The demographic and macroeconomic backdrop in sub-Saharan Africa resembles that of East Asia in the early 1980s, says Arnold Dubin-Green. How many astute investors among us would love to say they invested in Asia when the Tigers were cubs? … “The hopeless continent.” This was the Economist’s front-page reference to Africa in May 2000. Hopeless Africa; asphyxiated by civil war, corruption and political instability. … Investors ran a mile at the mere mention of Ghana, Kenya or Rwanda. Today, returns in more expensive developed markets threaten to be low for years to come. Slow global growth and low yields are the norm. Jumping off the US fiscal cliff and euro crisis, these headlines motivate investors to seek markets with higher yields and stronger fundamentals. … Fundamentals are better placed than in many developed markets. Africa is now the continent on their lips; a market that is a significant and growing part of the global economy with plenty of room for productivity gains, favourable demographics, commodity richness and recent history of fiscal and monetary reforms.
Dozens of cities are building a metro system. Some do not need it … NOT many global cities of nearly 9m people lack an underground line, but until the end of last year the eastern city of Hangzhou was one of them. Now city slickers and rural migrants squeeze together inside shiny new carriages, checking their smartphones and reading free newspapers like commuters the world over. There is standing-room only in the rush hour and, with tickets at less than a dollar, the metro is revolutionising the way people travel across town. … Two other Chinese cities—Suzhou and Kunming—have also opened their first underground lines in the past year, and the north-eastern city of Harbin is preparing to open one too. Four more cities have just added a new line to their existing systems. At least seven others have begun building their first lines.
Inside Germany’s profligate (Greek-like!) fiasco called Berlin Brandenburg ... Three years later, Berlin Brandenburg has wrecked careers and joined two other bloated projects—Stuttgart 21, a years-late railway station €2 billion over budget, and an €865 million concert hall in Hamburg—in tarnishing Germany’s reputation for order, efficiency, and engineering mastery. ... At the very moment Merkel and her allies are hectoring the Greeks about their profligacy, the airport’s cost, borne by taxpayers, has tripled to €5.4 billion. Two airport company directors (including Schwarz), three technical chiefs, the architects, and dozens if not hundreds of others have been fired or forced to quit, or have left in disgust. The government spends €16 million per month just to prevent the huge facility from falling into disrepair. According to the most optimistic scenarios, it won’t check in its first passengers until 2017, and sunny pronouncements have long since given way to “catastrophe,” “farce,” and “the building site of horror.” There is a noted German word for the delight some took in the mess, too.
Long-haul trucker Josh Giesbrecht lives a strange and solitary life, spending weeks on the road at a time while hauling cargo from point A to point B, covering vast distances on seemingly endless stretches of pavement. The 27-year-old native of Manitoba, Canada documents his trials and tribulations on YouTube, showing off his adorable dogs (Diesel and Sergeant) and his long and lonely hours on the road. Giesbrecht spoke with us via Skype from somewhere in the middle of North Dakota while en route to Iowa. He couldn't talk about what he was delivering — oddly, that's verboten — but he was happy to discuss getting paid by the mile, why Canadian fuel is superior to the stuff sold in the United States, and how not to plunge over an icy cliff in the depths of winter.
Information moves, or we move to it. Moving to it has rarely been popular and is growing unfashionable; nowadays we demand that the information come to us. This can be accomplished in three basic ways: moving physical media around, broadcasting radiation through space, and sending signals through wires. This article is about what will, for a short time anyway, be the biggest and best wire ever made. ... FLAG, a fiber-optic cable now being built from England to Japan, is a skinny little cuss (about an inch in diameter), but it is 28,000 kilometers long, which is long even compared to really big things like the planet Earth. When it is finished in September 1997, it arguably will be the longest engineering project in history. ... we all depend heavily on wires, but we hardly ever think about them. Before learning about FLAG, I knew that data packets could get from America to Asia or the Middle East, but I had no idea how. I knew that it had something to do with wires across the bottom of the ocean, but I didn't know how many of those wires existed, how they got there, who controlled them, or how many bits they could carry. ... it behooves wired people to know a few things about wires - how they work, where they lie, who owns them, and what sorts of business deals and political machinations bring them into being.
