The personal computer of the future

We’re still several years away from a device that can successfully combine a computer, phone, handheld, digital camera and music/video player, in a size/weight/price combination that’ll make most techies happy. But I’ve already got that device on my wishlist!

By computer, I mean laptop. I think that desktops will eventually disappear. Not only are they energy hogs, but they are simply too big and they aren’t portable. They take up too much space. Bulky desktops are already on their way out. The computer of the future will probably evolve from our current laptop form factor. I think the real breakthrough will come when OLED becomes a mature technology, and virtual keyboards are also viable. By virtual keyboard I mean either film you can type on, or simply a projected keyboard where your fingers breaking light waves trigger key down events.

The computer of the future will have all of the capability that we crave in a form factor that will likely approach the size of our current credit cards. It will probably be thicker, but I can envision a laptop with a rollout OLED or wall projection display and virtual keyboard that boots up in a 1-3 seconds, acts as a cellphone and digital camera, and that’s about 3-4 inches in terms of width/length, and about 1 inch or less in terms of thickness.

A truly portable cellphone

I think we have the capability of building a cellphone that is the size of a credit card, and about as thick as 3-4 credit cards put together. If we would use strip batteries plus an OLED, that could make it work. And I wouldn’t be interested in fancy games or the capability to customize the ringtones or to chat with my friends, etc. I just want a cellphone that’s thin enough and light enough to slip in my shirt pocket without seeing any bulge. I want a cellphone I can slip into my wallet or into an executive brief. The case could be made of magnesium allow or brushed aluminum. Now wouldn’t that look pretty cool?

Securing wireless networks

The business of securing wireless networks is booming. Everyone wants to go wireless, but are afraid of the seemingly poor security. I’ve read plenty of articles about companies who have come out with all sorts of approaches, such as client/server data encryption, special networking equipment, etc. I haven’t seen much news about a particular technology that could help us secure our wireless networking in a fairly easy to understand and implement fashion, by using GPS technology. Let me explain.

GPS technology has gotten to be commonplace these days. It would be fairly easy to come up with the hardware that can use this technology. But how to put it to work? Well, we’ve come up with some pretty good solutions for encrypting the data that goes back and forth between the clients and the servers. Where we’re failing is in limiting the reach of that data. We all know that wireless networks can’t be physically delimited. They will go through our walls and windows. That’s the clincher – if we could only limit how far it can go, we’ve got it made.

Well, I’d like to put forth one approach to doing this – and you’re probably already catching on, which is great! We need to come up with a hardware wireless access point or gateway that can act as a GPS transmitter. It will act as a central point, or antenna, and will broadcast its availability, along with GPS coordinates, to the clients. Here we can actually break this into two subs:

  1. We can program a map of our building or perimeter, into the wireless router/access point, and thus be able to allow or disallow clients to connect based on whether or not they are within our pre-determined perimeter. The clients would also need to have some sort of GPS functionality programmed into their wireless cards, so they can talk back about their location to the router. This, coupled with MAC filtering, would act as a wonderful physical barrier.
  2. We can come up with an additional hardware component – let’s call them perimeter delimiters – that we can stick (as guideposts) at the corners or our surface area that we want to cover. They would serve two purposes: would bounce wireless traffic back to the central router, and would determine whether or not a client that is trying to connect to the router is outside or inside our perimeter. This would eliminate the need of coming up with special wireless cards that have integrated GPS functionality. These “perimeter delimiters” would determine how far or how close a device is from the central router (based on the strength of the connection signal) and would then make a yes/no decision about whether to let that client connect or not.

Given that GPS positioning is fairly accurate (within 3-6 feet, at any rate), these methods would allow us to safely shut out unallowed devices from connecting.

You could say, yes, that may be true, but we still have a problem with those people would would listen in on our wireless traffic! Maybe, but I think I may have a solution for that as well. Let’s take these same perimeter delimiters, and let’s give them a different purpose. Instead of acting as wireless traffic mirrors, they would act as wireless traffic disrupters! We could let them be unidirectional antennas that would emit the opposite waveforms of our wireless traffic outside our perimeter, and will thus effectively cancel out the wireless traffic that goes outside our perimeter. This works along the same lines as radar jamming. Our perimeter delimiters would listen in on all of our wireless traffic in the area, then flood the external perimeter (through unidirectional antennas – which are the key) with the exact opposite waveforms.

