09/16/16 4:30pm

UBER’S SELF-DRIVING CARS HIT STREETS WITH ACTUAL PASSENGERS, DRIVERS JUST IN CASE Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh: As of Wednesday, Uber is letting some of its customers opt into possible pickup by its fleet of heavily tricked-out self-driving Ford Fusions. The rollout is the company’s first testing of the autonomous cars with real passengers in the urban wild; so far, they still come equipped with a prepared-for-takeover human in the driver’s seat (as well as a data-monitoring shotgun rider). Paying passengers interact with the car from the back seat via electronic tablet, which shows them the LiDAR data the car collects and allows them to take selfies. TechCrunch’s Signe Brewster got to check out one of the cars as part of a press preview and reports that the car’s driving was “so normal it got a little bit boring” by the end; Brewster does note that he “had a flurry of butterflies the first time the car encountered an obstacle — an SUV backing into the road. You don’t notice how many unexpected incidents occur during a routine drive until you ask a robot to take the wheel.” [WTAE, TechCrunch; previously on Swamplot]

09/13/16 2:45pm

THE NEXT BIG HURRICANE REBUILD WILL GO MUCH FASTER IF YOU START ON IT NOW Meanwhile, in Brownsville: Housing advocates in Dolly-battered South Texas have since developed a disaster response program optimistically called Rapido; new legislation (similar to a bill that failed in the last Texas legislative session) is in the works to make Rapido-style “precovery” response a statewide standard. The program involves the fast deployment of permanent 1-room housing “cores” that can be quickly assembled by local workers and then added onto later; the bigger component of the program, Leah Binkovitz writes this week, is extensive pre-planning initiatives in potential disaster areas, instead of what housing advocate John Henneberger calls “reinventing disaster recovery from a blank sheet of paper every time there’s a disaster.” Binkovitz writes that the program calls for preemptive outreach “to determine what kind of disaster housing would be most appropriate, who could build it, who would be eligible to receive it and what resources would be available. That conversation should even include whether folks want to rebuild in vulnerable neighborhoods and how to offer alternatives.” [Urban Edge; previously on Swamplot]

09/09/16 2:45pm

THE CASE OF THE SPECULATIVE RUBE GOLDBERG-STYLE LONG DISTANCE HOME ARSON ATTEMPT Meanwhile, in Kerikeri: Gag orders surrounding a set of insurance fraud and blackmail investigations have recently expired, bringing to light details of New Zealand investigators’ suspicions that British expat Chris Robinson may have burned his own house down while out of town in 2013. Investigators of the fire, which destroyed Robinson’s multi-million-dollar home and Mercedes, found burn marks suggesting a flame accelerant, as well as records of a remote login to a home computer on the night of the fire. Traces of the software program used to access the home machine were found on Robinson’s travel laptop, though he deleted the program the morning after the blaze. The investigators eventually presented a proof of concept video in court demonstrating one theoretically possible method of starting a fire remotely: the investigators cued a printer to print, which pulled down a sheet of paper which was taped to a string, pulling a switch that caused a small heating element to set some matches on fire (enough to ignite the accelerant that appeared to have been splashed around the house). The case fell apart because investigators didn’t produce evidence of a sent print command; though the insurance company still won’t pay out for the house, Robinson was acquitted. He did, however, lose an associated court case over an attempt to blackmail the insurance company; during sentencing, the judge took into consideration a previous UK conviction for posing as an Irish priest to solicit-slash-extort donations to a nonexistent charity. [Stuff via The Independent]

08/25/16 2:00pm

RRC: YOUR DRINKING WATER PROBABLY HASN’T BEEN POISONED BY THOSE WELLS WE WEREN’T TRACKING Meanwhile, in Austin: The Texas Rail Road Commission is hiring a geologist to look through the 10,000-or-so permits for oilfield waste disposal wells it’s approved since 1982, in an effort to figure out which ones were drilled into potential drinking water supplies.  Kiah Colliers reports this week that the agency (which since 2005 has had nothing to do with railroads) says it’s let through a “handful” of exceptions to the don’t-pump-fracking-liquids-into-water-zones-someone-might-need-later rules, and that they probably aren’t much of a risk, but the agency doesn’t actually know how many times it’s happened (and the EPA doesn’t have records of giving the required OKs). Colliers also notes that even other Texas officials in charge of water quality in frack-heavy areas of the state aren’t necessarily aware that disposal wells are ever allowed near potentially drinkable water supplies, quoting an assistant manager at the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District’s response to a description of the policy as “Now why in the hell would they do that? [Texas Tribune]

