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Can HGTV make house-flippers Ben and Erin the new Chip and Joanna?

By Karen Heller
Can HGTV make house-flippers Ben and Erin the new Chip and Joanna?
Erin and Ben Napier, the stars of HGTV's

LAUREL, Miss. - Ben Napier is massive, 6-foot-6, 300 lbs. His wife, Erin - 5-foot-5, slim - is not. She calls him "Big" and cranes her neck in such a constant state of adoration that she appears to be risking long-term muscle strain.

"Our show is a little bit 'This Old House,' and a little bit 'Gilmore Girls,' " says Erin, 32, standing in the living room of the morning's second makeover house, where the Napiers are taping "Home Town," the latest hit show on cable giant HGTV.

The show is a paean to this town of 19,000, once rich in loblolly pine, a town of handsome early 20th-century houses and dismal 1970s downtown urban renewal, which the Napiers and their entrepreneurial friends are determined to undo.

Laurel has "seen some hard times," says Ben, 34, in the show's opening. "We're committed to change that one house at a time."

The Napiers - and Laurel - are rising stars of HGTV. This spring, more than 16 million viewers watched the debut season of "Home Town." Driving around, it's easy to spot the five houses that the show is simultaneously renovating for the second season, scheduled to air early next year. The driveways are crammed with dumpsters and a dozen production and construction-crew trucks. Visitors tour the historic district in search of last season's renovations - and the Napiers' yellow 1925 Craftsman home.

"I keep asking, 'Is this real?' It's like looking at the sun," Erin says of becoming quasi-famous in six months. "You can't look directly at it. We have to think of our lives now as something really regular."

Really regular lives catapulted into the celebrity stratosphere, thanks to Americans' addiction to televised home makeovers, the comfort food of cable.

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HGTV, the network of domestic dreams, is the antidote to CNN, which it routinely pounds in prime-time ratings. It floats in a timeless ether, aiming to please, distract and calm, never disturb. The acronym stands for Home and Garden TV, but it's pretty much all home - unless you count potted plants or shrubs for curb appeal.

The network, which reported $1.1 billion in revenue last year, traffics in residential fairy tales. All its programs present, in various iterations, a Cinderella story where any house, with the proper fairy godhosts and throw pillows, can become a princess, seemingly overnight. The owner barely lifts a sledgehammer or picks a paint color. It's a spa treatment makeover.

HGTV consistently ranks in the top 10 of all cable and broadcast networks among viewers ages 25 to 54, and among the top five with women. Hillary Clinton has claimed that she watches it to unwind, deeming it "relaxing and entertaining."

There are no mentions of the president, politics or current events. The nearest thing to a crisis is shag carpeting. (Yes, controversies erupt with some hosts, but generally off-camera.) The shows play to the heartland, celebrating small-town America, neighborhood and community. They may as well be set in the "Leave it to Beaver" era, except for the furnishings, which tend to be Pottery Barnish, homey and personal without being especially personal.

The hosts, hired for their folksy, relatable charm, are "the soap stars of our day," says Allison Page, general manager of domestic programming and development for Scripps Networks, which owns HGTV. "They're a part of viewers' lives." (Scripps owns a majority stake in the Food Network, another balm for an anxious age that consistently ranks in the top 20. This summer, Discovery Communications agreed to purchase Scripps in a $14.6 billion deal.)

Tool-belt celebrities have become the luminaries of the supermarket checkout aisle, plastered on magazine covers: mannequin-like Canadian twins Jonathan and Drew Scott of "Property Brothers," country bro Chip and photogenic Joanna Gaines of "Fixer Upper," and the sensationally combustible Tarek and Christina El Moussa of "Flip or Flop."

Tarek and Christina are going through a car wreck of a divorce but will co-host upcoming episodes of their show because, apparently, cable is thicker than marriage.

HGTV has a lot of time to fill, creating 567 hours of programming a year. There's a constant need to locate fresh talent. Becoming an HGTV host has become an aspiration, like being a YouTube or Instagram influencer.

The network considers hundreds of "sizzles," teasers often shot on smartphones, to develop 60 pilots a year. Only a few pilots will be greenlighted for a series, of which only a couple will become audience favorites. In just 11 shows, "Home Town" is a hit. The debut episode attracted 2.2 million viewers, the second-highest number in HGTV's 23-year history.

What is Page looking for in network hosts? "Vulnerability and realness," she says.

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"Home Town" is a love letter to the love story of Ben and Erin, photogenic deep-Southern 30-somethings who met at the local junior college, went on to Ole Miss and exhibit an inexhaustible ability to spend time together.

"The best thing about the show is we get to do it together. We do everything together," says Erin, holding her quilted makeup bag. (She does her own for the show as she races from house to house.) "We're never apart. My mother says it's obnoxious."

They share two dogs, no kids, an old house. All their fans know this.

The show's formula is simple; the renovation is not. A potential owner picks between two houses selected by the Napiers, buys the place and pays for the renovation but gives the couple complete control of the aesthetics, promising not to peek until the cameras are rolling. (Erin is convinced that one owner did.) The Napiers don't do the construction, but the vision is all theirs. "We're the art directors," Erin says.

Ben is a woodworker, a former Methodist student ministry director, and the official lumberjack mascot at town events, Mr. Loblolly. He sweats a lot.

Erin is a graphic designer, a former creator of luxury fabric wedding invitations that were a hit with Martha Stewart Weddings. She claims to be "an introvert," which seems patently absurd. She exhibits not an iota of shyness and shares a daily Web journal with loyal fans, tirelessly documenting their home renovation and other projects. As of Sept. 21, she was up to Installment No. 2425.

She is given to offering pillow-ready aperçus like, "I think of doing homes not as renovations but designing the book cover of people's lives." Which is why she's on television. The camera loves her.

That "Home Town" is set in Mississippi, the nation's poorest state, perennially occupying the cellar of almost every quality-of-life list, seems no accident.

The network is unlikely to shoot a show in San Francisco, New York or Washington, D.C., Page says, where prices are out of reach for most Americans. Laurel's fine old houses are a steal: Most projects on "Home Town" have a $200,000 budget, including the house sale price and the renovation.

HGTV is the inverse of Architectural Digest or "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." It sells affordable dreams. If the show makes a star out of Laurel, even better.

After only 11 episodes - granted, rerun into the ground - the Napiers have been featured in Southern Living (approximating a coronation in these parts), the cover of Okra (a hipster Southern Living), and on "The Today Show." People magazine ranked the show 44th on its "100 Reasons to Love America," a notch above American cheese singles.

Chip and Joanna, naturally, were No. 1.

A hit show can deliver a high thread-count payday for the network and hosts. Four years after their first episode aired, Chip and Joanna are an empire, more Upper than Fixer with a staff of 450, a line of rugs and textiles, paints, an online Magnolia Market and a physical store in Waco, Texas, which has become a tourist destination for fans. In an era of personality-driven publications, they have their own magazine.

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The Napiers are the rare cable stars that the network found rather than the other way around, the 21st-century version of discovering Lana Turner at a soda fountain.

This being the 21st century, a former HGTV executive found Erin through her Instagram account.

"I've been stalking your Instagram for a while. It sounds creepy but it's actually my job," the executive wrote Erin. "I'm in love with your town, and I'm in love with your relationship, and your house. And I feel like there's a show there. I'm just not sure what it is yet. Have you ever thought about doing TV?"

To which Erin says, "It was never our dream to be on television."

The Napiers are partners in two businesses: Scotsman woodworking (wood furniture, wood furniture, work aprons, workwear and flannel button downs) and Laurel Mercantile, a website and fetching physical store that would not seem out of place in Napa or the Hudson River Valley, stocked with American-made goods including $26 scented candles, heirloom tools tagged with their provenance, and $125 ceramic platters created in Brooklyn. Customers can pick up cards, designed by Erin, of places to visit in Laurel. The visitor book logs guests from England and Australia.

Are small-town Erin and Ben ready to blow up big, to serve as magazine cover catnip, to become an empire, a brand, Laurel's answer to Chip and Joanna? Ben is already recognized on the streets of Manhattan. They landed a credit card endorsement deal. Are the Napiers prepared to have more visitors drive past their house?

"We will do whatever it takes to change the perception of our town and of Mississippi," says Erin. "If there's any way we can do that, show the beauty and magic of it, then we will sacrifice our privacy and our private lives to do that."

They are, however, painting their house a different color.

You're going where? Chattanooga

By Andrea Sachs
You're going where? Chattanooga
One of the chef's at The Dwell Hotel prepares a plate. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Wade Payne for The Washington Post.

