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Friday, March 12, 2021

Man Dreams and Science Provides


Greetings Blog Readers and Other Confused Lost Souls.

Amazing news has crossed our desk in regards to three topics this blog claims to cover. As usual, we are about two months behind the curve. It’s our obvious hope that you have been living in a cave,  unwilling to formulate an opinion until you have heard from us. That’s our target demographic. Our topics for this post are Flying Cars, Brain Damaged Fascists and New Dubious Methods Wall Street Has Devised To Make Your Money Melt Away. That makes our target demographic leftist hermits with a thing for tech. That explains our readership statistics in a nutshell.

My arm is currently swelling with a toxin I voluntarily allowed the infusion of. Said gunk is supposed to spare my skanky self from the plague we have been experiencing lo these many months. If it seems like a year ago that we were all consigned to lives of remote existence, it is only because it was. I and everyone who has had this shot may count ourselves amongst the world’s elite. Hopefully there will be more of us elitists in the coming days. The way mass production works is that things wedge in. As of this moment, the availability of the gift is limited to people near first-world distribution points on a scattershot basis. I was administered my dose in a Walgreens rather distant from my house while another person received a dose from the Walgreens close to my house even though he resides far away. In a week or two this stuff will be everywhere and the only people not receiving it will be those inclined to decline it regardless of availability. In the meantime, the willing play musical Walgreens. I know of a family of three who got theirs administered in three different places. Such is the randomness of the slating.

We are profoundly lucky. More than half a million of my countrymen did not make it to this point. And the body count still has a way to go. It may take some time to get things normal again. Without Trump in charge, it will take less time. As hope dawns, so does my desire to talk about something else.

Man dreams and science provides. This has been the story of the modern world. It has only occasionally been interrupted by outbreaks of calamity and need. If it wasn’t for WWII, we would have had television and photo offset printing as real industries ten years earlier than when they appeared. It’s a minor casualty, but who knows what this plague has delayed and by how long. I fear a wave of mass automation in the restaurant industry may be in the offing. People are starting to talk about life after this, to throw their nets widely. Our pal the Flying Car has made two recent sightings. To remind people what a Flying Car is, we will reaffirm our criteria in short form:

Definition of a Flying Car

In order to qualify as a 'Flying Car' a vehicle must encompass the following three concepts. 

1. Vehicle must be able to take off and land without a runway or dedicated external support facility of any kind.

2. Vehicle must be capable of conventional garaging.

3. The operation of a Flying Car may be no more complex than that of other conventional consumer commuter vehicles.

Hil-Gle has decided to take the lead in defining the flying car, mostly because no one else will. Even the manufacturers seem a little iffy on the concept. We use the term manufacturer with some hesitation. It’s not that no one has ever built one, but rather that they have been hand-crafted pieces even when offered for sale to the masses. There have been two makes and models of vehicles sold as flying cars thus far. Total production for both has been under 100 and there are no currently available examples for sale new. Not in decades. If any are still intact, they exist as curiosities exhibited at museums and air shows. In short, they did not do well. They did not revolutionize personal transportation. They were not breakthroughs to be emulated. They were just bad planes. Which brings us to the Terrafugia Transition.

We first reported on the Terrafugia April 21, 2012. Nine years later the same plane has changed names from the Terrafugia to the Terrafugia Transition, signifying that there is another model on its way out and that Terrafugia would now be the marquee (or make) of the aircraft and the un-trademark-able Transition would be the badge (or model). Other progress included:

Kevin Colburn, general manager of Terrafugia, said the company was “excited” to obtain the FAA certificate. He added that the group improved the Transition’s quality system, completed the critical design aspects, and built the vehicle. Terrafugia also delivered 150 technical documents to pass the FAA audit. “This is a major accomplishment that builds momentum in executing our mission to deliver the world’s first practical flying car,” he said.

The Transition, in airplane mode, will now be for sale for pilots and flight schools, but the driving side of its persona won’t be completed for another year. Colburn said the goal was to have the complete version legal in both the sky and on the roads in 2022.

That was in January. In February the company fired 100 or so of its workers (almost everyone) and said it was relocating operations to China. Its website never functioned that well and is currently in a state of dysfunction. So, don’t hold your breath. From what I can see they produced all of two actual Transition planes and had plans for a radical redesign, which they hoped to fund by selling you a copy of the plane they decided needed to be radically redesigned.

