I biked from Windsor Terrace to Red Hook and back this morning, and took a few photos. 

A tree leaning against an apartment building on 11th Avenue, Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, 8:50am.


A tree down in Prospect Park's Nether Mead, 8:53am.


A tree down in Prospect Park's Long Meadow, 9:04am.


Inspecting the roots of a tree toppled near the ball fields in Prospect Park, 9:10am.


Prospect Park West bike lane, looking north from 15th Street, 9:14am.


Car crushed by a fallen tree, Prospect Park West at 14th Street, 9:15am.


Tree leaning against a house, 13th Street near 5th Avenue, Park Slope, Brooklyn, 9:21am.


A burnt-out minivan, Lorraine Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn, 9:32am. "That car always had electrical problems," said a passer-by.


A power line dangling in the middle of Van Brunt Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn, 9:41am.


Van Brunt Street underwater, near Fairway supermarket, Brooklyn, 9:44am.


Water in a residential basement, Conover Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn, 9:53am.


Downed willow tree, Van Brunt Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn, 10:09am.


Sidewalk undermined by flooding, as visible through the corner of a planter, Van Brunt Street, Red Hook, 10:11am.


Standing water in a Chinese restaurant's basement, Van Brunt Street, Red Hook, 10:12am.



Another thing I’ve long meant to blog about: car diapers. I wonder whether they exist outside Park Slope. In how many American neighborhoods do parallel parking, overprotectiveness, and automobile vanity co-exist? The car diaper is a large sheet of rubber that is draped over a car’s rear fender in order to protect it from the scratches and scrapes incidental to parallel parking. They aren’t called car diapers, of course, by their purveyors. Indeed they seem to have sort of self-consciously aggressive names, like “Bumper Bully” and “De-Fender.” But car diapers is what they look like. Some are attached by shutting them half in and half out of the trunk, so they flop over the fender, usually with a cut-out so that the license plate remains visible. A driver rarely scrapes up another car’s rear fender while parallel parking, because one always has a clear view of the other car’s rear fender. It’s one’s own rear fender that one scrapes, by misjudging the distance behind. So a car diaper is a responsible and civic thing to own—an admission of one’s incontinence as a driver, or anyway, as a parallel parker. Still.

To be fair, I am in no position to make fun of car diapers, seeing as how I am an inveterate user of book condoms, also known by the trade name Brodart Just-a-Fold III Archival Covers.

Probably I am willing to mock car diapers because of the same character flaws that have made me a cyclist. So while I am bashing car culture, I might as well throw in this observation: On the streets of Park Slope, the most dangerous driving seems to occur when drivers are in the throes of the illusion that they are “catching up.” To explain: If a driver feels that a safe and pleasant speed on a residential street is 15 miles an hour, but an obstacle (such as a double-parked delivery van) temporarily forces the driver to slow down or even stop, he often responds, once he has passed the obstacle, by “catching up.” That is, he suddenly accelerates to thirty miles an hour, and holds that speed for half a block or more. What he is “catching up” to is where he thinks his car would be if he hadn’t been forced to slow down. It wasn’t his choice to slow down; it was (and I am rankly indulging here in a fantasy of driver’s psychology, which isn’t such a stretch for me because I, too, drive) somehow unfair that he had to slow down. By revving the engine, he expresses his anger at this injustice and recovers for himself the timespace that the universe, in the form of a double-parked delivery van, had tried to take from him. On a bicycle, too, I suppose, one might try to “catch up” to one’s fantasy-unobstructed self after an obstacle, but I don’t think it happens very often. I don’t find myself ever doing it, maybe because it would take a burst of muscle power that isn’t generally available. In a car, though, the engine is always ready to give you more speed than is safe; the cost of “catching up” in a car isn’t to one’s energy supply as a human organism; it takes the form of an added hazard to oneself and to those who have the misfortune to be sharing the street with you while you’re doing it. Car drivers, become more zen! You are where you are. You do not have to catch up to where you think you are.

