2009 - %3, January

Airline Powers Test Flight With Pond Scum

| Thu Jan. 8, 2009 5:45 PM EST

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Nowhere is this more the case than with today's commercial aviation business, whose slow death has been accelerated of late by the twin nightmares of soaring fuel costs and global recession. The price of oil is way down from last year, but the financial breather will inevitably be short-lived as scarcity of fossil fuels grows in years to come.

What's a desperate airline to do? Charging for alcoholic beverages and checked bags won't cut it. (Don't expect these costs to vanish any time soon.) Nope, the only solution lies in experimentation with new fuel sources. Take Virgin Atlantic. Last year, Richard Branson's airline made news by powering a Boeing-747 with fuel partially derived from oils extracted from babassu nuts and coconuts.

In a piece I wrote for Mother Jones prior to the Virgin flight, I reported on widespread speculation that Branson might also choose to test algae as a biofuel. He never did so, of course, and now Continental Airlines has beaten him to the punch.

From the BBC:

The 90-minute flight by a Continental Boeing 737-800 went better than expected, a spokesperson said.
One of its engines was powered by a 50-50 blend of biofuel and normal aircraft fuel.
Wednesday's test is the latest in a series of demonstration flights by the aviation industry, which hopes to be using biofuels within five years.
The flight was the first by a US carrier to use an alternative fuel source, and the first in the world to use a twin-engine commercial aircraft (rather than a four-engine plane) to test a biofuel blend.

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Top 5: Peter Bjorn & John Get Bouncy, A Slumdog Standout, and More

| Thu Jan. 8, 2009 5:23 PM EST

We've been rather dry around the Riff lately (D.R.M.! TV News!) so I think it's time to get back to basics: New Tunes That Are Good. This week, a Swedish stomper, Texas tempos, a Slumdog standout, Bogota boogie, and, er, Scottish self-hatred.

1. Peter Bjorn & John - "Nothing to Worry About" (from Living Thing, out March 31)

Kanye could barely contain his enthusiasm, and neither can I. If you thought PB&J were only about shuffly, twee little ditties, get ready to have your mind blown by this stompy, shouty number. A bunch of kids scream the chorus while a wobbly guitar noodles over the beat from "Lip Gloss." What's not to like? (mp3)

2. Aether - "Orfeu Negro" (from Artifacts, out now on Exponential)

Aether is San Antonio producer (and graphic designer) Diego Chavez, and if you go look at some of his pretty pictures on his MySpace page whilst listening to this groovy number from his new album, you may notice some similarities: both his music and art are experimental but warm, detailed but instantly catchy, undeniably new but with a delicate retro patina.

Conyers vs. Gupta

| Thu Jan. 8, 2009 3:01 PM EST

CONYERS vs. GUPTA....Sam Stein reports that Rep. John Conyers has decided to publicly oppose the nomination of Sanjay Gupta as Surgeon General. That's.....weird. I don't really care much one way or the other about Gupta (though having a telegenic personality lead our public health service seems like a pretty inspired idea, frankly), and it's hard to believe that Gupta's smackdown with Michael Moore three years ago is anything more than a minor blip in the grand scheme of things. I wonder why Conyers is bothering to expend political capital on this?

Quote of the Day - 01.08.09

| Thu Jan. 8, 2009 2:26 PM EST

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Ezra Klein, explaining why Cass Sunstein's appointment as head of OIRA matters:

The key event here, and this gets a bit dull, was Executive Order 12291.

That does sound dull, doesn't it? But it's not, really, and Ezra provides a nickel summary of how the Office of Management and Budget has gotten so powerful over the past few decades and why its regulation watchdog is important. Go read.

