Joe Biden Says Trains Will Soon Be Almost as Fast as Planes. That’s Ridiculous.

“the fastest speed that a train has ever achieved—not while carrying passengers, mind you, but just as an experiment—is 357 mph. Over long distances, while carrying passengers and making stops at stations, the world’s speediest train is China’s Beijing to Nanjing line, which runs at slightly less than 200 mph.

Meanwhile, the average speed of a commercial jet in the United States is about 500 mph.

That’s not even close to being an apples-to-apples comparison. After all, planes carrying passengers used to routinely break the sound barrier (roughly 760 mph, though it varies based on atmospheric conditions), and experimental aircraft have gone far faster. Still, the world’s fastest train still finishes a distant second when matched up against an average, boring Boeing 737.”

A major battle over free speech on social media is playing out in India during the pandemic

“As the coronavirus pandemic rages in India, claiming thousands of lives, many Indians are turning to social media to demand that the government handle the public health crisis better. And now, the government is silencing these critics in its latest threat to the future of free speech on the internet in the world’s second-most populous country.

In recent weeks, the Indian government has requested that companies like Twitter take down content that it says contains misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic. But critics say that India’s political leadership under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is using the premise of misinformation to overreach and suppress criticism of the administration’s handling of the pandemic.”

“under the Modi administration of the past several years, the country has expanded its internet regulation laws, giving it more power to censor and surveil its citizens online. The government has several levers to pressure US-based tech companies into compliance: It could arrest Facebook and Twitter staff in India if their employers don’t follow orders. Even further, India could yank Twitter or Facebook off the local internet in India entirely, as it recently did with TikTok and several major Chinese apps in June. And the government resorted to effectively shutting down the internet in Kashmir in February 2020 when it wanted to quiet political dissent in the region.”

“Facebook confirmed that it temporarily blocked posts with a #ResignModi hashtag in India, but it later said it was a mistake because of content associated with the hashtag that violated its policies. Facebook has since restored access to the hashtag.

Facebook declined to comment on how many or what takedown requests it has received from the Indian government in recent weeks. A source familiar with the company said Facebook only took down a small portion of the total requests it received.”

“Recode reviewed the more than 50 tweets that Twitter blocked or deleted at the request of the Indian government in recent weeks. While some could be considered misleading — including one viral image showing devastation in India supposedly related to the pandemic which Indian fact-checker AltNews reported to be outdated — it wasn’t clear what was misleading about several other posts, which appeared to be straightforward news and political commentary.”

Why Does American Infrastructure Cost More and Take Longer to Build Than It Used To?

“What forces, then, did drive the cost escalation? One key finding, the authors say, is that if a given community is wealthier, the state will wind up spending more to build a given mile of interstate. This effect increased over time.

To some extent, correlations of this sort might manifest themselves even if affluent neighborhoods do not exert any particular clout. Amenities that attract well-off residents, such as water views, may be the same ones highway builders take pains to avoid spoiling; municipalities may have reason to press for features such as noise barriers in places where property tax collections are high and officials have an incentive to keep property values from falling, and so forth.

Another possibility, however, is that wealthier persons are simply “more effective at voicing their interests in the political process.” The highway route gets diverted in a way that protects their amenity, but spoils some equally valued amenity in a less affluent neighborhood. The unwelcome extension is completed far behind schedule, with concomitant expense, because opponents have been skillful at working the system by stretching out hearings and reviews and then suing.”

“Brooks and Liscow pinpoint the early 1970s as the inflection point for increased spending on highway projects. What was happening around that time? The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires environmental impact review for federally funded projects, was passed in 1970. California passed its considerably more stringent CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) the same year, and it was signed by none other than Gov. Ronald Reagan. In 1972 and 1973, Congress added additional federal laws that provided key leverage in fighting construction projects on the basis of loss of species habitat and wetlands. The U.S. Supreme Court helped out with the 1971 case of Citizens To Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe, which multiplied the chances to go to court over development by curtailing judges’ deference to agency decision making. All of these laws and decisions have made it much easier for citizens to contest infrastructure projects, driving up their cost and delaying their implementation and completion.

Among Brooks and Liscow’s most interesting findings is this: The relationship between local resident income and project expense took off just as these changes in law were coming online. Before 1970, the two were related modestly enough that the correlation failed to score as statistically significant. It then proceeded to quintuple.”

“the new “citizen voice” laws brought some authentic benefits; objectors could bring genuinely useful information to the highway planners about ways to avoid environmental harm.”

That 60 Minutes Story on Ron DeSantis and Florida’s Vaccine Rollout Is Wildly Flawed

“A 60 Minutes story on Florida’s vaccine rollout accused Ron DeSantis, the state’s Republican governor, of making a corrupt deal with Publix to distribute the vaccine. CBS reporter Sharyn Alfonsi noted that the grocery chain donated $100,000 to DeSantis’ election campaign and suggested the lucrative vaccination contract was a “pay-to-play” scheme.

