December 5, 2016

Thirty-five days

"Hey, I wonder who filled the tank?"

I'm so used to be the one taking care of the car that it comes as a pleasant surprise when someone else in the house takes on a task, even if it's a matter of pulling up at the gas station. What tipped me off was that the gas log we keep for the car seems to be missing a month.

I skipped a line to record the current fill, hoping to recover the sales slip from the previous fill. I'm a geek and love to record data - even if that data is just the gas usage on my car. At every fill, I write the date, the mileage, and the gallons put into the tank.

But it turns out nobody had taken a turn filling the tank but me. The last fill really did happen at the end of October, and I had simply skipped over the month of November. That makes 35 days between fills.

While I go around bragging that I fill my car's tank once a month, that actually only happens on quiet months. In October we had two sets of houseguests from overseas, and we took them to see the sights - in the car, of course, as that is part of the American experience. Between that and shuttling to the airport, I had to fill the tank every other week. So 35 days between fills feels good.

Yeah, I know: the world is getting off diesel. Our next car is probably going to be electric. Until then, I like the one that requres a fill only once a month.



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November 5, 2016

Jack Kerouac Goes to Standing Rock

These weeks, there is a big flurry of rideshares being organised to and from Standing Rock, to join the Standing Rock Sioux and other native American tribles who have gathered there to protest the construction of an oil pipeline.

In the old days (in the 1950s) a travel bureau could match you up with a car going in your general direction, or if you had a car, they could match you up with riders who can keep you company, and help out with driving and gas money.

These days, you use social media.

If Jack Kerouac wanted to go to Standing Rock today, he would go to a Facebook group called Standing Rock Rideshare which serves as an electronic travel bureau where you can offer or ask for rides.

November 2, 2016

Three Climate Change Documentaries to Watch on the Eve of the 2016 US Elections

America is between a rock and a hard place. The choices in the 2016 presidential elections are essentially between two intensely disliked candidates with more warts than you can reasonably expect their spin doctors to erase, and two candidates burdened by the history of Ralph Nader, who is widely believed to have lost Al Gore the 2000 election.

Actual policy has been given short shrift in this sorry election season, at least by the media. But that doesn't mean that voters aren't paying attention.

Amid all the scandals, the week before the election on November 8 has seen the release of no fewer than three documentaries on climate change.

The truth is that in this age of globalisation, "domestic" applies to affairs on the planetary scale. The jobs go where they are cheapest, whether that's China, Brazil or India. The price of oil and coal is determined by global demand. And the policies of all nations make a difference to our largest commons, the atmosphere that makes our planet so beautiful and so hospitable to life as we know it, in contrast to our bare moon which has no atmosphere (speaking both literally and figuratively).

Those policies are set by the people we elect to represent us. Which is why it's so important that everyone who has the right to vote, actually casts that vote.

We all have our priorities: There's the economy to consider, healthcare options, the cost of education, national security. Not many people use climate change as a yard stick by which to measure candidates, but if you think about it, you should. Because climate change has an impact on most of those things that people care about, and that sway their vote. Climate change will make healthcare more expensive. A single hurricane can wreak economic damage in the tens of billions of dollars. In the not too distant future, the upheaval caused by climate displacement will become a real national security issue. Addressing these needs policy on a national scale: they are not things you can influence by changing a light bulb in your living room.

And that is why these documentaries are released on the eve of the 2016 US elections. Which shows you that James Comey, the beleaguered director of the FBI, is not the only one with a sense of timing.


The Doubt Machine: Inside the Koch Brothers' War on Climate Science (30 mins) is a documentary produced by the Real News Network, that sets out to expose how the Koch brothers are working to expand their coal-based empire by manipulating the public's views on climate change. To rub that in: they are trying to tell you and me what to think, and they have been disquietingly successful.

The brothers are also throwing their vast wealth behind political campaigns, in a barely veiled attempt to buy government officials who will be friendly to their business. Nobody has run afoul of EPA regulations more than the companies controlled by the Koch brothers, and they would love to see the EPA crippled, if not dismantled altogether.

Or as the climate scientist Michael Mann says, "They have polluted our public discourse; they have skewed media coverage of climate change; they have paid off politicians."

The documentary is narrated by Emma Thompson, whose voice manages to convey controlled anger even as she goes through the factual narration.

The Doubt Machine: Inside the Koch Brothers’ War on Climate Science from The Real News Network on Vimeo.


