The Plan to Bring Nature Back to the Los Angeles River

On the western side of the San Fernando Valley, behind the bleachers of Canoga Park High School, two concrete drainage ditches merge. Here in parched Southern California, barely a trickle runs through these channels. Most days it’s more like a sheen of greenish moisture, a puddle filtering across clumped leaves and other debris. Yet this forlorn speck of infrastructure marks a literal and figurative watershed for greater Los Angeles. It’s here that two tributaries, the Arroyo Calabasas and Bell Creek, join to become the Los Angeles River. And that river, a long-neglected wasteland, is about to become an urban oasis: a linear, riparian Central Park.

Click here to see an enlarged versionClick here for a zoomable map
Joost Grootens

First flowing east, the river turns right at Griffith Park and heads south past Glendale and downtown, crosses Lynwood and Compton, and empties into the Pacific Ocean at Long Beach. But for much of the waterway’s 51 miles, it is little more than an open storm drain. Once, fed by a groundwater basin in the valley that bubbled up near present-day Encino, the river nourished a lush coastal plain. It was the sole source of drinking water for the young city and for the orchards that lured hordes of settlers. It could also be a total bastard. The meandering, seasonal stream morphed into a roiling deluge during rainstorms. Catastrophic floods in the 1800s leveled buildings, toppled railroad bridges, and swept away residents. California embarked on complex flood control measures. But the river always fought back.

Finally, in the 1930s, the US Army Corps of Engineers stepped in—and brought thousands of workers, tens of millions of dollars, and a whole lot of cement. The Corps straightened, deepened, moved, and otherwise rebuilt the river into a “water freeway,” a channel for transporting treated storm water and wastewater to the sea. Along its now-stark course, trash and broken appliances accumulated. Adjacent neighborhoods turned their backs, distancing themselves with chain-link fences.

In the City of Angels, though, rebirth is axiomatic. By the 1980s, environmentalists began pushing to exhume the waterway. Finally, public opinion became, well, a torrent. Today the river is slated for an overhaul, backed by officials including LA mayor Eric Garcetti and even President Obama. Last spring the Corps agreed to remove concrete along 11 miles of the river. In its place: sloping green terraces and wetlands, caf├ęs, and bike paths. (The city is buying former industrial sites for use as parkland.)

But the river will still be a kind of mirage, a trick of human engineering. The floodplain is a major US city. Almost half the flow during the dry season comes from treatment plants. Much of the rest is urban slobber, runoff from Angelenos washing cars or watering lawns. “It’s hard to understand how artificial the river really is,” says Lewis MacAdams, godfather of the movement and cofounder of Friends of the Los Angeles River.

This isn’t a restoration project. Transforming the river is a grand exercise in modern ecosystem manipulation. What Los Angeles is building is more like a monument to rivers—artificial, in perfect LA style, but constructed on ecological principles. A once-hostile environment will be terraformed into a hub of human activity. “This is the beginning of a golden time for the LA River,” MacAdams says. “You can almost taste it.” Then he reconsiders. “Well, that’s not really the word you’d want to use.”

Webmonkey Podcast: Go Behind the Scenes With WIRED’s Coders

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While You Were Offline: The Avengers Disassemble in Press Junket Hell

Have you ever thought about what it means to be a celebrity? Like, really thought about it? If there’s been a running theme to this week’s stories, it is that—just maybe—being a celebrity is fairly weird and leads you to have a skewed view on what you can say or do at any given moment (as well as what people think they can say or do in front of you). Oh, and a superhero came out of the closet because his telepathic friend told him he’s gay and Amy Schumer failed to impress Kanye West and Kim Kardashian with her antics. Yeah, it’s been that kind of a week. Here’s what you might have missed over the last seven days in the online wilderness.

In Which Iron Man Walks Out of an Interview

What Happened: In the middle of an interview promoting Avengers: Age of Ultron in the UK, Robert Downey Jr. got asked about his past. So he got up and left.
Where It Blew Up: Twitter, blogs, media think pieces
What Really Happened: The press junket interview is a strange thing; celebrities sit in a room while numerous interviewers come in, ask roughly the same questions for a limited time (around 10 minutes, say), and then leave to be replaced by another interviewer who’ll ask the same questions. Celebrities often comment on the surrealities of the process, saying that they love it when someone comes in and asks something that they don’t expect. Turns out, that’s not always the case.
Krishnan Guru-Murthy, for example, thought it’d be a good idea to use his seven minutes in interview heaven to ask Robert Downey Jr. about his history of substance abuse and getting in trouble with the law instead of whether it was cool to pretend to save the world one more time. Things didn’t go well. Unusually, however, Guru-Murthy then shared what happened online.

The video of the segment (above) quickly went viral on Twitter:

It wasn’t just social media that had something to say about it; soon, it was all over the Internet, going viral in a way that it wouldn’t had it gone well. Had Downey done the right thing, as many believed, or had he gone too far? Perhaps the best response might have come from writer and director Richard Ayoade:

He’s speaking from experience, after all

The Takeaway: It’s easy to be torn about who to sympathize with here: Downey Jr., who was clearly confused and uncomfortable with the line of questioning? Well, maybe not: He did seem a bit passive-aggressive with the line about “better ask the next question.” Guru-Murthy, for getting his interview shut down in such an unexpected manner? Well, OK, probably not, because he should’ve read the room a little bit better and realized that he shouldn’t go down that route after the first question. Maybe both of them, just a little bit? After all, there’s something about the whole press junket thing that’s more than a little unnatural, as you’ll soon see…

In Which Captain America Said What?

What Happened: In another interview promoting Avengers: Age of Ultron, Chris Evans (Captain America) and Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye) made what could be charitably be described as an ill-chosen joke. Fans were not happy.
Where It Blew Up: Twitter, blogs, media think pieces
What Really Happened: It wasn’t just Iron Man whose Age of Ultron promotional interviews were making headlines for the wrong reasons this week, as this interview with Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner demonstrates.

Even as a joke, calling Black Widow a “slut” and “whore” was something that really, really didn’t go down well.

The comments launched a deluge of coverage online, with both actors rightfully criticized. While fans defended them with the “it’s just a joke about a fictional character” argument, others explained why it was important to talk about the comments nonetheless.