More than any other single innovation, the shipping container—there are millions out there, all just like the ones stacked on the Hong Kong Express but for a coat of paint and a serial number—epitomizes the enormity, sophistication, and importance of our modern transportation system. Invisible to most people, they’re fundamental to how practically everything in our consumer-driven lives works. ... Think of the shipping container as the Internet of things. Just as your email is disassembled into discrete bundles of data the minute you hit send, then re-assembled in your recipient’s inbox later, the uniform, ubiquitous boxes are designed to be interchangeable, their contents irrelevant. ... The exact placement of each box is a critical part of the equation: Ships make many stops, and a box scheduled to be unloaded late in the journey can’t be placed above one slated for offloading early. Imagine a block of 14,000 interlocked Lego bricks—now imagine trying to pull one out from the middle. ... The container’s efficiency has proven to be an irresistible economic force. Last year the world’s container ports moved 560 million 20-foot containers—nearly 1.5 billion tons of cargo altogether. Though commodities like petroleum, steel ore, and coal still move in specially designed bulk cargo ships, more than 90 percent of the rest—everything from clothes to cars to computers—now travels inside shipping containers. “Reefer” containers, insulated and equipped with cooling units, carry refrigerated cargo and are plugged into power sources on ships or at dockside. Because the containers are all identical, any ship can move them. ... The Port of Los Angeles, America’s busiest container port, handled 476,000 TEUs in 1981. Thirty years later, 7.9 million 20-foot containers—almost all of them containing goods on their way from factories in Asia—moved through the port, a 16-fold increase. Hamburg’s four container terminals loaded and unloaded 8.9 million TEUs in 2012. On the long list of global container ports, Hamburg and Los Angeles are middleweights: Shanghai, the world’s largest container port, moves 31 million TEUs each year.
The technology behind bitcoin lets people who do not know or trust each other build a dependable ledger. This has implications far beyond the cryptocurrency ... lack of secure property rights is an endemic source of insecurity and injustice. It also makes it harder to use a house or a piece of land as collateral, stymying investment and job creation. ... Such problems seem worlds away from bitcoin, a currency based on clever cryptography which has a devoted following among mostly well-off, often anti-government and sometimes criminal geeks. But the cryptographic technology that underlies bitcoin, called the “blockchain”, has applications well beyond cash and currency. It offers a way for people who do not know or trust each other to create a record of who owns what that will compel the assent of everyone concerned. It is a way of making and preserving truths. ... Other applications for blockchain and similar “distributed ledgers” range from thwarting diamond thieves to streamlining stockmarkets: the NASDAQ exchange will soon start using a blockchain-based system to record trades in privately held companies. The Bank of England, not known for technological flights of fancy, seems electrified: distributed ledgers, it concluded in a research note late last year, are a “significant innovation” that could have “far-reaching implications” in the financial industry. ... Some of bitcoin’s critics have always seen it as the latest techy attempt to spread a “Californian ideology” which promises salvation through technology-induced decentralisation while ignoring and obfuscating the realities of power—and happily concentrating vast wealth in the hands of an elite. The idea of making trust a matter of coding, rather than of democratic politics, legitimacy and accountability, is not necessarily an appealing or empowering one.
I entered the industry in the way many do: with a sense of complete personal abandon and lack of direction. No one enters out of high school, because they can't, so everyone goes in because something else didn't work out. Layoffs, breakups, and prison stints are popular notes of inspiration. I graduated journalism school tens of thousands in debt, and I needed fast cash with minimum expenditures. Craigslist, I noticed, was overrun with trucking companies making desperate pleas. So I spent three grand, earned a commercial driver's license at a community college, and applied to nine trucking jobs. ... The American Trucking Association famously claims that the trucking industry is forty-eight thousand drivers short of demand. Then again, there are 1.7 million large truck drivers, which makes the shortage sound less impressive. What is impressive is the industry's 87 percent turnover rate. The average driver age is in the upper forties. Poaching is rampant, and companies are constantly trying to replace drivers as fast as they're leaving. ... The day after applying, seven companies hired me.