Before The Flood (90 mins) is Leonardo DiCaprio's powerful and deeply personal account of climate change. DiCaprio talks to climate scientists, politicians, even Pope Francis, on his quest to get to the bottom of the causes and effects of climate change, and the solutions.

September 25, 2016

Getting Ripped Off At The Pump

There's an ongoing debate about whether or not your car really needs premium gasoline (for which you pay premium prices). The American Automobile Association has done helpful research that says that, unless the car is built for premium gasoline, you don't need the more expensive fuel. It's a waste of your money. Apparently Americans collectively pay more than $2bn too much every year for premium gasoline our cars don't need.

Photo by Naotake Murayama

But never mind that: the discussion around super unleaded masks a much bigger rip-off: the one you commit to when you buy your car.

September 24, 2016

Best Ever Car Window Cleaner

My car is now a few years old, and has lost the new car smell. Even so, at the end of the summer there is still a film on the inside of the car windows. It could be residual outgassing from synthetic components still depositing itself on all the inside surfaces, even though you can't smell it any more. It could be simply being on the road.

Whatever it is, it looks kinda disgusting, and what's more, it's dangerous, as the film lights up when hit by sunlight, so you can't look through the windshield.

I didn't really feel like using Windex again, nor was I in the mood for vigorous scrubbing with dishwashing liquid. Internet to the rescue! There's bound to be someone who has figured out a safe way to clean new car gook off your windshield.

It's fun to read people's homemade solutions (no pun intended) and try to figure out the chemistry of what makes it work. I settled on a recipe from Crunchy Betty, who is seriously into clean: clean food, clean toiletries, clean house. By "clean" I mean chemically clean.

This one has water (that's safe to drink); rubbing alcohol (that's not safe to drink but you can handle it with your bare hands); vinegar (I put that in my food regularly); and corn starch (I bake with that). I like it when a cleaner contains only stuff I have in my kitchen anyway, and is free of ingredients I can't pronounce.

September 16, 2016

Typhoon Meranti Bikes

Warmer oceans spawn stronger hurricanes and typhoons: typhoon Meranti is a Category 5 typhoon (and may have been a Category 6 if such a category existed). After battering parts of Taiwan it made landfall in the Chinese province of Fujian. Wind speeds are down from the peak of up to 370 kph (230 mph) but still high enough to wreak plenty of havoc.

Photos are slow to emerge, but the one that caught my eye is of a square in the city of Xiamen: in the middle of the square is a large heap of bicycles that have presumably been blown over by the high winds.

I find it noteworthy for two reasons: apparently in this city of 3.5 million the bicycle is a viable mode of transportation (unlike in, say, Shanghai where they have largely been displaced by cars). As usual, I'm struck by the sheer number of bicycles that can be parked in a medium-sized square. If all those bike owners had come by car, that square would have been hopelessly snarled in car traffic 24/7, and nobody can play, chat, and socialise the way people do on car-free squares.

I'd say that Xiamen is not behind the times, but at the cutting edge of the transportation transition: countless cities and towns are re-thinking their roads and taking them back from the dominance of the car.

June 26, 2016

Transportation Transition

Did you miss me?

CelloMom has been on hiatus for a few months, following an illness in the family. I've taken my brother's advice to heart, which is to be kind to myself, and decided to let the blog go for the duration. I'm going to re-start slowly. But there's plenty to be excited about.

Even before Volkswagen's disastrous gambit with the diesel engines, the world was already starting to shift toward electric vehicles.

Being CelloMom, I am not an early adopter: far from it. The growing pains of the early electric car made me nervous. But it's not quite so early any more, and as governments push for a fully electric national fleet by 2025 (e.g. Netherlands, Norway) or 2030 (Germany, India), and carmakers are responding by putting more EVs on dealer lots, the diesel to electric transition is now underway.

April 4, 2016

2016 is the year the EV stops being a boys' toy

In the first weekend of April 2016, the seeds that Tesla Motors has sown with its über-desirable electric cars with their über-pricetags, germinated in an explosive way with the pre-sales of its moderately priced Model 3.

In a matter of days, a quarter milion people had signed up for a car that is more than a year away from being built, in a mass release of pent-up desire that has been carefully built ever since the Model S hit its pre-sales.

