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New July 2013

Pupil killed in school wall collapse

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A 12-year-old girl dies after a wall inside the building of Liberton High School in Edinburgh collapses and lands on top of her.

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How did Vancouver get so green?


Vancouver is supremely green, in both senses of the word. Set between ocean and mountains and lined with verdant trees, Vancouver also has the lowest greenhouse gas emissions of any major city in North America. In 2007, the most recent year for which comparisons are available, Vancouver had annual emissions of 4.9 tons of CO2 equivalent per capita. By 2012, according to Vancouver’s city government, it had dropped to 4.4 tons per person. “Vancouver has done really well at decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and showing leadership on climate change,” says Ian Bruce, science and policy manager at the David Suzuki Foundation, a Canadian environmental research organization. “Vancouver is bucking the trend of a lot of North American cities when it comes to how quickly the city is growing in population — it’s increasing quite dramatically, its economy and jobs have increased — while greenhouse gas emissions have decreased by 9 percent in the last decade.” How did Vancouver achieve that? It’s an outlier in even the green-friendly Pacific Northwest: While Seattle and Portland look and feel a lot like Vancouver, their per capita emissions are roughly three times as high. The U.S.’s closest competitor to Vancouver is New York, followed by San Francisco, then Philadelphia. All of those cities are older, with many dense, walkable rowhouse neighborhoods developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the car rose to dominate the landscape and city planning. Like its Pacific Northwest peers, Vancouver was built later, with more detached houses and parking garages. In part, Vancouver is just lucky. British Columbia is rich in hydroelectric power, so keeping the lights on in all those coffee bars pumps a lot less CO2 into the atmosphere than in cities where power comes from fossil fuels. It also helps that Vancouver has a relatively mild West Coast climate. Inland cities like Minneapolis and Denver, with more weather extremes, need more fuel for heat in the winter and electricity for air conditioning in summer. But Vancouver has also made a lot of smart public policy choices. Even as the Canadian national government backslides on environmental protection, Canada’s more liberal localities are making progress. Ontario banned coal-fired electricity this year. Vancouver has been committed to sustainability, and creating policies to advance that goal, for several decades. Mayor Gregor Robertson keeps raising the bar on his predecessor’s successes. He developed the comprehensive “Greenest City 2020 Action Plan,” which lays down benchmarks that each sector of the city’s government must achieve. According to environmental advocates, the city has pursued three main agendas that account for its success: 1. Offering transportation alternatives. Vancouverites are eager to ditch their cars, and the city is trying to help them do so. In 2010 Vancouver started building separated bicycle lanes and it is launching a bikeshare system this year. “Continuing to shift people out of cars to walking, biking, and transit is crucial,” said Mayor Robertson in a phone interview with Grist. Robertson boasts that Vancouver has reached 44 percent of its trips being made without a car. That’s the third-highest percentage in North America, after New York City and Washington, D.C. His administration has also encouraged carsharing, which helps reduce car ownership and total driving, with free dedicated parking spaces for the Car2Go car-sharing service. Winston WongVancouver’s Mayor Gregor Robertson, IRL.Even as the city grows, its number of car trips decreases. That means its drops are even more impressive when adjusted for population. “In the past decade, the population in Vancouver has increased 18 percent, the number of jobs has gone up 16 percent, while vehicles entering downtown have decreased by 20 percent,” notes Bruce. The proportion of all trips taken into and within Vancouver by car have each dropped around 5 percent during the same timeframe. “It’s not based on breakthrough technology,” Bruce explains, “just planning decisions to invest in transit, bike, and walking infrastructure.” “Vancouverites have chosen to shift out of cars for 20 years in a row now,” says Robertson. The city’s average decline in car mode share is 1 percent per year. In addition to pedestrian and bike safety, Robertson is trying to expand mass transit. But without sufficient investment at the provincial and federal level, the biggest projects may not be completed. Right now, Roberston is lobbying Ottawa for help building a $3 billion subway line that would go to the University of British Columbia (UBC) and unclog traffic on Broadway, a major road through the city. 2. Density, building codes, and transit-oriented development. Walk around downtown Vancouver and you’ll see a lot of skyscrapers. But unlike the downtowns of many big cities, these aren’t all just office buildings. Vancouver has encouraged building housing upwards in its downtown and along transit corridors. This manages the population growth so that most new residents are living in dense, walkable, transit-accessible environments. Denser buildings also tend to be more energy-efficient. “Vancouver has been designed around the notion of building complete communities,” says Bruce. Shopping, housing, office