For anyone who’s been paying attention to the fires on the West Coast of the U.S., the last few years have seen a significant increase in the number of wildfires as well as their size and damage resulting from the related flames. One particular fire made itself quite prominent given the direction it burned, ripping through the hills and canyons of central California to threaten the Mariposa Grove located in Yosemite National Park.
The Washburn fire burned like a lot of hot spots, fast and large and destructive. Once it got into Yosemite, folks thought it was going to continue from there. Size-wise, the Washburn was not the biggest fire that year; reaching 4,800 acres by the time it was threatening the Grove, the fire was making crews make choice between the famous trees and the town of Wawona at the south end of the Park. The saving grace, however, was that the wind fueling the fire died off. That allowed firefighters to build their defense lines and stop progress significantly.
Many fires are named after the location where they first started, and the Washburn Fire was no exception. It started right after the 4th of July, next to the Washburn Trail already in Yosemite Park. However, what really got people’s attention was how fast it moved towards Mariposa Grove. Those trees had lasted three millennia, but in a day or so they were going to be charcoal. The lack of humidity was a key factor, so the fire defense got creative by attaching sprinklers to the trees and around them to wet the place down. That wasn’t going to stop the fire though.
Once fires get into tree areas, they burn extremely hot. A typical burning log can reach 1,000 Fahrenheit, much hotter than a grass fire at 400 degrees. Worse, tree fires first rise up and start to crown, with the fires jumping from one tree to the next at the top versus moving on the ground where it can be fought.
The fire defense threw everything at the blaze, including air drops and line raking, as well as backfires and cutting down anything that could build up big flames. Ultimately, the fire lines held this time. However, given extreme fire conditions California continues to see year after year now, it may just be a matter of time before Yosemite is hit again by another flame front.
Libraries Are Branching Out To Include Bikes
Madison, WI has a total of nine public libraries. They stock everything from classic books to magazines to newspapers to digital reading assets, like audiobooks and ebooks. They also carry an extensive network of disk products such as movies and videos. Now, it turns out, they also lend electric bikes to their patrons as well.
Libraries across the country are looking for more creative ways to make themselves useful, branching out well beyond just books and encyclopedias of the past. Madison’s libraries are no exception, but they may very well be the first library in the U.S. that provides electric bikes for borrowing, like a library book. Well, maybe not the first. There are now 35 other similar programs across the country, from Texas to Vermont. And, bikes may very well just be the tip of the iceberg in whatever else libraries get into the business of lending.
The odd thing is, lots of people avoid cycling for an assortment of reasons. Some think that it’s a pastime only adult white men engage in. Others can’t find anything viable to ride a bike on, whether it be a public sidewalk or a dirt trail. Still others think it’s too dangerous altogether, especially with traffic and uncaring vehicle drivers. And, finally, simply having a place to park and lock a bicycle is a convenience people enjoy in big cities but it tends to be a rarity in smaller towns. Money is a barrier as well; a decent bicycle today averages a couple hundred dollars in cost out the door. And an electric bike is well over $1,000 in most locations they are available.
So, Madison’s library network and management decided that an electric bike was going to be the next big asset in their inventory of things residents could borrow. Partnering with Madison BCycle, the libraries set up a borrowing system, providing a total of 300 different bike units across the town. Similar to what people see with e-scooters in big cities, those with a library card can now rent a bicycle to get around Madison, but without any charge to a credit card. All the patrons need to activate the bike is a key fob they get from a library. Since the start of the program, almost 280 fobs have been borrowed.
From the library’s perspective, the e-bike program has multiple benefits. Instead of having to use Uber or similar at a cost, borrowers can use an e-bike for free. They get exercise which they would not realize with a car. E-bikes connect people and allow them to be more social. E-bikes also help people stay healthier, which avoids medical costs and eventually community costs associated with sickness, lost productivity and public health problems. It also lets patrons try something new around their town and travel more instead of just using a car.
A key factor of success was the fact that Madison City had already put in the infrastructure for the e-bikes all over town. So, they had plenty of docking stations and lockups near libraries and elsewhere. The grid is strategically placed, so no one person has to walk too far to get to an e-bike easily. The only slowdown to the new bike borrowing program was COVID, but since that has passed, bike borrowing is up and running again in Madison.
Declaring War on Hidden Consumer Fees
November launched with yet more last-minute grabs for political attention, with President Biden trying to shore up average voter support. And one of the most traditional targets for that support tends to be the consumer pocketbook. In that regard, the President’s announcement to go after hidden consumer fees for entertainment, travel and cable access as well as banking was intended to garner quick support for the Administration, especially given that the midterm elections seem to be going down to the wire in a number of states for 2022.
Dubbed “junk fees” by the President, the consumer account charges are expected to range from bounced check charges to late fees to confusing and ambiguous cable service fees. For the various affected industries, the announcement goes direct to their bottom line as fees represent a viable revenue channel that costs nothing in terms of additional service or goods. For the President, however, the direction is also a high gain if he can translate it into voter action next week with the mid-November elections nationwide.