In Chattanooga, I prepared my ears for the worm: the 1941 signature song about a guy riding the train to Tennessee to attend a soiree with a sweetheart he endearingly calls "funny face." I assumed that the city would stream the classic tune in speakers hidden behind shrubs or that Glenn Miller's rendition would boom down from Lookout Mountain. Hey, you down there: Woo, Woo, Chattanooga. But during my visit, no one hummed it and no venues played it, not even the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel and Attractions, which inhabits the old depot. And so I discovered: The 'Noog isn't tied to its tracks; the Scenic City has chugged on. Of course, I had to visit Terminal Station, but not for the obvious reason. The 101-year-old Beaux-Arts building has evolved into an entertainment complex with live music (upcoming shows: the Velcro Pygmies and Pigeons Playing Ping Pong), a comedy club, a vintage guitar museum and a bar that serves eight kinds of artisanal ice in its cocktails.

But then I moved on, just like the city. To the 13-mile Tennessee Riverpark along the glassy blue Tennessee. To Coolidge Park and its Old Faithful-spurting fountains. To the vertiginous Civil War site of the "Battle Above the Clouds." To downtown neighborhoods dabbed with graffiti art, scented with Indonesian cinnamon rolls and populated with rock climbers and skateboarders. On my languorous wanderings - garden snail was the average pace - I traded pleasantries with strangers. Because while Chattanooga has advanced beyond its choo-choo days, it still embraces old-fashioned Southern gentility.

Go

Local Faves

1. Sculpture Fields at Montague Park

1800 Polk St.

sculpturefields.org

423-266-7288

Sculpture Fields at Montague Park sits on an unpleasant past: The 33-acre green space was once a landfill. Founder/curator John Henry tidied up the area with 120 trees, landscaped gardens and 35 large-scale sculptures. For the second phase of the project, he plans to add twice as many artworks, an amphitheater, a visitors' center and a children's section. The outdoor museum features predominantly abstract pieces by artists from around the world, including Switzerland, Palestinian territories, Germany and Chattanooga (see Henry's "Bette Davis Eyes"). Hop along the groomed trail, and if you want a closer peek, go ahead - they are 3-D, after all. "It's a walkaround experience," Henry said after a golf cart tour of the garden.

2. Songbirds Guitar Museum

35 Station St.

songbirdsguitars.com

423-531-2473

At Songbirds Guitar Museum, which opened in March, you might suddenly feel the urge to play air guitar. One of the world's largest private collections of vintage guitars - 1,700 fretted instruments, including 500 models on display - has that effect on visitors. The museum tracks the evolution of the electric guitar and honors the instrument's contribution to such musical genres as bluegrass, surf and the British invasion. Guitar fanciers can play "Who Strummed It?" For example, I say "1964 Fender Stratocaster?" And you answer, "Buddy Guy." The rarest models live inside a Fort Knox-strong vault, so try to restrain the windmill moves.

Guidebook Musts

3. African American Museum and Bessie Smith Cultural Center

200 E. Martin Luther King Blvd.

bessiesmithcc.org

423-266-8658

A common refrain heard at the African American Museum and Bessie Smith Cultural Center: "I didn't know [Very Famous Person] was from Chattanooga!" Among the names I exclaimed: Samuel L. Jackson, Usher, Reggie White (see his signed Packers helmet), Willie Mays, James Mapp and several Impressions. The 32-year-old museum, which changes its exhibits every three months, focuses on "the history of Chattanooga and the part African Americans played in its development," said program coordinator Marty Mitchell. A permanent section dedicated to the Empress of the Blues features her rosewood grand piano and a 1927 telegram inquiring about her availability for a gig in Georgia. She was free.

4. Lookout Mountain

3917 St. Elmo Ave.

lookoutmountain.com

800-825-8366

Up, up, up goes the Incline Railway, one of the world's steepest, which has been defying gravity since 1895. After cresting the 72.7-percent-grade track, shake off your wobbles at Point Park, a 10-acre National Park memorial overlooking Lookout Mountain Battlefield. Attractions include the New York Peace Memorial, a unifying tribute to both sides of the conflict, and the Ochs Memorial Observatory museum, which showcases images by Union Army photographer Michael Linn. Warning: Don't attempt to re-create the precarious poses on the boulders.

Eat

Local Faves

5. Main Street Meats

217 E. Main St.

mainstreetmeatschatt.com

423-602-9568

Main Street Meats knows its way around proteins: The 40-seat bistro grew out of a butcher shop and charcuterie and, since opening two years ago, has not strayed from its roots. The staff grinds the meat, cures the bacon, ages the beef and salami-fies the salami on the premises. Former assistant manager Kevin Combs says the burger, which comes with house pickles, caramelized onions, bacon and Gruyere, "is becoming a rite of passage." Toast your initiation properly with the Homegrown, a madcap mix of Chattanooga whiskey reserve, Mexican Coke and salted peanuts.

6. The Bitter Alibi

825 Houston St.

thebitteralibi.com

423-362-5070

When the Bitter Alibi opened in 2014, the basement-level bar was so empty that the few patrons who did show up couldn't find a witness to back up their alibi - the inspiration for the bar's tagline, "You were with us the whole time." That's no longer the case. After expanding vertically with a restaurant and a tiki bar and introducing a menu heavy on multicultural comfort, the place is now swarming with eyes. For nostalgia's sake, order Kermit's Flat Attack, an ode to the early years when the only cooking equipment was a panini press and no one saw you eat.

Guidebook Musts

7. St. John's Restaurant

1278 Market St.

stjohnsrestaurant.com

423-266-4400

St. John's Restaurant was not named after the Apostle, though many diners claim that the smoked corn soup with lobster fell from up above. The sophisticated farm-to-table eatery, which specializes in Southern cuisine, repurposed elements from its earlier incarnation as a hotel catering to train travelers. For example, the bar-top marble was quarried from the guest room showers. Manager/sommelier Michelle Richards said guests dine here to celebrate "an anniversary, or for just being alive." For smaller-fry celebrations and more casual fare, see what's behind Door No. 2 (Surprise! It's St. John's Meeting Place.)

8. Zarzour's Cafe

1627 Rossville Ave.

facebook.com/zarzourscafe

423-266-0424

The photos displayed inside Zarzour's Cafe document the long, strange trip the four generations of owners have taken. One one wall: a portrait of Charles Abraham Zarzour, the Lebanese immigrant who opened the restaurant 99 years ago. On another wall: a picture of Dixie Fuller, former stage manager for the band Alabama, buddying up with ZZ Top. The menu could fit on an index card: hamburger (add cheese for two quarters), hamburger steak (small or large), meat-and-threes (sides include pinto beans, turnip greens and pickled beets). "If your grandmother was from the South," said Shannon Fuller, who runs the homey place with her husband, "she'd cook what we cook."

Shop

Local Faves

9. Temperate

100 Cherokee Blvd.

temperate.co

no phone

Ongeleigh Underwood designs clothing with her female customers, including Mother Earth, in mind. For her label Temperate, she uses sustainable materials (flax linen, hemp and organic cotton, for instance) to create loose, flowy pieces that, by contrast, make yoga pants feel like sausage casings. The color palette leans toward neutrals, though the Vera dress lets the animal out of the cage with its blue stripes. Underwood sells her collection from her production studio. Peek behind the curtain to see what you'll be wearing next season.

10. Merchants on Main

607 E. Main St.

www.facebook.com/merchants.on.main

423-521-6285

Merchants on Main takes the antiques-mall arrangement and removes the fustiness and creepy dolls. More than 20 vendors set up mini-shops showcasing clothing, accessories, honey, candles, artwork, repurposed furniture and homewares more fitting for a Brooklyn loft than the Victorian parlor of a fading doyenne. Refinery 423, for one, stocks Hoff hot sauce, golf balls in an egg carton and messenger bags with the image of a skulking bear. Wanderlust and Wolf designs laser-cut wood earrings in the shape of coffee cups, bicycles and foxes. And a coffeehouse barista moonlighting as a Lilliputian landscaper sells her Jurassic-style terrariums with succulents and plastic dinosaurs.

Guidebook Musts

11. Winder Binder Gallery and Bookstore

40 Frazier Ave.

winderbinder.wordpress.com

423-413-8999

Winder Binder Gallery and Bookstore started with toys in the 1990s, the old-timey tin kind that wind up and waddle off. Owner David Smotherman then added books (new, used and antique), then folk and outsider art (bugs made of bullets, face jugs, screen prints of Bill Murray), music (B-side bests) and apparel (a 'Noog T-shirt for every phase of the moon). To make a local statement, pick up merchandise for the Chattanooga Football Club, the city's soccer team, and identify yourself as a Chattahooligan.