One wonders what they were doing for nine years. I fear the story covers all of our Flying Cars, Brain Damaged Fascists and New Dubious Methods Wall Street Has Devised To Make Your Money Melt Away topics in one elephant shaped car like thing scoop. Before I break bad on this cluster of MIT dreamers, a little time should be spent lauding the progress they did make.

The Terrafugia “Only Model We Actually Made” Transition is much more of an innovation than other flying cars have been. It didn’t use aviation fuel. You could get away with mere racing gas or high test. The difference in kerosene-like explosive properties is the one between merely having an insurance rider on your home and making whatever dwelling is adjacent to the plane’s garage uninsurable. There are lots of reasons planes are kept at airports and one of them is the properties of their fuel.

Second, its entirely possible to put the plane in a garage without dismantling it or leaving some important system lying back at the airport. The previously most successful Flying Car left its wings at the airport. And the Transition does transition from plane to car without undo overt mechanical manipulation. While the wings and tail don’t flower out and retract back, what configuring it does require is no worse than the set up of your standard sail catamaran. Thirty to ninety minutes of monkeying with the thing and you’re set to go.

Finally, they were working on making it a little more user friendly to actually fly. How is a bit of a mystery, but according to the now defunct website, you only needed a Sport Pilot’s license to operate the Transition. I don’t know where this falls in the spectrum of single engine prop certifications, however they were making a big deal out of it.

(Up With People People May Now Stop Reading. I am about to crack on them mightily.) Part of the problem with the Terrafugia was in how the vehicle appeared and what the manufacturer omitted in his pitch. What the prospective buyer saw when the plane was in the air was a two-seater with no cargo room and a 400 mile range. They highlight the 100 MPH airspeed, which is zippy indeed for a car but sort of Datsun 210 for a plane. Specifically, it’s sort of Piper Cub-like—a Piper Cub being a low-end two-seater single prop plane which retails for far less than the probable million all in that Terrafugia seemed destined for. (Last list price was $400k. It started at $140k.) True, the Piper Cub doesn’t come equipped with a parachute built into its frame as the Transition does, but it probably also doesn’t drop like a freaking stone when its motor shuts off. This doesn’t say anything horrible about the Transition. I’m sure the Piper Cub would drop like a stone too if its undercarriage were appended to a Mazda 6. The question was: what advantage did the Transition net over and above owning a comparable Cessna and a comparable car. At maybe three times the price.

Wait. Transition was said to have many luxury appointments. Only a leather interior is specified but it possibly also had a killer sound system. So there’s bling factor to consider—bling factor offset by a product which greatly resembles a Piper Cub being eaten by a Datsun 210. Not the thing of visions of George Jetson dancing in your head.

Finally, they made two. Two actual planes. Of a model they decided to entirely redesign between the production of Plane One and Plane Two. And they had 100 employees. To make two planes in nine years. Had I been given the parts and a salary, I could have made more than two planes in nine years. And I have problems screwing together IKEA furniture.

The Terrafugia people led a miserable existence by MIT engineering grad standards. Much of their time was spent pushing the plane from one tradeshow to the next. They had a two-fold task. Gin up free publicity and attempt to gain funding. In this, they were largely successful. But even P.T. Barnum can’t tour the same act for nearly a decade without the novelty wearing thin. They never got to the point where they could actually sell one to someone with money to buy one. Announcements about dates to make appointments to potentially buy a Transition came and went four times. And from what I can read, the FAA and other authorities granted them every exemption possible largely out of pity for the nearly decade old start-up. Money flowed into the thing in several batches, called tranches, each successive one having more onerous strings attached. The first investors are burning mad money and are willing to take a flyer on anything. Everyone after that is in the loan for a piece of the company game. Then you get to the final tranche, the people who know you are out of money and credit. They offer to bail you out at essentially the cost of all other investors. Heads, they get an outsized chunk of the venture, Tails they get all of it. Enter the Chinese.