To be fair and balanced, now that I have dissed place-anxious drivers, I will say a few words about a similar risky and unpleasant habit among my fellow bikers. This long-harbored meme goes in my head by the name of, How Fixies Cause Global Warming. Not really, of course, or anyway, not by very much, but let me explain. What I am objecting to is a practice that has been well described by Bike Snob NYC: when a hipster on a fixie comes to a busy intersection, he does not stop on the near side of the pedestrian crosswalk and wait for the light to change. Oh no, he considers that the momentum that he has built up in his bicycle is too precious to squander by stopping, so he passes over the pedestrian crosswalk and then, just inside the intersection, circles back and forth, in a sort of flattened figure 8 pattern, hoping against hope that there will be a break in the crosswise traffic that will allow him to sneak through. When he does find such a break in the traffic, I sigh with relief. He is gone from my life, at least until I catch up to him at the next intersection. When he doesn’t find a break, however, he himself becomes a considerable obstacle. He almost always finishes his flattened-figure-8 performance with his bike stationary after all and positioned sideways, blocking my path into the intersection. He almost never realizes when the light has finally turned green, because (1) he is too far into the intersection to have a proper view of the traffic light, and (2) he is too “street” to pay any attention to traffic lights generally. So when the light turns green and I’m ready to go, he’s sideways, in my way, and squinting in the wrong direction. And the final aggravation: when he does start moving, because he’s on a fixie, he’s starting his bike in the equivalent of seventh gear or whatever, and he . . . moves . . . the . . . ped- . . . -als . . . ve- . . . -ry . . . slow- . . . -ly . . . . If he had a real bicycle, with some low gears and some high ones, he would be able to start quickly from a full stop, and get out of my way.

The reason momentum is so precious to fixie-riders isn’t because they have a better grasp of physics than other people, nor necessarily because they’re in worse physical condition, but because it’s hard to start riding a bike in seventh gear from a full stop. So fixie riders try not to stop at all, and they end up cluttering intersections whose lights have turned green. Once this is understood, it is a short step to realizing that the decision to forgo gears must be a tremendous waste of human energy generally, and any waste of energy, even the energy generated by hipsters eating power bars, is a contribution to global warming, so fixies cause global warming. Q.E.D. (As I admitted before, not by very much. But, you know, some.)

Palin on the environment

Theodor Horydczak, Polar bear eating, 1920-50

Greg of Hermits Rock points out that Columbia Journalism Review is urging the media to examine Palin’s environmental record and providing a primer. They quote Thomas Friedman’s observation in yesterday’s New York Times: “Palin’s much ballyhooed confrontations with the oil industry have all been about who should get more of the windfall profits, not how to end our addiction.” And they point out that she supports creationism, mountain-top-removal mining, the shooting of wolves from airplanes, and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve; doubts that human actions have caused global warming; and opposes trying to save polar bears. Oh, and, as you may recall, last night Palin said, “Our opponents say, again and again, that drilling will not solve all of America’s energy problems—as if we all didn’t know that already.” The Obama campaign points out that this summer, Palin told Investor’s Business Daily that “I beg to disagree with any candidate who would say we can’t drill our way out of our problem.”

Fear and knowing

Last night I attended “Fright Night,” a debate at the New York Public Library. The editors of n+1 invited contributor Alex Gourevitch to discuss his belief that environmentalism was becoming the lefty twin of the right’s war on terror—a fear-mongering technique designed to bully people into surrendering their right to healthy debate. Once the evening’s introductions were over, however, it transpired that the n+1 editors had invited Gourevitch in the belief that he shares with them the premise that climate change is a crisis in need of a political solution. In fact, he doesn’t. He believes that climate change is real, but that its dangers are wildly exaggerated, and that rather than try to lower carbon-dioxide emissions, concerned individuals should try to speed up the industrialization of the Third World, which will resist damage more stoutly as it becomes richer.

