Just Above Sunset
July 11, 2004 - A Debate on Virtue and Exploitation

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Who knew that every time my quiet and mild-mannered friend, the doctor who live nears Boston, drives into Cambridge the folks hanging around the Harvard Bookstore (the CO-OP) point at her and call her hip and “Hollywood” … This week we see an explanation. And the item also contains an interesting comment on how the political right considers the moral question of cheeseburgers.

See It's square to be hip?
Ellen Goodman - Washington Post Writers Group - 07.09.04

Here’s the set-up:


BOSTON - Over decades of driving, my cars have been called many things. Slovenly, for one. Decrepit, for another. The single adjective that has never been used to describe a car of mine is “hip.” Trust me on this.

As a confessed car slob, my sole interest in the motor is that when I turn it on, it will go. Every 10 years or so, when I reluctantly enter a salesroom, I am more interested in cup holders and seat warmers than in anything remotely motor trendy.

Then, a few months ago, we bought a hybrid. This car has a name - Prius - so unracy that it sounds vaguely like a pill for erectile dysfunction. But it not only has two cup holders and optional seat warmers, it has a gas engine, an electric motor and a dashboard screen that tells me exactly how many miles per gallon I am getting every single obsessive second that I have my eyes on the screen instead of the road.

It also has this nifty, if unsettling, way of going absolutely dead silent at the stoplight as if I just stalled out. And, of course, it gets close to 60 miles to the gallon.

Now, for the first time, a car of ours has been accused of being “hip.” And I do mean accused.


So how could this be hip?

Goodman explains that folks with these particular cars are “being typecast as granola-crunching, tree-hugging enviro-snobs. Not only did a New York Times writer sneeringly call our vehicles ‘hip,’ another mocked us as ‘virtuous.’ A third suggested that we were driving with moral superiority, ‘the automotive equivalent of corrective shoes.’”  [ That last comment would be from Dan Neil of The Los Angeles Times previously discussed here in What would Roland Barthes drive? - in the Feburary 23rd issue. ]

Goodman does point out Susan Sarandon arrived at the Oscars in her own nice new Prius – just a few blocks down the street here in Hollywood at the Kodak Theater. No black limousine for her! And perhaps it is true that that driving a hybrid was a way of saying, “I'm more intelligent than the next guy.”

Did Goodman want to be hip and Hollywood?

No. Goodman just felt all sorts of “liberal guilt” as it were -


… Every time I pulled up to a gas station in the wake of 9/11, I started thinking about our Middle Eastern “friends” and the Madrasa schools they support with my gas-guzzling dollars. Then too, there was global warming, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the fact of Americans using 10 times more gas than the global norm, the bright pink Victoria's Secret Hummer parked outside my office, and you get the idea.

If the car is to the environment as the cigarette is to the body, if I'm not about to go cold turkey -- or cold bike -- why not go hybrid? A New Yorker cartoon said all we needed to know about the technology: “It runs on its conventional gasoline-powered engine until it senses guilt, at which point it switches over to battery power.”


That about sums it up.

But Goodman hits on what is so strange these days of conservative Republican dominance in matters of what is the right things to do - anyone who thinks about doing any good becomes a do-gooder, which is bad. As she says, doing the right thing is tagged as the left thing, which is the wrong thing.


It all began when folks sensitized to race or gender issues were politically corrected for being “politically correct.” Now everything you say, do, or drive gets politicized, polarized and stereotyped.

If you follow the religious line of moral values you get inscribed in The Bill Bennett “Book of Virtues.” If you follow the line of environmental values, you get mocked as “virtuous.” If you eat cheeseburgers, you're one of the guys. If you buy organic greens, you're looking down on one of the guys.

This time, the image remakers may be on the wrong side of the highway, since hybrids are wait-listed and Hummers are discounted. Arnold Schwarzenegger himself has talked of turning one of his Hummers green -- though a hybrid Hummer is a little like a low-carb Krispy Kreme.

But I am sure there's a conventional automaker somewhere with a book called: “Real Men Don't Drive Hybrids.”


I think I saw that somewhere or other.

She has some suggests to fight back - have every hybrid sold with a NASCAR sticker on the bumper. We could change the name from Prius to Pitbull.

Well, my doctor friend took the bait:


I frequently forget to go to the gas station to fill up my little Prius tank - the car drinks so little fuel. Then there is the stunned look of passersby when the car starts to roll away from the curb - completely silent. No, it's not a runaway car - it's merely electric powered at low speeds. Gets lots of torque that little motor. But for a brief instant, before the pedestrian realizes what's happening, there's panic in their eyes. What! A car without a thundering throbbing engine? Where'd the fumes from the tailpipe go? Not only that, I tempt fate with a Darwin fish to the left of the rear license plate. I might be pushing "hip" a bit too far to the left. But I'm happy to report that the most money I've spent on a fill from empty is $20.78. I think I'll take the kids out now for a bit of pizza in that "pitbull" car of mine and spend all that extra money I've saved on gas. That "hip to be square" silver Prius, that seats five, plus a Labrador Retriever. Here we go!


