January 22, 2016
This is the face of nuclear development in the United States today: slow, over-budget, economically untenable. Yet the dream of a nuclear-powered society is still alive. Nationwide, we get about 20 percent of our electricity from nuclear. It produces the lion's share (64 percent) of our clean energy, provided that by "clean," you mean anything but fossil fuels. In addition to Watts Bar 2 there are four other reactors currently under construction in this country, signaling that perhaps America has a renewed interest in going nuclear. ... Look abroad and there's even more reason for nuclear advocates to be hopeful. China is leading a renaissance in nuclear energy: Today that country gets only 2.5 percent of its electricity from nuclear, but it has 21 reactors under construction, more in the works, and a growing business selling reactors to countries like Pakistan, Argentina, and the United Kingdom. This vigor marks a level of nuclear investment the world has not seen since the heyday of American atomic enthusiasm, when 58 reactors came online between 1965 and 1980. ... What happens next depends on whether nuclear boosters can solve the three key problems that have plagued American nuclear power, and left places like Watts Bar in perpetual limbo. ... nuclear power plants can generate tremendous amounts of energy. But while it's expensive to develop any kind of energy infrastructure, the cost of nuclear energy has not fallen over time. There is no Moore's Law in play here. ... Not only are China's reactors using a standardized design with some modular parts, but the entire construction process is performed by a dedicated crew that travels from reactor site to reactor site.
To many of us, QVC is a 1980s relic of grandmas and shut-ins. When QVC (which stands for "Quality, Value, Convenience") first went live in 1986, televised sales pitches were a disruptive idea in retail—bringing products that lived in malls to a growing cable audience in search of things to watch. The network wasn’t first-to-market in its genre—HSN (the Home Shopping Network) had launched a year earlier—but QVC’s impact was immediate. QVC would set the fiscal sales record for a new public company in its first year ($112 million) by avoiding malls, while teenage rock star Tiffany would become a pop icon by performing in them. From day one, QVC’s niche was the unhip. ... But if QVC’s 24/7/364 approach—they go off-air for Christmas—is a fossil, it’s a living one. While U.S. mall popularity peaked in 1990, QVC’s revenue continues to grow. The network now does $8.8 billion in worldwide sales a year, and like every other big company, it is eyeing expansion in China. While the grandma stereotypes are indeed a bit true—QVC’s audience is 90% women, ages 35 to 65—QVC quadrupled its young recruit customers between 2009 and 2013 from 3% to 12%. Maybe more importantly, over the last decade, QVC has been gracefully making the transition from landline caller to smartphone user. Forty-three percent of its U.S. sales now come through e-commerce channels, and 30% of these are through mobile. The television channel has become the fifth largest mobile retailer in the world. Even a hot startup like Kickstarter has learned from QVC: each product must be accompanied by a video interview with its creator. ... Ninety percent of QVC’s customers are repeat customers—the most sought after, profitable type, the same carefully cultivated by companies like Starbucks with Starbucks Rewards and Amazon with Amazon Prime. ... But while Starbucks offers the promise of free caffeine, and Amazon gives us faster shipping and streamable movies, QVC has personalities—27 hosts who are each responsible for selling hundreds of millions of dollars in products a year. They’re middle-aged. Often overweight. Family types—the average American, with better makeup and whiter teeth, each a character in a retail soap opera that viewers at home can follow forever.
It’s the church of choice for Bieber and Durant. It’s where the cool kids spend Sunday morning after Saturday night at the club. For ye of little faith, it’s hard to make sense out of Hillsong. Is it legit? Is it a hipster cult? And why’s everyone wearing Saint Laurent? ... Hillsong, which began in Australia, has outposts all over the globe, from Kiev to Paris to Buenos Aires. The church landed in New York City in 2010, with a branch at the Manhattan nightclub Irving Plaza, a branch at a theater in Times Square, and a branch in an auditorium at Montclair State University. On any given Sunday, Hillsong NYC salves the souls of 8,000 people, and what souls: Justin Bieber, yes, but also Kendall Jenner and Selena Gomez and Kevin Durant and Bono. “People say we cater to celebrities,” Pastor Carl tells me. “And I say, yes, we do. Celebrities deserve a relationship with God. Celebrities deserve a place to pray.” So do all of God’s children, he says. And so they save seats in a special section for celebrities, but also for people in wheelchairs and single mothers who were running late. But it’s easier for God’s children to find a peaceful home in which to pray than it is for, say, Damon Dash. ... that is an image that will stick with you, let me tell you: Justin Bieber, on his knees in Tyson Chandler’s bathtub, wet and sobbing against Pastor Carl’s chest ... I was witnessing the logical conclusion of an evolutionary convergence between coolness and Christianity that began at the dawn of the millennium, when progressive-minded Christians, terrified of a faithless future, desperately rended their garments and replaced them with skinny jeans and flannel shirts and piercings in the cartilage of their ears, in a very ostentatious effort to be more modern and more relatable. Which is why, today, you can find ironically bespectacled evangelicals in Seattle and graphic designers soliciting tithes with hand-drawn Helvetica flyers in San Diego. You can walk into mega-churches all over the country where the pastor will slap on a pair of leather pants and drop the F-bomb BOOM how do you like me now??
As the eugenic movement peaked and crashed, advances in reproductive technology made designer babies thrillingly, frighteningly possible. In the 1920s and early ’30s, visionaries imagined divorcing love and even marriage from procreation. Reproduction could be done scientifically, rationally, in a test tube. For optimists such as the biologist J B S Haldane, such ‘ectogenesis’ would permit humans to take the reins of their own evolution, eliminating disease and mutation, and perhaps enhancing qualities such as intelligence, kindness and strength of character. ... The development of molecular biology in the 1950s and ’60s transformed genes from abstractions into hard chemicals. Suddenly, scientists understood basically what a gene was. They thought they understood what a human was. ... By the mid-1980s, enthusiasts were discussing ‘genetic surgery’. The idea was to treat genetic disease by inserting a therapeutic gene into a modified virus and then ‘infect’ the patient; the virus would do the tricky part of inserting the gene into the chromosome. Through the 1990s, gene therapy was hyped almost as hard as CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), the new technology for ‘editing’ genes, is today. ... in terms of bringing us closer to a science-fiction world of intelligently designing our children – utopia or dystopia, take your pick – gene editing is more precise than accurate. The qualities we want in a child or in society can’t be had by tweaking a few nucleotides. There are no short cuts. To think otherwise is to conflate power with knowledge, to overestimate our understanding of biology, and to overestimate the role of genes in determining who we are.
Q-tips are one of the most perplexing things for sale in America. Plenty of consumer products are widely used in ways other than their core function — books for leveling tables, newspapers for keeping fires aflame, seltzer for removing stains, coffee tables for resting legs — but these cotton swabs are distinct. Q-tips are one of the only, if not the only, major consumer products whose main purpose is precisely the one the manufacturer explicitly warns against. ... The little padded sticks have long been marketed as household staples, pitched for various kinds of beauty upkeep, arts and crafts, home-cleaning, and baby care. And, for years, they have carried an explicit caution — every box of Q-tips comes with this caveat: "Do not insert inside the ear canal." But everyone — especially those who look into people's ears for a living — know that many, if not most, flat out ignore the warning.