Submit a link Features Reviews Podcasts Video Forums More ▾

Beijing air "like an airport smokers’ lounge"

Beijing's air quality is so bad the EPA doesn't have a scale that goes up far enough to define it. [Edward Wong at the NYT] Rob

Take a survey to help scientists improve indoor air quality

Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are studying how the seemingly innocuous things we do in our homes and offices can have big impacts on our health. One of those things is cooking, because the way we cook can affect the air we breathe. Scientists are trying to figure out how to make houses safer, but to do that, they need to understand how people use houses — what we cook in them and how we cook it. You can help by taking this quick, anonymous survey. Maggie

Canadian Conservative govt guts protections for 99+% of waterways, spare handful of lakes with high-cost cottages

David says, "Canada used to have 2.5 million protected lakes and other bodies of water. After recent Conservative Omnibus bills, we're down to 97. 87 of which are located in Conservative ridings (rich cottage country). More info." Cory

Greenpeace's anime video about hazardous chemicals and fashion

Brian from Greenpeace sez, "They say you can tell what next season's hottest trend will be by looking at the colour of the rivers in China and Mexico due to the dyes and hazardous chemicals used by the fashion industry. An animated collaboration between Greenpeace and Free Range studios (creators of such activist classics as Meatrix and Story of Stuff) exposes the trail of hazardous chemicals from factories in the developing world to the clothes the developed world buys. Greenpeace claims some of the chemicals present in trace amounts in those clothes are banned in European and the US, making your washing machine a potential source of illegal hazardous waste."

TOXIC IS SO LAST SEASON (Thanks, Brian!)

Occupy Sandy doc screened at secret cinema

A documentary about Occupy Sandy was screened at a secret location in NYC last night; it made the connection between Sandy and climate change. People wanting to see the movie were directed to a building whose wall was used as a screen for the premiere.

Now, in what may be the quickest turnaround for a movie in recent memory, the group, Occupy Sandy, will show a documentary Wednesday about its efforts and the contention that the storm was tied to climate change and the fossil fuel industry. In classic Occupy fashion, the screening will not be in a traditional theater, but rather on the side of a yet-to-be-disclosed building in the East Village.

The screening of the film, “Occupy Sandy: A Human Response to the New Realities of Climate Change” (see trailer above or click here), will be at 6:30 p.m.

‘Occupy’ Movement’s Next Guerrilla Effort: A Film Screening [NYT]

OCCUPY SANDY TRAILER IS UP! WORLD PREMIERE NEW SHORT FILM! NYC. NOV. 28th. [Vimeo]

#climatecrime [Twitter]

How Phoenix is becoming more like Minneapolis (and vice versa)

We talk a lot about chain stores and the way their proliferation takes away the individual character of American cities, replacing it with a homogenized urban landscape of Wal-Marts, malls, and Applebees*. But some scientists think businesses and buildings aren't the only thing making our cities look more alike.

The ecology of cities could be homogenizing, as well — everything from the plants that grow there, to the number and density of ponds and creeks, to the bacteria and fungi that live in the soils. My newest column for The New York Times Magazine explains why ecologists think cities are becoming more alike, and what it means if they're right. The really interesting bit: The effects aren't all uniformly bad.

“Americans just have some certain preferences for the way residential settlements ought to look,” Peter Groffman, a microbial ecologist with the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y., recently told me. Over the course of the last century, we’ve developed those preferences and started applying them to a wide variety of natural landscapes, shifting all places — whether desert, forest or prairie — closer to the norm. Since the 1950s, for example, Phoenix has been remade into a much wetter place that more closely resembles the pond-dotted ecosystem of the Northeast. Sharon Hall, an associate professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, said, “The Phoenix metro area contains on the order of 1,000 lakes today, when previously there were none.” Meanwhile, naturally moist Minneapolis is becoming drier as developers fill in wetlands.

Why does any of this matter to anyone who’s not an urban ecologist? “If 20 percent of urban areas are covered with impervious surfaces,” says Groffman, “then that also means that 80 percent is natural surface.” Whatever is going on in that 80 percent of the country’s urban space — as Groffman puts it, “the natural processes happening in neighborhoods” — has a large, cumulative ecological effect.

Read the rest of the story at The New York Times Magazine

*Or, possibly, Applebeeses.

Image: Taken by Ben Schumin, used via CC.