Eventually, both actors released statements apologizing, with Evans saying that the comments were “very juvenile and offensive,” while Renner opted for the more petulant “I am sorry that this tasteless joke about a fictional character offended anyone,” blaming “an exhausting and tedious press tour.” That difference in tone was picked up online:

The Takeaway: Between this and the Downey Jr. moment, it’s as if the endless promotional cycle for the new Avengers movie is just breaking its stars. By this time next week, Mark Ruffalo will have lost his mind and climbed on top of the Empire State Building naked to try and catch some passing planes, mark our words.

It’s OK, Kanye Has That Effect on a Lot of People

What Happened: Amy Schumer collapses on the red carpet outside the Time 100 Gala, right in front of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. They were not impressed.
Where It Blew Up: Twitter, blogs, media think pieces
What Really Happened:Really, does this need any explanation?

Oh, it does? Well, fine; this might give a little bit more context:

(We love that Schumer explained what happened by saying “I saw them and said to my publicist, ‘Can I pretend to fall?’ and she said, ‘I can’t stop you.'”)

The sight of Schumer collapsing before Kanye and Kim was, of course, perfect Internet fodder, with BuzzFeed making the most out of it. Would that all red carpets could be this wonderful.
The Takeaway: As if the “Last F**kable Day” skit and “Football Town Nights” sketch hadn’t already convinced you that Schumer is on fire right now, this was just perfect.

The Muppets We Deserve, Not the Muppets We Want

What Happened: ABC’s planning the revive the Muppets (yay!), but in a faux-mockumentary format that will explore the personal lives of the characters (boo!).
Where It Blew Up: Twitter, blogs, media think pieces
What Really Happened: Hey, remember the news that ABC was planning on making a new Muppet show that we all got so excited about a few weeks ago? Guess what: It’s going to be a “more adult” show about the Muppets’ personal lives. According to Entertainment Weekly, it’ll have “a 30 Rock feel,” shot in “mock-documentary style, like Arrested Development and The Office.”

Let’s just see how people reacted to this news, shall we?

It’s not as if we’ve never seen the Muppets’ personal lives on screen before (hello, The Muppet Movie), but for some reason, the idea of a “more adult” take is unsettling … perhaps because it’s responsible for headlines like this. Nonetheless: Do not want, ABC.
The Takeaway: Is this like some kind of Monkey’s Paw thing, where we get what we wanted, but in a form we really don’t want? It is, isn’t it? Can’t we just have a straightforward Muppet Show again, with celebrity guests and a song or two every week? It’s not that hard, television executives.

Oh, Cool

What Happened: One of Marvel’s first X-Men was revealed to be gay more than half a century after he first appeared, prompting … well, pretty much exactly the reactions that you’d expect, really.
Where It Blew Up: Twitter, blogs, media think pieces
What Really Happened: In this week’s issue of Marvel’s All-New X-Men, teenage telepath Jean Grey tells her teammate Iceman that he’s gay, something she knows because—well, she’s a telepath. The news actually broke before the issue was released when the sequence was leaked online, quickly becoming a big story in LGBT publications like The Advocate, NewNowNext and Pink News, before getting picked up by mainstream outlets.

The social media reaction was pretty predictable:

Brian Michael Bendis, who wrote the comic in question, talked about the revelation being part of an ongoing story for the character, while X-Men movie director Bryan Singer also spoke about his happiness at seeing the news. But the most wonderful thing about the whole reveal (other than the fact that Marvel now has a relatively high-profile gay character, finally) turned out to be an essay by Rachel Edidin and another by A.V. Club writer Oliver Sava, both of whom saw themselves in the scene and, in sharing that, managed to make it an even more touching event. All this from a comic book! What is the world coming to?
The Takeaway: Someone, somewhere is wondering what unfortunate things the actors at an Avengers press junket are going to say about this plot development. Also, we can but hope that this means Marvel will finally get around to admitting that Storm is bisexual sometime soon, because really, everyone, Storm is bisexual.

Don Draper Is Dick Whitman! Yowza!

What Happened: The Onion spin-off site Clickhole ran a fake oral history of AMC’s Mad Men that pretty much made it impossible to watch Mad Men ever again.
Where It Blew Up: Twitter
What Really Happened: Proving once again that it might be the greatest site on the entire Internet, Clickhole shared its Mad Men oral history with the world this week, revealing such never-before-known facts as Jon Hamm’s tendency to ruin scenes by shouting “No, I’m not Don Draper! Don Draper exploded! I’m Dick Whitman instead! Yowza!” at the end of every scene, and the fate of Joan Holloway. (“One day, in the early stages of filming the first season, Matt took me aside and told me that, in the Mad Men universe, Joan would eventually die by getting eaten by a shark in the year 2131, when she is 200 years old,” Christina Hendricks explained.)

Twitter was rapt by such investigate journalism, as it should have been.

For once, believe the hype. If you haven’t read this, you really, really should.

The Takeaway: It’s almost tragic that Mad Men didn’t have a chance to end before this article made it very, very difficult to take it seriously. If Jon Hamm doesn’t adopt “I am Hamm” as a real-life catchphrase immediately, then I think the world is justified in writing him off entirely. It’s up to you, Hamm.

Sci-Fi Films Need More Big Ideas Like Ex Machina’s

The new science fiction thriller Ex Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland, is one of the year’s most intelligent and thought-provoking films, full of heady concepts like the Turing test and Mary’s Room. For Garland, exploring those ideas is part of the appeal of science fiction.

“Sci-fi gives these incredible permissions to talk about whatever you want,” he says in Episode 147 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “It’s not embarrassed about big ideas.”

Garland, who started out as a novelist, is frustrated at the way that literary authors often eschew big ideas out of a fear of seeming sophomoric or pretentious.

“They’re so concerned with their status,” he says. “And so they repeat these endless stories about microcosm human relationships in a marriage, or whatever it happens to be.”

Big ideas often get a chilly reception in the film world as well. While pitching Ex Machina, Garland was told flat-out by film execs that “idea movies don’t work.” To him that seems crazy. He cites films ranging from 2001 to The Thin Red Line as evidence that idea movies can be both artistically and commercially successful.

