Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Thinking big in space

Dec 27th 2011, 4:25 by N.L. | CHICAGO (Online only)

AS A small boy Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, dreamed of going into space. He even tried to launch the hollow aluminium arm of a chair, stuffed with propellant, into orbit. It didn't work out. But his latest adventure in space travel—a joint venture with Burt Rutan, a famous designer of aircraft—looks more promising. Earlier this month, the two of them said they will build an air-launched orbital delivery system. To do this, Paul Allen’s company Stratolaunch Systems will have to build the world’s largest aeroplane.

The Stratolaunch, as the plane will be called, will be big. Really, really big. It will have six engines, a wingspan of 117 metres (385 feet) and weigh about 544 tonnes. (The wingspan of Boeing's 747 is around half that of the Stratolaunch.) Taking off will require 3.6km of runway, and the aircraft will launch its rocket—a shortened version of the Falcon 9 rocket, built by another private space firm called SpaceX—at around 9,100 metres. The whole contraption will be able to put about 6 tonnes of payload into low-earth orbit. [More...]

Correction: I am hoping by the time anyone else reads this article again the word "hanger" will have been changed to read "hangar". As anyone older than about eight should know, one is a place for clothing and the other is a place for aircraft. I do honestly know the difference but I don't know how it came to pass that anyone would be said to be looking to find a hanger big enough for a large aeroplane.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Shovel ready

Mr Emanuel’s feeling for snow Dec 17th 2011 | CHICAGO | from the print edition

THE city of Chicago is proud of its ability to keep going, with gritty determination, through the worst of the nation’s weather. Snow that would bring London or Washington, DC, to a halt is laughed off as little more than a light dusting. This year some are expecting particularly bad weather, a test for the new mayor, Rahm Emanuel. He must keep the city moving throughout the winter, or face the wrath of the locals.

Fortunately, Chicago is well prepared for snowfall which, for the past four winters, has been over 50 inches (127cm). A secure facility on West Madison Street known as “Snow Command” houses some impressive toys. On one wall vast display-screens reveal everything you might need to know about the city’s weather conditions: the whereabouts of the fleet of up to 500 GPS-equipped snow-moving trucks; views from some of the city’s 1,000 cameras; the readings from a dozen road sensors (which pick up icy conditions); and a live feed of the regional weather system. [More...]

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Detroit nears bankruptcy

Nowhere to run 

The motor city flirts with fiscal disaster 

Dec 10th 2011 | DETROIT

IN THE 1960s, the first hit song from Berry Gordy’s Motown empire was “Money (That’s What I Want)”. It might well be an anthem for modern-day Detroit. On December 6th Michigan took the first legal steps towards a state takeover of Detroit. If it happens, it will be the largest American city to be taken over by a state.
The problem has been building for decades; declining property values and the flight of better-off people to the suburbs have hit revenues, while the cost of servicing a still-sprawling city has not shrunk proportionately. The effects of the recession, particularly severe in Michigan, have provided the trigger for the crisis. Detroit’s mayor, Dave Bing, now says the city will run out of cash in April 2012. [More...]

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Taxes and disinvestment


Businesses are threatening to leave 

Dec 3rd 2011 | CHICAGO | from the print edition

 THE state finances in Illinois are an ugly mess of deficits, unpaid bills and tax refund backlogs. At the heart of the problem lies a public pension liability estimated at a present value of $80 billion. The state’s pension schemes are only 51% funded, the lowest rate among the 50 states. In January, in an attempt to grapple with its problems, the state raised corporate taxes from 7.3% to 9.5% and personal income tax from 3% to 5%. Although the tax hikes are theoretically temporary—and start to expire in 2015—both the rises and the continued failure of politicians to get to grips with the budget crisis are starting to worry businesses. [More...]

And Republicans in the house are now arguing for a reduction in corporate taxation to stabilise the business climate in Illinois.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Chicago River

Reflected glory 

The Windy City will, at last, clean up its filthy river 

Nov 26th 2011 | BUBBLY CREEK, CHICAGO | from the print edition

THE old-timers down by Bubbly Creek were hoping to land catfish for dinner. On a sunny afternoon they were fishing on a southern fork of the Chicago River made famous by Upton Sinclair in his social-realist novel of 1906, “The Jungle”. Sinclair described how offal and waste from the meatpacking industry had created a river so vile that putrid gas bubbled up from the bottom and made the river literally combustible. Today, the river hardly ever bubbles but the pollution remains so serious that the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ordered the state of Illinois to clean it up. Earlier this month, the EPA and the state finally agreed over how clean the river should be. [More...]

