Three years ago, China was set for a green auto revolution. But the country's electricity-powered car industry is in stasis.
When Warren Buffett in 2008 bought 10% of Chinese car and battery maker BYD (acronym stands for Build Your Dreams), many thought it was the dawning of the Chinese electric vehicles (EVs) age. That "golden era" may yet arrive. Eventually. But in the interim, that dream has mutated into something of a nightmare ensnared in interest group politics and lack of clear strategies.
Take BYD, whose current fate--because it is considered a private sector leader in the EV game--reflects conditions of the embryonic industry at large. A string of negative press has not helped its prospects. For example, Bloomberg reported in September that the Shenzhen-based company is planning to issue nearly $1 billion of bonds as it comes under pressure to pay back debt and as sales of its sedans dwindle. Then in late October, BusinessWeek followed with a piece that said BYD America has not only delayed opening its operations, it has also under-delivered in the number of jobs it claimed it will create in Los Angeles. (The subtext here: "see, Chinese investment in the US does not create 'green-collar' jobs!") Of course, BYD's troubles in the U.S. are linked to its sub-optimal performance in the domestic Chinese market.
Indeed, BYD has likely sold more of its fully electric and hybrid vehicles to government entities than to actual Chinese consumers. Even with limited consumer subsidies, the E6 all-electric model will still cost around 250,000 yuan, or nearly $40,000--sticker shock for the average Chinese consumer in the market for a car that gets you from point A to B. And that's all on top of percolating questions over the soundness of its battery technology.
Beyond BYD, the rest of the industry appears to remain more or less in stasis, with more talk than action. In the department of exaggerated/misleading headlines, this China Dailypiece trumpets "Electric taxis to triple in Beijing next year". But what does that actually mean?
Beijing will increase the number of its fleet of electric taxis from 50 to 150 by May 2012, said an official from Yanqing, a county in northwestern Beijing where an electric car pilot operation is underway.
The program in Yanqing is the biggest of its kind in North China, said Wu Shijiang, vice director of the transportation bureau of the county. The 50 electric taxis in operation were developed by Beiqi Foton Motor Co Ltd, the biggest commercial vehicle manufacturer in China in terms of production and sales.
So that's 150 taxis among how many tens of thousands in Beijing? And reading between the lines, this "county official" is clearly promoting local business interests to garner the attention of higher-level officials. In the absence of an official nod from the Beijing government, it is not entirely clear whether these taxis will even be used at all.
The state of EV development in China is hardly solely the fault of industry or technology. The central government shares a large part of the blame, as it has sent confusing and vacillating signals that confound industry and confuse the market. Despite what initially appeared to be fervent support for EVs, the top leadership has poured some cold water on the sector with recent comments. Premier Wen Jiabao, speaking at a national science and technology association conference in May, all but admitted that the leadership itself is unsure about the future direction of the EV industry and that issues ranging from strategy to core technology still need to be resolved.
Wen's comments explain why the ten-year plan on alternative energy vehicles development, which was intended to be released this year, has remained under wraps. That plan was supposed to be one major pillar of China's 21st century industrial policy through 2020 and considered a "strategic emerging industry". It appears that major disagreements at the top are driven by a generous helping of bureaucratic interest conflicts. According to the Economic Observer, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology is pushing for the simultaneous development of fuel efficient cars and EVs; the Ministry of Science and Technology is obsessed with promoting EVs from a narrow technological standpoint; and the National Development and Reform Commission seems to support hybrids as a transitional phase toward singular focus on EVs.
Industry is complicit in complicating an already complex situation. Given Beijing's incessant touting of the trillions of investment that will flow to new strategic sectors over the next five years, including EVs, automakers and even major state-owned enterprises (SOEs) do not want to be denied a piece of the money pie. The auto industry already formed its own EV association, only to be followed by the formation of an SOE-dominated EV group that includes the likes of State Grid and the national oil companies. Why the oil companies? Because the "big two"--CNPC and Sinopec--control the vast majority of downstream gas stations, they believe there is profit to be made in retrofitting gas stations to EV charging stations. No one wants to cede ground in case the money spigot starts flowing RMBs.
The government, in essence, is stuck. Walking back on the entire EV program is impossible. But full-throttle ahead at this point seems unrealistic given that no one can decide on a clear path forward. Moreover, the government is most likely correct in assessing that blind pursuit of this program with little foresight can lead to irrational exuberance like what happened with the wind industry.
