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March 31, 2015

Make Your Children Vote

I've a confession to make: I'm not the helicopter kind of parent. I believe that if you don't fall, you don't learn to walk properly, never mind running, dancing and skiing. I'm the kind of mom who, when one of my children bangs their head against the table, would rush over and go, "Poor table! I hope it didn't get a dent." Everybody laughs, and the child with the banged head forgets to cry.

Similarly, I don't hound them about their homework, other than checking that it's done before, say, letting them hang out with a friend after school. But I stick by the bedtime routine, forgotten homework or not. They only miss handing in homework a few times before they learn.

However, I will hound them about this one thing: I will do what I can to get them to that voting booth come election day. Because voting is not a privilege: it is a civic duty. Besides, it's the smart thing to do.


In all US states, under the "Motor Voter" Act, you can register to vote as you get your driver's license (or get it renewed). So when your teen passes the driver's test and acquires that wallet card, they actually have to do something extra in order to NOT register to vote.

March 22, 2015

Why is Diesel More Expensive Than Gasoline?

If you drive a diesel car in the US like I do, you often find that diesel commands a higher per-gallon price than regular gasoline. You may also notice that in winter the price difference is higher than in summer, with the largest difference occurring in March.

This is because diesel is similar to home heating oil. Demand for heating fuel peaks around February; it is this competition that drives up the price for automotive diesel as well. This chart from FactCheck.org illustrates very nicely how in the summer of 2000 diesel was quite a bit less expensive than gas, while in March of 2008 it was more expensive.

That's for the general picture. But there are usually regional differences.

March 13, 2015

How to Spread the Word about Climate Change - Even if You're Not a Climate Scientist

When a large asteroid hit the earth, sixty-five million years ago, it kicked up a huge amount of dust. The dust dimmed the sun for so long that the surface of the earth cooled sufficiently to wipe out the dinosaurs (incidentally giving mammals a chance to develop into the rich variety we see today).

If such a threat were in our near future, CNN and all the other news channels would be screaming about it. There would be non-stop coverage, on what we could do to avert the disaster, and how to cope should it strike anyway, and how each of us would be affected. You couldn't get away from this news.

A similar threat is actually upon us, but going the other way: the earth is steadily warming. If we keep burning fossil fuels at today's rate, the average global temperature may rise by 4 degrees C by 2100. That doesn't sound like much, but the last time the world was 4C cooler on average, we were in an ice age, and life looked very different from the way it is today.


Global Warming from 1880 to 2013.

And it will keep warming past the year 2100. We don't know what life will look like when it's more than 4C warmer: it hasn't been that warm for millions of years.

This is an astonishing thought: the planet, our home, would be altogether a different place from what it is today. And while the changes appear slow on a human time scale, the warming is occurring at an unprecedented rate. Already species are feeling the pressure, and it is not clear how many will survive the changes that are very rapid on an evolutionary time scale. It's clear: we must do what we can to keep the warming below 2C.

You would think that would make the news.

March 9, 2015

Climate Change Achieves Voldemort Status

I've written before on the importance of names. Names are so powerful, that when they are attached to powerful beings, you must use the names with great care. In fact, you're better off not using their name at all, lest you incur their terrible wrath.

So what to do, if a powerful Thing is about to wreak havoc on your constituents?

As any Harry Potter fan can tell you, the easiest way for a government to insist that an existential threat doesn't exist is to ban all mention of its existence. Thus in the magic world Voldemort is referred to as the "Dark Lord", or "He Who Must Not Be Named", or simply "You Know Who". Because of course everyone knows who is it you're talking about.

It seems that the state of Florida has adopted the same tack when faced with the existential threat of climate change, which is slated to wipe out most of its celebrated coastline: Officials in Florida's Department of Environmental Protection have been ordered not to use the terms "climate change" or "global warming" in official documents.

February 19, 2015

Fuel Economy of New Cars Increases

The good news: the average fuel economy of new cars and light trucks sold in the US has been increasing steadily, reaching 25.4 mpg in January 2015 after being stuck around 20mpg for two decades. That is good news for the climate, and shows that the CAFE rules, which require the average efficiency to reach 54.5 mpg by 2025, are effective.


The bad news: the US is behind. In Europe, the carbon emission of the average new car sold back in 2013 was 127 g CO2/km; that translates to 43 mpg. This beats the EU target of 130g /km for 2015 (that's 42mpg) by two years.

February 8, 2015

BlueTram: a novel charging mode for high-use EVs

Here's a dirty little secret of public transport: a lot of it runs on diesel. And while modern diesel engines are super-clean compared to what came before, if you have many of them working in close quarters like in a large city, the total pollution can still be a huge problem.

In fact, in 2014 London's mayor Boris Johnson finally had no choice but to admit that Oxford Street, which has a high density both of famous shops and of the iconic double decker buses, all diesel powered, also had one of the highest pollution levels in the world. So London is going to go with lower-emission buses: they are getting 2400 hybrids and 300 electric buses on the road by 2020.