12. MoonPie General Store

429 Broad St.

moonpie.com

423-877-0592

On Manufacturers Drive, open your window and inhale the Proustian scent of MoonPies wafting from Chattanooga Bakery. Then drive to Broad Street to ingest the memory. The MoonPie General Store sells individual packages as well as family-size boxes of the coated marshmallow-and-graham-cracker treat. Relive the past with the original flavor or look forward with salted caramel, banana or coconut. To learn the backstory, watch the video about the snack that a Kentucky miner suggested should be as big as that pie in the sky.

Stay

Local Faves

13. The Dwell Hotel

120 E. 10th St.

thedwellhotel.com

423-267-7866

If you missed out on midcentury Palm Springs - or Palm Beach, depending on your coastal bias - here's your chance to relive the epoch. The Dwell Hotel is a showcase of period decor that is not shy around color or tropical prints. Each of the 16 rooms boasts its own fingerprint. The Flamingo room features wallpaper with the leggy birds and a white shag-covered chair; the Convex has yolk-yellow chairs and framed Op Art. If your peepers need a break from the brightness, duck into Matilda Midnight, a lounge dimly lit by a starry ceiling. Perks include valet parking, a gym pass, breakfast and iced sugar cookies sparkling under a glass dome.

14. The Crash Pad

29 Johnson St.

crashpadchattanooga.com

423-648-8393

Guests who show up with ropes and belays know the real meaning of the Crash Pad, an eco-hostel (LEED Platinum status) that attracts mountain climbers and other adventurous types. (Spotted in the parking lot: A car with Georgia plates and surfboards on the roof.) In the lobby, find climbing magazines and adventure guidebooks, plus a pocket store that sells such essentials as chalk bags, sweatbands and Beta balm. For accommodations, choose from curtained bunk beds in an open space or a private room. Breakfast is a simple gas-up-and-go affair: fresh bread from the bakery next door, peanut butter, jam, Nutella and coffee. You can also stash your food in the community fridge or dine at the adjoining Flying Squirrel, where Crash Padders receive a discount.

Guidebook Must

15. Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel

1400 Market St.

choochoo.com

423-266-5000

All aboard the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel. The lobby occupies the old Terminal Station, a Beaux-Arts structure that was built in 1909 and causes neck cricks with its 82-foot-high ceiling dome. "You feel like you are reenacting the history of Chattanooga when you walk in," said Justin Strickland, a local historian. The MacArthur Building, which shares the name of Southern Railway's last steam-powered freight train, offers standard guest rooms. To feel closer to the rails, book a room in one of nearly two dozen Pullman train cars. Fortunately, you don't have to wait for your bed to stop moving to step outside for a stroll in the Glenn Miller Gardens.

Explore

Local Fave

16. Southside

From 12th to 20th streets, between I-27 and Madison Street

no phone

Several years ago, few could imagine that one day, in the Southside neighborhood, you could buy cold-pressed juice called the Pipe Cleaner, absorb the healing powers of infrared light therapy and purchase copper-clad custom speakers for $36,400. "It was a rough part of town," Combs said. Well, that day has come. The once-gritty area on Market and Main streets carries the torch of eclecticism. Public art adorns the sidewalks, and galleries feature works by established artists as well as homeless individuals. Southside also claims to have the highest number of restaurants per capita in the city. The culinary options include sushi, choripanes, hash (choose from corned beef, portobello and cilantro-lime tofu), avocado toast and smoked bison meatloaf with a side of ping-pong.

Guidebook Must

17. Bluff View Art District

411 E. Second St.

bluffviewartdistrict.com

800-725-8338

Charles and Mary Portera didn't create Bluff View Art District - geologic forces shaped the stone cliffs overlooking the Tennessee River - but the Chattanoogan couple did establish the city's first arts district. For more than 25 years, the Porteras have been carving out a mini-fiefdom of culture with their River Gallery and sculpture garden, both within skipping distance of the Hunter Museum of American Art and the Houston Museum. Of course, art-viewing can make you hungry. To the rescue: Tony's Pasta Shop and Trattoria, Back Inn Cafe and Bluff View Bakery, where you can smell the carbs from the sidewalk. It can also cause drowsiness. Silence the call for a nap with an espresso drink from Rembrandt's Coffee House or succumb at the Bluff View Inn, a trio of properties housed in buildings ripped from the pages of a fairy tale.

Be better than Betty Crocker, or how to make your own baking mixes like a pro

By Charlotte Druckman
Be better than Betty Crocker, or how to make your own baking mixes like a pro
Oh, the places you can go with these three DIY baking mixes. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Goran Kosanovic for The Washington Post.

In the 1950s, it was said that when an elderly woman died, the "flour and shortening" business lost a customer, while when a young woman married, the cake-mix industry gained one. In short, two constituencies: those who baked and those who faked. Today, there's an audience that falls somewhere in the middle and proves the value of a different kind of mix - the kind that is versatile, ready to go and additive-free. The kind you make yourself.

Here's what convinced me: I received a recent email touting "the first and only baking mix brand in the category to sustainably source clean, regenerative and socially-aware organic ingredients." How preposterous, I thought, that those who are so deeply invested in the quality and origin of their ingredients would be baking cake from a box.

Then I remembered my neighbors, who regularly receive boxes full of premeasured and diced ingredients. They use them to "cook" dinner. These same people also like to go to the farmers market to appreciate, and maybe purchase, what is locally grown. While this, too, might strike one as amusing or contradictory, my dive into the modern cake-mix market reveals that, for many - especially millennials - this state of affairs is normal.

The cake-mix category comprises dry, ready-made bases for a gamut of baked goods. Those created expressly for cakes were introduced in the early 1930s, if not before that, but didn't hit it big until Betty Crocker, Duncan Hines and Pillsbury got in on the action in the late '40s and early '50s. "The very marketable premise behind cake mixes was, and still is, the ability to have fresh, 'homemade' cake with very little time and effort," Susan Marks wrote in "Finding Betty Crocker" (Simon & Schuster, 2005). The flour, shortening, powdered eggs, sugar and select flavorings had all been calibrated along with leavening agents, which, to this day, remain a concern because who knows whether they have lost their pep. A consumer need only add liquid.

Apparently, this premise was too easy and made the whole thing less appealing. Business psychologists - perhaps the original market researchers - determined that leaving out the dried eggs and having users crack fresh ones into the mixing bowl would solve the problem. The theory, Marks explains, was that this would give them "a sense of creative contribution," because "baking a cake was an act of love on the woman's part" and "a baking mix that only needed water cheapened that love."

Using fresh eggs undoubtedly improved the finished product, which might be the real reason that changing the formula seems to have led to the rise of the box mix. Over time, the recipe was altered and consumers were instructed to stir in oil along with the water and eggs. A task that could require up to a dozen separate ingredients could be accomplished with only four.

Sold in supermarkets, these boxed units became the de facto choice for American households. They were not a source of pride. In the '80s, when I was growing up, you did not try to pass off the Duncan Hines cupcakes you baked for your kid's birthday as homemade. But you didn't brag about having taken a shortcut, either. Convenience won the day.

Things have changed. An overview of the market from 2010 to 2020, generated by the market research firm Mintel, predicts the total sales of baking mixes in the United States will dip from $4 billion to $3.6 billion "as consumers opt for fresher, less processed alternatives." Cake-mix sales, specifically, are at $650 million and expected to drop to $460 million over the next three years. The loss in sales correlates with a broad change in attitude. A younger generation of potential bakers cares about "transparency," a concept that extends to what they put in their pantries and on their plates, and about the experiential aspect of cooking. Millennials are, as per that study, "more apt to say they use baking mixes because they enjoy baking than they are to use them for their convenience." In other words, shame is a nonstarter.

"Consumers are looking to bake 'from scratch,' " says Billy Roberts, a senior food and drink analyst at Mintel. Armed with a "greater degree of personal disposable income" and more confidence, they are going to bakeries, and, because of television shows such as "The Great British Bake Off," wanting to experiment in their own ovens. At the same time, they prioritize ingredients, rejecting anything artificial or unrecognizable, and seek out specialty products they cannot find in local grocery stores. When something is presented as higher in quality, they tend to perceive it as a more healthful option, he says.

Their problem with traditional cake mixes is unrelated to the idea of their being seen as an inauthentic form of baking; it has to do with the assumption that they are full of fake materials. Unsurprisingly, the one area of growth in this sector is in specialty brands that cater to dietary concerns or promote "better" ingredients. This would explain why, last summer, King Arthur Flour brought out a line of "clean label" Essential Goodness mixes or, the year prior, Pillsbury unveiled its Purely Simple products, and would account for that email I scoffed at.

