Toyota Eats GM

Now, normally when I begin a blog post with {something} eats {something else}, the reader can expect something of a serious rant ahead. Not this time. For once, I’m glad {something} is eating {something else}.

The issue is this: I hate GM. I absolutely despise them. I think they may very well be the second most evil automaker on the planet (the first is Ford, number one purveyor of climate-demolishing SUVs and heavy trucks). I’m sure most environmentally-conscious people who have seen the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, as I have, will agree with me.

Back in the late 1990s, California decided that it wanted to have a quota of at least a certain number of vehicles that produced zero emissions. None. Not one gram of carbon and nitrogen pollutants. And such vehicles existed, most noticeably in the guise of the EV-1.

The EV-1 is the only automobile that I will admit ever drooling over (after its demise, since I didn’t learn about it until I saw the movie in 2006). It was stylish, it was fast, it was modern, and most importantly, it was electric. Plug it into the wall at night, unplug it when you wanted to drive. Three hundred miles on a single charge-up. It was fast, too, easily outpacing the gas-guzzling monsters we’re now used to.

Well, to all those who were fond of them, GM said: “Too bad.” Under pressure from oil companies, auto-manufacturers (who depend on replacement parts for revenue, which they would have lost on the EV-1, since its drivetrain was so simple), the bastards folded. Since they had only provided EV-1s for lease, they could recall them any time they wanted. And they did. They towed them away, crushed them, and ground them into little shreds in an industrial Cuisinart. They did the same with some other electric cars, and even with a few gasoline-powered economy cars.

Which brings us to the main point of my story, namely, the reason I’m happy Toyota is now moving to overtake GM in sales. The reason is simple: I loathe and despise GM for taking the car of my dreams off the market before I got my chance at one. Well, thank goodness they’ve got some competition. And their competition is one of the few automakers on this planet that can legitimately claim to be moderately less destructive than most.

Of course, it’s not all good. Even if Toyota eats all the other automakers in America, we’ll still have the problem of gasoline dependence. Hybrids are not enough. Ethanol is certainly not enough. Hydrogen? Decades down the road, probably. Even if it isn’t, there are still the safety concerns. Until we can perfect super-clean fuels, electric was probably the best substitute for gasoline. But Big Oil would never allow that…

Well, it looks like it turned into a rant anyway. Oh well. Here, have a link: more information about the EV-1. It is Wikipedia, but at least the pictures have some chance of being accurate…

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Green and Dopamine: The Money-Pleasure Connection

A few months ago, I was reading Read Montague’s Why Choose This Book (about how human beings make decisions, and not a bad read, as far as popular neuroscience goes), and I cam to quite a fascinating realization: People like money because money foreshadows pleasure.  I’ll try to keep things as straightforward as possible, but here goes:

In the brain, pleasure, reward, and the significance of events are all linked to levels of dopamine, which is one of the brain’s chemical transmitters. Dopamine levels increase in order to “cement” memories of pleasurable things, which is why we seek out such things so actively. Dopamine is also used, however, to predict pleasurable stimuli. For example, say you take a dog, and ring a bell. You then present it with food, or some other form of treat. Repeat this many times. After a while, the pleasure sensations that the dog got from the treat will be transferred to the event of hearing the bell. In other words, an event that reliably predicts reward will become a reward.  And if you insert another event in there, say, flashing a red light, then the pleasure will be transferred to the new stimulus, and so on.

And that brings us back to money. From an early age, humans learn that every time they spend money, they will get something they desire. The pleasure of getting that thing is then transferred to the spending of money. Then, this pleasure response is transferred to getting money. Which is, in my mind, anyway, a fairly good explanation of why people are so damned greedy and possessive with money. It might also explain things like compulsive gambling and compulsive shopping: the pleasure signal gets linked to going to the casino or the mall, and human beings have a reliable habit of seeking out pleasure.

And, to extend this idea further, consider addiction. When someone consumes an addicting drug, dopamine levels rise (cocaine is especially bad in this regard, since it directly raises dopamine levels, by keeping the body from re-absorbing it and recycling it). After a while, as in the dog example or the money example above, the pleasure of the drug itself is transferred to buying the drug, getting the drug, et cetera. And from this, it can be fairly reasonably assumed that compulsive gambling and other such compulsive behaviors are true addictions, a concept which has been in doubt in the past.

Just more food for thought…

(PS: Thanks to Read Montague; some of his book was tedious, but if nothing else, the money-dopamine connection was enlightening)

New Car, Continued

Well, I’ve visited a few dealerships in my area, and it looks like the car I’m most likely to end up with is the Toyota Yaris.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I hate all car commercials, and doubly-so the bizarre and completely nonsensical ads for the Yaris, but after looking at them and test-driving one, it seems that I’m hooked. It’s quite a fuel-efficient car, and I’ve heard many good things about it, and after the test-drive, I’m afraid that I’m going to have to sound like an advertiser, but it’s smooth and has plenty of get-up. What really sold me, though, is its compactness and its almost European hatchback look:

So, it appears that I’ll finally be able to cut back on my own contribution to the slow destruction of the planet. I’ll also finally be getting rid of all the odd looks people gave me when I drove up in my grandmotherly white station wagon. Maybe I’ll even be able to keep this car reasonably clean. (My Volvo got so dusty at one point that its color changed from blinding white to “eggshell.”)

