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Buying a bike? Now you can use Twitter to find out if it’s stolen property

bike-thief-cutting-bike-lock-shutterstock
Shutterstock

Back in the olden days of 2005, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, bicyclist and web developer Bryan Hance had his bike stolen yet again in Portland, Ore. In response, he did what web developers so often do as a part of their grieving process: He built a website.

Hance wasn't the only person doing this. The rise of bicycling and everyone crowding onto the internet meant that anyone who had their bike stolen found themselves wading through a plethora of bike forums and Google groups dedicated to tracking down bikes and bike thieves. There were plenty of websites, but there wasn't a widely used database for stolen bikes, the way that there was for cars. While there was a national site affiliated with McGruff the Crimefighting Dog, it charged a stiff fee and only let law enforcement run searches through its database.

But Hance's database was particularly popular, even with people outside of Portland. When Hance announced early this week that his site StolenBikeRegistry.com had joined forces with an another bike registry -- a company named BikeIndex.org, which has ambitious plans to register bikes before they even reach their first owners -- it became, arguably, the closest thing we have to a national bicycle registry. From now on, whether you're looking at a bike in a used bike shop, or in someone's suburban garage, you can post the serial number to @isitstolen on Twitter, and a bot will report back to you on whether or not it's been reported stolen. (I just tried it and the bot told me that my bike isn't stolen, but sent me some depressing pictures of stolen bikes that look like mine.)

Read more: Cities, Living

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Oil-train info does not need to be secret, feds say

oil train
Pressmaster

Public release of details about oil-train routes and shipments does not pose a serious security risk, the federal government said yesterday.

Earlier this month, I wrote about how the Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring railroads to tell states about shipments within their borders of the more-explosive-than-usual Bakken crude, so that those states and relevant municipalities could prepare for the Lac-Mégantic-sized explosions that might be lying in store for them.

Railroads said, "Yeah, sure," and then turned around and drew up non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) for every state they were routing oil through. By the conditions of the NDAs, the states could only use the crude shipment information for disaster planning and response. Any other disclosure and it was lawsuit time.

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The Canadian pipeline (almost) everyone hates gets a go-ahead

Stephen Harper
The Prime Minister's Office

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has approved the Northern Gateway pipeline.

This is not a huge shock. This is the man, after all, who called Barack Obama to personally register his displeasure over the president's failure to approve Keystone XL. In the years before he was prime minister, Harper was a second-generation employee of the Imperial Oil Company. The man has governed in a way that is not only anti-environment but anti-environmental science. What else was he going to say to a pipeline besides "yes"?

Northern Gateway is tremendously exciting to those who invested big in Canada's tar sands, and then found that the pipeline that would get their product to market -- Keystone XL -- had become a symbol of everything dangerous about current energy markets. The Northern Gateway pipeline would carry diluted bitumen (a.k.a. dilbit -- tar-sands crude oil diluted in solvents so it's liquid enough to be pumped through a pipe) from Alberta through British Columbia to the Pacific port town of Kitimat. There, it would be loaded onto tankers bound for China -- now the world's largest net importer of petroleum and other liquid fuels -- and other countries in Asia.

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Fuel disclosure

When cranky crude rides the rails, who should know?

A firefighter walks past a burning train wagon at Lac Megantic, Quebec, July 6, 2013.
Reuters/Mathieu Belanger

Last weekend, on June 7, it became official: After an emergency order from the federal Department of Transportation, railroads now have to tell state emergency responders when, and where, they happen to be driving trains full of Bakken crude through their region. Is this good news?

It is certainly better than nothing. In the last two years, this newfangled American crude from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota has shown a distressing propensity for exploding when it is loaded on trains and shipped cross-country. This seems to be caused by a variety of factors: old train cars; mystery solvents that are mixed in with the crude in order to keep it liquid and that could be dissolving the train cars; the flammability of the Bakken crude itself.

After a runaway train exploded in Lac Mégantic, Quebec, last year and killed 47 people, and an analysis by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Organization showed that seven of the 10 worst oil spills of the decade in the U.S. had happened in the last three years, people began looking, with great interest, into whether trains full of Bakken oil were being routed through their towns.

When they did this they were often stonewalled by railroads, who said that, since the crude was so flammable, its movements through the country were a matter of national security. Railroads sometimes revealed the information, but they did it haphazardly, so that some fire departments knew that Bakken crude was passing through and some didn't.

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Four reasons why Portland became a cyclists’ utopia

Portland tweed ride
Will Vanlue

When I was young, I left the Motor City for a city that I would never have to drive in again. Years later, so did my sister.

Television commercials made the relationship between cars and humans look like a romance, but from a kid's perspective, it looked like an abusive relationship. Automobiles had a way of breaking down when you needed them most, taking large amounts of your money without warning, and attracting unwelcome attention from law enforcement officers. Little in the movie 8-Mile feels like a genuine depiction of Detroit life, but one thing feels accurate: the way that no one’s car will start.

I moved to San Francisco. My sister moved to Portland. I love San Francisco, the way that you do, but whenever I visit my sister I cannot help noticing that -- as far as gracious, car-free living goes -- she made the better choice. When I visit her, I don’t have to look at every car that I pass and gauge the risk of being doored, because, in a lot of places, the bike lane is wide enough for both me and an open car door. I rarely have to merge into car traffic and route myself around someone who has double-parked in the middle of a bike lane, because some traffic engineer has thoughtfully placed a barrier between car and bike traffic. All is not perfect; my sister still got doored last winter. But Portland had zero bike deaths last year (and many years before it), which is more than you can say about San Francisco.

How did this come to pass? While Portland has a reputation for being the most uber-millennial of millennial cities, it’s not that different from your average American college town. Bicycling in cities has been on the rise for years now; what made Portland so ready for it, when bicyclists in other cities have had to struggle? I did some digging, and came up with a few theories.