Oh, this is a Darwin Fish.

A "Darwin Fish"

Rick from Atlanta chimed in -


Good for Ellen Goodman!

But I am a bit taken back that she says her Prius gets about 60 mpg, while our Civic Hybrid has only been getting about 40 mpg. Still, I love the part when the motor goes dead at stop signs and such!

And I do think it's about time that anyone who calls anyone else "politically correct" should be automatically labeled a "redneck snob". Not that it would shut them up, but at least they'd get a label, which I for one think is only fair.

"Redneck snob!" If there is no such thing in the real world, there ought to be.


Yep. And as labels go, that is a fine one.

Then Ric Erickson in Paris jumped in -


Hold on to your hats, there's bad news for these cheesy hybrid monkeys.

Germany, which had perfected synthetic gas back in WWII - where'd it go? - ever wonder why? - is now making bio-gas, and hydro-gas, which is being used in real cars, like mid-sized Mercedes sedans and BMWs. Yes folks, gas is being made out of wood, cow flops and good old sewer water and pumped into wonderful V8’s made in Munich and Stuttgart. Bet you didn't know gas can be made out of wood. Guess which Nordic countries with lots of wood are likely to become targets of the democratic terrorist hunters in Washington.

If you care to add solar panels and windmills, there are several big European sites putting out megawatts of AC. The standard cow flop, and even green grass, is being used as fuel for this too. The solar people here are looking at the nearby Sahara; with the calculation that planting exactly one percent of it with solar panels will generate enough electricity for all of Europe's needs. They are trying this out in Spain as I write. The emissions from this are exactly nil, you know.

In comparison, a hybrid car is crude. It runs on imported pump gas, which also charges batteries, so it can run on electric motors. With two or more motors, and the batteries, these things are needlessly heavy - wearing out tires faster, wearing out bearings faster, causing ugly dents in hamburger drive-in lots, etc. - and they are expensive for what they are.

They are nothing compared to a car fueled by hydrogen. Hydrogen is explosive stuff. The world has more cheap hydrogen lying around than there are Wal-Marts. After putting the boom-boom in the gas tank, nothing but water vapor comes out the exhaust pipe. It looks like steam, because it is steam. If the internal combustion engine hadn't been converted to hydrogen fuel, they could have just made steam instead, and run the car with a steam engine. In other uses, the steam is run into turbines, to generate electricity, and heat whole cities. In Iceland, where they have free steam, they use it for central heating and swimming pools, both indoor and outdoor.

None of these alternatives require sucking up to Middle East satraps. You got a lot of cow shit in the good old USA, you got grass on millions of golf courses, you got wooden trees in Maine and Oregon, and you got not one but two oceans chock full of free hydrogen. Use your noodles!

You probably think I'm a Parisian flake. I can't show you the Wankel engine I accidentally 'invented' in the 1960's, but I might have a drawing of the H20 car I chanced to invent in the 1970s. I was before its time, and was unhonored for it. Well, the Wankel was a kind of mistake, not really worth any great honors. Not all inventions are perfect. Hydrogen, now, this is the stuff bombs are made of. Imagine tanking up Alan's little Kompressor Merc with some. That would be real Hollywood!

   - from the garage in Montrouge, ric


Well, the hydrogen may be a problem.

Hydrogen is a non-starter (no pun really) - it's too hard to handle and bulky at that. There is a reason the Hindenburg was so big and floated in the air - the VOLUME of hydrogen. To fit enough of the good stuff in a car it must be highly pressurized and tightly compressed in a really, really good container. Or you can liquefy it, at extreme low temperature - and it takes more energy to do THAT, pretty much, than you save. Damn. And producing it? Pass an electric current through water (H2O) and at one electrode you get pure hydrogen and at the other pure oxygen. Did that in seventh grade science. Yeah, but where do you get the electric current? The energy needed to break the bond between the three atoms is considerable - water is very stable. Glance at the geometry of the periodic table. So the power needed to produce the hydrogen is the problem. Well, you could use solar-generated electric power. Not much of that available yet. General Motors and Ford and the energy companies - all the guys over here - are working the hydrogen problem - but they're talking about producing hydrogen from crude oil. You reconfigure the cracking towers at the refineries over here and you can get a lot of hydrogen pretty cheaply from the standard black hydrocarbon goop the Arab world sells us. Yeah. A problem, as you can see. Or as the oil companies see it, an opportunity.

