Economist 4/17/14

  1. EBOLA is back. As of April 14th the virus had infected 168 people in Guinea, in west Africa, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). At least 108 have died. Humans have no immunity against the disease, which is thought to be native to bats. The virus is transferred in bodily fluids, most commonly blood. Once inside a host it incubates for between two days and three weeks before causing flu-like symptoms.The virus was discovered in 1976 when two strains hit Sudan and what was then Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), infecting a total of 602 people and killing 431.Sudden and deadly though it is, ebola can be contained, for three reasons. The first is transmission: the virus is not airborne. It is transferred only through direct contact with someone who is visibly sick.
  2. GOOGLE splashed out an undisclosed sum of money on April 14th to buy Titan Aerospace, whose solar-powered drones it plans to use to help deliver wireless internet access to remote parts of the world. Like Google’s new drones, which can reach impressive heights, tech shares soared in the early part of this year.
  3. NOT surprisingly for a country that lost a million people in its struggle for independence in 1954-1962 and perhaps another 200,000 in its later civil war at the end of the century, humour in Algeria tends to be darkly cynical. And not surprisingly the presidential election set for April 17th has prompted plenty of bitter laughs. The almost certain winner, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has been president for the past 15 of his 77 years.  But the oil-rich Algerian state, with its legacy of one-party rule and legions of officials all carefully vetted for loyalty by an omnipresent secret police, tilts the outcome heavily towards the candidate anointed by “Le Pouvoir”, as Algerians call the circle of senior generals and security chiefs who actually run the country. Small wonder that Mr Bouteflika won his last two elections, in 2004 and 2009, with 85% and 90% of the vote, amid meagre turnouts and a strong whiff of fraud.The widely whispered answer is that divisions within Le Pouvoir make it hard to agree on an alternative: someone who could present a façade of democratic legitimacy and benign governance, while quietly letting the country’s ensconced nomenclatura manage its fiefs. the man long seen as the kingmaker, General Muhammad “Toufiq” Mediène, head of the feared military intelligence service.Launched only last month, Barakat, meaning “enough” in Algeria’s Arabic dialect, is modelled on peaceful civil movements that helped topple such rulers as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Its internet presence and public rallies have yet to attract more than a few thousand, but its leaders say they are planning for the longer run. Le Pouvoir is worried: a newspaper that hosted a Barakat press conference was quickly punished by the withdrawal of all government advertising, a vital source of revenue in a country whose oil wealth and socialist policies have stunted private business.
  4. Although $91 billion is spent on them every year, that is nowhere near enough to keep the YSA’s 4.1m miles (6.6m km) of public roadways in good nick. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that $170 billion in capital investment is needed every year. Last year a report from a civil-engineering group said that 32% of America’s major roads were in poor or mediocre condition. Main roads through cities were in worst shape: almost half the miles travelled over urban interstates in 2013 were a bumpy ride.Highway finance comes from two main sources: cities and states, and the federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF). The HTF spends $46 billion a year and is funded by a tax of 18.4 cents on each gallon of petrol. But revenues are declining: the young drive a bit less and cars burn fuel more efficiently. Illinois recently won planning approval for a $1.3 billion toll road to Indiana. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia now have some sort of tolling authority. These are increasingly popular ways of financing new roads, although the slight decline in driving, and an unwillingness to pay high fees, have threatened this model in some cases.States also levy their own taxes, and some, such as Michigan, have been able to increase their road budgets. Massachusetts, together with Maryland and Wyoming, has managed to put up its petrol tax.
  5. Coal  is cheap and simple to extract, ship and burn. It is abundant: proven reserves amount to 109 years of current consumption, reckons BP, a British energy giant. They are mostly in politically stable places. Peabody, the world’s largest private coal company (which unlike some rivals is profitable, thanks to its low-cost Australian mines).. But opencast mining, now the source of much of the world’s coal, rips away topsoil and gobbles water. Transporting coal brings a host of environmental problems.By some counts, coal-fired power stations emit more radioactivity than nuclear ones. Yet despite America’s shale-gas boom, the federal Energy Information Administration reckons that by 2040 the country will still be generating 22% of its electricity from coal (compared with 26% now).In Germany power from coal now costs half the price of watts from a gas-fired power station. It is a paradox that coal is booming in a country that in other respects is the greenest in Europe.A $5.2 billion taxpayer-supported clean-coal plant in Mississippi incorporates all the latest technology. But at $6,800 per kilowatt, it will be the costliest power plant yet built (a gas-fired power station in America costs $1,000 per kW).
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