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Sierra Daily: May 2012
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16 posts from May 2012

May 31, 2012

Uncluttering the City

Vpole   V-Pole_02Cell phone towers, street lights, and parking meters all intrude in the urban landscape. Douglas Coupland, artist and author of Generation X and Microserfs, recently unveiled a bright all-in-one idea: the V-Pole, a single pole that would contain all the data transmission needs of an urban area.

According to the National Post, “The device, no larger than a telephone pole, would manage cell signals for multiple carriers, as well as wireless Internet for the surrounding neighbourhood. In-ground pads plugged into the pole would provide inductive charging for parked electric cars. An integrated touch screen would display maps, ads or payment inter-faces, and an LED street light would be perched at the top of the pole. ‘You could pay for parking, you could pay for electric vehicle charging, that kind of thing,’ said Sadhu Johnston, Vancouver's deputy city manager.”

The V-Pole design is made possible by lightRadio, a device developed by Bell Labs and Alcatel-Lucent that compresses a cell phone tower’s circuit boards and cables into a small cube. “You can stack them inside a pole like Lego,” says Coupland.

Though still in the conceptual stage, the V-Pole has the support of Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson. Coupland hit on the idea of the V-Pole after he and the mayor were lamenting the encroachment of cell phone towers in their city. Downtown Vancouver is home to more than 100 cell towers operated by competing wireless service providers. 

According to Popular Science, “Coupland’s idea also includes a wide array of color schemes from which neighborhoods could choose, representing anything from a pileated woodpecker to the Vancouver Canucks.”  

Photo illustration by V-Pole.com/Martin Tessler & Mathew Bulford

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term.  For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s  Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus."

May 30, 2012

North Carolina Outlaws Sea-Level Rise

Our friends over at King canuteGrist illustrated their story about North Carolina's effort to restrict scientists from accurately predicting sea-level rise with a picture of Moses, but clearly the relevant cultural figure is King Canute, who undertook (with predictable results) to command the tides. Here, courtesy of Scott Huler at Scientific American, is the relevant language regarding rates of sea-level rise from a proposed bill before the state's general assembly:

“These rates shall only be determined using historical data, and these data shall be limited to the time period following the year 1900. Rates of seas-level rise may be extrapolated linearly. …” 

So, North Carolina would forbid exponential increases in sea-level rise along its shores, such as might occur were, say, Greenland's glaciers to melt. Here's an excerpt from a cheery new book by Fred Guterl, The Fate of the Species: Why the Human Race May Cause Its Own Extinction and How We Can Stop It, discussing the dynamical systems theory approach of Tim Lenton of the University of East Anglia:

If Greenland flipped into a completely ice-free state, it would cause massive rises in sea level—on the order of six or seven meters. Even if this took three hundred years to happen, "it would be an absolute disaster," says Lenton, "a real game changer." At such a rate of sea-level rise, it would be- come more and more difficult to protect coastlines. Low-lying areas would have to be abandoned. That includes cities such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, not to mention the entire state of Florida and vast swaths of Indochina.

North Carolina, however, will be spared. You might consider investing in shorefront real estate there today!

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PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber.

May 24, 2012

Cutest Li'l Invertebrate Ever--Now a Plush Toy!

TardigradeWhile other environmental news sites stoop to cadging pageviews through cheap tricks like puppies, Sierra has always opted for the high road. When we profile a cute creature, it's some bizarre invertebrate that you've never heard of before--like, for example, the tardigrade. Also known as a "water bear," this little feller can survive temperatures anywhere from absolute zero to 300 degrees Fahrenheit, doesn't mind the solar heat and radiation in the inky vastness of space, and can reproduce without sex.

What it didn't have until now, however, was a marketable version of itself as a plush toy--only $35 on Etsy!  Just the thing for the budding young microbiologist in your life.

 

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PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber.

 

May 23, 2012

"This Used to be a Forest?"

Tarsands-smaller

“You know how they say ‘big money, big problems? That's what happened here. Fifteen years ago, when there were only two oil plants, moose would wander into the front yard and the lake was full of fish. Now, there are 20 oil plants and everyone has a job, but there are no more fish in the lakes and we haven't seen a moose here in years.”

That's Brian Bird, a resident of Gregoire Lake Reserve, an hour south of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, quoted in a beautifully reported article by Arno Kopecky in Toronto's Globe and Mail. Kopecky accompanies a delegation of Achuar Indians from the Peruvian Amazon who have come to Alberta to ask Calgary-based Talisman Energy not to drill for oil on their land and who--while they're in the neighborhood--visit their counterparts among Canada's First Nations, who give them a tour of the local oil sands fields. What they see does not inspire hope for their own future. 