Producing hydrogen now costs less and emits less carbon than ever before. In part, that is the result of the United States’ newfound abundance of natural gas, the source of most of the hydrogen produced. But it is also the result of technological improvements in the process of "reforming" natural gas into hydrogen. It now costs around as much to produce a gallon of gasoline as it does to produce the energy-equivalent amount of hydrogen with natural gas. Meanwhile, another method of producing hydrogen-electrolysis, which uses electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen-has seen major cost reductions as well. What makes electrolysis particularly attractive is that when powered by renewable sources such as wind and solar power, it directly emits zero carbon. ... Hydrogen storage has also improved. Prototypes used to feature bulky containers that were retrofitted into vehicles designed for conventional engines. But the latest tanks save space by being better integrated into the design of a car and by safely storing hydrogen at a higher pressure, leaving more room for passengers and their belongings. This new generation of containers allows a car powered by hydrogen fuel cells to travel as many miles on a single tank as a gasoline vehicle can and take about the same amount of time to refuel. ... The obstacles to distribution are beginning to fall away, too. True, with relatively few dedicated pipelines in existence, hydrogen has yet to show up at the vast majority of gas stations. But there are promising work-arounds. Most of the developed world does have good natural gas distribution infrastructure, which could feed smaller reactors that produce hydrogen. Hydrogen could also be produced on-site through electrolysis. ... estimates of what it would cost to mass-produce fuel-cell systems have decreased tremendously, from $124 per kilowatt of capacity in 2006 to $55 per kilowatt in 2014. The durability of these systems has improved dramatically as well, and they now meet the expectations of customers used to conventional automobiles.
Now the canal is being reconfigured by a $5.5 billion expansion project scheduled for completion early next year. Approved by national referendum in 2006, the expansion effectively doubles the canal’s capacity by adding a new set of locks to accommodate larger container ships. Chambers with walls 50 feet thick are being grafted directly onto bedrock, like extensions of the isthmus itself. But the construction — monumental as it is — is only a small part of the story. More important is how the Panama Canal expansion is altering logistical relationships and generating new infrastructures throughout the American Hemisphere. ... Almost as soon as the referendum passed, port authorities from Miami to Lima began racing to complete their own expansion programs: dredging deeper shipping channels, installing larger gantry cranes, and building new container yards, in speculative efforts to compete for the ultra-large container ships that will transit the widened canal. An intense wave of anticipation ripples outward throughout the multi-continental network of waterways, ports, inspection stations, railroads, switching yards, highways, warehouses, and distribution centers that enable the global flow and movement of shipped materials. ... The expansion will reconfigure trans-American shipping in three primary ways. 4 First, a higher volume of goods will move faster between the two oceans, decreasing transport costs and altering the delicate financial calculus that determines global shipping routes. Second, as canal traffic increases, there will be a corresponding rise in transshipment, where goods are transferred to smaller ships that service cities with shallower harbors. The canal’s three ports — Balboa, Colón, and Manzanillo — will link distribution centers like Shanghai with smaller hubs like Barranquilla, Colombia, thus increasing Panama’s importance to regional shipping networks. Third, the expansion will provide an attractive alternative for shipping agricultural products from the interior United States to East Asian markets, elevating the Mississippi River corridor relative to the currently dominant overland routes to Pacific ports.
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.
Driving itself is changing. Between electric and self-driving vehicles, ubiquitous sensors, network connectivity, and new kinds of transportation companies, everything is in flux: cars, how we feel about them, even roads and cities. This isn’t just hypothetical; you can use these things today. A radical phase shift is redrawing the map, literally and metaphorically. ... the new tools and technologies for moving around are interesting; put them together and you get something profound. Connect these new systems and individual networks to each other and they self-assemble into a transportation super-network. It’s decentralized, offers multiple routes from node to node, carries any kind of person or thing to any kind of place, and adjusts itself in real time. ... Sound familiar? Of course it does. That’s how the Internet works. ... To the new transportation supernetwork, you and I are just data. It doesn’t matter where we want to go; it just knows how to get us there—faster, cheaper, and utterly in control.