I have not been particularly bullish on the Chinese EV sector's near-term prospects, and it's unclear to me whether developing an auto industry on par with Japan, Germany, or the US even makes sense from China's macro development standpoint. (In this respect, I agree with Zhu Rongji's harsh assessment of creating a domestic auto industry.) Introducing EVs into the Beijing taxi fleet may help mitigate horrendous and unpredictable air pollution, but they won't alleviate the worsening traffic bottlenecks that now regularly choke the city. Even if EVs reduce air pollution, charging them could mean more coal usage--since China is primarily a coal-powered economy--that offset whatever carbon reduction benefits derived from less gasoline consumption in the transport sector. But wait, there's also "indigenous innovation", and wouldn't leading battery technology go a long way toward that goal? Paradoxical objectives, pulled along by powerful interests in different directions, explain much of China's story these days.
Whatever the outcome of this uncertainty, one thing is clear: what was once hailed as a potential EV revolution in China is turning out to be more akin to an incremental evolution.
Damien Ma is a fellow at the Paulson Institute, where he focuses on investment and policy programs, and on the Institute's research and think-tank activities. Previously, he was a lead China analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk research and advisory firm.
“Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.”
You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.
At the terminal you were going to be able to search tens of millions of books and read every page of any book you found. You’d be able to highlight passages and make annotations and share them; for the first time, you’d be able to pinpoint an idea somewhere inside the vastness of the printed record, and send somebody straight to it with a link. Books would become as instantly available, searchable, copy-pasteable—as alive in the digital world—as web pages.
It’s a shame that the standard way of learning how to cook is by following recipes. To be sure, they are a wonderfully effective way to approximate a dish as it appeared in a test kitchen, at a star chef’s restaurant, or on TV. And they can be an excellent inspiration for even the least ambitious home cooks to liven up a weeknight dinner. But recipes, for all their precision and completeness, are poor teachers. They tell you what to do, but they rarely tell you why to do it.
This means that for most novice cooks, kitchen wisdom—a unified understanding of how cooking works, as distinct from the notes grandma lovingly scrawled on index-card recipes passed down through the generations—comes piecemeal. Take, for instance, the basic skill of thickening a sauce. Maybe one recipe for marinara advises reserving some of the starchy pasta water, for adding later in case the sauce is looking a little thin. Another might recommend rescuing a too-watery sauce with some flour, and still another might suggest a handful of parmesan. Any one of these recipes offers a fix under specific conditions, but after cooking through enough of them, those isolated recommendations can congeal into a realization: There are many clever ways to thicken a sauce, and picking an appropriate one depends on whether there’s some leeway for the flavor to change and how much time there is until dinner needs to be on the table.
A lab has successfully gestated premature lambs in artificial wombs. Are humans next?
When babies are born at 24 weeks’ gestation, “it is very clear they are not ready to be here,” says Emily Partridge, a research fellow at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Doctors dress the hand-sized beings in miniature diapers and cradle them in plastic incubators, where they are fed through tubes. In many cases, IV lines deliver sedatives to help them cope with the ventilators strapped to their faces.
Each year, about 30,000 American babies are born this early—considered “critically preterm,” or younger than 26 weeks. Before 24 weeks, only about half survive, and those who live are likely to endure long-term medical complications. “Among those that survive, the challenges are things we all take for granted, like walking, talking, seeing, hearing,” says Kevin Dysart, a neonatologist at the Children’s Hospital.
Film, television, and literature all tell them better. So why are games still obsessed with narrative?
A longstanding dream: Video games will evolve into interactive stories, like the ones that play out fictionally on the Star Trek Holodeck. In this hypothetical future, players could interact with computerized characters as round as those in novels or films, making choices that would influence an ever-evolving plot. It would be like living in a novel, where the player’s actions would have as much of an influence on the story as they might in the real world.
It’s an almost impossible bar to reach, for cultural reasons as much as technical ones. One shortcut is an approach called environmental storytelling. Environmental stories invite players to discover and reconstruct a fixed story from the environment itself. Think of it as the novel wresting the real-time, first-person, 3-D graphics engine from the hands of the shooter game. In Disneyland’s Peter Pan’s Flight, for example, dioramas summarize the plot and setting of the film. In the 2007 game BioShock, recorded messages in an elaborate, Art Deco environment provide context for a story of a utopia’s fall. And in What Remains of Edith Finch, a new game about a girl piecing together a family curse, narration is accomplished through artifacts discovered in an old house.
Will you pay more for those shoes before 7 p.m.? Would the price tag be different if you lived in the suburbs? Standard prices and simple discounts are giving way to far more exotic strategies, designed to extract every last dollar from the consumer.