My only concern is what will happen if I get into an accident with one of those horrid, massive SUV’s out there:

Investigator: What’s happened here?

Police Officer: A Hummer ran the red light and hit that little hatchback.

Investigator: Wow…looks like a pancake.

Police Officer: Yeah.

Investigator: What’s with that fuzzy soccer ball?

Police Officer: That’s the driver’s head.

(Side Note: Doesn’t the little antenna sticking out of the top make it look a bit like a remote-control car?)

New Car

Well, the automotive hospital has finally pulled the plug on my poor, dying car. Its mechanical organs will now be divvied up and transplanted into Volvos in serious need of parts. I guess that little red organ-donor heart on my driver’s license didn’t just apply to me…

And thus, the search begins for my new automotive consort. I will be journeying out into the desert of the Urban Sprawl in search of something less bulky, something more economical; something with more curves than my erstwhile Volvo. Perhaps a member of the race of fair Toyotas…

Well, that’s about as much metaphor as I can handle. The long and the short of it: I’m buying a new car. I’m looking at a Toyota, which means I’ll be driving a modern car for the first time in my life, as my ex-car was a 1998. I’m hoping for something that doesn’t have those damned hard-to-maintain leather seats.

So, soon, my new consort and I will be one, and I will once again drive horizon to horizon in an endless journey…sorry… couldn’t help it…

Just a slice of my life…

Pass or Fail

While I was reading the University newspaper a few days ago, I came across an interesting idea: the pass/fail grading system. This system is used in several nations, and seems to me that it would be quite a good idea to implement in the United States.

Here’s how it works: if your score on an assignment is greater than a certain value (usually fifty or sixty percent), then you get a mark of “pass.” Otherwise, you get a “fail.” Under this system, all the pressure of and concern about numerical grades is lifted.

Now, perhaps twenty-five or fifty years ago, this system would not have differed much in its social impact from the numerical grading system already in place. But we are living in the age of obsessiveness, and I’ve watched many of my personal friends go through torturous times thinking and obsessing about these numbers that “determined their futures.” I don’t think it’s a particularly good idea to pre-burn-out America’s students, and cause them to fear and despise grading periods. All that does is make our education issues even worse.

And people wonder why Americans are lagging academically. (More on this later).

Fermilab Makes a Comeback

As usual, Reality does its absolute best to make me look like a complete fool. Just a few days after I wrote my post after the coming obsolescence of Fermilab, it seems they’ve managed to pull off one last great find.

Some people know that there are six varieties of quark (two of these varieties make up the particles we’re used to, except the electron, which is actually a lepton, I think). We’ve managed to observe five of them conclusively, but the rather heavyset top quark has a particle-accelerator signature which looks similar to that of some other collision traces. Well, the folks at Fermilab think they’ve finally figured out how to conclusively produce one.

By exploiting the weak-force interactions between electrons and positrons (I think that’s what they were), the Fermilabians managed to create something that they’re fairly certain is a top quark. This brings us one step closer to the Higgs Particle, which is theorized to be the reason all particles have mass (that may be why they call it the God Particle, although when I think of godlike powers, conferring inertia is not exactly at the top of the list). Well, Fermilab, I wish you luck! They just might be able to beat CERN to this one.

Side Note: I don’t know why more young people don’t get interested in physics, especially particle physics. “Hey kids, why don’t you come work at our particle accelerator. You get to smash things together really hard, and get paid for it!”

Death by Insurance

Well, the worst possible outcome of my little accident last Wednesday has come true: my insurance agent has decided to total my car. Apparently there was some sort of frame damage that would hardly have made it worth fixing.

This has brought my attention to just how attached I was to my old car. It was the car I learned to drive in. It’s the only car that I’ve driven for any real amount of time. More than I realized, that car had become, for all intents and purposes, part of the family.

I suppose that’s why it feels like I’ve had a death in the family. It is surprisingly depressing to realize that I will never drive that car again, that I will never sit in that seat, that I will never see that car in its original condition again.

Now, I’m aware of how strange it is to get torn up about losing a car. It’s true, nobody was hurt in the accident; it’s true, we’re getting a nice check from the insurance company that will probably make a good down payment on a new car, but that doesn’t really help. There was something about my old Volvo. I had a relationship with it. It was mine. There weren’t a whole lot of other Volvo station wagons on the road. Now, in all probability, I’ll be stuck with a damned generic Toyota, with no soul, and no identity. I’ll blend very well into the background. I’ll have to learn how to find it in a parking lot, something I never even had to consider before.

There are a few bright spots in all of this, though. For one, I’ll finally have a more fuel-efficient car that I don’t have to fill up so often. I’ll have a brand new car that doesn’t have all the arthritis-like age-related problems. This has also brought to light just how human our cars can seem sometimes. I actually feel like somebody I know has died, and it bothers me. After all, I’ve reacted rather stoically to every death in my family, but this actually got to me. It seems a bit strange, I know.

I suppose that confirms it, then: I’m a weirdo.

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