Now let’s deal with data encryption. We’ve all seen that really expensive encryption hardware is not the answer. Just look at the Texas Instruments debacle that’s recently made the news with the car key chip. That’s not to say that we don’t need hardware encryption. We do, but we shouldn’t rely solely on hardware. I think we should also use software. Here’s what I mean. We now have all sorts of encryption methods: WEP, WPA, etc. The problem is that most of the hardware out there can only use one sort of encryption at a time. What we really need is the ability to come up with a different lock and key encryption method every time a device connects to a wireless router or access point. We can do this by first varying the encryption methods used for every connect, and also by varying the encryption methods used for portions of the data. We should also be able to insert bogus data inbetween our data bits, and by labeling them with a different key every time, allow the client and server to delete them out of the traffic and thus understand each other. We should also be able to vary the amounts of data we encrypt through a particular method, and the amounts of bogus data we insert between the real data bits. The router can come up with a particular ratio for all these combinations at the time of the connect. That’s what I mean by a lock and key method. We should also be able to randomly change how often the lock and key are changed while the device is connected to the network. By making multiple components of the encryption method random – and at random times – this makes it extremely difficult to listen in on our traffic.

Will this slow down the speed of our connections? Yes, but in some situations, it’s worth it. Ideally, we should be able to tone down the strength of our encryption on the home devices – and thus gain back our speed – but it should be coded in, just in case we need it.

Offset electricity costs through wind turbines

I live in a high-rise condo building, and during one of our building’s board meetings, the discussion arrived at the topic of reducing electricity costs. Immediately I thought about the possibility of placing wind-driven turbines on the top of our building. There is always a good breeze up there, and the electricity produced by the turbines could help offset the energy costs for the building. One of the board members promised to look into the matter, but so far, nothing’s come of it.

Perhaps the costs for the turbines are still prohibitive for many buildings, ours included. But I can see a market for this kind of a product, if the costs are brought down enough so that a cost-benefit analysis of such a solution can show its viability in the long-term.

Solving a part of the traffic and transportation problem

I can’t take full credit for this idea. A few months ago, I talked with a friend of mine who is a transportation specialist. His name is Chris Bennett, and the idea is really his. I think it’s important enough that others ought to know about it.

As I drove to work this morning and I passed a pothole in the road, what he’d said to me suddenly clicked. The way to solve the congestion problem on our road, and also to get extra revenues that can be used to fix our roads and keep them in top shape, is to institute a tax on using the roads. The perfect place to do it is at the pump, and I’ll explain why.

The most consistent measure of figuring out how much uses the roads is by how much gasoline he/she consumes. Sure, some cars consume more gasoline than others, but that’s fine. A gasoline tax would encourage people to think more carefully about a car’s consumption before they purchase it. A gasoline tax is the only way to properly charge for mileage and for gross vehicle weight.

Everyone knows that in general, heavier cars consume more gas. They also wear out the roads faster, because of their weight. A gasoline tax would automatically separate the people who have lighter cars and consume less gas from those who own heavier cars and consume more fuel. It would not only encourage more responsible driving by making people plan out their trips in advance and considering their vehicles consumption, but it would also generate extra revenues for the upkeep and improvement of our roads.

Sure, you may say, the money will be generated, but how will it be divided among the local, state and federal government? They each are responsible for fixing their roads. Well, this would be done according to road usage studies on each of those types of roads. Roads that get used the most would get the most money to get fixed. All of the roads in a specific metro area would be grouped into light, medium and heavy usage. A percentage of the total revenues would then be divided among the appropriate parties that are responsible for the upkeep of those roads. Incidentally, this is why I think charging people for using the roads (having tollbooths on the roads) is a silly way to generate revenues. Instituting a gasoline tax is the fairest way to distribute the payment responsibility among all the “offenders” out there: us, the drivers.

How not to treat your Betta fish

I have written this article with the hope of discouraging Betta owners from engaging in potentially hurtful practices when it comes to their fish. Bettas are treated quite casually and often abused. I believe they are much smarter than generally known (see article entitled The Underrated Betta Fish) and deserve better treatment.

The most important abuse that takes place is this: they are made to fight with each other in many countries, their owners knowing full well that they fight to the death. In the US and the more “civilized” countries, this practice is not as wide-spread, though what we have here is not a whole lot better. Here we sell Betta aquariums with clear dividers that are meant to house two or more Bettas in clear view of each other. This is supposed to enhance their appearance, because the poor things puff up their fins, thinking their territory is threatened. What few people realize is that this practice is very stressful for the Bettas. Although the fish are not damaged externally, and what I mean by this is that they don’t tear each other up, internally they experience the same stress. We all know what stress does to our bodies. Well, it has the same effect on Bettas. How would you like to live every moment of the day continually angry? That is what happens to them when they are placed in those sorts of aquariums. They feel continually threatened, and live in constant stress. Overtime, they get sick and die, whereas they would have had much longer and better lives if they were left to lead a peaceful existence.

Bettas are bred and transported in tiny little jars, and most of them never see a bigger aquarium, since they are also kept in small jars by their owners. This is an error, and it can be attributed to those people who say that Bettas are not pretentious, and that they’ve even heard of them living in the puddles left by horses’ hoofs somewhere in Southeast Asia. Just because Bettas can live in that sort of an environment doesn’t mean they like it. Fish love to live in large spreads of water, no matter what species they are.