Then there is Foodstirs, launched by Greg Fleishman, Galit Laibow and actor Sarah Michelle Gellar in 2015. "There is nothing like Foodstirs on the planet in terms of that purity and what we call 'clean ingredients,' " Fleishman said, throwing out all the appropriate jargon in a recent interview. The Santa Monica, California-hubbed brand's mixes are organic and do not contain genetically modified components. They include biodynamic sugar and "identity-preserved heirloom flour."

Foodstirs' founders also talked about the significance of spending meaningful time with their children, and baking as a way to do that. The brand offers a subscription service with regularly delivered baking sets for more interactive projects such as the heavily decorated Ombré Pancake and the Darling Daisy Cookie Bouquet.

Foodstirs' existence led me to ponder other ways competitors might innovate, or pivot. How would you think outside the mix box . . . while staying in it? Sisters Arielle and Agathe Assouline-Lichten introduced Red Velvet NYC a year and a half ago. The meal-kit company distinguishes itself from the likes of Blue Apron by focusing solely on dessert, and from would-be competitors with its inclusion of perishable goods. Others, Agathe said, "send half-baked items. So they'll send a pie mold, or some type of crust. . . . We don't do any of that. We are vehemently against mixes. We want people to do everything. For me, homemade is homemade. That means no cheating." The majority of kits are for novices, but there are some recipes geared to more-practiced bakers and others that fall somewhere in between. Core products such as best-selling Celebration Cupcakes are joined by seasonal options. Like Foodstirs, Red Velvet NYC allows customers to order kits piecemeal or, serially, through a subscription. So far, it ships to 28 states.

I made some of those cupcakes. They were perfectly acceptable, although Foodstirs' rendition was notably better. Yet I enjoyed the Red Velvet NYC user experience more. That said, packages of dry goods could be more clearly labeled, especially when the same type of flour or sugar is used twice in one recipe. The vials of vanilla extract and nickel-bag-size portions of baking powder were a bit off-putting as well. Listing the amounts of ingredients to be used would better serve educational purposes.

If the intention is to instruct and engage the home baker, DIY mixes seem like a more progressive tool. Toward that end, I discovered food writer and stylist Caroline Wright's "Cake Magic!" (Workman, 2016) - a cookbook that, per its subtitle, lets you "Mix & Match Your Way to 100 Amazing Combinations." The author came up with a basic Cake Magic! mix that could be adapted for an array of layer cakes, each executed in a single bowl. Wright tacked on recipes for syrups, frostings and toppings, and provided copious examples of how to put those together. "I wanted to do a very simple baking technique that could really put the power and creativity in the hands of the baker," she told me via a phone interview.

Here's the upshot of my research: I wanted mixes with more versatility. Ideally, you could whisk a large quantity of dry ingredients together to create a base that could be applied to multiple styles of cake, and beyond. Then, whenever you felt like baking, you would have them at your fingertips.

No mix can do everything - or, it can't do everything well. But three of them could get you far. So I asked Abigail Johnson Dodge, author of "The Everyday Baker" (Taunton Press, 2015), to create one white mix, one chocolate and one cornmeal option that could go savory or sweet. She dug right in, making scones, upside-down cakes, loaf cakes, pancakes, muffins and corn bread. Once Dodge was satisfied with a mix, she sent the basic recipe my way, and I built from there.

To our great surprise, we have become attached to these mixes and are now preoccupied with ideas for those that do not yet exist - but could. (A brownie mix is at the top of our list; those that incorporate nut flours are another interest. Do we dare consider yeast?) Submitted for your approval: the formulas for the three mixes Dodge created, with information on substitutions and mix-ins, plus a few next-level recipes that may inspire you to take them in new directions.

Once you compose these dry mixes from scratch, I doubt you will want to give Betty, Duncan or the rest of their kind another look. A DIY baking mix makes for a thoughtful gift, too. You can put it in a box - a beautifully wrapped one.

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Druckman is the author of "Stir, Sizzle, Bake: Recipes for Your Cast-Iron Skillet."

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Big Batch Dry Mix

Makes 10 1/2 cups; 1 cup equals 4 3/4 ounces

This plain, versatile mix can be used to make cakes, cupcakes, muffins, scones and pancakes.

Spelt flour is preferred here; it can be replaced with whole-wheat flour, or the mix can be made using 100 percent unbleached all-purpose flour.

Created by cookbook author Abigail Johnson Dodge. Stir mix well before using. Mix can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 months.

Ingredients

5 cups (22 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour

4 cups (18 ounces) spelt flour or whole-wheat flour (see headnote)

1 1/3 cups (9 1/3 ounces) granulated sugar

4 tablespoons (1 3/4 ounces/ 50 grams) baking powder

2 teaspoons (1/2 ounce/15 grams) table salt

Steps

Whisk together the flours, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large container with a tight-fitting lid (15- to 16-cup capacity), until thoroughly incorporated. Seal, label and store at room temperature until ready to use.

Nutrition | Per cup (using whole-wheat flour): 500 calories, 13 g protein, 111 g carbohydrates, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 550 mg sodium, 7 g dietary fiber, 27 g sugar

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Big Batch Cornmeal Dry Mix

Makes 9 cups; 1 cup equals 5 ounces

Cornmeal can go sweet or savory, and there's no use in creating an all-purpose mix with it if you're not going to account for both. With this mix, you can make old-fashioned blueberry muffins or skillet corn bread. But don't stop there: Apply it to a peach upside-down cake or sophisticated olive oil cake. Serve syrup-coated cornmeal pancakes for breakfast, or their smoked salmon-topped counterparts as hors d'oeuvres.

Created by cookbook author Abigail Johnson Dodge. Stir mix well before using. Mix can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 months.

Ingredients

4 cups (18 ounces) finely ground cornmeal

4 cups (18 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour

2/3 cup (4 5/8 ounces) granulated sugar

3 1/2 tablespoons (42 grams) baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons (10 grams) table salt

Steps

Combine the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large container with a tight-fitting lid (15- to 16-cup capacity), until thoroughly incorporated. Seal, label and store at room temperature until ready to use.

Nutrition | Per cup: 470 calories, 10 g protein, 101 g carbohydrates, 3 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 450 mg sodium, 11 g dietary fiber, 15 g sugar

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Big Batch Chocolate Dry Mix

Makes 11 cups; 1 cup equals 4 1/2 ounces

Everyone needs a chocolate layer cake at the ready for those special celebratory moments. That's what this one's for, and with just some water and oil, and an egg, it's pretty much frosting-ready. It's so much better than anything you could have bought in a box. Muffins, scones and cupcakes, of course, are all doable as well.

Created by cookbook author Abigail Johnson Dodge. Stir mix well before using. Mix can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 months.

Ingredients

4 cups (18 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour

3 1/3 cups (15 ounces) whole-wheat flour (may substitute spelt flour)

2 1/2 cups (7 1/2 ounces) unsweetened cocoa powder

1 1/3 cups (9 3/8 ounces) granulated sugar

4 tablespoons (1 3/4 ounces/50 grams) baking powder

2 teaspoons (1/2 ounce/15 grams) table salt

Steps

Combine the flours, cocoa powder, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large container (15- to 16-cup capacity). Whisk until very well blended, making sure to get into the corners and bottom of the container. Cover, label and stow at room temperature until ready to use.

Nutrition | Per cup: 470 calories, 14 g protein, 98 g carbohydrates, 3 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 500 mg sodium, 9 g dietary fiber, 25 g sugar

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Blackberry Cake With a Kick

8 to 10 servings (makes one 9-inch round single layer cake)

This simple cake showcases fruit that's sweet-tart and perhaps undeservedly underrated, with a little grown-up mischief from black pepper, homey comfort from dark brown sugar and richness from creme fraiche.

From cookbook author and food writer Charlotte Druckman.

Ingredients

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted, plus more for the pan

Flour, for the pan

2 1/2 cups (11 7/8 ounces) Big Batch Dry Mix (stir well before using)

1/3 cup (2 3/8 ounces) packed dark brown sugar

3/4 to 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup milk

1/2 cup creme fraiche

2 large eggs

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

1 1/3 cups (6 ounces) blackberries (large ones halved)

1/2 cup rolled oats, for sprinkling

Steps

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use a little butter to grease a 9-inch round cake pan, then flour it, shaking out any excess.

Whisk together the Big Batch Dry Mix, brown sugar and pepper (to taste) in a mixing bowl, until well incorporated.

Use a fork to whisk together the milk, creme fraiche, eggs and vanilla extract in a large liquid measuring cup until well blended. Pour over the dry mixture, along with the melted butter, and whisk with the fork to form a slightly lumpy batter.