In this case the Chinese are here in their guise as Volvo. It seems the Chinese bought Volvo through one of their special not really private enterprise funds and used Volvo to bail out Terrafugia. The idea is to net the R&D value of Terrafugia for a fraction of its cash pay in. You pony up enough for them to keep the lights on and then you wait. Either you wind up owning 49% of it as a going firm or you get all of it. In either case, it’s secrets are yours. It’s not a bad way to spirit off technology and the practice is neither new nor illegal. GM and GE and any number of amalgamations do it all the time. (It’s how GE bought and saved Xerox.) That said, GM is not a mass murdering totalitarian criminal enterprise out to rule the world.

If there is a bright side to this, I think the Chinese got rooked. This is not to say that the Terrafugia people are scam artist. I see no evidence of that. Rather they are what they seem to be: the kind of guys who build two planes and then scrap the idea for something better and hope the cash will keep coming. Sadly, even communists have a creeping belief in money at least as a capacitor of a nation’s potential energy, as a store of the worker’s efforts. There’s somebody in a rice paddy somewhere making all of this crap possible. The cold hard math of Terrafugia had to bubble up, even to designated techno privateers: 100 employees + 9 years = 2 planes. It took them two years, but the Chinese did finally pull the plug. If they were smart, they would cut their losses and just leave the two damn planes behind. I doubt they’re even worth the cost of transportation.

(One of the planes had to be retired last year because it was no longer safe to fly. This means that the Red Airforce netted one plane and a parts plane with parts that may not entirely be compatible. The two existent Transitions are not identical models. One is a proof of concept and the other is the model for production.)

Did the Red Airforce gain a flying car? No. It does not meet our criteria. If it functions, Terrafugia is an overly rugged bush plane with shallow range. That defeats the purpose. The Chinese have no need for a roadable aircraft, which is what the Transition is. If the Chinese want to take off and land on their own roadways, there’s certainly no technical reason they need a special plane to do so. I fear that the Terrafugia has transitioned in custody from MIT Grads playing Aviation Moguls to Commie Apparatchiks playing Spies. Our next entrant shows far more promise in becoming something akin to a flying car.

Billed as the “world’s first flying electric racing car,” the Mk3 is a full-sized, remotely operated eVTOL that’s reportedly capable of reaching speeds of up to 75 mph (120 km/h). It takes design cues from the classic F1 machines and features a svelte carbon-fiber frame and fuselage that’s light as a feather. In fact, the racer tips the scales at just 200 pounds (100KG) unmanned.

I want to avoid using the words FLYING COFFIN here. Mk3 is a roto drone, like the ones that are making aerial photography commonplace even in student film projects. It’s scaled up to roughly coffin size so that a prospective nitwit can sit in it. But that person is no more a pilot—or racer—than the monkeys on the Gemini rocket tests. These upscaled pizza delivery drones are ladled with programs which keep them from running into each other, keep them from violating God’s Laws of physics and keep them in relative formation. Any race involving such machines has all the real autonomy of marching band practice or slot car racing. It’s largely a spectacle and not a competition.

That aside, I think this is where the flying car concept is headed. No authority in its right mind is going to allow me to take my eleven minutes worth of flight time electric man zipper wherever I want. Doing such would place me in your powerlines and trees faster than it took me to unbox the thing. And that’s assuming constantly level flight magically happens and I immediately get the feel for the up/down, right/left and thrust controls. No matter how affordable you make the vehicle, you cannot graft fundamental concepts of three-dimensional movement into a critter that walks. Pilot is a graduated and stratified certification for a reason. In order for the Flying Car to work on any real level it needs some aggressive baby buggy bumpers.

It would be a largely auto pilot affair. The thing flies from its central charging station to that little granite pad you have on your lawn and waits. You kiss your wife, kiss your mistress, kiss the kids and then go out to the lawn where its majestic gull-wing doors lift at your chipper approach. After you plop your butt down and switch the station from Classical to Smooth Jazz, you hit the button for your destination. The gull wing doors fold down, sealing you in. The smell of honeydew melon fills the cabin, disguising the aerosol sedative which has just been administered. It heads up and then off to an imaginary preset avenue at a preset altitude and then whisks you into a line of other flying cars, all at preset spacing. You arrive shortly at Hedge Fund Control, your flying car circling with other flying cars as the flying car on the roof pad is unloaded. Eventually it is your turn to disembark. Once you are out of decapitation range, your craft seals and wings off on its mission to be recharged and fumigated. At about 5:15, after all of the presidents and directors have left but before the comptroller, you take the reverse flight home. It’s so commonplace you don’t think about it, you overstuffed pampered parasite.

