November 26, 2012

Novel uses for a credit card

Online Black Friday sales went over $1 billion dollars this year. That's on top of the usual consumer assault on brick-and-mortar stores. And there's CyberMonday yet to be counted. In 2011, Americans put an average of $750 each of holiday shopping on credit cards. Enough already.

For years, Adbusters have campaigned for reigning in consumerism. Their spoof ads are imaginative, memorable, and totally outside the box. For instance, their ads against Absolut Vodka are beautiful and glamorous, while offering a stark reminder of the health risks of alcohol.

Every November, Adbusters fire up their campaign to re-brand the Friday after Thanksgiving as Buy Nothing Day, calling for such subversive citizen actions as hosting a Credit Card Cut-up event at your local mall, or peacefully disrupting shopping at big box stores by forming a conga line of shopping carts with a dozen friends and walking it aimlessly among the aisles.

My favourite Buy Nothing Day poster shows a pair of hands happily buttering a slice of bread - using a credit card. This is inspiration! We started using credit cards and other plastic wallet cards for lots of things that they weren't intended for.

There's nothing like a credit card for scraping bits of dried-up bread dough from your table, after you and your children have spent a happy half-morning kneading bread on it. Also great for scraping cooked-on food from the bottom of the pot. A height-tailored stack of credit cards under a leg is indispensible for steadying a wobbly table. And credit card (and gift card) plastic is marvellous raw material for countless projects. For instance, a carefully custom-cut piece of gift card now covers the memory card slot of our 10-year old camera, held in place by duct tape (a girl's best friend).

But my favourite unconventional use of a credit card is - of course - for the car. On those freezy mornings when you find your windshield covered with a layer of ice flowers, take a minute to admire their ephemeral beauty. Then offer a silent apology, and take out your credit card. The plastic edge is perfectly straight, and has the perfect stiffness for scraping frost off a slightly curved glass surface without scratching.

I still have my 15-year old official plastic scraper, but use mostly the snow broom end on the back. The scraper end is hopelessly nicked and quite useless now except for hacking at the most stubborn ice. But why buy a new one? I've got my credit card.



November 21, 2012

2012 Turkey Award: MonsterMini

Remember The Italian Job? The heist movie in which the booty was so large they needed three getaway cars to carry it all away? Of course, the gold might have fitted in one car if it had been larger. As it was, three Morris Minis made the getaway in one of the most exhilirating chase sequences in cinema: through the narrow streets of Turin, over staircases, and even through a segment of underground sewer.

To tell the truth: even a 1969 Mini couldn't fit in a Turn sewer, so that part of the chase was filmed in Coventry (UK).

Those 1969 Mini Coopers had the same sweet design as the original Morris Mini-Minor launched in 1959 by BMC, the British Motor Corporation. The latter was a bare-bones kind of car. Its instrument panel had a speedometer, gasoline and oil gauges, temperature gauge, warning lights for ignition and main beam. That's it. It cost £ 497. The Deluxe model had a clock.

Ten years later, the 1969 Mini Cooper came with a 1.3L engine (up from 848 cc). Its top speed was just shy of 100 mph, but you don't need that when you're bypassing snarled traffic in Turin, Italy.

The American remake of the Italian Job (2003) featured three Mini Cooper S, made by Rover. It's questionable that the 2003 Mini Cooper would have fit in that Coventry sewer: it's a lot bigger than the 1969 Mini Cooper. Instead, the movie makers opted for sending them down a Los Angeles subway tunnel.

The 2012 Bollywood remake, Players, features the suave Abhishek Bachchan and - you guessed it - three Mini Coopers (now under BMW). The original 1969 movie is still the best by far, but the Indian remake has a twist on the Minis that, like everything Bollywood, is way over the top.

Here's what's way over the top: one of the Cooper's current brethren.

One day this summer, CelloPlayer and CelloDad came storming in, back from a bike ride, wind-blown and wide-eyed. They looked like they had been chased by a monster.

"A Monster Mini! You won't believe it!"

It took a while to calm them down, but eventually it transpired that they had sighted a Mini that was so improbably large that it qualified for the "monster" classification. A bit of research pointed to the Countryman, Mini's bid for the SUV market. As the Cygnet is the ugly duckling at Aston Martin, so the Countryman is the cuckoo in the Mini nest: it is 35% longer than the original Morris Mini-Minor, 43% wider and 16% taller. It is monstrous.

This thing would have got hopelessly stuck in a city sewer.

