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New July 2013

Hacking the instrument of the future

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Sleep-deprived coders enjoy an epic adventure

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Ancient life ‘frozen’ by impacts

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Ancient grasses from the Pampas of Argentina were preserved when asteroids struck the area, scientists report.

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Here's How Facebook Could Completely Ruin the Oculus Rift

Now that Facebook owns the virtual reality platform Oculus Rift, gamers who were once excited about the future of VR have turned cynical about what Mark Zuckerberg and company might do to make the experience more “social. How bad can it really be, though?Read more…

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A Lesson In Google Glass Etiquette

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Guests of the Stanford Court hotel in Nob Hill are greeted with a rug exclaiming #HELLO! (hashtag included.) Here and there in the lobby, iPad kiosks languish at just below hip-level. No one interacts with them. The first floor is riddled with these kind of flourishes, implanted awkwardly into what was once your average Marriott. Read more…

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Watch North America’s busiest bus stops become more efficient using only sidewalk tape

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NelsonNygaard landed a super-easy job. The transit planning firm had to streamline a couple of bus stops in British Columbia for TransLink. Only about 100,000 people ride that particular route a day. It’s just the busiest bus line in North America. (But no big, right?) Palms sweaty, knees weak, and arms heavy, NelsonNygaard already knew what didn’t work: a huge passenger shelter where riders of Vancouver’s 99 Broadway line simply ignored switchback arrows on the ground. (Think airport security without any crowd-control ropes — madness.) So rather than armchair postulating about what MIGHT work better, the firm did some real-time analysis at two east- and westbound stops, laying down some sidewalk tape on a busy Monday morning and capturing the results on video: The above video is a timelapse of the westbound stop outside the Broadway-Commercial SkyTrain station. NelsonNygaard roped off areas to guide people along, funneling lines into each of the bus’ three doors while leaving room for pedestrians. At the eastbound stop, only a few pillars near the bus doors and some tape were needed to wrangle people coming from the train into three lines for the bus: “Live trial-and-error intervention helps push the boundaries of standard planning approaches,” writes Eric Jaffe of Atlantic Cities. For instance, NelsonNygaard learned that people ignored eye-level signage. (After all, who can be bothered to read, pre-coffee?) Tape isn’t exactly a long-term solution, but now that TransLink has some ideas of what works, more permanent improvements are on the way.Filed under: Cities, Living

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How did Vancouver get so green?

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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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Climate change will damage Australia’s coastal infrastructure, says IPCC

New report predicts species loss, a degraded Great Barrier Reef, and more dangerously hot days Live coverage Australia is set to suffer a loss of native species, significant damage to coastal infrastructure and a profoundly altered Great Barrier Reef due to climate change, an exhaustive UN report has found.The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, delivered to the worlds governments in Japan on Monday, states there is significant change in community composition and structure of coral reefs and montane ecosystems and risk of loss of some native species in Australia as a result of warming temperatures and ocean acidification.

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Menopause: nature’s way of saying older women aren’t sexually attractive?

The theory that mothers become infertile so that they can help care for their grandchildren is under attack, raising questions about female identity Sitting at my desk today is a benefit made possible by my mother-in-law. She is taking care of my son, leaving me free to do other work and ideally,…

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Netanyahu slams UN rights council’s censure of Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday slammed a UN rights body for a string of resolutions condemning the Jewish state despite a wave of rights abuses elsewhere in the region. “At the end of last week, the UN Human Rights Council condemned…

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Evaluating teachers based on student performance is ‘punitive measure that demoralizes teachers’

What is the policy of evaluating teachers on their students’ performance really about? Ostensibly, it is designed to improve public schools by holding teachers accountable. However, by failing to take into account several factors…

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Chris Christie woos conservative mega donor Sheldon Adelson at Vegas GOP forum

Six minutes into a speech yesterday to the Republican Jewish Coalition that marked the opening of his comeback tour, Gov. Chris Christie received a sign. Sheldon Adelson, the GOP mega donor whose bankbook can launch a presidential campaign…

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Same-sex couples can now marry in England, but 20 percent of Brits wouldn’t go to the wedding

Gay couples across England and Wales said “I do” Saturday as a law authorizing same-sex marriage came into effect at midnight, the final stage in a long fight for equality. Following the first marriages amid a supposed race to wed, Prime Minister David…

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Franciscan monks try Internet crowdfunding to restore St Francis of Assisi’s home in Rome

Crowdfunding and medieval history are coming together in Rome as a group of Franciscan monks take to the Internet to drum up funds to restore a dusty cell said to have been used by St Francis of Assisi himself. Located in the trendy Trastevere district…

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Quest for oil threatens Africa’s oldest wildlife reserve

The quest for oil may be the latest threat to Africa’s most venerable wildlife reserve, located in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and already hard hit by deforestation, poaching and armed conflict. Early in March, European Development Commissioner…

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Climate change threatens to wipe out Latin America coffee crops – and farmers

Under the coffee bushes, Rosibel and Benjamín Fijardo are on their knees, scraping carefully through a litter of dead leaves and dried mud. They are scavenging for stray coffee berries, fallen when the harvesters went through the plantation last week. After 20 minutes, Benjamín has a plastic cup…

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Allison Williams: Marnie Would Probably Behave ‘Psychotically’ Post-Make-Out

On the season finale of Girls this past weekend, Marnie threw her songwriting partner, Desi (Ebon Moss), up against a dressing-room mirror. We ran into Moss at last night’s Cinema Society screening of Dom Hemingway, and he put the whole sordid affair into context for us. “I think Marnie wants … More »

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He may talk big on deforestation, but it turns out Ahnold is the tree terminator

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Global WitnessI’ll be bahk, bromeliads.Hasta la vista, trees! If you thought it was bad when Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor, just wait til you hear what’s happened now that he’s an honorary U.S. Forest Service ranger. An investigation by Global Witness alleges that his investments have funded illegal rainforest logging, according to the Guardian: The former governor and climate champion is a part owner of an investment company, Dimensional Fund Advisers, with significant holdings in tropical forestry companies. A number of those forestry companies were implicated in highly destructive and illegal logging which has destroyed rainforest and critical orangutan habitat in Borneo, and fuelled conflict and arms trafficking in Liberia, the investigators from Global Witness said. The Terminator had roughly a 5 percent stake in DFA’s investment funds. He’s invested no less than $1 million in the firm, according to disclosure forms the Guardian dug up. (We can think of a better home for your millions, Ahnold! And we promise not to kill any orangutans.) It gets worse: In the run-up to the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, [Schwarzenegger] joined regional leaders from Indonesia and Brazil urging Barack Obama and other leaders to help developing countries stop deforestation. Aw shit. Nothing like some juicy hypocrisy for your Friday! To be truly baffled, watch Global Witness’ bizarre Arnold animation, via Salon: Filed under: Living

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America, Inc. at it’s Finest

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Chocolate Artisan Truffles by Just Chocolate

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New July 2013