December 1, 2015

785,000 People on the Streets, 40,000 Under a Tent

What was supposed to be the mother of all climate marches was scotched after terrorist attacks shook Paris and left it in a state of emergency on the eve of the global climate negotiations, COP21, the 21st Conference of the Parties.

That didn't stop people from taking to the streets. In Paris, thousands of people joined hands all along the route planned for the march. 20,000 pairs of shoes were placed on the Place de la République, symbolising the marchers who were banned from marching on the streets.


But streets elsewhere did see marchers. 785,000 of them, according to organizer Avaaz, in thousands of cities large and small, from Alaska to the Antarctic, from Melbourne to Mumbai to Mexico City. If the large march in Paris had happened, the total would beat one million people. That's huge.

And what a march!

November 26, 2015

2015 Turkey Award: Volkswagen AG

Why hesitate? Without a doubt, Volkswagen AG more than deserves CelloMom's Turkey award this year, for installing devious software in huge numbers of its cars to pretend that they pass the NOx emissions limits while really they don't in real-life, on-the-road use. In the US, VW owners are now offered $1000 to bring in their - our - NOx spewing machines into the dealer for the fix. Of that, $500 is in cash, and $500 is in credit for parts of work done by the dealerships.

The toxic cloud around the issue is still spreading, eveloping an ever growing number of cars, brand and locations, and casting a finally crticial public eye also on the inadequacies of the European test cycle in general, and especially where it overstates fuel efficiency, in some cases up to an egregious 40%. This last bit has been a public secret for quite some time, but now people are calling it out for what it is: scandalous.

Adding to the smog, Volkswagen has denied that its sales have been negatively affected by the "Dieselgate" scandal. But who is going to believe them now?

Happy Thanksgiving! And remember what your mom said: don't lie. Afterward, people won't trust you, ever again.



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2. Why VW diesel fix comes later to American drivers
3. How much horsepower do you need?


November 22, 2015

Architectural solar cells

You know that photo of a parking lot where the rows and rows of cars are covered with a canopy of solar cells? "Share and Like if you think every parking lot should look like this!".

Umm no. I've always argued that the ideal parking lot, say, for a mall, should have several dozen parking spots close to the entrances, all for handicapped parking. Plus a bus stop.

As a sign that I've been living in small-town America for a long time, I had forgotten to advocate for bicycle parking. So here is my bit on that conversation: Share and Like if you think every parking lot should look like THIS:

This is a typical bike lot in the Netherlands. It can accomodate a dozen bikes in the space ordinarily taken up by a single car. A roof protects the bikes against frequent Dutch rains.

But this one has a novel catch: solar panels on the pleasingly curved surface. These are architectural thin-film solar cells that are bendable: so you don't need a flat surface to mount them on; they can be applied to buildings with visually interesting curved surfaces. Think of what an archtect like Zaha Hadid could do with that!



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November 16, 2015

#BadDino vs Our Children

Imagine that, sixty-five million years ago, a comet did not hit the earth, and kick up a dust cloud. Nuclear-winter-like conditions did not follow. The planet remained balmy, and dinosaurs prospered. Further, imagine that even though dinosaurs roamed the earth, there was still enough biological space for mammals to develop, finally producing homo sapiens sapiens with all our ingenuity, our agriculture, our technology, and our addiction to such things as "Call of Duty" and "Candy Crush Saga".

Now suppose that there has been genetic cross-talk, and evolution, and that the dinosaurs that survive after all that time have taken on the shape of businesses. Some are small, some are large; some are behemoths. Some of the most successful ones do trade in those things that are even older than dinosaurs, fossilised carbon in all its forms: coal, oil and natural gas.

This carbon was largely deposited around 300 million years ago, in a geological era called, fittingly, the Carboniferous. So those carbon deposits were already ancient when dinosaurs came on the scene, 230 million years ago. The burning of that carbon yields the carbon dioxide that is now de-stabilising our planet's atmosphere.

Photo by Marcin Polak

Here's the thing about dinosaurs: They have - by definition - a reptile brain. This brain governs the quests for food and for mates. It is associated with such behaviours as aggression, dominance, and defense of territory. These properties are all manifest in the behaviour of today's dinosaurs surrounding their digging up, refining and selling of carbon-based fossil fuels, which they call business.

Think also of the Gary Larson cartoon of the crocodile in the witness box saying, "Well of course I did it in cold blood, you idiot! ... I'm a reptile!"

