December 27, 2013

Astronomical Numbers and Climate Change

“There are 1011 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers.” ― Richard P. Feynman

Photo Alan Fitzsimmons

One wonders what the Nobel-prize winning physicist may have said about today's US debt, which is counted in the 1013 dollars, or a hundred times more than there are stars in galaxy. One suspects that this "citizen scientist" would have some sharp remarks on the low acceptance in the US of climate science.

The argument against starting that fight sooner rather than later has always been that the amounts of money that need to be spent are daunting.

December 24, 2013

The Car of the Future

Fans of Star Trek have delighted in the Audi ad that pits old Spock (Leonard Nimoy in a Mercedes CLS 550C) against young Spock (Zachary Quinto in an Audi S7 hatchback). The CLS is portrayed as old-school luxury, while the S7 is presented as a 23rd century starship. In the end, though, both are trumped by the self-driving Audi TTS (developed at Stanford).

"The Challenge"

Speculation abounds, as it has always, about what the car of the future looks like. "The car of the future will be electric. Powered by fuel cells. By hydrogen. By a small on-board nuclear reactor. It will look all curvy. It will look like a Lamborghini, only more 'space age'. It will be self-driving. It can fly."

Personally, I have no truck with the looks of the future car. I don't care if it looks like a box car. Or rather, perhaps I would prefer it to look like a box car (more on that below). Here is CelloMom's vision of our future transportation - or perhaps more appropriately called wishful thinking.

December 14, 2013

Snow, Ice, and Your Tires

You know you're in trouble when it's been snowing, you're out on the road - and more than half of the other vehicles on the road are snow ploughs.

Photo by SPQRobin

Under those conditions the wisest thing to do is to stay at home. Build a snowman or an igloo with your children, bake bread, make some slow food, settle with a good book and a cup of hot chocolate while your children shovel the driveway. Enjoy the day. Take a vacation day if you have to. An employer that requires its employees to struggle their way into work under unsafe road conditions is not a good employer.

If you absolutely must go out into the great white world, remember that your tires are your best friends, more than they usually are.

December 5, 2013

St. Nicholas Storm

The storm that has hit the northwestern coasts of Europe today is starting to be known in the Netherlands as St. Nicholas Storm, or sinterklaasstorm (like the Germans, the Dutch also love to string their words together. Back when telegrams were priced by the word, it was cheaper that way).

The KNMI, the Dutch equivalent of NOAA, has called code red, which means you should stay indoors unless you have real business outside. On the coast, winds up to 11 Beaufort are expected, pretty high even in wind-blown Holland. Some flights have been cancelled. Train traffic has been stopped in the northern half of the country. There are reports of cargo trucks being blown over.

This is terrible news for Dutch children, who are eagerly awaiting a visit from St. Nicholas, their patron saint who, as legend has it, makes it to the Low Lands by steam boat, and tours the country's roofs on his white horse on the eve of his saint's day to distribute sweets and oranges from Spain.

November 27, 2013

2013 Turkey Award: Cadillac Escalade Hybrid

This is the time of year when thoughts turn to birds of the kind that's loaded with tryptophan and side dishes. But earlier this week there was exciting news about the direct predecessor of birds: the dinosaurs. Fossilised remains have been found in Utah of a gigantic dinosaur which lived about 100 million years ago, in the Cretaceous period just preceding the era of Tyrannosaurus rex.

This dinosaur, named Siats meekerorum, was one ugly brother, if you believe the reconstructions. A giant carnivore, it looked much meaner than T. rex; in fact, it probably terrorised T. rex for millions of years. The specimen found in Utah was an impressive 30 feet long and weighed about 9,000 pounds - and that was a juvenile.

It wasn't until after Siats became extinct that T. rex developed into the late-Cretaceous giant we know today, one of the largest land carnivores of all time. An adult T. rex could reach a total length of about 40 feet, and weigh a massive 14,000 pounds. No wonder it was always hungry.

November 24, 2013

Review: 2013 Mercedes E-Class Wagon

My brother had a housemate named Gregory, a gentle giant whose heart is even larger than his person. Gregory's three small dogs (named "The Pack" by my children) eat better than many people on a junk food diet, since their owner can't abide by bad food; not even for dogs. Gregory would treat us to amazing food that looks as beautifiul as it tastes, the whole complemented by his flower arrangements: he is an ikebana master as well as an outstanding cook.

I suspect my children think of him in some way every time they put some flowers in a vase or dig up the moss in our yard for stuffing into a hollow brick, perhaps with some maple blossoms. They loved going to the farmers' market with Gregory, who made us all laugh by legging it, from the flower stands to the organic vegetables, from the bakers to the local cheese makers, all the while making plans for dinner and the next ikebana class he's teaching.

For moving friends, food and flowers, Gregory drives a Mercedes E wagon. It moves like a tank, but inside it gives a ride gentle enough for a baby, a delicate dessert, or the array of Japanese flower pots that Gregory needs to move when he has a show. His dogs ride in the back then they go to the park, and there's plenty of room for my brother's dog as well.

November 10, 2013

We Need Good News on Climate Change

In a recent article in Yes! magazine, Sarah van Gelder makes the case for truly objective reporting in the media on the climate crisis. She makes the well-documented point that "false balance" in reporting gives too strong a voice to climate change deniers and is thus a distortion of the overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming: that it is real, and that humans are the cause.

But there is another way in which the media does not faithfully reproduce reality: the omission of stories about people working on solutions. While the stories about climate change must necessarily include grim reports on hurricanes, wildfires and ocean acidification, these very depressing and scary news items are not the whole story. Van Gelder writes:

"More truly objective reporting on the climate crisis and its systemic causes would be a huge improvement over what we find now. But still it would be just half the story. The other half is the solutions. We need much more reporting on solutions, and not just to keep despair from sending us screaming into those rising seas."

PV array atop the US Department of Energy

November 3, 2013

What the NASCAR-winning Hudson Hornet and my VW Golf have in common.

I didn't know who or what the Hudson Hornet was, until I saw the movie Cars, where the gruff Doc Hudson plays mentor to the eager young racer Lightning McQueen. Lightning discovers that the sedate old Doc, now the village doctor, once had an illustrious career as the multiple winner of the coveted Piston Cup.