Another issue is the cleanliness of the Betta aquariums. Just because Bettas can live in murky water doesn’t mean the average Betta owner can let the tank water get ridiculously dirty before they change it. What’s worse, some people actually believe that they can buy these sorts of Betta jars, where the poor thing is sandwiched in between the bottom of the tank and some silly plant growing above. I’m not sure who spread that silly rumor, but apparently they’ve said the Bettas need no food or fresh water when they’re placed in that sort of jar — and the rumor has spread! Apparently, the jar can be a fully self-contained, perpetual eco-system! What kind of a cockamamie story is that? I’d like to know what these people were on when they came up with this crud. Would you like to live in a tiny jar, surrounded by your own pee and doo-doo, and be forced to nibble on bitter plant roots when you’re naturally carnivorous? If you do, there’s something wrong with you. Bettas enjoy a nicely sized aquarium as much as the next fish. Don’t forget that while their origin is indeed from Southeast Asia, and they are commonly found in flooded rice paddies, their”aquariums” over there are quite large. They encompass entire fields! Yes, the water may be murky at times, and when the sun dries up the fields, they may shrink in size to little puddles, but that doesn’t mean the Bettas like to live that way all the time.

A mistake that people make is not spending enough time with their Bettas. Most of the time, they are thought of as ornaments to the room. That’s not how a smart fish can be treated. If they are continually ignored by their owners, the Bettas will withdraw into themselves, and will become loners. They will shy away from the owner when they are fed. The owner’s face next to the bowl will cause the fish to be frightened instead of happy.
Another problem I’ve found — and although it may seem minor, it does matter — is the size of the Betta Bits, the round pellets one finds in the pet stores. I’d like to know if the people who make those things have ever tried to feed them to the fish? They are much too big for their small mouths. My poor Bettas struggled to swallow them until I discovered that if I split them in half, it would make the job much easier for them. Why aren’t these things sized right? Bettas are not goldfish. They don’t have huge mouths. They are not the pigs of the aquarium; they are delicate little creatures, and their food ought to be tailor-made for them.

Do you know of other ways in which Bettas are shortchanged or worse, abused? Write about it in the comments.

The Great Depression: past or future?

In reading the description of the Great Depression posted on the Encarta website, a great number of similarities strike me. As far as I’m concerned, we’re in the same boat. We’ve bought an enormous amount of things on credit, most Americans are in debt because of the prevailing idea of “consumerism”, of disposable goods that must be continually re-bought and renewed, and the stock market has just recently collapsed.

Here’s what’s written there: “Although the 1920s appeared on the surface to be a prosperous time, income was unevenly distributed. The wealthy made large profits, but more and more Americans spent more than they earned, and farmers faced low prices and heavy debt… These problems contributed to the crisis that began the Great Depression: the disastrous U.S. stock market crash of 1929, which ruined thousands of investors and destroyed confidence in the economy. Continuing throughout the 1930s, the depression ended in the United States only when massive spending for World War II began.” (1) Does this sound familiar to you?

I think what saved us from going into a full-blown depression now was entering into war with Iraq. The massive spending that took place to finance this money-losing operation (hundreds of billions so far) served to revive the economy to some extent, and the politicians managed to save our ship from sinking. The question is, how long will this temporary effect last?

In the 1940s, we financed our massive war spending through various methods, such as war bonds, loans and other such things. A lot of money was made available through the rationing of goods and the conservation of resources such as electricity and gasoline. After the war was over, there were an enormous number of contracts for American factories to fill overseas. None of that is happening today, though. Today, it’s mostly artificial. President Bush spent loaned money to finance the war in Iraq, and he’s spending more loaned money to finance the contracts for rebuilding Iraq. The contractors (Halliburton and others) are overcharging the government, and who is left as the scapegoat? Us, the regular taxpayers. Isn’t this crazy? We’re only going further into debt instead of coming out of it.

Where in the world do you think Congress gets the war money from? Debt! That’s where the money that government spends on big purchases has come from for years. But America is already deeply in debt. I hope that we’re all aware of how much in debt we are as a country. So tell me, what happens when you prop up an ailing economy by spending money you don’t have? I’ll tell you. You’re digging under yourself! And, what’s making it worse is that foreign investments in our government bonds are holding up our economy. China is fast becoming one of the biggest foreign investors, and when you have a communist country with their hand on your capitalist wallet, things aren’t quite right.

In order to counteract the possibility of an economic collapse, we’d need to get some very fiscally responsible politicians in the White House and in Congress. But does that ever happen? Nowadays, it seems that only fiscally irresponsible people ever get to either run for office, or stay in office. Sure, there are a few good senators, but there are far more overwhelmed people holding office, and their legislative votes only serve to worsen the situation. Regardless of who gets elected on November 2, 2004, the situation will not improve. Kerry is no better than Bush when it comes to dealing with the money situation realistically.

