Editorial: time to peer past the green screen

No, you're not going mad; what you will see on our cover this month is dots between the corners of the squares, blinking and flashing as your eye moves over the page. Sometimes I find it works well, sometimes not so well.

Here in the editorial office everyone describes what they see differently. I would say there are grey dots overlaying the white ones, but each disappears when I focus on it. Other people describe it as seeing white dots when they focus on them but these disappear when their eye moves away.

It's a Hermann Grid, which I'm sure many of you have seen before. The greater the contrast the better it works, although why it works is a bit of a mystery. It is thought to have something to do with our mechanism for sharpening edges called 'lateral inhibition', in which receptors switch their neighbouring receptors off to make edges more pronounced.

In this issue we try to see through green illusions of the environmental kind, ranging from misleading marketing to urban myths.

I wonder what the latest eco-star would make of it. Joan Pick, 67, was a scientific advisor to the energy industry back in the 1970s. Now her 'energy miser' lifestyle may well give her the lowest carbon footprint in the UK - at least, for someone who doesn't generate her own power.

Joan jogs everywhere and doesn't drive a car, so she doesn't have to worry about whether it's a good idea to overinflate her tyres, or whether it's better to leave her engine idling in traffic than switch it off. These appear alongside our features on the use of kinetic energy recovery systems in heavy vehicles like trucks and - believe it or not - Formula 1. Joan's probably not into F1. She never even takes a bus - let alone a holiday. God knows what she'd make of our story about the bus that made it all the way from one tip of America to the other on various oils like pig fat.

Joan doesn't even have a television, so she doesn't have to worry about standby energy consumption in her home. Chris Edwards looks at the thirstiest consumer items and asks if it's green to update your gadgets. Joan doesn't have a computer either, so she doesn't have to worry much about whether it's better to leave her PC on standby than to switch it off. This is the everyday question we answer, alongside the bigger question of how data centres can make themselves more environmentally friendly. Joan only has a secondhand stereo system - reuse is greener than recycling - and it's probably not a candidate for takeback under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive that is supposed to be well established by now but isn't, as Keri Allan discovers.

No matter how careful Joan is though, she can't do much about how the little electricity that she does use is generated. But engineers might. We investigate new ways to generate power from waves and rubbish dumps and why environmental lobbyists always seem to object to new alternative energy schemes.

As you might have worked out by now, Joan is no shopaholic - she makes her own clothes - but she might be interested in our features on carbon footprint labelling and whether manufacturers are really reducing theirs.

We even have an excellent reader's letter on the subject. However, as Chris Edwards hears for our feature on 'sustainable management', footprinting can lead to 'analysis paralysis' instead of starting with the obvious, as Joan seems to have done. I don't know if her carbon footprint is the smallest in the UK but I do know it's a heck of a lot smaller than mine.

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