February 9, 2016

Super Bummed About Super Bowl Commercials

I heard that half the people watching the Super Bowl do it for the commercials rather than the game. Where it used to be that the big game was the debut for the commercials, now it's more like the pinnacle: pre-game there is hype, not of the product but of the product hype. People get primed all over social media to go see those ads. There are teasers, trailers, reviews. We're talking a 30-60 second ad!

It's like something out of Borges, this recursive hype.

Maybe marketing managers are spending so much money hyping the ad, that there isn't much left for the production of the ad itself. Or maybe the long recession is taking its toll. Whatever the case may be, the lineup of ads at Super Bowl 50 is as lackluster as the game itself was pronounced to be.

You know it's bad when you watch the ads, all in a row, on a website that helpfully provides a ranking - and you have trouble figuring out which way the ranking goes, whether Number 1 is on top or at the bottom.

I used to have fun snarking over some of the car commercials in the week following the game, but I have decided to skip it this year. The ads are not worth even stepping on. And I've also come to realise that I'm not going to be part of the machine that perpetuates the hype after the game. For free. No way.

So I'm going on an advertising strike. More than that, I am striking back.

I'm doing that by directing you to the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. Check them out: they have a wealth of resources on how companies are squeezing your children for all they're worth to make a buck off of them, and how to get your kids away from that. Also great for grownups!

CCFC is the organiser of the annual Screen Free Week. Don't wait, start planning for it now.



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February 7, 2016

Two-wheeled Uber

You know Uber, right? Started in San Francisco (where else?), you can now hail Uber drivers in major cities on all continents. They're even in China, even though Didi Kuaidi is giving it a run for its money, offering buses and chauffeur service along with ridesharing. Its Didi Hitch service is expected to pick up quite a few riders over the Chinese New Year holiday.

Uber also operates in Jakarta, but is plagued by the same issue afflicting every car driver: the legendary traffic jams. It is not unusual for riders to request a stop and treat their drivers to a meal so both can resume the trip without the growling stomach.

Enter Gojek.

Gojek is like Uber, but the driver pulls up in front of your door on a motorcycle. Motorcycles are nimble and can slip around the cars. The driver gives you the trademark green helmet to wear, which makes you not only their paying customer but also their involuntary mobile billboard, and you climb on the back.

Like Uber, it's a door-to-door service, you reserve and pay online, and you can leave ratings on the drivers. Recently they have introduced the woman-friendly option of asking for a female driver, which is important in this Muslim country. And for foodies (or the plain lazy), you can order a Gojek ride for your lunch or dinner: the driver picks up your order at the restaurant, pays for it, and you pay for both the food and its ride. They also have more conventional courier service.

January 31, 2016

Reclaiming Cities From The Car

Something gives me the feeling we're living in watershed years. Fossil fuel companies are smarting. That's nothing new: fossil fuels are prone to booms and brutal busts through their history. What is new is the relentless rise of what used to be called "alternative" energy, but what is set to become the energy source: Renewables are slated to be the main game way sooner than you may think.

In another realm, the power of the nation state is waning. You only have to look at trade agreements like TTIP and the TPP to see evidence of the rising power of transnational corporations. And when coal kings put a billion dollars into an election, you can see how so many have proclaimed the death of democracy.

But there's pushback. Most notably, mayors have decided to not wait for their national governments to start moving toward a zero-carbon future. They are supporting each other through collectives such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, the Compact of Mayors and other organisations.

And they are moving to circumvent the national gridlock.

In one notable example, they are starting to reclaim the city streets from the dominance of the car. Cars and car culture have managed to - let's be blunt - ruin our cities. Downtowns are clogged with traffic, to the point that ambulances and firetrucks can't do their live-saving work. Tailpipes emit a cocktail of toxic fumes that are a danger to public health. Highways have fractured cities into divided neighbourhoods. Cities stink, in more than one way.

And yet, cities are attracting more and more people. Accomodating them requires thinking out of the box: in particular, mayors and city councils need to think outside the box with four wheels..

January 22, 2016

Smog kills

There are places that are traditionally visited by a dense fog so often, that printers capitalise on it and offer tourists a postcard which is all grey with the words "Greetings From X" emblazoned on it.

It's funny when it's fog we're talking about (except, of course, if the postcard is actually appropriate for your vacation). It is not so funny when it's smog. Because smog kills. It's pretty bad when it's a veil that's thrown over your city on hot days. But when it's so thick you can't see through it, it is a real killer. Who needs cigarettes? All you have to do is go out for a breath of air, as the Tom Lehrer song goes.