Use a flexible spatula to gently fold in the berries, then use the spatula to spread the batter evenly in the pan. Scatter the oats over the top. Bake (middle rack) until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes.

Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool for 15 to 20 minutes, then run a round-edged knife around the edges to loosen the cake, then invert onto the rack and lift off the pan. Turn the cake right-side-up and let cool completely.

Nutrition | Per serving (based on 10): 330 calories, 6 g protein, 40 g carbohydrates, 16 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 75 mg cholesterol, 160 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 9 g sugar

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Fully Loaded Chocolate Muffins

9 servings

Sometimes, it's okay to break the rules and add a few extra chocolate chips to your muffins. These might remind some of the Chunky candy bars of old, because they combine that chocolatey goodness with nuts and dried fruit. Spices - cinnamon, and just the tiniest bit of cayenne - take them beyond the vending machine.

MAKE AHEAD: The dried cherries need to be rehydrated for 30 minutes. The muffins are best served the same day they are made, but they can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.

From cookbook author and food writer Charlotte Druckman.

Ingredients

1/4 cup dried cherries

1 3/4 cups (8 3/8 ounces) Big Batch Chocolate Dry Mix (stir well before using)

1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) granulated sugar

1/8 teaspoon table salt

1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper (optional)

1/2 cup buttermilk

1 large egg, plus 1 large egg yolk

1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1/3 cup grapeseed oil

1/2 cup chocolate chunks

1/4 cup toasted skinned hazelnuts, chopped (see NOTE)

Steps

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line 9 wells of a standard-size muffin pan with paper or foil baking cup liners, or grease them with cooking oil spray.

Meanwhile, place the dried cherries in a small bowl and cover with warm water; let sit for 30 minutes, then drain.

Whisk together the Big Batch Chocolate Dry Mix, sugar, salt and the cayenne pepper, if using, until well incorporated.

Pour the buttermilk into a large liquid measuring cup, then add the egg, egg yolk, vanilla extract and oil; use a fork to whisk together until well incorporated. Pour over the dry ingredients, then add the chocolate chunks, plumped dried cherries and hazelnuts; use a flexible spatula to gently fold to form a barely blended batter that's a bit lumpy.

Divide evenly among the muffin cups or wells. Bake (middle rack) until a pick inserted in the center comes out clean, 17 to 19 minutes.

Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool for 15 minutes, then dislodge the muffins and place them directly on the rack to cool completely.

NOTE: To toast the hazelnuts, spread them on rimmed baking sheet and bake for 4 to 5 minutes, until fragrant and golden brown. Cool completely before using.

Nutrition | Per muffin: 340 calories, 5 g protein, 45 g carbohydrates, 16 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 150 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 27 g sugar

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Maple-Cashew Scones

8 scones

The combination of maple, cashews and spelt here is especially winning, but if you used whole-wheat flour in your dry mix base, you wouldn't be disappointed with the results. An alternative name for these would be Pancakes Scones, because they were inspired by and taste like pancakes; they even spread a bit more than typical scones.

From cookbook author and food writer Charlotte Druckman.

Ingredients

2 1/2 cups (12 ounces) Big Batch Dry Mix (stir well before using)

8 tablespoons (1 stick) very cold unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces

Up to 3/4 teaspoon spices (optional; see NOTES)

1/2 cup toasted, unsalted cashews, coarsely chopped (see NOTES)

Up to 1/2 cup buttermilk

1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon maple syrup

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Flour, for the work surface

1 large egg

1 tablespoon heavy cream

Flaked sea salt, for sprinkling (about 2/3 teaspoon)

Steps

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone liner.

Combine the Big Batch Dry Mix, cold butter pieces and spices, if using, in a mixing bowl. Use two knives or a pastry blender to work the butter and flour into pea-size pieces (this step can be done in a food processor, pulsing as needed, then transfer to the mixing bowl). Stir in the cashews and toss to distribute evenly.

Pour 1/3 cup of the buttermilk into a large liquid measuring cup, then add the 1/3 cup of maple syrup and the vanilla extract; use a fork to whisk until well incorporated. Pour over the dry mixture; use a flexible spatula to stir and form a moist dough with some floury bits showing. If the dough isn't coming together or seems dry, add more buttermilk, 1 tablespoon at a time, until you reach the desired consistency.

Lightly flour a work surface. Transfer the dough there and gently knead a few times until the dough is evenly moist and just holds together. Be careful not to overwork the dough or the scones will be dense.

Gently pat and shape the dough into a 6-inch disk. Use a large knife to cut the dough into 8 equal wedges. Transfer them to the baking sheet, spacing them about 2 inches apart.

Whisk together the egg, the remaining tablespoon of maple syrup and the heavy cream in a bowl, then use the mixture to liberally brush the tops of each scone. Sprinkle them with the flaked salt.

Bake (middle rack) until the tops are lightly browned and the tops spring back when gently pressed, 16 to 18 minutes. Transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack and let the scones cool, about 15 minutes, before serving or storing.

NOTES: For spices, you can use ground cinnamon, ground ginger, ground cloves, freshly grated nutmeg, ground cardamom or espresso powder.

To toast the cashews, spread them on a baking sheet; bake for 8 to 12 minutes, or until fragrant and lightly browned. Cool completely before using.

Nutrition | Per scone (using 1/2 cup buttermilk): 350 calories, 6 g protein, 47 g carbohydrates, 16 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 190 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 17 g sugar

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Bread-n-Butter Pickle Corn Bread

10 to 12 servings

As this rendition proves, the addition of chopped pickles is one of the better things to happen to this American staple. Working cottage cheese, Sriracha and - the real trick - some reserved pickle juice into the batter might just land this in the baking canon.

From cookbook author and food writer Charlotte Druckman.

Ingredients

2 1/2 cups (12 1/2 ounces) Big Batch Cornmeal Dry Mix (stir well before using)

1 1/2 teaspoons table salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup buttermilk

1/2 cup cottage cheese, preferably full fat

2 large eggs

1 cup drained bread-and-butter pickles, coarsely chopped, plus 1 tablespoon of their pickle juice (from the jar)

2 tablespoons Sriracha (may substitute hot sauce of your choice)

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted melted butter, plus 1 teaspoon for the skillet

1/4 cup chopped fresh chives

2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

Steps

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Preheat a 9-inch cast-iron skillet on the stove on low heat, gradually increasing the heat to medium.

Combine the Big Batch Cornmeal Dry Mix, salt and pepper in a mixing bowl.

Use a fork to whisk together the buttermilk, cottage cheese, eggs, the tablespoon of pickle juice and the Sriracha in a large liquid measuring cup until well blended. Pour over the dry ingredients along with the 8 tablespoons of melted butter, the chopped pickles, chives and dill; use a flexible spatula to stir and form a lumpy batter.

Melt the remaining teaspoon of butter in the hot skillet, tilting to coat. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly. Bake (middle rack) until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 35 to 45 minutes.

Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool for 15 to 20 minutes. Run a round-edged knife around the edges to loosen the bread, then invert onto the rack and lift off the pan. Let cool completely before serving. (The bread can also be served directly out of the skillet.)

Nutrition | Per serving (based on 12): 210 calories, 5 g protein, 25 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 590 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar

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Three-Step Basic Cake

To make a basic single-layer cake (8-inch square or 9-inch round) or loaf cake (8 1/2-by-4 1/2 inches), use a fork to whisk together 2 1/2 cups Big Batch Dry Mix, 1/3 cup granulated sugar or packed light or dark brown sugar and up to 2 teaspoons spices in a mixing bowl.

Whisk together 1 cup buttermilk, unsweetened coconut milk, water or a fruit puree, 2 large eggs, up to 1 1/2 tablespoons flavorings, 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract, 8 tablespoons unsalted melted butter in a liquid measuring cup, then pour over the dry mixture, along with up to 1 1/2 cups of add-ins. Stir to form a lumpy batter. Pour into a greased/floured pan, scatter pre-bake toppings over the surface (optional).

Bake in a 375-degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes (square or round) or 55 to 60 minutes (loaf), until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool for 15 to 20 minutes on a wire rack before removing from the pan to cool completely.

To make a two-layer cake, double the recipe and bake in two pans.

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Three-Step Basic Corn Bread (Sweet)

To make an 8-inch square or loaf (8 1/2 by 4 1/2 inches), use a fork to whisk together 2 1/2 cups Big Batch Cornmeal Dry Mix, 1/3 to 1/2 cup granulated sugar or packed light or dark brown sugar and up to 1 teaspoon spices in a mixing bowl.

