May 28, 2019

Dutch Public Transit Strike: Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Dutch public transit services went on strike today over a disagreement on the retirement age (which is set to rise to 67 years and then to track the life expentancy).

And this is how you find out just how good the Dutch public transit is: when it gets taken away for a day. A million people (out of a population of 17 million) depend on it to get to work or school. It is used by a broad section of Dutch residents (unlike in the United States where, outside a few coastal cities, trains and buses are occupied mostly by the poor and by hapless foreigners).

Photo by Yintan

As one example: Arriving at Schiphol airport generally involves going through immigration, picking up your luggage, and rolling it straight downstairs to the train tracks: the railway station is an integral part of the airport. On weekdays it's serviced by 25 trains per hour.

It's no wonder that the union action struck fear and panic among the operators at Schiphol. If all their passengers arrived or left by car it would be total chaos. They sued for retention of train service. A judge granted the exception, and today air travelers can expect 4 trains every hour at Schiphol.

May 13, 2019

Fossil Fuel Subsidies Far Higher than Companies' Profit.

This is a bold claim to make, and one that you might expect from radical groups like Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace. But it came from that staid, wholly establishment organisation, the International Monetary Fund.

The IMF estimates that in 2017 global fossil fuel subsidies reached a mind-blowing 5.2 trillion dollars, or 6.5 percent of global GDP, up from $4.7tn in 2015.

These costs include not only direct subsidies but also tax breaks that dinimish national budgets, health care costs from fossil fuel related pollution, the cost of traffic congestion, and so on. It's a pretty thorough assessment of all the indrect costs to society.

Worldwide subsidies for coal is about $2tn, subsidies to oil and gas about $2.5tn.

Now here's the truly gobsmacking thing about all this:

March 15, 2019

#SchoolStrike4Climate: Why I've been quietly crying

As is the way with worldwide events, New Zealand and Australia took the lead on the School Strike for Climate. Young people skipped class and took to the streets by the tens of thousands. I watched them from fourteen time zones away.


They came out in mountains, by rivers and in cities.


They walked in sunshine and steady rain, in grassy fields and by stately cathedrals

March 10, 2019

What do YOU see in the Green New Deal?

Let's start with a related question: how often do you talk about climate change, with your family, your friends, your colleagues, people at your place of worship? On a personal level, the single most important thing you can do about climate change is to talk about it. This has been the long time advice because with climate change, like with AIDS, silence kills.

Generally, we find it hard to talk about climate: it's like talking about cancer. It puts a damper on parties and convivial meals. So we tend to avoid the topic.

Two developments in late 2018 have changed that, completely.

The smaller thing is a poll from the Yale climate change communication group, that shows that for the first time more than half of Americans are worried about climate change: six in ten, to be precise. And nearly a third of Americans are very worried, or "alarmed" as the label goes.

This means that if you approach a total stranger, they are more likely to be worried about climate than not. Exactly how likely you are to find a like-minded person depends on where you live. But the fact remains that there has been a shift in sentiment from "it's a hoax" and "who cares", more toward "yes, I'm worried".

But what has really put climate change on the national discussion table is the emergence of the Green New Deal. Championed by the Sunrise Movement, young people who don't take no for an answer and lobby their elected representatives hard, it has earned the support of the charismatic young representative from Brooklyn, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

In a way, the American right has fallen into the Trump trap. In the same way that the left, outraged by the lies in the president's tweets, are complicit in keeping those lies circulating, so now the right keep AOC and her progressive ideas in the news by compulsively trying to take down both her and her proposals.

Of course, the entire American punditry on the left is also jumping into the discussion, and suddenly everyone is talking about climate action.

But not everyone gets the Green New Deal right.

March 6, 2019

I'm Back

The biggest advantage, and the biggest disadvantage, of being an independent blogger is that you call your own time. This means that when life offline demands your attention, the blog goes by the wayside. That is what happened for the past year or two.

Now that I'm back, I'm going to write more about climate solutions, and maybe more outside the box with four wheels on it.

Not that I will stop writing about cars altogether. After all, a new and exciting wave of electric vehicles are just over the horizon, and, now that my kids have learned to drive with a stick, eventually we will need a replacement for that diesel Golf that we are driving now, so I'll be looking into those EVs.

Photo by Hans Weingartz

There will be no more posts on diesel cars. Europe made a pact with the diesel devil: they were going to put up with the particulate matter pollution for their population, in exchange for the very high efficiency that diesel offers, and a way to cut carbon emissions. Well, the diesel devil did what devils usually do when you make a pact with them, and after dieselgate one European country after another is now pledging to phase out the sale of all internal combustion engine cars, and to transition to electric ones. Who am I to buck that trend?

The sun rises on the EV.


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December 14, 2018

Mainstream news and the elusive truth

When Jeremy Clarkson appeared on the automotive scene, he was a breath of fresh air. He said it the way it was. He made a name for being the bad boy of car reviewers, and he often had a point. Loads of people read his pieces, because they were funny, and different from the polite (=boring) reviews that were the norm.