Bio-mass fuel is, indeed, one answer. Wood? Hemp is probably the very most efficient energy source for that - grows fast and provides more thermal units per ton than almost anything else. And like peas and other legumes, hemp adds nitrogen back into the soil, improving it. Nifty! But you cannot grow hemp here, even if you grow the varieties that contain no tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) at all. Our government sees this as a moral issue. Oh well. But much gasoline in the middle of this country is already ten percent ethanol - from corn. (You cannot use pure ethanol in gasoline or diesel engines without changing the composition of the gaskets and fuel lines and all the rest - it is a bit harsh and makes those things rapidly dissolve. Top-fuel drag racers, running pure ethanol, know this well and their build-teams use the proper parts.) More bio-mass fuel will come on line, of course, or a bit more. One doesn't want one's parts dissolving. I certainly don't.

The other source of bi-mass fuel? Bullshit and horseshit? We've got that. Lots of it. Methane is easy. We can do that. Why not put it all to use? This IS an election year.

Other stuff. Every few months you see stuff in the press (on a slow news day) about some America or Canadian greener using bio-diesel derived from the residue of deep fat fryers at McDo's and such - and refined, or at least well-filtered, this stuff is fine for any diesel engine. These folks tool around in their quite normal diesel cars leaving, it is said, just the scent of deep-fried potatoes and burnt fish. This is not mainstream. We don't do diesel engines over here. You guys in Europe get the new common-rail diesel designs with superchargers or turbochargers - and staged injection and all the new gizmos. They're pretty nifty engines and work just fine. I drove one from Avignon to Aix a bit back. Worked just fine. No one wants one here. Not cool. But really, we DO have more stale deep-fry fat than any nation on earth I'd guess. Too bad.

An H2O car? Explain!

Oh - the French-made Nissan diesel that took me to Aix one day...

Ckick here to enlarge....

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Rick in Atlanta had an explanation for the H2O Car - Boat!

But Ric in Paris explained a bit more -


Look, I just invent these things. I'm not into fiddly details. A car with a H2O motor? Go to the lake or seaside to tank up. You don't need to know what's under the hood.


There was a docu on Arte last week, showing how the alternate energy is coming along. About halfway through, they're showing a Chrysler-Daimler suit tanking up his Merc, at a Chrysler-Daimler gas station, with hydrogen stuff. A pretty formidable gas cap there! Looked like an injection system. But nobody was wearing anti-flame suits or hardhats.

As for wood - it was wood not hemp. Taking all kinds of wood, wood scrap, whole freaking trees, reducing them to sawdust and cooking it up. Turns into energy. Doing the same thing with grass, weeds, any green junk lying around. A lot of stuff that used to be thrown away.

This alternate-energy is going on all over Europe, but perhaps more in countries that have to lay out hard cash for petroleum. They showed farms that were able to quit buying fuel and electricity - ones that produced enough of a surplus to sell it to the grid.

It's a long-range thing. Petroleum is too expensive and it isn't renewable. The nuclear reactors are all going to wear out, and nobody wants to replace them. There isn't enough hydro to go around.

But wood and grass are easy to grow. Shit from animals is free, as is wind and sunshine.


But the docu didn't mention anything to do with cost of the R&D going into alternate-energy resources. My guess is that it is no more than is routinely spent on petroleum exploration and development; it's probably only a fraction of it.

Another plus factor for alternate-energy resources is that the production is often near where it's going to be used - so there's next to no transport like super-tankers involved.

The people who have a lot of vested interest in the oil business do not want to see alternate-energy. This is okay because they haven't done us many favors. These new people, investing in these risks, will deserve the rewards they get - and we will be better off for it.

As for that French-made Nissan diesel that took you to Aix one day... I thought it looked like a Renault, but it's a.... two-generation old Nissan-Renault. It's Renault showing Nissan how to make an ugly car. [Yep, Renault now own a controlling interest in Nissan and the cars do show this.]

Diesel's dirty little secret is that it's very dirty. A lot of filters can cut down on emissions, but the cheaper diesels don't have these. Motorcycles are dirty too. It's possible that about 60 percent of all passenger cars sold in France are diesels. Fuel for them is a bit cheaper, and the modern ones get good mileage. High-end ones are quiet too, and the turbo ones are very powerful and fast.

But diesel motors are more expensive - they have to be stronger. It might take more than 100,000 kilometers to balance the extra price against the lower gas cost just to break even. The pollution from diesels is very bad because of the solid particles they spew out - in Paris.

Attached images done in early 1970s, in no-speed-limit Germany.


And I guess this is the Water Car.  It says so.

Ric’s hypothetical invention from his days in Germany, before he moved to Paris and stared MetropoleParis.

But it doesn’t look hip.

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Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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This issue updated and published on...

Paris readers add nine hours....