A Financial Conundrum

The last time I checked, the highest rated sovereign debt instruments of Germany, Austria, Finland, France, Belgium and the Netherlands are selling at negative interest rates. Talk about capital risk! Buyers are assured of a loss even compared to stuffing their cash in a mattress. And these buyers include some large funds run by experienced investment managers.

So why are they doing that? Is there something going on in the EU that investors should worry about? It is true that Swiss banks also pay negative interest rates, but at least they might offer the “advantage” of being able to hide money from tax collectors.


Safer Air Travel: A Modest Proposal

Recently our modern autos are getting really smart, if one can say a computer is smart. Some have features that take over if they detect unsafe operation. Take mine for example. It has a system that keeps track of whether safety envelopes are being exceeded during a turn and intercedes with throttle control and differential braking. In other words it tries to prevent me from driving so fast or recklessly that I drive off the road during a turn. Other cars have systems and sensors that completely prevent head-on collisions or backing into traffic.

Which gets me to my question. Why can’t commercial aircraft have similar systems that would prevent the kind of disaster we just saw in the downed Lufthansa flight? In effect, it should be impossible just to fly a plane into the ground.

maneuversetIn fact, modern commercial aircraft already have the necessary system in place. It is called the Flight Envelope Protection System. But it has two flaws, although both are easily remedied. First, it only works while the plane is under automated control — not the same thing as automated pilot, by the way. However that actually is the normal case. Going full manual is very hazardous and almost impossible on some planes. Few pilots can do it and probably it should only be allowed under very restricted circumstances. The second flaw seems a bit odd to me. The system can protect against airframe and plot limitations (g-forces), aerodynamic limitations (stall and spin), and terrain threats. For some reason that final capability is not presently employed. A flight envelope is now allowed to intersect the current terrain as long as other parameters are within limits, such as speed, angle of attack, descent angle, etc. This is crazy and should be fixed now!

An argument against this type of automation is that we need to give pilots full freedom to exercise their expertise. But this misunderstands reality. As many recent events have shown, pilots often no longer know how to fly their complex machines without automation. There are even efforts afoot to resume the kind of hands-on unassisted training that was once standard. A recent crash that occurred because the airport’s landing assist system was offline is evidence of this reality. The pilots simply didn’t know how to land unassisted. Aircraft systems will undoubtedly get even more complex over time. Enshrining the old “seat of the pants” methods is fruitless and dangerous.

Undocumented or Illegal?

notillegalI was listening to a discussion on immigration policy. Panelists included a college president, a priest, an immigration advocate, and one or two others. All of them at one time or another stressed the fact that being undocumented is a civil offense, not a criminal one. Thus, they argued that calling them criminals is wrong and unfairly maligns them. Perhaps you have heard this too? This is a partial truth and their conclusion is almost certainly wrong — and they undoubtedly know it.

Many of the estimated 11 million undocumented entered legally but then simply overstayed their visas. By some estimates this comprises up to 40% of the total. This failure to follow proper immigration procedures is a civil offense, subject to a small fine. But for the majority who evaded normal entry procedures, they have violated U.S. Code 1325: Improper entry by an alien. This is a criminal offense punishable by a fine and possible jail sentence of up to 6 months for a first offense. These immigrants are criminals.

Even for those who entered legally, many break other criminal laws simply to survive. These include:

  • Impersonation of a U.S. citizen to gain employment or benefits.
  • Driving without a license or insurance.
  • False statements to law enforcement officers.
  • Social Security fraud.
  • Failure to register for Selective Service.
  • Identity fraud
  • …and many others

You might hear the disclaimer that people are innocent until proven guilty, so one shouldn’t call them criminals before then. That is nonsense. Black’s Law Dictionary identifies a criminal as anyone who has been convicted of a crime or anyone who has performed a criminal offense. Not getting caught doesn’t alter the situation.

The bottom line is that attempting to whitewash the undocumented is fruitless and undermines the other reasonable arguments for humanely resolving their status.

Airline Safety: An Oxymoron?