Clockwork Orange is an ideas movie,” he says. “There’s a really sophisticated set of ideas in that film, and when I leave the film I’m not thinking about visceral moments. I’m thinking about the ideas that it provoked.”

As a novelist he knows that it’s easier to convey complex ideas in a book than on film, but he also thinks that film offers a unique opportunity to capture something profound within a single moment—an image or a glance. In Ex Machina, out now, he’s tried to bring a novelistic quality to the performances, letting the characters just be themselves and not always having to spell out everything for the audience.

“Film relies much more on inference, but that’s it’s strength too,” he says. “It has this terrific way of being able to load moments that it’s also throwing away, and that’s harder in a novel.”

Listen to our complete interview with Alex Garland in Episode 147 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Alex Garland on whether he helped inspire Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go:

“I have no idea if that’s true, because the thing about Ishiguro is he’s very intellectually curious and he’s very generous. And I’m not just saying that. As a young writer I sometimes used to encounter older writers, and you’d often get this incredible vibe of hostility. They didn’t like you, they don’t want younger writers coming up, they’re not into them. And with him it was exactly the opposite. … We did used to talk a lot about sci-fi. … But I honestly think he’s configured this in his mind, and it wasn’t really [because of me]. He would have written that book anyway. Because he sits outside the mainstream—within literary fiction—he does stuff that the other guys just don’t do. And he’s always been like that, right from the get-go, so I can’t appropriate that.”

Alex Garland on creative freedom:

“So I wrote this first book, The Beach. It’s all about backpackers and an attempt at a utopian society in Southeast Asia, and then I wrote a second book called The Tesseract, which took as its title a sort of four-dimensional cube—a hypercube—and the blood drained from the publisher’s face as I handed this over. It’s got largely Filipino characters, it’s set in the Philippines, and doesn’t have any of the mainstream appeal that The Beach turned out to have—rather surprisingly, from my point of view. Anyway, then I was mulling over another book, and I got sat down by someone here in New York who said, ‘You know what? I think it’s great that you tried something different, but maybe you should start thinking again about young people in a foreign location, and maybe they’re trying to set something up again.’ In other words, getting me to rewrite The Beach again, and I remember thinking, ‘I now have no respect for you, and I can never work with you again.’ So yes, that does happen, but it’s pathetic.”

Alex Garland on underrated sci-fi:

“I remember people were very rude about 2010, because it came after 2001. At the time lots of people said 2001 was no good, but by then the world had decided it was a masterpiece, and so then 2010 is a sacrilege. And actually I remember watching it thinking, ‘I’m really digging this movie.’ … I’ll tell you a film I saw that I knew nothing about—I knew nothing—and was blown away. One of my favorite ever film-watching experiences was Starship Troopers, the first one. I just knew nothing, it was hardly promoted in the UK. I don’t know why I went in there. Maybe it’s because it said ‘starship.’ I have no idea. I didn’t know the source material, I just knew nothing about it. And a few minutes in I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, this is the best film I’ve ever seen,’ and consciously enjoyed every second of the film from beginning to end, and just walked out totally exhilirated.”

Alex Garland on adapting Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation:

“[The script is] definitely not holding up a mirror to the novel, but it’s true to my subjective response to the novel—it’s true to what I responded to and got out of the novel. … There was a tone in there that to me related to what I used to feel reading certain kinds of Ballard novels. It’s not in any way derivative, it’s very much its own thing, but what it made me feel was very much like what I used to feel reading The Drowned World or The Crystal World, which were Ballard novels that took a strange central conceit and then sort of exist within them, like ‘the world is turning to crystal.’ There’s a sort of dream-state aspect of that that I found incredibly alluring and hypnotic, and that’s what pulled me into Annihilation.”

You Should Google Everyone, Even Your Therapist

467845770 Getty Images

When I first met my shrink, I wasn’t so sure about him. He’s handsome, fit, not much taller than me, reticent. I couldn’t tell if his reticence was disapproval and judgment or if he was just doing his job: staying quiet, staying neutral. I’m new to therapy, and, frankly, had wanted a woman therapist, but here I was with this silent, unreadable man and I didn’t know how to feel comfy about it.

So I Googled him. I found his Facebook page, saw that he might be a band geek (like me), that he seems generally empathetic and that he has a cute dog that sometimes wears clothes.

That’s how I got comfortable.

A couple of weeks ago, Anna Fels wrote for the New York Times about patients Googling their therapists. Written from the perspective of a Googled therapist, the piece cautions against the ways in which knowing about your doctor’s personal life can affect the experience of therapy. She also acknowledged it happens in the other direction, too: ER nurses, for instance, are Googling their patients to find out if they’re criminals, or if they’re famous, or just if they’re anything interesting at all.

“The experience of evaluating a patient with fresh eyes and no prior assumptions may, for better and for worse, disappear,” Fels wrote.

I know that overGoogling can pose a problem for lots of people: Job seekers are legally entitled to a discrimination-free application process, for instance. And juries, too: We all know juries can’t (or shouldn’t) go Googling defendants. And what about the people out there who screwed up five years ago but their DUI or viral video or racist tweet is still the first thing that comes up? Are we not more than our search results?

We are. Still, I Google every single person I meet. Sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of curiosity. And I bet you, to some extent, do that, too. It’s a reflex now, and like a cliche of Internet culture: If I can access information, why wouldn’t I? But if you tell a person you Googled her, she’ll recoil a bit. (Trust me.) So, how come?

I talked to Dr. Nora Ganim Barnes, director of the Center for Marketing Research at UMass Dartmouth, and she agreed people-Googling still seems a little gauche. Barnes found in her report, “Reaching the Wired Generation: How Social Media is Changing College Admission,” that 21 percent of colleges and universities say they research and recruit students on social networks—especially students applying for prestigious scholarships or programs with high visibility and limited seats. This surprised people, she says.

“The interesting thing to me is that anyone’s surprised by this,” Barnes says. She says people didn’t expect that “academia would stoop so low.” “[It was like they thought academia] should be exempt from those kinds of activities,” she says. “People need to understand that we’re in a new era right now. That era is one of complete transparency: You can see and hear and watch what people do more than we ever could before.”

Does Barnes think the Era of Complete Transparency is a bad thing? “Some people think it’s good, some people think it’s bad,” she says. “For me, it’s just real.”

