The White House wants to put more natural gas powered trucks on the road. To do it, he'll have to create a whole infrastructure network and a commercial market from scratch.
If you haven't spent much of your life thinking about the future of natural gas-powered vehicles, don't worry, you're not alone. Less sexy than electric car, and in many ways even more impractical, they've never been much more than a footnote in the long debate about how to wean the United States off its oil dependence.
But these days, natural gas vehicles have a big fan in the White House. President Obama is making a hard push for them, and he spent part of a campaign stop Thursday in Las Vegas plugging his plans. His strategy focuses on providing incentives for companies with large truck fleets to buy natural gas-powered models while encouraging the construction of more fueling stations along major highways.
There's logic to promoting natural gas at this juncture. Oil prices are high. As the world gets richer, there will be more drivers, and prices will keep going up. Meanwhile, massive shale discoveries have turned the U.S. into the world's top producer of natural gas. We've drilled for so much of the stuff that prices are now at historic lows. Why wouldn't we want to put it in our cars?
There might be some policy reasons to argue against it. Natural gas is used to generate electricity and heat homes. If it were to become a popular vehicle fuel, its price would likely rise along with consumers' utility bills. Manufacturers, which are heavy users of natural gas,
would also like to keep prices of their fuel stock low.
But there's a much more practical issue to consider: Logistics.
THE CATCH-22 OF NATURAL GAS
Right now, there isn't an infrastructure network to support the widespread adoption of natural gas powered cars or large trucks. There are two major problems standing in the way of creating one. And both of them are nasty Catch-22s.
First, companies don't buy natural gas trucks because they're expensive. And they're expensive, in part, because not enough companies buy them. According to the Wall Street Journal, there are fewer than 1,000 natural gas-powered 18-wheeler tractors rolling in the United States. As one source told the paper, the market is so small that they are "just about being hand-built, much like a Rolls Royce." Prices won't come down until there's enough demand to jumpstart mass production.
The second Catch-22 is that nobody wants to drive a natural gas vehicle unless there's a place to refuel it. And almost nobody wants to build a re-fueling station until there are people driving natural gas vehicles.
These problems aren't unique to natural gas. Electric cars have faced almost the exact same hurdles. But electric car makers have found creative ways to get around the infrastructure issue, either by marketing their vehicles to commuters or adding small gas engines for extended range. And some well-off car buyers are willing to pay a premium for an environmentally friendly ride.
With natural gas, there's less wiggle room. For 18-wheelers to use it, you need fueling stations along the route, plain and simple.* And companies aren't likely pay for an expensive truck unless it makes strict economic sense.
WHAT DO WE NEED: SUBSIDIES OR CERTAINTIES?
The administration seems to think it can overcome those obstacles with a generous round of subsidies. After receiving a $5.5 million stimulus grant, UPS purchased 48 new natural gas trucks and partnered with Clean Energy Fuels Corp., the company part-owned by billionaire natural gas advocate T. Boone Pickens, to build a refueling station between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. On Thursday, Obama spoke at a UPS plant, where he advocated tax incentives for companies that buy natural gas trucks and promised to work with the private sector to develop five "natural gas corridors" along U.S. highways where the vehicles will be able to easily fill up their tanks.
The president's proposal is similar to the Nat Gas Act, a pending bipartisan bill that would provide large tax breaks for investments in both natural gas trucks and fueling equipment. Cost estimates range between $5 billion and $9 billion, and Pickens, one of the legislation's most vocal public supporters, claims it would put 140,000 trucks on the road along with enough fueling stations to service them. But pulling that off would almost certainly require an incredible amount of coordination along the lines of what his company achieved with UPS. After all, how many businesses will take advantage of a tax deduction for a large capital investment based on the mere possibility that someone else will build out the infrastructure necessary to use it? Meanwhile, even with a write-off for the initial investment, gas station owners might not want a little used pump taking up real estate on their property. It sounds minor, but it's an actual concern I heard while reporting on this topic a few years ago.
No, to make natural gas take off, both sides will need a degree of certainty. The subsidies alone won't do it.