Paris is not waiting that long. In the spring of 2015, they are introducing the electric BlueTram. Strictly speaking, it's not a tram, more like trolleybuses. This means that they don't need to install the rail infrastructure which would be expensive, disruptive and prone to delays.

February 1, 2015

Seven Tips for Teaching Your Teen to Drive

One day, you find yourself on the wrong side of the car. And your rightful place, the seat behind the wheel, is occupied by your eager teen. Not only that, you have just voluntarily given her the car keys.

Rules on teenage driving vary from state to state, but not matter how the law handles that transition, even after twenty lessons with a driving school, and even after having passed the road test, you still end up with one green driver at the wheel. Your wheel.

Take a deep breath. Your parents did this for you: you can pass on the gift to your kids. Unless you're lucky, and have one of a growing number of kids who are much more interested in hogging your WiFi bandwidth than hogging your car.

So here are a few tips on how to coach your teen into becoming a safe driver despite their lack of experience. Even in your own car, without the dual brake and gas pedals installed in driving school cars. If you go about it the right way, they might even still talk to you afterwards (even if it's only to ask for the car keys).

January 28, 2015

Teaching Your Teen to Drive a Stick

Our car has what is still called "standard" drive (because auto transmission is really a luxury item). I bought it in large part because manual-transmission cars are more fuel efficient, and have a significantly smaller price tag, than cars with automatic transmission. I confess freely: the other part is prejudice on my side. I grew up in a place where the only people driving an automatic transmission cars were either handicapped or elderly. I'm not ready to fit in those categories, even if the classification is entirely in my own head.

There has been some grumbling on the part of CelloDad about that stick shift deal, but that's mostly because he learned to drive as an adult. In fact, I was the one who taught him to drive a stick, in a VW van with a very forgiving gear box. But he never did get to the point where shifting came naturally and without thinking. When we make the switch to an electric car, it will of course have no gear box. Until then, I am the family's designated driver.

But the upshot is that our children get to learn to drive in our standard drive car. This is great because that way they will never get stuck or - embarrassed - if they are required to drive one. For instance, when they need to drive most anywhere outside the US.

January 18, 2015

The EV chicken-and-egg problem has hatched several solutions

When automobiles first started to make roads noisy and dangerous, nobody had to worry about where they were to get the gas: of course you got it from your local gas station. People had not yet been bitten by the travel bug, and weren't used to straying that far from home. Besides, before the Interstate highway station was built it was nearly impossible to traverse the country in a car, anyway.

The advent of the electric car has seen a few road blocks, so to speak. Apart from the fact that better batteries urgently need to be invented, we have been bitten by the road trip bug, we do have a network of highways on which we can travel coast to coast, and we got used to traveling a few hundred miles to see friends and relatives over a weekend. And short of going around in circles in some remote area, we can be assured that we'll be able to fill up the tank. Because there is also a dense network of gas stations. You get used to it.

So an electric vehicle, or EV, that has a range of less than 100 miles is just not an impressive thing, especially if you can't be sure that you'll find a charging station once you get more than 50 miles away from your home charger. In fact, for many it's just not a practical thing.

Here is the conundrum: “Why would anyone buy an electric vehicle if there were no place to charge them? And why would you put chargers out there if there were no electric vehicles? Somebody had to blink.”

The quote is from Kent Rathwell. You can call him The Guy Who Blinked. Rathwell started providing chargers to whoever was interested: places like restaurants, hotels, and stores, through his company, Sun Country Highway (nearly eponymous with his other company, Sun Country Farms, which produces bird seed).

January 17, 2015

Turns out Americans ARE worried about global warming consequences - they just don't realise it.

The Pew Research Center has done a survey on what policy issues Americans think deserve top priority for the federal government. Respondents were asked to select one or more of 23 issues.

It is notable that 38% view global warming as a top priority, up from 29% only a year ago. The increase is indeed good news. But these numbers may be misleading (what is is they say about "lies, damned lies, and statistics"?)

December 23, 2014

The Car of the Future Comes to Singapore

Singapore seems to be a city-state of transportation legends: its trains are state of the art and run on time. More than that: they are free for early-bird commuters - in fact, better than free: if you come in before 7.45am your zero fare comes with a breakfast voucher.

This all makes sense if you consider Singapore's equally legendary commercial spirit: because nothing wastes time and money as traffic congestion. This is why Singapore has a strict cap on the number of personal cars.

But still they have congestion. So now they are considering the idea of inviting a new kind of legend onto their streets: the driverless car.


December 13, 2014

Bicycle Lanes in Cambridge

It's been quite some time since the fare was a quarter. But wandering the old haunts in Cambridge MA over Thanksgiving, I was pleased to find that the Number 1 bus still plies its route over Massachusetts Avenue, between Dudley Station and Harvard Square. The buses have been updated, and the fare column is now equiped with an RFID reader for the CharlieCard that gets you access to Boston's public transport network.

But what is new on Mass Ave is the bike lane that goes both sides along its length.