But all that happened in a distant past that is as gray as Clarkson's hair is now. As he became more famous, the reviews started to lose their edgy feel. In 2002, Clarkson became the host of a wildly popular tv show, Top Gear. It had sponsors.

And that, really, was the beginning of the end.

Because it's okay for a kick-ass upstart car journo to make snide comments about the car you were reviewing. But if you're too controversial on a large-following show, your sponsors might balk. Worse, they might walk out on you. If you believe this has zero bearing on how a man presents his show, I've got a bridge to sell you.

I mean, it's okay for a CelloMom to compare a Lexus SUV to a pregnant Honda Civic, or to remark that to me, seeing the 2019 Mercedes GLC brings to mind the word "obese", and prompts a mental note to eat less -- but I'm just a lone blogger writing on my own time, sponsored by nobody and answering to none but my own demons.

Photo by Daniel Blume

And this is why we all need to look critically at our news sources. I'm not talking about the fake news of Fox (which is not a news outlet but a propaganda machine). I'm talking about the "mainstream" media, the well-respected shows and dailies, the ones you don't mind name-dropping.

Let me give an example. Because I think and read about climate change a lot, I have learned that social equity is inextricably linked to the issue of climate. So I'm foraying into a rich and diverse world of writings by people who are not "my" people. I'm painfully wrapping my head around economic issues, for instance, a departure from the science articles I'm familiar with. But going beyond that, I'm also reading pieces written by Black people, feminists, indigenous people, socialists, and others who are somehow outside the "mainstream". It's not always comfortable reading, but I think it's essential. For one, I'm discovering - okay, I'm a geek, but DUH - that "mainstream" America is white. It tends to live in large cities, tends to be pretty well off, or anyway well enough. And it is blind to the experience of everyone who is outside its own relatively small demographic.

I've been thinking about that saying attributed to the Cheyenne: "Don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins". That makes sense: "don't judge". But what about writing? After all, we each write from our own perspective, and that perspective is shaped by who we are. Merely interviewing someone will not make you truly understand what they're saying, because there is a rich, deep, and quite invisible set of layers underneath, of personal, family, and social history and meaning, and the words they are saying are built on all that richness. Some things you wouldn't even think of writing about, simply because they are outside your sphere of experience.

So I'm exploring more. While certain news outlets can be relied on to produced solid reliable pieces, and I support more than one with my subscription dollars, I am also looking to follow particular authors, people I find I can learn from in every article. These days, I read Hiroko Tabuchi, John Sutter, Pilita Clark, Noah Smith, Simon Kuper. But also Kate Aronoff, David Graeber, Angie Schmitt, Emily Atkin, David Roberts, Umair Haque, Thea Verkade, Rebecca Solnit. And Caitlin Johnstone, who got me thinking about all this with her article on how mainstream media follows the establishment agenda. I am enlightened by their writing, delighted, angered, surprised – and humbled; certainly I am enriched.

This is a choice that is ours to make. Here is another example: Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms like to present you a timeline that is determined by their algorithms to be "most interesting" to you. But I have found that the algorithms invariably give me a narrower and narrower view of the people I follow, and that I end up walking the same deeply grooved paths over and over. Not to mention vulnerable to manipulation. But when I over-ride the algorithm and make my timeline show everyone I follow, the timeline is much more lively, and interesting. Because hey, those people were chosen by me, not by an algorithm written by a team of geeks who are certainly not me.

Try both: let your timeline reflect your true interests. And let your mind be widened by thinkers and writers who are not in the mainstream. It may take you out of your comfort zone. And that is where growth happens.



You may also like:
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June 9, 2018

Three Ways to Lower Your Car Payment

In the fight about affordable housing, which seems to rage everywhere, it is often forgotten that it's not only the price of the house that needs to be considered, but also everything else that comes with home ownership, like the real estate tax rate, and the heating costs. One large expense post that tends to get overlooked is whether or not you need a car to get to and from your house.

This spring, the average price of a car in the United States reached $34,000, up from about $30,000 only six years ago. And because interest rates are up, the average monthly car payment is now $535. That's before the insurance and the fuel. Who can afford that? Not, in turns out, the typical family.

Those who live where the public transport is good, don't need a car. But if you must have a car (like, to get to the job that pays for the loan of the car that you need to get to the job), there are a few tricks to make it hurt less.

1. Get the smallest car you fit in for everyday use
Be honest with yourself about what you really need: if you're a couple with a toddler, you don't need the minivan or the SUV. For the occasional grandparents' visit, rent a minivan: unless they visit every week, that will be less expensive than owning one (and even cheaper if the grandparents rent one!).

2. Get the smallest engine you can buy for your chosen car
Dealers like to tout the "benefits" of a large engine. Take their sales pitch as just that: a sales pitch. The real benefits are to their bottom line. You don't need 220HP to get yourself around town; that sort of horsepower only feeds into racing car fantasies. A smaller engine costs less at purchase, and less to feed.

3. Good things come to those who wait.
In this case, cheap things. US car dealers like to sell you from the stock they have on their lot. They have already paid for this stock and they want to move it as quickly as possible. This means that you buy whatever they think "most people" will buy. But if you have time to wait, you can really make out.