Hikmatullah Shadman, an Afghan trucking-company owner, earned more than a hundred and sixty million dollars while contracting for the United States military; for the past three years, he has been battling to save much of his fortune in a federal court in Washington, D.C. In United States of America v. Sum of $70,990,605, et al., the Justice Department has accused Hikmat, as he’s known, of bribing contractors and soldiers to award him contracts. Hikmat has maintained his innocence, even as eight soldiers have pleaded guilty in related criminal cases. Several members of the Special Forces who have not been accused of wrongdoing have defended him. In a deposition, Major Jerry (Rusty) Bradley, a veteran Special Forces officer, said, “The only way to right a wrong of this magnitude is to be willing to draw your sword and defend everything that you believe in.” ... Hikmat, who is in his late twenties, looks disarmingly young and gentle. Slim, with a high brow that he often furrows, he countered the charges against him in grave, deliberate English. “The people who did this investigation were sitting in air-conditioned rooms,” he told me. “They don’t know what was happening in the field.” He offered to explain how he had made his fortune. “I was part of the Special Forces family,” he said. “I was trained by them.” ... Before the Americans came, Hikmat lived with his father, a schoolteacher; his mother; and five siblings in a four-room mud-walled house in one of the oldest parts of Kandahar City, in southern Afghanistan. In the summer of 2001, Hikmat was fourteen years old, and he and his friends chafed at the narrowness of life under the Taliban. No one had a telephone, televisions were banned, and there was rarely any electricity. ... He had started a side business selling fruit and soft drinks to the base, and that winter he quit his job as an interpreter in order to work on the business full time. Hikmat told me that a sergeant major at the Special Forces headquarters helped him register it at the main U.S. base, known as Kandahar Airfield, or KAF. On February 25, 2007, Hikmat signed a “blanket purchase agreement” with the U.S. military, an open-ended contract for trucking services. He started with a single rented truck.
Conventional wisdom says that globalization has stalled. But although the global goods trade has flattened and cross-border capital flows have declined sharply since 2008, globalization is not heading into reverse. Rather, it is entering a new phase defined by soaring flows of data and information. ... Remarkably, digital flows—which were practically nonexistent just 15 years ago—now exert a larger impact on GDP growth than the centuries-old trade in goods ... although this shift makes it possible for companies to reach international markets with less capital-intensive business models, it poses new risks and policy challenges as well. ... The world is more connected than ever, but the nature of its connections has changed in a fundamental way. The amount of cross-border bandwidth that is used has grown 45 times larger since 2005. It is projected to increase by an additional nine times over the next five years as flows of information, searches, communication, video, transactions, and intracompany traffic continue to surge. In addition to transmitting valuable streams of information and ideas in their own right, data flows enable the movement of goods, services, finance, and people. Virtually every type of cross-border transaction now has a digital component.
Lower Silesia, in southwestern Poland, is a land of treasure hunters. Until the end of the Second World War, the region—covered by mountains and deep pine forests with towering, arrowlike trees—was part of Germany. In the early months of 1945, the German Army retreated, along with much of the civilian population. The advancing Red Army killed many of the Germans who remained. Nearly all those who survived were later evicted and forced to move west. By the end of 1947, almost two million Germans had been cleared out. ... In order to fill the emptied landscape, the newly formed Polish government relocated hundreds of thousands of Poles from the east. The settlers arrived in vacant towns, walked into empty houses, and went to sleep in strangers’ beds. There was furniture in the houses, but usually the valuables were missing. The porcelain dishes, the silk dresses, the fur coats, the sewing machines, and the jewelry were gone, often hidden in the ground: buried in jars, chests, and even coffins. It was a hasty solution—a desperate effort to cache valuables as people were running for their lives. The owners of these possessions intended to return, but most didn’t. And so on steamy fall mornings, when the new arrivals dug in their gardens or tilled their fields, they unearthed small fortunes. ... There were so few consumer goods available that many of the new residents made a living by trading merchandise stolen from German homes. ... as the end approached and German troops departed, the military allegedly buried gold, jewels, art works, and even futuristic weapons. The most famous story involves a German military officer named Herbert Klose, who worked as a high-level police official in the city of Wrocław. After the war, Klose was caught and interrogated by the Polish secret police. ... In a region where treasure hunting is a pastime, they pride themselves on being the best.
You might think twice about boarding a bus named "If Tomorrow Never Comes," with the phrase spray-painted in green above the windshield. I don't, not when the alternative is loitering along the smog-shrouded shoulder of Commonwealth Avenue—the 18-lane highway looping through Metro Manila colloquially known as the "Avenue of Death." And not when the ride in question is actually a jeepney, the garishly decorated offspring of U.S. Army jeeps abandoned in the Philippines following World War II. You might call it a death trap, but for millions of Filipinos it's just part of the daily commute. ... Jeepneys have neither emissions standards nor seatbelts nor retirement ages—the eldest have been running since the 1970s. They are the most dangerous and decrepit two percent of traffic, and they generate 80 percent of vehicular pollution. ... Nearly half of the capital's residents take one of its 45,000 jeepneys to work each day, more than double the number riding the city's buses and trains. Yet it's virtually impossible to cross the megacity riding just one; a typical commute involves some combination of the three. ... But today, Metro Manila has a booming economy and a surging population—the supercity has added 6 million residents since 2000, for a total of more than 24 million. At the same time, middle-class Filipinos are fleeing jeepneys for a quiet, air-conditioned drive in their own vehicles. Cars presently account for less than a third of all passengers on Manila's roads, but comprise nearly three-quarters of traffic. New car sales have nearly doubled in just the last three years. ... Jeepneys traditionally operate on a franchise system, with owners applying to the DOTC for the right to run on a particular route. The problem, she explains, is that the government never bothered to create a coherent network—it just handed out franchises to anyone who asked.