08/04/16 1:45pm

RESPONDING TO A FLOOD OF COMPLAINTS ABOUT FLOOD INSURANCE Meanwhile, in New York: A few months after a joint Frontline and NPR investigation noted how profits for insurance companies administering the National Flood Insurance Program regularly peak after flooding disasters, a new report issued by the office of New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman says there’s a lack of accountability in the program that is likely costing taxpayers millions and cheating the homeowners the program is designed to serve. The AG’s office “has now found flood insurance does not cover what it promises in its ads, that many engineers and others hired to evaluate damage were not qualified and that homeowners were wrongly prevented from seeing copies of their own reports,” reports NPR’s Laura Sullivan. In response, FEMA says it has adjusted its rules and will continue to do so to make sure costs of obtaining outside services are justified and documented. [Frontline; NPR]

07/15/16 1:30pm

LONGABERGER EMPTIES 7-STORY PICNIC BASKET FOR SALE OR FORECLOSURE Meanwhile, in Newark: Yesterday Ohio-based basket weaver Longaberger finished moving the last of its employees out of its former corporate headquarters, a replica of the company’s Medium Market model (albeit 160 times larger than life). The company, which saw a 90 percent drop in sales between 2000 and 2014, is currently trying to sell off the building, which consists of a 7-story office structure behind a stucco-over-steel faux-woven facade, complete with 2 enormous handles that heat up to prevent icing in the winter.  The company has accumulated more than half a million dollars in unpaid taxes on the property; if a buyer cannot be found, the city may foreclose and offer the structure up for public auction. [Columbus Dispatch via Houston Chronicle]

06/10/16 4:45pm

WHY THAT ONE HOME IN THE BRAZOS FLOOD ZONE DIDN’T FLOOD Meanwhile, in Abbeville: The giant water-filled tubes of California-based AquaDam are getting some love from a homeowner with property near last week’s mandatory evacuation zone south of Houston. Upon hearing the Brazos River Authority’s flood predictions, Randy Wagner says he drove to the company’s Louisiana headquarters to pick up the 400-ft.-long structure, and deployed it around his house in Rosharon: “I was the crazy guy,” Wagner told KHOU. “Everybody was kinda going by, laughing at me. But today they are really impressed . . . ” The dams are marketed most heavily for construction purposes, but also as a replacement for sandbag barricades in flood situations. Notable past deployments include the Ft. Calhoun Nuclear Generating Station in Blair, Nebraska where the dams successfully kept out 2 ft. of water from the nuclear plant during flooding in 2011 — until the AquaDam was accidentally popped. [KHOU, New York Times]

05/31/16 5:00pm

DEPT. OF PUBLIC SAFETY TO UT: PLEASE DITCH THE PHOTOS OF FLOOD-RELATED CHEMICAL SPILLS WE DIDN’T NOTICE Meanwhile, in Austin: Texas Department of Public Safety officials have recently asked the University of Texas to remove an online collection of aerial photos taken by the Texas Civil Air Patrol during major flooding events, Marty Schladen writes in this weekend’s El Paso Times. The request comes after the Times reported earlier this spring on what appeared to be photos in the database showing a number of chemical spills not captured in any other state monitoring records, including spills along the Trinity river north of Galveston Bay; other photo sets previously on the site reportedly included shots of Houston sewage treatment plants being flooded on Tax Day, as well as possible unreported spills along the Colorado, Sabine, Red, and Pecos rivers since 2014. DPS Spokesman Tom Vinger tells the Times that pulling the photos is a matter of protecting privacy — “for example, there could be pictures of deceased individuals prior to family members being appropriately notified first,” says Vinger. Non-emergency-responders can still ask for the photos via Public Information Act request. [El Paso Times]

05/25/16 1:00pm

CHINESE COMPANY PREPARING TO TEST 1400-PASSENGER TRAFFIC-STRADDLING TUNNEL BUS Meanwhile, in Changzhou: Engineer Song Youzhou tells Xinhua News that the first full-scale model of the road-straddling Transit Explore Bus may be ready for testing by July or August. The developers say the 2-rail “land airbus” system could pick up as many as 1,400 passengers lowered in through the top from a series of elevator-equipped station platforms; the vehicle could drive straight over traffic jams (assuming those jams are less than 7 ft tall) without having to slow down. Song’s version of the tunnel-train concept was first introduced in 2010 but reappeared at this month’s Beijing Intel High Tech Expo with more solid plans for development. Funder TBS Shipping’s animated 3-D concept video can be viewed here. [Xinhua, CityLab]

05/09/16 2:15pm

UBER AND LYFT PULL OUT OF AUSTIN, PREPARE FOR CAPITOL Meanwhile, in Austin: Uber and Lyft ceased operations today after a city proposition to overturn requirements for drivers including fingerprint-based background checks was shot down by voters over the weekend. The measure was blocked by 56 percent of the vote, despite $8.6 million in campaign spending by the 2 rideshare companies. State senator Charles Schwertner immediately promised to file state legislation to overturn the matter during next year’s session, implying that the Austin rules (which are less stringent than those required by Houston) are “for the sole purpose of stifling innovation and eliminating competition.” El Paso state representative Joe Pickett, however, suggested that “the most minimal thing that state government could do” would be to leave the issue up to individual cities. [Austin-American Statesman; previously on Swamplot]