"How do you eat?" asked [Achuar leader] Jiyucam Irar Miik.

"We go to the store."

"Has your economic situation improved?

"Money is there, but we fight over it non-stop. Nobody trusts each other.

"Do your children get a better education?"

"Good enough to work for the oil companies."

Much more in the full article here. Today in Ontario, Canada, the Six Nations Confederacy Council is rallying against Enbridge's plans for pumping corrosive tarsands oil through pipelines prone to rupture across their territory.

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PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber.

 


 


May 22, 2012

Pedal Power

Webike snake-arrangemenwebikeSpending too much time sitting in front of your computer and not getting enough exercise? Belgium’s WeWatt thinks so, too. But the company’s answer isn’t a boot that kicks you out the door toward the jogging path. According to Gizmag, WeWatt has designed the We-Bike, a bicycle desk that requires its users to pedal to get the juice to power their laptops and cell phones.  A panel of LED lights brightens when you’ve generated enough electricity to “coast” through that quarterly report.

A three-station “pod” is a bit spendy -- around $13,000 U.S. -- but the benefits of human-generated power and better health are enticing. Mashable notes a recent Australian study that found that “those who reported sitting for at least 11 hours a day had a 40% higher risk of dying within the next three years than people who sat for less than four hours a day.”

Image: WeWatt

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term.  For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s  Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”

May 18, 2012

Grappling with Gas Prices

Traffic jam iStock_000011994853XSmallWith Memorial Day weekend coming up, the summer driving season begins. Beaches! Picnics! More gas consumed getting to and fro!

To calculate how much you’ll spend in gas to drive to your weekend getaway -- or just whether it’s worth a longer drive to a cheaper store for that matter -- check out cost2drive.com. The site will calculate cost using local gas prices for your region and route. If your trip is longer than 200 miles, it will show you where the least expensive gas stations are along your route, and it will compare driving costs to current airline fares.  (If you’ve found that your vehicles mileage differs from official EPA numbers, you can click on “Can’t find your car” and enter the miles per gallon you’ve come to expect.) The service is also available as an iPhone app, which can be downloaded for free through Memorial Day. 

Cost2Drive only calculates fuel cost, so if you want to look at the larger picture of car ownership, check out the Clean Car Calculator. It compares any two new vehicles using purchase price, anticipated future cost of gasoline, and driving style to determine which one makes economic sense via fuel savings. The service is particularly useful when comparing hybrid or electric vehicles that tend to have higher upfront costs but lower annual operating costs than conventional cars, offering charts that show how many years it will take the high-priced but high-mpg car to break even with a cheaper vehicle. 

Photo by iStock/Mccaig

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra.  He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term.  For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s  Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”

 

 

 

30 Minutes on Public Transit--Ready, Set, Go!

UntitledRemember that German thriller from 1998, "Run, Lola, Run"? In order to save her boyfriend's life, Lola (Franka Potente) has to come up with 100,000 Deutschmarks within 20 minutes. So she sets off running.

She should have taken public transit! Because this is how much of Berlin she could have covered in that time. Berlin, in fact, is the home of Mapnificent, an extremely cool interactive Web site that shows you how far you can expect to get on public transportation in a specified amount of time. It's good not only in Germany but for a large number of U.S. and other world cities as well. At right, for example, is a depiction of how far you can get on public transport in Minneapolis in half an hour. Extra credit if you have a bicycle with you--click on the settings to see how much farther that might get you.

Of course, what you find out when you check out your own city may not please you. Columnist Jason Heid at Frontburner looked at the results for Dallas, for example, and concluded that the infrequency of buses and trains there make public transit unattractive--especially compared to how far you could get in other cities. Transit ridership is rising, especially when gas prices spike--a situation which, as Brad Plumer writes in the Washington Post's Wonkblog, is not unalloyed good news. Ridership may be going up, but funding for public transportation is going down--both because transit funding is heavily reliant on a portion of the gas tax, and because House Republicans are trying to channel money away from transit and toward roads and highways.

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PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber.

May 15, 2012

"Know Thy Enemy: An Update on the Sierra Club"

UntitledMemo to Bill Bissett, President, Kentucky Coal Association

Dear Bill: I've received a copy of your report, "Know Thy Enemy: An Update on the Sierra Club." Hot stuff! But listen, Bill — Next time you want a report on the Club's anti-coal activities, please — before you go back to Adam T. Goebel and Travis A. Crump of Stoll Keenon Ogden PLLC, the guys who produced this report — come to me. Whatever they're charging you, I'll do it for half.

