 times above EPA compliant levels”.

VW could have addressed this by the addition of “selective catalytic reduction”, or SCR, which involves injecting urea into the exhaust; this is what they did on 2016 and later models. However, doing so affects the packaging of the components (tank, heater, mixer) in the smaller vehicle and around the suspension components and that, of course, costs extra money and intrudes into interior space. Instead, in the mid-2000s VW worked on an alternative called “lean NOx trap” or LNT, which uses a catalyst to absorb and store NOx so it doesn’t escape into the atmosphere[4]. It costs less and uses less space, but the downside is reduced fuel economy. VW apparently didn’t initially get it right and delayed delivery of TDI  cars through the summer of 2008. But VW finally announced that they figured it out and the 2009 cars were eventually released. Now we know how they did it.

One can debate the final source of that decision – VW managers are pointing fingers at “rogue engineers” and vice versa – but ultimately that die was cast, placing Volkswagen in its current situation.

This past September a resolution was agreed to in Federal court: an estimated $14.7 billion in buybacks, repairs, fines, and punitive damages. Volkswagen has agreed to either buy back or repair all affected VW TDIs; buybacks will be at the wholesale value as of immediately prior to the public release of the  find (values of TDIs plummeted on the news) plus $5100.[5] As of yet there is no approved “fix” for the emissions issue but if one is found and the owner chooses that option, they will receive a $5100 “we’re sorry” check.

While no one is debating whether VW cheated the tests – they clearly did – missing in the discussion is discussion of the regulatory limits to which they’re tested: are these limits reasonable to begin with? I've yet to find any supporting evidence that the 2009 and later Environmental Protection Agency regulations for which VW did an end-run are actually effective in, well, protecting the environment. These same cars meet the emissions regs in other parts of the world; EU regs, for example, are much more focused on big-picture environmental goals. Their standards push fuel efficiency and limit CO2 emissions; in the USA it's all about acid rain (NOx), smog, and health impacts, which hurts fuel efficiency.[6] VW’s cheat “resolved” the NOx problem.

As Eric Peters wrote in his blog last June:
It is not enough that the “affected” VW cars would have easily met all the standards in place circa five years ago – standards that were already extremely strict. Most people are not aware of the fact that since the 1990s, harmful exhaust emissions have been reduced to almost nothing; that for the past ten years at least, EPA has been chasing fractions of the remaining 3 or so percent of what comes out of a new car’s tailpipe that’s potentially an issue, air-quality or health-wise.
At some point – and we’ve arguably passed it – we’ll either have to accept that internal combustion will never be 100 percent ‘clean’ but that 97.5 percent’“clean’ is clean enough – or internal combustion will have to be outlawed.[7]

Are our laws tainted with political bias with the implied intent to limit diesels (and other internal-combustion engines) in the passenger market? That theory is supported further by secondary requirement of the Federally-approved VW resolution: as part of the decree, VW is mandated to "direct $2 billion of investments over a period of up to 10 years into actions that will support increased use of zero emission vehicle (“ZEV”) technology in the United States, including, but not limited to, the development, construction, and maintenance of zero emission vehicle-related infrastructure."[8]

So, in effect, as part of VW’s penance, the Feds are mandating that (one of?) the largest automakers in the world "invest" billions of dollars into EV technology. Any guess how that's gonna work out for all the others that have to compete against this worldwide automotive Goliath? Expect Volkswagen to tout its new religion of “clean electric technology” at a dealership near you.

Another environmental concern with the Federal decree is disposition of the bought-back vehicles. Obviously, these vehicles cannot be re-sold until they are fixed, assuming a fix is ever found (I don’t expect VW can fix these engines to the Feds’ and CARB’s satisfaction in a reasonably economical manner without significantly hurting performance, economy, and interior space. And even if it happens the “fix” will be expensive and may not even resolve the issue.[9]) More troubling, the Feds will not even allow VW to export ‘un-fixed’ cars to a market where they do meet the emissions regulations! I find that ridiculous, given how clean these engines actually are; why not force VW to do a “Cash for Clunkers” swap in Delhi or Mexico City where old-vehicle-diesel pollution is killing people, and in the process improve air quality in both locations?[10] I‘d not be surprised if those vehicles actually cleaned the air as they drove around!

