Todd Hymas Samkara

Todd Hymas Samkara is Grist's assistant editor.

Voucher, schmoucher

School vouchers won’t solve educational or environmental problems

Dan Akst contends that a program of school vouchers is what's needed to solve this country's sprawl problem by encouraging otherwise flight-prone would-be suburbanites to stay in the city, thereby easing the push to city outskirts. Well shucks. It's an interesting argument, for a minute at least. OK, less than a minute. After that, the argument can be seen for what it is: a vaguely environmental rationale to justify defunding public education, while perpetrating the rich-poor, class, and race divides in our society. School vouchers would neither improve schools, decrease pollution, nor curb sprawl -- the essay's central contentions. Not in the world of "Hobsonia" and its supermarkets, and not in real-life America. What vouchers would do is defund the public schools that need the most help, keep the vast array of suburbanites right where they are, and leave pollution completely untouched. An obvious first question for Akst is: If bad schools really are the reason most people flock to the suburbs from the city (an argument that selectively ignores factors like race, class, and cultural perceptions as embodied in the phenomenon of "white flight"), and that really is what's been fueling sprawl (not, say, poor growth-management policies, developer shortcuts, Wal-Marts, and the like), wouldn't policies to improve schools be the best prescription on all fronts, starting with the very basic but crucial reform of funding public schools more equally by changing the way they're funded (primarily through property taxes -- virtually assuring greater per-student expenditures in wealthier neighborhoods), and not by abandoning the very schools everyone is fleeing? Well, no, Akst's essay asserts. Substantive solutions that try to address the real problems with ailing schools won't work, silly. And why not? Well, because Akst's friends who agree that meaningful change is needed have kids that mostly go to schools in the suburbs. (A convoluted argument, at best, but it's there nonetheless: "These views are held by most of the caring people I know, but I notice that hardly any of them send their kids to an inner-city school," which can only mean the arguments themselves are invalid ...) But stay tuned, kids. The essay's almost wholesale disregard of logic doesn't stop there.

Critical Mass media

NYC cops crack down on bike event; media misunderstands it

Critical Mass, the monthly parade/protest/ride/celebration/cycling phenomenon has for years been billed as "bicycling's defiant celebration," but recently in NYC, it's been getting more defiant and less celebratory. Ever since last year's truly huge Critical Mass ride during the Republican National Convention -- which attracted thousands and thousands of cyclists and worldwide media attention -- snarled traffic and resulted in 250 arrests and scores of bicycle seizures, NYC cops have been increasingly arrest-happy at NYC Critical Mass events, throwing over 500 cyclists in the slammer in just one year. At issue (aside from the flaws of the whole government apparatus and its endemic biases, of course) are permits. Critical Mass, being essentially a spontaneous (though roughly scheduled) event, is also simply a bunch of people on bikes riding around at the same time. The cops still insist it requires a permit. No permit results in arrests and scads of no-fun bike seizures. As the Village Voice recently reported: Assistant Chief Bruce H. Smolka, head of NYPD's South Manhattan Borough Command, has declared in court that he regards seven cyclists or more as a 'procession,' requiring a special permit. So watch out, road racers: you and six friends make a ride; you and seven friends are going to need a permit.

The future is now

National Geographic describes future tech, and we are frightened

A feature aimed at kids in the online edition of National Geographic called What will life be like in 2035? has a few interesting insights. The magazine first details the technological marvel that'll be all the rage in 2035, the self-driving car:Relax, play a video game, watch a DVD, or catch up on your reading while you're driving downtown. What? While you're driving? Yep, because you're in your self-driving car. This car makes smart, safe driving decisions by communicating with other vehicles, joining car caravans, and navigating around construction and road debris. All you have to do is tell your smart car where you want to go and it gets you there. No way! Really? It's just like public transport ... but not. I so can't wait for the future. And as if that wasn't cool enough, National Geographic also profiles a real kick-ass technology sure to foil the alibis of many a future criminal with science: "brain fingerprinting." The world is safer for law-abiding citizens, thanks to Brain Fingerprinting (BF), a way to peek into a suspect's mind to verify if he was at the scene of a crime. How? Sort of like a lie detector test, but BF reads a person's involuntary response to a memory. It measures and records specific brain waves that are only active when a person has memories of an event or place. If those brain waves don't register, the person doesn't know about the crime. If memories of the crime do show up, the criminal is busted, and the streets are safer." I especially like how in the future criminal justice is far simpler. If your brain says you were there, you obviously committed the crime. Busted!

