Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Detroit in trouble

Trouble ahead for Detroit as the Governor of Michigan considers whether to appoint an emergency manager in order to avert financial disaster in the city. Over the last year Detroit has made a great deal of progress in trimming back costs, but nowhere near the amount it needs to make to avert financial disaster. There is a certain sense of inevitability among some about the chances of a state-appointed financial manager.  Nonetheless any appointment is bound to cause some controversy given the size of the city.

On my last visit to Detroit, one skeptic, a local reporter, felt that bankruptcy was inevitable. If it is, the state-appointed review team were certainly putting on a brave face. When they concluded their review they said bankruptcy was avoidable.


Skid row

A state takeover of Detroit, once America’s third-largest city, looks likely 

Feb 23rd 2013 | CHICAGO |From the print edition

THE city of Detroit has been in financial difficulty for so long that it has become almost an article of faith on the streets that, somehow, it will manage. But on February 19th it became highly unlikely that it will be allowed to muddle on for much longer. A state review team concluded that there was a local-government financial emergency in Detroit and no way of resolving the situation.

The governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, has 30 days to respond, but most people think he will take far less time than this to appoint an emergency manager. A looser power-sharing agreement between the city and the state has already been tried over the past year and has, clearly, failed. The authority of elected officials, including the mayor and the city council, will be suspended and the manager will assume control of public contracts, city assets, staff, pay and benefits. Reports suggest that Mr Snyder already has a shortlist of candidates for the job.[More...]

Monday, February 25, 2013

Yakking it up at the top of the world

I really like this picture of a yak (Photo credit: Joel Berger/WCS/University of Montana).

Nearly 1,000 wild yaks have just been found in a remote Tibetan Plateau. Yaks are the third largest land mammal in Asia, and once dotted the steppe. A recent press release from the Wildlife Conservation Society tells me that they were decimated by overhunting in the mid 20th century.

But an expedition to the mid-eastern Tibetan-Himalayan highlands (nice work if you can get it) has discovered this large new herd. Credit to a team of American and Chinese conservationists from the Wildlife Conservation Society and the University of Montana.

Photo credit: Joel Berger/WCS/University of Montana)
A terrible backlog of pieces to link to. Here is something I wrote last week about the incredible boom in crop and farmland prices in the Midwest. Its amazing when I write these pieces I'm frustrated by the miniscule amount of space that I've been given to make an account of a complex story. Then when I sit down in front of this blog, with an infinite amount of space, my mind is like a blank sheet of paper.


Fields of gold 

Farmers bask in soaring prices 

Feb 23rd 2013 | CHICAGO |From the print edition

ON THE basis of headlines alone, you might be forgiven for thinking that last year’s record-breaking drought had devastated American agriculture. Across the Midwest (and farther afield) more than 1,000 counties in 26 states were declared natural-disaster areas—the largest such ruling that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has ever made. Yet despite withered crops, sun-baked soil and damage from wildfires, some think that farming is in the midst of another golden age, thanks to booming commodity markets and record prices for farmland.

In recent years strong global demand for food and biofuels has been pushing crop prices higher. The drought has helped, not hindered, profits. For farmers able to produce corn (maize), it raised prices dramatically. The average price of corn was about 20% higher last year than in 2010, and reached $8.49 a bushel (25kg) in August. For everyone else crop-insurance payments have stepped in, reaching a record $14.2 billion in payments in mid-February, a figure that is expected to go on growing a bit as insurers finalise the claims. This year, according to a report from the USDA on February 11th, farm profits may rise by 14% to $128 billion, the highest in real terms since 1973. [More...]

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Guns and crime in Chicago

Murder rates

Feeling the heat

Gun control is getting increasingly political in the Windy City

Feb 9th 2013 | CHICAGO |From the print edition

“IT IS easier to buy a gun or drugs here than food,” says Marcenia Richards, the executive director of the Peace Coalition Against Violence. Her group, part of the church of Saint Sabina, is trying to halt the tide of murder that is ravaging what is left of the community of Englewood, a rundown district of Chicago. Outside her church is a wall with the names of almost 100 children and young adults. A sign says: “We are not forgotten.”

Killings like these are now less likely to be ignored, in large part because of the revulsion caused by the killing of 20 children at a Connecticut school in December. The death of a Chicago teenager, Hadiya Pendleton, who had recently performed in Barack Obama’s inauguration parade, got much attention. So did the agony of Shirley Chambers, who lost the last of her four children to gun violence in January. [More...]

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Power to the people

Saw some amazingly cool facilities and met some rather clever people writing about the batteries of the future. 

The future of energy

Batteries included?

The search for better ways of storing electricity is hotting up

Feb 2nd 2013 | LEMONT, ILLINOIS |From the print edition

KRIS PUPEK, an industrial chemist at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, near Chicago, waves a tube of white powder in the air emphatically. A mere pinch of the contents is sufficient for his analytical colleagues to work out if it has the potential to be the next whizzy material in battery research. But Dr Pupek does not deal in pinches. His job is to find out whether potential can be turned into practice—in other words, whether something that has the right properties can be made cheaply, and in bulk. If it can, it is passed on to industry for testing. The hope is that at least one of the tubes will start a revolution.

Batteries are a hugely important technology. Modern life would be impossible without them. But many engineers find them disappointing and feel that they could be better still. Produce the right battery at the right price, these engineers think, and you could make the internal-combustion engine redundant and usher in a world in which free fuel, in the form of wind and solar energy, was the norm. That really would be a revolution. [More...]

The Great Lakes

The shipping news

Despite problems, a revival in shipping on the Great Lakes is expected

Feb 2nd 2013 |From the print edition

WHEN spring arrives and the frozen shores of the Great Lakes are long thawed, the St Lawrence Seaway, North America’s liquid superhighway, should witness the greatest renewal of its shipping fleet in 30 years. Craig Middlebrook, the deputy administrator of the St Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation (which operates and maintains the American portion of seaway) reckons about 30 new ships are being built to ply its waters.

One of the latest to be launched was the Federal Satsuki commissioned by the Fednav Group, based in Montreal. She set sail from Cleveland in December. Part of the reason for this fleet renewal is the removal of duty on Canadian flagships built abroad in places like China and Japan. Another is that currency fluctuations have made it cheaper to acquire new vessels.

Yet as Rod Jones, the CEO of CSL Group, a shipping firm, says, “we have been waiting for a buying opportunity.” And the reason that many other companies feel the same way is that there is a widely held view that the Great Lakes region is poised for long-term economic growth. The shipping companies want to be ready for it. [More...]