April 22, 2014

Google Maps: directions with options

First there was "You can't get there from here", that phrase that country folk love to trot out when a hapless out-of-stater got hopelessly lost in Maine and had to resort asking the natives for the directions. Or so the out-of-staters said.

Then there was the AAA Trip-tik: the set of mini-maps where the friendly AAA representative highlighted the route you were to take to get from A to B. Depending on the trip, you could end up lugging a small library back to your car, of the Trip-tik itself, plus the maps and the AAA guides that went with it. For a cross-country trip we're talking the weight of a small encyclopedia.

Photo by Darren Meacher

Then - oh marvel! - there was the GPS device that was built in or (more commonly) precariously attached to your windshield with a suction cup. Super-expensive versions told you the real-time route, accounting for any detours due to road contructions of traffic jams.

But all that is so twentieth century.

April 21, 2014

The travel bureaus that put Jack Kerouac on the road

I may be the most reluctant automotive writer you've ever met, but I'm still an automotive writer, so it's sort of embarrassing that I've never read the quintessential book on autos and motion, "On The Road", Jack Kerouac's paean to high-speed road travel, women and jazz, that marked and inspired the bohemian hedonism of the Beat generation. So I'm reading it now.

I really can get into (or, as the book would say, I "dig") the rejection of materialism, but I can't say I dig the need for speed, the zipping by countless breathlessly beautiful places this country has to offer those who take the time to really explore. All of that natural beauty is just filler material between the cities with their jazz bars and philosophising friends, something to be got through as quickly as possible.

Because all the characters in the book are living from hand to mouth, even a ride on the Greyhound bus is too much of an expense: they hitch rides if they have to, but their preferred way of getting from place to place is by sharing the drive in a private car.

And what cars these are! The most memorable ones are detailed by Dennis Mansker. The photo above is of a 1947 Cadillac limousine, the kind that in the book was whipped from Denver to Chicago (nearly 1200 miles) in seventeen hours, at the end of which it was delivered to its owner's swanky residence, all dented, covered in mud and with the speedometer busted after the first time it was forced past 110mph.

April 12, 2014

Watch "Years of Living Dangerously" - but not alone

There's a buzz going around about "Years of Living Dangerously", the multi-part climate change documentary. It premieres on Sunday, April 13 on the Showtime channel. You can watch the first episode free at the "Years" website and on YouTube.

But before you settle in to watch it, you may want to find someone with whom to watch it, to discuss it, to digest it. Because while the documentary is a masterpiece of storytelling and will be easy enough to watch, it may be more difficult to absorb the message.

April 7, 2014

"There has been no global warming since 1998" - Or has there?

You hear this statement a lot in discussions about climate change. It is one of the most oft-repeated arguments against global warming: The average global surface temperature has leveled off. And it's true.

Just take a look at this graph, which shows the globally averaged surface temperature rise, from 1997 to 2014, compared to the average temperature in the period 1951-1980. The temperature really hasn't changed that much, if at all.

A careless observer would say, that's it: it's settled, there is no global warming, and we can all go home now (in our big fat SUVs, of course). A climate change denier would take this data and crow in comment threads all over the internet (but never in a scientific journal) that 97% of climate scientists are wrong to say that global warming exists, and wrong to say that humans are causing it.

But that is taking a myopic view of the world. And it's not very scientific.

April 6, 2014

Best of #ReplaceBikeWithCar so far

There's a Twitter fest on this weekend, marked by the hashtag #ReplaceBikeWithCar, where people quote things usually said about bikes and riding but replace them with cars and driving.

Check it out: it's good for a quick pick-me-up. A few of my favourites below

April 5, 2014

Fuel Efficiency and the Jevons Paradox

In the discussion of energy (or rather, how to curb our profligate use of energy), often the topic of energy efficiency comes up. And just as often, someone will say, "Energy efficiency doesn't work. Jevons paradox".

That's glib. A bit like saying, "Food stamps don't work. QED."

While we all know what "QED" means, maybe we should take a closer look at the Jevons paradox. This refers to the idea that, as technology improves the efficiency of a widget, that widget will get used more. A lot more. So much more, that the energy needed to run the widget for everyone is more than the energy needed before the innovation came along.

Jevons based this on his observations on the use of coal during the Industrial Revolution: As the newly invented steam machines quickly became more efficient, the price of coal went down. Economists like Jevons would say such a price decrease in energy encouraged the building of more steam machines, so you ended up with a higher total coal consumption than before, even as the amount of coal needed for each machine was reduced.

Photo Chris Allen

March 31, 2014

IPCC Report: Impacts of Climate Change

"Risk" is the word of the day. It occurs hundreds of times in the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) released today.

We now have a much clearer view of what climate change means to human life around the world. The picture is grim.