October 11, 2015

Why VW diesel fix comes later to American drivers

European drivers of VW diesel cars are, if anything, even more frustrated than their American counterparts. This is partly because VW is a fixture on European streets: world's largerst car manufacturers makes most of its cars for Europe. It has long been a popular brand known for making sensible and affordable cars, and people (like me!) have a soft spot for its iconic models like the beetle and the campervan.

So when my brother in law in Holland forwarded me a Q&A page on VW diesels, I glommed onto it the way I studied for my driver's test (yes, it's in Dutch; but Google translate does a decent job of turning it into other languages). The page is on the website of ANWB, the Dutch automobile association (even though it's still called a cyclists' association for historic reasons).

Photo by Art of Nature and Life

The questions sent in by its members are very much like those asked by American diesel owners: What will the fix do to my fuel efficiency? The horsepower and torque? The resale value of my car? Should I sue VW? Will I need to pay extra emissions tax on the car purchase retroactively? (the answer is no: the Dutch government intends to make VW responsible for those damages).

And the one big question: WHEN will my car get the fix?

October 4, 2015

Martian SUV

On Mars as in the USA, vehicles are getting larger with time. You can see why: payload is tough to get into orbit, and expensive. I don't actually know what the postage for, say, the Mars Rovers' communications devices, but I bet it's larger than the total annual revenue of the postal services of a small country.

The first Mars rover, the 1997 Sojourner, was barely larger than a skateboard. The ones in the next mission in 2004, Spirit and Opportunity, were about the size of a bicycle, albeit one with six wheels and solar-panel wings. And Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012, is the size of a car, crammed with cool instrumentation for exploring the Martian surface.

The next one will be the size of a large SUV - electric, of course. There's a great side-by-side comparison of how things happen in the movie The Martian and how NASA's engineers are designing things for the #JourneyToMars project; one of them shows an exploration vehicle designed to house and move two people.

October 1, 2015

In-Car Smoking Ban

Smokers take note: starting on October 1, 2015, you may no longer smoke in your own car (or anyone else's) if you're sharing the car with a child under 18. The ban covers England and Wales (and the Scottish parliament is considering a similar ban).

This is a Good Thing, especially for the chidren we love. Why expose them to the risks of second-hand smoke? The anger unleashed by the Volkswagen diesel scandal shows clearly that we value the health of our lungs, and there's no worse attach on a child's developing lungs than having them share a small confined space with a cigarette smoker.

September 27, 2015

What to do if you own a Volkswagen diesel car

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've heard about the emissions fraud perpetrated by Volkswagen, which installed software that enabled some VW models to behave like saints during the EPA emissions tests, while allowing devilish behaviour out on the road while you are at the wheel going about your daily business.

During the tests, the NOx emissions come in under the legal limit, while in real-life conditions it can be 10 to 40 times larger than that legal limit. NOx is a gas that contributes to small-particle pollution (better known as smog) that's bad for lung health.

Why did Volkswagen do this?
Why, to save money, why else?

This is not cool. I bought my diesel Golf because it offered decently high mpg without the environmental and maintenance problems of the battery in a hybrid, and without the range issues of most affordable EVs. I did know about the particulate emissions but made a conscious decision that the low carbon emissions was worth the added pollution, especially since I live in a small town where the dust from unpaved roads make a larger contribution to the particulate levels in the air.

But I didn't buy it so that I can spray egregious NOx emissions.

September 23, 2015

The Popemobile is a Fiat 500

Pope Francis, arriving in the United States, landed at the Andrews Air Force Base, was enthusiastically greeted by a welcoming committee headed by President Obama and Vice-President Biden, walked the red carpet, was cheered by the crowd inside the terminal building - and drove away in a Fiat 500.

To be precise, it's a Fiat 500L, the larger version with more space in the back. But it's a Fiat 500 nevertheless. And this is fitting for a pope who has chosen simplicity over pomp (just look at the saint whose name he has adopted). This is the man who, as Cardinal of Buenos Aires, used to take the bus to work.

And now, Pope Francis has skipped over the Rolls Royces and the Cadillacs, and climbs into a Fiat 500.

September 21, 2015

"The butler - I mean the software - did it."

This is the 21st century where very few of us have butlers. That's nothing new: it has always been the case that very few people have butlers. But what is new is software, and most of us got that. Software still won't make you a cup of tea, but it sure can act as your personal assistant, your secretary, and your accountant.