Over its 118-year history, Bechtel has arguably changed the face of the physical world more than any other company, anywhere. Here’s a short list of its signature projects: the Hoover Dam (completed in 1936), the Trans-Arabian Pipeline (1950), the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (1976), NASA’s Space Launch Complex 40 (1992), the Channel Tunnel (1994), and the Athens Metro (2004), not to mention Jubail in Saudi Arabia, where Bechtel has been overseeing the construction of one of the world’s largest industrial cities for over 40 years. It recently completed the Hamad International Airport in Qatar, which is built to eventually handle more than 50 million passengers a year (matching the traffic at New York’s J.F.K.). And with BrightSource Energy, it constructed the Ivanpah solar electric complex, a landscape of 350,000 heat-generating mirrors in California’s Mojave Desert that’s the largest solar-thermal plant on the planet. ... Bechtel is currently overseeing a major portion of Crossrail, the largest infrastructure installation in Europe—a network of tunnels and rail links in London that will connect the city to the outer suburbs. And the company has developed the first liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal in the continental United States. ... The parade of projects has made Bechtel one of the half-dozen largest privately held companies in the U.S., with $40 billion in 2015 revenue, outranking the likes of chocolate giant Mars and grocery chain Publix. ... In an increasingly competitive environment, the company needs to be able to attract the best engineers and managers to thrive. Today those elite recruits demand to understand the values of the companies that are wooing them. “Ours is a people business that depends on fielding the most capable project teams in the world,” he says. Like many other major private companies, Bechtel’s leaders feels they can no longer afford to hide behind its closely held status and let others control the narrative about its business. ... Bechtel must win on competence, not contacts. It’s all about a company’s ability to deliver a job on schedule and on budget, at the lowest cost.
The United States Air Force, which runs the G.P.S. Master Control Station, in Colorado, calls G.P.S. “the world’s only global utility.” Wholly owned by the U.S. government, the system is available free to everyone, everywhere; an ISIS terrorist glancing at his phone for a position fix benefits from the Pentagon’s largesse as much as a commuter on I-95. Since the first G.P.S. satellite was launched, in 1978, the system has steadily become the most powerful of its kind. (Other countries have navigation satellite networks, but none are as dependable or as widely available.) There are now around seven G.P.S. receivers on this planet for every ten people. Estimates of the system’s economic value often run into the trillions of dollars. ... The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently determined that, within thirty seconds of a catastrophic G.P.S. shutdown, a position reading would have a margin of error the size of Washington, D.C. After an hour, it would be Montana-sized. Drivers might miss their freeway exits, but planes would also be grounded, ships would drift off course, commuter-rail systems would be tied up, and millions of freight-train cars with G.P.S. beacons would disappear from the map. ... Fortunately, a worldwide G.P.S. failure is unlikely. A hacker or terrorist would require either a weapon powerful enough to destroy the satellites or a way to infiltrate the heavily fortified Master Control Station. The bigger worry is spoofing, the transmission of a bogus G.P.S. signal that nearby receivers mistake for the real thing.
Ah, there you are. That didn't take too long, surely? Just a click or a tap and, if you’ve some 21st century connectivity, you landed on this page in a trice. ... But how does it work? Have you ever thought about how that cat picture actually gets from a server in Oregon to your PC in London? We’re not simply talking about the wonders of TCP/IP or pervasive Wi-Fi hotspots, though those are vitally important as well. No, we’re talking about the big infrastructure: the huge submarine cables, the vast landing sites and data centres with their massively redundant power systems, and the elephantine, labyrinthine last-mile networks that actually hook billions of us to the Internet. ... And perhaps even more importantly, as our reliance on omnipresent connectivity continues to blossom, our connected device numbers swell, and our thirst for bandwidth knows no bounds, how do we keep the Internet running? How do Verizon or Virgin reliably get 100 million bytes of data to your house every second, all day every day?