Instead, these ‘un-fixed’ returned vehicles are going to be scrapped; well, per the decree, “rendered inoperable by removing the vehicle’s Engine Control Unit (“ECU”) and may be, to the extent possible, recycled to the extent permitted by law.” At least they moved away from the proposed decree’s requirement of punching a 3” hole in the side of the engine blocks and bisecting the frames in at least two locations…but consider the environmental damage of these buyback/salvage cars: the environmental costs of delivery to dealership, from dealerships to staging areas, drainage and storage of fluids, crushing, sorting, recycling, and landfills. And then there’s the environmental cost of producing all the new replacement cars; it’s been said that the buyback might be environmentally worse than the crime.[11] Can’t we just leave the cars on the road to live a normal life cycle and plant a bunch of trees instead (and maybe give Al Gore a Tiguan)…? In aggregate, if it's worse for society than just letting them be then why are we doing that?

Why indeed: revenge? Vengeance? $14.7B for ‘crimes against the environment’ (compare that to fines given to Takata (airbags), Toyota (accusations of unintended acceleration), and GM (key/ignition failures), things that actually killed people). You can (and should) crush VW's lawlessness – and send a message to the industry – through forcing compliance and significant fines. But if you crush vehicles and thus overall societal and environmental value in the process you have failed in the overall endeavor. I don't think that’s supposed to be the intent, but don’t I expect our "leadership" to take that into consideration.

So what now? Well, I suggest VW will eventually make situation this whole for the majority of affected TDI owners. In December 2015 VW offered a $1000 TDI Goodwill Program ($500 VISA gift card, $500 VW dealership credit, 3 years roadside coverage). It has agreed to buy back all affected vehicles at reasonable trade-in prices plus a $5100 “we’re sorry” check. Go to vwdieselinfo.com and vwcourtsettlement.com to learn more. Alternatively, owners can wait for a fix to be developed at which point the car could be fixed and the owner will receive that $5100 compensation. Note that owners have until September 1, 2018 to make a decision.

As an owner of one of the affected vehicles – a 2010 Jetta TDI Sportwagen – my initial reaction upon learning of this was “whoa!” As a racer constantly looking for rules loopholes,I followed that up with a “hah, that’s clever!” As a citizen, I’m more concerned about the reality of these emissions regulations and environmental effects. In the end, it seems to me that these regulations, and the subsequent decree, are designed for a singular purpose: to get the oil-burners off the road and replace them with electric vehicles. As a diesel fan (I also have a Ford Excursion diesel), I am upset that Volkswagen pulled this end-run and has, in a lot of ways, walked right into a trap set for passenger car diesel specifically and internal combustion engines as a whole. Volkswagen has announced they will no longer sell diesel-powered vehicles in the United States and with limited exceptions other manufacturers have clearly decided this is not the market for their diesel options. This is unfortunate.

For our part, we are in no hurry to turn in our car. We enjoy the vehicle, it continues to serve us well (just did a 3500-mile roundtrip to visit family, swallowed everything we needed plus a large dog in a crate). Further, given VW’s agreement, as long as we do not put more than 1,042 miles per month on average on the car, the buyback offer will not decrease (and if we do, it’s at about $35/5000 miles) so it’s fully depreciated. Also, as long as the vehicle is “operable under its own 2L TDI power” it is eligible for buyback, so even if the vehicle is totaled by the insurance company but still drivable, we can get our full VW compensation (so maybe we save some money by dropping collision insurance?) Emissions are covered under extended warranty as are some key high-failure items (e.g., exhaust flap, high pressure fuel pump, others). Finally, this older vehicle is cheaper to insure and property taxes are significantly lower.

