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April 2012


The mother who stood up to Monsanto in Argentina

Photo courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

When Sofia Gatica’s 3-day-old daughter died from kidney failure, she didn't connect it with an environmental problem. It was only as she noticed neighbor after neighbor developing health problems that she started to wonder about the agrochemicals that were being sprayed on the farms nearby.

"I started seeing children with mouth covers, mothers with scarves wrapped around their heads to cover their baldness, due to chemotherapy," she told me recently through a translator. It was then, Gatica says, she knew something was seriously wrong.

Her city, Ituzaingó, Argentina, is surrounded by soybean fields where farmers use some of the same chemicals used on crops grown in the U.S. -- chiefly glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto's weed killer Roundup. But in Ituzaingó, the industrial-scale farms that grow soybeans for export have crept right up to the edge of the residential community, and many of the chemicals are sprayed aerially, allowing them to drift wherever the wind or water will take them.

"There are soybeans to the north, to the south, and to the east, and when they spray, they spray over the people because there's no distance," Gatica said, adding that some homes are less than five yards from where the fields start.


Share and share a bike: A fresh way to find a rental cycle

No guarantee that the bike you rent will be this stylin', unfortunately. (Photo by Velovotee.)

Forget riding your friend’s handlebars as he blindly navigates a crowded city street -- unless you’re into that sort of thing. Thanks to a new peer-to-peer bike-sharing website called Spinlister, you may soon be able to rent a bike almost anywhere.

The brainchild of co-founders Will Dennis and Jeff Noh, a pair of 20-somethings living in New York City, Spinlister is like peer-to-per car-sharing services such as RelayRides, only for bikes. Bike owners snap photos of their two-wheeled trophies and post them to Spinlister’s online marketplace, along with the type of bike, the price per day, and the pick-up location. For those in search of a rental, it’s as simple as punching in their location, selecting the ride they want, making an online payment/reservation via credit card, and coordinating a meet-up time with the bike owner.

Read more: Biking


Sooty cloud: A visit to Apple’s coal-powered data center

You've heard about the Foxconn factory in China where your iPad is assembled. But have you ever considered the energy required to store your emails, photos, and videos in the cloud? As worldwide demand for data storage skyrockets, so do the power needs of the servers where all our digital archives live. While some companies (like Facebook) have made great progress in ditching dirty fossil-fuel energy for cleaner renewables, a few internet giants lag far behind. Climate Desk visited Maiden, N.C., for a close-up view of what will soon be one of the world's biggest data centers -- owned by Apple and powered by the coal-heavy power behemoth Duke Energy.

Read more: Climate & Energy


‘Verification in reverse’: A chat with Jay Rosen

Friday I chatted with NYU professor, blogger, and media critic Jay Rosen as I began thinking about The Huffington Post's story about the letter from NASA retirees criticizing the agency's climate research. This transcript is meant to accompany my post on that topic.

SR: Did you follow this story at all as it happened?

Jay: yes, someone pinged me about the original
then I read Dave's
that's all I really know
just posted on Twitter about it

SR: OK, good. Did you see the editor's note they posted?

Jay: yes

SR: OK. So here's what I'm thinking:
Dave was sort of gentlemanly about it and said, "let's move on"
But I looked at that editor's note and thought, wait a minute

Jay: right

SR: They're now saying, "we agree with the agencies and experts who are concerned about the role of carbon dioxide"
Which is pretty much the same as saying, "We disagree with these NASA retirees"
yet the story played it totally straight, and still does, only now, instead of a lame "What do you think?" it ends with "here's what we think"

Read more: Media


How Huffington Post aided a demolition job on climate science

Photo by Jonathan Hynkle.

Today the Huffington Post won a Pulitzer Prize. Congratulations, Huffington Post! Now you're in the club. I'm sure the execs at The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal who failed to take home any wins this year are teeth-gnashingly jealous.

But that's not what this post is about. What it takes to win Pulitzers, most of the time, is big budgets, smart reporters, and weighty topics of national import. But most of the stories that shape our national debates, and thereby our future, are nothing like this sort of award bait. Most of those stories are more like "NASA Global Warming Stance Blasted By 49 Astronauts, Scientists Who Once Worked At Agency," a short piece in The Huffington Post last week.

This article recycled a press release announcing that a bunch of former NASA employees, including some astronauts and scientists but no climate experts, had taken issue with the agency over its work on global warming. Findings that "man-made carbon dioxide is having a catastrophic impact on global climate change are not substantiated," the retirees charged. The article -- written not by one of HuffPo's famously uncompensated bloggers, but by its science editor, David Freeman -- didn't offer a single fact in rebuttal of the letter. But at the end, it asked: "What do you think? Is NASA pushing 'unsettled science' on global warming?"

It was a ludicrous postscript, one that abdicated the very purpose of science coverage. Journalists who specialize in science are our proxies to help us figure out what's trustworthy in realms where we lack detailed expertise ourselves and don't have time to acquire it. Asking for opinions online can be entertaining -- but the climate debate isn't the same thing as, say, weighing in on whether The Hunger Games movie did justice to the book.

Read more: Media


Scientists discover ancient antibiotic-resistant bacteria

Okay, nobody panic, but scientists have found a stash of bacteria that have never had contact with humans, but are resistant to antibiotics anyway. If this happened in a movie, this would probably end with everyone becoming dead. But I'm sure it's fine!

Read more: Food Safety


Walmart is bigger than Manhattan and richer than Norway

Image by Mother Jones.

Mother Jones has an investigation of Walmart in its March/April issue, and it comes with some pretty stark statistics. Among the facts on display in MoJo's chart: Walmart stores use five times as much electricity as the state of Vermont; Walmart's net sales exceed the GDP of Norway; Walmart stores' combined square footage dwarfs Manhattan; and Walmart stores emit more CO2 than the 50 lowest-emitting countries combined.


Oil execs get monster raises after a ‘very strong’ 2011

How big was my raise? Thiiiiiis big.

How big was your raise last year? John Watson, the CEO of Chevron, got a 52 percent bump in his compensation. That's a nice chunk of change for anyone, and in Watson's case, it brought his total yearly take up to about $25 million.

Which is nothing to complain about, unless Watson is comparing his raise to the raise of his rival giganto oil company. In that case, he might be feeling a little bit short-changed.

Read more: Oil


Scientists build energy-efficient computer out of crabs

Here is an amazing example of humans piggybacking on a natural phenomenon to create an incredibly clever system: crab-based computing.

A crab-based computer starts with swarms of crabs. These swarms include hundreds of thousands of crabs that, individually, run every which way but that, as a group, progress in one direction. Even more incredible -- when two swarms collide, they merge and start moving along the vector of their combined velocity (hellloooo, high school physics!).

So what does this have to do with computing? A team of researchers set up a system where crab behavior would provide the basic logic on which computers work. For instance, a computer might need to take inputs X and Y, and output the result “X or Y” -- a 1 if either X or Y is 1, and a 0 otherwise. Crabs can do that:

Read more: Energy Efficiency