Which is why you’re basically behind the curve if you’re not Googling pretty much everyone you meet. The trend is not reserved for college admissions and doctors and nosy-parkers like me. There are startups in the service industry that capitalize this hunger for information, using it to help connect people with like-minded employees.

I talked to Lynn Perkins, CEO of Urban Sitter, a site that connects families with babysitters. Through Urban Sitter, both families and sitters create profiles using Facebook Connect, which pulls some of their Facebook info into an Urban Sitter profile. From there, profiles can be augmented with more info about why a sitter loves to sit or how many kids a family has and how old they are. There’s also a rating system within the site so that families can see how reliable or skilled sitters are, and sitters can see whether a family, say, burns through sitters quickly (a warning sign), or routinely comes home late.

“We try to give both sides a lot of information,” Perkins says. But even with that information, “both sitters and parents Google each other.” What are they looking for? The usual stuff: vulgar posts, criminal records, that kind of thing. But Perkins says she also noticed something else sitters in particular were trying to find: the occupations of the parents they’re sitting for.

“They’re looking to see where the parents work as a potential career connection,” Perkins says. “We’ve had numerous people find jobs through the parents they’ve met through the site. It’s super smart and motivated of the sitters.”

It is super smart. I’m for it. I’m for using the Internet as a teaching tool, a networking tool, a research tool. Why should we deny ourselves information?

Except I know that some people really do suffer from overzealous Googlers like me. Some of our histories are painful and our mistakes don’t (and shouldn’t) define us. Our grammar and spelling skills, our political alliances, whether we like Game of Thrones—those don’t necessarily determine whether we’re worth hiring or friending. I do not let that fact dissuade me from Googling, but I keep that in mind so that I can be a good Googler. A mindful Googler.

General advice for finding a good shrink is to shop around for a while, meet with a few people before you find a connection. I know people who’ve never found that connection. And while some details—taste in movies or music or authors or whether or not she’s a foodie—may not really be reliable for determining who might be a good doctor to you, there are things to be gleaned from the Web about the personality and style of a particular therapist that can, potentially, help you reach the right person.

Knowing what I know about my shrink helped me decide to pursue a relationship with him. What I found led me to believe I could talk to him openly about my most secret, most anxiety-fraught thoughts—and I was right. I don’t know how he would feel about the fact that I know he has a cute little dog, seems to live in a nice house, and maybe was involved in band in high school. But I hope he’d see that all those things signaled kindness to me. And that was all I was really looking for.

Subject: Help, Dammit

About a month ago, I bought a car. I know: big deal, me and the rest of America, right? Kind of, but not really. Unlike the average person, I didn’t have to face the dealer alone. I had access to the writers behind WIRED’s automotive coverage. So I asked them for a little guidance.

Now, those of us who write about cars here aren’t just working our day jobs; we’re obsessives. We write about cars because we talk about cars—incessantly, to the annoyance of everyone around us. So it’s not surprising that my emailed plea devolved into a rambling, novella-length thread about the state of the auto industry, douchebaggery, and a surprising number of stories about Jaguars. (No, I did not buy—or even consider—a Jaguar.)

Anyway, we thought we’d share. So here it is, unedited and uncut:


Fri 3/13/2015 7:51 AM
From: Brown, Joe
To: Sam Smith; Squatriglia, Chuck; Davies, Alexander; Jordan Golson
Subject: Help, dammit

I sold the Saab yesterday. Guy didn’t even haggle me, knew what he was getting.

So… now I have no car. A recap of what I want:

A lease less than $400/month
Comfortable
Decent fuel economy
Able to accomodate a motorcycle on a hitch rack
NO CVT
Brown interior (I do not like black interiors)

Here are my options, so far, I think. Help, though, because there has to be something I am missing.

– Audi Q3
notes:
– dealers are a bag o’ dicks, tryna get me to put down a deposit because “there are so few in California.”
– Seemingly impossible to get one with a brown interior

– VW Tiguan
notes:
– Love the interior config/feel
– Test drove, and it was a dog, but I haven’t driven the R-Line yet. Is there a difference in performance?

BMW X1
​notes:
– I sorta don’t want to be the guy who drives a BMW, especially the cheapest BMW—feels like social climbing.

Mercedes-Benz GLK
notes:
– expensive.

Help!

***

From: Jordan Golson
To: “Brown, Joe”
Cc: Sam Smith, Chuck Squatriglia, “Davies, Alexander”
Subject: Re: Help, dammit

From my little brother the car designer, I gotta agree on the V60.

Volvo V60 or V60 Cross Country. Less than $400/mo, gorgeous Beechwood brown interior with the nicest seats you will experience this side of a Maybach S-Class, all the tech and safety you could want, superb looks and build quality, good mileage, sport enough, lots of room… etc. I personally wouldn’t even bother test-driving anything else, but I’m a big Volvo wagon guy. Here are some other options:

BMW 328d or 328i Sports Wagon, if you can get yourself a good deal. Great mileage, lots of space, great build quality, but definitely pricey

Mercedes GLA. On the small side (Audi Q3/BMW X1 competitor), but also on the cheaper side. You’d be able to get yourself a nicely spec’d one.

Jeep Cherokee. Polarizing styling, but it’s a great bang for your buck and has one of the best infotainment systems out there. Also seriously roomy, and seriously capable.

MINI Countryman. Kinda speaks for itself, really.

Dodge Durango. BIG, powerful, very roomy, and not too thirsty. Kinda of an oddball choice, I love them.

***

Volvo V60Volvo V60 Volvo

From: Chuck Squatriglia
To: “Brown, Joe”
Cc: Sam Smith, Jordan Golson, “Davies, Alexander”
Subject: Re: Help, dammit

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I like the new Ford Explorer. Nice styling, AWD if you get the EcoBoost V6, loads of torque and towing capacity, under $40K (unless you go for the Sport model, which is $43,100) and 17/24 mpg.

I don’t know if it’s significantly bigger than anything else you’re considering. And if you can somehow get the Interceptor police package, hot damn. Got any friends at Ford?