I suppose we could always decide to do nothing; after all, no one is going to come to our home and confiscate our car (right…?) However, it remains to be seen how states will handle emissions testing  and registration on affected vehicles (a table of all affected VINs has been provided by VW and released by the courts, so it’s possible that states with emissions testing may choose to not re-register TDIs unless provided proof of repair). Maybe there will be a burgeoning TDI market in Montana?

Finally, another part of the Federal decree is that VW must either repair or buyback 85% of the affected vehicles or it will face a fine of $85M per 1% of the fleet it misses, or about $17,500 per vehicle. I’m guessing at that point they’ll be “highly motivated” to cut some deals on new cars…you just never know.

So, overall, it just makes rational sense to continue driving it until September 2018. There's truly no downside other than you don't get to buy a new car. Maybe a “fix” will come, maybe it won’t. And if it doesn’t we’ll surrender the car back to Volkswagen in 2018 for a big check, and look into replacing it with one of their fuel-efficient turbo gasser wagons (it is highly unlikely to get replaced with an electric vehicle). Or, maybe we’ll pocket the check and I give my wife the GTI while I daily-drive my V8-diesel-powered Ford Excursion...how's that for unintended consequences/perverse incentives...?

One of the most important lessons I learned in B-school was not about spreadsheets or numbers, or forecasts or financial documents, it was that “corporate culture comes from the top”. We had many a conversation about failures of companies that resulted from the corporate culture that the leadership created, either intentionally or accidentally. Values and mission statements hung on the wall are nice, and look great in company documents, but how you live them day-to-day has a much greater affect. History will decide who/what/when this all came about; expect a movie starring Matt Damon soon.

I sure hope that works out for the rest of us.


[1] http://www.npr.org/2015/09/24/443053672/how-a-little-lab-in-west-virginia-caught-volkswagens-big-cheat
[2] https://www.epa.gov/vw
[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/19/business/volkswagen-is-ordered-to-recall-nearly-500000-vehicles-over-emissions-software.html
[4] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/tech/volkswagen-diesel-emissions/
[5] https://www.vwdieselinfo.com/
[6] http://voxeu.org/article/diffusion-european-diesel-automobiles
[7] http://ericpetersautos.com/2016/06/21/measuring-cost-vw-cheating-scandal-far/
[8] http://www.cand.uscourts.gov/filelibrary/1776/Partial-Consent-Decree.pdf
[9] http://blog.caranddriver.com/vws-tdi-solution-could-cost-10-billion-and-not-fix-the-problem/
[10] http://www.accessmagazine.org/articles/spring-2011/cash-clunkers-environmental-impact-mexicos-demand-used-vehicles/
[11] http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2016/04/volkswagens-buyback-might-worse-environmentally-crime/

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Recollections of Something I Used To Be Able To Do Well...

...before Facebook...and going back to motorsports...
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------



6/14/02
 
I ended up flying home today. At noon when I left the customer's site, the forecast for BDR mid-afternoon was still for 800 feet, but BDR was reporting 1000. I looked at the reports for the last few hours and it was fairly consistent. I could see that some rain was working its way in from the southwest, but the stations under it were reporting 800-1000. I elected to go.

I started from ALB with full tanks, and was in between layers until around abeam BDL. Then the clouds and rain started. Odd stuff, as BDL was 1500 or better; the wx seemed isolated to the coastline and Long Island.

I called BDR FSS and re-checked the ATIS. The BDR ATIS was still calling 600 broken, 1000 overcast as I started to get vectors for the ILS. Right about then the rain started in earnest; I got into some Level 2 rain during the vector, and the controller thought he saw some Level 3; I asked to be vectored around that. In the end he lost the Level 3 and sent me around to STANE.

Right about then my VSI and altimeter started bouncing up and down; I guessed the static ports were getting blocked and unblocked by rain. I hit the alternate static and kept going. (I think I left it on...gotta  check it this weekend.)

The vector to the inbound course (2000 feet) was in full IMC, and he cleared me for the approach. I captured the localizer and engaged the autopilot, then caught the glideslope no prob. Still IMC. As I dropped under 800 feet I was still in the clouds and I mentally prepped for a miss.