River walk

It is lovely downtown by the Chicago river, even as winter starts to draw in. The skyscrapers and the water provide one of the world's most impressive urban settings. You can descend down from the busy street level in a few steps and arrive at the peaceful river. From there you can leave all the hustle behind and stroll through town and out to the (now) blustery lake. The river itself, like so many other things in this town, is a dirty mess but one that is finally being cleaned up. The future of the city, as well as the river, may be less murky now that local water officials say they will disinfect the sewage that goes into it.

One of the people I interviewed for a recent piece on the river, Debra Shore, a commissioner at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, said that her agency is looking at a host of other water quality standards being proposed by the state environmental protection agency. In the future, it isn't just the sewage that will be cleaned up but the river could see improvements in the amount of dissolved oxygen (which would help aquatic life), and the amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen which would reduce the growth of algae.

All these water quality issues are important not only for the current and future users of the river, but for everyone downstream. At the moment, all the junk that Chicago throws into its river ends up in the Gulf of Mexico and contributes to creating one of the world's largest dead zones. A depressing invention of modernity, a vast area of the ocean where so much crapola has been dumped into the ocean that little or nothing can survive there. The Louisiana fishing industry, the second largest in the nation according to this piece, is being damaged by an excess of nutrients being flushed into the ocean.

I also spoke to David Spielfogel, who is the head of policy and planning in the City of Chicago for the Mayor Rahm Emanuel. He put the problem of the Chicago River into perspective. The lake, he said, was a spectacular front yard where people flee at the weekends and bikers use to get downtown. The river could offer just the same thing but going through the heart of the city. And let us not forget that some of the city's most expensive real estate is by the lake. Experience from other major cities around the world tells us that city riverfront properties ought to be glamorous, desirable and expensive--not so cheap that you put your warehouses and industry there.

Margaret Frisbie, Executive Director of the Friends of the Chicago River, told me about the history of the river. How her group formed after a piece had been published about the friendless Chicago River and how in the early days they pushed for access to the water and a continuous river trail with guerrilla canoeing, and by taking people out and showing them the marvel on their doorstep.

It is all starting to pay off now that water quality is on the agenda. Margaret also told me that in the last five years the conversation about the Chicago River has changed. "People know what you are talking about when you talk about the river, its not about sewage and shipping, its about people, wildlife, boating, property values and for the first time regular people who are not involved in environmental activism or live near it see the value in a whole new way".

Groups like the Friends of the Chicago River, and the Natural Resources Defense Council in Chicago, can look at the river and reflect on a quiet victory for common sense. You can also read the NRDC's report on the river here

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Losing things...


Lost and not found 
Nov 19th 2011, 19:51 by N.L. | CHICAGO, from the travel blog Gulliver.

AS A frequent business traveller I’ve come to accept that the loss of personal items is something that comes with the job. On the way out of a hotel room I go through the mental checklist that we all use. Laptop… check…phone… check…wallet… check, and so on. But after the important things are accounted for, we then have to hope that our frisk of the room has been enough. And it frequently hasn’t. The sad truth is that, once you have shut that door, your chances of retrieving anything left behind are pretty low. [More...]

Friday, November 18, 2011

Circular infrastructure

What goes around 

Learning to yield 

Nov 19th 2011 | CARMEL, INDIANA | from the print edition

“I MEAN, it’s round, how difficult can it be?” asks the front-desk attendant at the Renaissance Hotel in Carmel, exasperated, when asked whether visitors struggle to navigate the town’s many roundabouts. Carmel, just north of Indianapolis, has 70 of them—more than any other city in America. But while locals love them for their speed and efficiency, visitors are apprehensive. One recent out-of-towner was so terrified by the strange formations that he preferred to travel by taxi. The mayor, Jim Brainard, built the first roundabout in Carmel in 1997 after seeing them in Britain. Instead of a four-way intersection with traffic lights, a circular bit of road appeared. It was so successful that today Carmel is the roundabout capital of America, and the mayor plans to rip out all but one of his remaining 30 traffic lights. [More...]

Friday, November 11, 2011

A black eye in the Buckeye

Ohio’s referendum 
A black eye in the Buckeye 

The unions flex their muscles in Ohio 
Nov 12th 2011 | COLUMBUS, OHIO | from the print edition

IN TOUGH economic times it might well seem reasonable to suggest that public-sector workers need to contribute a bit more, or to admit that their unions have extracted some unreasonably generous benefits. Even Democrats such as Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, and Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor, have said public-sector workers need to tighten their belts. Yet in Ohio the public-sector reforms of the Republican governor, John Kasich, were roundly rejected in a ballot on November 8th. [More...]