I am not at all discounting the occasional rich guy who sat through 1000 hours of flight training being allowed to fly his flying car into my trees and powerlines. That happens with planes now. (Just last week I spotted a guy in one of those go-carts with wings buzzing over my house.) I fear the irresponsible rich will always be with us. And it is with only limited sadness that I consign the flying car to a fate as low end helicopter service for an emerging caste of low end helicopter slightly more responsible rich people. Before then I am sure we will see the flying car in use with the police or paramedics. So you may get to fly in one eventually, if you are supremely unfortunate. What I am sure of is that the first group of MIT grads who comes up with a model and a systematic approach to the flying car will have his or her (his) choice of SPACs to mate with.

What the heck is a SPAC? It’s a “Special Purpose Acquisition Company.” They are publicly-listed companies, but otherwise have no operations. They’re not making anything, selling anything or earning anything. They’re just a blank check. You might call a SPAC a host. They exist solely to find a mate—in this case, a private company, one with actual operations, that will reverse-merge with the blank check SPAC and, together, will flower into a publicly listed stock.

I want to be generous here. The generosity of my government and its capitalistic system has provided me with a shot that will keep me from dying in this plague. For that I am profoundly grateful. Nor is it the place for someone with a mind and perspective as profoundly small and narrow as mine to question the mechanisms by which my utopia has been delivered. It should be said that General Motors was not much more than a SPAC when it started. All you got for your GM stock originally was Flying Bill’s promise that he would buy companies in the automotive business and he would keep buying them until he ran out of people to buy his stock. And he wasn’t the only one. United Motors ran the exact same scheme. Together GM and United* founded two of the Big Three automakers. And they all lived happily ever after until they went broke 80 years later.

That said, GM and United at least gave you an idea of what they were buying. All the SPAC people have are condor logos and theme songs. The dream is that you are getting in on the floor of the NEXT BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY. No one says the word CONGLOMERATION or cites the NEXT ITT or the NEXT ENRON, because those are not great examples and would screw up the whole swooping condor with music animation. Nor is the slogan GIVE US MONEY TO BUY SOMETHING seem all that superlative in all of its accuracy. Not even when appended to a prefixed tag line along the lines of WE’RE REALLY SMART.

If I were a betting man, I would bet that the world of SPAC has many circles all surrounding just a few key players—many SPACs being offered by just a few parties with most SPACs eventually sharing the same salesmen and guides. And that many SPACs will one day merge with other SPACs just to keep the lights on. As opposed to Flying Cars, you will find your SPAC filled with the dregs of the always bloated commercial real estate world floating in a thick broth of HELOC** and secondary mobile home mortgages. Plus dead shopping malls redeveloped into dead office towers redeveloped into condos redeveloped into section eight housing, SPAC by bloody SPAC.  If it is any consolation, you will be providing a damn fine living to a very few undeserving and untalented white men. Who will have to go back to the OTC market where they belong once the SPAC thing has played its dismal self out.  Or are you unable to think that way?

The study’s lead author, Leor Zmigrod, told the Guardian that the variance was likely due to the black-and-white nature of how these individuals saw the world, making elaborate thought processes that much more difficult to execute. “Individuals or brains that struggle to process and plan complex action sequences may be more drawn to extreme ideologies, or authoritarian ideologies that simplify the world,” she said.

At HIL-GLE we hold these truths to be self-evident: People who promise you nothing deliver exactly that. While investing in ETFs and stocks and number 15 at Churchill Downs can all be dubious surrenders of your autonomy, it beats throwing money at beggars. Yeah, they’ll buy something. People willing to accept condor logos and parades as substitutions for complex explanations are the life’s blood of everything evil and wrong in the world.

(*) United went on to become Maxwell which went on to become Chrysler. It should be said that none of the other companies involved in the automotive sector were stock market animals. And I am not sure that the stock market was much of a boon to the industry at all.

(**) HELOC: Home equity line of credit or construction lines of credit loans.

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