The car on which the character of Doc Hudson was modeled was even more illustrious than its screen persona. It was a powerhouse. It was a multiple winner of the NASCAR races, and I mean mega-multiple: The Hudson Hornet won 27 of the 34 NASCAR Grand National races in 1952, plus 22 wins in 37 races in 1953, and 17 of the 37 races in 1954. A serious track record.

October 28, 2013

Energy Transition: Moving Into a Better Future

On 20 October, 2013 my brother, one of the most important men in my life, was married in a beautiful outdoor ceremony, surrounded by the love of family and friends and by the peace of nature, the whole suffused in brilliant sunshine. His bride, my new sister, was even more radiant than she usually is.

Photo Jason Hutchens

Neither of them are extremely young. They have each seen quite a bit of the world, sometimes on their own, sometimes in a relationship, so far transitory. They have known the advantages to being unattached. There is a certain kind of freedom that you enjoy if you only have to take care of yourself and no-one else.

Like many of us, these two people have decided to give up that freedom, in exchange for a formal and lasting connection, made of their own free will, in a leap of faith that their life together will be better than the separate lives they are leaving behind.

October 25, 2013

Review: Hyundai Elantra / Avante

For the occasion of my brother's wedding, my family completely ruined our carbon footprint for this year. Because this is the middle of the school year, we flew over for just a few days, and we rented a car so that my dad could come with us everywhere.

The rental car was a Hyundai Elantra, a four-door sedan. I was offered an upgrade at pickup time, but declined, figuring you shouldn't drive a rental car that's too much larger than the one you drive daily. I hear this car is popular with rental car agencies because of its good maintenance record.

The Elantra falls in the "Economy" rental bracket, which means it carried five of us comfortably. Our luggage rattled around in the large trunk, which could easily accomodate both our cellos. There were a few blind spots that were larger than I would like, particularly the bar between the front windshield and the side windows.

The Elantra had a slight drive-by-wire feel to the handling, but it wasn't overwhelming. Its 1.8L, 148HP engine was completely up to the job of moving the car even when fully loaded (five people plus luggage), even for quick insertions in rush-hour traffic.

October 11, 2013

The Warmest Day of Your Life - So Far

Okay, try this with me: Bring up the memory of the hottest day in your life. Picture it: Where were you that day? What were you doing? Who was with you? How did you cope with the heat?

I'll start.

The time was August 1988, a few weeks before the start of the academic year. The Northeast was gripped by a ten-day heat wave. I went to Boston's Logan Airport, to meet my then-boyfriend, who had decided to come to the US to go back to school.

He emerged from immigration and customs wearing a thin layer of perspiration. I could tell it wasn't my lovely presence that caused him to pant slightly.

"It's so hot!" was almost the first thing he said.

"Hot?" I said, "It's cool in here; this terminal has air-conditioning."

"This is air-conditioned?" he yelped.

October 8, 2013

Radiative Forcing and Global Warming Potential

Sometimes science seems to use English words, but on closer inspection you find that the meaning of those words are not what you're used to.

"Positive Feedback" is a good example. At school, or at work, positive feedback is when you're complimented for a job done well. In the context of climate science, positive feedback often denotes a vicious cycle or self-reinforcing global warming, as in when waming leads to melting of permafrost, which releases methane (a powerful greenhouse gas), which in turn leads to further warming.

"Stampede Loop" by John Trevithick, a great example of a positive feedback loop.

I could think of a bunch of racier examples, but this is a general-audience blog, so I will refrain. Suffice it to say that sometimes scientists, with a straight face, will bandy about terms that in an ordinary non-scientific conversation would make you blush.

But back to global warming. The following are notes on my reading up about several terms that have been used a lot - but I realised I didn't quite understand. I learned that the fearfully named "radiative forcing" is simply the imbalance on the planet's energy balance sheet. That the term "global warming potential" is fraught with details, caveats and snags that nobody ever talks about. And I found out the reason for why people talk of the temperature rise associated with a "doubling of the CO2 concentration", rather than an increase by some amount.

October 7, 2013

October 5, 2013

Of Electric Vehicles and the Intergluteal Cleft

In case you were wondering, the intergluteal cleft is popularly known as the "butt crack": that which becomes visible when you wear low-hung jeans and do anything but stand up straight.

Such jeans are also known as "plumbers' pants" not because plumbers are excessively fond of them compared to those of other professions, but because when they work under your sink they display the defining property of these sagging pants.

 photo Butt_Crack.jpg

Urban legend has it that wearing sagging pants originated in the US prison system, and were popularised by hip-hop artists in the 1990s, who turned the sagging pants into a fashion must-have. At first, really not that many people wore their pants that way. But now sagging pants have spread into the mainstream to the point that jeans for women are "low-rise" by default and you have to work hard to find a pair of jeans that hug your hips instead of miraculously hanging off them, seemingly defying gravity.

So now you know. But not to worry, this is a serious post. Electric cars are not to be the butt of any jokes cracked by me.

Electric cars, in fact, are very serious business. Over the past few years their sales have soared, and the discussion has finally shifted from range anxiety to the installation of charging points in this and that city.

October 2, 2013

Natural Gas: Bridge Fuel or Dead End?

[NOTE added 27 February 2014: There is NO scientific evidence that a positive feedback has kicked in. While methane levels are high (and increasing), they would have to be much, much higher to trigger "runaway global warming". Scott Johnson de-bunks the claims of a "methane emergency" (and the subsequent extinction of the human race by 2035) in this well-argued post].


A while ago, I looked into cars that run on compressed natural gas. Natural gas is cheap. It has been touted as a "clean" source of energy - anyway cleaner than coal. The burning of natural gas does not release soot particles that post a health problem; in addition, generating energy from natural gas releases less carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that causes global warming.

At least, that's the argument given by proponents of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" of gas-containing shale. But methane (CH4), the main component of natural gas, is itself a greenhouse gas, and one that is much more potent than carbon dioxide. Its global warming potential is usually quoted as GWP=25.

What that means is that methane is 25 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, over a period of 100 years after its release into the atmosphere: GWP(methane, 100yr) = 25.

So, if methane is really to be a "clean" (meaning low-GWP) source of energy, there had better be no leaks: not around the rigs where the fracking happens, not in the pipelines that take that natural gas to power plants and homes.

But methane does leak.

This is not the ideal world, and as any homeowner knows, sooner or later some pipe in the house will leak.

The leaks around a fracking field can be as high as 9% of the recovered methane. That's enough to make natural gas a much less "clean" fuel, in the context of global warming, than coal.