In the US, municipal drinking water is protected by the Safe Drinking Water Act, which compels utilities to monitor things like microorganisms and the disinfectants used to subdue them. In 1998 the EPA tightened its standards on disinfectants, many of which can have their own toxic byproducts. One of the worst offenders is a classic: chlorine. Its main replacement, a chemical called chloramine (really just a mix of chlorine and ammonia), has lower levels of carcinogenic breakdown products, but it also makes the water corrosive—enough to eat through metal. ... Lead is insidiously useful. It’s hard but malleable, is relatively common, melts at a low enough temperature to be workable, and doesn’t rust. The Romans used it for plumbing—in fact, that word derives from the Latin word for lead, plumbum. Even the Romans noticed, as early as 312 BC, that lead exposure seemed to cause strange behaviors in people. But as Werner Troesken, an economist at the University of Pittsburgh, explains in his book The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster, lead pipes solved a lot more problems than they caused. The hydrologists of the 19th century knew that lakes and wells could harbor cholera; they needed large, clean bodies of water that they could pump into the city. Lead made those pipes possible. ... in 1991 the EPA instituted the Lead and Copper Rule, requiring utilities to check water regularly. The critical level has changed over the years as new science has come to light, but today officials are required to take action if lead exceeds 15 ppb in more than 10 percent of residents’ taps. The metric is utilitarian, scaled to spot trouble just before it turns into disaster. It’s a good rule, as long as utilities follow it.
Disputes quickly erupted over how to divide responsibilities. Some executives appeared not to fully grasp how little money they had to complete a complex project with a tight deadline and a multicultural team whose members did not always see things the same way. ... Internal arguments soon gave way to bigger problems. There would be work stoppages, porous concrete, a risk of earthquakes and at least $3.4 billion in disputed costs: more than the budget for the entire project. ... Seven years later, and nearly two years late, the locks have finally been declared ready to accept the new generation of giant ships that carry much of the world’s cargo but cannot fit in the original canal. To mark the occasion, Panama has invited 70 heads of state to watch on Sunday as a Chinese container ship becomes the first commercial vessel to attempt the passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific through the larger locks. ... For more than 100 years, the canal has been a vital artery nourishing the world economy, a testament to American engineering and one of the signature public works of the 20th century. The new locks, built by Panama without help from other governments, were sold to the nation and the world as a way to ensure that the canal remained as much of a lifeline in the hyperglobalized 21st century as it was in the last. ... one inescapable fact will remain: The expanded canal’s future is cloudy at best, its safety, quality of construction and economic viability in doubt ... In simple terms, to be successful, the new canal needs enough water, durable concrete and locks big enough to safely accommodate the larger ships. On all three counts, it has failed to meet expectations, according to dozens of interviews with contractors, canal workers, maritime experts and diplomats, as well as a review of public and internal records.
The U.S. electric system is in danger of widespread blackouts lasting days, weeks or longer through the destruction of sensitive, hard-to-replace equipment. Yet records are so spotty that no government agency can offer an accurate tally of substation attacks, whether for vandalism, theft or more nefarious purposes. ... Most substations are unmanned and often protected chiefly by chain-link fences. Many have no electronic security, leaving attacks unnoticed until after the damage is done. Even if there are security cameras, they often prove worthless. In some cases, alarms are simply ignored. ... the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates the country’s interstate power system, began requiring that utilities better protect any substation that could disable parts of the U.S. grid if attacked. ... FERC’s new rule, however, doesn’t extend to tens of thousands of smaller substations ... The grid was cobbled together during the electrification of the U.S. over the past 125 years. It is a fragile, interdependent system generally more vulnerable in summer when it is running closer to its limits. It is also at risk during low-demand periods, when power-plant operators and linemen perform maintenance. Fewer plants and transmission lines operating mean fewer options for delivering electricity during emergencies.
