Sunday Short Takes

1. The stories about the problem of mechanical-dial fuel pumps being unable to register prices over $3.999/gallon make me wonder, why can’t the stations needing to charge $4 or more simply ignore the reported purchase amount and calculate the correct amount of the sale from the quantity and the actual price? The obstacle seems to be one of weights and measures regulations rather than a technically workable solution being costly. (According to the WaPo story, a station got into trouble with the State of Virginia for setting a pump to the half-gallon price and adjusting the sale at the register, which certainly could be confusing in the absence of very clear signage.)

Note that the pump need only accurately register the quantity, not the price, to enable correct computation of the sale amount. Thus, the technical solution can be implemented for approximately $0: the price of an opaque barrier to cover the price display and a basic pocket calculator, versus the $30,000 figure sometimes quoted for new pumps with digital readouts. It may not be the apotheosis of convenience — e.g. for people trying to fill up to a dollar amount, though I can think of cheap solutions there too — but stations with the old pumps probably aren’t selling the “conveniences” of the modern automated filling station. The regulatory barrier is not necessarily expensive to overcome, relative to the cost of retrofitting thousands of low-volume pumps (mostly in locations remote from other stations). So the economic story is more in the “who’d’a thunk” department than anything else.

2. A while back at the old blog, I’d contemplated some of the members of the crack (smoking) McCain economic team and asked, “Who’s next, Donald Luskin?” Well, life evidently imitates parody yet again, as Oliver Willis reads the Cunning Realist who finds Luskin calling himself an “unpaid economic advisor” to the McCain campaign. Doesn’t an equation of marginal benefits and marginal costs require Luskin to pay McCain to take his advice? (As necessary, go to the Great Gazoogle and enter the search term ‘Luskin “stupidest man alive”’.)

3. Philadelphia International Airport’s shabby Terminal E still isn’t anyplace I’d want to be forced into an extended stay, but hooray for PHL for offering quasi-free WiFi. (I say quasi-free in that the terms-and-conditions page effectively serves as an ad for wireless service provider AT&T.) Spoke airports — notably excepting my home base — have mostly gotten the clue that free wireless makes passengers happy, but hubs are still mostly on pay networks. Though the ad-supported wireless at Denver worked pretty well, too. By comparison, I don’t seem to be able to visit non-free Detroit or Minneapolis without finding dead spots and bum routers. I wonder if the quasi-free services actually offer better service since, in contrast to subscriber-supported services, they’re sure not to pay off (one way or another) if they can’t make connections.

4. I got to see quite the 35-mph non-offset frontal crash into a deformable barrier the other day, the barrier in question being a red-light-running pickup truck T-boned by a late-model Acura TSX (a/k/a Honda Accord in Europe and Japan). Let’s just say that it was an excellent safety advertisement for Honda in that the car’s front end was demolished but the driver walked away merely a little dazed from the airbag detonation. In the pickup was a very sick infant on the way to the A.I. du Pont Children’s Hospital in Wilmington, Delaware, which fortunately was only a couple blocks from the crash site; the poor kid’s understandably distraught dad was playing ambulance and ran out of luck. PSA: Very Bad Idea. If you need to get to the hospital that fast, call a real ambulance.