June 19, 2006

The price of good driving karma

I help organize a conference on atmospheric chemistry each June, and every year one of the guests is a very talented scientist from Ford Motor Company. He gives the greatest talks. For example last year I learned that the 'discount rate' is a powerful economic incentive that confines business planning to the near future. The discount rate means that the promise of me paying you a dollar may be worth a dollar now, or 75 cents if I promise to pay you a year from now (how do you know you will still be able to find me or that I won't be broke?), or a penny if I promise to pay you in 10 years (we could forget or may no longer be here). It is not easy to define the 'true' discount rate but one guess is the Fed's prime rate, and another is a textbook that says that businesses typically use a discount rate of 15% in their planning. A discount rate much higher than 1% means you can 'safely' ignore phenomena such as climate change that have long-term consequences; economics says there is no need to take preventive action. These timescales are not part of the business culture.
A couple of years ago he told us about the history of vehicle emissions. He showed the emissions data from Ford vehicles, starting with the Models T and A, and extending to the current day. Did you know that the Ford F150 pickup gets the same gas mileage as the Model T? Of course it emits much less carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides and the performance is better, but still...
This year he happened to mention an interesting product, Terrapass. You can go to their website and type in the model and year of your car and how much you drive. The program calculates how much carbon dioxide your car emits, and then you can choose to purchase a certificate for taking that amount of carbon out of the atmosphere, by investing in clean energy, biofuels and industrial efficiency. I learned that our 1992 Saab 9000 emits about 8000 pounds of CO2 a year (!). I was so caught by the idea that I forked over 40$ to have this mass of emissions removed. My receipt declares, Be it known unto all kindreds, tongues and people, nations, principalities and governments, the above listed individual has offset this car's CO2 emissions for a year and thereby lays claim to all the privileges associated therewith, i.e., peace of mind, satisfaction and general good driving karma.

New feelings

Tim McGuire was able to identify the exact moment when he knew he was living in a new era-- it occurred when he as watching a rock video made by some soldiers in Iraq. I had a similar experience last week at a ceremony at my son's school. In Sweden it is traditional to end the school year with some songs, speeches and balloons. The musical selection could include for example a classic old psalm about how the summer flowers are blooming. This year four fifth-grade boys took the stage and played 'Love is All Around' by Wet Wet Wet. Guitar, bass, drums and singer, Hansenesque, the singer made my skin crawl with a rendition that was pure, beautiful and just a little spooky. Then five fifth grade girls got up to sing a song making fun of one of their teachers. They had written their own text to go with the melody of The Ramone's 'Ramona'. Its a brave new world.

June 01, 2006


Here is a picture of a transmission built by Mercedes. I found a great description of how these babies work at this website.

Tim, I had these transmission terms running around in my mind after reading the back of a Hero Truck trading card I found on the kitchen counter. I think the most gears that a truck can have is 18, and that most have a basic pattern of 9 gears-- the upper ones can then be 'split' into two at highway speed. I can't tell you why my father wanted a pizza from New York City or why they wouldn't deliver.

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