Pipelines to users, exposed as they are to varying temperatures, vibrations, aging, and other realities, leak also. A team of scientists have taken a natural gas sniffer along roads all over Boston, MA, looking for any leaks. The picture is not pretty.

Image by Kaiguang Zhao of Duke University

In the image, the height of the spikes indicate the methane concentration at that location. Yellow indicates a concentration higher than 2.5 parts per million. In Cambridge, you can see Harvard and MIT light up.

September 28, 2013

Wake Up: Garbage Trucks Ready to Dump on Your Lawn

It's a fine, sunny morning in the fall, with just that nip in the air that says summer is really over. You take a deep breath, savour the freshness of the air. At breakfast, you open the paper. The front page headline says that garbage trucks are poised to dump their load onto every lawn in your town.

You figure such a thing couldn't really happen in a nice, well-to-do town like yours. You move on to the Lifestyle section and read, with interest, about Kanye West's latest caper with the paparazzi. Now there's a juicy story.

But suddenly, you become aware of a deep rumble. You realise it's the sound of hundreds of garbage trucks, deployed all around your neighbourhood. You forget your breakfast and run outside. At the end of the street is a line of garbage trucks. One has your address pasted on its windscreen, like the destination on a public bus.

Then you remember: Your town has a long-standing garbage problem. It doesn't have a landfill, and tipping into other landfills is prohibitively expensive. Meanwhile, households are generating an increasing amount of garbage from stuff they've bought, convenience meals, and all the other contraptions of modern life. So a long time ago it was agreed at a town meeting that everyone could tip their garbage into a truck, for free. But when the trucks were full, they would dump their contents onto the town's lawns.

What do you do?

(A) Go back inside, calmly eat your breakfast and finish reading the article on Kanye West, while waiting for the truck to dump its load onto your lawn;

(B) Call your neighbours and form a human chain across your street so none of the trucks can come in;

(C) Call your township office and tell them to call off the garbage trucks while you and your fellow townsmen re-negotiate the contract. Even if that means committing your family to generating a lot less garbage from now on.

What am I really talking about?

September 25, 2013

Teach Your Parents Well: Children's Views on Climate Change

“My parents talk about the beautiful country that we live in. Now I only see small pieces of it, which is enough to make me happy, but because the climate is changing I won’t have anything to show my children.”
    —Mohammed, age 15, Maldives

The children we love so much are the ones who have to, or will have to, deal with the consequences of the actions of adults over the past 150 years. And they know it. Indeed, many children are already experiencing the consequences of global warming in their daily lives. Strangely, we adults have forgotten to think of them, and to ask their opinion on the planet they will inherit from us.

But that doesn't mean they have no opinion. UNICEF has gathered views on climate change from children all over the world, and included some of their responses in a 2007 report, "Climate Change and Children", and in a 2013 report from UNICEF UK, "Climate Change: Children's Challenge". This post is a compilation of selected quotes from those reports.

Children are smart. They have their eyes wide open. And they have no pre-conceived notions of the world the way adults do. Their observations are direct, their conclusions straightforward. For instance, how both drought and flood can lead to hunger:

September 19, 2013

How My Children's School Greened Me

Welcome to the September 2013
Natural Living Blog Carnival: Extending Natural Living to the Classroom.

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Natural Living Blog Carnival hosted by Happy Mothering and The Pistachio Project through the Green Moms Network. This month, our members are talking about how they extend their family's natural lifestyle to their child's school. Hop around to each post to get some tips and share your own!


Confession time: I never did much toward greening my children's school. On the contrary, it greened me.

Oh, I had taken the first baby steps: I worked very hard to have a natural childbirth, fed my babies organic food, gave them very few toys but plenty of time for outside play, kept television outside the house, that sort of thing. I put my toddlers in bike seats, but because it was fun; I never thought of carbon emissions.

It turns out I accidentally kept a chemically "clean" house. But it was only because I was (still am) lousy at housekeeping and needed to keep things simple, so I kept one bottle of soap that I used to clean everything. Air fresheners were beyond me. I did recycle. Then again, I used whatever shampoo was on sale; never heard of parabens.

So I did my best, but looking back, it's clear to me I really didn't know pip-squeak about green or natural living.

Then ViolaPlayer went to school.
(Okay, we started in a Parent-Child class, so nobody was thinking about violas then). It was then that our green journey really accelerated. More than that, rather than feeling that we were sending our child out into the world of school, we felt that we were coming home.

September 18, 2013

Let's Talk with Our Children about Global Warming, with Sense and Sensitivity

There are a lot of myths, misinformation and outright lies out there about sex. That's why parents talk with our children about it: to enable them to make informed decisions, and so they know not to believe in outlandish notions like "you can't get pregnant if it's your first time", or "drinking Mountain Dew will prevent pregnancy". (I am not making this up; more common myths about sex here).

Similarly, there are a lot of myths, misinformation and outright lies out there about global warming. "We humans didn't do it", or "Even the scientists are confused about it", or "It's not happening".

But global warming is happening, and climate scientists agree that we humans are causing it. And since it is our children (and their children) who will have to bear the consequences, the least we can do is to give them the straight dope. While not depriving them of hope.

So let us talk with our children about global warming, and let's do that with respect and sensitivity: to who they are, to how old they are, to their emotional wellbeing. Let us first listen to them, get a sense of what they already know, and go from there. Just like when we talk with them about sex.

September 16, 2013

Global Warming Denialism May Have Origin in the Victorian Frame of Mind

In the face of ample scientific evidence that the earth's atmosphere and oceans are warming, and that the global warming is caused by humans, why do so many Americans (47%) believe that humans don't have a hand in the global warming ? Why is it that 13% of Americans aren't sure that there is warming at all, and that a further 8% are sure that there is no warming?

Climate scientists in particular are baffled by what seems like a stubborn refusal by a surprisingly large part of the American public to accept what the scientists see as the self-evident truth. What the scientists see looming in our future is deeply disturbing, and they are vexed by the lack of will to ward off what can be described as nothing less than a catastrophe on a planetary scale.

Where is the disconnect?

There is a lot of hand wringing over scientists' inability to communicate the science to the general public. I don't buy that argument. Climate science has been brought to the public by quite a few who command both the climate science and the communications skills. There are plenty of books, movies, documentaries, websites that correctly reflect the scientific consensus of human-caused global warming and the urgency of the threat.