And software now runs your car, which is said to be evolving into what's basically a large tablet on wheels. Software regulates the mixture of fuel and air injected into the cylinders of your car's engine, the timing of the ignition, and myriad other housekeeping tasks that used to be performed by mechanical devices.

Like butlers, software can, shall we say, embellish reality. Like a butler compliments his employer on his looks after the elaborate grooming for the dinner party (think Jeeves), so a car's software can be devious. But unlike butlers, who make their own decisions about whether and when to deliver a white lie, software has to be deliberately made deceitful by the people writing it.

This is a roundabout way of saying that Volkswagen is fully responsible (and has admitted as much) for installing less-than-honest software in some of its diesel models. The crooked code detects when the car is going through an emissions testing cycle, and adjusts various parameters to minimise emissions of NOx gas. These nitrogen oxides contribute to smog formation which is very bad for your lungs.

September 19, 2015

Wind Parks: Heavenly Vision or Eyesore?

Here is the vision for our zero-carbon future: Everybody will get around in electric cars. And all the electricity to run those cars will come from renewable sources, like solar and wind, both as good as zero carbon, once you start manufacturing them using energy from solar cells or windmills that you've already built.

Great idea, right?

Another source of renewable energy, hydropower, already provides more than 6 percent of the electricity consumed in the United States in 2015. They were built in a gung-ho time: first their construction gave lots of jobs. Once they were finished, they supplied electricity to growing cities as well as water to both cities and agricultural users. Not to mention the opportunity for water sports, in all those places that would normally not have enough water for a row boat, never mind yachts and water skis.

People love dams. But oddly enough, people don't love wind parks.

That's too bad, because wind is actually one of the most promising sources of clean energy. Already, at 60,000 megawatt (MW) installed capacity, it supplies 4 percent of the electricity used in the nation, and it's growing by leaps and bounds.

Back in 2008 wind already generated 52,000 gigawatt-hours of energy. A gigawatt (GW) is a billion Watts. But those 52,000 GWh is a tiny fraction of how much energy could potentially be generated by wind in the US: That number is mind-bogglingly large: 37,000,000 GWh, or 30 times the nation's entire current electricity consumption. Conveniently, the wind potential is reasonably well-distributed, peaking over a broad swath of the midwestern states as well as at the coasts.


So why aren't we buliding wind parks like mad?

September 6, 2015

Coal Is Amazing

The coal industry just badly tore a nail while desperately scrabbling for a handhold, trying to keep itself from sliding down a slippery slope to oblivion. Okay, that "oblivion" bit was wishful thinking on my part, coal will be with us for a while yet, for while it yields the dirtiest form of energy in so many ways, it's also the most plentiful and the cheapest.

But it is, as the Guardian points out, a sign of the coal industry's desperation that it feels the need for a charm offensive. The most recent is the "Coal Is Amazing" ad from the Minerals Council of Australia.

The ad features suggestive landscapes in shades of charcoal grey, with a soft-spoken female voiceover whispering seductive things about coal.

In response, Australians have taken to Twitter and subverted the #CoalIsAmazing hashtag with their own take, peppered with plenty of black humour. Or should that be anthracite humour? All the sarcasm stops have been pulled out in this reaction, the outpouring of disgust completely eclipsing the original intent of the hashtag.

Here are a few samples:


In response to "aesthetic objections" to wind farms:

September 5, 2015

How to Slash Transportation Emissions

California (who else?) is leading the nation in reducing carbon emissions. The state is gripped in a devastating drought that is made worse by the effects of climate change, and Governor Jerry Brown is proposing a suite of bold mandates. By 2030, the energy efficiency of buildings must be doubled; half the state's electricity is to come from renewable energy, and California's transportation must run on half the oil that it uses today.

Of these, the first two are pretty straightforward. Energy efficiency in buildings is such a good investment that it should be a no-brainer, since many measures pay for themselves in a few years. The renewable energy sector is already providing 20 percent of California's electricity, and solar energy in particular is now growing in leaps and bounds, so it's quite possible for the renewables portion to reach 50 percent in 15 years.

Everybody can see that those two goals are within reach. But the third goal, to reduce transportation use of petroleum by half, is becoming a contentious issue. In large part it's the reality that, in California like everywhere else in the nation, almost everybody depends on their car to get them places. Places they really need to go, like work. There are pockets with great public transport, but by and large the car is it.