***

From: Sam Smith
To: Chuck Squatriglia
Cc: Jordan Golson, “Brown, Joe” , “Davies, Alexander”
Subject: Re: Help, dammit

Dammit, Chuck, I’m going to disown you.

And this thread was going so well. The Explorer is terrible. It’s a Taurus jacked up in the air, and the Taurus is a bad car to begin with. Terrible terrible terrible fuel economy, massive footprint, massive curb weight, impossible to see out of, crap cabin materials, crap powertrains unless you spend for the Ecoboost (and it’s too much money), crap build quality, crap transmissions. The SHO is maybe marginally OK but even then that’s a stretch. The Police Interceptor pack just gilds the turd—spring rate, reprogramming, better dampers and bushings and shit. I’d rather have a Crown Vic. I’d rather have a Camry. I’d rather have a bullet to my frontal lobe.

Joe—just to clarify—this needs to be something new, right? (Nothing wrong with that, just limits the options. Especially with the motorcycle thing—that kind of tongue weight knocks out a lot of stuff.) Leasing or buying?

Random thoughts, your mileage may vary:

Tiguan: R-line is just trim stuff. And no matter how you spec it, it’s not quick.

X1: Too expensive if you spec it right, interior sucks, and the four-cylinder is atrocious. (Six is great, but way too much money.) You don’t want one of these, I promise. And any BMW is going to give you less than the competition for more money, and most of them don’t drive well enough any more to justify it. Reliability is also not great.

Q3 probably makes the best sense. Drives well, decent resale, looks good, nice interiors. Just pleasant. But they’re selling like crazy. I’d believe dealers are running out of their allocations, but I don’t believe there are “so few.” If you really want one and the dealers are being terrible, consider calling Audi PR. Not to cut a deal—screw that—but because they can just suggest a dealer who has a car to sell and won’t dick you over.

Jeep: Big problems with the ZF-sourced nine-speed automatic, which they still haven’t sorted. Little space inside. Drives well, though. Personally, I can’t get over the looks.

Mini: Most of their stuff is, unfortunately, not built very well. Can’t say I’m a fan of anything they’ve done in the past few years, but that’s just me. And I’d stay away from the all-wheel-drive stuff; it’s known for coming apart.

Durango isn’t that bad. Same bones as the Grand Cherokee—old Mercedes ML—but a third row and more length.

Thought about a stripped-out or slightly used Grand Cherokee?

Volvo is nice—screwed together well, drives well, and dealers can’t sell them, so you could probably get a deal. But have to assume the tongue weight of a motorcycle wouldn’t do it favors—assuming it could handle it.

***

From: Squatriglia, Chuck
To: Sam Smith
Cc: Jordan Golson; Brown, Joe; Davies, Alexander
Subject: Re: Help, dammit

Going forward, I’m just gonna keep quiet when these conversations come up…

:-)

***

From: Sam Smith
To: Chuck Squatriglia
Cc: Jordan Golson, “Brown, Joe” , “Davies, Alexander”
Subject: Re: Help, dammit

Whoops, phone rang and hit send without finishing that sentence. On Durango, meant to say “Wouldn’t think it’d be difficult to get a good price on one.”

***

From: “Brown, Joe”
To: Chuck Squatriglia, Sam Smith, “Davies, Alexander”
Cc: Jordan Golson
Subject: Re: Help, dammit

What do you guys think of the Ford Escape? I like the size, the ground clearance, that I can load that fucker up with everything and still come in under the base price of a Q3; I like that it’s American, and that I can roll up into a small town with looking like a rich asshole.

Sam, have you driven?

***

From: Sam Smith
To: Brown, Joe; Squatriglia, Chuck; Davies, Alexander; Jordan Golson
Subject: Help, dammit

Escape is pretty damn decent. Basically a Focus underneath, and the Focus is a great thing to drive. (And lease. Wouldn’t own one long term if you paid me.) Relatively light, decent mileage, you can see out of it. Sync has improved greatly—it’s still bad, as Jordan says—but if you ask me, it’s now good enough that you won’t drive yourself nuts over a lease term.

Check to see if it can handle the tongue weight? And just for the record, how heavy’s the bike?

***

From: Jordan Golson
To: Brown, Joe
Cc: Squatriglia, Chuck; Sam Smith; Davies, Alexander
Subject: Re: Help, dammit

I would wait on any Ford until the Sync system is gone. That thing is fucking terrible.

***

From: Sam Smith
To: Brown, Joe; Squatriglia, Chuck; Davies, Alexander; Jordan Golson
Subject: Help, dammit

Oh, right, re: Sync: Avoid the MyFord Touch part, which (just checked) is only on the Escape Titanium. Sync as a voice-activation system and media/phone/nav integration isn’t bad. Touch is the terrible haptic-feedback dash/screen combo.

***

From: “Brown, Joe”
To: Chuck Squatriglia, Sam Smith, “Davies, Alexander”
Cc: Jordan Golson
Subject: Re: Help, dammit

Towing capacity is 3,500 lbs, which means that tongue has gotta be at least 350, right? And since the thing is AWD it will at worst just send all the power to the back and fuck my mileage up if I overload it a scosh—as opposed to lifting the fucking front wheels off the ground in a pathetic spin as would happen in my Saab. Bike hasn’t been bought yet, but I like the KLX250 (275lbs wet + 80 lb hitch rack = close enough for rock and roll) and will likely buy a CRF150 (240lbs wet = no problem) first.

Damn, sucks that the Titanium has that awful system on it, because I like all the other options—the safety stuff, etc. Is it really that bad? I’m used to plugging an iPhone into an aux jack…

***

From: Brown, Joe
To: Sam Smith; Squatriglia, Chuck; Davies, Alexander; Jordan Golson
Subject: Help, dammit

Also I hate the Cherokee. Feels like you’re driving in a coffin.

***

From: Squatriglia, Chuck
To: Sam Smith; Brown, Joe
Cc: Jordan Golson; Davies, Alexander
Subject: Re: Help, dammit

Screw all this. Get a Land Rover Defender and crush everything in your path. Yes, they’re old. And expensive. And have zero safety gear. But they’re cool as hell, go anywhere and it’ll always have resale value.

