- BBC Business explains why environmental protection isn’t just for hippies anymore, but really just makes good business sense. Not sure what they would suggest if environmental problems were solved and good business sense returned to its old predilection for squander and scorched earth.
- “Being Dead in Pittsburgh” is a short photo-essay on what one man turned up by comparing old maps with new in his quest for forgotten corners in his hometown.
- Bill McKibben argues the obvious yet overlooked fact that American conservatives should be the greatest champions of intelligent environmental stewardship, but instead are generally climate skeptical.
- And the New York Time’s Christoph Niemann tells insightful stories using chalkboards and a very wry understanding of physics and physical relationships.
“Meander” is one of those verbs so often assigned to rivers that it loses almost all meaning (like “babble” to brook). But rivers do meander, and few so much as the mighty Mississippi. There’s a 1944 report now hosted online by US Army Corps of Engineers that contains, in a feat of elegant technical abstractionism, a history of Mississippi meanders. The multi-coloured loops are mesmerizing; the white course snaking in between is the latest iteration of the river’s movement. I am curious to know if this river-wandering has been entirely clamped down upon by the Corps, a tale well told by John McPhee in Control of Nature. Though if McPhee’s book holds any clues, whatever engineering has accomplished is certainly to be temporary and the river’s footprints are likely to continue their weave in the future.
You can download the entire 1944 report in super-high resolution, or see below for samples.
Remember ChatRoulette? Seems like it was just yesterday that all anyone could talk about was the amazing, creepy idea that brought endless untold strangers into your home (and you into theirs) for the brief moment before someone hit next.
Well MapCrunch is CR’s friendlier geographic cousin. Using Google StreetView, MapCrunch offers up a random image from any one of dozens of countries everytime you reload the page. You can narrow the possibilities by country, continent, or even try to remove all country roads (for more big city action?), but limiting your options really takes the fun out of it. Click a few times and you’ll be whisked from a rainy day in Singapore to women with buckets on their heads walking along the road in South Africa to a penguin colony in Antarctica to a field of flowers in France. It’s a wild and surprising tour that only dulls when you get thrown into several cloudy, suburban landscapes one after another.
It’s a wonderful website for a few minutes of mindless clicking, not to mention smart use of a little bit more of the piles of data Google’s new toys leave in their wake.
1) Fighting back against was he calls immappancy (lack of geographical knowledge), Greg Osuri threw together this map that offers a sense of Africa’s true scale. Not sure what projection he used, but click through for other details:
2) I’ve seen global maps distorted before to represent embedded data, but one digital cartographer/blogger seems to be doing it full time. He’s got some great examples up:
3) Last of all: I have never used an online dating site but I love the wild findings OkCupid comes up with when they sort through the reams of data their users submit The OkTrends Blog is always chock full of charts and figures, but today they included an excellent heat map showing gay-curiosity across the US and Canada:
I love how Canada is entirely swathed in dark reds except the blue-green southern tip of Labrador that just shows on top of the map. In the US, it’s no surprise that Vermont, Massachusetts, Washington and Oregon are heavily covered in red – but New Mexico, wow, that’s a lot of heat. Otherwise, urban areas reliably light up as curious while the Bible belt represents, demonstrating shades of blue that get darker the closer you get to Mississippi.
Bloomberg has a report on the dismal state of American meat production. Amidst all the cattle futures, pork bellies, and “troublesome beef” jargon is news that prices are soaring on virtually all domestic meat products, and its largely because of high corn prices. If you aren’t already familiar with our corn-based economy then order Michael Pollan’s classic ASAP. If you are, then you know that the tremendous bulk of animal feed is corn-based, as are countless (literally countless) other food and cellulose products. Unfortunately, this reliance is undermined by the unwavering growth commitment propelling forward our agriculture industry. From the FT:
It’s not every day that an official forecast for one of the biggest corn harvests in history sends traders scrambling to secure supplies. But that is what is unfolding in the world’s commodities markets.
Late last week, the US government’s crop forecast propelled the price of corn in Chicago sharply higher for a second day in a row. Monday’s powerful rally marked the biggest daily rise in prices since 1973 and sparked fears of a repeat of the food crisis which occurred in 2007-08.
What’s the problem you ask? The continuing rise in demand for corn-fed meat, ethanol, and other corn products is so high, and we are already so close to the limit of current production quantities, that to break even we need a record harvest every year. This year’s bountiful harvest just isn’t enough:
Abdolreza Abbassian, senior grain economist at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome, says that “anything other than a record crop” is now a problem because of the need to meet rising food, livestock and ethanol fuel demand.
“We need a record crop every year. If not, we are in trouble,” he says.