Here's what you do: You order your car from scratch: the bare car. Then you add only the features you like or need, and no more. Buying a car this way is cheaper because it doesn't come pre-loaded with features like most dealer-lot cars. All those features may be "standard" - but they are not free! You may have to persuade your dealer that they will do this for you. And you do have to wait a few months (depending on how far away your car is manufactured) but then you get the car to your exact specifications: If you want leather seats but not air conditioning, you can have that. This is how most cars are still ordered in Europe.

My current car was delivered with larger wheels. I didn't want larger wheels, which lower the fuel efficiency. I negotiated that they would replace them with regular wheels. They look like donuts. That's fine by me: they're saving me gas money and emissions at every mile. The dealer cut me a check for $1200, the difference in price of the wheels.

Oh, and keep an eye on those electric cars: manufacturers are rolling out new models, and they're getting more affordable.



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2. How to buy a gas sipper for less
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February 2, 2018

The car ad you won't see on the Super Bowl

I went to see the teasers for the car ads that companies are sending to the Super Bowl. There wasn't that much that's memorable.

Here is an ad that is.

It's part of Sierra Club's Forward Not Backward campaign that is calling out Ford for opposing a tightening of the fuel efficiency standards.

I think it's memorable. Of course, lots of people have helpfully pointed out that the Ford Model T only got maybe 13-20mpg. I suppose they could have chosen a Ford Thunderbird, a tank of a car that in its 1973 incarnation got all of 8.5mpg. But the Thunderbird is still in production (a bit smaller now, it gets 18/24 mpg cty/hwy), and not nearly as cute or as obviously throwback as the model T.



October 12, 2017

EVs, 2017 and ahead

"Have you seen the Mercedes EQ?" says CelloDad.

I look up the Mercedes EQ.

"But - it's a concept car."

"Yes. Isn't it nice?"

Call me overly pragmatic and totally curmudgeonly (I won't deny either accusation) - I just don't have time to fawn over something that may never hit the road. Until it's actually for sale, at a dealer who can make you sign on the dotted line, it doesn't count.

We've been having pow-wows about what to do with our diesel Golf, now that Volkswagen is offering, not only a buyback option, but also a fix-it option where they put in the correct software plus hardware so that the car complies with EURO5 standards, same as Golfs in Europe.

While we're making up our minds, we're looking into EVs - that would fill my requirement that our next car not run on fossil fuels, and CelloDad's requirement that it not have a manually operated gear box.

September 11, 2017

Measuring Loss in Terms of Human Suffering, Not Dollars

In the aftermath of hurricanes, typhoons, wildfires and other disasters, the damage is assessed and tallied and reported. It usually goes something like this:

" It is possible that economic damage from Harvey will exceed the inflation-adjusted $160bn cost of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Noaa experts told the Guardian."

That's from an article titled "Hurricane Harvey is a billion-dollar disaster - America's 10th in 2017". It's a good article, pointing out how in an age of climate-boosted "natural" disasters, we need to increase, not slash, funding of NOAA and other agencies that do forecasting, so we can prepare for these disasters. It points out, rightly, that we need to re-think FEMA, the Federal Emergecy Management Agency. In short, it's all about who needs to pay for what.

Which misses a large part of what is lost in a hurricane.

To a family, losing your house is a major disaster; the dollar value of the house is a big part of that, but the main thing is that you lost the roof over your head and you need another place to keep your family safe and dry and, hopefully, reasonably comfortable.

Losing your job, because the company you worked for is either on hiatus, or moving elsewhere, hurts. Losing treasured photos and memorabilia in a flood hurts in a different way. Losing your food and water supply, albeit temporarily, is deeply disturbing. Losing your friends and neighbours because they decide to move out of state is tough.

The pile of losses can be devastating - and most of it is not to do with money.

September 7, 2017

Extreme weather and the migration of drivers' licences

The iconic photos of the aftermath of hurricane Harvey show people wading through muddy waters - and cars submerged in muddy waters. Lots and lots of cars, this being not only America, but Houston, where the necessity for a car is second only to the necessity for drinking water.

Photo by Djielle

Nearly a million cars may have been ruined by Harvey, and rental car companies and dealers are scrambling to restock vehicles in the Houston area as the waters recede.

Which gave me this idea.

There was a massive exodus from New Orleans when hurricane Katrina hit it in August 2005. Only a third of evacuees returned to the homes they were living in before the hurricane. A large fraction never came back to the city at all.

What happened to those people, and where are they, a year after the hurricane, five years, ten?

June 18, 2017

Outside The Box - the one with four wheels

In the early days, every car was a convertible.

Seriously. Just look at this early car ad from 1898, from the Winton Motor Carriage Company, one of the first manufacturers that sold cars in the United States.

The name says it all: they didn't make cars: they made carriages. They simply replaced the horse with a "hydrocarbon motor", promising "no odor". That last bit makes sense if you remember that, while you have to sit behind the horse and get to experience whatever comes out of it, the motor exhaust can be directed behind you where it brings pollution to everybody else on the road.