There is even more talk of the human psyche having a hard time accepting an idea so scary as global warming and its consequences: floods, droughts, famine, wars. But I don't buy that argument either: Anomalously large fractions of people in the United States and Britain (as well as Japan) don't believe in global warming. But I can't accept that American humans are all that different from other humans. After all, the United States is famously a melting pot of humanity.

The next obvious culprit are companies protecting their bottom lines. In particular, corporations have been accused of deliberately spreading misinformation on global warming. Certainly, corporate culture is very strong in the US, and it is precisely conventional corporations that have the most to fear from any measures to combat global warming. The proposed solutions - to burn less fossil fuels, to impose a carbon tax - strike at the essence of their profitability. But corporations can't be the only culprit: after all, they act on a global scale now. If they do engage in spreading misinformation, their message must fall on particularly fertile ground in the United States. So the question remains: why is the American public so susceptible to climate change denial?

I think the answer can be found, at least in part, in the connection between the American psyche and that of the Victorians.

Wait. I'm joking, right? Aren't the Victorians those 19th century English who are so prudish and sexually repressed? -- Well yes. The Victorians were indeed prudish: they had good reason to be (more on that below). But there's a whole lot more to the Victorian psyche than that. This is explored in Walter E. Houghton's book, The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870.

September 15, 2013

Two Cellos in the House

It has come to this.

I can now wear my children's hand-me-downs. They've grown past me. I suppose I knew it was coming - but it still came as a surprise.

And now CelloPlayer needs a bigger cello. The first week of school, we went to the strings place for a full-sized rental. It didn't look all that huge. Then they pulled out a case for it. I suddenly got that sinking feeling.

Here are the two cellos (I'm keeping the 3/4 cello because I'm too small to play a full-sized one: see that I mean about the hand-me-down deal?) If you place them side by side the full-sized one doesn't look all that big.

But here are the two cellos in their cases.

See the difference? The 3/4 cello came with a soft case: very nice, very friendly, handles, straps for carrying it on your back. Real nice. The new full-sized comes with a foam-padded case. Padded slots inside for two bows. Little slot for the rosin. Altogether much better protection. And much larger. Heck, this thing has wheels, like the professional hard cases. CelloPlayer was very pleased.

But I'm sunk.

Here I am, I've been bragging that this and that gas-sipping car fits my whole family of four plus a cello. My friends, that was a little, 3/4 cello in a little, soft case.

September 8, 2013

The Toyota Yaris is Not a "Teen" Car

A few years ago, there was a dad at CelloPlayer's school, who cheerfully brought his two young children to their Early Childhood classrooms before going to work. He drove a Yaris. I asked him about it and he told me how happy he was with his car, as he was helping his children out of their car seats. Later in the day his wife would come pick them up, in a slightly larger car.

This family are back in Germany now, his company had placed him in the United States for only two years.

I think it is telling that this young professional, on a great adventure with his family and presumably enjoying a generous expat package, chose to drive himself to work in a Yaris. I asked him about that too. I mean, I know many expats splurge on a bigger or more luxurious car in the US, because cars are so cheap here.

He gave me a mystified look and said, "But... this is a fine car. I like it."

August 29, 2013

Seven Ways to Keep Your Teen from Texting While Driving

"One in four (26%) of American teens of driving age say they have texted while driving, and half (48%) of all teens ages 12 to 17 say they’ve been a passenger while a driver has texted behind the wheel."

These findings are from a 2009 report from the Pew Research Center. That's a lot of distracted driving in an age group already notorious for its bad driving record.

Of course, when you're 18, you're invincible, and immortal (that's why armies like to draft young people). Four out of five young adults claim they can safely text while driving. Moreover, there is - sometimes intense - pressure from friends to stay connected at all times.

So our job as parents is to convince our children that, even though they see it happen all around them, it's really not a good idea to text and drive. In fact, it's illegal in most states. But that doesn't seem enough of a deterrent. So it's up to us: parents need to mount an in-house ad campaign against texting while driving. Here are some ideas on how to go about it.

August 25, 2013

The Netherlands, 2136 AD

The land area that comprises the Netherlands is partly a gift from the rivers of which is forms the delta, and partly hard-won from the sea, through the building of dikes, poldering, and the incessant pumping of water (you didn't think all those classic Dutch windmills were built to be pretty, did you?).

Half of the place is below the current sea level (-6.76m at the lowest point), and the Dutch think it's reasonable - indeed, prudent - to spend 1-2 billion euros per year to shore up their defenses agains rising sea levels, in a nationwide multi-decade plan called the Deltaprogramma.

Nobody here has time for climate change denial: global warming is treated as a given. This perspective pervades news coverage, discussions at talk shows, and education. For instance, the map below was developed by Red Geographics for use in schools. Dark blue areas indicate regions currently below sea level; light blue shows regions at risk at a sea level rise up to 7 meters (23 ft).

Dark blue: land below current sea level. Light blue: land 0-7 metres above sea level.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying the Dutch are environmental saints. Sure, they bike. But they've got their own western-sized footprint. Shell (which started out as Royal Dutch Oil) is still a large employer. They drive more than they need to. They still get less energy from wind than they should, considering how much wind they have at their disposal. But at least global warming is firmly acknowledged as a reality in the national discussion.

I have just discovered a young-adult book by Evert Hartman, Niemand houdt mij tegen (Nobody can stop me). This is an adventure in the 22nd century, when half of the Netherlands has turned into sea, the remaining population is squeezed on the remaining land area, and immigration is a serious issue.

Sixteen year old Richard is present at the arrest of two Belgian girls, who have entered the Netherlands illegally. He decides to help them, together with Wesley, who is a clone. Hartman foresees self-driving cars that navigate a network of tunnels. Below a partial translation of the chilling opening pages. Hartman wrote this novel in 1991.

August 24, 2013

Short holiday for cellomomcars.com

Starting August 25, 2013, cellomomcars.com domain name is going on a short hiatus. This doesn't mean I stop blogging.
I hope to re-instate the re-direct from cellomomcars.com by mid-September, until then please access the blog directly at www.cellomomcars.blogspot.com.

This is partly a result of my inept blog management, partly a confuse-a-spammer experiment. Thanks in advance for your understanding.