The oil industry, whose profits come in large part from our wallets, which we open every time we stop at the gas station, has entered the "discussion", casting the proposal as a disaster and painting a near future in which gasoline is rationed, leading to long lines like during the oil shocks of the 1970s, and even the banning of minivans.

Of course they would. It's their profits at stake here, after all, and in the long term we're talking about their very existence that's on the line, if this kind of legislation spreads beyond California the way sensible legislation tends to do.

August 28, 2015

What to Do About Our Choked Roads?

There is a poster, produced by the city of Muenster in Germany, for their 2001 campaign to push for better space management of their roads. It compares, side by side, the space required for sixty people to commute to work by car, by bus and by bike.

A picture is worth a thousand words! A composite picture like this poster is worth more than three thousand words, which is great for me, as I have a few other things to say.

August 23, 2015

License-Plate Parking

I'm squinting at the parking meter, grateful that it's a quiet weekday morning and nobody is behind me waiting their turn to use it. That gives me a chance to take my time with the new routine, and to step back and admire the photovoltaic panel mounted on top like a minimalist umbrella.

But let's step back in time a bit: In the beginning, there was the mechanical parking meter. Putting in a quarter (or a lot of quarters, depending on where you are parking) made the steel arrow move to the desired parking time. The arrow sits in a glass window, so you can see it from both sides of the parking meter.

Parking meters lined up down the length of the street alwas reminded me of the scene in the Odyssey, where Penelope challenges her suitors to shoot an arrow through the eyes of twelve axe heads. Except parking meters were never that well lined up.

August 18, 2015

Urban Heat

"Urban Heat" sounds like a cool name for a band. Unfortunately it's nothing like that. In fact, it's not exactly cool. The "urban heat island" refers to the fact that the average temperature of a large city is higher than the surrounding rural area. Sometimes, quite a bit higher.

This is because a lot of energy is used in cities, for transportation, heating, cooling, lighting, running computers, washing machines, coffee makers and all the other machines that make modern life possible. And once that energy has done its job, it turns into heat.

And that's even before taking into account some other things that make it worse, like the lack of cooling trees, and the presence of dark asphalt and rooftops that are very good at absorbing heat from the sun. So there is more than fresh air that makes it so "refreshing" to get out of the city and into the countryside.

Urban heat is hard on cars. On a nice sunny day cities can be warmer than the area around it by up to 27F (15C). And if you park your car in the sun, it can get hotter still.

This hapless Megane got stuck in a confluence of unfortunate circumstances: Its owner had parked it in the sun, on an asphalt lot, in an Italian town, right when a heat wave hit it in August 2015. Oh, and the car was dark blue.

August 16, 2015

Not Enough Fear and Loathing in The Hague?

Since I shamelessly borrowed, for the title for this post, from Hunter Thompson's book "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", let me start by saying that I've actually never visited one of the Dutch "coffeeshops" where they don't sell coffee. So the photo below is not mine, I found it at a website called coffeeshopmenus.org. This menu is pretty, and it's from a coffeeshop called Tweede Kamer, perhaps in honour of the Lower Chamber of the Dutch Parliament that passed the policy that, while marijuana, like other drugs, is not legal in the Netherlands, possession of marijuana "for personal use" (up to 5 grams, if you must know) is not prosecuted.

This is probably the most famous example of the Dutch ability to see something without seeing it.

August 12, 2015

Car Ownership Is So Twentieth Century

"Surely you're taking the car?" says my dad.

"Umm no, we're going by bike."

It's summertime, we're in Delft, the Netherlands, where my dad lives, and we have this conversation every other day: My dad is forever offering us the use of his car. At first we thought he was being very generous. Then we started wondering, why the insistence that we not take the bike, or the train? You'd think that after we'd said No Thanks about two hundred times, he'd get the message. But he persists. And now that we have my aunt's car on loan, he's even offering us the use of her car, which is kinda funny if you think about it.

And that was what finally made me realise: he doesn't offer us the car because he think's it's less tiring than the bike (it is) or cheaper than the train (it is, for a family of four). He wants us to take the car because he thinks it's unseemly for a middle-class family not to move itself by car.

From the time that Henry Ford started making cars affordable (which was only a few years before my dad was born), car ownership has been the aspiration of everyone on the planet. Even if it was the Fiat 500 (tiny at the time it was introduced), you got a car as soon as you could afford it.