In Ohio this week, the public gave the governor John Kasich a electoral thumping as they comprehensively rejected his attempts to outlaw strikes among public-sector workers and greatly limit the extent of collective bargaining.

His biggest mistake was probably including the police and the firefighters in his plans. They are well-respected members of Ohio society and have powerful, well-organised unions. But even so, the scale of his defeat suggests that even had these two groups been excluded (as Scott Walker did in Wisconsin), he would have very likely been in trouble. In America they call this sort of politics "overreach". Where I come from it is called "biting off more than you can chew".

There is no particular love of unions in Ohio. One old woman, with a shotgun propped up nearby, told a canvasser "get off my porch you union crony". Moderates said things like, "I'm not a union person but..." and basically explained in one way or another that they didn't think the new law was fair.

There was a real show of union strength, with people coming in from all over the country to organise and campaign and someone even told the crowd the morning before the results came in that they were going to stuff Kasich's law down his throat. I was told that there was an incredible "energy" among the unions that had not been seen in a long time. This energy is now heading for Wisconsin in an attempt to unseat the governor there, who has enacted similar legislation. Beyond that, they will be working on the 2012 election.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

On buying food

Just deserts

Poor access to fresh food is a solvable health problem

Oct 29th 2011 | CHICAGO | from the print edition

THE corner shop on South Honore and West 59th in Englewood is an uninviting sort of place. Those windows that are not bricked up are covered in heavy security grilles; the shopkeeper hides behind a Plexiglas wall. Most of what is on offer is either packaged or carbonated, and is always processed. [More...]

Monday, October 31, 2011

Food for thought

Fruit vs Candy at Walgreens on Chicago's South Side
Last week I took a trip to Chicago's South Side to report on food deserts. On Tuesday afternoon Michelle Obama was holding an event on healthy eating at a South Side Walgreens.

For someone from out of town, the biggest surprise to me was to find Englewood is so uniformlyAfrican American. It turns out that the food desert problem, at least in Chicago, is very much segregated along racial lines. Like Chicago itself.

I had to ask one taxi driver three times to take me to south 57th before he would believe that I really wanted to go there. On my way out from the Obama event a police officer said "where is your car?", I told him I'd taken a taxi and he told me that there was "no way" I'd get a taxi in this neighbourhood. When I told him I was planning to get the El (the urban train network in town), he expressed some surprise.

I'd like to write more about Chicago's racial divisions in the future. In most of the larger cities I've ever been to there is far more cultural diversity, it may be old news here but there is certainly an economic story to tell here. If anyone can tell me more about about the past, present and future of this issue in Chicago, please do get in touch.

Back to food deserts... I had expected not to be particularly impressed that Walgreens, by tradition a pharmacy, was making much more of an effort to sell fresh and healthy food. But walking around the South Side it is clear what an oasis this is. There are plenty of places selling packets of really nasty 'food' which are high in things like sugar, salt, fat, artificial colourings and every other nasty you might imagine. One of the shops I went into near 59th and S Wood was as scary and as uninviting a prospect as you might imagine. For anyone interested in food deserts, I recommend the reports by Mari Gallagher.

Not far from where Michelle Obama was talking about healthy eating, her husband  had been paired up with something called Candy Corn which has a pretty terrifying list of ingredients that begin with Sugar, Corn Syrup, Confectioner's Glaze, Salt, Honey, and Dextrose. Eeek. I will be truly glad when Halloween, the national festival of sugar, is over.

Mr Obama found nearby promoting a different kind of fare.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Balancing the books in Chicago, part 1.

Reality bites

How to slash a deficit without raising taxes

Oct 22nd 2011 | CHICAGO | from the print edition

AT ABOUT 8.30am on Saturday October 15th, close to the city’s former meatpacking district, one of Chicago’s ancient water mains burst. As the road buckled and water gushed down alleyways, it was a timely reminder that the modern city is built on crumbling, century-old infrastructure. Fixing the problem is not easy, as the city is awash in debt as well as water. [More...]

Balancing the books in Chicago, part 2.

Rubbish competition

City and private-sector workers go bin-to-bin

Oct 22nd 2011 | CHICAGO | from the print edition

ON A cold damp morning in Chicago’s Irving Park a rubbish truck slowly inches its way along an alley, seeking out one of the city’s 240,000 recycling bins. The workers are unruffled over the latest initiative: a competition to see whether the public or the private sector can get the job done better. “We’ll just keep doing it the way we have always done,” says one city worker. [More...]