Obama's natural gas plan does have a second, more easily achievable half. He wants federal agencies and local governments to buy more natural gas vehicles for their fleets. Think natural gas powered post office trucks and school buses, for instance. That goal is simpler, since most government fleets are fueled at a central location, where they return each day. Install a pump, and you're good to go.
But encouraging natural gas fleets won't influence what happens in the long-haul trucking industry. That's because post office trucks, school buses, and secret-service SUVs would run on compressed natural gas. That's a different form of fuel than the liquified natural gas cargo trucks use and requires a separate pump to deliver. Encouraging truck stops to carry liquefied natural gas will take its own separate effort.
Cooperation between the public and private sector has become the Obama administration's big rallying cry of late. Getting natural gas trucks on the road would be a small but tough test of his ability to actually make it happen.
*There are bi-fuel vehicles available, which can run on diesel or natural gas. But, as the Department of Energy points out, they perform worse than dedicated natural gas vehicles.
The man who made computers personal was a genius and a jerk. A new documentary wonders whether his legacy can accommodate both realities.
An iPhone is a machine much like any other: motherboard, modem, microphone, microchip, battery, wires of gold and silver and copper twisting and snaking, the whole assembly arranged under a piece of glass whose surface—coated with an oxide of indium and tin to make it electrically conductive—sparks to life at the touch of a warm-blooded finger. But an iPhone, too, is much more than a machine. The neat ecosystem that hums under its heat-activated glass holds grocery lists and photos and games and jokes and news and books and music and secrets and the voices of loved ones and, quite possibly, every text you’ve ever exchanged with your best friend. Thought, memory, empathy, the stuff we sometimes shorthand as “the soul”: There it all is, zapping through metal whose curves and coils were designed to be held in a human hand.
Fractured by internal conflict and foreign intervention for centuries, Afghanistan made several tentative steps toward modernization in the mid-20th century. In the 1950s and 1960s, some of the biggest strides were made toward a more liberal and westernized lifestyle, while trying to maintain a respect for more conservative factions. Though officially a neutral nation, Afghanistan was courted and influenced by the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cold War, accepting Soviet machinery and weapons, and U.S. financial aid. This time was a brief, relatively peaceful era, when modern buildings were constructed in Kabul alongside older traditional mud structures, when burqas became optional for a time, and the country appeared to be on a path toward a more open, prosperous society. Progress was halted in the 1970s, as a series of bloody coups, invasions, and civil wars began, continuing to this day, reversing almost all of the steps toward modernization taken in the 50s and 60s. Keep in mind, when looking at these images, that the average life expectancy for Afghans born in 1960 was 31, so the vast majority of those pictured have likely passed on since.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
In continuing to tinker with the universe she built eight years after it ended, J.K. Rowling might be falling into the same trap as Star Wars’s George Lucas.
September 1st, 2015 marked a curious footnote in Harry Potter marginalia: According to the series’s elaborate timeline, rarely referenced in the books themselves, it was the day James S. Potter, Harry’s eldest son, started school at Hogwarts. It’s not an event directly written about in the books, nor one of particular importance, but their creator, J.K. Rowling, dutifully took to Twitter to announce what amounts to footnote details: that James was sorted into House Gryffindor, just like his father, to the disappointment of Teddy Lupin, Harry’s godson, apparently a Hufflepuff.
It’s not earth-shattering information that Harry’s kid would end up in the same house his father was in, and the Harry Potter series’s insistence on sorting all of its characters into four broad personality quadrants largely based on their family names has always struggled to stand up to scrutiny. Still, Rowling’s tweet prompted much garment-rending among the books’ devoted fans. Can a tweet really amount to a piece of canonical information for a book? There isn’t much harm in Rowling providing these little embellishments years after her books were published, but even idle tinkering can be a dangerous path to take, with the obvious example being the insistent tweaks wrought by George Lucas on his Star Wars series.
I traveled to every country on earth. In some cases, the adventure started before I could get there.
Last summer, my Royal Air Maroc flight from Casablanca landed at Malabo International Airport in Equatorial Guinea, and I completed a 50-year mission: I had officially, and legally, visited every recognized country on earth.
This means 196 countries: the 193 members of the United Nations, plus Taiwan, Vatican City, and Kosovo, which are not members but are, to varying degrees, recognized as independent countries by other international actors.
