Friday, August 22, 2008

RIP Plymouth Acclaim

Yesterday I drove my 1993 Plymouth Acclaim (odometer reading 392,540 km, equal to 244,000 miles) to the scrapyard, which gave me a certificate entitling me to a reward from our provincial government's Scrap-It program. The reward is worth more than the car, so I'm ahead. (If you live in British Columbia and are interested in this program, see Your car or light truck must be 1995 or older, licensed in this province for the past year, and still drivable. Rewards range from $1200 to $2250, depending on what you replace your scrapped vehicle with.)

During my Plymouth's lifetime I recorded every expense along with the date and odometer reading (kilometres), and now that the books are closed I've done some analysis. You may be surprised to learn the true cost of operating a vehicle. It's more than fuel; it includes scheduled maintenance, repairs, insurance, and depreciation.

Back in 1994 when the car was new, fuel was cheap (40 cents per litre) and no repairs were needed, but depreciation was high. As the car aged, depreciation decreased but repairs increased, and fuel has risen steadily and is now $1.45 per litre. The net result is that the operating cost began at 10 cents/km and rose 10% every year, reaching 37 cents/km this year - about the same operating cost as a new vehicle. The 15-year average was 18 cents/km.

The annual cost to drive 16,000 km/year averaged $3,600 per year, or $10 per day. Remember, that's a 15-year average; currently (2008) it's $4,800 per year, or $13/day.

Consumer Reports has two pithy sayings about when to replace your car: (1) "The cheapest car you will ever own is the one you own now." (2) "Don't replace your car unless (a) it can't be made safe, or (b) the repairs will cost more than the car is worth." Over the past year, in anticipation of the end, I deferred several repairs that together were worth more than the car itself. With its clunking suspension, clicking CV joints and (recently) its tendency to run hot, I was not sure it would still be "drivable" so I could claim the reward. But it made it.

My replacement car is a 2005 Toyota Echo, the least expensive vehicle on Consumer Reports' list of "reliable cars with good fuel economy". I chose the four-door automatic model, not the even more economical stick-shift hatchback. So far, in mostly city driving it has averaged 8.3 litres per 100 km, which beats my old Plymouth Acclaim by more than 25%. For my readers who use gallons, that's 29 miles per US gallon or 34 miles per Imperial gallon.

[Update, August 2009: I've now had the Echo for a year, including a fierce winter, a hot summer with the air conditioner running constantly, and a 3,000 km trip this month to Edmonton and back on winding mountain roads. Prior to the Edmonton trip,
overall fuel economy for the year was 8.6 L/100km (28 miles per US gallon, 33 miles per Imperial gallon). But the real surprise was the Edmonton trip, which averaged 6.2 L/100km (39 miles per US gallon, 46 miles per Imperial gallon).

[Update, August 2012: The Echo now has almost 100,000 km, and seems just as good as when I bought it. Maintenance has been inexpensive, except that the air conditioner needed a new condenser.

Meanwhile, my wife's 1993 Plymouth Voyager minivan reached 450,000 km and needed repairs worth more than the vehicle, so we replaced it. She still needed a flat loading space with sliding doors to load musical equipment for her concerts, but with our nest almost empty a minivan was too big. She loves her 2010 Mazda5, purchased through Robert Montgomery of Quinella Auto Brokers. I know he found us a great deal, because I've seen the dealer's net cost - it's available through Consumer Reports.]

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Idioms and metaphors

The first rule for communicating in English with someone whose native language is not English is: avoid idioms. Idioms are those sayings that mean something different from the plain meaning of their words. They are closely related to metaphors, which are similar but shorter - I see metaphors as idioms that have been whittled down through long usage to just one or two words. ("Whittled down" is a metaphor.)

The idiom most often cited by English teachers is "raining cats and dogs," which means "raining heavily". In this context, "heavily" probably started out as a metaphor for "a lot", but now has come to actually mean that.

Sometimes we forget that our expressions actually are idioms (or metaphors). We often read in the newspapers that a building was "gutted by fire"; this ought to feel like a strange mixture of concepts, because the expression "gutted" is derived from the practice of cutting open an animal one is going to eat, and pulling out its guts because we prefer not to eat those parts. So the term "gutted by fire" originally meant that the exterior of the building remained standing but its interior had been destroyed. Today, "gutted by fire" may simply mean "destroyed by fire", and no longer retains any mental connection with the butchering of food animals.

If you are a native speaker of English, idioms can sneak up on you and be out of your mouth before you realize it. After you have used an idiom and realized that it has confused your listener, you may even catch yourself using another idiom to try to explain the first one. For example, if you say "I can pull this off" and see only a blank expression, you might explain that "pull this off" means "get away with this". You have simply swapped one idiom for another, and you are no closer to explaining the plain meaning, which is "I can do this without experiencing negative consequences, such as being arrested."

And then there are the cases where an idiom becomes confusing because the plain meaning of the words intrudes into the meaning of the sentence. It is one thing to say "she broke off her engagement to the sailor"; quite another to say "she didn't like the tattoo on his arm, so she broke it off".

News articles and headlines often contain idioms or metaphors for which the plain meaning is related to the topic. An article about birth control may use words like "conceptually", while one about guns may use words like "triggered". Psychologists say that writers do this unconsciously, which is more than we can say for the headline writers who give us such gems as
"Auto workers drive hard bargain," or "Fire chief marries old flame."

Sometimes the mental image caused by an inappropriate idiom or metaphor is very funny. I once read a technical book about the process of making pulp and paper. One of the first steps when a log arrives at the factory is to remove its bark. The book said this was usually done by hydraulic jets, but "in some older mills, barking is done by dogs on chains." I pictured rows of restrained rottweilers making a fierce din. What the author was really talking about was sharp metal objects, metaphorically called "dogs", attached to a bicycle-type chain that scrapes the outside of the log.

And yesterday, CBC Radio 1 interviewed a fashion designer who promoted one of her creations : "It looks like a sack on the rack, but it looks good on any body. Anyone can pull off this dress." You can imagine the mental images that brought to mind!

So if your goal is to be understood, speak plainly whenever you get on your soapbox. (Oops, see how easily they sneak in...)