***

From: Brown, Joe
To: Sam Smith; Squatriglia, Chuck; Davies, Alexander; Jordan Golson
Subject: Help, dammit

​I was thinking about that new entry-level land rover that’s coming out—what is it, the Discovery 2? And also, we haven’t touched on the Renegade yet. Worth waiting for?

***

From: Jordan Golson
To: Brown, Joe
Cc: Squatriglia, Chuck; Sam Smith; Davies, Alexander
Subject: Re: Help, dammit

Towing capacity on the Renegade is just 2,000 lbs with the big motor. Discovery Sport, I think the LR is called. Evoque is pretty nice too, and if you wait a year it comes in a convertible! *ducks*

***

From: Davies, Alexander
To: Sam Smith; Squatriglia, Chuck; Brown, Joe; Jordan Golson
Subject: Help, dammit

If the douchiness that comes with a German make bothers you, I’d steer clear of all things Range Rover. The LR2’s a candidate, though—not bad looking, dece milage (24 combined), it’s tow 2,000 lbs.

Re: Evoque—I tried to make an “in the land of the blind” joke, but the point is it’s ugly and no one should buy it or see it.

***

From: Sam Smith
To: “Davies, Alexander”
Cc: Jordan Golson, “Brown, Joe”, Chuck Squatriglia
Subject: Re: Help, dammit

Ugly’s in the eye of the beholder, right? Me, I don’t find it attractive or unattractive. But regardless: They sell a lot of those things to brodouches and douchebros and the buy-it-for-my-little-girl car-buying fathers of teenage girls. Pretty much helped the brand stay afloat.

***

From: Sam Smith
To: “Davies, Alexander”
Cc: Jordan Golson, “Brown, Joe”, Chuck Squatriglia
Subject: Re: Help, dammit

Also: I worked as a parts guy at a Jaguar dealer in Chicago, in the early 2000s, for almost a year. Everyone makes fun of Jaguar mechanics. I literally watched a car catch fire on a lift because it was a Jaguar. I saw an XJ get towed in because the diff had, no lie, fallen out of it. I saw one X-Type get four replacement driveshafts. The stories go on. The cars were frustrating, short-lived, great but not great. Jaguar techs have a great job, because they’re never hurting for work, but also a terrible job, because it’s ridiculous work.

The only guys the Jaguar techs made fun of were the Land Rover techs. Because they were the only ones who had it worse.

***

Jaguar X. Jaguar X. Jaguar

From: Squatriglia, Chuck
To: Sam Smith; Brown, Joe; Davies, Alexander; Jordan Golson
Subject: Help, dammit

True story…

For reasons I will not bother you with, a few years sago I (very briefly) came into possession of a Jaguar X-Type. I knew it was a mess, so I took it to a Jaguar specialist to get an idea of just what it needed. The mechanic called me a few hours later and said, “Are you sitting down?” Seriously. He actually said that, and he was not being ironic. He then proceeded to rattle off a list of things the car needed that ran 1.5 pages long when I was done writing it all down. He also said, “We have never seen an ECU throw so many fault codes.”

The bottom line: a car worth about $4,200 needed about $9,000 in work if we were going to do everything on the list. Taking off the shit that could wait (right rear window motor, that sort of stuff) and limiting ourselves to the shit that had to be done brought the tab down to something that was still more than the car was worth. The guy flat-out said, “The best thing you can do with this car is push it into the Bay.” Of course, this says more about the guy (who shall remain nameless) I helped out by paying off this heap than it does about Jaguar. But still. Jaguar. /shudder

***

From: Brown, Joe
To: Sam Smith; Squatriglia, Chuck; Davies, Alexander; Jordan Golson
Subject: Help, dammit

My grandfather bought the first XJ6 in America back in the 60s, and now he is dead (unrelated).

– mobile

***

From: Sam Smith
To: Brown, Joe; Squatriglia, Chuck; Davies, Alexander; Jordan Golson
Subject: Help, dammit

Heh. That’s both awesome and terrible. For the record, I have a lot of X-Type stories. Most of them require drinking.

***

From: Squatriglia, Chuck
To: Sam Smith; Brown, Joe; Davies, Alexander; Jordan Golson
Subject: Help, dammit

Don’t all things Jaguar require drinking?

***

From: Sam Smith
To: Brown, Joe; Squatriglia, Chuck; Davies, Alexander; Jordan Golson
Subject: Help, dammit

Almost two years ago, I acquired a ’99 XJR with 100,000 miles. It was free, and had just had $15,000 worth of work, including a new engine. It took me a week of research to convince myself that it was worth it to take this (wonderfully driving, extraordinarily pleasant) car, for free, and park it in my driveway. Eventually guessed it would be something like 10,000 miles before I had to fix it, and maybe 15,000 before it cost me so much that I would have to cut bait and give it away to some other sap.

Also, the battery exploded immediately after I got it home, the moment I put it on a charger. I took this as a sign.

I still own it. My wife calls this “non-circular thinking.” Also “a sign that you have problems, and that I am not going to let our child ride in that damn car.”

She’ll come around.

***

From: Squatriglia, Chuck
To: Sam Smith; Davies, Alexander
Cc: Jordan Golson; Brown, Joe
Subject: Re: Help, dammit

Semi-serious question: The primary reason you want something big is so you can haul a motorcycle and go camping and stuff. How often are you going to do that? A couple of times a month, max? So why not buy a clean fourth- (1984-88) or fifth-gen (1988-97) Toyota pickup for hauling motorcycles and such and lease a car for everything else?

I know the lack of safety features in an old truck is an issue, but there is a certain irony to being concerned about safety equipment in a car when we ride motorcycles…

***

From: “Brown, Joe”
To: Chuck Squatriglia, Sam Smith, “Davies, Alexander”
Cc: Jordan Golson
Subject: Re: Help, dammit

​Fair question, and I would totally buy a GTI and a used pickup (2003 Tacoma would be my choice) if parking weren’t an issue. But it is: I live in Noe Valley and am very lucky to have a 1-car garage.