"Half!" you say. "How can Rauber do it for half?" Here's my secret, Bill — I, too, know the secret Web source of their information. Between me and you, it's this: http://www.sierraclub.org/That's how your boys found out, for example, that

The "Beyond Coal" campaign is a push by the Sierra Club to [end] "the coal rush" as it calls it, and replace coal-fired electric generation plants with solar and wind.

Need more convincing of my research prowess? Just watch me source these scoops from your report:

  • "In January 2012, as a part of an initiative to end the use of coal-fired boilers on college campuses, the Sierra Club sponsored men's basketball games at both the University of Kentucky and Indiana University."
  • "In late March 2012, the Sierra Club introduced its first major national video campaign to promote its Beyond Coal initiative. . . . All five videos feature a fictitious coal executive, portrayed by John Ennis, a star of the show 'Mr. Show with Bob and David,' a 1990s comedy series, making fake commercials about the coal industry."
  • "The Sierra Club. . . is using water monitoring data, among other things as the basis for legal action against mining companies."
  • "The Sierra Club is attacking both coal supply and coal demand. With respect to coal supply, the Sierra Club has turned its resources on filing legal challenges against mining companies."

Bill, I hope that this will convince you to turn to me in the future as your bargain source for information about how the Sierra Club intends to move the nation beyond reliance on dirty, climate-changing coal. Meanwhile, see you in court!

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PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber.

 

Sitting on a Gusher

Oil offshore  iStock_000018294828XSmalWell over two thirds of federal offshore acreage already leased by the oil industry is sitting idle, according to a report issued today by the Department of the Interior. “Out of nearly 36 million acres leased offshore, only about 10 million acres are active—leaving nearly 72 percent of the offshore leased area idle,” reads the report.  (More than half of leased onshore acreage in the Lower 48 also remains untapped.) Interior’s definition of “idle” is pretty much all-encompassing: “Neither producing nor currently subject to approved or pending exploration or development plans.” 

For its part the industry called the Department of Interior report “a political ploy.” According to American Petroleum Institute  President and CEO Jack Gerard, “The oil and natural gas industry explores its leases as quickly as possible, paying rent and other fees as it does so, and returns tracts to the government that do not contain economically recoverable amounts of oil and natural gas.”

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management is proceeding apace with its November 2012 auction of oil and gas leases on 7 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve—Alaska. The 23.5 million acre reserve with the depressingly industrial moniker actually supports the calving grounds of the largest caribou herd in the U.S., the highest concentration of grizzly bears and wolverines in the Arctic, and Teshekpuk Lake, the most significant wetland complex in America. A public comment period on the agency's draft management plan for the reserve is open until June 1.

Photo by iStock/DraganSaponjic.

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked at the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term.  For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.” 

May 11, 2012

Smart Meters, Dumb Utilities

GR_opener

Why do consumers hate smart meters? In the current Sierra, contributing writer Dashka Slater examines the backlash--from Tea Partiers who see them as a U.N. plot, to Marinites who blame their radio frequency radiation for a host of ills. That backlash is now so large, reports Mark Chediak for Bloomberg, that it's delaying a $29 billion program to upgrade the U.S. electricity grid. Iowa's MidAmerican Energy says it's going to hold off on deploying smart meters "while it assesses how other power companies address complaints"; Alliant Energy is taking it slow off too, while the state of Connecticut has put Northeast Utilities' proposal to install 1.2 million smart meters on hold while it comes up with a state policy.

Meanwhile, in California, Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison are rolling out 10.3 million smart meters--but have had to agree to let customers keep their traditional meters for an initial $75 fee, and an extra $10 a month added to their bills.

Fears of U.N. conspiracies and radio waves aside, the utilities have only themselves to blame for public recalcitrance. The devices were initially touted as offering consumers a way to save money, but the time-of-use pricing mechanisms necessary to enact such a system have yet to be put in place. (It didn't help that initially many of the meters were overcharging consumers.)  The utilities, meanwhile, are saving buckets of money by laying off meter-readers, but are still passing on the costs of the smart meters to consumers. True, consumers can see groovy, extremely detailed graphic representations of their power usage, but that and $2 will buy you a coffee at Starbucks.

In Bloomberg, Mark Toney of the consumer advocacy Utility Reform Network suggests that the appropriate model for pricing smart meters should be like pricing Internet connections. "We kind of like the model for broadband, where nobody is forced to take it, but people see the value in it and are willing to pay more for it." Instead, the utilities gave consumers nothing, and charged them for it. No wonder some of them are hostile.

Illustration for Sierra by Chris Gash

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PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber.


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