As Christmas approached in 2015, the price of pumpkin-pie spice went wild. It didn’t soar, as an economics textbook might suggest. Nor did it crash. It just started vibrating between two quantum states. Amazon’s price for a one-ounce jar was either $4.49 or $8.99, depending on when you looked. Nearly a year later, as Thanksgiving 2016 approached, the price again began whipsawing between two different points, this time $3.36 and $4.69.
We live in the age of the variable airfare, the surge-priced ride, the pay-what-you-want Radiohead album, and other novel price developments. But what was this? Some weird computer glitch? More like a deliberate glitch, it seems. “It’s most likely a strategy to get more data and test the right price,” Guru Hariharan explained, after I had sketched the pattern on a whiteboard.
They’re stuck between corporations trying to extract maximum profits from each flight and passengers who can broadcast their frustration on social media.
Two weeks ago, a man was violently dragged off a United Airlines flight after being told it was overbooked. And late last week, American Airlines suspended a flight attendant after a fight nearly broke out between a passenger and the crew, over a stroller. What did the two incidents have in common? Both stories went viral after passengers’ videos showcased the rotten conditions of flying in coach today. But also, in both cases, it’s not particularly clear that the airline employees caught on camera had many better options.
On the infamous United flight, employees, following protocol, had to call security agents to remove a passenger in Chicago, due to a last-minute need to transport crew to fly out of Louisville the following day. United’s contract of carriage gives employees broad latitude to deny boarding to passengers. On the other hand, it is terrible to force a sitting passenger to get up and de-board a plane. So, the attendants were stuck: Either four people already seated had to leave the plane, or a flight scheduled the next day would have been grounded due to the lack of crew—which would have punished even more paying customers.
The Hulu show has created a world that’s visually and psychologically unlike anything in film or television.
Call it luck, call it fate, call it the world’s most ridiculous viral marketing campaign, but the first television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is debuting on Wednesday to audiences who are hyper-ready for it. The 1985 speculative fiction work by Margaret Atwood has featured on library waitlists and Amazon’s top 20 for months now—partly in anticipation of the new Hulu show, and partly in response to the strange new landscape that emerged after November 9, wherein women in the millions felt compelled to take to the streets to assert their attachment to reproductive freedom. (When the release date for The Handmaid’s Tale was announced in December, people joked that it would likely be a documentary by the time it arrived on TV screens.)
The Justice Department said it would withhold jurisdictions’ federal funding if they don’t start playing ball with immigration authorities. In his ruling, Judge William Orrick said those threats were empty.
A federal district court in California on Tuesday blocked the Trump administration from enforcing part of a January executive order to defund “sanctuary cities,” ruling that the directive likely exceeded federal law and unfairly targeted those jurisdictions.
“Federal funding that bears no meaningful relationship to immigration enforcement cannot be threatened merely because a jurisdiction chooses an immigration-enforcement strategy of which the president disapproves,” federal judge William Orrick wrote.
The preliminary injunction blocks the federal government from enforcing Section 9(a) of the executive order nationwide while legal proceedings continue. That section authorized the attorney general to “take appropriate enforcement action” against “sanctuary jurisdictions” that “willfully refuse to comply” with Section 1373, a provision in federal immigration law that bars local jurisdictions from refusing to provide immigration-status information to federal agents.
The early results out of a Boston nonprofit are positive.
You saw the pictures in science class—a profile view of the human brain, sectioned by function. The piece at the very front, right behind where a forehead would be if the brain were actually in someone’s head, is the pre-frontal cortex. It handles problem-solving, goal-setting, and task execution. And it works with the limbic system, which is connected and sits closer to the center of the brain. The limbic system processes emotions and triggers emotional responses, in part because of its storage of long-term memory.
When a person lives in poverty, a growing body of research suggests the limbic system is constantly sending fear and stress messages to the prefrontal cortex, which overloads its ability to solve problems, set goals, and complete tasks in the most efficient ways.
From Anaïs to Zizek, a brief list of "shibboleth names"
In October 1937, the president of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, devised a simple way to identify the Haitian immigrants living along the border of his country. Dominican soldiers would hold up a sprig of parsley—perejil in Spanish—and ask people to identify it. Those who spoke Spanish would pronounce the word's central "r" with that language's characteristic trill; the Haitians, on the other hand, would bury the "r" sound in the throaty way of the French. To be on the receiving end of the parsley test would be to seal, either way, one's fate: The Spanish-speaking Dominicans were left to live, and the Haitians were slaughtered. It was a state-sponsored genocide that would be remembered, in one of history's greatest understatements, as the Parsley Massacre.