Whisk together 1 cup buttermilk, unsweetened coconut milk or a fruit puree, 2 large eggs, up to 1 1/2 tablespoons flavorings and 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract in a liquid measuring cup, then pour over the dry mixture, along with 8 tablespoons unsalted melted butter and up to 1 cup of add-ins (optional). Gently fold until well blended, then pour into the greased/floured pan.

Bake in a 350-degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes (square) or 50 to 55 minutes (loaf). Cool on a wire rack for 15 to 20 minutes in the pan, then dislodge to cool completely.

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Three-Step Basic Chocolate Cake

To make a basic single-layer cake (9-inch round), whisk together 1 3/4 cups Big Batch Chocolate Dry Mix, 3/4 cup granulated sugar, up to 3/4 teaspoon spices (optional) and 1 1/2 teaspoons instant espresso powder (optional) in a mixing bowl.

Add 3/4 cup water, 1/2 cup oil, 1 large egg and 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract and whisk to form a smooth batter. Pour into a greased/floured 9-inch round layer cake pan and tap it gently on the counter to release some of the batter's air bubbles.

Bake in a 375-degree oven for 39 to 41 minutes (square or round) until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for 15 to 20 minutes, then invert to dislodge and turn right side up on the rack to cool completely.

To make a two-layer cake, double the recipe and bake in two pans. To make 12 cupcakes, bake in a 375-degree oven for 17 to 19 minutes.

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Extras for the Big Batch Dry Mixes

These are some of the swaps and add-ins that can be used with basic recipes that use one of the three DIY Big Batch dry mixes:

OILS

Neutral-flavored oils such as vegetable, corn, canola, grapeseed or refined coconut oil

Extra-virgin olive oil or unrefined coconut oil

PUREES

Applesauce

Pumpkin puree

Banana puree

Carrot puree

FLAVORINGS

Freshly grated lemon or orange zest

Freshly grated peeled ginger root

GROUND SPICES

Cinnamon

Ginger

Cloves

Nutmeg

Cardamom

Espresso powder

ADD-INS

Poppy, caraway, fennel or anise seeds

Sesame seeds

Dried culinary lavender

Diced crystallized ginger

Chopped nuts, toasted

Hulled sunflower seeds

Diced apple

Diced banana

Whole berries (halved or quartered, if large)

Chopped chocolate or chips

Lightly packed, coarsely shredded zucchini (avoid the center seeds, wrap in paper towels and squeeze out liquid)

Lightly packed/finely shredded carrot

Coarsely chopped dried fruit, plumped in hot water and drained

Shredded sweetened coconut/toasted coconut

Fresh herbs

Corn kernels

Chopped scallions (for savory cornmeal batters)

Shredded or crumbled cheese (for savory cornmeal batters)

PRE-BAKE TOPPINGS (up to two per baked good)

2 tablespoons coarse sanding sugar

1/2 cup sliced or chopped almonds, walnuts, pecans and/or hazelnuts

1/2 cup rolled oats

1 medium tomato, thinly sliced and drained on paper towels (for savory cornmeal batters)

FINISHING TOPPINGS

Confectioners' sugar (dusted)

Glaze/icing

Frosting

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

Driverless madness

By robert j. samuelson
Driverless madness

WASHINGTON -- Driverless vehicles may not be all that they’re cracked up to be. Indeed, they may be harmful to our collective security and well-being.

Unless you’ve been vacationing on Saturn, you know that driverless vehicles are the next Big Thing. Almost every major car company (General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Mercedes) has a program, often in cooperation with tech firms. A few of those, Google being a prominent example, have their own prototypes. In a recent study, Navigant Research -- a consulting firm -- counted 18 projects.

To be sure, the appeal of driverless cars is powerful. In 2015, 35,092 people died in road accidents nationwide, says the Department of Transportation. It attributed more than 90 percent of the crashes “to human choice or error.” If these people had been riding in driverless cars, many of these accidents would not have occurred, the argument goes. The hazards of drinking, texting, speeding and other driving dangers would have been sharply reduced.

The broadest case for driverless vehicles is that they would allow us to recapture the many hours we spend sitting in traffic, fuming and wasting time. Instead, we’d program our vehicle with the destination. It would drive, while we snoozed, streamed TV shows and movies, attended to work, read a book or gazed at the scenery. Billions of hours would be recovered.

There are some obvious obstacles to this seductive future. Under favorable circumstances, it would take years to materialize. There are roughly 250 million cars and other light-duty vehicles (pickups, SUVs) on the road. In a good year, the industry sells 17 million vehicles. Even if, beginning in 2018, all these were driverless, it would be 15 years before today’s fleet is replaced.

And these assumptions are, of course, unrealistic. “Some people actually like driving,” says economist Benjamin Leard of the think tank Resources for the Future. Most won’t be customers for driverless vehicles. Neither will many Americans who don’t trust the reliability of self-driving vehicles. That’s about 60 percent of the public, reports an opinion survey conducted by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle of Sustainable World Transportation, a research group at the University of Michigan.

Still other potential customers may be deterred by the high costs of all the needed sensors, cameras, computer chips and software. With present technology, this could add $10,000 to the cost of new vehicles, though that is expected to decline with time, says Leard.

Even those who expect to benefit from driverless vehicles may be disappointed, notes Sivak. True, typical drivers spend an hour a day on the road, which seems an ample period for other uses. But there’s a catch. “The fact [is] that current trips in light-duty vehicles average only about 19 minutes -- a rather short duration for sustained productive activity or invigorating sleep,” he says.

So the benefits of driverless vehicles may be modest, at least at the start, while the costs could be considerable. A clear danger would be digital hacking. In a recent special section on cybersecurity, a writer for The Wall Street Journal put it this way:

“As vehicles fill up with more digital controls and internet-connected devices, they’re becoming more vulnerable to cybercriminals, who can hack into those systems just like they can attack computers. Almost any digitally connected device in a car could become an entry point to the vehicle’s central communications network, opening a door for hackers to potentially take control by, for instance, disabling the engine or brakes.”

The Journal story focuses exclusively on cybercrime: for example, locking a car remotely and refusing to open it until a ransom is paid. If millions of vehicles were shut down simultaneously, the ransom paid by car companies could be staggering.

But the real threat is not ordinary crime. It’s cyberwarfare: attacks by terrorist groups or hostile nations, intent on sowing panic and social disorder. Imagine the chaos if some adversary immobilized 10 percent of the light vehicle fleet, leaving about 25 million cars and trucks sprawled randomly along roads from Maine to California.

Do our enemies have this capacity, or could they develop it? We don’t know. What we do know is that we have consistently underestimated the dangers posed by the misuse of cyber technologies -- the latest examples being Russian interference with the 2016 election and the massive hack at the credit bureau Equifax.

There is a disturbing relationship here. The more we depend on digital technologies for everyday business and pleasure, the more we become vulnerable to potentially catastrophic disruptions. Cars and trucks are but the latest examples.

Driverless technologies are not to be coddled or promoted. Their development should be slow and sober. If the evidence warrants, it should be stopped altogether. We are weaponizing our cars and trucks for use against us. It’s madness.

(c) 2017, The Washington Post Writers Group

President Trump actually is making us crazy

By dana milbank
President Trump actually is making us crazy

WASHINGTON -- President Trump is making us ill. He’s also driving us crazy.

Since I wrote last week about the possibility that Trump is literally killing me (in the form of high blood pressure), the reaction has been, as the kids say, sick.

From the left came a flood of responses from people experiencing all manner of symptoms, real or imagined, of what I called Trump Hypertensive Unexplained Disorder: Disturbed sleep. Anger. Dread. Weight loss. Overeating. Headaches. Fainting. Depression. Irritable bowel syndrome. Tightness in the chest. Shortness of breath. Teeth grinding. Stomach ulcer. Indigestion. Shingles. Eye twitching. Nausea. Irritability. Racing pulse. Shaking limbs. Hair loss. Acid reflux. Deteriorating vision. Stroke. Heart attack.

It was a veritable organ recital.

From the other side came a similar profusion of responses, in email, on Facebook and from the cesspool known as Twitter, of people wishing me dead. “Hurry up and die already! .?.?. DO US ALL A FAVOR AND JUST CURL UP AND DIE !!!!!!!!! .?.?. With any luck at all Milback (sic) will succumb. .?.?. just see a dr. You know, Dr Kevorkian.” Dozens of Trump supporters delighted in responding by making vulgar references to vaginas, and one wrote to my wife to say it gave him “endless satisfaction” to report that my death is likely.

Then there was somebody under the Twitter handle @deacongfrost: “I HAPPILY KILL YOU.”

I wrote the original piece half in jest, but the response showed something deeper: A large number of people reporting stress-reduced illnesses in the Trump era, and another large number of people so consumed by political disagreement that they desire the death of someone who has different views. Clearly, Trump is causing, or at least aggravating, mental-health problems on both sides.