I can see how it caused a cognitive disconnect to see the Mini logo on something that large, like seeing a tricycle the size of a pickup truck. The Countryman is not large as SUVs go, but among the Dutch traffic it must have stuck out like a sore thumb. At over 4 meters length (161.7" = 4.11m) and with an SUV-like height (61.5" = 1.56m) it's imposing enough. There's not much left of the adorable from the Mini-Minor. And Countryman is so big and heavy that even with its modern engine it still manages to have worse fuel efficiency than its dainty forebears from the 1960s.

Guess what? If you must drive an SUV, drive a real SUV. Don't drive something that's supposed to be very large, made by a company that got its fame by making diminutive cars. Even its name is small. Its logo looks wrong on a monster.

Monster Mini gets CelloMom's 2012 Turkey Award.

The sad thing is, it doesn't stop there. 2013 will see the launch of the Mini Paceman, perhaps so named after the pair of gorillas that have been vigorously pacing its roof all night (after they were done doing the Range Rover Evoque). The Paceman is basically a Countryman of which the roof has been mercilessly squashed down. Needless to say, the unfortunates on the back seat will have a side window half the size of those on a Mini-Minor. Is that progress?


Mini, then and now

Morris Austin Rover BMW
Type Mini-Minor Cooper Cooper S Countryman
Year 1959 1969 2003 2013
MSRP £ 497 £ 849 $ 19,900 $ 22,450
Fuel Economy:
City/Hwy quoted     22 / 31 27 / 35
Avg. quoted 33 mpg 32 mpg 25 30
Avg. actual        
Engine 0.848L 1.3L, 4-cyl

1.6L 4-cyl

1.6L 4-cyl
Power 33 HP 78 HP 163 121
Torque 44 lb-ft 80 lb-ft 155 118
Transmission 4-spd man 4-spd man 6-spd man 6-spd man
Fuel   unleaded premium unleaded
Length, mm(in) 120.2" 120.2" 143.9" 161.7"
Width, mm(in) 55.0" 55.0" 66.5" 78.6"
Height, mm(in) 53.0" 53.0" 55.8" 61.5"
Weight, kg(lbs) 1380 1539 2513 lbs 2954
Cargo, liters(cuft)   5.4 5.5 / 25 cuft  
Turning radius, m(ft) 32 ft   17.5 ft  
Top speed, kph(mph) 75 98 mph 138 mph 116

November 19, 2012

Slash your carbon footprint

This post is part of a Blog Carnival on
Clean Air and Environmental Justice For All organised by momsrising.org


Now that the 2012 presidential elections are over, political ads are mercifully off the air and the topic of climate change is once again on the national table. There are renewed calls for action on curbing the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

This is no longer about "peak oil": there is actually plenty of fossil fuel left in the ground. But if we burn all that at the current rate, we'll fry the planet, and ourselves. The math on that is simple - and scary. A new World Bank report spells out the disasters we face if the planet warms by an average of 4 degrees Celsius, and calls for concerted effort to keep the warming below 2 degrees.

We can wait for our government to work itself out of gridlock - or we can be pro-active and do our bit. For no matter what a government can do to coordinate the reduction of carbon emissions, it will also require the active participation by individuals: you and me.

The good news: there is a lot of low-hanging fruit. The way we live is so wasteful that it's easy to make cuts in our carbon footprint without feeling much pain - simply by playing the energy efficiency card.

The wake-up news to all of us in the US: we are the low-hanging fruit.

The average person in the United States is responsible for 20 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions every year, or five times the per-person world average (see graphic above). Since there are 300 million of us, our total carbon impact is way more than our fair share.

How do we get to such high levels of emissions? Let's take a look: The bar graph below is a summary of the sources of CO2 in a typical American household, from a paper by Jones and Kammen at UC Berkeley (Environ. Sci. Technol. 45, 4088 (2012)). This is the carbon emissions that we have in our individual control.

You can see in one glance where the largest contributions are to our carbon footprint. Of course, your individual footprint depends on your lifestyle, but this is a good starting place for exploring your carbon emissions "budget".

Many of us are already switching to compact fluorescent lightbulbs, using Energy-Star rated appliances, and doing many other things to reduce energy use. By all means count your carbs everywhere (your carbon emissions that is), and reduce your footprint everywhere in your life. But give priority to those areas of your lifestyle where you can slash your carbon emissions by a large amount.

