Gongol.com Archives: September 2015

Brian Gongol

September 18, 2015

News What happens when a library goes bad?
Omaha is dealing with what appears to be a serious erosion in conditions at its downtown library. The reports suggest it's become less a place for people to read and learn in peace and more a site for society to temporarily dump off some undesirable characters. Libraries are such an essential part of culture that it's tragic to watch when they aren't able or willing to remain vibrant. Some real changes in the way libraries work, reach out to the community, and see their scope of responsibility have been foisted upon them by outside conditions. But those same conditions -- mainly technological changes -- actually make good libraries more important than ever, to serve as a free public resource to those who might not otherwise have the means to improve themselves.

Business and Finance The cab-versus-ridesharing war in Chicago escalates
The mayor wants the ride-sharing services (like Uber and Lyft) to be able to pick up passengers at the convention center and airports (which they can't officially do now). But the plan would also grant a 15% fare increase to taxi drivers. Add in a bunch of new surcharges the city wants to assess from both classes of rides-for-hire, and you're looking at a pretty combustible situation. Cab owners and drivers don't want their franchise eroded, but it's hard to see how they can keep standing forever without massive reforms to the business model. If you only make money because someone else is statutorily prohibited from competing with you, that's rent-seeking.

News EPA orders 482,000 diesel Volkswagens to be recalled
The agency says their emissions-control systems were programmed to function at full capacity only when being tested, not when actually on the road

Business and Finance What to do with a loony economy
Canada's three largest political parties just held a debate on economics. The country is in an interesting situation: It's already a well-developed, highly advanced economy, but it's also been the beneficiary of a huge resource bonanza. That's really unusual: Canada only really entered the resource boom in the last generation, as a mature economy that didn't really need the money. Other countries with similar resource endowments (Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria, among others) never developed economies independent of their resources. That puts Canada in a truly blessed state, if they're smart enough to use it well -- but it's extremely hard to do so, as that requires striking a balance between enjoying the benefits today and putting off that enjoyment by reinvesting elsewhere and/or holding off on using up the resources too quickly. That may be easier in countries like Norway, where a very specific set of conditions exist that permit a highly socialized economy to work out. Canada is not as homogenous as Scandanavia, so it's very hard to get the same kind of cultural consensus built around making long-term decisions. That's no criticism of Canada; it's just what exists.

Aviation News Another hint at the flying-car future
For $200,000, you can get an amphibious airplane that you can stash in your garage. It's a light-sport aircraft, so it's meant to be easy to operate (the training time is half that for a regular aircraft). The wings fold, so it can be mounted on a trailer the width of a regular car, and the Icon A5 has a range of 450 miles on 20 gallons of regular unleaded gas. It has landing gear, too, so you aren't just tied to landing on water. But despite the 1,500 preorders already on the books, one has to wonder whether we're really going to see personal aircraft ever take off (pardon the pun). Even 20 hours of training is too daunting an obstacle for a huge portion of the population. A betting person might wager instead on the prospects for autonomous electric-powered aircraft that could carry about half a dozen passengers. Electric, because that would make them quieter, more reliable, and less polluting than engine-driven aircraft. Autonomous, because computers are already quite capable of autopiloting every stage of flight already (so why bother training people to do it?). And sized for enough passengers (probably 6 to 10) to make it profitable for someone to own and operate the aircraft as a service to go between secondary markets that are well below the demand sizes necessary to justify regular scheduled commercial aircraft. But if people knew there were flights taking off every 60 minutes between, for instance, Des Moines and Kansas City, then a scheduled air-bus-like service could be economically attractive.