August 20, 2013

Ten Ways to Calm Car Traffic

Delft, the Netherlands, is a rather venerable town: think of its medieval origins, its ties to the royal house, its rise as a trading power in the 17th century, its artists, writers and scientists. But its 100,000 residents don't think about that stuff too much while going about their daily business.

For my parents, a lot of that business was done by car. When I was growing up, my dad would happily negotiate the narrow canal-side streets, park on the very edge of the canal, or else on the expansive market square between the New Church and City Hall. Buses would pile into the same market square to disgorge hordes of tourists following umbrellas. Trucks would come in for deliveries, causing traffic jams in the one-way streets. I didn't realise it at the time, but it probably stank of exhaust - none of it unleaded.

In the late 1970s, the city of Delft decided to do something about the noise and the pollution. Since then, it has been a pioneer on a long but inexorable path to reclaim life from the effects of car traffic, especially in the medieval city core. It started innocently enough: the city centre was divided into four quadrants, and you couldn't drive from one to the other directly, you had to drive around. You could still bike everywhere.

Then, some streets (mostly those with shops) were declared pedestrian zones. Other measures were put in place to put private cars in the position where it belongs: as a transportation mode of last resort, in as much of the city as possible. Over time, Delft was transformed into a much more pleasant place, more vibrant than before, safer for pedestrians and cyclists, and with much lower carbon emissions.

The cool thing is that through all this, the city has remained accessible for everyone. While cars have certainly taken a second place, they are by no means banned entirely. The city has worked very hard to find ways to share its roads safely, while giving priority to green traffic. Here are ten policies that help make it happen.

August 15, 2013

The Netherlands: Bike-Friendly By Law

In the Netherlands, riding a bike to get from here to there is such a part of the psyche, that the Dutch don't even consider themselves a cyclist nation: it's an integral part of daily life. I have pointed out that the country's bike-friendliness comes from the fact that just about everybody bikes. That solidarity has always been there, but in the past decade it has been reinforced - strogly - by a change in traffic laws.

Photo Murdockcrc

When I was taught traffic rules in a Dutch fifth grade, the rules of thumb were simple: "Faster traffic has right of way". And "Traffic moving straight forward has right of way". That last bit meant that if you were on the bike path between the sidewalk and the car lanes, any car making a right turn crossing the bike path had to stop and wait for you to pass.

Rules are not that simple any more: inside cities, often the car has the lowest priority. And in the last decade or so, the law is tilted significantly in favour of slow traffic, in an acknowledgement of a plain physics fact: that if a collision should occur, the heavy guy always wins.

August 11, 2013

Review: 2013 Škoda Roomster

This summer, we made a new friend: Jasmin is a warm-hearted, many-sided person with a sunny disposition, and quite without fear. She currently lives in Prague, but her life story spans three continents. She speaks three or four languages fluently, and will engage in a lively conversation about almost any subject you care to bring up, in several languages at once if necessary.

Jasmin had made the trek from the Czech Republic to the Netherlands, accompanied by her diminutive shih-tzu puppy Gracie, in Jasmin's Škoda Roomster, stopping here and there on the way to visit Jasmin's many friends.

Photo Cellotrixx via Wikimedia Commons

The Roomster is a worthy match to Jasmin: it also is versatile, up for anything, and offers plenty of room inside for friends. With its slightly raised seats it embraces you with an easy welcome. In the front, the wraparound windows give you a good view around. Children rejoice: in the back, the windows are actually taller than in the front, defiantly going against the current trend of the disappearing side window.

August 1, 2013

Why I Love High-Speed Trains

The California High Speed Rail Authority plans to install a network of fast trains, including a trajectory that will carry passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles (about 400 miles) in less than 3 hours. By 2029.

I can't wait till 2029 - I mean, by then I could be a grandmother! So, having vowed to have a car-free vacation this year, I've booked this summer's family holiday travel on a few fast trains that are already running.

There is a pretty dense network of high speed lines in western Europe (high speed means top speeds of at least 200 kph, or 124 mph), and an equally dense of slower but still fast trains in eastern Europe.

Getting connected from the Dutch corner is still difficult: you have to take Thalys to Paris, then transfer from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon to catch the southbound high speed trains, not a trivial task if you're toting luggage at rush hour.

July 26, 2013

Car-free in a small town: Wengen, Switzerland

It's relatively easy for large cities like Rome to become very livable by declaring a car-free zone: population densities are so high that it pays, on many levels, to have a dense public transportation network that operates frequently and inexpensively. On the other end of the spectrum, it is also easy for very small villages to go car-free: nothing is far away, and everything in the village is easily accessible on foot.

Very few small villages have the gumption to declare themselves completely car free: The entire planet is dotted with tiny hamlets literally embracing some throughway (the "Main Street") where cars and trucks tear through on their way from elsewhere to somewhere else, leaving only exhaust in their wake. Even Transition Town Totnes at the edge of Dartmoor, one of the most progressively green small towns, has so far only declared a single car-free day, in September 2012.

In contrast, many small towns in mountainous Switzerland have the advantage that they have always been hard to reach by car, and a few have an additional economic motivation to remain car-free altogether, peace and quiet being part of their brand. The valley of Lauterbrunnen is dotted with small villages that are completely car-free year round, like Mürren, the ski resort where Sir Arnold Lunn laid out the first competitive slalom course.

On the other side of the valley, the town of Wengen has a permanent population of 1300. It is perched on a ledge on the valley wall, 400m above Lauterbrunnen in the valley floor, and nearly 1000m below Männlichen on the nearest ridge above. You can get there by cog train, by cable car, by hiking or by skiing.

July 18, 2013

"I Go to the Gas Station Once a Month"

Welcome to the July 2013 Natural Living Blog Carnival: Inspiring Change in Others.

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Natural Living Blog Carnival hosted by Happy Mothering and The Pistachio Project through the Green Moms Network. This month, our members are talking about how they inspire others to make positive changes in their lifestyles. If you have tips to share, feel free to comment on all of the posts! And maybe you'll walk away with a few tips you can use in your own life.


"You go to the gas station once a month?" My good friend Elise, who normally takes my word for granted, is unable to hide her incredulity. I give her my usual line about how, while I like the guys at the station, I do hand over a wad of cash every time I see them; so once a month is enough, thanks. "Once a month," I hear her mutter, again. We go on to talk about other things, but I do believe I made an impression, even on my friend who is already very green.