The good news: Reducing our carbon footprint means serious long-term money savings: it's a win-win proposition that we should welcome in a protracted recession. I highlight the four largest household carbon sources, in order of increasing impact.

Buy less stuff.
"Reduce" comes before "Re-use" (and some would put "Refuse" before everything else). Ask yourself if you really need that 27th sweater, the 15th kitchen knife, the third car. Save a bundle by not buying new copies of things you already have.

Eat lower on the food chain.
Certainly: keep the lid on your pots and pans as you're cooking. But what you put in the pot has a much larger impact on your carbon footprint than how you cook it. For instance, no foodstuff generates more greenhouse gases during its production than beef. Even switching to chicken would make a big impact. We don't need to become raw-food vegans; but moving significantly toward a vegetarian diet by say, eating meat once a week, and eating as locally as possible, could take up to 8% off our carbon footprint. It lowers the grocery bills, and is also good for our health.

Move your thermostat closer to the temperature outside.
Home heating and cooling takes an astonishing amount of energy, especially since our homes are so large. Invest in technologies that enable keeping the inside temperature at 62-65F in the winter, 80-85F in the summer. It's easy to shave 10% of our total footprint by home energy conservation, and cuts the heating / cooling bills.

The new crop of itchless and washable woolwear is nothing short of a miracle; when my children were tiny the only way I could convince them to take their wool underwear off was to put in front of them a clean set waiting to be put on: they're that comfy. Down blankets give us a good night's sleep even if we turn the thermostat to 50F at night. For the warm months, our solar-powered attic fan keeps the house cool; it has paid for itself in the first summer by taking away the need to turn on our air conditioner.

Drive less, in a fuel-efficient car.
Our cars, our single largest source of CO2, account for 25% of our household carbon footprint. They are too large and overly powered: most have enough horsepower to get us along the highway at twice the interstate speed limit: not frugal, even if you don't count the speeding tickets.

There are many ways to get higher fuel efficiency in the car you drive now, and to decrease the miles you drive in it. But the largest impact comes from your next car purchasing decision.
We don't need to start driving in tiny plastic boxes (I really get the concern about safety). But a car with a smaller engine is less expensive to buy and less expensive to run. Let's be honest: we don't need an off-road vehicle or a muscle car for going to the grocery store.

Think about it: the 1950s NASCAR-winning Hudson Hornet had 145HP under the hood, a fraction of what's in most SUVs today. And the Hornet still attained speeds over 100 mph.

My family's current car, a 2012 Golf TDI (140HP, 2.0L turbodiesel), carries the four of us and the cello everywhere, at 38 mpg average. Our 8000 yearly miles implies 2.1 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions: Driving this car we emit 9 metric tonnes of CO2 less than the national average, saving 20% off the typical household carbon footprint. I call that a good cut in our household's carbon budget.

Even so, I don't intend to drive this car at its 125 mph top speed, nor do I plan to red-line it to get all the torque out of it and play the jackrabbit. This means that 2.0L is way too much for my car. We only bought it because Volkswagen doesn't sell the 1.6L Bluemotion Golf in the United States. The one that does 50 mpg.

A gas-frugal car offers perks, other than the savings at the pump: With normal use, I visit the gas station once a month. So I'm in a good position to weather fuel shortages like the one leading to long lines when superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast, or when refineries or pipelines go offline as they did in California earlier this year.

The good news: the choice of gas sippers is getting broader even in the US, as carmakers are adjusting their offerings to comply with tightened CAFE emissions standards for new cars. Even though generally they still reserve their best and most advanced gas sippers for the European market.


Systemic change
Finally: even if you trimmed down your personal carbon footprint to Sub-Saharan levels, a US resident still retains a large systemic carbon footprint. An MIT study has found that a homeless person in the US (no home, no car, extremely few possessions) has a carbon footprint of 8.5 tonnes CO2 per year, more than twice the planetary average. This comes from public services such as roads, education and defense, items that are not included in the bar graph above from the Berkeley study, which covers private household carbon emissions. The US military, which is as big as the next ten largest national defense departments combined, consumes unbelievable amounts of energy.

These are things that require systemic re-thinking to reduce their carbon footprint, for which we are all, collectively, responsible.

Perhaps that is a good reason to add a few Rs, and emphasize the ones that occur at the head of the list. As for recycling, so much of it is bunk that it should be used only as a last resort:

RETHINK. REFUSE. REDUCE. Re-use. Repair. Re-purpose. .... Recycle.