What’s to be done? I can’t predict the future, but unless we get someone in the White House who is willing to address the problem of debt head-on, I think our country is headed for certain disaster. You do the math, but economic collapse can’t be good for anyone.

(1) “Great Depression in the United States,” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2004.

A guide to saving energy

Given our dwindling energy resources, it makes good sense to conserve what we have left. If the phrase “dwindling energy resources” is news to you, welcome back to reality. Where have you been, and was it nice there?

With these concerns in my mind, I’ve put together a list of energy-saving tips that will help both the environment and your pocketbook. I’m fairly sure that you may have seen some of these tips before, but what I’ll try to do is to come up with a comprehensive list grouped by categories in alphabetical order, that I will update as I stumble upon more material.

Bathroom

  • Don’t take very hot showers. Some of us like that sort of thing (including me,) but not doing it saves a whole lot of energy, and according to my wife, is also better for the skin. Apparently very hot water dries the skin and makes it less resilient. Hot water is also bad for your hair. It dries it out too, and it has a tendency to break afterwards.
  • Don’t leave the water running while you brush your teeth.
  • Squeeze the toothpaste tube only from the bottom – just kidding! I squeeze it from the middle just to spite the people that write those directions on the tube.
  • You’ve all heard this saying, right? “If it’s yellow, let it mellow, if it’s brown, flush it down…” Well, I think it’s downright disgusting not to flush after urinating, so flush those toilets, for goodness’ sake! But you could invest in a toilet that uses less water per flush.

Cars

  • Be sensible and realize that oil reserves are not unlimited. Just because we don’t have to stand in line to buy gasoline here in the States doesn’t mean you have the right to drive a Hummer or some other gas guzzling SUV or large sedan. Think about this: now, in 2004, the price of gasoline in Europe is 2-3 times what we’ve got here. How long do you think this difference will last? I tell you, not long. Invest in a gas-sipping automobile, preferably a hybrid, before your monster’s resale value drops to nothing.
  • Plan your trips carefully. Going to the drugstore to floss shouldn’t qualify as a car trip. If you’re going to use your car, go to multiple stores during the same trip.
  • Quit trying to impress the person next to you in traffic lights. So your car is probably faster than theirs. So what! It doesn’t mean you should speed off every time just so your ego can get a nice pat on the back. Be reasonable and conserve your acceleration for those times when you really need it.

Computers

  • We have all heard that it pays to leave your computer on all the time, because it’s built with energy-saving devices, and it can be programmed to power individual devices such as hard drives off, etc. Let’s do a bit of math here. Most computers nowadays come with a 320W power source and some with ~400W power sources. If you leave it on all the time, chances are it will only be used actively for about 4-5 hours out of a day, more for some people, less for others. For the rest of that time, it will consume electricity at the rate of 3 (that’s three) 100-watt light bulbs and some change. Would you leave three 100-watt light bulbs on all the time? I didn’t think so. If you’re not sure about the impact your computer has on your electricity bill, just turn off everything else in the house and go look at your electricity meter (note: at 2004 rates, if left on all the time, a computer will cost about $12-15 per month in electricity). That meter’s rotating kind of fast, doesn’t it? Now do you begin to get the point? Therefore set your computer to go into Standby mode after a half hour of idle time. If your network card is equipped with Wake On LAN capability, then get your computer to go into Hibernate mode – most Windows computers using the latest OS can do this without a problem. On an Apple this is Sleep mode – Apple doesn’t have a Standby mode. If neither Standby nor Hibernate will work for you, just TURN IT OFF. Don’t worry about those who say that over time, it will damage the computer. It’ll probably still last upwards of 5 years, which is well beyond the projected lifetime of most PCs.
  • Set your computer to turn the monitor off after 5-10 idle minutes. CRT screens use quite a bit of electricity by themselves. Just look at the labels on their backs to see how much yours consumes. You can also just turn off the monitor. The power switch can take it, don’t worry. It’ll work for years, and years, and years… Well, you get the idea.
  • Set the computer to turn off the hard drives after 30 minutes – 1 hour of idle time. They can start back up without a problem in about 5-10 seconds.
  • Purchase a flat screen monitor if you can afford it. They consume a lot less electricity than CRT screens (about 2-3 times less), and they’re better on your eyes. They also emit less radiation, not to mention they take up a whole lot less space.
  • Instead of adding extra hard drives to the inside of the computer, add them to the outside by purchasing a USB or Firewire hard drive enclosure. That way, when you’re not using them, you can simply unplug them and not have to worry about the extra electricity each uses as it spins around whenever the computer is on. Use them to store files you don’t need to access often.
  • Purchase extra RAM. More RAM means less access time seeking the hard drives, thus, over time, less energy usage.