I was flying the ILS, but I had the GPS loaded with the RNAV06 approach (same approach points, nice visual backup). Right before STANE the GPS called off my RNAV 06 approach due to lack of RAIM at STANE (I wonder if the rain was blocking the signal?) Unfortunately, I was counting on that box for my missed approach info, so I had to quickly dial in the BDR VOR on the stand-by freq (single VOR) and dialed in the miss radial (I know, shoulda had it there before...)

The rain got harder (and noisier) and I dropped through 500 feet in the clouds. I was planning the miss.

Right as I hit 400 feet I saw side glances of some "jaggies" under the airplane and right then I dropped out of the clouds and caught sight of RWY 06 (sure would be nice to have a rabbit there). The winds were 110 at 15, so I had a nice right crosswind; the tower wanted me to circle to RWY11 (circling minimums being 400-something feet) I told him to pound sand and I landed RWY 06; skidded a tad bit on the wet pavement from not enough aileron.

There was a nice driving rain going on at the field, and when I turned off and called him I got no response. I tried again several times, then tried Ground and Clearance. Just when I was about to taxi off on my own (3-4 minutes later) he popped on the freq and said someone was working on the radios and had turned off one his receivers!

ANYWAY, I taxied to the North Ramp and got soaked all the way through tying down the airplane and putting my luggage in the car and covering the airplane. Even bent one of my favorite umbrellas...

All in all, a fun, successful, learning experience! Total time, door-to-door, 2.5 hours. Same trip, prior week, driving the blue S4 -- 2.5 hours. Oh well.

Thanks for the advice. Didn't know why they had changed the minimums to RWY06; seems goofy to me. If you hit a truck shooting the ILS06, you weren't where you were supposed to be anyway...
 
 GregA

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The World's Collective Experiences...

When I was a young lad in grade school - the 1970s, back when we were walking to unheated schools with no windows uphill both ways while barefoot - and I was losing important kin, I wondered if we'd ever, someday, be able to connect to people before they died and somehow plug in and download their life's history and experiences and catalog it. It might be mundane, it might be extraordinary, but collectively it would be an absolutely incredible story...right?

And yet...today we're doing just that. With the advent of the Internet and everybody pouring out their hearts on the social media sleeves, can't someone in 50 years be able to learn who their grandmother really was? What type of person your grandfather was not only as an adult, but as a schoolboy? Will you have any doubt as to what your great-grandfather did for a living?

It's a blessing. It's a curse. But now we'll know.

Friday, April 22, 2016

A Phrase It's Time To Retire

"So sorry for your loss".

Life is full of tragedies; death is but one of them. When someone we know, someone we care about has a loss, we feel compelled to say...something. We want them to know that they're in our thoughts, in our prayers, that they know we care and that we're there to support them.

A decade or more ago, we stammered for the words. In times of tragedy or loss we needed to something to say, but we didn't have those comforting words. The awkwardness increased as the Internet and social media grew, and we were more closely associated with our friends, no longer separated by distance and time. Then, slowly, a phrase was born that allowed us to express our empathy, easily.

"I'm truly sorry for your loss".

A simple phrase, but it acknowledges and empathizes with the loss, and can open a dialog where we can further discuss our shared grief.

Recently, however, this simple phrase has become a trite habit. Instead of using the phrase to open a dialog, it has become a impersonal acknowledgement of the loss, neither requiring - nor expecting - further discussion. It has become a Facebook "unlike".

Go to any social media post where someone has lost a loved one, and you'll see comment after comment after comment of nothing more than minor (or zero) variations of that same over-used phrase.

"So sorry for your loss".

Nothing else. Just that. Not "I'm truly sorry for the grief you must be feeling from the loss of your parent". No recalled memories of the loved one, no interesting anecdotes of how that person may have affected the commenter's life, no discussions or recognition of how that person's loved one affected them. Few, if any, variations whether the loss was a spouse, parent, child, sibling, or even a cat or dog.

"Sorry for your loss".