05/04/16 2:45pm

ENTIRE LOUISIANA ISLAND POPULATION TO BE TRANSPLANTED WITH FEDERAL ‘CLIMATE RESILIENCE’ FUNDS Meanwhile, in Isle de Jean Charles: Planning is currently in the works to resettle roughly 60 people following the gradual disappearance of more than 90 percent of their island due to a combination of industrial and climate change factors, including sea level rise, subsidence, erosion along manmade channels, and the blocking of wetland-rebuilding sediments by levees and other flood-control structures. The community, mostly members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Chocktaw tribe, is frequently blocked by flooding from jobs and schools on the mainland. In January, the first-ever  federal National Disaster Resilience Competition awarded $92 million dollars to the state of Louisiana, which has lost nearly 1,900 square miles of coastal land since the 1930s. Some of the money will go to the Isle de Jean Charles move, and the rest will seed a state fund to help finance other coastal “resilience” projects anticipated in the coming years. A total of $1 billion dollars for similar projects was awarded through the competition to 13 applicants (8 states and 5 communities); the city of New Orleans received a separate grant for $141 million. [New York Times, U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development]

03/10/16 4:45pm

SPANIARDS MOCK CASTLE RESTORED AS SMOOTH CEMENT BLOCK Meanwhile, in Villamartín: Restoration work was recently warpped up on the Matrera castle in southern Spain, fueling backlash from locals, Spanish social media, and the national cultural preservationist group Hispania Nostra, which calls the building’s redo “truly lamentable” and “a massacre of Spanish heritage.” The architect behind the castle’s renovation — which appears to have involved the embedding of the remaining crumbling stone walls into a smooth white box roughly echoing the pre-deterioration volume of the structure — says the project’s main purpose was to prevent the ruins from collapsing; 2011 plans had to be modified after flooding destroyed one of the walls in 2013. Before that, “we couldn’t even get 100 signatures together to restore the building,” says the curator of the local museum. Now that the privately-funded project is complete, he says, “there’s been an outcry. It makes me very frustrated.” Check out video of the castle’s makeover here. [New York Times, Guardian]

02/11/16 4:45pm

SOME HELPFUL TIPS FOR PLACING A PARK ON TOP OF AN UNDERGROUND FREEWAY Meanwhile, in Dallas: What goes into the equation to span a park across a multi-lane underground freeway tunnel, as TXDoT’s latest updates on the planned I-45 redo suggest might be possible? Planning for Klyde Warren Park, which covers an underground section of the Woodall Rogers Freeway between I-35 and I-45 at the edge of downtown Dallas, had to take into account everything from the weight of hundreds of thousands of feet of fill, potential damage to structural elements from root systems, anticipated visitor weight, and all the other little projects that private donors wanted to add. Project coordinators also faced mid-project fire code changes, limited freeway closure allowances for construction, and a $16.7-million funding shortfall that was eventually closed by 2009’s Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The park officially opened in 2012 with a concert headlined by Trombone Shorty and the Polyphonic Spree. [D Magazine, Klyde Warren Park]

02/03/16 5:05pm

MAPPING URBAN METHANE LEAKS BY DRIVING GOOGLE’S STREETVIEW CARS THROUGH THEM Meanwhile, in Los Angeles: Researchers are teaming up with Google to outfit Streetview camera vehicles with sensors to detect methane gas leaks in urban settings. The project, coordinated by the Environmental Defense Fund, found an average of 1 leak per every 4 miles driven around Pasadena, CA, and 1 leak per 5 miles in Chino and Inglewood.  Drives through Boston and Staten Island registered as many as 1 leak per mile.  The project is expanding to map more cities; no maps of Texas or Gulf Coast cities have yet been published. Researchers connected to the mapping initiative have also turned similar methane sensors on the neighborhood near the ongoing methane plume in Aliso Canyon, which has been uncontrollably leaking thousands of tons of natural gas since late October. [EDF via 538; Atlas Obscura]

01/28/16 4:15pm

AUSTIN POWERS-STYLE CONDO GOES INTERNATIONALLY VIRAL DURING SEQUEL SALES ATTEMPT Meanwhile, in Chicago: A 3-bedroom 1970s condo fully decked out with brilliantly patterned wallpaper, period light fixtures, and the requisite shaggy rugs was  pulled off the market today, after the listing for the originally-furnished condo went viral. The psychedelic penthouse was previously listed for several months starting in late 2012 but was pulled in early 2013 due to a lack of interest; the new listing hit the market on Monday and has since been pulled following an overwhelming responseCanadian and British outlets have reported on the condo, and even the funktacular Zillow listing has been viewed more than 170,000 times. [NBC Chicago, Huffington Post Canada, Telegraph, Zillow]