House

  • Replace all your incandescent bulbs with the new fluorescent spiral bulbs. They consume 3-4 times less energy and give off better light.
  • If you’re building a new house, or just replacing your drywall in your old house, then invest in good insulation. There are plenty of websites on the Internet that can teach you how to properly layer a wall from the outside to the inside in order to get the maximum energy savings – the process is easy and fairly cheap to implement. Just do a search on Google for this stuff. You’ll be happy you did when your heating/cooling bills arrive.
  • If you’ve got a house, put a solar panel (or more if you’d like) on the roof. Store the electricity generated in a battery or generator. You can then use it to power the devices in your house, including air conditioning devices. I’ve heard of people that get paid by their energy company every month because they generate more energy from the solar panels that they are using. A little extra cash can’t hurt, right? Again, there are detailed descriptions for this stuff on the Internet.
  • Install double glass pane windows. There are those windows that have two layers of glass and are filled with an inert gas in the middle. They are very energy efficient.
  • Install draft guards on the main door(s) to your house/apartment. This will not only keep in the nice cool air in the summer (or warm air in the winter) but it will also keep out bugs, and we all want that, right?
  • At night, only turn on the lights in those rooms that you’re using. If you’re afraid you’ll stumble over things, invest in night-lights. You can find fluorescent green night-lights that consume very little energy and last for years and years. Or you could purchase those combination night-light/deodorizers.

Kitchen

  • Don’t use the dishwasher if you can help it.
  • If you do end up having to use it, only wash full loads and put it on the cycle that takes the least time to clean the dishes. What I’ve found is that you can wash a full load in the Light cycle and get results that are just the same or better than washing it in the Normal cycle. I don’t know why, but that’s been my personal experience.
  • Don’t leave the water running in the sink while you’re doing the dishes.
  • Don’t open the faucets all the way if you don’t need a full jet of water.

A better way to store and install printer drivers

How many of us have been irked by the fact that we had to always install printer drivers for our printing devices?

I think printers should store common printer drivers in on-board flash memory chips, and should be programmed to allow us to install the drivers directly from the printer, thus eliminating the need for driver CDs, which always have a way of getting lost. Along with the drivers, the printers would also install software that would check for driver updates on the manufacturer’s website, and would automatically install the updates to the computer as well as to the printer’s flash memory, thus ensuring that the drivers are kept up to date in both locations.

Integrating solar panels into our windows

Now that the technology for producing solar panels is getting cheaper, I think they should be integrated into our windows. We should be able to purchase windows that are pre-fitted with transparent (or close to transparent) solar panels, that can collect solar energy and transform it into electricity. I’m not too knowledgeable about how to feed the electricity produced back into our house’s electrical circuits, but I would imagine that it could be made in such a way that we could just plug it into a wall outlet. The electricity thus produced could offset the cost of our monthly electricity bill and overall, help reduce heat-trapping gas emissions from power plans.

SUVs: a guilty pleasure

I own a MINI. I am against gas-guzzlers of any size, shape or form. Yet I enjoyed driving a SUV recently. Here’s why.

I had brought my MINI Cooper S into the dealership for service. There were a few things I wanted them to look at, things that were troubling me. Because I’m fairly obsessive-compulsive, every little thing seems to bother me sometimes, although I’ve gotten better over the years.

The dealership offers free loaner cars to those folks whose repair jobs will take more than a few hours. Since I wanted them to look at several issues, I qualified. Unfortunately, they were fresh out, so they took me to their in-house Enterprise rental desk to get me into a rental car. Normally, I would get an economy or mid-size sedan since my MINI is a sub-compact, but they were out of those. I was told I’d have to wait for a bit, which I didn’t mind. They provide free snacks and beverages in the customer lounge, and they always have a good movie on a big-screen TV.

My wife and I meandered to the waiting area and watched a great movie – I think it was “The Transporter” – while the Enterprise clerks tried to find us a car. The movie was almost over when one of them told us our rental car was ready. After begging for a few more minutes so we could watch the conclusion, we stepped outside, where our view of the parking lot was obscured by some behemoth. I was about to step around the beast to look for some economy car, but the clerk stopped me. “This is your car,” she said, smiling. “You were so nice to wait, that we’re going to give you this BIG car!” She was genuinely happy that she could reward us in such a way.

I couldn’t help myself either. A broad smile started to stretch itself across my face. I thanked her politely while I examined the monster, all the while thinking: “Me, in a SUV?! If this isn’t ironic, I don’t know what else would qualify!” I looked at the make: Chevy Trailblazer. I looked at the tractor-sized exhaust pipe and winced. “My goodness,” I thought, “how much gas will this thing need?” I felt a vacuum pulling on my wallet, but I kept calm. I helped my wife into the car as I signed the final insurance forms and did the walk-around with the clerk. I waved to her as I got in and turned on the engine. Reality was starting to sink in – I had to drive THIS thing now, after driving my MINI for a year and half!