Just as simple as a click of a button, the sadly-overused phrase now appears as a checkbox, a desire just to be seen empathizing.

A decade ago this phrase was a simple and acceptable way for us to recognize a person's loss and affirm our ties with them. But with social media growing up and becoming a big part of our society, we need to grow up as well. I suggest that any time we feel compelled to post this comment in recognition of a loss, we need to stop and think about what we really mean, what we're really trying to say. And we need to do it using our own words, not by using an overused phrase.

Otherwise, just hit the "Sad" button and move on.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Sorry, Heady....It's You, Not Me...

Heady Topper...the "Unicorn of Northeast Beers". Extremely desirable IPA, extremely limited availability...

My wife and spent a weekend in VT visiting friends, and could not find the stuff even after it had been delivered to distributors less than 24 hours earlier. Quick inventory from the places we hit showed that they had received somewhere around 100 cases, yet none was left. The only place we could find any Heady Topper was a couple of $9 cans at the Burlington Marriott bar.

A quick primer for those not familiar with this beer: Heady Topper is the flagship Double IPA from Alchemist Brewery in Waterbury VT. It is a very smooth IPA, not very bitter, very fruity. Highly desirable, Heady has a following that rivals almost anything else. In order to get this beer, the brewery publishes its production schedule and distribution channels, and fans will wait in line for hours to be able to buy it by the case. In fact, the traffic got so bad at the brewery's retail outlet last year that it caused complaints from the neighbors and they were forced to stop selling at the brewery and disperse case sales to its geographically-local distribution network.

Fans - fanatics, really - watch for deliveries, even stalking Alchemist trucks to discover where they're going. There's a web site, Heady Spotter, that claims to "democratize the hunt for the most elusive beer in the country, HEADY TOPPER." It even has its own Twitter feed, #headyspotter.

So bottom line, while Thea and I were casually traveling through Vermont, casually attempting to discover some Heady Topper, we had absolutely no chance of finding any; I'm guessing all of ~100 people (and their really close friends) got to enjoy fresh Heady Topper this weekend. Big "fale".

I've had Heady Topper many times before; hell, my "retired" brother-in-law brought a can over just last week (for a direct comparo to New England Brewery's Ghandi Bot; they were comparable). Last year the bro-in-law and I even drove up to Vermont and stood in line at the brewery to get a case, just before they stopped selling at the retail store (I was unemployed at the time). It's a very good beer; in fact, it is the only India Pale Ale that my wife likes...and that's saying a lot.

-----------------------------

So we spent a few hours along the way to visit friends, and came up empty. It was pretty disappointing; I mean, while I wanted a case, we would have been satisifed coming home with a few 4-packs. We stopped at several places between Andover (where we were staying) and Burlinton (where we were meeting friends) and no one had any; hell, a couple guys actually laughed when we asked. All others just rolled their eyes ("oh, you're one of them??"). Everyone had a printed sign - not hand-written; a printed and laminated sign suitable for common re-use - hanging in the beer area, "HEADY TOPPER SOLD OUT". We used up several hours and at least a twenty-spot in fuel to come home with...a couple of beers at a hotel bar. Basically, "nothing".

On the other hand, we stopped at several good breweries and brewpubs along the way, and came home with much, much more than that, all pretty darn good stuff (Vermont is truly a beer lover's paradise). Which has to make me wonder...with all the excellent options out there, maybe Heady Topper has simply jumped the shark? As one friend noted, "...the hype and procurement process is getting extremely tiring..." Is it really worth all this hassle? If procuring this beer requires either being unemployed and/or taking a day of vacation, and you end up spending $12 for a four-pack, is it really worth all that hype? I suggest not.

Heady Topper is becoming a victim of its own success, potentially a fad that will slowly fade (as all fads eventually do). It does the brewery no long-term favors by supporting this flawed distribution model. What will they do to sell their beer, once the fad passes and the rest of us have found alternatives? In only two days in VT we found a large handful of very, very good beers to take home...and they were all available on the shelf. But absolutely no Heady Topper. How is this good?