The "Summary for Policymakers" reads like a litany of human misery, and some of it has already arrived. Tallying the risks of climate change around the continents, it's all "Food shortage" - "Water stress" - "Heat waves" - "Flood damage" - "Disease spread". And, for some of us living in low-lying island states, "Loss of homeland". That's just the impact on humans. Then there's the worldwide tragedy of the unraveling ecosystems in our acidifying oceans, and the species extinction looming everywhere.

If there's a storm coming, we batten down the hatches. We need to batten down the hatches now.

We all deal with risk, all the time: That's why we pay for home insurance and car insurance. It may be a burden on the family budget. But we all pay it, because it will cover our sweet behinds in the - rare and no-to-be-hoped-for - event of some calamity like a house fire, a tree coming down on the roof, or a car accident.

Climate change mitigation IS home insurance. It may seem expensive. But if it preserves our home, our Earth, it will be amply worth it.

" Climate Change: the state of the science "

To learn more about climate change, start with the Resources at Global Warming Fact of the Day, which delivers climate change news free of denialist propaganda: I curate its Learning Center.



You may also like:
1. Slash your carbon footprint
2. We Need Good News on Climate Change
3. Let's Talk with Our Children about Global Warming, with Sense and Sensitivity


March 21, 2014

My Climate Change Talk to Parents

Yesterday, I had a chance to speak at CelloPlayer's school about climate change. Not to the students, but to their parents. The title was "Climate Change and YOU".

The talk was in the morning, right after drop-off time. This is a Waldorf School, so chairs were arranged in a half-circle around the projection screen. ViolaPlayer, who is enjoying spring break this week, occupied one of those chairs (and bailed me out when my ancient laptop froze in the middle of the talk, and I nearly froze in paralysis, by getting it going again).

I started by briefly going over the greenhouse effect, the link between global warming and the carbon emissions from fossil fuels, and the various global effects, emphasizing that we are already starting to see some of these effects in our daily lives. Take, for instance, the wild weather we've been having all over the world, with extremes both in precipitation and in temperature.

March 15, 2014

Paris Gets Free Public Transport for the Weekend

The French capital has got a first-hand taste of what it's like to be Los Angeles: in the past week, Paris has emerged from a cold snap. Paris has enjoyed cool nights, and unseasonably warm days. Paris has not been visited by much wind. Paris can't breathe.

The BBC reports that a thick blanket of smog has settled over Paris, a result of pollution from automotive traffic and industry, and a combination of weather conditions much like those often seen in Los Angeles or Salt Lake City. On Friday the Parisian count of fine particles, that is so dangerous to lung health, is higher than in most Chinese cities on that same day.

February 28, 2014

The End of Potholes

Spring is coming. Really. Even if you're still bundled up, you're desperate to put away your snow shovel, and you're watching your heating bills soar because a polar vortex has parked itself in your back yard. Even so. It's a sure sign that spring is coming when potholes appear everywhere on the roads.

Photo David Wright

You can learn all about how potholes are born at this site, which includes nice graphics and a short video.

While it's below-freezing temperatures that start the process of pothole making, it is after the thaw that the potholes actually form, and get to work putting dents into your wheels, sometimes the underside of your car, and always, ultimately, your checkbook.

The other day I was riding with a friend who drove his Jeep, at highway speed, through a pothole that must have been nearly two feet wide and at least eight inches deep. I'm not sure my brave Golf would have survived that pothole. As for the Jeep, the physical rattling reverberated in that car for quite a while afterwards, and my friend's cursing for much longer.

But while a new set of shock absorbers can set you back by hundreds of dollars, safety is a bigger issue around potholes. They are a real menace to motorcycle riders. Even in a car, swerving to avoid them can easily get you into the next lane, which is a real problem if the next lane happens to be the only other lane on the road: the one with the oncoming traffic.

February 24, 2014

Year of the Horse: Hot Off the Starting Gate

I hear that according to Chinese zodiac lore, this year of the wood horse brings a "fast-paced spurt of extroverted forward propulsion".

So far so fast.

Photo Gabby Canonizado

February 16, 2014

A New Type of Car Loan

Pop quiz: what is "Auto ABS" ?

(A) A gadget that helps tone your tummy muscles;
(B) Automatic brake system that helps your retain control of your car;
(C) Bonds backed by loans on car purchases.

The answer could have been (B) except that a car's anti-lock brake system (ABS) always kicks in automatically; all you have to do is brake hard enough to make your car skid in the absence of the ABS. The correct answer is (C): "Auto ABS" stands for "auto asset-backed securities".

Oh brave new world. And of course, after sub-prime mortgages there's ... sub-prime auto loans.

Photo Andrew Smith

And yes, some of those could well be under water. Because the value of a new car drops as soon as you drive it off the dealer lot.