I’m not one to have problems driving any car. That was the least of my worries. It was the way this car felt and maneuvered that made me wary. It was too big to care about things like curbs or speed bumps, or even those little English cars we see happily zipping along the roads once in a while. “I have to be very careful,” I thought. “I’m not used to this thing’s dimensions, and I may bump into something.” I slowly inched out of the parking spot, and drove out of the dealership.

As soon as I was on the road, a feeling of ease came upon me. Without the fear of bumping into freshly crafted BMWs and MINIs, I could relax. Besides, this tractor was easy to handle! Even though it took up the entire lane width-wise, it was easy to keep in check. The brakes worked fairly well, and the steering wheel was surprisingly easy to turn. The steering pump would have to work pretty hard to turn those huge wheels! Sitting in the driver’s seat, one got a feeling of security, of unsurpassed safety. I felt like I could take my time driving, that nothing could hurt me. Now I was beginning to understand why people are so adamant about driving their SUVs – there is a certain unshakeable feeling of safety that one gets. Not only that, but one feels more relaxed at the wheel. I rested my left arm on the doorsill, and my right arm on the automatic transmission knob. I only had to hold the steering wheel with one hand – the car was easy to control. I could get used to this! I’ve driven big cars before, even bigger than this particular model, but the experiences had been unremarkable. I looked over at my wife, surprised. She was smiling, too. The great thing about my wife is that she always knows what I’m thinking about. I didn’t have to explain myself. She knew it, and my surprised expression made her laugh.

It didn’t take long to feel certain twangs of guilt pull at my heartstrings though. After all, I was diametrically opposed to SUVs! I wouldn’t have anything to do with those gas guzzlers! That’s why I got my MINI after all. It was small and beautiful, it was quick, and it didn’t need a lot of gas. How in the world could I enjoy driving this behemoth? I felt like I was engaging in some adulterous relationship – cheating on my MINI. How could I do that? I wondered how I’d make it up to my conscience. Grinning slyly, I wondered if I could pacify it by writing an article.

As I wrestled with these thoughts, we got on a winding road. For those of you who care, it’s Route 193, which runs parallel to the Potomac on its Southern side in Virginia. This is the kind of road that my MINI would love to run on. It would eat those curves and hills for breakfast! It would leave everything else in its dust on these roads. I had a problem though: I wasn’t in a MINI. I was in a rubber wheeled cargo train. I felt safe, but my wife and I were getting thrown left and right at every curve! I started to miss my MINI’s bucket seats quite a bit. I also slowed down, since I didn’t really enjoy being the car’s ballast.

We drove a little more, and were lulled into feeling safe once again, until – out of nowhere – a mean curve peeked its puckish face around the corner. This was a mean left curve, and there was nothing but a thin rail separating us from a downward ride into the tree-ridden valley below. From the little experience I had driving the car, I knew it couldn’t handle this curve although we were only going about 30-40 mph. I pressed gently on the brake pedal as I turned the steering wheel. I felt the tires starting to lose their grip on the pavement. Instinct kicked in, and I slammed on the brakes while continuing to turn the wheel. The anti-lock braking system began to work, and I could feel the hydraulic pumping vibrate the frame of the car. Unfortunately, we were still sliding toward the rail! There’s no worse feeling than impending doom, and we were in the thick of it! I could do nothing but sit there and wait for the car to stop moving. I looked at my wife out of the corner of my eye, and she was frozen in her seat. “Oh boy, this could be it!” I thought, as I braced myself for the impact… which didn’t come.

The car somehow stopped short of the rail. For a brief second, I looked around to check my surroundings, and then I looked at my wife. She looked at me. We both let out a sigh of relief as I pressed on the gas pedal and moved on. My body now had to cope with the stress. My heart started to beat faster, and my legs started to shake a bit. I had to slow down in order to keep good control of the car. What had just happened?

We had been lured into falsely believing that this car was safe. That’s what had happened! We realized that the car’s install appeal – safety on wheels – was also its downside – cargo train on wheels. When you pack that much steel into a car, when you make it that big, it’s going to be heavy. Heavy objects cannot be stopped or maneuvered quickly. There is a limit to the amount of grip that a tire can have on the road. The brakes can be the best in the world. They can be anti-lock brakes. The car can have a dynamic control system, or differential traction, or whatever other names these features are called. There is still going to be one limiting factor: the grip of the tires on the pavement. It is through the friction of the tires that all of the car’s power can be expressed, either to start or stop it. In the case of a heavy car, its weight works against the friction of the tires and overcomes it. This car will keep on going when you don’t want it to go. It cannot be stopped! I shudder when I think what would have happened if the pavement had been wet that day!