***

From: Squatriglia, Chuck
To: Sam Smith; Davies, Alexander
Cc: Jordan Golson; Brown, Joe
Subject: Re: Help, dammit

Leave the truck at the WIRED garage…

***

From: “Brown, Joe”
To: Chuck Squatriglia, Sam Smith, “Davies, Alexander”
Cc: Jordan Golson
Subject: Re: Help, dammit

Started out the day at the Volvo dealer, because everyone here seemed to like the V60. Christine liked the way the XC60 looked, so we drove that. She loved it. It was $50,000. I shoved her into the trunk and drove to the Ford dealer, where we drove an Escape. The sales guy was literally 19 years old and the Escape that had the shit I want—leather, moon roof, 4WD, tow package—was almost $40,000. OK, that’s reasonable because I’d heard that they’re nice cars.

Nope! What an embarrassing piece of shit, layered in chintsy plastic and I think a music-box monkey under the hood turning the tires with his poor little monkey-hands. Makes me ashamed to be an American. If Renault weren’t at-this-moment busy destroying all memory of Red Bull dominance at the Australian Grand Prix, I’d move to France.

Then we drove the 4Runner, which we liked. It wasn’t trying to be fancy, it had plenty of pep, and looks like an apocalypse car in black. (Bonus trivia about me: I’m a prepper.) I have this thing, though, where I hate black interiors. I don’t know what it is, they make me feel on edge. I want tan leather. There is apparently not a tan leather 4Runner in all of America, so the salesguy suggested we buy the one we drove.

Amazingly, I caved a little, and was like,

OK, screw it, I’m exhausted from driving from dealership to dealerhip and hearing the [YourBrand]-and-please-meet-my-manager spiel a hundred fucking times over the course of the past few months (Jeep, Subaru, Audi, VW, Mazda Toyota, Volvo, and more I’ve probably forgotten) that I am just going to buy this car with black leather interior and it is going to be fine. Because it has everything else, right [SALESGUY NAME REDACTED]?

[GUY] Yes, sir. 4-wheel-drive and a towing package.

[ME] OK, how much?

[GUY] Let me go ask my manager

~ 5 minute interlude ~

[GUY] OK, I have some bad news. That car is front-wheel drive.

[ME] The 4Runner doesn’t come in FWD…

[GUY] brb

~ 5 minute interlude ~

[GUY] OK, yes, it is rear-wheel drive. But if you come with me, I can take you to drive a 4WD one.

[ME] Can we just talk money first? Like, how much is the *RWD* one, and how much is the 4WD one?

[GUY] Absolutely, sir, let me go talk to my manager.

~ 5 minute interlude ~

[GUY] So I have some good news. We can actually put beige leather seats in that car you drove for only $1,800

[ME] How much is the car, 36-month lease, $3,500 down, right now, as is. Same question for the 4WD one?

[GUY] Let me ask my —

[ME] Leaves.

We were so sick of driving around the Peninsula that we walked to the Volvo dealer. We loved the vibe there, and we loved the XC60. It was too expensive, but I was pretty sure we could make a deal.

Already-long-story-a-little-bit-shorter, we got a V60 because Volvo intro’d a 2015.5 version that has nav standard, so they knocked $8G off the 2015 V60 and made it cheaper to lease than a Ford Escape. It has the towing cap that I need, and, after a lengthy drive, it felt very familiar to us. Hmm, a sporty Swedish wagon, eh…

Pics coming tomorrow. Thanks for your help.
JB

***

From: Squatriglia, Chuck
To: Sam Smith; Davies, Alexander
Cc: Jordan Golson; Brown, Joe
Subject: Re: Help, dammit

This should be a post… The entire thread.

***

From: “Brown, Joe”
To: Chuck Squatriglia, Sam Smith, “Davies, Alexander”
Cc: Jordan Golson
Subject: Re: Help, dammit

How many automotive journalists does it take to buy a car?

– mobile

***

From: Jordan Golson
To: Brown, Joe
Cc: Squatriglia, Chuck; Sam Smith; Davies, Alexander
Subject: Re: Help, dammit

Excellent! I drove an XC60 for a week when I was in Boston. It was wonderful.

***

From: Sam Smith
To: Brown, Joe; Squatriglia, Chuck; Davies, Alexander; Jordan Golson
Subject: Help, dammit

This email is a riot. And congrats, Joe. (And for the record, no fucking way in hell is an Escape of any flavor worth $40k.)

***

From: “Brown, Joe”
To: Chuck Squatriglia, Sam Smith, “Davies, Alexander”
Cc: Jordan Golson
Subject: Re: Help, dammit

Epilogue:

On our way down to sign the papers on the Volvo this morning, we bought an Acura. We had passed by the dealer a couple times, and it was clear they were trying to move RDX stock. There were some pretty juicy lease deals. A quick auto-show-Googles brought up the ’16 RDX, due in dealers soon, outfitted with trendy LED “jewel” headlamps and a touchscreen control scheme instead of buttons—but otherwise unchanged from the ’15 model. Same engine, AWD system, sequential-ish automanual (not bad!), and everything else.

We stopped in, and they had like a million of them with beige interiors. These are my people, I guess. We test drove it, liked it, and they offered us a fully loaded one—like, literally everything—for four bucks a month more than the base model V60 we were on the way to get. We signed.

Joe's new car, 2016 Acura RDX. Joe’s new car, 2016 Acura RDX. Honda

I feel pretty good about it, but awful about new-car buying (or leasing, whatever). This was my first new car, and I went into the process really excited. I love cars! I make a good living and have worked hard for my sterling credit. The lot was my oyster.

But even armed with more than a decade of professional knowledge and an email thread jammed with the expertise I lack (except from Alex, oddly; earn your keep, dude), I couldn’t make a decision. I drove everything I’d be comfortable driving in public, and, in the end, true to my joke about settling for a Honda, I just got the least offensive option.

The RDX is a great car, and I really enjoyed the stint up the highway home. It’s smooth and quick. It has Bluetooth that I used before I even got out of the lot to call my dad and exclaim I BOUGHT A BRAND-NEW LUXURY CAR EVEN THOUGH, 15 YEARS AGO, WE WERE ALL SURE I WOULD BE A FELON BY NOW! I checked the weather on its voice controlled screen, and the next time we take it out, I will prank my wife by clandestinely turning on her seat heater. Best of all, unlike our beautiful, pristine, best-example-of-its-model Saab, I am 100% sure that the RDX will get us where we’re going every time.