It’s an accusation that doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny: For one thing, Publix—like many large corporations—gives money to both Republicans and Democrats. But more importantly, the decision to have Publix coordinate vaccination was not even made by the governor’s office. According to Jared Moskowitz, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, it was his offices that recommended Publix. Moskowitz, a Democrat, has said that Publix was the best store for the job, since it has more than 800 locations across the state.

Indeed, when Alfonsi cornered DeSantis at a press conference and asked him about Publix, he gave a lengthy explanation that largely undercut her claims. He pointed out, for instance, that it wasn’t true that Publix got the vaccines first: CVS and Walgreens had already been contracted to coordinate vaccination for long-term care facilities.”

“Remarkably, CBS cut this portion of DeSantis’ response. In fact, the 60 Minutes story reduced his two-minute answer to just a few seconds.”

“This was not a case of a journalist condensing the essence of what a source told her: Alfonsi blatantly ignored the part of the governor’s statement that clashed with her narrative, and instead included a brief comment that made it sound like he became combative with her for no reason.”

India’s ruling party lost a key election. It’s worrying that it even stood a chance.

“For the past few years, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a far-right Hindu nationalist faction, have dominated national politics. Since coming into power in 2014, Modi and BJP have attacked the foundations of India’s political system, gradually undermining the guardrails protecting democracy.

But this weekend saw a notable setback for Modi: an electoral defeat by a larger-than-expected margin.

In local elections held in five states, the BJP lost the biggest prize: control of the Legislative Assembly in West Bengal. The defeat came amid gathering signs of trouble for Modi’s quest to dominate India — the world’s worst Covid-19 outbreak, attributable in no small part to government policy, foremost among them.

A large and diverse cultural hub ruled by a communist faction for three decades, West Bengal can roughly be understood as India’s California. The BJP under Modi is a bit like the GOP under Donald Trump, only far more popular and politically effective. This anti-Muslim faction winning control of the local government in a left-wing bastion would have been a sign that its efforts to snuff out the political opposition had been successful, and that Indian democracy was going further down the path of its deceased cousins in Turkey, Hungary, and Venezuela.

Pre-election reporting suggested the BJP had a real shot at defeating incumbent Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her left-wing Trinamool Congress party (TMC). The national party poured resources into the fight; Modi held a number of large campaign rallies in the state, while India’s Election Commission tilted the rules of the contest in its favor, scheduling the vote in a way that facilitated BJP campaigning and turnout in BJP strongholds.

Yet results released on Sunday showed that Modi‘s gambit had fallen short: The current count shows the TMC holding a supermajority in West Bengal’s parliament, around 213 seats out of 294. The BJP, which some exit polls suggested would win outright, will hold fewer than 80.”

A Medical Student Questioned Microaggressions. UVA Branded Him a Threat and Banished Him from Campus.

“He was ultimately suspended for “aggressive and inappropriate interactions in multiple situations.” On December 30, UVA police ordered him to leave campus.

UVA’s administration engaged in behavior that can be described as “gaslighting.” Administrators asserted that Bhattacharya had behaved aggressively when he hadn’t, and then cited his increasing confusion, frustration, and hostility toward the disciplinary process as evidence that he was aggressive. And all of this because Bhattacharya asked an entirely fair question about microaggressions, a fraught subject.”

The ‘Green Energy’ That Might Be Ruining the Planet

“Here’s a multibillion-dollar question that could help determine the fate of the global climate: If a tree falls in a forest—and then it’s driven to a mill, where it’s chopped and chipped and compressed into wood pellets, which are then driven to a port and shipped across the ocean to be burned for electricity in European power plants—does it warm the planet?

Most scientists and environmentalists say yes: By definition, clear-cutting trees and combusting their carbon emits greenhouse gases that heat up the earth. But policymakers in the U.S. Congress and governments around the world have declared that no, burning wood for power isn’t a climate threat—it’s actually a green climate solution. In Europe, “biomass power,” as it’s technically called, is now counted and subsidized as zero-emissions renewable energy. As a result, European utilities now import tons of wood from U.S. forests every year—and Europe’s supposedly eco-friendly economy now generates more energy from burning wood than from wind and solar combined.”

“Nevertheless, the global transition away from fossil fuels has sparked a boom in the U.S. wood-pellet industry, which has built 23 mills throughout the South over the past decade, and is relentlessly trying to brand itself as a 21st-century green energy business. Its basic argument is that the carbon released while trees are burning shouldn’t count because it’s eventually offset by the carbon absorbed while other trees are growing. That is also currently the official position of the U.S. government, along with many other governments around the world.”

“critics of the industry have suggested an alternative climate strategy: Let trees grow and absorb carbon, then don’t burn them. Deforestation is a major driver of climate change, and the United Nations climate panel has warned that the world needs to end it worldwide to meet the ambitious Paris emissions targets for 2050.”

“European experience shows that general policies to promote renewables can spark a massive shift to wood-burning if biomass isn’t specifically excluded.”