Leave no trace. Seriously, don't.

Mountaineering teams organize to clean up the world’s highest mountain peaks

A few months ago, gutsy French test pilot Didier Delsalle landed a helicopter on top of Mount Everest in 75 mph hour winds -- no, not crashed -- quite obviously the highest landing place on earth. He was the first to successfully summit Everest by copter. And just to make sure it wasn't a fluke, he did it twice. The previous highest helicopter landing was some 9,035 feet lower, at about 20,000 feet, the record set in 1996 by Nepalese pilot Madan Khatri Chhetri while rescuing climbers. And that's one of the great things about this: the tangible -- though still amazingly dangerous -- possibility of being able to rescue mountaineers on some of the world's highest, harshest peaks. Delsalle's feat also raises the prospect (and could significantly lower the cost) of cleaning up what many call the "world's highest garbage dump." In recent years, international teams of eco-conscious mountaineers have organized enormously expensive expeditions to clean up some of Everest's over-50-year legacy of trash, augmenting infrequent government Sherpa-led garbage-retrieval expeditions. But now another team aims to clean up, at the very least, parts of the Himalayas' 14 peaks above 8,000 meters (about 26,200 feet). This week it's off to the earth's 10th highest mountain, Mt. Annapurna. The high-altitude sanitation engineers also have plans in place to launch a cleanup of their own on Mt. Everest next spring. If there was ever a job in the trash business I envied, it's this one.

Green acres, and acres, and acres ...

Massive planned Vegas complex claims to be sustainable

If you're going to build a gigantically humongous casino/hotel/condo/shopping center megaplex in the middle of Las Vegas, you may as well do it green ... or as green as a project of this size could be in the middle of the desert during a drought. Brought to you by MGM Mirage, the 18-million-square-foot, $5 billion project will reportedly seek an unspecified level of LEED certification and, The Globe and Mail reports, will be bigger than Times Square, Soho, and Rockefeller Center -- combined. MGM's claims of "sustainability" are likely more hype than reality, at least in the classic sense of the word, but designers, I suppose, do deserve some measure of credit for going greener than the average megaplex. Eco-design features are said to include use of reclaimed water, planting of green roofs, and construction of a central power plant to be located on-site (presumably powered by something cleaner than, say, coal). One of the least-hailed features of the complex, though, will be an attempt at some kind of urban density, as well as the creation of a multi-use area amid the sprawl of Las Vegas' strip. So way to go, MGM! May you and your big-name architects inspire other developers large and small to aim for at least some shade of green.

The Old Apollo Project

Bush hopes to send Americans to the moon … again

So, many enviros are familiar with The New Apollo Project, based on Prez Kennedy's original Apollo moon missions but instead aiming to harness that good ol' 'Merican ingenuity and know-how to jumpstart a massive clean-energy program in the U.S. while simultaneously creating a whole slew of new jobs. Good idea? Sure it is. But like most good ideas in the U.S., it's going exactly nowhere in the halls of government. But now, sensing the public's urgent, even palpable need for space travel (oh, it's there!), the ever with-it Bush admin has a plan that takes the new Apollo Project in an entirely different direction: to the moon. That's right, they've got a plan to go retro and couple that fabled American ingenuity with high-tech spending to boldly go where, uh ... we've already been. But hey, the moon worked for Kennedy, right, so why couldn't it be a rallying point more than 40 years later? (We're in the middle of a curiously similar war, after all, and maybe that's all the reason anyone needs.) Of course, some might be quick to mock the administration, saying they're just trying to divert attention away from other issues. But what could they possibly want to distract attention away from? I really have no idea. Seriously though, this is great. Given the massive budget trauma in the wake of Katrina and, um, the enormously expensive and still ongoing occupation of Iraq (donation, please?), and, uh, that stuff in Afghanistan, and all those tax breaks (am I missing anything?) -- amid the shifting of funds away from NASA and the likely cut of about 600 NASA employees from their Washington headquarters, nevermind the fact that the agency still can't clear the stratosphere without its shuttle falling apart -- I think a big ol' Space Odyssey 2005 is exactly what this country needs. Or at least a big ol' press conference about it. Ooh, the moon!