But it’s no Saab. It’s not as fast; it’s not a stick. You can’t even get a stick shift in a car with electric windows anymore. But none of that is what bugs me.

The worst part for a car guy like me, is that this car says absolutely nothing about me—and I can’t find one that does. I can hand the keys to a parking attendant without adding special instructions about putting the stick in reverse before taking the key out, or warning against touching the brake bias dial. I can pull up to a restaurant invisibly, parked next to another crossover of vaguely the same shape. When someone asks me what car I have, I probably won’t bother to mention the year—or even the model.

Because with a new car, the higher years are better, and the model names all blur together. My name is on the lease of this RDX, but I feel no ownership of it. I got a great deal on a great car, but when my wife and I went out to lunch afterwards, it was not so much a celebration of the car as it was of the whole awful process being over.

And we are super lucky. The lower end of the car spectrum—where we started looking, because spending a lot of money on a car is fucking stupid—is genuinely depressing. Midrange new car lots feel like the plastic-bin section of Target now. There’s no gravitas, nothing to aspire to; the accessible brands all make several different flavors of $20,000 car, each kittable up to around $40k, at which point you are better off clamping your teeth around its cheap-ass tailpipe and letting the salesguy drag you down the road on his five-minute freeway test drive.

The affordable end of the car spectrum feels stagnant and unchanged from when I bought my first car almost 20 years ago. That’s because it is. I had this moment when I realized that, 19 years later, I was again looking primarily at 4-cylinder cars that got 30 miles a gallon.

Obviously this is changing; electric cars are making their way into different segments and price-brackets. Hybrids are already commonplace. When my lease is up in 3 years, I might very well have the option of an electric car for someone who likes to leave cities and main roads. I sure hope so, because otherwise I am going to freak the hell out.

Sorry to ramble. I have wasted enough of your time—and it’s time for me to buy a hitch-rack for the dirt bike. Speaking, of which, I’m in the market for a motorcycle hitch-rack. Two-inch. Has to be able to hold at least 250 pounds, but I don’t want something that’s a pain in the ass to install. I’m sure you guys have opinions…

***

From: Sam Smith
To: Brown, Joe; Squatriglia, Chuck; Davies, Alexander; Jordan Golson
Subject: Help, dammit

And so you have landed on the reason why literally everyone I know who cares about cars has done one of three things:

1. Buy something older that suits personal wants/needs (manual, chain-drive, wagon, school bus, polka-dot seat heaters, whatever) and deal with the inevitable repair bills

2. Spend between $45,000 to $150,000 for emotional satisfaction, or some semblance thereof, and acknowledge that your purchase wasn’t worth the price. And that the car is basically disposable, because it was designed to be used through a lease term and not much longer. Because weight, complication, more plastics, overdesign/underengineer, cost creep, blah blah.

3. Settle. With the feeling on delivery day inevitably something like “Eh, it’ll do.”

I’m not exaggerating. Every person I know who even remotely likes driving—and this runs the gamut from single moms to private-jet owners—falls into one of these camps.

In the new-car world, the greatest casualty of the past 20 years has been the demise of the car that’s affordable, fun, cool, and practical. There are exceptions—mostly small hatchbacks from VW and Ford—but that’s what they are. Or you can leave out the “cool” thing and have something like a Honda Fit, which is cool to me but almost no one else.

It’s enough to make a guy feel like a Luddite. Only reason I know I don’t hate all new things/progress is that I want a lot of other new shit. Airplanes, motorcycles, instruments, gadgets, furniture, stereo equipment, whatever. A fucking alterable genome on the fly, from a smartphone, so I can fucking teleport already and not have to deal with airlines ever again. But very new few cars do it for me. Involvement is down, complexity is up, durability is up but also down (stuff lasts longer in duty cycles, but there are more nonrepairable parts in use, etc.) That’s not even touching the complexity/intimidation factor of the sales process, or how difficult it is to find unbiased, educated, third-party, non-engineer opinions about the product. The buff books certainly don’t do it. Consumer Reports is barely there but virtually unreadable. Or how annoying and terrible almost every dealer/car salesman is. Nobody likes buying a car, it’s never easy, and almost everyone in this country has to do it.

The 30-mpg four-cylinder thing is, yes, frustrating. The hold-steady is largely because cars weigh roughly twicewhat they did 30 years ago. Drag coefficients are way down, gearing and driveline efficiency is up, powerplant efficiency is WAY up. But weight drags it all back down again. Comfort is part of it. But crash is the greater culprit. Vehicle structures are now crash-optimized in ways they never were before, and fewer people are dying because of it. Which is good. But there’s no getting around the fact that more durable, crashable stuff weighs more if you make it out of metal. And that crash tests are getting harder to pass. More weight in the impacting vehicle, more offset tests, less cabin intrusion every year. (This is why everyone from BMW to GM is chasing the mass-produceable carbon-fiber unibody: It’s virtually nonrepairable in a major accident, but you can give it the crashability of a steel or alloy structure, or greater, and lighter weight if you engineer it right.)

But now I’m rambling. Glad you found something. And have to admit, I laughed when I read the Acura note, because I read Volvo one and was like, “oh, well … that ended … easily?”

-s.

***

From: Sam Smith
To: Brown, Joe; Squatriglia, Chuck; Davies, Alexander; Jordan Golson
Subject: Help, dammit

And sadly, I know diddly shit about motorcycle hitch racks. Last one I touched was in college, during the summer I spent as a factory Vespa mechanic.

Which we will never speak of again.

***

From: Sam Smith
To: Brown, Joe; Squatriglia, Chuck; Davies, Alexander; Jordan Golson
Subject: Help, dammit

Also, please forgive me for the crazy number of run-on sentences in that last email. Or the ones that ignore the rules of grammar. Or the number of times I start a sentence with a preposition. Or or or.

If you’re curious, I blame the fact that I spent two and a half hours at IKEA today with my wife. Plus another couple hours driving there and back. I hate IKEA. My wife hates IKEA. You don’t want to know why we were there for two and a half goddamn hours.

I am going to go have a beer.

***

From: “Brown, Joe”
To: Chuck Squatriglia, Sam Smith, “Davies, Alexander”
Cc: Jordan Golson
Subject: Re: Help, dammit

I think this is why people think car guys are so weird.

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