It's not easy to spread the word about climate change in such a way that people are willing to listen. This issue is so deeply enmeshed with our security that we simply don't want to hear the bad news. It's like trying to talk to Californians about the risk of earthquakes: they just smile and change the conversation.

Denial is built into our psyche, a safe place to hide behind when we are not ready to face really scary stuff, like our mortality - or the fate of the blue ball we call home. I mean, it's so much easier - and more pleasant - to think about the next smartphone you're going to buy, than to deal with the feeling of depression and helplessness in the face of a problem that's literally the size of a planet.

I'm no psychologist, I couldn't help anyone past their denial stage; so I prefer to go around that. Instead, I like to point out that green living can save a bundle of money. This is certainly true in the long run, and very often gives instant gratification as well. Besides, saving money is something that everybody recognises as a good thing.

My favourite new line is "Green = Frugal".

July 16, 2013

Low Traffic Zones: anything but cars

Europe has a growing number of Low Emissions Zones: This generally means that access to motorised vehicles (especially those with older emissions standards) is restricted in certain areas of large cities. For Rome that's about half of the metropolitan area inside the ring (A90 and E80).

The LEZ area is served by a network of commuter trains and buses. Since a bus or train ticket is valid for 100 minutes after you get on, that can get you from the centre of Rome to anywhere in the greater metropolitan area, even well outside the ring road. Tourists taking the commuter train to Rome's ancient harbour at Ostia can get there for €1.50, the standard metrebus fare in Rome.

But if you happen to choose a sunny weekend day for that trip you will find the commuter train packed with a crowd of beachgoers headed for Lido, discreetly wearing swimsuits under T-shirts and sun dresses, and all happily chattering away. The festive atmosphere inside those cars can get pretty loud, and makes you understand why some longer-distance railway trains have designated quiet cars.

Inside the LEZ area, there are generally zones where most private cars are banned for most of the day, usually in historic city centres.

July 9, 2013

Pedestrians-Only Zone

It could be argued that central Florence is more of a museum than a city. That is one good reason to avert as much car traffic as possible. And that is exactly what the centre-city Florence has accomplished: After a while you realise that most cars you see are the white taxis - and even of those not very many. There are a few bikes plying the cobblestone streets, but mostly people get around on foot. A medieval town is walk-sized, after all.

The way Florence has accomplished this is simply by banning all car traffic between 7.30am and 7.30pm, with very few exceptions. There is apparently a steep fine for cars entering the pedestrian zone without the proper permit. I imagine that handicapped residents are allowed a car (not that there are many parking spaces: those are carefully arranged outside the old town). And there is the fleet of white taxis, many of which are hybrids or EVs: among their number are quite a few Prius+ hybrids, the kind that could in principle seat seven.

The upshot is that the city streets are pleasantly unclogged of automotive traffic: it's so quiet you can hear the flocks of swallows go by as they call to one another. The air is clean, so you can enjoy a good meal at one of the many outside venues. And I bet that the exterior of the magnificent cathedral will stay cleaner for much longer, after the current round of restoration leaves it blindingly beautiful.

Many of the city buses are electric; all are inexpensive and frequent. So it's really silly to try to come here with a car. Besides, walking around you can try to imagine what it was like to be in this city in the heady days of the renaissance, among all the art, literature, philosophy and science swirling around the place.

July 3, 2013

Healthy Eating On Vacation

I love travel: it lifts you out of the everyday, puts a fresh perspective on your life, and opens your mind and heart to new possibilities. But one thing that doesn't go on vacation is my commitment to feeding my family healthy meals. It's one of those positive feedback loops: eating well contributes to happiness, being happy takes a lot of energy - we are never hungrier than when on vacation.

Photo Silver Spoon: Who says eggs have to come in dozens?

But it's not always easy: when I'm at home I know exactly where to go for clean, whole foods: my CSA farm, my milk farmer, the local health food store. When we're travelling all that familiar routine goes out the window and I get to re-invent our food on a daily basis.

One thing I've learned from bitter experience, is not to expect real food at child-oriented venues like zoos or theme parks. I really don't see why children's taste should be so insulted that they are exclusively served fat-soaked and sugar-laden "food". I don't even see why there should be a "Kids' menu" at restaurants: my children eat what I eat, only with smaller portions.

To tell the truth, on one road trip I gave up and stopped at a burger chain, just to be different. CelloDad was surprised. CelloPlayer was bemused but tried this and that. ViolaPlayer categorically refused to eat anything. Even passed up on the bottle of water. Having gone through the Food & Health block at our Waldorf school, and having read Fast Food Nation, my child chose to go hungry rather than submit to the industrial fast food. I have to admire that.

So back we went to our wholesome food regime. This gets easier as you have more money to throw at the issue, but there are plenty of healthy food options that don't cost an arm and a leg.

June 27, 2013

Tar Sands are Incompatible with new Climate Change Plan

President Obama's new plan to combat climate change makes much of energy efficiency, which is a much more popular way to go than advocating a lifestyle change (political suicide) or less gridlock-inducing than a carbon tax (the fastest way to effect lifestyle change). Instead, Mr. Obama chose to highlight the EPA's tightened fuel efficiency requirements for new cars (CAFE), and upcoming efficiency standards for appliances and building construction.

These are all steps in the right direction, but the president was vague on the approval or not of the Keystone XL, the pipeline that is to transport bitumen from Canada's tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico for refining. The controversy around the Keystone XL pipeline tends to centre around the environmental risk, job creation and US energy independence.

It seem foolhardy to rip out boreal forest, dig a 10-mile gash in the surface of the planet, and cart it all off, risking highly toxic spills through fragile environments (the original Keystone pipeline had more than thirty spills in its first year), only to sell the oil on the world market. On top of all that, tar sands have terrible energy efficiency.

Satellite image of oil sands operation at Fort McMurray, Alberta.

The days of gusher oil wells, where all you have to do is drill into the ground at the right place (not very deeply), and oil comes bursting out, are long gone. These days you have to spend energy to get energy: you need to drill deep, or sideways, or you need to pump the oil out, or carefully inject water to keep the pressure up. Hydraulic fracturing of shale takes immense amounts of both energy and water. The sun and the wind come to us for free, but harvesting their energy takes the building of wind turbines and photovoltaic cells, and that takes energy.

So the question we need to ask is, how much energy does it take to get one usable unit of energy from the various sources in our reach?