Recent events, particularly the Lufthansa and Malaysia Airlines disasters, raise an unsettling question. Is air travel as safe as authorities and airline companies would have us believe?

NuttyPilotPost 9/11 we installed sturdy doors that protect the pilots from dangerous passengers. But what protects the passengers against dangerous pilots? Safe behind those doors, deranged pilots are free to do as they choose.

One would hope that airlines take extreme precautions in selecting and monitoring their pilots so that this is not a concern. But now we have to wonder. As it happens, the mental health of pilots is verified essentially on an honor system. They are tested by professionals only during the hiring process. Thereafter they are expected to report any problems they are having, a strange notion since nut cases are hardly reliable witnesses to their mental state. Still, surely incidents like the Lufthansa case must be very unusual, don’t you think?

Well, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that about one in four adults in our society experiences a serious mental illness in a given year. We are not talking about inability to sleep, etc. These are the biggies like bipolar disorder, PTSD, panic disorder, and major depression. Even for U.S. carriers that enforce a two-man cockpit rule, this implies that the chance that both pilots holding our lives in their hands are wacko might be as high as 6%. Actually, that overstates the risk for two reasons. First, a disturbed pilot might in fact follow his duty and report his incapacity. And second, the two pilots’ derangements might not coincide. Nevertheless we are left with a non-negligible risk far higher than anyone acknowledges.

Also, the latest incident uncovered a related concern. For all carriers, including our own, suffering from depression doesn’t disqualify a pilot from flight status as long as he is taking medications that adequately control his condition. I think I see how this rule arose in these politically correct times, but I read too many stories of people off their meds to be comfortable with this. How about you?


Special Interest Politics

SpecialInterestsYears ago in another political season, Jeb Bush was asked in a news conference what he would do for black Floridians. He paused and then answered succinctly, “Not much.”

There was instant furor amongst the news blatherers, but they totally missed his point. Policies should be directed toward helping the whole of America. Once you start to slice and dice efforts, with this program directed at one special group and that one at another, you get a hodgepodge that helps few and squanders resources mercilessly.

We have entirely too much payola in which politicians curry favor by bribing one group or another. Policies should be evaluated by how well they promote the general welfare. Some that target special populations will survive that test, others won’t. But many politicians across the political spectrum have built careers as purveyors of largess to favored constituencies. It’s despicable, and as H.L. Mencken was want to remark, they probably should be hanged from the nearest tree.

Measles Builds Character?

Anti-VaccinationThe measles epidemic is exposing a strange situation. At least it seems strange to me. As a scientist, I am repelled by the uninformed attitudes toward science that characterize many on the far right. They tend to believe crazy things and disbelieve well-authenticated facts. So I assumed that this completely unnecessary health threat, largely attributable to parents refusing to vaccinate their children, must be another egregious example of conservative stupidity.

Boy, was I wrong! It turns out I had this entirely backwards. The leading group of anti-vaccinators turns out to be liberal, well-educated, and well-to-do. This is driving the medical establishment nuts. Here is a disease that we know how to control and had almost entirely eradicated, but so-called thinking people are endangering everyone by their ill-informed decisions.

This all started with a paper by British biochemist Paul Shattock who made a wild extrapolation from a handful of observations related to autism. The paper has since been withdrawn and even the author now says that all he wanted was to stimulate further research to see if a link was real. The hypothesized link between increased use of vaccination and prevalence of autism has no scientific basis at all. The logic of this link could as easily associated the rise of the internet with autism.

Our Changing Society

RTX5CGJ-1024x695We know from various statistics that the U.S. population is changing — rapidly. This picture tells the tale. It show President Obama addressing students at Dartmouth College. This is an Ivy League school generally catering to the elite. This is not a selected group. Look at the faces. When I was at college, many years ago at another elite school, essentially every face was white and it seemed unremarkable to me. I have read that within 40-50 years nearly two-thirds of American children will be non-white.

How do you imagine this will change us? For example, do you think that the current effective separation of the races will continue but with whites being the ones in enclaves? Or will this finally, at long last break down and we truly become an integrated nation? I’m an optimist, so I hope this comes about while I live to enjoy it.