Correction in the Economist

Correction: The ivory-billed woodpecker

Oct 20th 2011 | from the print edition

Because of a captioning error by our photographic source, our illustration supposedly depicting the ivory-billed woodpecker (Dead or alive?, October 15th) actually shows the crimson-crested woodpecker. The two birds do look very similar.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Pining for the fjords...

Dead or alive?

Two groups say the ivory-billed woodpecker is extinct

Oct 15th 2011 | CHICAGO | from the print edition

WHEN Elvis Presley died in 1977, a lot of people continued to believe he remained alive but in hiding. The world of conservation has a similar phenomenon. The ivory-billed woodpecker was once found across the swampy forests of the south-eastern states. But as the big woods of the Mississippi Delta were chopped down, the woodpecker—with its distinctive tooting call and double knock—was slowly exterminated. Now, as with Elvis, sightings of the bird are hotly debated. [More...]

Thursday, October 13, 2011

More protests and a guess at what it is giving it legs

So this was City Hall in Chicago yesterday.

So it seems there are a lot of seriously pissed off people in town, and across America, at the moment. Some pundits reckon its an incoherent cry of rage aimed at Wall Street. Peter Wallison of the American Enterprise Institute reckons it is all down to a financial crisis driven by reckless mortgage lending, which in turn was driven by government policy. (So why did the financial crisis repeat itself in countries like Ireland, Spain and the UK where there was no such policy?).

The website of the 99%, the banner under which many of the protests have come, raises a lot of of different complaints, and it would be easy to dismiss them as incoherent or even as "jealous anti-capitalists" as one presidential candidate, Hermain Cain, is reported to have done. What is probably closer to the truth is that they would think of themselves as angry with capitalism--a subtle but important difference.

Toby Chow, a protester with SOUL (Southsiders Organised for Unity and Liberation) in Chicago, told me at a downtown protest on Tuesday that "class warfare" had been waged by the rich against the vast majority of Americans. This war, he said, involved the recent pushing of unsuitable mortgages, and can also be seen in the long-term stagnation of median wages, the enormous cost of education, and job insecurity through loss of manufacturing jobs abroad.

It may be the powerless cry of the unwashed masses, but they are no unruly rabble or "mob" as the protesters have been called.
Mr Chow is currently studying for a PhD at the University of Chicago. The protests are not calling for capitalism to be torn down--they simply want for it to work for them and they feel short-changed.

For them, capitalism hasn't delivered what was promised.
So its not simply about people losing their homes, or not getting jobs after paying tens of thousands of dollars for a degree, or the unaffordability of healthcare. Without wanting to sound too dramatic, it seems to be about the death of the American Dream.

While the protests may have been modelled on Tahir Square they have more in common with the riots in London and the protests in Greece. They are all about the same thing. Governments, all over the world, and for good reason, were forced to rescue financial institutions and parts of industry. To not do so would have been disastrous.

But the rescue made it clear who was ultimately bearing the risks being taken by these institutions: the ordinary person on the street. The people who clean the homes, empty the rubbish carts, and take on educational debts in the hope of bettering themselves.

Rich people have been variously tolerated or venerated, depending on whether you live in Europe or America. Not only do they generate great wealth but they are supposed to take risks that other people do not, and can in theory become poor again as a result. But the narrative now is that the wealthy will be saved, and the poor will be left to flounder. Thus it seems many Americans are falling out of love with the rich.

Whomever is really "behind" the protests, you can't organise a protest movement like this. Someone might have started the fire, but there is plenty of fuel to keep it going. It seems to me, a correspondent of less than a week in America, that many of the protesters feel the American Dream was a lie, that not only did they never have a real chance to be rich (because the system is stacked against them) but that ordinary Americans have carried the can for the unwise risks taken by the rich.

The dangerous thing about this idea is that much of the social contract in America revolves around the idea that anyone could get rich if they work hard enough. So what happens if the 99% (not the protest group but the actual 99%) start not to believe this?

Interesting times.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Welcome to classless America

Wall Street meets Main Street, today in Chicago at the annual meeting of the Mortgage Banker's Association.

They are shouting "lock us up, while the thieves are watching".

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Our kind of town

Moving home and having a baby are supposed to be two of the most stressful things in life, so I'm not sure that doing both at once is the best idea I've ever had. Nonetheless, the lovely Leo Francis Hopkins was born on March 31st in London at 9lbs and 13 oz--a whopper by any measure--and we plan to move to Chicago in August this year.

Writing for the science department at The Economist has been an enormous privilege. I am sad that I've had to move on. But I did need to make a move, had I not I would have fossilised. Which is why it is so thrilling to be starting, in a few months, a new job as the next Midwest correspondent for The Economist.