Yes, SUVs can feel very safe. They can lull you into thinking that you can’t get hurt very badly if you get into an accident. Yes, you may not be hurt very badly. But, if you would compare, side by side, the outcomes of SUVs and smaller, more maneuverable cars when placed in accident-prone situations, all other factors being equal (driver experience, alertness, etc.,) the SUVs would not be able to avoid any of those accidents if the outcome depended on maneuverability. By this, I mean things such as stopping distance, ability to veer away from or between other cars, etc. Sure, the drivers of the SUVs probably wouldn’t get hurt too badly (unless the SUVs rolled over, which is another story altogether,) but they would incur significant damage to their cars, cause serious damage to the other cars involved, and more importantly, to the drivers of the other cars. What I want you, the reader, to ask yourself is this: do you want to be responsible for the death of another human being simply because you wanted to drive an SUV? Try to talk to anyone who’s got to live with that guilt and see how they cope with that event.

Moralizing aside, here’s how the rest of my SUV experience went… After the accident, I learned to drive the thing much more cautiously, and I found its reactions around curves predictable if one went through them very slowly. I even got accustomed to the commanding view of the road, and I liked sitting in the chair, uncomfortable as it was. There a certain satisfaction one gets from operating a beast like this. One’s ego is awed by the ability to control it. Furthermore, that same ego has room to spread through that enormous cabin. It starts to feel very comfortable, and then a certain feeling sinks in. It’s called ENTITLEMENT.

Yes, on the second day of driving this thing, I started to feel entitled to drive it. Think on this, please. I care deeply about recyling and conserving the environment. I lobby my congressmen to pass laws that protect the environment, including restrictions on the emissions of SUVs. And yet here I was, driving my rental SUV, and feeling like I owned it – what’s worse, feeling like I ought to own something like it! I was shocked at myself! On one hand, I was dismayed at my lack of respect for all I stood for, and on the other hand, I really enjoyed sitting at the helm of that tractor-trailer. I couldn’t believe myself! I talked to my wife, and she had the same problem. She liked our MINI, but she also liked the size and the relative safety conveyed by the size of the Trailblazer.

Here was the curse of the SUV! This is why all of the people refuse to give them up! How could they give up something that makes them feel so good? It’s one more pleasure that they have to forgo, and in a society that’s so strongly oriented toward the attainment of pleasure, this is very hard to do! So what if it takes $50 to fill up the tank? It’s a small price to pay for feeling like you own the road! It’s a small price to pay indeed for such an ego-boosting experience. If I myself wasn’t immune to this – and I should have been – why should others feel any obligation to give up their SUVs? No, we haven’t reached that point yet, and I doubt that we will. There will need to be a stronger motivation. The price of gasoline will need to go much higher, and the smaller cars in general will have to be made much more attractive before that will happen.

As for me, how did I fare? I have to confess that I looked up the prices for a Chevrolet Trailblazer and a GMC Envoy the following day. Unfortunately, I also looked up the gas mileage. When I put the two together, I couldn’t justify owning the cars. Even if I could afford the price of the car, the price of the gas and the pollution created by the car couldn’t be ethically justified to a very loud voice: my conscience. The gas for the rental cost me about $20 by the way, for two days of driving – about 120 miles overall. I don’t know about you, but that’s a lot of money to spend on gas in two days. I happily gave the car back, although I had feelings of regret. Not to worry though! After I got into my MINI, all that regret melted away and I felt right at home!

There’s nothing like the feeling of being able to maneuver your car. There’s real safety in knowing that you’ll be able to stop or veer away from an accident. My MINI saved me from about three accidents so far – simply because the car can stop on a dime and turn better than a Porsche. Had I been in a SUV, I don’t know what would have happened to me. Yes, I feel a little threatened when I pull up to the exhaust pipe of behemoth at some stoplight, but I also can’t help smiling. I’ve got a car that can handle the meanest curves. I’ve got a car that can get me out of an accident. My ego may feel a little squeezed inside the cabin, but I can sleep well knowing I’m not part of the problem – I’m part of the solution. In the end, it all boils down to assuming responsibility or giving into entitlement. Which road will you take?

Starting a vegan diet

First, if you are indeed motivated to go vegan, I want to congratulate you, and to let you know that the advantages are incredible. But… going on a vegan diet could be a very drastic step for anybody, especially if they’re eating the usual American fare: red meat, fries, cola and coffee. You will experience significant withdrawal symptoms, even if you are now a vegetarian. You will definitely crave all of your old favorites, and there will be plenty of times when you’ll ask yourself why. It’ll be up to you to let your mind overcome your senses, and to choose health over appetites.