You may also like:
1. Why the new CAFE standard is just my cup of tea
2. The Power of Names
3. For Earth Day, pledge to turn off your TV
4. How to buy a gas sipper for less
5. The Carbon Footprint of a Car


November 17, 2012

Free Satellite Radio

My 2012 VW Golf TDI came with satellite-ready radio, complete with a free 3-month subscription to SiriusXM. I didn't ask for it, I don't need it; but there it was. I tried it out a bit - it was OK. We weren't all that interested in most of the programming. Since the receiver needs line-of-sight access to the satellite, my radio lost signal even in wide-open parking garages where broadcast FM radio had no trouble. We let the subscription expire.

Naturally, SiriusXM started to send promotional mail, offering deals that became increasingly better as time went on. I started collecting the offers just to see how far they would go.

I didn't think they'd go this far, but earlier this week the price went to zero.

This is the offer: if you've ever had SiriusXM in your car, even if you don't have a live subscription now, you can turn it on again and listen for free, between 14 and 27 November 2012, cleverly positioned around the Thanksgiving weekend, when so many of us will be on the road far away from our own familiar radio stations.

I tried pushing the "SAT" button. My radio poured forth a recording of a 1974 Grateful Dead concert: I guess that was the channel I had listened to last before the satellite part of the radio went dead. That is, without the "grateful".

Just for amusement, here is a list of SiriusXM offers since we bought the car, late in March 2012:

Date Offer
27 March $14.49 per month
28 June $14.49 per month, one month free
9 July 50% off one year subscription
30 July 12 months for $86
20 August 12 months for $86
23 September 6 months for $25
1 November 6 months for $25
12 November 2 weeks FREE

It's hard to see how much of a deal you're getting this way, so I've charted the weekly subscription fee under these different offers, assuming you keep the offer for a full year (blue symbols). Also the weekly subscription fee for the first two weeks assuming you let the subscription expire at the end of the offer period (red symbols). The full price of the basic subscription is $3.34 per week.

It looks kinda cool: the offers get better and better on the short term (red symbols), until it's now finally completely FREE, no re-activation charge, no taxes where applicable, no strings attached, it's just ON - for two weeks.

If you decide to keep on listening for a year, even after the offers expire, it gets cheaper at first, then more expensive (blue symbols).

Just so we're clear : if you kept the subscription for the next twelve years or so, the average car lifetime, and if you average the subscription fee over that time, you'd be paying close to the full weekly fee, $3.34, for all the offers we've been talking about (yellow symbols). Not counting any price increases.

Which goes to show, in the long run, the bone they throw you to encourage you to stay on with them is puny. In the current two-weeks-free offer, they give you free service worth $6.68, and hope to get your business at $173.88 plus tax every year for twelve years. Great marketing. Sort of insulting to the user, if you ask me.

Still, here we are with two weeks of free satellite radio. What a long, strange trip it's been.



November 13, 2012

Volkswagen Polo, 53 MPG: Look ma, no batteries!

There was a time that my parents, those inveterate travelers, owned two Volkswagen vans, one on each side of the Atlantic, for their extended camping trips. In the years after my mom retired, they travelled in one van or the other for a total of 2-3 months a year. One officially had my name on it but the moment my parents touched down stateside my claim on it was null and void. They would load it with their camping gear and drive it all over the US and Canada, leaving me with a choice of my trusty bike or a rental car for 4-6 weeks.

But when they were at home they preferred a city car: it's hard to park a VW camper in most Dutch cities. For years they did all their local driving in a 2001 Volkswagen Polo, a city car the size of a Toyota Prius c, or a Honda Fit.

At just under 4 meters, the Polo looks small, but is actually quite brave. My dad would meet us at the airport in this car, and would manage to stuff in all four of us as well as all our luggage, two large suitcases plus assorted carry-ons and laptop cases, before easing himself behind the wheel.

There's no way you can fit a cello across the cargo area in the back. But one would fit across the back seat. So when it's just CelloDad and me, some years ahead, a car this size would be perfect for us.

My dad's 2001 Polo was a rare automatic-transmission model, so its fuel efficiency wasn't that great. But the story is quite different for the current crop of Polos. As for the VW Golf, there is a GTI version built to appeal to the younger, impatient crowd.

Regular Polos are available with 1.2L, 1.4L and 1.6L engines, gasoline or diesel. All come in a Bluemotion version, Volkswagen's package of fuel efficiency enhancing technology, including start-stop systems, higher gear ratios at high speeds, and tires with low rolling resistance.