Read more: Cities, Living

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Climate change rocks a key Michigan Senate race

Piles of petroleum coke near the Marathon Refinery in Detroit MI, circa 2103
Detroit Petcoke Facebook Group

The summer that I learned to drive, it rained almost every day. No one in my neighborhood knew quite what to make of it. Summers in the suburbs of Detroit were brutal, and if you knew what you were doing you spent them cultivating the friendship of someone with a swimming pool or air conditioning, because the alternative was lying on the linoleum with a glass of ice water in each hand, praying for death. "So much," my mom said, "for global warming!" She had just picked me up from driver's ed. I had spent all afternoon trying to learn …

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Up the coast without an auto: My life with the Post-Car Travel Agency

post-car-2-feature
Post-Car Travel Agency

A few years ago, I walked into an office, bike in tow, looking for a friend. The place was empty, except for a woman I had never seen before. She looked sort of like Nancy Drew, if Nancy Drew spent regular time behind an enormous computer monitor, rendering architectural plans.

“Hello,” she said. “I’m Kristin.”

“Hello.” I said.

“Nice bike,” she said. “Do you tour?”

A lot of people were asking me this lately. I had just bought a new bike, for the first time in my life. My quest had been for a workhorse that I could load up with enough groceries to feed an entire dinner party, ride over gaping potholes without fear, carry up and down stairs easily, and fix by myself. I had found the perfect bike -- on sale.

What I hadn’t realized was that most of the people who bought my particular model were the kind of hardcore cyclists who rode their bikes across America. I was the bicycling equivalent of someone who buys a high-clearance off-road vehicle and then just drives it to the mall and back. And even after I finished scraping all of the decals off with a hair dryer and a credit card, people still recognized the frame and started trying to talk shop and compare components. It was as if I had accidentally joined a secret fraternity -- literally, because they were all dudes (until Kristin, anyway).

“No,” I said. “I’ve never actually ridden this bike out of the city.”

That usually ended the conversation. Instead, something interesting happened.

“You should start,” she said. “Come on a trip with us.”

And so it began. My bike had become my destiny.

Read more: Cities, Living

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#AskChevron: The hashtag that roared (and paid)

askchevron-skull

In the days when I was a local news reporter, I used to get a lot of press releases about protests. As sure as rain could be relied on to fall in a downward direction, there would always be a protest going on somewhere in the city. And that was because, as long as you had a group of you -- whether you were teenagers trying to get the city to pony up for youth bus passes, or nurses in sensible clogs objecting to a hospital closure -- and a fixed time that you were all gathered together in public, the odds were pretty good that at least someone would show up, take a photo of you waving your sign around, and jot down a few quotes about your grievances.

The runaway Twitter hashtag is, in many ways, the new protest -- this week's #yesallwomen tidal wave stands as a representative case. By spreading a single hashtag, the actions of just a few people (or even one person) have pulled together huge crowds of allies and gotten the sort of media attention that, arguably, no in-person protest has seen since the days of the Occupy movement. All that, and no getting pepper-sprayed in the face.

Which brings us to #AskChevron, a recent addition to the genre. In the last few months, people who are not especially fond of JPMorgan Chase or the NYPD have turned hashtags promoted by those organizations -- #AskJPM and #myNYPD -- into discourses on their failings. This technique is part of a set of practices -- like, say, opening a fake Twitter account in the guise of a corporation you don't approve of -- that have come to be known as brandjacking.

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The senator and the moose: Whitehouse makes the climate case in New Hampshire

sheldon-whitehouse-and-moose
Nikki Burch | Transportation for America

You may know Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) from such climate change-related events as the all-night talkathon in the Senate this past March, or the League of Superfriends-style Climate Action Task Force that he formed with fellow Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). But being that senator who really cares about climate change is a gig that can take a person to some interesting places besides Washington, which is how, the Friday before Memorial Day, Whitehouse came to be seated at a folding table in the back of Zimmerman’s Ski & Snowboard in Nashua, N.H., surrounded by last season's snowboarding gear.

“I’m very sad our maple sugar farmer couldn’t be here at the last minute,” said Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.) to Whitehouse, with genuine regret. Over the last several months, Whitehouse has been touring different states, gathering information about the risks that climate change poses to each state’s economy.

It’s a practice that has led some to speculate that Whitehouse is laying the groundwork for a presidential run in 2016. But he maintains that he’s just out to make sure that climate is a key issue in 2016 and, ideally, get Hillary Clinton elected in the process. So if this is groundwork, it's pretty small-scale: There are 10 people here, not counting all of the various aides and a few local reporters. It's like a town hall meeting that just happens to involve a U.S. senator.

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The desolation of smog

When China became the world’s workshop, it inherited the world’s air pollution, too

beijing-smog
Hung Chung Chih

“Good news!” said my friend. “It’s safe to run this morning!” I was sitting in the courtyard of the house where we were staying, drinking coffee and not even thinking of running. I had arrived in Beijing with only one clear goal hovering in my mind: to eat my own body weight in dumplings.

But part of the rainbow of human existence is having friends who care about staying healthy even when they're on vacation. When this one arrived in China, she had downloaded a weather app on her phone that used data from the air quality monitoring station located on top of the American Embassy to tell you how vigorously you might want to be breathing that day.

The day before, the sky had been gray, and the entire city had felt like smoking a cigarette that we could never put down. But this morning, the app reported the air quality index was about 40, down from yesterday’s 200. And so my friend had pulled on her spandex and taken off exploring. No one else in the neighborhood was running, but when they saw her, a few people waved encouragingly, and faux-jogged in place, like vaudevillian performers.