But even as millions of people in places like China and India, who are just arriving into the middle class, aspire to car ownership, those who have been in the middle class for a while are starting to look beyond.

[blue lline: new private cars]
[red line: car-share customers]

These people tend to live in high-density places where public transport is good, roads are friendly to pedestrians and cyclists, and where space is scarce. In Germany, for instance, the number of people signed up for car-share programs in a given year will soon be larger than the number of people buying new cars. It helps that the dominant car-share programs are offered by BMW and Daimler.

August 8, 2015

Electricity, cars, and Norway

This is the Geirangerfjord. It's one of the most popular sites to visit on Norway's coast, and it's not hard to see why. The surrounding mountains are stunningly beautiful. The walls are improbably steep. Which means that there aren't too many people living on those near-pristine slopes.

Photo by Frédéric de Goldschmidt

The fjord also illustrates how Norway can become a zero-carbon society.

July 29, 2015

Mark your calendar for People's Climate March 2015

The date is 29 November, 2015. It's a Sunday. Mark your calendars.

This is the day of the 2015 People's Climate March, the day before the COP21 climate talks start in Paris.

Here is our chance to tell world leaders that we care about our planet's climate, that we need it to remain livable, for us, for our children, for all who come after us, and for all creatures with whom we share this blue marble.

400,000 people walked in last year's Climate March. We stunned the world. In New York, so many people showed up that there was literally no end to the march: the organisers had to cancel the closing ceremonies because there was no time, and no space, for all of us to attend it.

The 2015 People's Climate March can be bigger than that.

July 24, 2015

Urban Design and Traffic

My kinswoman Danielle (I like her too much to think of her as my step-grandniece twice removed), knowing my interest in sustainable transportation, loaned me one of the books she used for the urban design studies which she recently completed.

I took it home and, as often happens with loaned books, spent a few days admiring the cover photo, and the heft of the book.

Then one day last week, I actually opened it. It hasn't let me go since. The very first random page I landed on had diagrams of residential neighbourhoods showing the layout of homes and roads, specifically designed so that there was a safe route to school from nearly each home, requiring at most one or two road crossings.

July 11, 2015

The Melon

The other evening, I came home in my aunt's old car, and fished a large melon from the passenger seat before carefully locking the car. The melon was football shaped with a nice heft and a beautiful pattern on its skin; my aunt had given it to me as part of a string of exchanges that would have impressed David Graeber, the anthropologist author of "Debt: the first 5,000 years", in which he describes various forms of social, non-monetary debt.

Here's the story.

Earlier this spring, my ancient dad had a small car accident. Nobody was hurt: he had caused his car to scrape by a sidewalk pole. I think the pole, a sturdy concrete thing, wasn't even hurt. Only the car needed body work.

June 26, 2015


"Crossover" is a car that's neither a sedan nor an SUV. The push for higher fuel efficiency has spawned a generation of vehicular mutts intended to look not as sedan-tary as a sedan, without the full frontal area that messes up the fuel efficiency.

Never mind that: for most families crossovers are still unnecessarily over-sized. I mean, my family of four fits, together with two cellos, in a Volkswagen Golf. With all doors and windows closed.

On the other side of the range, crossovers are also happening. The elderly and handicapped had long enjoyed mobility aids that are hybrids between bicycles and golf carts. Electric motorcycles are becoming increasingly popular among the well-heeled young.

And now there is a push for micro-cars. These are for getting yourself (and one friend; and perhaps one cello) from A to B, while keeping you dry. Some are barely more than golf carts, dressed up more nicely than what you need for 18 holes. Some are smaller, at the intersection of a golf cart, a minicar, and a motorcycle. Many are not highway worthy, but perfect for negotiating crowded cities. And charging is fast. Because of course they're electric.

If it's just you and one friend, why drive a bungalow with a windshield?



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May 21, 2015

Rise of Self-Driving Car Set to Make My Dream Come True

A while ago, I wrote about my ideal Car of the Future: it would be self-driving, not owned by me but available at my beck and call.

It seems that I am not the only one thinking of the ideal car that way. In fact, an analysis by Barclays indicates that the demand for such transportation will be high enough that the self-driving car will largely displace the privately owned car, and that within the next 25 years.