Green Regulations

| Thu Jan. 8, 2009 2:12 PM EST

GREEN REGULATIONS....Josh Marshall wonders what kind of coalition is likely to arise to support green infrastructure spending:

In the avalanche of writing about a massive Stimulus Bill, the one proposition (though grandly general) that's been of most interest to me is one that is heavy on infrastructure spending and spending and R&D geared toward developing a sustainable Green economy....But is there a constituency in Congress for that?....The key is that I don't think it really lines up in traditional left-right terms. For instance, it's not clear to me that the Progressive Caucus in the House is that constituency necessarily. I suspect it likely cuts across established factions among the Democrats, and likely brings in elements of the business community — not surprisingly, the ones who'd get the contracts.

I don't know enough about this to say anything substantive, but I have the strong impression that a huge part of the answer to this is related to regulation. Right now, the energy industry is hemmed in by a vast web of state, local, regional, and federal regulation, and to get anything serious done you have to somehow either get all these various actors moving in the same direction or else cut completely through the mess via federal fiat. Which is much harder than it sounds. Even something relatively simple, like a carbon tax (simple from a policy perspective, anyway), has wildly varying consequences on different power generation plants depending on what kind of regulatory regime they operate under. Getting projects built and economic incentives right when they intersect with byzantine networks of regulation will turn you old and gray before your time.

This is something I should learn more about, but I haven't done it yet. In the meantime, I just wanted to mention it. In the real world, a lot of the solutions we'd like to see happen are going to be harder on a micro scale than a macro scale, and the coalitions that support them could end up looking pretty peculiar depending on what local regulatory changes are needed. On the upside, it's also a chance to bring in more supporters for green projects, since well-conceived regulatory changes could turn an erstwhile enemy into a newfound friend. More on this later.

Scientific American Just Can't Let It Go

| Thu Jan. 8, 2009 2:12 PM EST

I'm joking, of course. The esteemed science mag runs an article in its January 2009 issue slamming John McCain and Sarah Palin, but with a serious purpose: pointing out that many of those oh-so-hilarious earmarks that the GOP ticket brought up as illustrations of congressional waste — "We spent $3 million to study the DNA of bears in Montana. I don't know if that was a criminal issue or a paternal issue," said John McCain, repeatedly — were actually examples of valuable scientific projects.

The DNA work on grizzlies that McCain mentioned was actually fairly standard stuff mandated by the Endangered Species Act. Scientists have to do DNA studies to track population fluctuations, which are important when an animal is, you know, endangered. The "overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Illinois" that McCain mocked in a debate with Obama was, in reality, a replacement for the Adler Planetarium's star-projection system in its historic Sky Theater, the first planetarium theater in the Western Hemisphere. A statement from the planetarium after the debate said pointedly that the earmark request, which was not funded, was "not an overhead projector." And finally, the "fruit-fly research in Paris, France" that Sarah Palin dumped on during the campaign was actually $211,000 in funds that helped French researchers figure out ways to protect American crops from dangerous pests.

This is just the latest phase in the Republican war on science. We have some recommendations on how Obama can bring this long, stupid saga to a close.

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Mississippi, Vanguard of Abstinence Sex Ed, Now Boasts the Highest Teen Pregnancy Rate in the Nation

| Thu Jan. 8, 2009 1:42 PM EST

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Mississippi now has the nation's highest teen pregnancy rate, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control released yesterday. Between 2005 and 2006 the state's rate of teen pregnancy increased 13 percent, and is now more than 60 percent above the national average.

The report did not attempt to explain the spike, but a major factor is probably Mississippi's rejection of sex ed. The state's schools must stress abstinence and are prohibited from demonstrating how to use contraceptives. Numerous studies have found that kind of approach to be ineffective.