Could Katrina kill the SUV?

Despite falling sales figures, it’s not bloody likely

... asked the title of an Agence France-Presse story in TerraDaily on Sunday. Uh, not bloody likely. The story cited falling SUV sales figures for August, combined with the even higher-than-usual gas-price spikes wrought by the hurricane's effect on refining capacity, and concluded, via an economist or two, "Potentially, Katrina could signal the death knell of the SUV in as much as consumers are going to find themselves once burned, twice shy to buy such vehicles."   But that's assuming a lot, not the least of which is that consumers make their vehicle-buying -- and especially SUV-buying -- decisions based purely on economics. Ignoring the fact that many Americans go into debt or spend beyond their means to drive the vehicle they believe best defines them as a person, or the vehicle they may one day need versus what would work for them most of the time, the theory sounds more feasible. What I'd like to see, of course, is the widespread divorce of people from their vehicles, period ... something just as likely as the demise of the SUV. Also ignoring cultural factors, this wise shift could be based solely on economics as well. With rising, largely Lance Armstrong-fueled, bicycle sales in the U.S., coupled with ever-rising gas prices, and growing frustration with insurance companies of all kinds, I forecast a two-wheeled American transportation wise-up, quick-like.


Dead radioactive birds piling up at British nuclear plant

One more reason to oppose nuclear: the radioactive birds.   Make that the dead, frozen, expanding pile of radioactive birds. At a nuclear plant in Britain, concerned about birds potentially spreading radiation from the site, managers hired snipers -- yes, snipers -- to assassinate birds that land in the area, mostly pigeons and seagulls. Which they've been doing for a while now. Well, problem solved then, right? Not exactly. Now, instead of live radioactive birds that could fly away and contaminate things, there are dead radioactive birds, deemed low-level radioactive waste, that aren't going anywhere. Hundreds of them, actually, the managers guess. But unlike other, conventional forms of radwaste, the birds rot -- enough to be deemed "putrescent" -- so they must be kept out of the normal nuke waste dump. Which means that now the Brit nuke plant has the same problem as avid hunters trying to cut down on their meat consumption -- freezers and freezers full of their kill, with more arriving all the time. And until a special nuclear-bird landfill can be built where they'll be dumped, the nuke plant's freezers will keep overflowing with the hot cold birds. Freezer-burned nuclear gull, anyone? Yum.

Nudity. Cycling. What's not to like?

Heck, I’d cycle nude even if it wasn’t for a good cause

Speaking of naked protests: This weekend, hundreds of cyclists across the world rode in what is by far my favorite protest -- the World Naked Bike Ride. Riding against oil dependence, for cyclists' rights, or just to feel the breeze on all their parts while surrounded by a bunch of naked friends and/or strangers, protestors bared all in some 50 cities in 17 countries, including London, Chicago, Seattle, and Madrid. And what could be better? Naked cycling protests combine the energy and exhilaration of three already pretty exhilarating activities: public nudity, protesting in the streets, and cycling. Seriously, if you've never ridden in one, pencil it in on your calendar for the same time next year -- they're a blast! Not surprisingly, I guess, shedding your clothes -- or at least, most of them -- really does seem to make a difference; people in cars are almost never as nice to cyclists as they are when they're in the middle of a rolling naked party. (There's a lesson in there somewhere.) The WNBR is like a titillating, slightly more focused Critical Mass, with once-a-year energy. So go on, cycle naked for a good cause when you have the chance. And in case you're wondering, it looks much more painful than it is.