The report, quoted in a Financial Review article, "foresees four vehicle categories -- traditional cars and trucks driven by individuals for work or in rural areas; "family autonomous vehicles," owned by individuals and shared by a single family; "shared autonomous vehicles" that would be "robot taxis" summoned by smartphone; and "pooled shared autonomous vehicles" that accommodate multiple riders, like a bus or a van."

And get this: "Every shared vehicle on the road would displace nine traditional autos, and each pooled shared vehicle would take the place of as many as 18."

With this, the cost of mobility will go down drastically from what it is today, contributing to the popularity of driverless cars in a nice feedback loop.

CelloDad is totally ready for this. There are days that I suspect his dislike of driving is what made him marry his chauffeur - that was me. He's so looking forward to the day that he can be mobile without relying on me, or having to wrangle the shift stick I insist on having. So when the self-driving car comes into its own he will be one happy fellow.

But he is not the only one who will benefit from this new mode of transportation: Children too young to drive, the elderly who are starting to feel uncertain behind the wheel, especially at night, or the occasional car user will all be helped by the self-driving car.

Oh brave new world that hath such vehicles in it!



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May 20, 2015

Learning HOW to Talk About Climate Change

My friends, it is a wonderful time to be a life-long student! Right as my children are transitioning into independence and I'm past changing diapers or even providing for their every meal, massively open online courses, or MOOCs, are coming into their own. Not only that, they are being ofered for free by the best educational institutions partly as a public service, and partly to showcase their best professors.

You can find excellent online courses on statistics, Dante's Inferno, Python programming, growing award winning orchids - and climate change.

I've so far taken four courses on the science of climate change and climate policy. It wasn't always a piece of cake - I did sweat the problem sets on that MITx course given by Kerry Emanuel - but these came naturally to me as I am, at heart, a science geek.

But if I also want to be an effective climate communicator, I'd better get a handle on how to bring the message that we need climate action. There are online courses for that too! Right now, there are two ongoing, each with a different perspective.

One is "Making Sense of Climate Science Denial" at edX, given by a team led by John Cook of the University of Queensland (Australia), a premier climate communicator and the founder of the Skeptical Science website that offers climate science to the general public, as well as pointers on how to debunk the climate myths that are promulgated by the fossil-fuel funded deniers.

The course goes over the psychological barriers (in the minds of the audience) that climate communicators have to overcome before their message can be heard, and lays out the tricks used by the merchants of doubt to discredit climate scientists and to dampen public will for action.

It's a lively course, well produced and well presented, and the feedback so far has been very positive.

May 9, 2015

A Tesla on Your Wall?

Want a Tesla in your garage but can't afford the Model S? Don't despair. You can still own a piece of Tesla, in the form of its new Powerwall battery backup system.

You'd have to wait, though: Demand has taken even Tesla by surprise. The first 38,000 units have been reserved. That's the company's output until the middle of 2016. Seems like Tesla is fast establishing itself as the new Apple: They have the vision for introducing disruptive technology, and the industrial design talent that turns every Tesla product into an object of desire.

I mean, this thing is almost too pretty to be consigned to your garage. I don't even have a garage, but I would not at all mind having it on my living room wall. It would certainly make a statement.

April 5, 2015

Parking Craters

You might think a parking crater is a particularly large pothole in a parking lot. Or it could be a high-tech robotic device that puts you car in a box - a crate - and stores it neatly stacked among other cars.

But it's neither. According to Angie Schmitt of Streetsblog USA, who coined the term (so she would know), "a parking crater is a depression in the middle of an urban area formed by the absence of buildings" usually because there is a parking lot.

Because there are 3.5 parking spots for every car in the United States.

This is Milwaukee's parking crater

March 31, 2015

Make Your Children Vote

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

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

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

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

March 22, 2015

Why is Diesel More Expensive Than Gasoline?

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

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

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

March 13, 2015

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

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

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

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

Global Warming from 1880 to 2013.

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

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

You would think that would make the news.

March 9, 2015

Climate Change Achieves Voldemort Status

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

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

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

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

February 19, 2015

Fuel Economy of New Cars Increases

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

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

February 8, 2015

BlueTram: a novel charging mode for high-use EVs

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

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

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

February 1, 2015

Seven Tips for Teaching Your Teen to Drive

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

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

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

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

January 28, 2015

Teaching Your Teen to Drive a Stick

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

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

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

January 18, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 17, 2015

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

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

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