The Polo 1.2L TDI Bluemotion packs a surprising 180 Nm (133 lbs-ft) torque for lively driving while still getting 53 mpg in real-life driving as reported by Polo owners (the quoted 69mpg overstates the actual fuel efficiency). The Polo's fuel efficiency beats that of the Toyota Prius c, without the large batteries that can be problematic in the wrong climate.

The comparable gasoline version with 1.2L engine puts out much less torque (112 Nm), at worse fuel efficiency: just 38 mpg. This is anemic for a car this size, so it only has a "D" rating on the European emissions label, whereas the 1.2L TDI Bluemotion earns an "A+", which comes with wonderful perks such as reduced sales and road taxes in many European countries. Small wonder then that the diesel version is overwhelmingly favoured in Europe. The € 2500 higher price tag (see table, below) includes such things as alloy wheels and other upgrades compared to the gasoline version with Comfortline trim.

Expensive? Not really. Remember, we in the US tend to faint at car prices abroad; this is because cars are cheap in the US. For perspective, the 2013 VW Golf with 2.0L TDI diesel engine and Comfortline trim costs € 25,275 in Germany ($ 32,135) but just $24,235 in the US. So I estimate that when the Polo Bluemotion 1.2L TDI comes to the United States its price tag will be less than $17,000, well below the $18,950 starting price for the Prius c, which is rated at 50mpg average.

Worldwide sales of the Polo have accelerated in the past two years, exceeding 800,000 cars in 2011. Judging by the popularity of the Honda Fit here, my guess is that if VW started selling the Polo in the US, it would sell like hotcakes.


VW Polo, gasoline and TDI Bluemotion

Polo Comfortline Polo Bluemotion
Type 1.2L 70PS 1.2L TDI
Year 2013 2013
Emissions rating EURO 5 "D" EURO 5 "A+"
MSRP € 14,525
($ 18,500)
€ 16,900
($ 21,500)
CelloMom Rating
Fuel Economy:
City/Hwy quoted 7.3 / 4.5 km/100L 4.1 / 3.0 km/100L
Avg. quoted 5.5 km/100L
(43 mpg)
3.4 km/100L
(69 mpg)
Avg. actual 38 mpg (US) 53 mpg (US)

1.2L 3-Cyl. Otto

1.2L 3-Cyl. Diesel
Power 51 kW (69HP) 55kW (74HP)
Torque 112 Nm @3000rpm
(83 lb-ft)
180 Nm @ 2000rpm
(133 lb-ft)
Transmission 5-spd manual 5-spd manual
Fuel Unleaded ULSD Diesel
Length, mm(in) 3970 mm (156 in)  
Width, mm(in) 1682 mm (66.2 in)  
Height, mm(in) 1462 mm (57.6 in)  
Weight, kg(lbs) 1067 kg (2352 lbs) 1150 kg (2535 lbs)
Trunk volume, liters(cuft) 280 / 952 L
(10 / 33.6 cuft)
Turning radius, m(ft) 10.6m (24.8 ft)  
Top speed, kph(mph) 165 kph (103 mph) 173 kph (107 mph)



November 7, 2012

Climate Change and the Reluctant Electorate

"We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet."

With these few words in President Obama's acceptance speech did the issue of climate change enter the 2012 US presidential elections: at the very end. In fact, after it was over. The subject was apparently considered so toxic that neither candidate was willing to touch on it during their campaigns: not in their stump speeches, not in their ubiquitous ads, not in the debates. The emphasis was always on the domestic economy.

Exit polls have shown that this is the right tactic for the campaigns: voters overwhelmingly cite the economy as their foremost concern. Climate change didn't make it to the top five motivators for their vote.

Now that the subject of global warming is explicitly on the national table, I am cautiously optimistic that we will see progress in the next four years under Obama. After all, This is the president who has backed the development of alternative energy sources. Some of those projects have ended in tears. But that always happens in the development of new technologies. Just look at the record of Bell Laboratories: it is justly famous as an incubator of novel technologies - but a rather staggering number of discoveries and inventions were made there that never saw the light of day (but did use up large research budgets).

This is also the president who broke a three-decade long record of neglect on the fuel efficiency requirements for cars, with the introduction in July 2011 of the new CAFE emissions requirements. That happened relatively quietly, and it soon faded from the news channels. But it did help get the national fleet of new cars achieve an all-time high in fuel efficiency recently: apparently consumers are ready for gas sipper cars.