June 23, 2013

How To Dispel EV Range Anxiety

Sales of electric cars have picked up in the US, now that prices are starting to come down. But while the price cuts have made EVs much more affordable, range anxiety still runs rampant. After all, this is a big country, and American like to roam it. So a single-charge range of less than 100 miles is simply underwhelming, when compared to a range of more than 300 miles for most gasoline-powered cars. Especially if you consider it takes five minutes to fill a gas tank, but hours to recharge an EV battery.

Photo jepoirrier

For shorter trips, the EV is ideal - especially if you manage to power it from renewable sources. So it is very popular with car sharing schemes in cities, where the trip distance tends to be quite small, and the number of charging stations high.

Even outside large cities, the average American daily commute to work is about 16 miles. Even if you lived 30 miles from work, the 75-mile range on a Nissan Leaf will do just fine, with some margin for unexpected detours. If you can plug it in at work, that would increase your range by a factor two.

There are several ways to extend the range

June 19, 2013

Greening Our Vacation

It's easy for the Man of Steel: Whenever he's tired of saving the world and needs to retreat to his Fortress of Solitude over on the North Pole, he simply takes off and flies there, on his own power. The rest of us are not superheroes, and for us travel to remote places means we need to board a bird of steel (or, more accurately, some aluminium alloy).

Poster by Hamlet Au Yeung for Do The Green Thing

You can't deny that airplane travel is fast, but it also has a huge carbon footprint. It is true that any given scheduled flight / train / bus will depart whether or not you bought a seat on it. This argument certainly holds for travel on Amtrak trains, which tend to have a low occupation (outside of big travel holidays like Thanksgiving). So the marginal carbon emissions - the emissions due to the extra person travelling on that half-empty train - is quite small.

But airlines have removed from their schedules those flights that tend to be half full, and consolidated them with other flights, so most airplanes are filled near capacity these days. This means that on the aggregate, the more of us are looking to fly a segment (say Boston to San Diego), the more flights the airline will schedule on that segment.

June 13, 2013

Review: Honda CR-V

Bucking the trend, the very popular Honda CR-V has not grown over the years: since its introduction in 1995, its size has stayed pretty much the same in the length and width directions, and it has actually become less tall, going from about 70 inches for the early SUV to 65 inches for today's crossover.

While in the early days it looked like a utilitarian box on wheels much like the old Jeep, the CR-V has gradually moved its image toward sophistication, to the point that the sides now resemble a Lexus SUV. (There's some poetic justice in this, since the earliest Lexus RX, in my humble opinion, resembled a pregnant Honda Civic: what goes around comes around).

June 12, 2013

Arctic Sea Ice Visualisations

Arctic sea ice is melting apace, and will soon leave a watery expanse where the earth used to show a white-capped north pole. The diminishing of sea ice at the polar region is already altering the jet stream and making extreme weather events more extreme and of longer duration. There is worrisome evidence of the spread of disease as temperatures are rising around the north pole.

The movie "Chasing Ice" gives a glimpse of the enormity of the melting of the vast Greenland ice sheet. When that ice sheet releases ice into the sea in the process of calving, it does so in chunks the size of Manhattan - only quite a bit taller. The scale of that ice sheet is hard to comprehend.

But the area covered (still, so far) by arctic sea ice is even larger than Greenland. And it looks like all that is melting away as well, at an ever increasing rate since the 1980s.

Andy Lee Robinson, who is at that rare cross-roads between geeky techno-savvy and highly creative artistic talent, has made a movie that shows the total volume of arctic ice as the years go by: basically we're witnessing the melting of a gigantic ice cube.

The graph shows all the data; but it doesn't hit you in the gut like the movie does. Make sure to have sound on.

Arctic Sea Ice minimum volume 1979-2012. (31 secs)

June 6, 2013

Green Is Frugal! Reducing Car Use and Meat Consumption

In a recent survey, readers of the Reduce Footprints blog said that the toughest challenges in green living are reducing the use of the car and reducing meat in our diet. I totally get that: Like with most people, my mouth starts to water when I catch the smell of a nice steak on the grill (why, even writing about it gets it going). And the car is so convenient. Besides, even if you tried you couldn't get away from it, since many of us live in suburbs or small towns where you don't get anything done (work, play, groceries) without a car.

Photo SpaceMonkey

But while biological imperative and the pressures exerted by an inherited infrastructure can be strong, that doesn't mean that we have to let go all the brakes and jump in our SUVs to drive to the nearest steakhouse. We can put up a resistance.

Ah, you say, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. I get that too: personally, I particularly shine at energy conservation when we're talking about physical energy that my body has to exert. On cold or rainy days that car really beckons to me.

So I need a motivation that's stronger than the objections my wily self can put up (and she is wily, my evil twin).

June 5, 2013

EV Price Slashed: Now Is It Competitive? -
a Cost Comparison Tutorial

Electric vehicles are touted as the way to drastically reduce the nation's transportation carbon footprint, especially once we have managed to transition our electricity grid away from fossil-fueled utilities, such as coal-burning plants. But so far sales of EVs have been anemic.

The disappointing sales figures partly stem from the driving public's doubts about the batteries, that are optimised within a narrow temperature range, and which are expensive to replace. But even without this concern, the hefty price premium on most EVs are a real deterrent, even if you take into account the $7,500 support the Federal government offers towards the purchase of an EV.

That is about to change, as several manufacturers of EVs have decided to drastically cut the MSRP of their EV offerings. The Nissan Leaf went from $35,200 to $28,800, and the monthly lease on a Honda Fit EV went from $389 to $259 a month. With these hefty cuts, EVs come into range for a lot more people.

So let us sit down and see if now it makes sense to buy an EV rather than a conventional gasoline-powered car. Obviously, there is some math involved here, but I promise it's nowhere near as bad as, say, your Federal tax return. If you've passed middle school, you can do this.

Like all good tutorials, from building a tool shed to sewing cloth diapers, I will show the finished product up front. (Sorry, no pretty pictures in this post: this is a cost estimate. After all, there are no pretty pictures on your tax return forms, either).