“Enviva’s product would not exist without loggers who clear-cut forests into barren fields with motorized “feller-bunchers,” but the company tries to emphasize that its business is about growing trees as well as killing trees. Enviva requires the landowners who supply its wood to promise to replant their forests, and it uses GPS technology to track and trace every harvest to see if they comply. The company has also committed to help protect 35,000 acres of threatened bottomland hardwood forests and restore 5,000 acres of natural longleaf pine.”

“Jenkins wants the public to see the big picture: Southern forests are growing overall, with more trees being planted than cut, and Enviva’s demand for wood helps encourage landowners to keep their forests as forests. The Southeastern U.S. produces one-sixth of the world’s timber, and less than 4 percent of that harvest ends up as pellets.

“one thing both sides agree on is that it matters what kind of wood ends up in the pellet mills, and what would have happened to that wood otherwise. Policymakers and academics have made all kinds of theoretical assumptions, but it’s not hard to find the reality on the ground.”

“In the decade since Enviva started manufacturing pellets, the Dogwood Alliance has repeatedly exposed gaps between the company’s sustainability rhetoric and its actions. In 2018, for example, a Dutch TV station working with Dogwood followed some logs from another cypress swamp near the Virginia border back to Enviva’s mill. Smith and I returned to the scene three years later, and while the deforested high ground around the swamp had been recolonized by a thick tangle of grasses, bushes and scrub oak, there wasn’t much growing back in the low-lying wetlands, just some sad-looking stumps poking out of the murky water. Smith warns that if governments keep subsidizing the conversion of trees into energy, enormous swaths of environmentally valuable forests around the world will end up looking like that.

Enviva officials say they no longer accept any cypress wood at their mills, or for that matter any other wood harvested from ecologically sensitive areas. They say they now source only 3 percent of their wood from the increasingly rare bottomland hardwood forests that are such culturally resonant symbols of the South—and only from “non-sensitive” ones. But Jenkins admits the company made some questionable sourcing decisions in the past.”

“what’s clear from talking to people in North Carolina, and from a few hours standing outside two Enviva mills watching logging trucks come and go, is that much of the wood that gets pelletized isn’t unmerchantable waste wood. It’s pulpwood—whole pine and hardwood trees as well as wood chips that could otherwise be sold to paper mills. It’s not thick or unblemished enough to turn into telephone poles, houses or high-quality furniture, but much of it is fine for Amazon boxes, toilet paper and the fluff inside diapers; one member of Enviva’s sustainability team described it as Walmart wood rather than Gucci wood. I later spent an hour outside a nearby paper mill watching what kind of wood arrived there, and the trucks were bringing in the same kind of logs they brought to Enviva.

That means Enviva isn’t just cleaning up around the edges of the logging industry—it’s increasing demand for wood in the South. And that means additional trees would need to be logged to feed the paper mills that are losing trees to Enviva; the increased demand for pulpwood will require an increased supply of pulpwood. Even if new trees are planted in their place, many studies suggest they will take decades, and in some cases centuries, to absorb enough carbon to “pay back” the carbon debt from burning the older trees. That’s a problem, because scientists don’t believe the world can wait decades, much less centuries, to cut emissions.”

6 Bold Ideas for Gun Reform That Could Actually Happen

“People who attempt suicide with a gun die nine times out of 10, whereas other common means (such as cutting and overdose) are much more survivable. That’s why the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013 (New York SAFE Act) directed mental health professionals to report suicidal patients to a state agency, which could subsequently seize any guns they might own, and add their name to a “no buy” database for five years. Even in New York, though, this provision is controversial and has faced repeated court challenges. We shouldn’t expect to see similar legislation proliferating across the country anytime soon.

Instead, suicide prevention activists have been trying to cultivate a culture of community responsibility among gun owners, asking them to reach out to friends in crisis with an offer to store their guns after a divorce, job loss, death in the family or other trauma. The idea of letting your neighbor or your hunting buddy lock your gun up in his safe for a while might be more palatable than handing it over to the sheriff. Suicide prevention groups have partnered with gun shops and shooting ranges, first in New Hampshire and now in 11 other states, to spread the idea through posters and pamphlets.”

“Many states have gradually lowered the bar to obtain a permit to carry a handgun in public places. The trends have been toward fewer hours of classroom instruction (reduced in some cases to zero), eliminating shooting requirements at the range, and lowering fees. Tennessee now offers a gun carry permit course that can be completed entirely online. Other states, such as Kansas, have eliminated licensure altogether. When Texas lowered training standards for its concealed handgun license in 2013 to just four hours of classroom instruction, lawmakers said that there simply wasn’t enough material to justify the 10 hours previously required. Typical curriculum covers operation of a firearm and some guidance about where and when it might be appropriate to use it. Some gun violence prevention advocates would like to see the curriculum expanded to include strategies in de-escalation, risk avoidance, safe storage and first aid.”