Radio documentary on elections and America's energy future: The Power of One, with Alex Chadwick

BURN: An Energy Journal, the radio documentary series hosted by former NPR journalist Alex Chadwick, has a 2-hour election special out. It's the most powerful piece of radio journalism I've listened to since—well, since the last episode they put out. You really must do yourself a favor and set aside some time this weekend to listen to “The Power of One.”

Energy policy, defining how we use energy to power our economy and our lives, is among the most pressing issues for the next four years. In this special two-hour edition of BURN, stories about the power of one: how, in this election season, a single person, place, policy or idea can — with a boost from science — affect the nation’s search for greater energy independence.

The documentary examines how "individuals, new scientific ideas, grassroots initiatives and potentially game-changing inventions are informing the energy debate in this Presidential Election year, and redefining America’s quest for greater energy independence." It was completed and hit the air before Hurricane Sandy, but the energy issues illuminated by that disaster (blackouts, gas shortage, grid failure, backup power failure at hospitals) further underscore the urgency.

Read the rest

Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312: a novel that hints at what we might someday have (and lose)

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 is an insanely ambitious novel of life three hundreds years hence, set in a solar system where the Earth continues to limp along, half-drowned, terrified, precarious — and only one of many inhabited places.

Read the rest

HOW TO: Fish in the desert

In the United Arab Emirates, a freshwater lake has appeared in the middle of the desert. The oasis is beautiful and full of life, and it's risen 35 feet since 2011. It's also probably accidentally man-made.

Hydrologists believe the lake formed from recycled drinking water (and toilet water). The nearby city of Al Ain pumps in desalinated sea water, uses it for drinking and flushing the toilet, cleans it in a sewage treatment plant, and then re-uses it to water plants. All of that water ends up in the soil and, at the lake site, it comes back up.

The water is clean, writes Ari Daniel Shapiro at NPR. Don't worry about that. Instead, the major side-effect of the lake is change, as scientists watch the desert ecosystem that used to exist on the site decline, and a new one rise to take its place. It's a great story that shows how complicated discussions about ecology can be. On the one hand, you're losing something valuable. At least in this one spot. On the other hand, you're definitely gaining something valuable, too.

"With every species that we lose, it's like rolling the dice. The whole ecosystem could crash down," Howarth says.

But Clark, with the U.S. Geological Survey, says he's not so worried about the desert ecosystem. He says the lake is tiny compared to the vast amount of desert in this part of the world. "If I look through the binoculars, there's, like, seven different kinds of herons. There's greater cormorants. There's ferruginous ducks, which are another very rare worldwide species," Clark says. "There's about 15 of them out here."

This year, three types of birds bred at this lake. They've never been able to breed before in the United Arab Emirates. But this lake, and the others like it, have changed all that. There are fish appearing in these lakes as well. Fish eggs cling to the feet and legs of the herons. So as the birds shuttle between old and new lakes, the eggs fall off and hatch. That's how you get fish in a desert.

Read the full story at NPR

Image: fish, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from wattsdave's photostream

An epic nonprofit PSA: "Follow the Frog," for Rainforest Alliance

This is a truly brilliant example of short-form advocacy filmmaking, created for Rainforest Alliance's "Follow the Frog" retail campaign. Written and directed by Max Joseph (whom my personal video-making idol Joe Sabia describes as his personal video making idol). Produced by Aaron Weber from Wander.

Popular synthesizer manufacturer wants you to print out your own replacement knobs


OP-1 synthesizer manufacturer Teenage Engineering doesn't want to ship you replacement knobs and buttons for your instrument. Instead, they've uploaded printable shapefiles to Shapeways and have asked their customers to simply download them and print them on a nearby 3D printer as needed. This appears to be the first time a manufacturer has taken such a step, according to a Shapeways blog-post. Here's the official statement from Teenage Engineering:

We work hard to make our OP-1 users happy with free OS updates and added functionality. But sometimes we fail. As some have noted, the shipping cost of the OP-1 accessories is very high. This is because we can't find a good delivery service for small items. Meanwhile, we have decided to put all CAD files of the parts in our library section for you to download. The files are provided in both STEP and STL format. Just download the files and 3D print as many as you want. Next fail is the OP-1 manual update. We are almost there...we promise it will be ready sometime next week. Thank you all for your patience, we promise to work even harder in the future to make you happy.

