The amazing story of Apple’s chips

With the new A9 and A9X chips in its iPhones and iPads, Apple has mobile chips that are better than Intel’s. In fact Apple’s chip business is a very impressive technology story. I don’t have time to put together a full analysis, but I have collected some recent articles. figure-2

Many sources are suggesting that Apple’s current chip generation (A9 and A9X) is better than Intel’s in low-power (mobile) performance. I guess it’s not news that Intel is behind Qualcomm in mobile, but I still find it surprising that Apple’s own chips are apparently better than X86 for Macintosh low-end laptops!

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Discouraging news about benefits of weatherization programs 

Some recent analysis paid for by the Department of Energy claims that the benefits of weatherizing homes are many times larger than the cost. In contrast, a careful Randomized Controlled Trial of a specific program comes to the opposite conclusion.

Recently, we conducted a first-of-its-kind, randomized controlled trial of the nation’s largest residential energy efficiency program, the federal Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP). The trial consisted of a sample of more than 30,000 WAP-eligible households in the state of Michigan. Our research revealed that investments in residential energy efficiency upgrades among weatherized households in our study cost about double what these households will save on their energy bills (efficiency retrofits cost about $4,600 per household and estimated energy savings are only $2,400). You can read more about our results here.

Source: Are the Benefits to the Weatherization Assistance Program’s Energy Efficiency Investments Four Times the Costs? |

Sadly, my reading is with the Berkeley authors. The DOE studies seem to be grabbing all kinds of hypothetical benefits out of thin air. This does not mean that all such investments are under water, just that the average investment is not worth doing.

There are certainly ways to tighten/redesign any conservation program to make it more cost effective. But this requires an attitude of continuous investigation and improvement  – not something that government agencies are good at. Once an agency has gotten money and gone ahead with a project, its incentives are to tout its benefits much more than to improve on the original design. This comes down to Congressional (and press) oversight. Any signal that the past project might have been less than ideal will be leapt on by political opponents. In my view, this set of incentives is one reason that so many government programs are weak, and furthermore do not improve over time.

How often do pilots skip checklist steps?

Board blames fatal overrun on pilot error.
Source: NTSB Issues Bedford Gulfstream IV Crash Report | Flying Magazine

Checklists were a major innovation in flying, and are now being pushed in health care. But as I research this, it’s clear that although pilots all swear by them, use is less than 100%. Perhaps less than 99% – and a 1% error rate is very high when there are hundreds of items on a flight.

It’s very hard to know the real number. But the pilots in this crash, both very experienced, did pre-takeoff control checks for less than 10% of their flights!

Data from a recorder installed in the airplane showed that in the previous 176 takeoffs, full flight control checks as called for on the GIV’s checklist were carried out only twice and partial checks only 16 times. The pilots on the evening of the accident skipped the flight control check, which might have revealed to them that the gust lock mechanism was still engaged.

This particular item – forgetting to unlock the “gust locks” – has been killing pilots since the first gust locks. Famous examples in the 1930s were the prototype B-17, and the head of the German Air Force. (Both discussed in my forthcoming chapter on standard procedures in aviation.)
Gulfstream IV jet with six on board - crashed and burned after failed takeoff.

Autonomous vehicles – how skeptical should we be?

I have gone up and down on the prospects for  autonomous vehicles (AVs). There are a lot of technical hurdles, and probably as many social issues such as how liability laws will be written. The Google car has been over-hyped. But today I received a claim that AVs are not feasible until 5G wireless networks are ubiquitous.

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Is the FDA Too Conservative or Too Aggressive?

I have long argued that the FDA has an incentive to delay the introduction of new drugs because approving a bad drug (Type I error) has more severe consequences for the FDA than does failing to approve a good drug (Type II […]

Source: Is the FDA Too Conservative or Too Aggressive?

My take: this paper by  Vahid Montazerhodjat and Andrew Lo is interesting, but it only looks at one issue, and there are many other problems that make overapproval more likely. There are many  biases in the drug pipeline and FDA approval process, most of which are heavily in favor of approving drugs that do nothing (and yet, still have side effects). To mention one of many, the population used to test drugs is younger, healthier, more homogeneous, and more compliant than the population that ends up actually taking the drug. A second bias is that the testing process screens out people who have major side effects – they stop taking the drug, and are dropped from the sample (and from the statistical analysis at the end). So we only see the people with moderate or no side effects. Both of these problems lead to biases, which better statistical methods cannot remove.

The paper is interesting, but it is working from an idealized model of the drug research process, and I would not take its quantitative results seriously. The basic logic seems sound, though: there should be different approval standards for different diseases.

First FAA-Approved Drone Delivery Is a Success, but Does It Matter? – IEEE Spectrum

First FAA-Approved Drone Delivery Is a Success, but Does It Matter? 

I’ve been tracking the potential for drone (Autonomous vehicle) delivery of packages since before Amazon proposed it. I’m generally very skeptical that it can play a major role in delivering routine packages. And I certainly thought Amazon’s claimed timetable was blowing smoke. (As it turned out to be.)

Basic issues include safety, landing somewhere in urban areas, weather (except where I live) and payload/range/weight. Longer range or bigger payload require a larger vehicle, which is more of a  potential safety hazard. Micro navigation (phone poles) might also be a problem, as stated in this IEEE article, but I can envision technical solutions to that issue.

Here is a 2013 IEEE article that makes the basic anti-Amazon case.  Amazon was talking about being ready in 2015!

Yet over a longer period, say before 2020, there are niche applications that will be feasible. Whether they will be economically sensible remains to be seen. Rather clearly, deliveries will start with small, high-value, urgent packages.  Here’s a  video about a rural demonstration of delivering meds.

Here is my comment to someone who said drone delivery was impossible because of theft and safety.

Theft is an issue, but there are many potential partial solutions. For example, once stolen the drone would not function. (It could still be stripped for parts, but that has possible solutions as well.) So it becomes an arms race/incentive system, just like stealing packages from your front door.

   Safety is an issue in cities, but suppose the drones become as safe as a delivery truck driving through your neighborhood. A six rotor drone is pretty robust. Safety is less of an issue in some regions. And there may even be ways to “crash safe,” including airbags, parachutes, etc.

Regulatory fear is likely to continue to be a big issue in the USA. In my opinion, that is a shame, and will destroy the US lead in the technology (for which there are many good applications – just probably not package delivery). So I’m glad to see Amazon is taking a role in proposing sensible regulation. 

First FAA-Approved Drone Delivery Is a Success, but Does It Matter? - IEEE Spectrum

General drone technology clearly has a productive future. But my guess is that the US will be pushed aside by other countries that are less hung up about regulating every possible problem. (E.g. Australia?)

Tesla is tiny – so why is it worth $35 billion?

It’s still hard for me to understand Tesla’s market cap, currently $35B ($35,000,000,000). Sales of 11K units/quarter are still smaller than tiny (for an auto company). Of course if it achieves a 50% annual growth trajectory for 5 years, that would justify a huge value – but I have not read anything saying that they are able to scale manucturing at that rate. (Admission: I used to consistently say that Apple was over-valued. And I was consistently wrong.)

“Tesla said in a filing Thursday that it delivered 11,507 vehicles during the April-through-June period, a 52 percent increase compared with the same quarter a year ago.”

I also did not realize that Musk was not a founder of the company.  (1) Breakthrough Strategy and Innovation.