A timely new paper discusses this phenomenon in the Trump era and the challenge it has caused to the mental-health profession, which is moving toward giving political views a more prominent place in psychotherapy. The paper, by New York analyst Matt Aibel, will be published in January in the journal “Psychoanalytic Perspectives.” Aibel, a college friend of mine, gave me an advance copy.

“Since the start of Trump’s rise to power,” Aibel writes, analysts “have become acutely attuned to traumatic arousals” in patients from the political environment. “Several colleagues have shared that many formerly eating disordered patients were retriggered to bulimic episodes that hadn’t occurred in many years until Trump’s candidacy. ... In the run-up to the election, mental health providers of all stripes were reporting ‘a striking number of anxious and depressed clients who are fixated on the election, primarily fearful of Trump.’ Since Election Day, such colloquialisms as Trump Slump, Trump Anxiety and Trump Affective Disorder achieved cultural and perhaps even clinical currency (in an informally diagnostic sense, of course) along with increases in reported incidents of bullying” and the like.

Those on the right might label this “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” much as I and others detected an “Obama Derangement Syndrome” previously. But the mental trauma caused by politics has reached a point, Aibel argues, where psychoanalysts must rethink how they do things.

“Freudian psychologists had little interest in the political. But the profession is coming to realize that ‘the personal’ and ‘the political’ are in reality not distinct,” as Aibel puts it. In our current us-vs.-them, zero-sum politics, “dearly held self-representations distort perceptions, alter judgment, resist disconfirming factual evidence and remain impervious to rational argument, a phenomenon well-documented in the political and social science literatures ... and disconcertingly demonstrated by the Trump faithful’s clinging to their ‘alternative facts.’” Aibel acknowledges the unique difficulty in getting people to examine the unconscious parts of political perceptions, because of the “strong pulls of tribalism and moral certitude,” but it must be attempted.

Partisanship drives so much of our lives: where we live, who our friends and spouses are, where we worship and go to school. Mental-health professionals can’t expect to understand or help their patients if they don’t take into account the socio-political beliefs that determine so much about who we are and how we think.

I hope the new approach works, though I fear that those most likely to subject themselves to psychotherapy are not the ones who send social-media messages wishing for my death.

As the mental-health professionals sort this out, I’ll be contemplating the many suggestions helpful readers sent in for treating my own Trump-induced illness: acupuncture, Himalayan herbs, vitamin supplements, yoga, flossing, playing with puppies -- and the most common suggestion, unplugging from the news. If only I could.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

Trump’s embrace of a post-American world

By fareed zakaria
Trump’s embrace of a post-American world

NEW YORK -- President Trump’s speech to the United Nations was well delivered. But it was a strange mishmash of topics and tones, in parts celebrating realpolitik but then also asserting the importance of freedom and democracy. There was, however, one overriding theme -- the embrace of nationalism. And in striking that chord, Donald Trump did something unusual, perhaps unique for a U.S. president: He encouraged, even embraced the rise of a post-American world.

First, the mishmash. Early in his speech, Trump asserted, “In America, we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone.” But then, a few minutes later, Trump proceeded to castigate North Korea, Iran, Venezuela and Cuba for their undemocratic political systems, virtually demanding that they all become Western-style liberal democracies.

The danger of this kind of lofty rhetoric is that it has been selectively applied, so it is seen cynically by the rest of the world as a way to dress up American self-interest. Trump took this hypocrisy to a new level. He denounced Iran for its lack of freedoms and, almost in the same breath, made favorable mention of Saudi Arabia. By any yardstick -- political rights, religious tolerance, free speech -- Iran is a much more open society than Saudi Arabia, which is an absolute monarchy allied to the world’s most fanatical religious establishment, where churches and synagogues are prohibited.

The main thrust of Trump’s speech was about nationalism. He celebrated sovereignty and nationalism, choosing an odd example. Latching onto a few words by President Harry Truman in support of the Marshall Plan, Trump described that approach to international relations as “beautiful” and “noble.” But can anyone imagine Donald Trump actually supporting the Marshall Plan? It was a massive foreign aid program, administered by government bureaucrats to help foreigners revive their industries -- which became competitors to American firms. Washington spent, as a percentage of GDP, roughly five times what it spent during the combat phase of the war in Afghanistan, according to one estimate. To make the Marshall Plan work, Washington encouraged European nations to cede economic sovereignty and create the European Coal and Steel Community, which was the genesis of the European Union.

The most significant line in Trump’s speech was this one, delivered dramatically: “As president of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries will always, and should always, put your countries first.”

But this is what countries like Russia and China have been saying for the past few decades. For the last 70 years, the great debate among nations has been between those who argued for narrow national interests and those who believed that lasting peace and prosperity depended on promoting broader common interests. The latter, conceived by FDR and supported by every U.S. president since, is what produced the United Nations and all the organizations that monitor and assist with trade, travel, disease, crime and weather issues, among a host of others, that spill over borders and can only be handled at a regional or global level.

But Donald Trump is tired of being the world’s leader. He whined in his speech that other countries are unfair in their dealings with the United States, and that somehow the most powerful nation in the world, which dominates almost every international forum, is being had. His solution, a return to nationalism, would be warmly welcomed by most of the world’s major players -- Russia and China, but also countries like India and Turkey -- which tend to act on the basis of their narrow self-interest. Of course, that will mean a dramatic acceleration of the post-American world, one in which these countries will shape policies and institutions, unashamedly to their own benefit rather than any broader one.

Trump grumbled about the fact that the United States pays 22 percent of the U.N.’s budget, which is actually appropriate because it’s roughly equivalent to America’s share of global GDP. Were he to scale back America’s support, he might be surprised how fast a country like China will leap in to fill the gap. And once it does, China will dominate and shape the U.N. -- and the global agenda -- just as America has done for seven decades. Perhaps the Chinese will suggest that the organization’s headquarters be moved to Beijing. Come to think of it, it would free up acres of land on the East River where Donald Trump could build a few more condominiums.

Fareed Zakaria’s email address is comments@fareedzakaria.com.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

The devolution of repeal-and-replace

By eugene robinson
The devolution of repeal-and-replace

WASHINGTON -- Motivated by the cynical aims of fulfilling a bumper-sticker campaign promise and lavishing tax cuts on the wealthy, Republicans are threatening to pass a health care bill they know will make millions of Americans sicker and poorer. Do they think we don’t see what they’re doing?

Does Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, think we didn’t hear what he said Wednesday? “You know, I could maybe give you 10 reasons why this bill shouldn’t be considered,” he told reporters. “But Republicans campaigned on this so often that you have a responsibility to carry out what you said in the campaign. That’s pretty much as much of a reason as the substance of the bill.”

There you have it: Who cares what this legislation would do? Vote for it anyway.

The GOP’s efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act have undergone a process of devolution, with each new bill worse than the last. The measure that the Senate plans to vote on next week essentially takes away most of the protections, benefits and funding of the ACA, but leaves in place most of the taxes.

That’s supposed to be good politics? Seriously?

In his desperate haste, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has decided not to wait for the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office to analyze the bill before bringing it to the Senate floor. The CBO estimated that July’s Better Care Reconciliation Act, which would have repealed the ACA with a vague promise to replace it later, would have caused 32 million people to lose health insurance coverage. Some outside experts fear the impact of this new bill could be even worse.

I should acknowledge that the measure -- sponsored by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Bill Cassidy, R-La., Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Ron Johnson, R-Wisc. -- would do one popular thing: Eliminate the requirement that individuals purchase health insurance or pay a fine. But the list of things that people surely won’t like is staggering.

Perhaps chief among them is that the bill eliminates the ACA’s guarantee of affordable health insurance for people with pre-existing medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or cancer. State officials would be able to let insurers charge whatever they wanted to the infirm and the elderly -- and also could let insurers reinstitute lifetime caps on coverage.

In practice, this means that the old and the sick could be priced out of the insurance market. And it means that those who are insured but have expensive ailments could see their coverage expire after a certain dollar amount had been paid in benefits.

At first glance, this looks like a gigantic gift to the insurance industry. But the powerful lobbying group America’s Health Insurance Plans came out strongly against the bill Wednesday, saying it “would have real consequences on consumers and patients by further destabilizing the individual market.” The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association opposes the measure as well, saying it would “increase uncertainty in the marketplace, making coverage more expensive and jeopardizing Americans’ choice of health plans.”

The American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association and AARP adamantly oppose the new Senate bill as well. In fact, it is hard to find anyone who knows anything about health insurance who likes this monstrous creation.