The ensuing debate was a bit chaotic, because no one but Gourevitch seemed prepared to engage the prior question that he raised. I blog about it only to add two footnotes. During the question-and-answer period, through a cold-virus-toxin-induced haze, I brought up an article I had recently read, though I couldn’t remember where, about two consultants who were advising the Democrats to drop environmental fear-mongering not because it was an emotionally coercive stifling of political debate but because it was hard to sell in the marketplace of ideas. Gourevitch graciously supplied the name of the article where the consultants first issued this hypothesis, “The Death of Environmentalism,” and I now see by inspection of my nightstand that I read about it in Gregg Easterbrook’s review in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas of the book that this article later became, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. In my memory of Easterbrook’s article (though not evidently in the article itself, so perhaps I read about the proposal elsewhere, too), the consultants had pointed to the Clean Air Act of 1970 as a resounding, unequivocal success and suggested that Democrats should be trumpeting the fact that air and water in America are much cleaner now than a generation ago thanks to governmental intervention, rather than looking forward to doomsday scenarios, which tend to cause voters to withdraw into their shells. My growing suspicion while listening to Gourevitch was that his concern about the potential of fear-mongering to stifle (small d) democratic problem-solving was notional, and perhaps just sheep’s clothing to disguise a libertarian wolf beneath. So I asked whether he could imagine any governmental intervention into the environment that was worth the burden it would place on industrial growth, and in particular I asked him to imagine it was 1970, and that he knew then what we know now, and to say whether his principles would allow him to support the Clean Air Act.

He answered that he didn’t know enough about the specifics of the Clean Air Act to answer. Since the Clean Air Act is one of the most widely heralded successes in environmental legislation of the last half-century, whose full benefits are still being researched (the latest suggestion is that by removing lead from paint and gasoline, the 1970 act and its 1980s updates improved children’s mental health so much that they preempted a crime wave), I took his nescio to be general, that is, to mean that Gourevitch would never feel that any centralized planner knew enough about the world to justify intervention in the environment, no matter how sure the plan’s benefits and no matter how limited the plan’s goal and costs, and that Gourevitch’s concern that fear might chill debate is, practically speaking, mere obstructionism. (To disprove me, of course, all he has to do is give an example of environmental legislation he supports.)

As an example of how counterproductive environmentalism could be, Gourevitch repeated several times last night that exaggerated concern over DDT had deprived Africans of a tool that could be useful to them in the fight against malaria. (I didn’t take notes, so I may be wrong about exactly what Gourevitch claimed here, but it was along these lines.) As it happens, I had in my knapsack an article about the topic that I had printed out earlier in the day but not yet read. As Aaron Swartz notes in “Rachel Carson, Mass Murderer?” there’s a new meme circulating in right-wing blogs and think tanks, to the effect that Rachel Carson’s campaign against DDT in her book Silent Spring is responsible for the deaths by malaria of millions of African children. The claim doesn’t hold up, as Swartz explains; for one thing, DDT use in Africa seems in fact to have declined not because of liberal woollymindedness but because mosquitoes became resistant to it, a danger that Carson herself warned of. The real goal of the pro-DDT campaign, Swartz suggests, isn’t to revive its use as a pesticide—it’s still legal in ten African nations—but to deprive environmentalism of one of its most charismatic successes.

UPDATE: The New York Times‘s Sewell Chan has a responsible and comprehensive account of the night’s debate.

Attack of the blob


The Washington Post reported last week that crape myrtles and camellias have an easier time of it these days in Washington, D.C., thanks, at least in part, to global warming. According to a new revision of the National Arbor Day Foundation’s map of hardiness zones, if a tree likes it hot, it will find congenial temperatures considerably to the north of where it found them a decade and a half ago. "You could say D.C. is the new North Carolina," a botanist told the Post.

Streetsblog (which covers the human ecology of New York City, broadly considered) therefore speculates that New York City must be the new Baltimore. It is, as you can see above; the yellow-colored zone 7 handily includes both cities, as well as Tennessee, Oklahoma, and the Texas panhandle. In fact, though, Baltimore and Brooklyn seem to have both belonged to zone 7 in 1990, as well. What’s new is that in 1990, the two cities were at the northern edge of the zone, and now they’re inside it by a large and comfortable margin. To see a neato animation of hardiness zones across the nation shifting northward, from 1990 to 2006, like a rising tide of particolored molasses, consult the National Arbor Day Foundation’s website. Then go buy a live oak for the front of your brownstone.