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.
Three families of fallen servicemembers received next-day UPS letters from President Trump after a turbulent week in which Trump falsely claimed he had called “virtually all” of the families.
The Trump administration is scrambling to defend the president’s characterization of his communications with grieving military families, including rush-delivering letters from the president to the families of servicemembers killed months ago. Donald Trump falsely claimed this week that he had called “virtually” all fallen servicemembers’ families since his time in office.
Timothy Eckels Sr. hadn’t heard anything from President Trump since his son Timothy Eckels Jr. was killed after a collision involving the USS John S. McCain on August 21. But then, on October 20, two days into the controversy over the president’s handling of a condolence call with an American soldier’s widow, Eckels Sr. received a United Parcel Service package dated October 18 with a letter from the White House.
Emma Perrier was deceived by an older man on the internet—a hoax that turned into an unbelievable love story.
Emma Perrier spent the summer of 2015 mending a broken heart, after a recent breakup. By September, the restaurant manager had grown tired of watching The Notebook alone in her apartment in Twickenham, a leafy suburb southwest of London, and decided it was time to get back out there. Despite the horror stories she’d heard about online dating, Emma, 33, downloaded a matchmaking app called Zoosk. The second “o” in the Zoosk logo looks like a diamond engagement ring, which suggested that its 38 million members were seeking more than the one-night stands offered by apps like Tinder.
She snapped the three selfies the app required to “verify her identity.” Emma, who is from a volcanic city near the French Alps, not far from the source of Perrier mineral water, is petite, and brunette. She found it difficult to meet men, especially as she avoided pubs and nightclubs, and worked such long hours at a coffee shop in the city’s financial district that she met only stockbrokers, who were mostly looking for cappuccinos, not love.
Monday afternoon, President Trump delivered a press conference from an alternative reality, or perhaps a slightly-less-dark timeline. His relationship with Mitch McConnell is great! They have the votes for Obamacare repeal! The hurricane relief effort in Puerto Rico is a smashing success! Democrats are to blame for GOP divisions on Capitol Hill! These claims range from the highly dubious to the patently false.
A neuroscientist on how we came to be aware of ourselves.
Ever since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, evolution has been the grand unifying theory of biology. Yet one of our most important biological traits, consciousness, is rarely studied in the context of evolution. Theories of consciousness come from religion, from philosophy, from cognitive science, but not so much from evolutionary biology. Maybe that’s why so few theories have been able to tackle basic questions such as: What is the adaptive value of consciousness? When did it evolve and what animals have it?
The Attention Schema Theory (AST), developed over the past five years, may be able to answer those questions. The theory suggests that consciousness arises as a solution to one of the most fundamental problems facing any nervous system: Too much information constantly flows in to be fully processed. The brain evolved increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for deeply processing a few select signals at the expense of others, and in the AST, consciousness is the ultimate result of that evolutionary sequence. If the theory is right—and that has yet to be determined—then consciousness evolved gradually over the past half billion years and is present in a range of vertebrate species.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
A stunning new speculative-fiction book by Naomi Alderman couldn’t be more timely.
One of the most succinct definitions of sexual harassment I’ve read over the past few weeks goes like this: For men, it’s anything they might say to a woman that would make them uncomfortable if it were said to them, but in prison. It’s glib, sure. But it gets at the fundamental imbalance of power that characterizes relationships between men and women. To understand what it’s like for a woman to be catcalled, or harassed, or propositioned, it isn’t enough for men to simply put themselves in that woman’s place. They also have to imagine what it’s like to sense the imminent danger in those interactions—to be weaker than their aggressor in every way, and to have that weakness woven into the fabric of society itself. As the adage often attributed to Margaret Atwood goes, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
In Season 2, the terrific NBC sitcom continues to explore ethics without sacrificing complexity or humor.
Last month, the NBC sitcom The Good Place returned for its second year after a first season that was widely praised as “surreal and high-concept” and “ambitious and uniquely satisfying.” In the two-part pilot, the show introduced a woman named Eleanor (Kristen Bell) who dies and finds herself in a non-denominational heaven by mistake—and who decides to learn how to become a better person in order to earnher spot in the afterlife. With that premise, The Good Place revealed what would eventually become the show’s most important theme: ethics. To avoid being sent to The Bad Place, Eleanor enlists her assigned “soul mate,” a former professor of moral philosophy named Chidi (William Jackson Harper), to teach her how to change her selfish ways.
DeepMind’s new self-taught Go-playing program is making moves that other players describe as “alien” and “from an alternate dimension.”
It was a tense summer day in 1835 Japan. The country’s reigning Go player, Honinbo Jowa, took his seat across a board from a 25-year-old prodigy by the name of Akaboshi Intetsu. Both men had spent their lives mastering the two-player strategy game that’s long been popular in East Asia. Their face-off, that day, was high-stakes: Honinbo and Akaboshi represented two Go houses fighting for power, and the rivalry between the two camps had lately exploded into accusations of foul play.
Little did they know that the match—now remembered by Go historians as the “blood-vomiting game”—would last for several grueling days. Or that it would lead to a grisly end.
Early on, the young Akaboshi took a lead. But then, according to lore, “ghosts” appeared and showed Honinbo three crucial moves. His comeback was so overwhelming that, as the story goes, his junior opponent keeled over and began coughing up blood. Weeks later, Akaboshi was found dead. Historians have speculated that he might have had an undiagnosed respiratory disease.
Rumors are swirling over what took place in the final hours before four U.S. servicemen died—but a clear picture of what actually took place is only beginning to emerge.
On October 4, a small group of U.S. troops were preparing to leave a meeting with community leaders near the small town of Tongo Tongo in Niger. They were close to the Malian border, traveling in unarmored pick-up trucks with limited weaponry and a few dozen of their Nigerien counterparts. Then they were ambushed.
By the time the more than 30-minute assault was over, three U.S. troops were confirmed dead and two more were gravely injured. Another, Sergeant La David Johnson, was missing and his body would not be recovered for another two days. French aircraft, called in for back-up, circled overhead as fire was exchanged below. They later helped to evacuate survivors.
This account, based on public statements from the Trump administration, interviews with U.S. Africa Command officials; former State Department and intelligence officials; and the man who almost served as the senior director for Africa on the National Security Council, along with additional reporting from other news outlets like CNN and The Washington Post, suggests a direct link between the fatal ambush and the absence of a clear strategy or perhaps even a cursory understanding of U.S. operations in Africa by the Trump administration.
Honoring the sacrifice of servicemembers requires understanding why they were put at risk, and demanding that those who did so hold themselves to account.
On Thursday morning, I planned to write a pointed screed decrying President Trump’s propensity to view the military community as a problem he can buy off with a check. Then, on Thursday afternoon, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, himself a Gold Star father, decried the noxious politicization of the deaths of servicemembers and how we treat their families in the aftermath. His remarks gave me pause, as they were meant to.
“Let’s not let this maybe last thing that’s held sacred in our society, a young man, young woman, going out and giving his or her life for our country, let’s … keep that sacred” he implored, lamenting the ugly and voyeuristic events of the past week.
Who better to set the protocol and define the limits of this sacred space than a father who lost his son in Afghanistan? Unless you’ve walked in his shoes, don’t ask questions.