And I haven’t even mentioned the worst thing about the bill: It revokes the ACA’s expansion of the Medicaid program, which provided health coverage for millions of the working poor, and turns Medicaid into an underfunded block-grant program to be administered by the states. GOP rhetoric about federalism and local control is smoke designed to obscure the real goal, which is to dramatically slash the federal contribution toward Medicaid.

In the short term, billions of health care dollars would effectively be transferred from states that participated in Medicaid expansion, such as California, to states that did not, such as Texas. In the long term, however, all states would suffer from inadequate federal funding of Medicaid, which is the primary payer for about two-thirds of nursing-home residents nationwide.

There is a rational motive for all of this, although it’s a nefarious one that the GOP doesn’t like to talk about: Slashing Medicaid spending would make room for huge tax cuts that primarily benefit the rich. Yes, senators, we see that, too.

It is tempting to let the Republican Party drive itself, Thelma-and-Louise style, off this cliff. But the human impact of the latest repeal-and-replace measure would be too tragic. Call your senator. Make a deafening noise. We must do everything we can to kill this bill.

Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

Trump’s tough talk makes us weaker

By e.j. dionne jr.
Trump’s tough talk makes us weaker

NEW YORK -- The worst aspect of President Trump’s speech at the United Nations on Tuesday was not his immature taunting of a dangerous foreign leader when the stakes far outweigh those of a schoolyard fight.

Calling North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man” may make Trump happy by reminding him of the glory days of “Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary.” But it does nothing to win over the allies we need.

And his pledge “to totally destroy North Korea” is what you’d expect to hear in a bar conversation from a well-lubricated armchair general, not from the leader of the world’s most powerful military.

But the most alarming part of an address that was supposed to be a serious formulation of the president’s grand strategy in the world was the utter incoherence of Trump’s “America First” slogan.

The speech tried to rationalize “America First” as a great principle. But every effort Trump made to build an intellectual structure to support it only underscored that his favored phrase was either a trivial applause line or an argument that, if followed logically, was inimical to the United States’ interests and values.

The notion that “sovereignty” is in such danger that it demanded 21 mentions is absurd. No member state at the United Nations rejects national sovereignty, and many use it as a cover for dismissing the values of democracy and human rights, casting both as the impositions of outsiders.

No wonder Trump won applause when he said that “you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first.” Selfishness is popular. Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping no doubt nodded approvingly when they were briefed about Trump’s words.

But Trump was so selective and inconsistent in his application of sovereignty that the concept itself had collapsed before he finished. If sovereignty is the highest principle, what justification does he have for threatening to destroy North Korea (which asserts its sovereign right to nuclear weapons)?

How can he suggest intervention against Venezuela simply because we disapprove of its governing system? Trump’s criticism of Venezuela was clearly based on the idea that some things actually are more important than sovereignty.

Trump proudly invoked Harry Truman, a fine role model. But Truman was the antithesis of Trump’s us-above-everybody-always talk. The 33rd president understood that American power was more effective when exercised in cooperation with other nations, and he pioneered the creation of multilateral organizations that have endured for decades.

The Marshall Plan was very much in our country’s interests. But its passage required facing down the America Firsters of Truman’s day. Its opponents could not understand why we would spend so much of our own money to rebuild the economies of Western Europe.

Trump said that Polish, French and British resistance to Nazism was motivated by “patriotism,” and indeed it was. But patriotism is a richer and more complicated commitment than Trump’s off-hand comment suggests.

Gen. Charles de Gaulle was condemned as a traitor for opposing France’s Vichy collaborationist government -- its nationalist slogan was “Work, Family, Country” -- and joining with the British. De Gaulle was fighting for a genuinely free and democratic France and defending a view very different from Vichy’s as to what patriotism meant.

The favorable reaction to Trump’s speech from his habitual defenders is not surprising. But he also won praise from another group who are not really Trump-friendly but whom I have come to see as inspired by a hope: They calculate that if enough people say enough encouraging things whenever Trump seems to offer relatively normal ideas or take normal actions, he will respond to positive reinforcement and do more normal things over time.

Perhaps this would prove to be true, but it sounds like a coping technique that parents of teenagers might employ, and that is disturbing.

Even worse, pulling punches about the many outlandish elements of Trump’s approach means throwing out every standard we have upheld to this point about how presidents of the United States should behave. It requires giving up on the idea that presidents should be eloquent, persuasive, responsible and thoughtful.

Any other president, Republican or Democrat, who gave a speech of the sort Trump delivered would have faced an avalanche of criticism. It just won’t do to smile indulgently and say, “Oh, that’s Trump being Trump,” or, “He’s just appealing to his base.”

Trump’s invocations of America First will ultimately leave our country behind in the world. His rhetoric sounds tough but will only make us weaker.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

The steep cost of cheap speech

By george f. will
The steep cost of cheap speech

WASHINGTON -- At this shank end of a summer that a calmer America someday will remember with embarrassment, you must remember this: In the population of 325 million, a small sliver crouches on the wilder shores of politics, another sliver lives in the dark forest of mental disorder, and there is a substantial overlap between these slivers. At most moments, 312 million are not listening to excitable broadcasters making mountains of significance out of molehills of political effluvia.

Still, after a season of dangerous talk about responding to idiotic talk by abridging First Amendment protections, Americans should consider how, if at all, to respond to “cheap speech.” That phrase was coined 22 years ago by Eugene Volokh of UCLA Law School. Writing in The Yale Law Journal (”Cheap Speech and What It Will Do”) at the dawn of the internet, he said that new information technologies were about to “dramatically reduce the costs of distributing speech,” and that this would produce a “much more democratic and diverse” social environment. Power would drain from “intermediaries” (publishers, book and music store owners, etc.) but this might take a toll on “social and cultural cohesion.”

Volokh anticipated today’s a la carte world of instant and inexpensive electronic distributions of only such content as pleases particular individuals. Each person can craft delivery of what MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte called (in his 1995 book “Being Digital”) a “Daily Me.” In 1995, Volokh said that “letting a user configure his own mix of materials” can cause social problems: customization breeds confirmation bias -- close-minded people who cocoon themselves in a cloud of only congenial information. This exacerbates political polarization by reducing “shared cultural referents” and “common knowledge about current events.”

Technologies that radically reduce intermediaries and other barriers to entry into society’s conversation mean that ignorance, incompetence and intellectual sociopathy are no longer barriers. One result is a miasma of distrust of all public speech. Although Volokh leans libertarian, what he foresaw -- “the demassification of the mass media” -- led him to conclude: “The law of speech is premised on certain (often unspoken) assumptions about the way the speech market operates. If these assumptions aren’t valid for new technologies, the law may have to evolve to reflect the changes.” He warned about what has come about, odious groups cheaply disseminating their views to thousands of the likeminded. Nevertheless, he stressed the danger of letting “government intervene when it thinks it has found ‘market failure.’”

Now, Richard L. Hasen of the University of California, Irvine offers a commentary on Volokh, “Cheap Speech and What It Has Done (to American Democracy),” forthcoming in the First Amendment Law Review. Hasen, no libertarian, supports campaign-spending regulations whereby government limits the quantity of campaign speech that can be disseminated. Given, however, that “in place of media scarcity, we now have a media firehose,” such regulations are of diminished importance. As, Hasen says, using the internet to tap small donors has “a democratizing and equalizing effect.”

But, he correctly says, cheap speech is reducing the relevance of political parties and newspapers as intermediaries between candidates and voters, which empowers demagogues. Voters are directly delivered falsehoods such as the 2016 story of Pope Francis’ endorsement of Donald Trump, which Hasen says “had 960,000 Facebook engagements.” He cites a study reporting approximately three times more pro-Trump than pro-Hillary Clinton fake news stories, with the former having four times more Facebook shares than the latter.

Hasen says that during the 2016 election, digital advertising revenue reached $1.4 billion, a 789 percent increase over the 2012 campaign, with Facebook and Google receiving 85 percent of it. Courts have rejected the idea of government bodies declaring campaign statements lies; besides, as Hasen delicately says, this is “an era of demagoguery and disinformation emanating from the highest levels of government.” But because “counterspeech” might be insufficient “to deal with the flood of bot-driven fake news,” Hasen thinks courts should not construe the First Amendment as prohibiting laws requiring “social media and search companies such as Facebook and Google to provide certain information to let consumers judge the veracity of posted materials.”

Hasen errs. Such laws, written by incumbent legislators, inevitably will be infected with partisanship. Also, his progressive faith in the fiction of disinterested government causes him to propose “government subsidizing investigative journalism” -- putting investigators of government on its payroll.

The most urgent debate concerns the First Amendment implications of regulating foreign money that is insinuated into campaigns. This debate will commence when Robert Mueller reports.

George Will’s email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

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