Watching people weave into and out of our lane while they texted
on the freeway (where are all the cops who are supposed to be cracking
down on that this week?),
Dave came up with an idea: a competition where you drive
some sort of course -- start with an autocross course, or maybe add
twists like parallel parking -- while simultaneously texting.
Your score is a combination of your time through the course,
fewest pylons hit, and the accuracy of your texted replies.
He was thinking of a show we used to see at a pizza place we
frequented a few years ago, "Cash Cab". The premise: there's a special
taxi that drives around New York City rigged with video gear, and if
it picks you up, you get a chance to play a "Who wants to be a
millionaire" style quiz show in the time till the driver gets you
to your destination.
I have to admit, although Dave's combination of Cash Cab and autocross
sounded intriguing, it didn't sound like something I'd actually want
to do. Although I see plenty of drivers who seem to love the challenge
of parallel parking or negotiating rush-hour traffic with one hand
(or no hands!), it's not my thing.
But here's a modification that did sound fun to me:
you wear a hands-free headset, and while you negotiate the course,
someone asks you quiz-show type questions and you have to
answer while you're driving the course. You can still use both
hands to drive; just not your whole brain.
It's an exercise in concentration and filtering distractions. Can you
figure out what part of the course needs your fullest attention, and
which parts you might be able to take nearly as fast while thinking
about the quiz question? It's a biathlon for motorheads.
The scientifically minded part of me wants to take a little extra time
and add a free run through the course for each contestant at the
beginning and end of the event, with no quiz questions.
That way everybody gets a baseline time for the
course, and it's easy to find out how much the distraction hurts
our driving. Some studies say that a hands-free phone is
just as distracting as a handheld one. Wouldn't you love to find
out exactly how true that is for you?
I know it'll never happen -- it's hard enough to reserve autocross
sites without the additional complications of an untried event format.
But I'd sure love to try it. If any researchers with funding for
distracted-driving studies are reading this and want to use the idea,
count me in as either a helper or a study subject.
I'm calling it QuizCross. You heard it here first.
[ 19:55 Apr 05, 2013
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A recent Jon Carroll column
got me thinking about Making and Fixing.
This was the passage that got me started:
... I took it to Dave up at the repair place. "You need a new
battery," he said. Looked like a fine battery to me, but what do I
know? I had a second opinion from the guy who wanted to sell me a
battery. What could go wrong?
I brooded about this on the way. I realized how much we are at the
mercy of the repair people in our lives, and how much we do not know
about, well, most things.
At their mercy
That took me back. I grew up with the idea that mechanical things
like cars were a little scary, something one doesn't really muck with.
This despite the many happy afternons I spent building little
balsa-wood gliders with my father. Later, I learned a little
electronics, and built little things like a switchbox so my mom could
switch between cable and VCR without unplugging anything.
But knowing I could handle an X-Acto knife and soldering iron somehow
didn't translate to the notion that I could work on anything as
scarily mechanical as a car or a home appliance.
When I was just getting out on my own, my car -- a 200SX turbo, my
pride and joy -- developed a terrible ticking sound. When I got on the
gas hard, it would make this loud tick tick tick tickticktick.
I took it to the mechanic. He listened to the noise and said "Lady,
it's your turbo." He said it needed replacement.
I was pretty sure that wasn't right. I had read the turbo spun at something
like 100,000 RPM. This sound was more like -- I don't know, a few
ticks a second, maybe a few hundred RPM? Shouldn't something spinning
at a hundred thousand RPM (let's see, that's ... divide by 60 ... 1667 Hz),
shouldn't that make a sort of a whine, not ticks?
I asked the mechanic that. He shook his head. "Lady, it's your turbo.
You have to replace it."
I was pretty sure I was being lied to. But what could I do?
As Jon Carroll says, "we are at the mercy of the repair people in our lives."
I arranged for a replacement. The warranty covered part of it; I still had
to pay quite a bit.