While the motivation for that lies largely in the rising price of gasoline, coupled with the persistent recession, the US is set to reign in what in most households is the largest single source of CO2 emissions.

How fast and how far we will manage to move down that path depends very much on the public perception of how urgent the situation is, and how our consumer lifestyle is directly linked to what has been termed a planetary crisis.

Make no mistake: Climate change is the largest threat to the US: in terms of physical security, food security, energy security, economic implications. Still, the changes we need to make to stop or slow climate change are unpalatable to those of us who have been embedded in consumer culture. There are good reasons why climate change denial stubbornly refuses to go away; but it is the first thing we need to tackle so that we can move forward to remedy the human-generated causes of climate change.

While Americans appreciate President Obama's action in the face of superstorm Sandy, he now needs to start the difficult task to convince the nation that in the case of climate change, preventive action is urgently needed. In the long term it is better (and certainly cheaper) than mopping up after the consequences.


This post is part of a linky party hosted by Green Lifestyle Consulting and Crunchy Farm Baby.



November 6, 2012

Lessons from Hurricane Sandy

Many commentators, wiser than me, have much to say about how to avoid a repeat of the tragedy along the Mid-Atlantic coast as superstorm Sandy swept massive amounts of water over places previously held to be safe from water.

But away from the immediate coastline, the problems brought on by Sandy - more than eight million homes left without power or heat - have less to do with water than with wind. Photos of the inland havoc wreaked by the superstorm tend to show, not huge amounts of water where it normally doesn't go, but rather trees of all sizes listing at unnatural angles.

Immense numbers of trees were felled in Sandy's path, many taking down houses and other structures, some even taking human lives. But the reason that so many homes were affected was that so many power lines went down with the trees.

Of course, all the homes downstream from a severed power line instantly lose power. But more than that, when a live wire touches the ground the resulting massive current drain can take out the relay station feeding the line, plunging the whole neighbourhood into the cold and dark, not just the street where the tree came down.

Peco Energy Co. reports that most of the outages it is repairing occurred outside of Philadelphia, in leafy Bucks and Mongomery counties. In center city Philadelphia there was barely a flicker: that is where power lines tend to run underground (and where there are far fewer trees to fall on them anyway).

In preparation for "the next big one" it has been suggested that every home should have its own backup power, mostly in the form of a portable power generator.

But that's like suggesting that each home is responsible for paving the street in front of it.

Portable power generators run on gasoline: they are loud, smelly, and dangerous: beside the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning, the outlets on most of these generators have no protection whatsoever from the elements. It's easy to imagine one getting short-circuited by driving rain whipped on by hurricane-force winds. On top of that, portable generators are woefully inefficient: most of them are good to power a fridge and a few light bulbs, but not strong enough to support a house heating system. And they compete with cars for the gasoline that is in such limited supply in the region right now.

If you have natural gas coming into your house for heating or cooking, you can buy power generators that run on natural gas. But including installation those systems run close to $10,000. Ouch.

Over the long term, the cheapest solution for keeping power up for everybody, at least in a reasonably densely populated area such as a city or town, is to put the power lines underground where they are safe from falling trees. This is already common practice for new developments. The number usually bandied about for burying existing power lines is $1,000,000 per mile of power line (so if there are more then 100 homes on a mile of road this is cheaper than installing natural-gas generators for each home). I'm not sure why burying power lines is so expensive: perhaps because you basically end up re-surfacing the road.

You could save a bundle if you installed underground power lines as you are repairing roads, one road at a time as your local budget allows. Better yet, you could install power lines to run underneath bicycle paths that you surface with pavers not asphalt. That way you can make the infrequent repairs quickly and cheaply, and with a minimum of disruption, since bicycle traffic is much easier to divert than car traffic.

In the aftermath of future storms (for with the onset of climate change you can be sure there will be more like Sandy, all up and down the coast) bicycles are the transportation mode of choice, as you can lift them over any trees that have fallen over your path - try to do that with a car! - and since they are muscle-powered they won't be vulnerable to fuel shortages.

If you must drive a car, at least arrange to drive one that has a 21st-century fuel efficiency. With a car that does better than 35 mpg you could stay calm even if the fuel supply to your region was cut off temporarily. If we all drove cars like that, the lines at gas stations would be a lot shorter than those you see now throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

And, of course, in a gas sipper car every mile you drive would cause less of the carbon dioxide emissions that brings on the climate change that results in extreme weather. The future is in our hands.