Using the already existing network of government regulators over various industries, the Biden Administration is expecting to use executive power to protect the consumer benefit and fight greedy businesses. At least that’s how this week’s President’s message comes across. The move is an attempt to shift the enforcement of the Consumer Financial Protection Act, particularly on banks and the billions they raise annually on non-sufficient fund charges and penalties. For example, the banking industry pocketed a no-cost $15.5 billion in 2019.
On the regulatory side, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is generally charged with the role of enforcement. The President’s announcement is generally being seen as a mandate for action by the Bureau, but they won’t be acting alone. The Federal Trade Commission is also getting in on the act with its own additional rules to prevent further deceptive fee practices in various industries.
Aside from banks, various entertainment miscellaneous charges are on the radar as well. Concert ticket sellers, resort fees from hotels and similar are also getting close attention. A common one for recent travelers is the resort fee, which is essentially an ambiguous charge of $25 to $100 a day, added on top of the advertised room rate for nothing but simply being a tourist visiting during the tourist season. Ironically, liberal San Francisco, for example, is notorious for such charges just for delivering a newspaper to a hotel customer.
President Biden emphasized in his early November speech a dedicated strategy to wipe out such fees after examination, or at least to reduce them significantly. How exactly that will occur remains to be seen, but the reach is across industries and is not limited to banks alone. Of course, the messaging is part of a larger theme to show action in the face of the highest inflation rate in four decades. Vowing to protect the family budget, the Biden Administration likely hopes the November announcement will resonate, supporting Democratic candidates in tight races. Critics are quick to argue the move is too little, too late, punishing businesses that create jobs. Who is right will become clearer after the midterm elections are counted in a few days.
Coal Miner Goes Straight to Game from the Mine for His Son
Parents can be extremely dedicated to their kids, especially when special events matter to the child. That was the case with one Kentucky coal miner who made it a top priority to go straight from work, literally the coal mine, and get to his kid’s special event, seeing the University of Kentucky Wildcats and their practice game. Not only was the father noticed, still in his mining gear and dusty from the coal mine, they were sitting right on the sidelines with the rest of his family watching the game. The dedication of the father impressed Coach John Calipari, the sports legend commented online on the photo of the father and, like most things motivating, it went viral.
The father in particular, Michael McGuire, was seen at the practice game in Pikeville, Eastern Kentucky, watching the Wildcats in a scrimmage. There’s McGuire in the photo, still wearing his mining boots and company uniform, and dusty from head to foot with black coal soot. A mining helmet wouldn’t have been out of place in the image.
It was another fan, Sue Kinneer, who actually created the photograph. She had spotted the moment and felt it needed to be shared, posting the image of McGuire watching the game on a handful of fan Facebook pages. Sure enough, Calipari saw the image and reacted to it.
For Calipari, the photograph had more meaning than just a dedicated fan family. His family had solid roots in West Virginia coal mining, so the dedication of the father, coming straight from the mines to his child’s special event resonated with Calipari tremendously. And, to back that up, Calipari posted that he would provide tickets for the miner and his family to enjoy future Wildcat games as VIPs. The tweet response eventually got to McGuire through various Wildcats fans, and they helped connect Calipari with McGuire.
As the miner explained to the local CNN affiliate news station, WKYT, he was back in a coal mine when all the excitement happened online, so he had no clue what was going on after his appearance at the scrimmage game. It was just another shift ending, and McGuire was packing things up to go home when he was told what was going on via his phone. At first, he didn’t believe any of the response.
The actual circumstances leading to the photo was a classic rush to make a fun night happen for the family. McGuire had come off shift, and he had less than an hour to get to the Saturday game. He didn’t want to let down his son, especially when the scrimmage was going to be the boy’s first big game ever. The choice was, miss at least the first half going home and showering, or just go straight to the game and see the whole thing from beginning to end, albeit dusty from head to foot from work. He chose the latter, and the family had a blast, even though McGuire was a big mess.
Now, with the VIP tickets, the family is anticipating a lot more games and more fun than ever with local basketball. For McGuire himself, it’s also pretty special; the miner has been a lifelong Kentucky basketball fan, and he even got to spend time with Calipari in person. For Calipari, the first person he reached in the family was Molly, McGuire’s wife. She touted how sacrificing her husband had been, providing for them all with mining work that by any standard was tough, but it was a good living for them all too.
On the basketball side, Calipari expects the story to be a good life lesson for the university players as well, one that he hopes hits home with the young men about the values of dedication and hard work as well.
Soul Asylum’s Song About Runaway Children Helped Find Them
Soul Asylum has had its share of miles on the road. For years, the band toured via a beat up van, and their music was sold on an independent label. It was not the traditional path to make it big in the Hollywood music industry or earn millions by any means. Dave Pirner, the frontman for the band, then realized an even bigger challenge – he might be losing his hearing. The entire experience was driving him to, in his words, a nervous breakdown.