  Nissan Leaf Honda Fit EV
Purchase Cost $ 21,300 $ 9,324
Operation Cost $ 4,854 $ 1,567
TOTAL $ 26,154 $ 10,891
Comparison Vehicle (gasoline) Nissan Versa
Honda Fit
(1.8S Auto)
Purchase Cost $ 15,460 $ 7,700
Operation Cost $ 21, 429 $ 5,806
TOTAL $ 36,889 $ 13,506
EV Savings $ 10,735 $ 2,615
Annual Savings $ 1,074 $ 872

Figuratively speaking, this forms a pretty picture indeed: in the long term, there are big savings to be had from choosing an EV over a conventional car. Read on to see what assumptions go into these numbers, and how to do this estimate for yourself.

May 30, 2013

How to Save Water (and Work) When Washing Your Car

"Laziness", CelloDad is fond of saying, "is the mother of invention". CelloDad is one of the most inventive people I have ever met. I have learned many tricks from him over the years we have been together.

One effective way to get things done is to hold back the urge to do something, but instead to simply wait until the problem goes away. This approach works particularly well for dusty cars. Is your car covered in mud, or liberally dusted in tree pollen? Take heart: if you wait long enough, a good thunderstorm will eventually visit your parking spot, the heavens will open, and torrential rain will wash away all that dirt and dust, and leave your car sparkling.

I have applied this tactic many times, to great effect, and with satisfyingly little effort.

It saves you from releasing nasty chemicals, that might lurk in your car soap or waxing finish, into the environment. And it saves a lot of water. It also saves you a lot of work of the kind that requires you to take an extra shower: more water savings.

Photo Joost J. Bakker

But once in a while you can't wait for the saving rain.

May 28, 2013

Review: 2013 Audi Q5

Audi, a relative latecomer to the SUV scene, launched the Q5 in 2008, in the depths of the financial crisis. Despite the unfortunate timing of the introduction, I regularly see Q5's on the road.

Here in the US, the Q5 is classified as a "compact SUV": poor naming. In Germany (and in France also) it is known simply as "SUV". In the Netherlands it is called a "Mid-size SUV". The Dutch logic is impeccable: after all, the Q5 is the middle of Audi's SUV range, between the Q3 and the Q7. The German splash page for the Q3 is obviously directed to younger drivers: "Developed from new demands", while the splash for the seven-seat Q7 is more sedate; "From the inventor of the quattro".

May 23, 2013

This is What I Call a Parking Garage

Here is a bicycles-only parking garage.
(And why should it not be wider than a hotel? It's full as it is.)

The sign says, "Amsterdam Loves Bikes". From the looks of it, bikes love Amsterdam, too. This is the parking garage at the central railway station with its connections to trains, buses and water transport. Bicycle parking fee: € 1.20 ($1.50) per day. Pretty steep, but hey, this is Amsterdam.

There are a few handicap-access car parking spots close to the Ibis hotel. And the general parking garage for cars is on the other side of the water from the station; rates are €55 ($70) per day. The word "punitive" comes to mind.



You may also like:
1. How the Dutch got their Bicycle Paths
2. I Made a Town Meeting Gasp


May 22, 2013

We Need a Change in Climate News

The past two weeks has seen climate change in the news, or rather, a tiny bit more than the usually pathetic coverage it gets from mainstream news outlets, considering we're talking about the future of our species.

The first noteworthy piece of climate news is that the world has reached a new and ominous milestone: the concentration of carbon dioxide has reached 400 ppm. Lisa Welp and Ralph Keeling of the Scripps Institute write about this in the way scientists write: with an even, almost detached tone.

May 18, 2013

Review: is smart a smart choice?

Small is beautiful, but pehaps small is not always smart: Smart is certainly small, but is Smart actually also smart?

In case all this makes your brain itch: we're talking about the Smart citycar, or, as their website would have it, the "smart uncar" (note the uncapitalised name). At 106.1 inches (2695mm) length it's shorter by a third than the diminuitive Ford Ka. The Smart ForTwo is basically a sedan cut in half - giving a whole different slant on the word "coupé". (The Smart ForFour was longer, but is no longer in production).

It's hard to get a handle on the Smart: it's half a car, but with all four wheels. But it's still significantly larger than half a car: its 8ft 10in length would fit sideways (just) in an oversized parking spot at a mega-mall, but in most cities you still need a full parking space for it. The only places where it would have an advantage are very cramped cities like ancient Asian and European towns that were built for pedestrians.

May 17, 2013

CelloMom Voted one of Top 25 Eco-Friendly Mom Blogs

I'm excited to share that CelloMom on Cars has been voted one of the Top 25 Eco-Friendly Mom blogs! Thank you so much for your support and your vote(s): CelloMom came in tied at 25th place, so your every vote made it possible!

I am in Circle of Moms Top 25 Eco-Friendly Moms - 2013!

The list, compiled by Circle of Moms, has many great blogs by moms who write about their journeys to a more healthy and sustainable life. These blogs have lots of tips and advice, and lots of humour; some bloggers host giveaways. In short, it's well worth browsing through the list.

May 13, 2013

Speed Limit on the Autobahn? - Nein!

Germany, that generally level-headed country, the one that produces some of the world's best engineers and engineered products, some of the most penetrating philosophers, some of the most forward-thinking policies on protecting the planet, went into a tail-spin at the weekend over the mere idea of imposing a speed limit on its Autobahn.

Photo by Q-ß

The hapless politician who had dared to air the idea is Sigmar Gabriel, the chairman of the opposition Social Democratic party (SPD).

Remember, this is the country that is phasing out all nuclear energy by 2022. Part of their "Energiewende" (energy transition) plan is to source 35% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020, ramping to 100% by 2050. Heady stuff: these people are serious about clean energy.

The German Green Party has long been a proponent of a national speed limit, for reasons of energy conservation. And the similarly environmentally friendly Traffic Club of Germany (VCD) quotes a statistic that those German highways without speed limits are the location of 70% of fatal road accidents. But inside his own party, Mr. Gabriel finds no such support: Within hours of his statement other SPD members were careful to distance themselves from him.

May 9, 2013

My World: UN's Global Survey

The UN is gathering worldwide opinions on what matters to us, the planet's citizens. The survey, called MY World, "aims to capture people's voices, priorities and views, so that global leaders can be informed as they begin the process of defining the new development agenda for the world."

The survey, which takes a few minutes to complete, allows you to choose six out of sixteen major priorities; once you're completed the survey you can see the current results displayed in a very nice interactive graphic that breaks down the responses according to gender, age, and HDI. A country's Human Development Index or HDI is a"summary index" that indicates the levels of health, education and income in that country.