space, parks, and public amenities are all found in the same neighborhoods, especially downtown. “A lot of downtown cores are ghost towns after businesses close at 5 p.m.,” adds Bruce. “Vancouver has tried to redesign the downtown and build enjoyable places. That has made public transit more efficient and a better investment — with more people living in the downtown core it made more sense to invest in things like mass transit.” Or, as Robertson concisely puts it: “We’ve battled hard against suburban sprawl.” All that development has its environmental challenges. “A lot of the new development is in high-rise condos. Their actual energy performance does not look like it’s as good as anticipated,” notes Ellen Pond, senior policy advisor at the Pembina Institute, a Canadian environmental think tank. Buildings are the largest source of Vancouver’s emissions. And while density is preferable to sprawl, luxury high-rises encased in glass are not necessarily more efficient than, say, compact low-rise brick apartment buildings or townhomes. “The modeled energy performance and actual performance can be quite different,” Pond explains. “For example, sometimes there is no thermal barrier between an apartment’s concrete balconies and the floor inside. So, basically you’re building a building with fans that transmit energy in or out.” That can make it colder in winter and hotter and summer, and thus less energy-efficient. The city is working on these issues. Last fall the city council adopted amendments to the city’s building code requiring all new large buildings to be designed to meet strict energy standards and use 20 percent less energy – below 2007 benchmarks – by 2020. Pond says she expects these new regulations to help make future high-rises more efficient. 3. Clean, productive waste management. Trucking garbage to landfills uses energy. Burning garbage may be even worse. Vancouver also tries to make efficient use of its waste. “Our waste goal of diverting waste away from landfills and incinerators is crucial,” says Robertson. The city has introduced compost pick-up for single family homes and is now working on doing the same for multi-unit buildings. “Vancouver has a really aggressive waste management strategy to divert organics from the waste stream,” says Pond. Food waste and yard waste go to a large composting facility. The city’s compost materials are then sold to gardeners. Vancouver even makes use out of leaky gas (although not the kind that comes out when you’ve eaten a burrito). The city captures methane at the landfill and use it to heat greenhouses. They even take the warmth that naturally accumulates in sewers and use it to heat homes. The biggest problem with Vancouver is that this high quality of life attracts too many people. Last year, The Economist ranked Vancouver the most expensive city in North America [sub req]. Robertson argues that his environmental initiatives also make it less expensive. “Greening a city makes it more affordable,” says Robertson. “You have more affordable transportation, with walking, biking, and transit. Healthier buildings burn less fuel. You get more success by investing in a green city — both [in] quality of life and affordability.” Certainly, Vancouver’s high cost of living is a byproduct of its success. If local governments elsewhere were smart — never a safe assumption — they will seek to emulate it. Robertson is also working on climate adaption, as any responsible mayor must these days. Vancouver, like so many coastal cities, is experiencing adverse effects from climate change and CO2 emissions, and could face much worse problems if CO2 pollution continues unchecked. The city’s harbor has become increasingly acidic due to CO2 pollution, and that may be why its shellfish are dying in droves. Vancouver has adopted a Climate Change Adaptation Plan, which is leading to policies such as flood-proof building regulations and developing plans to deal with extreme heat. And that illustrates the most daunting fact of all: While Vancouver is doing great comparatively, it still needs to do more if it is to meet the generally accepted goal of an 80-percent reduction in greenhouse emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. While environmentalists have almost nothing but praise for Vancouver’s existing policies, they want to see the city go farther, faster. “The greenhouse gas emission targets need to be more ambitious than they are today,” says Stephanie Goodwin, Greenpeace’s director for British Columbia. Vancouver may not even meet its own goals. “We’re less than halfway to our emissions targets,” says Goodwin. “They want to reduce emissions by 33 percent from 2007 by 2020. They’ve made less than a 10 percent reduction so far. How far will the city really get over the next 6 years? I have hope but whether they’ll get from single digit reductions up to 33 percent? I’m sitting on pins and needles waiting for that.” Goodwin notes that while the city is following its roadmap to make its buildings carbon neutral by 2020, it is not yet on pace to get there. And so Vancouver’s status as a global warming mitigation leader is both encouraging and discouraging, depending on how you look at it. It shows how much can be done with the strongest political will and the boldest leadership – but is also uncovers a concerted strategy’s limits. At the end of the day, even most liberal Vancouverites don’t want to stop heating their homes or using electricity, and all that energy has to come from somewhere. Says Goodwin of the Vancouver government, “They’ve achieved what’s politically feasible, not what’s ecologically necessary.”Filed under: Article, Cities, Climate & Energy