Embracing 3-D Printers, Manufacturer Tells Customers to Print Their Own Replacement Parts

Tear-off cardboard USB flash-drives


Here's a cute concept-design for tear-off, disposable flash-drives from Art Lebedev, who predicts, "Stick will become even simpler vehicle than once floppy" (mangled Russian-English interpretation courtesy of Google Translate). I wonder if NFC/ultra-wideband wireless transfer will make low-capacity flash drives obsolete before they get cheap enough to make into cardboard disposables, though.

Концепт флеш-накопителя «Флешкус» (Thanks, Dave!)

Debunking the NYT feature on the wastefulness of data-centers

This weekend's NYT carried an alarming feature article on the gross wastefulness of the data-centers that host the world's racks of server hardware. James Glanz's feature, The Cloud Factory, painted a picture of grotesque waste and depraved indifference to the monetary and environmental costs of the "cloud," and suggested that the "dirty secret" was that there were better ways of doing things that the industry was indifferent to.

In a long rebuttal, Diego Doval, a computer scientist who previously served as CTO for Ning, Inc, takes apart the claims made in the Times piece, showing that they were unsubstantiated, out-of-date, unscientific, misleading, and pretty much wrong from top to bottom.

First off, an “average,” as any statistician will tell you, is a fairly meaningless number if you don’t include other values of the population (starting with the standard deviation). Not to mention that this kind of “explosive” claim should be backed up with a description of how the study was made. The only thing mentioned about the methodology is that they “sampled about 20,000 servers in about 70 large data centers spanning the commercial gamut: drug companies, military contractors, banks, media companies and government agencies.” Here’s the thing: Google alone has more than a million servers. Facebook, too, probably. Amazon, as well. They all do wildly different things with their servers, so extrapolating from “drug companies, military contractors, banks, media companies, and government agencies” to Google, or Facebook, or Amazon, is just not possible on the basis of just 20,000 servers on 70 data centers.

Not possible, that’s right. It would have been impossible (and people that know me know that I don’t use this word lightly) for McKinsey & Co. to do even a remotely accurate analysis of data center usage for the industry to create any kind of meaningful “average”. Why? Not only because gathering this data and analyzing it would have required many of the top minds in data center scaling (and they are not working at McKinsey), not only because Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, would have not given McKinsey this information, not only because the information, even if it was given to McKinsey, would have been in wildly different scales and contexts, which is an important point.

Even if you get past all of these seemingly insurmountable problems through an act of sheer magic, you end up with another problem altogether: server power is not just about “performing computations”. If you want to simplify a bit, there’s at least four main axis you could consider for scaling: computation proper (e.g. adding 2+2), storage (e.g. saving “4″ to disk, or reading it from disk), networking (e.g. sending the “4″ from one computer to the next) and memory usage (e.g. storing the “4″ in RAM). This is an over-simplification because today you could, for example, split up “storage” into “flash-based” and “magnetic” storage since they are so different in their characteristics and power consumption, just like we separate RAM from persistent storage, but we’ll leave it at four. Anyway, these four parameters lead to different load profiles for different systems.

a lot of lead bullets: a response to the new york times article on data center efficiency (via Making Light)

Dredging: how the hell does that work?

Ben Mendelsohn sez, "Dredging - the mechanized transport of underwater sediments - is one of the most elemental of the infrastructural support systems that underlie modern societies. Through dredging, we act as geologic agents - moving earth in what amounts to a new geologic cycle. This video introduces dredging, its landscapes, and some of the fascinating technologies that we use to manage it. It was produced in support of DredgeFest NYC, a symposium on the human acceleration of sediments, to be held in New York City on September 28-29." (Thanks, Ben!)

European Directories sends legal threat to guy who wants to make it easy to stop receiving phone books

Branko sez,

Everybody in the Netherlands still receives the paper phone guide once every year, whether they want to or not, even though in these days of Google and the Internet it is nothing but a vehicle for advertisements.

To help stop this form of harassment, a guy called Alexander Klöpping has registered a URL called sterftelefoongidssterf.nl (diephonebookdie) which redirects to the phone book cancellation form. In other words, if you want the phone book to be eliminated (‘die’) from your life, follow that link. (Actually don’t follow it, De Telefoongids are known to ignore your cancellation request anyway.)

Last Monday Klöpping received a threatening e-mail by the publishers of the phone book, a subsidiary of European Directories, that tells him he is engaged in trademark violation and that he must cease and desist.

Phone book publisher tries to silence critic with legal bullying (Thanks, Branko!)