In five decades of traveling, I’ve crossed countries by rickshaw, pedicab, bus, car, minivan, and bush taxi; a handful by train (Italy, Switzerland, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, and Greece); two by riverboat (Gabon and Germany); Norway by coastal steamer; Gambia and the Amazonian parts of Peru and Ecuador by motorized canoe; and half of Burma by motor scooter. I rode completely around Jamaica on a motorcycle and Nauru on a bicycle. I’ve also crossed three small countries on foot (Vatican City, San Marino, and Liechtenstein), and parts of others by horse, camel, elephant, llama, and donkey. I confess that I have not visited every one of the 7,107 islands in the Philippine archipelago or most of the more than 17,000 islands constituting Indonesia, but I’ve made my share of risky voyages on the rickety inter-island rustbuckets you read about in the back pages of the Times under headlines like “Ship Sinks in Sulu Sea, 400 Presumed Lost.”
In Beijing, China marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and its role in defeating Japan, by holding an enormous military parade and declaring a new national holiday. The spectacle involved more than 12,000 troops, 500 pieces of military hardware, and 200 aircraft.
In Beijing, China marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and its role in defeating Japan, by holding an enormous military parade and declaring a new national holiday. The spectacle involved more than 12,000 troops, 500 pieces of military hardware, and 200 aircraft of various types, representing what military officials said were the Chinese military's most cutting-edge technology. While the entire event was a show of strength, Chinese officials insisted the message was about peace, with the logo displayed on posters featuring an image of a dove.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Some people see threats even when none are present. Strangely, it can make them more creative.
For much of his life, Isaac Newton seemed like he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In 1693, the collapse finally arrived: After not sleeping for five days straight, Newton sent letters accusing his friends of conspiring against him. He was refraining from publishing books, he said at one point that year, “for fear that disputes and controversies may be raised against me by ignoramuses.”
Newton was, by many accounts, highly neurotic. Brilliant, but neurotic nonetheless. He was prone to depressive jags, mistrust, and angry outbursts.
Unfortunately, his genius might have been rooted in his maladjustments. His mental state led him to brood over past mistakes, and eventually, a breakthrough would dawn. “I keep the subject constantly before me,” he once said, “and wait till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into a full and clear light.”
According to Franklin, what mattered in business was humility, restraint, and discipline. But today’s Type-A MBAs would find him qualified for little more than a career in middle management.
When he retired from the printing business at the age of 42, Benjamin Franklin set his sights on becoming what he called a “Man of Leisure.” To modern ears, that title might suggest Franklin aimed to spend his autumn years sleeping in or stopping by the tavern, but to colonial contemporaries, it would have intimated aristocratic pretension. A “Man of Leisure” was typically a member of the landed elite, someone who spent his days fox hunting and affecting boredom. He didn’t have to work for a living, and, frankly, he wouldn’t dream of doing so.
Having worked as a successful shopkeeper with a keen eye for investments, Franklin had earned his leisure, but rather than cultivate the fine arts of indolence, retirement, he said, was “time for doing something useful.” Hence, the many activities of Franklin’s retirement: scientist, statesman, and sage, as well as one-man civic society for the city of Philadelphia. His post-employment accomplishments earned him the sobriquet of “The First American” in his own lifetime, and yet, for succeeding generations, the endeavor that was considered his most “useful” was the working life he left behind when he embarked on a life of leisure.
What do Google's trippy neural network-generated images tell us about the human mind?
When a collection of artificial brains at Google began generating psychedelic images from otherwise ordinary photos, engineers compared what they saw to dreamscapes. They named their image-generation technique Inceptionism and called the code used to power it Deep Dream.
But many of the people who saw the images reacted the same way: These things didn’t come from a dream world. They came from an acid trip.
The computer-made images feature scrolls of color, swirling lines, stretched faces, floating eyeballs, and uneasy waves of shadow and light. The machines seemed to be hallucinating, and in a way that appeared uncannily human.
The idea behind the project was to test the extent to which a neural network had learned to recognize various animals and landscapes by asking the computer to describe what it saw. So, instead of just showing a computer a picture of a tree and saying, "tell me what this is," engineers would show the computer an image and say, "enhance whatever it is you see."