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Bitter Washington DC mayoral election clouded by corruption claims

Mayor Vincent Gray faces possible federal indictment Muriel Bowser takes slim lead in Democratic primary pollsJust days before voters in Washington go to the polls to select their next mayor, the latest corruption scandal to hit the city boiled over in a television studio as Democratic mayoral candidates exchanged angry taunts during their final broadcast debate.The incumbent, Vincent Gray, faces possible indictment by federal prosecutors over allegations he received $400,000 (£240,000) in illegal campaign contributions from the billionaire city contractor Jeffrey Thompson, who was codenamed uncle Earl by the mayor.

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New York City council passes bill to protect unpaid interns’ rights

Bill would guard against sexual harassment and discrimination Mayor Bill de Blasio expected to sign into law this weekOn Wednesday, the New York City council unanimously approved a bill that seeks to protect unpaid interns against sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. The bill, sponsored by councilman James Vacca, expands the citys Human Rights Law to afford unpaid interns the same protection accorded to paid employees. It is currently awaiting Mayor Bill de Blasios signature, which is expected in the coming days.

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Inspector General for New York Police Department Is Named

Philip K. Eure will take on an oversight role created last year by the City Council, in response to complaints about the overuse of stop-and-frisk and surveillance of Muslim communities.

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Why we can’t seem to stop oil-filled rail cars from going boom


People — including me — have written a good amount already about how trains have been exploding lately. In 2008, 9,500 carloads of crude oil were shipped by train in the U.S.; in 2012, that number was 234,000 carloads. The oil is packed into freight cars that date back to the 1960s and that normally carry payloads like corn syrup, then shipped along aging freight infrastructure. When the trains fail, they fail hard, and because freight lines were built to run through cities, rather than around them, they fail around people. Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, the Alabama wetlands, and eastern North Dakota are just a few instances of this species of disaster. Most of the ink that’s been spilled over the oil-by-rail shipping boom has dealt with the very understandable question of “How did this happen?” Some blame the fight against Keystone XL — the companies getting crude out of the Alberta tar sands had scaled their oil operations up in anticipation of having a pipeline, and had to get it to market somehow. Others say that we’re drilling for oil in so many places — like North Dakota’s Bakken Shale — that a boom in oil-by-rail would have happened anyway, pipelines or no pipelines. The most interesting thing about a recent article by Natasha Khan, published in the Pennsylvania-based investigative journalism nonprofit Public Source, is that it gets past the “How did all these exploding trains happen?” question and into “How is this awful situation going to improve? How soon before we learn, as a nation, how to not explode so many trains?” In short: It doesn’t look good, folks. For one thing, if you’re a concerned citizen, it’s hard to tell if a train full of explosive crude is moving through your community — or any other community you happen to be concerned about. Railway officials aren’t required to disclose the routes that hazardous materials travel, and so they don’t. The secrecy is for security reasons, they say. They do, however, seem to share that information with state officials, who sometimes share it with reporters, which is how Kahn learned that there were indeed trains full of the particularly explosive Bakken crude going through Pittsburgh, Penn., and that she could expect a lot more trains when a new crude oil terminal opened in Eddystone, Penn., at the end of April. For another: The railroads’ regulatory structure doesn’t make safety decisions quickly. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is one of the groups that has called for new regulations, specifically concerning the DOT-111s, those ’60s-era tanker cars that Fred Millar, a Washington, D.C., consultant to the rail industry, describes in the article as “Pepsi cans on wheels.” The Association of American Railroads estimates that, out of the 92,000 DOT-111 tank cars currently used to transport hazardous chemicals, more than 75,000 of them will need to be retrofitted, or even phased out. But the NTSB only investigates rail accidents – it doesn’t regulate. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is in charge of the actual regulating. PHMSA says that it’s busy analyzing all of the comments that it’s received on how to improve its safety rules, and that it won’t be able to make any changes until early 2015. Understandably, PHMSA has been getting some flak over this, notably from a Senate panel earlier this month, where Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told PHMSA reps that he was “disappointed and disturbed by some of the delays and failures in rulemaking and scrutiny.” Kahn doesn’t get into it in her article, but PHMSA has a bit of a past, especially when it comes to the “safety” part of their acronym. Two years ago, the Office of the Inspector General found that PHMSA had misused the money that it had been given to manage emergency preparedness for hazardous materials. The agency also has a track record of withholding public records like safety inspection reports, even from direct requests under the Freedom of Information Act. Which means that right now, there’s not much going on to prevent more accidents and spills. State agencies do their best to follow and enforce safety regulations that already exist: They step up the inspection of their own rail lines and train their own disaster response crews in potential oil-by-rail accidents. In the absence of a clear regulatory structure, cities that feel they are at risk are casting about for any way to stop the trains moving through their borders. Earlier this week, on March 25, Richmond, Calif., passed a unanimous resolution directing a laundry list of local politicians and agencies to look into how to keep Bakken crude out of Northern California until new regulations are issued. The city council had recently learned that large quantities of it were being shipped from North Dakota to a Kinder Morgan oil terminal in the city. Will local activism be able to put enough pressure on PHMSA to speed up the regulatory process? Hard to say for sure — but for now, the forecast includes more exploding trains.Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy

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Charlotte mayor faces theft and bribery charges after FBI sting

Democrat Patrick Cannon accused of soliciting and accepting more than $48,000 in cash, airline tickets and luxury apartmentLess than six months on the job, the mayor of Charlotte was arrested and accused Wednesday of accepting more than $48,000 in bribes from FBI agents posing as real estate developers who wanted to do business with North Carolina’s largest city.Mayor Patrick Cannon, a 47-year-old Democrat, faces theft and bribery charges, US attorney Anne Tompkins said. Cannon was accused of soliciting and accepting more than $48,000 in cash, airline tickets, a hotel room and the use of a luxury apartment as bribes.

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Fred Phelps Gave Me My First Big Break


In April 2003, The Black Table, a fledgling internet site started by me, Will Leitch, Eric Gillin, Aileen Gallagher, and Jim Cooke, had its first big, exclusive story, which was an interview with one Rev. Fred Phelps. Our full Q&A is reprinted below; here’s how that happened. Read more…

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About New York: ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Set Recalls Century of Movie Lore

The City Council has plans to declare the main soundstage at Kaufman Astoria Studio in Queens as the centerpiece of an arts district at the end of the week.

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These frackers have the nerve to call L.A. leaders “appallingly irresponsible”


Nobody wants to be called “appallingly irresponsible,” but it’s especially galling when the insult comes from the fracking industry. Members of Los Angeles City Council, which may soon impose a moratorium on fracking, this week proposed that the city work with the U.S. Geological Survey and other scientists to determine whether a 4.4-magnitude quake on Monday was linked to nearby hydraulic fracturing. Fracking practices have been linked to earthquakes in other parts of the country. “It is crucial to the health and safety of the City’s residents to understand the seismic impacts of oil and gas extraction activities in the City,” three lawmakers wrote in a motion that they introduced on Tuesday. Earthquakes happen all the time in California. Monday’s temblor was deeper than most fracking industry–induced earthquakes, though it was attention-grabbing because it occurred in an area not normally known for quakes. And it struck mere days after a trio of nonprofits warned in a report that the fracking sector could trigger earthquakes in California. So it seems reasonable that L.A. lawmakers would want scientists to look into the issue. But frackers are not known to be reasonable people. The Western States Petroleum Association reacted vehemently to the insinuations and to the proposed scientific research. Its president, Catherine Reheis-Boyd, denied any industry links to Monday’s earthquake, and decried the council members as “appallingly irresponsible.” “It does not surprise us that the handful of extremist environmental organizations that are attempting to shut down all oil and gas production in Southern California and beyond would attempt to make an entirely unfounded connection between hydraulic fracturing and the earthquake,” Reheis-Boyd wrote in a statement. “But when three members of the Los Angeles City Council make similar statements, despite an overwhelming amount of scientific and other evidence that contradicts their assertions, it is time for responsible leaders to say, ‘Enough.’” Thanks for the lecture on responsibility, frackers, but we’re still more interested in what scientists have to say on the question.Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Politics

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Food Carts in Los Angeles Come Out of the Shadows

A plan introduced in the City Council would legalize and regulate street food vendors, opening the door to the prospect of pork cheek street tacos.

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Vapors and Emotions Rise at Hearing on E-Cigarettes

A New York City Council hearing on Wednesday drew opponents and supporters of the proposed inclusion of e-cigarettes in the ban on smoking in most public places.

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Bankrupt Detroit Pays for Arena?

Detroit is declaring bankruptcy while its city council considers contributing public money to build a new Hockey Stadium for the billionaire owner of the Red Wings.

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Bill Would Restrict Electronic Cigarettes in New York

Fearing that e-cigarettes are a gateway to conventional cigarettes, and that they may pose health hazards, the City Council is aiming to limit where they can be used.

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As Homeless Line Up for Food, Los Angeles Weighs Restrictions

Facing an uproar from homeowners in a county that has one of the worst homeless problems in the nation, two members of the City Council have called for the city to ban the feeding of homeless people in public spaces.

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Trailside: New Poll Suggests That de Blasio Is Now First Among Voters

With a month to go until the Sept. 10 primary in the mayoral election, Bill de Blasio has passed Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker, according to a Quinnipiac poll.

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Setback for mayoral candidate Weiner on more sexting

<!– google_ad_section_start –> Shamed US politician Anthony Weiner has admitted having at least three cyberaffairs since his 2011 resignation from Congress, in a fresh blow to his crumbling bid to become New York mayor. <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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America, Inc. at it’s Finest

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New July 2013