No matter what we think of food, it is a drug. Although it may not come in test tubes, it is made up chemicals which trigger certain reactions in our body. Some of these chemicals are addictive. Sugar for example, is an addictive chemical. We humans will crave sugar if we get our body used to a certain quantity of it on a daily basis. Similarly, certain chemicals in red meat are also addictive. When the animals are killed, they release certain “fight or flight” hormones in their bloodstream, which quickly travel to the muscle cells that make up the meat. These chemicals remain there through the cooking process until those of us who still eat meat consume it. Once in our body, these hormones, which are still active, trigger certain sensations of well-being and raised awareness, which are then associated with meat-eating. And we probably all know about the addictive qualities of coffee…

In a similar manner, although not as obtrusively, all of the food we eat either gets associated with positive or negative feelings. That is why we like certain foods. And we don’t even have to like them to experience withdrawal symptoms, we just have to be used to eating them. Their absence in our diet will make us miss them.

It is for these reasons that a great many people fail in their resolution to stay vegan, and revert to much less healthful lifestyles. Of course, there are other, secondary reasons, such as convenience (you can get a burger and a cola pretty much anywhere, but it’s much harder to find good vegan food) or health problems caused by a lack of planning in their diets.

Being a vegan by definition means eating a variety of vegan foods: vegetables, fruits and legumes. There are certain vitamins or minerals that only certain foods can provide, and if one sticks to the obvious lettuce and tomatoes and the hardy beans and potatoes and perhaps a few apples and bananas here and there, they’re going to run into serious health problems. While proper planning in a vegan diet will be treated in another article (and I’m not sure when I’ll get the chance to write it,) here I simply want to introduce the concept of dietary planning and make you aware of the dangers inherent in a lack of planning.

How does one become a vegan? Well, as you’ve already seen, one has to be fairly motivated, and the strongest motivator that one can have is the desire to stay healthy and live a long life. And given all of the health problems caused by meat and dairy-based diets, going and staying vegan is the only way to ensure that your body can function at its best.

What’s next after motivation? Putting your beliefs into practice. My advice is to take it slowly. It’s not going to be good for you to go vegan cold turkey, because you’ll quickly get discouraged and might revert back to your old lifestyle. Vegan food tastes very bland to a person who’s been eating meat. You’ll need to get your taste buds and mind accustomed to the taste of vegan food, and after a few months of eating it, you’ll finally discover the finer flavors and textures of it. You may even begin to like it. Please don’t think this sounds dreary. I don’t look forward to my meals as a bland experience, but you may. Just realize that your attitude will change, but it may take months.

So how do you do it? If you’re now eating meat, calculate how many times a week you eat it, and reduce the number of meat-containing meals, replacing those meals with either chicken or fish, or vegetarian meals. You may be inclined to drop meat completely out of your diet. Good for you! Do it, but stick in there. If you’ve switched to chicken or fish, continue on this diet for about 1-2 months, all the while reducing the number of times you eat chicken or fish per week and replacing those meals with vegetarian meals. After 2-3 months at the most, you should be a vegetarian. Sounds easy? It is, if you stick to my plan.

Now that you’re a full fledged vegetarian, start planning your diet. Make sure you include all of the veggies and fruits that you need in your diet. And if you’re still consuming milk and cheese and eggs, drop the American-made cheese as fast as you can. I’m referring to the non-organic American cheeses. They are one of the least healthy foods on this planet. They are made from the milk of cows treated with all sorts of hormones that will wreak havoc in your body. Also, as a rule, dry cheese is not very healthy. Wet cheese (feta cheese, cottage cheese, etc.) is okay. But be sure to get only organic cheeses.

Next, drop the eggs. If you like them, you may want to read about their high fat and cholesterol content, and about the hormones they use to grow the chickens. You may also want to think about the fact that eggs are really the placenta and embryo of the chicken. If you must have eggs, get the organic kind. Next, drop the milk. The non-organic milk is loaded with unhealthy hormones, and it actually causes cancer cells in your body to grow and develop into tumors, because the cows here in the States are treated with growth factors (certain chemicals which cause cellular growth). These chemicals accumulate in the milk, and they’re not destroyed by pasteurization. If you must have milk, get the organic kind.

You shouldn’t stay in the vegetarian phase too long, or you’ll get stuck there, midway. Make the move fast, within 1-2 months of becoming vegetarian. Start reading about the vegan diet, and start planning your move. Make sure you know where to buy all of the vegetables and fruits that you need at reasonable prices. Have everything ready, learn a few good dishes to get you through the first vegan week, and then take the plunge. Throw away any vestige of your old lifestyle: any stale meat in the freezer, any cheese or eggs that you might have around the house, any candy bars, any cookies or potato chips. Clean out your house, so nothing tempts you, then start being a vegan.

Now you’ll be in for a few rough weeks, or even months, as your mouth will water at the sight of old foods. Stay in there, and read about the dangers of eating the old foods. It’ll keep you motivated. Believe me, you will begin to love vegan food, and you will also feel disgust at the sight or smell of old food, because now you’ll know exactly what’s in it and why it smells and looks the way it does.