Alchemist is building a new direct sale outlet that is supposed to open next year, so then it will be like before: show up, stand in line, get your beer. My "retired" bro-in-law says there will always be enough local folks to buy it all and the certainty of the new place will alleviate the issue. But I don't think that a "factory retail outlet" will 'fix' the problem; after all, the same problem(s) existed before but were confined to a single location, just as they are proposing to do now. The "problem" is that they are allowing a limited number of individuals to hoard their limited supply, artificially inflating demand -- and causing hype.

This was an excellent short-term strategy, one that worked great for building the initial hype. That also works for a company that does not have long-term plans to expand production capability; after all, who would not want to immediately deplete all inventory mere hours after reaching production capacity? If the Heady rage continues - and that's really the question at the root here - and they have no plans to significantly expand capacity, then they can play with the pricing (shocked they haven't already) and ensure profitability for a long time to come.

Problem is, this kind of hyped-up demand is very short term. Tastes changes, tolerances change, competition changes, and inevitably some day Heady Topper will be seen as just another one of those very good beers. The only way this company can maintain their current status is to expand production capability; under the current model, as that supply increases it will hit a wall of how many people are willing to stand in line for a case of (very expensive) beer.

They are in a very desirous and unique position, and they should be leveraging that potential for future growth; adding an outlying retail outlet only changes the geography of the problem. What they should have done when faced with this recent distribution problem is geographically increasing their distribution network to handle future increased production, while at the same time working toward increasing their market share. Instead, they are further isolating their distribution network to a discrete location and working to maintain existing, limited market share.

Assuming their goal is increased production and distribution, what *I* would have done when faced with closing the brewery's outlet was to come up with a "Heady licensed/approved" distribution model marketing schtick, continuing to ask distributors to limit the number of 4-packs per person and giving them financial incentive to do so, all while attempting to increase the geographical reach of the product. Parallel to that I'd be looking into capital investments to increase production capability, such that once production capacity is online the distribution network would already be in place.

So I sincerely wonder if they have no interest in increased production or they would just prefer to maintain their status as a geographically-limited boutique beer. There's certainly nothing wrong with that; after all, business growth is a very difficult and very painful process (look up Greiner Growth Model). But status quo leaves Alchemist vulnerable to the limited tastes - and tolerances - of its customers; taste is a fad, and fads always fade. And I'd really hate to see them get pushed aside.

Is this rant nothing more than "sour grapes"? Could be; I'm confident that had I found a case of Heady Topper to take home this past weekend, I'd not have given this much thought. I like the beer, it's very good. But how much can you enjoy a beer, given the effort it takes to get it? How much can you enjoy it when you're not sure when you'll get the next one? Should we create a Heady wine cellar and put them on the shelf for future display ("yes Lovey, that's a Heady '14 there, obtained during the late summer vintage...it was a velly good year...")?

I'll continue to enjoy the beer whenever it's available. But I'm not the only one that's finding this whole distribution model to be way past its sell-by date (see what I did there?) while finding a large number of more-easily-accessible and less-expensive beers coming up to its flavor profile. And I'm not the only one that's decided that going through all that squeeze maybe just ain't worth the juice...

Heady, we love you, but I think it's time we see other beers. Really, it's you, not e...

09Jan2015 Postscript:

Small Is Beautiful: Why Heady Topper Probably Won’t Be Coming To A Store Near You

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The 2014 Chevy Spark – Catching an Enthusiast by Surprise

So there seems to be a new trend in car rentals—well, maybe it’s an old trend, but I’m just noticing it—where the agencies snag your license and credit card and point you toward the garage telling you to “pick whatever you want” (within your rented category of car, of course). Nice spin on the “or similar” jargon when you’re signing up. And so it went when my wife Thea and I arrived at the Fort Lauderdale airport on a recent nice sunny weekend (a wonderful reprieve from this past New England winter) for a friend’s wedding and a couple of recreational days in Key West.
...

http://goaheadtakethewheel.com/the-2014-chevy-spark-catching-an-enthusiast-by-surprise/