The entire family is shipping out to one of the most glorious and exciting cities in the world. Home to a new mayor, a presidential re-election campaign, massive debts, crumbling infrastructure, and more than its share of failing schools. A town where petrol at a mere $4 a gallon shocks and disturbs the locals. A town where the water authority can say with a straight face that cleaning up the river (which is an open sewer) is a bad idea because it will increase the risk of accidental drowning. A town known around the world for its corrupt politicians and where a former governor is currently on trial. Its a rich and hearty stew to feed any journalist. And Chicago is a tiny part of a vast territory that I'll be covering in the next three years. Excited doesn't even begin to cover it.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Baby on board

Three weeks to go, and still not quite packed my hospital bag. Things may go quiet soon.

I'll be glad to see the back of this badge. It was kindly provided by Transport for London for me to wear in the hope that it would encourage people to give me a seat on the tube.

Do you know that it is far more embarrassing being ignored while wearing this badge than without it? Hard to believe that anyone would want to willfully ignore heavily pregnant women and bury noses in a book or newspaper, but its just a fact of life.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Fish Fight: Game Over

Hats off to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and his campaign to end the dumping of dead fish. In a few short months, the power of one celebrity has done more to shift the debate over fishing than a decade of argument, and a fine campaigning book and film by the journalist Charles Clover. Last night, on Channel 4 news, Fearnley-Whittingstall proved he is more than a pretty-boy chef presenter by turning up and having a debate with Bertie Armstrong, Chief Executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation. The chef came out well.

Essentially, by making the discussion about how Britain and Europe fishes so public he has reminded citizens that the fish belong to everyone, not just those who have historically scooped them out of the sea. And if we don't stand up for our rights to a rational fishing policy, we will never get a deal that means our children will have access to the same marine wealth that we do. Although the buzz-word is "sustainable use", it basically means not stealing from the next generation by taking too much today.

Mr Armstrong revealed a little secret when he complained about proposals to ban the dumping dead fish as unworkable in various ways. In The Times today he reveals the policy would only be compatible with a "fleet that's a fraction of the size it is now". In other words, Mr Armstrong is opposed to any policy that will reduce the number of fishing boats, and jobs for fishermen--which his organisation represents.

Mr Armstrong and the Scottish Fishermen are, of course, entitled to their opinions. But thanks to the campaign, and the opinions of the broader public, the day is rapidly approaching when the fishing industry is simply told it is 'Game Over'. An industry that is subsidised by you and I to cause havoc in our oceans.

Fishing boats are far more capable than they used to be, thanks to new technologies. So we need fewer boats and fewer fishermen than we used to. I can't imagine any other industry insisting on its right to remain stuck in the previous century and getting away with it. If a less damaging fishing industry means fewer jobs for fishermen, this is unfortunate but necessary.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

An article about doctoral degrees hits a nerve

Sometimes it is easy to predict the articles will be popular, and sometimes an article unexpectedly hits a nerve. The essay composed for the Christmas edition of The Economist about doctoral degrees was always going to attract a little interest, but no idea how wildly popular it would be.

I think the reasons for this speak to an underlying problem: the commoditisation of academic research work. It looks at what happens to those who are hoovered up by academia to work on projects where a future career is unlikely.

In less than a month, this piece has had over 700,000 hits on the web page alone. It has featured in our list of the top ten most read articles for three weeks, and as of today still remains one of the ten most recommended items on the website. To put the phenomenal success of this article in context, well read articles can generally expect around 150K hits online in a week.

In the first week this article received about twice this number of hits, and has continued to maintain high levels of interest. In only a week this article became the highest hitting article of the entire year (maybe longer if we actually had looked back any further).

The disposable academic
Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time
Dec 16th 2010

Monday, January 24, 2011

Increase of tuberculosis linked with sin?

I find this moderately depressing. If I do a Google search on "antibiotic resistance in bacteria", the top hit is from a website called 'Answers', made to look a bit like Answers.com but with the easily missable subtitle 'building a biblical worldview'.

Most of the text is deceptively informative and harmless and you might read the entire thing oblivious until reaching the final line:

"Mutation and natural selection, thought to be the driving forces of evolution, only lead to a loss of functional systems. Therefore, antibiotic resistance of bacteria is not an example of evolution in action but rather variation within a bacterial kind. It is also a testimony to the wonderful design God gave bacteria, master adapters and survivors in a sin-cursed world."

If you've ever wondered why the world is struggling to contain antibiotic resistance, look no further than the accursed sinners afflicting our planet. Presumably Zsa Zsa Gabor's could have avoided a leg amputation if she had prayed more?