Biodiesel scams are puny compared with Medicare and Social Security fraud. For sheer moxie, though, it’s hard to beat Phil Rivkin. ... He started Green Diesel in October 2005, two months after President George W. Bush signed legislation creating the Renewable Fuel Standard program. The law directed the EPA to oversee a regulatory regime designed to foster production of alternative transportation fuels, including corn-based ethanol, as well as biodiesel derived from vegetable oils, animal fats, and used cooking grease. ... The statute was a boon to renewable fuel makers—and an irritant to gasoline and diesel refiners—because it required refiners to blend at least 4 billion gallons of ethanol (for gasoline) and biodiesel (for diesel fuel) into their products in 2006, with the amount rising to 7.5 billion gallons by 2012. The program now calls for 36 billion gallons in 2022, with varieties of ethanol representing the bulk of the requirement. Each year, the EPA sets obligations for individual refiners. Most years, ExxonMobil is on the hook to blend the largest amounts of renewables. ... Making biodiesel is simple enough that high school students do it in chemistry class. In a process called transesterification, producers use a chemical catalyst such as methanol to separate methyl esters—the scientific name for biodiesel—from glycerin in such feedstocks as poultry fat. ... Per EPA rules, each gallon of ethanol or biodiesel produced is assigned a 38-digit number—a renewable identification number, or RIN—that travels with the product as it moves from producer to refiner to end user. Ethanol RINs generally remain fixed to their respective gallons throughout the process. But the EPA allows biodiesel makers to strip RINs off their product and sell them separately as tradable credits. Refiners who fall short of blending the statutory minimum of biodiesel into their refined products must buy RINs to make up the difference or pay penalties. ... It isn’t hard to see how Rivkin was able to snooker Fortune 100 companies. To them, Green Diesel—or some equally innocuous broker that had bought RINs from it—was merely an entry on a computer offering to make a problem go away. The refiners needed RINs, Rivkin was selling, and the price was trifling.
The costs of air traffic control have continued to rise, as has the size of the controller workforce. Decades of steadily increasing air traffic have put excess pressure on air traffic controllers. Planes fly around the clock, and the greenest controllers get saddled with overnight or odd shifts, often stuck in a dark room while senior employees opt for cushy positions in places with little air traffic and good weather. ... It's a mess. But it doesn't have to be this way. ... While the FAA accepted this kind of GPS-based system in theory, it took years to develop compatibility software to allow controllers to receive radar-like position information for their screens. Once this system became operational in Pacific and North Atlantic airspace, it took the FAA more than a decade of testing to adopt a similar program for domestic airspace. In 2003, the FAA put an indefinite hold on development. It wasn't until 2012 that the program relaunched with the capability to begin this year. Even so, it won't be fully operational until 2025. ... The FAA, a government agency, must prove competitive due diligence and receive authorized appropriations from Congress, whose representatives aren't always motivated to close down obsolete facilities, especially if it means losing jobs in their districts. Even the FAA's current plan for bringing in satellite-based nav relies heavily on radar as a backup for GPS surveillance, which reduces funding for a new and modern system. ... Sometimes a controller literally calls the next person in line. Sometimes controllers pass information written on plain old paper. ... What if the business of air traffic control were to break off from the FAA, freeing the system from the bureaucracy of a federal government agency? This isn't just idle talk. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a specialized agency created by the United Nations to manage aviation standards among its 191 member states, recommends all nations separate air traffic control from aviation safety agencies. While nearly all member countries do so, the United States has not.
This is the story of the first 15 years of how we have dealt with that newfound fear—how we have confronted, sometimes heroically and sometimes irrationally, the mechanics, the politics, and the psychic challenges of the September 12 era. ... Have we succeeded in toughening up what overnight became known as “homeland security”? Absolutely. But not without a series of extravagant boondoggles along the way. ... Are we safer? Yes, we’re safer from the kind of orchestrated attack that shocked us on that September morning. It’s harder for terrorists to get into the country, and harder for them to pull off something spectacular if they do. But we have not plugged some of the most threatening security gaps. Worse, as the Orlando massacre reminded us, the world has become more populated by those who want to exploit those gaps, including those living among us—and who, in the United States, can easily obtain military-grade weapons. They are not deterred by the prospect of their own death, and they are happy to commit acts less ambitious than those of 9/11. That makes their attacks much harder to detect in advance. Our defenses are far stronger, but what we have to defend against has outpaced our progress. ... Have we adjusted, politically and emotionally, so that we can make rational decisions as a government and as a people to deal with the ongoing threat? Not yet. In a bitterly divided democracy, where attention spans are short and civic engagement is low and the potential for oversimplification and governing-by-headlines is high, that is hardly a surprise.