A common myth surrounding abstinence-only sex ed is that it works for teens who are evangelical Christians--the kids of the parents who are pushing schools to adopt the programs--so if schools would stick with the approach, the Godless masses would eventually get on the straight-and-narrow. But Bristol Palin isn't the only evidence that shreds that argument. In November the New Yorker's Margaret Talbot described the findings of Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, who published a book called "Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers":

His findings are drawn from a national survey that Regnerus and his colleagues conducted of some thirty-four hundred thirteen-to-seventeen-year-olds, and from a comprehensive government study of adolescent health known as Add Health. Regnerus argues that religion is a good indicator of attitudes toward sex, but a poor one of sexual behavior, and that this gap is especially wide among teen-agers who identify themselves as evangelical. The vast majority of white evangelical adolescents--seventy-four per cent--say that they believe in abstaining from sex before marriage. (Only half of mainline Protestants, and a quarter of Jews, say that they believe in abstinence.) Moreover, among the major religious groups, evangelical virgins are the least likely to anticipate that sex will be pleasurable, and the most likely to believe that having sex will cause their partners to lose respect for them. (Jews most often cite pleasure as a reason to have sex, and say that an unplanned pregnancy would be an embarrassment.) But, according to Add Health data, evangelical teen-agers are more sexually active than Mormons, mainline Protestants, and Jews. On average, white evangelical Protestants make their sexual début--to use the festive term of social-science researchers--shortly after turning sixteen. Among major religious groups, only black Protestants begin having sex earlier.

IMAGE AT RIGHT: Logo for Mississippi's abstinence campaign

Cheap Parking

| Thu Jan. 8, 2009 1:28 PM EST

CHEAP PARKING....One of Matt Yglesias's hobbyhorses is the scourge of cheap parking, and today he explains how mispriced parking can hurt downtown businesses:

On the one hand, meters might be so expensive that there are just tons and tons of vacant parking spaces haunting downtown. In this case, the high price of parking is keeping customers away from stores and the meter rates are [too] high. On the other hand, meters might be so cheap that convenient street parking is rarely available and drivers leave their cars parked for long stretches of time. In this case, the low price of parking is creating parking shortages and low turnover, keeping customers away from stores.

As a born and bred suburbanite, my reaction naturally is, "What are these parking meters you speak of?" Here in The OC, when you want to park your V-8 Cadillac Escalade, you just cruise through a vast expanse of asphalt until you find a suitable spot. What's to meter?

But I guess you city slickers do things differently, don't you? So here's my question: what's the best way to figure out a market price for parking? Surely someone has done this, haven't they? Electronic meters that adjust pricing to different times of day? Experiments with different prices? Studies of how many open spaces there are at different times and places? What? There must be some clever answer.

Wall Street Blues

| Thu Jan. 8, 2009 1:09 PM EST

WALL STREET BLUES....Given the increasingly grim economic news, Felix Salmon wonders why the stock market is up 20% over the past couple of months:

My feeling, mainstream as it may be, is that stocks are drifting upwards in blissful ignorance of reality, much as they did for nearly all of 2007, even after the credit crisis first hit. The panic sellers and the people desperately needing liquidity have left, volumes have fallen (as they always do around the holidays, no news there), and volatility has decreased. And so both value and momentum players are feeling increasingly comfortable rotating back in to the market.

But if the recession gets to be as bad as people are increasingly expecting, fundamentals will eventually start asserting themselves — and if we're unlucky, they'll do so in a violent downward manner, much as they did last fall.

Somebody yesterday was asking the same question — when will stocks start heading down again? — and the answer is pretty obvious: when earnings season rolls around and we learn just how bad corporate profits are these days. Time Warner and Intel issued profit warnings yesterday and the market dropped 3%. Today Walmart downgraded its profit projection for the fourth quarter and major retailers all reported that December was as dismal a month as they've ever had. In a few weeks, when earnings start getting reported more widely, there's going to be blood on the streets.

White House Replica in Foreclosure

| Thu Jan. 8, 2009 12:59 PM EST

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It's not the real thing, but it's about as close as most of us will ever get. Iranian-American developer Fred Milani, citing the dismal state of the housing market, is putting his 16,500 square-foot replica of the White House in Atlanta up for sale. "I don't want to sell, but I will," he told UPI. The house is apparently in foreclosure. No word on whether the faux-White House comes with a staff of butlers and chefs. But hey, you'll just have to make do.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from wharman.