December 14, 2018

Mainstream news and the elusive truth

When Jeremy Clarkson appeared on the automotive scene, he was a breath of fresh air. He said it the way it was. He made a name for being the bad boy of car reviewers, and he often had a point. Loads of people read his pieces, because they were funny, and different from the polite (=boring) reviews that were the norm.

But all that happened in a distant past that is as gray as Clarkson's hair is now. As he became more famous, the reviews started to lose their edgy feel. In 2002, Clarkson became the host of a wildly popular tv show, Top Gear. It had sponsors.

And that, really, was the beginning of the end.

Because it's okay for a kick-ass upstart car journo to make snide comments about the car you were reviewing. But if you're too controversial on a large-following show, your sponsors might balk. Worse, they might walk out on you. If you believe this has zero bearing on how a man presents his show, I've got a bridge to sell you.

I mean, it's okay for a CelloMom to compare a Lexus SUV to a pregnant Honda Civic, or to remark that to me, seeing the 2019 Mercedes GLC brings to mind the word "obese", and prompts a mental note to eat less -- but I'm just a lone blogger writing on my own time, sponsored by nobody and answering to none but my own demons.

Photo by Daniel Blume

And this is why we all need to look critically at our news sources. I'm not talking about the fake news of Fox (which is not a news outlet but a propaganda machine). I'm talking about the "mainstream" media, the well-respected shows and dailies, the ones you don't mind name-dropping.

Let me give an example. Because I think and read about climate change a lot, I have learned that social equity is inextricably linked to the issue of climate. So I'm foraying into a rich and diverse world of writings by people who are not "my" people. I'm painfully wrapping my head around economic issues, for instance, a departure from the science articles I'm familiar with. But going beyond that, I'm also reading pieces written by Black people, feminists, indigenous people, socialists, and others who are somehow outside the "mainstream". It's not always comfortable reading, but I think it's essential. For one, I'm discovering - okay, I'm a geek, but DUH - that "mainstream" America is white. It tends to live in large cities, tends to be pretty well off, or anyway well enough. And it is blind to the experience of everyone who is outside its own relatively small demographic.

I've been thinking about that saying attributed to the Cheyenne: "Don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins". That makes sense: "don't judge". But what about writing? After all, we each write from our own perspective, and that perspective is shaped by who we are. Merely interviewing someone will not make you truly understand what they're saying, because there is a rich, deep, and quite invisible set of layers underneath, of personal, family, and social history and meaning, and the words they are saying are built on all that richness. Some things you wouldn't even think of writing about, simply because they are outside your sphere of experience.

So I'm exploring more. While certain news outlets can be relied on to produced solid reliable pieces, and I support more than one with my subscription dollars, I am also looking to follow particular authors, people I find I can learn from in every article. These days, I read Hiroko Tabuchi, John Sutter, Pilita Clark, Noah Smith, Simon Kuper. But also Kate Aronoff, David Graeber, Angie Schmitt, Emily Atkin, David Roberts, Umair Haque, Thea Verkade, Rebecca Solnit. And Caitlin Johnstone, who got me thinking about all this with her article on how mainstream media follows the establishment agenda. I am enlightened by their writing, delighted, angered, surprised – and humbled; certainly I am enriched.

This is a choice that is ours to make. Here is another example: Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms like to present you a timeline that is determined by their algorithms to be "most interesting" to you. But I have found that the algorithms invariably give me a narrower and narrower view of the people I follow, and that I end up walking the same deeply grooved paths over and over. Not to mention vulnerable to manipulation. But when I over-ride the algorithm and make my timeline show everyone I follow, the timeline is much more lively, and interesting. Because hey, those people were chosen by me, not by an algorithm written by a team of geeks who are certainly not me.

Try both: let your timeline reflect your true interests. And let your mind be widened by thinkers and writers who are not in the mainstream. It may take you out of your comfort zone. And that is where growth happens.



You may also like:
1. Can you trust MPG specs?
2. How to buy a gas sipper for less
3. How much horsepower do you need?


June 9, 2018

Three Ways to Lower Your Car Payment

In the fight about affordable housing, which seems to rage everywhere, it is often forgotten that it's not only the price of the house that needs to be considered, but also everything else that comes with home ownership, like the real estate tax rate, and the heating costs. One large expense post that tends to get overlooked is whether or not you need a car to get to and from your house.

This spring, the average price of a car in the United States reached $34,000, up from about $30,000 only six years ago. And because interest rates are up, the average monthly car payment is now $535. That's before the insurance and the fuel. Who can afford that? Not, in turns out, the typical family.

Those who live where the public transport is good, don't need a car. But if you must have a car (like, to get to the job that pays for the loan of the car that you need to get to the job), there are a few tricks to make it hurt less.

1. Get the smallest car you fit in for everyday use
Be honest with yourself about what you really need: if you're a couple with a toddler, you don't need the minivan or the SUV. For the occasional grandparents' visit, rent a minivan: unless they visit every week, that will be less expensive than owning one (and even cheaper if the grandparents rent one!).

2. Get the smallest engine you can buy for your chosen car
Dealers like to tout the "benefits" of a large engine. Take their sales pitch as just that: a sales pitch. The real benefits are to their bottom line. You don't need 220HP to get yourself around town; that sort of horsepower only feeds into racing car fantasies. A smaller engine costs less at purchase, and less to feed.

3. Good things come to those who wait.
In this case, cheap things. US car dealers like to sell you from the stock they have on their lot. They have already paid for this stock and they want to move it as quickly as possible. This means that you buy whatever they think "most people" will buy. But if you have time to wait, you can really make out.

Here's what you do: You order your car from scratch: the bare car. Then you add only the features you like or need, and no more. Buying a car this way is cheaper because it doesn't come pre-loaded with features like most dealer-lot cars. All those features may be "standard" - but they are not free! You may have to persuade your dealer that they will do this for you. And you do have to wait a few months (depending on how far away your car is manufactured) but then you get the car to your exact specifications: If you want leather seats but not air conditioning, you can have that. This is how most cars are still ordered in Europe.

My current car was delivered with larger wheels. I didn't want larger wheels, which lower the fuel efficiency. I negotiated that they would replace them with regular wheels. They look like donuts. That's fine by me: they're saving me gas money and emissions at every mile. The dealer cut me a check for $1200, the difference in price of the wheels.

Oh, and keep an eye on those electric cars: manufacturers are rolling out new models, and they're getting more affordable.



You may also like:
1. Can you trust MPG specs?
2. How to buy a gas sipper for less
3. How much horsepower do you need?


February 2, 2018

The car ad you won't see on the Super Bowl

I went to see the teasers for the car ads that companies are sending to the Super Bowl. There wasn't that much that's memorable.

Here is an ad that is.

It's part of Sierra Club's Forward Not Backward campaign that is calling out Ford for opposing a tightening of the fuel efficiency standards.

I think it's memorable. Of course, lots of people have helpfully pointed out that the Ford Model T only got maybe 13-20mpg. I suppose they could have chosen a Ford Thunderbird, a tank of a car that in its 1973 incarnation got all of 8.5mpg. But the Thunderbird is still in production (a bit smaller now, it gets 18/24 mpg cty/hwy), and not nearly as cute or as obviously throwback as the model T.