March 21, 2011

Colby Cosh: “is it quite all right for a news agency to have its own army?”

Filed under: Africa, Media, Middle East — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 15:55

I was surprised to find that al-Jazeera’s coverage of the Egyptian uprising was of much higher quality than that of more traditional western news sources. Colby Cosh also thought al-Jazeera far exceeded the efforts of CNN and Fox News, among others:

. . . al-Jazeera seemed, for a moment, to be living up to its promise as a bridge between the Arab world and the West — if not transcending that promise and becoming something greater; a tribune of the Arab peoples and their neighbours; an influential, omnipresent witness of precisely the sort that the students in Tiananmen Square lacked; and, perhaps, one of the world’s essential institutions of news.

That potential is still there. The world is certainly a very much better place with al-Jazeera than without; it would be better still with five al-Jazeeras. But the time has come to raise a abstruse, nitpicky ethical point that reflects back on some of the Western journalists who have gone to work for al-Jazeera, and some of the Western leaders who have praised it so effusively. It’s this: is it quite all right for a news agency to have its own army?

I ask because it is a little difficult to disentangle al-Jazeera, which is owned by the Qatar Media Corporation, from the autocratic Qatari state. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani is as nice as absolute dictators get — a man arguably in the tradition of the enlightened despots of Europe’s quite recent past, who shared outstanding personal qualities, a common commitment to education and equality, and a dedication to advancing liberal ideals, albeit by undemocratic means. It’s traditional, in enlightened autocracies, for the required oppression to officially be deemed temporary, and for this pretence of temporariness to be kept up at all costs. Official U.S. sources, keen on avoiding offence to an important ally, advance Qatar’s claim to already be a “constitutional monarchy”.

More re-Volting details on GM’s electric car

Filed under: Economics, Politics, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 15:20

Patrick Michaels looks at the Chevy Volt:

. . . GM was desperate for customers for what they perceived would be an unpopular vehicle before one even hit the road. It had hoped to lure more if buyers subtracted the $7,500 from the $41,000 sticker price. Instead, as Consumer Reports found out, the car was very pricey. The version they tested cost $43,700 plus a $5,000 dealer markup (“Don’t worry,” I can hear the salesperson saying, “you’ll get more than that back in your tax credit!”), or a whopping $48,700 minus the credit.

This is one reason that Volt sales are anemic: 326 in December, 321 in January, and 281 in February. GM announced a production run of 100,000 in the first two years. Who is going to buy all these cars?

Another reason they aren’t exactly flying off the lots is because, well, they have some problems. In a telling attempt to preserve battery power, the heater is exceedingly weak. Consumer Reports averaged a paltry 25 miles of electric-only running, in part because it was testing in cold Connecticut. (My engineer at the Auto Show said cold weather would have little effect.)

But not to worry! They’ve found someone to buy half of the total Volt production:

Recently, President Obama selected General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt to chair his Economic Advisory Board. GE is awash in windmills waiting to be subsidized so they can provide unreliable, expensive power.

Consequently, and soon after his appointment, Immelt announced that GE will buy 50,000 Volts in the next two years, or half the total produced. Assuming the corporation qualifies for the same tax credit, we (you and me) just shelled out $375,000,000 to a company to buy cars that no one else wants so that GM will not tank and produce even more cars that no one wants. And this guy is the chair of Obama’s Economic Advisory Board?

Japan’s bifurcated power grid

Filed under: Health, History, Japan, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:00

Charles Stross points out something I was completely unaware of:

Western Japan and Eastern Japan do not share an electricity grid; because of an historical accident, in the 1890s when they were first getting electric lighting, Osaka, in the west, chose to run at 60Hz and Tokyo, in the east, picked 50Hz. Consequently there’s no grid interconnect between the two halves of the Japanese electricity supply system.

Eastern Japan has had 15 nuclear reactors scrammed by an an earthquake. Some of them may be checked out and approved to start delivering base load again over the coming months, but they all need a thorough inspection at this point — and we know for sure that at least three of them will never work again (not after they’ve had seawater pumped through their primary coolant circuit).

We are now heading into summer. And Tokyo doesn’t have enough electricity to maintain power everywhere even in spring.

Summer in Tokyo is savage: temperatures routinely top 35 celsius with 100% humidity. In a heat wave, it can top 40 degrees for days on end. Back when I visited in late August of 2008, the heat wave had broken and daytime temperatures were down under 37 degrees again — the week before it had been over 42, and joggers had been dropping dead in the street.

Greater Tokyo also has 30-million-odd people, of whom a large proportion — maybe 20% — are 75 years or older.

Elderly folks do not handle heat waves well; they get dehydrated easily and if they don’t have air conditioning they die in droves. Normally it’s not a problem in Tokyo because 80% of households have air conditioning, but with rolling blackouts and insufficient power it’s another matter.

It was bad in France, but the death toll among the elderly in Japan may be much higher.

The nuclear power industry’s technological lock-in

Filed under: Economics, History, Science, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:20

Leon Neyfakh looks at how light water reactors became the “default” choice of the nuclear power industry:

Japan’s reactors are “light water” reactors, whose safety depends on an uninterrupted power supply to circulate water quickly around the hot core. A light water system is not the only way to design a nuclear reactor. But because of the way the commercial nuclear power industry developed in its early years, it’s virtually the only type of reactor used in nuclear power plants today. Even though there might be better technologies out there, light water is the one that utility companies know how to build, and that governments have historically been willing to fund.

Economists call this problem “technological lock-in”: The term refers to the process by which one new technology can prevail over another for no good reason other than circumstance and inertia. The best-known example of technological lock-in comes from the 1970s, when VHS and Betamax, two different kinds of videotape, competed in the market until VHS gained a slight lead and then leveraged it to total domination. Whether the VHS format was actually superior to Betamax didn’t matter. After the lock-in, consumers no longer had a choice.

Much more is at stake in nuclear power. Some reactor designs are safer than others in an accident; some are more efficient than others in their use of fuel and produce less nuclear waste. The fact that the industry settled on light water over any number of alternatives was determined in the years after World War II, when the US Atomic Energy Commission and Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover made a series of hasty decisions that irreversibly set the course for how nuclear power plants around the world are built today.

“There were lots and lots of ideas floating around, and they essentially lost when light water came to dominate,” said Robin Cowan, a professor at the University of Strasbourg and the University of Maastricht who wrote a 1990 paper in The Journal of Economic History about the nuclear industry’s technological stagnation. “The market tends to choose a dominant design before it’s optimal, and it tends to under-explore.”

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