Thursday, July 8, 2010

Elegy for a manual transmission

Yesterday morning I drove to the dentist.

Not an auspicious start, is it? Who wants to read about visits to the dentist? Half my face was still numb when I drafted this post, I’m not really in the mood myself for a recap. So, instead, I’ll tell a shaggy dog story about technology. (If you want you can skip my whiney self-justification for buying a used car instead of a shiny new hybrid.)

The thing is, I drove to the dentist in a trusty old car that isn’t long for this world. I’ve been driving my Volvo 240 DL for almost ten years, and it’s served me well. Volvo sedans serve a lot of people well in Berkeley. To look around, it’d be easy to believe Berkeley has more Volvo 240 sedans on the road, per capita, than anyplace outside Sweden (others have observed this before me).

A whiney self-justification for buying a used car

My little 1985 number has nearly 190K miles on it, but little of that is my fault ... my partner and I drive two or three thousand miles a year between us. We share the sedan as our only car, ride bikes to work, and take a fair bit of public transit. I did drive up to Portland a year and a half ago, proving that the old girl still has it in her to do a real road trip. Took my time. This is not a race car.

(That year we put more miles than usual on the Volvo, coming in a hair under 4,000. The year before, a fender bender seriously bent our front fender, which has been hanging rakishly low to the ground ever since. The left front turn signal is duct-taped to the rest of the car. You can fix anything with duct tape.)

The Bay Area Air Quality Management district will give us $1,000 to take our Volvo off the road. We’re going to take them up on it. We just transferred title on our new car this week. When I say “new,” I only mean new-to-us. Our new used car is a Subaru, and it’s six years younger than the car we’re about to retire.

If that sounds a little lunatic, to buy a 19 year old vehicle, I offer the following mitigating circumstances: the Subaru was meticulously maintained by its single owner, garaged, and has been driven fewer than 60,000 miles. At the rate we advance the odometer, there’s a decent chance it’ll last until we’re ready for a nursing home.

If it sounds environmentally irresponsible to buy a used car when a cleaner-burning hybrid or other newer alternative is possible, well, here’s the whiney self-justification, recognizing that it’d be hard to fit the whole grand calculus into a blog post. And, to be honest, we didn’t perform the full-on grand calculus. Not rigorously. As the Dust to Dust report testifies, the question of least-environmental-impact is complicated.

Our back-of-the-napkin calculations are that it’s got to cause more environmental damage to produce a new car that we’re going to drive a few thousand miles per year than it would to drive an already-built, well-maintained vehicle whose smog tests clock in at 1% to 10% of maximum permitted emissions. That’s our excuse anyway. The comments box is at the bottom of this post.

Manual transmissions

What our Volvo has that our Suburu lacks: a manual transmission.

I never foresaw the day when I’d give up driving a clutch. I learned to drive on a manual tranmsission, a Volvo wagon, ‘70, I think -- it was the car my family drove across the country when we moved to California. I’ve since owned a Volkswagon van, a couple of Hondas, and now the 240 DL; all of them equipped with manual transmissions. None of them were hot rods, that’s never been my thing.

I changed out the clutch on the VW and the first Honda myself, when the need arose. Those were the days, right? When you didn’t need a Cray supercomputer and a garage full of specialized tools to diagnose and repair your own vehicle? I rebuilt the VW from the pistons out before driving it across the country one summer with a couple of good friends. The Idiot Guide by John Muir taught me everything I needed to know about how my wheels worked. I liked knowing. Self-sufficiency felt good. When the gas cable snapped on a freeway in Montana, I wasn’t ruffled. I had a spare packed away with the socket wrenches and the camping stove. I pulled over and threaded the spare from the front of the bus to the rear-mounted engine. It hadn’t been too many years since I first read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Not to mention a shelf full of Heinlein novels. Self-sufficiency was pretty high on my list at the time.

(One great thing about blogs: you can be a discursive as you want to be.)

So, anyway, driving to the dentist in my old sedan, I realized that this was likely to be one of the last times I would drive a manual transmission, at least one that I own. And from there it wasn’t a far leap to the fact that it was likely to be one of the last times I drove a car that I could repair myself (if I wanted to, I’m saying -- I got over DIY car repair a few years before the Volvo came into my vehicular life). And from there, I picked up where I left off earlier this week, in a post on new and not-so-improved software.

I’m sure I’ll get used to driving an automatic transmission soon enough. It’s not like I spend that much time in a car anyway. But what about the larger questions?

Technology changes what you can do -- and what you can’t

The latest advances in Microsoft’s productivity software technology make it easier to co-author documents and spreadsheets, embed video in business presentations, and control access to your digital artifacts. But those arguably incremental “improvements” (along with user-centered design based on a population of Martians?) complicate an already bloated user interface, dialing up the friction on producing simple documents with multi-faceted software. It’s necessary for me to know more than I’d rather about navigating that interface given that all I want to do is produce the same old sort of simple, structured text documents (like novel chapters, say).

Advances in information technology permit anyone to archive their digital ephemera on servers maintained by companies that allow one to share or privately access documents, photos, and videos from anywhere that’s connected to the intertubes. The downside? People get anxious when they’re not connected to the intertubes. Then we become increasingly checked out from wherever we actually are when our heads are in a digital cloud, where our stuff is.

Advances in publishing technology give authors much more control over paths outside the routes gated by traditional publishing houses, whether through print-on-demand services or self-publishing channels for electronic books, as many in the blogosphere have written and wailed about already, including yours truly. That seems good, right? But on the other hand, it’s getting harder every week to find a bookstore worth browsing in, never mind getting that terrific novel you wrote noticed by a sizable readership.

Clever, government-mandated technology is now built into every new vehicle sold in the U.S. in an effort to reduce pollution, which is a good thing by most people’s measure. Whiz-bang gadgetry now enables vehicles to self-correct for dangerous road conditions, protect passengers in the event of a crash, or guide a driver to her destination -- improvements that are hard to argue with. But all that new and improved technology makes it pretty much impossible for a backyard mechanic to perform substantial repair on vehicles manufactured after nineteen eighty-something, which reads like a loss to this onetime backyard mechanic.

As I’ve proposed before, complex stuff is more likely to break. The price we pay for greater reach -- for ability to publish our own books; or access our photos from anywhere; or to leave home without one of those antique paper maps that people used to buy at gas stations, yet still find our way -- is a greater reliance on experts to keep our stuff working.

Is it worth it? Sometimes it seems so. Other times not.

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