To stay with music but relax his inflamed ears, Pirner switched to an acoustic guitar. One of the songs that came out of that phase was an influential one, Runaway Train. The song lyrics end up reflecting Pirner’s state of mind at the time, particularly when he needed to talk to a friend at the worst of it. Combining an old interest in trains with his mental crash at the time, the words to the song started to flow out seamlessly, the runaway train being a symbol of Pirner’s own feeling out of control at the time. When the song eventually reached the stage and got its first hearing during a band show at the University of Minnesota, everyone realized Pirner was onto something. It helped that the band had some good musicians putting music to the song with additional instruments.
Runaway Train was so good, Soul Asylum shopped it around when sending demo tapes for the band to big labels. Columbia Records signaled a strong enough reception that the band signed on with them, and Runaway Train was recorded with Michael Beinhorn producing. As Pirner reflected, the band worked their tail off on that recording. Beinhorn had Pirner re-sing the words at least a hundred times in that recording session.
Unfortunately, big label production had a cost, and the band’s drummer got replaced. At this point, Soul Asylum’s success was moving out of the road-band and into a full-fledged big label production. So, a bandmember getting hacked for a better musician was not unheard of. But the entire experience of letting go of Soul Asylum’s original drummer was a painful price in experience.
Runaway Train hit the airwaves and the song took off. It took on a life of its own, easily outpacing the other singles from Soul Asylum’s album, Grave Dancers Union. It made sense to Pirner that Runaway Train would become one of their most important tracks. It had a serious message. When it was time for a video of the song, Pirner got the video’s inspiration seeing a missing child billboard driving home in L.A. The song would be about runaways. The connection made sense, Columbia was supportive of the idea, and the band was able to leverage support from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The song started rotation on MTV, including real images of missing children. The hope was that it would trigger finds and help close some missing children cases. Nothing happened at first. However, after a few weeks, kids started seeing their faces on the video channel and began to reach home. Each time, a new child’s photo would be used, and a new case would be closed. Some didn’t always have a happy ending, but it did provide closure for the families. At final count, 21 kids were found out of 36 profiled in the video. It was a classic social impact situation via Soul Asylum’s music and popular entertainment being used for something more than just music alone.
A Record Number of Schools Are Turning to Solar Power
A little more than three years ago, two solar power groups found that out of 130 thousand schools in the United States, only 3,750 were utilizing solar panels to generate electricity. However, since then that number has been continuously rising.
The “Brighter Future” report from the nonprofit organization Generation180 revealed that the number of US schools employing solar power increased to 8,400 at the end of 2021. These “solar schools” make up nearly 10 percent of public K-12 independent charter schools and serve over 6 million students throughout the United States.
Roughly 1,644 megawatts of solar energy have been installed in American schools since 2015. This is a significant milestone, as more and more schools are building new rooftop and ground-based solar arrays, advocating for community solar programs, and producing enough electricity to sell it back to their communities.
California leads the pack in terms of both the number of solar schools and solar capacity. Additional states are making great strides in this area, with Washington state’s solar capacity growing more than eightfold between 2019 and 2021. At the same time, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Virginia at minimum doubled their installed solar capacities.
According to Tish Tablan, the lead author of the report, much of this growth is due to third-party financing models such as power purchase agreements (PPAs). With these types of contracts, developers agree to pay for solar panels and their operation while schools purchase the electric output from them at a set price for an allotted time. This benefits developers because they are able use federal tax credits and receive a stable source income.
The Generation180 report finds that federal Title I Schoolwide Program funding has been crucial for solar expansion beyond affluent school districts. As of 2021, 47 percent of public schools that have solar power are eligible for this type of funding, which implies that roughly 40 percent of their student population comes from low-income households.
At Denver Public Schools in Colorado, PPAs with various solar developers have helped the school district install 9 megawatts of solar capacity at 50 schools. Out of those 50 schools, 21 of them utilize Title I Schoolwide Program. As a result of these efforts, high emissions are down 2175 cars’ worth annually.
Denver Public Schools are using solar arrays to educate students about renewable energy and providing them with early job training for aspiring electrical engineers.
According to Generation180, although strides have been made, there is still a long way to go. Only 10 percent of U.S schools currently use solar panels, which is an abysmal amount considering the rate of climate change and how crucial it is for to find sustainable energy sources. If every school building in the United States switched to solar power, 60 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year would be eliminated. That’s equivalent to getting rid of 16 coal-fired power plants’ worth of climate pollution yearly.
The enactment of additional PPAs could help significantly move things forward, and this footage could especially be relevant in reversing policies that restrict third-party financing options in southern states. Furthermore, last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law – as well as this year’s Inflation Reduction Act – both included federal funding (in hundreds of millions of dollars) for grants to upgrade schools’ energy systems and lessen their climate pollution. There is also an expanded tax credit included to help offset the solar and battery storage projects’ costs.
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