This is terrifying stuff. It feels like someone pulled back a corner of the rug we’re standing on to reveal a massive void underneath, a glimpse into the vacant foundations we’ve built our lives upon. Recent Monsanto attempts to improve production have failed, and its a fair question to ask if the great strides made over recent decades in boosting production per acre aren’t reaching their practical limits. Ultimately, of course, there are always diminishing returns. We can only squeeze so much from an acre; there are only so many acres. And yet even this doesn’t begin to take into account external factors, from blights to droughts to climate change, that every economy should have built in buffers to protect against. But we have no buffers in our agricultural system. We are playing on the margins and betting on a future where boundaries expand infinitely. This strategy might bite us in the ass in the short term; it certainly will in the long.
So Sun Chips, the healthy Frito-Lays alternative to potato chips, was recently given a biodegradable plastic bag that you could throw out with your compost. Brilliant, right? I wish I had known about it before today though, yet this has only become news recently since the bag was bagged.
Why? Perhaps the costs of the new bag technology were not recovered? Or an industrial chemical leeching was into the chips or compost, you might think? No such luck: Sun Chips will again be packaged in resource-intensive, century-surviving garbage because consumers do not like how noisy the biodegradable bags were.
You can’t make this stuff up. Apparently the smart bags just rustle and crumple too much for snackers nationwide.
This is provoking an unsurprising rustle of outrage across the blogosphere, and Stephen Colbert chimed in with his own glorious sarcasm. Few though have written better on what it all means than Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic:
And as this dawns on you… You think with the soaring, half-serious tone that we reserve for visions of collapse: This is what happens to a country that no longer dreams, that has lost it’s sense of national purpose or greatness. You think: Maybe we do need a space program, so that we start looking up again.
You imagine arch historians glossing the year: And in 2010, the most powerful country in the world was consumed with the show Glee, whether or not a political candidate was or had been a witch, and the sound of a bag of not-quite potato chips.
It’s a sharp article, but he ultimately misses the larger point: this whole episode is most succinct example of why countries like the US and Canada are not making meaningful headway on environmental problems. Plastic wrapping and packaging are incredible sinks of resources and energy, beginning with the oil, metals, and power required in production, to the immortality they attain when their short shelf lives are finished and they are left to rot (or, truth be told, not-rot) in garbage mountains or the great oceanic garbage patches.
There are a lot of angles to this story, angles that should redden the face of any member of the species. A compostable sack is brilliant; our binning of the concept , shameful. That it is being dropped because the bags are too noisy.. well, there is not much more to say. Humanity may be smart enough to invent Sun Chips and even biodegradable bags, but I’d trade in a whole lot of that ingenuity for just a little more foresight.
Say what you will about the ol’ US of A, but they do provide reams of data. I took it for granted most of my life, but experiences in Europe, Canada, and abroad have shown just how much free, easily accessed data is available in the States – and what a difference it can make. Whether its USGS, NASA, or NOAA, if you want US data there is sure to be a heavily-acronymed group out there with just what you need. But all the data in the world was of limited use before the internet.
The latest among a slew of cool online data tools is Abogo. This site helps you find “how transportation impacts the affordability and sustainability of where you live” by mashing transit costs, census data, and CO2 emissions. The results are clear and high-grained, contextualizing costs and focusing on problems across the US and even providing estimates for transportation costs at any given address.
Check it out – especially if you live in the US. I’d hope to see them expand to Europe and Canada, but is this much data freely available anywhere else?
Check out the screen captures below – the gradient from cities to suburbs is shocking.
Project NOAH (Networked Organisms and Habitats) is the latest tool to snatch a ride on the flying coat tails of online networking, this time by simply allowing ecologists and amateur naturalists to post sightings of organisms. The growing data set is becoming a fast and free field guide for anyone interesting in local wildlife, but it also has serious potential use as a kind of scientific crowd-sourcing:
Professional ecologists quickly adopted the product. Before the launch, [founder Yasser] Ansari had reached out to urban ecologist Steve Sullivan, who runs Project Squirrel, a partnership between the University of Illinois-Chicago and the Chicago Academy of Sciences’ Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. Project NOAH supplied precise locality data that otherwise would be impossible to obtain. Sullivan now gets about 70 squirrel observations a week from Project NOAH, with a 90 percent accuracy rate for identifications. The app also began hosting a mushroom-mapping project in New York City and the Lost Ladybug mission at Cornell University. “We don’t want to be this walled garden of data. We’re more like a holding tank that reroutes data to other places and to curious people who want to see what’s around them,” said Ansari…
One of the coolest part are these specific tasks, like the Lost Ladybug Project, that can explicitly harness the hobbies of thousands of people. And now with National Geographic investing in NOAH, all they need is that critical mass of users to get on board.