And when it was over, the tick-tick-ticking noise was still there.
I'd been right -- the noise wasn't coming from the turbo.
Somehow that didn't make me feel better.
I saw a movie some time around then -- some awful movie involving
motorcycles, I forget the details -- that had a character I liked.
You've probably seen the archetype -- she's been in other movies.
You know, the girl-mechanic with the grease smudge on one cheek and the
bright eyes. Think Kaylee from Firefly, only this was long before Firefly.
I wanted to be that girl -- the one who never had to put up with
mechanics lying to her, the one who'd never get stuck somewhere.
She had control over her life. She understood the machines.
But how do you even get started learning something like that?
All the guys I knew who knew how to work on cars had grown up in a
culture where they learned it from their father or brothers.
I set a goal: I'd do my own oil change. I found instructions somewhere.
I bought a crescent wrench -- one of those adjustable things --
and an oil pan to catch the oil, and a new filter.
I lay down in the dirt and slid under the car and got the wrench on the
bolt and ... it kept sliding off. I couldn't get the bolt loose,
and I was rounding off the corners so maybe no one could ever get
it loose. Oh no! The instructions didn't say what to do if that happened.
I got in the car, drove to the local mechanics' shop (not the same one
that had lied to me about the turbo) and threw myself on their mercy.
I said I'd be happy to pay whatever an oil change cost, but I didn't
want them to do it -- just please show me how to get the bolt loose.
They were super nice about it. They broke it loose (they said whoever
did it last way over-tightened it). They took a look at my crescent
wrench and told me never to use it again -- that I should stop at Napa
on the way home and buy a 14mm box-end wrench. I don't think they even
charged me anything.
Back at home, armed with my new 14mm wrench, I got the drain plug off,
and the rest of the oil change went smoothly. I changed the filter and
put the new oil in and closed up. My hands were shaking as I drove off --
surely all the oil was going to fall out right away, trashing my
engine forever. But it didn't.
When I got back, one of my housemates was home. He said "You look adorable."
Apparently I had that grease smudge on my cheek -- you know, just like
the girl mechanic in the movie. Maybe there was hope!
And you know what? Once I knew how to do an oil change, I found it took less
time to do it myself than it did to drive to the shop, drop off the
car, arrange a ride home, and all the other hassle associated with
having someone else do it.
Beyond oil changes
Doing my own oil change boosted my confidence incredibly. But I wanted
to learn more. I wanted to be able to fix things when they broke down.
It was around this time that I took up autocross racing. Of course,
a lot of the guys at the autocrosses were great mechanics. I started
asking them questions, picking their brains.
My car still made that tick-tick-tick sound -- I'd pretty much learned
to live with it since it seemed to be this mysterious thing no one
knew how to fix. I asked one of my autocrosser friends.
He said "Yeah, I've noticed you have an exhaust leak. You
should fix that" He said it like, duh, doesn't everybody recognize the
sound of an exhaust leak when they hear it?
What's an exhaust leak? How would I fix it? Turns out it means the gasket
between the exhaust manifold and the head is bad. You have to unbolt
the manifold and pull it back so you can slip a new gasket in. (He showed
me what all those things were so I'd know what he was talking about.)
Normally that would be pretty easy, but on a turbo car it meant
disconnecting all the turbo plumbing and moving the turbo out of the
Another autocrosser, an expert mechanic, offered to help.
We did the job. It turned out to be harder than expected.
Seems that previous mechanics, probably the nim-nuts who replaced the
turbo, had messed up the threads in the aluminum head -- and instead
of fixing it right, they'd just taken a stud with different threads
and jammed it in. I learned all about taps, and Heli-coils, and
other techniques that weren't part of the original plan.
And the noise went away. We fixed it right. Not like the shop
that was only interested in screwing another ignorant customer out of
whatever they could get.
I still wanted to learn more, and not be so dependent on helpful guys.
I looked around for books.
Shop manuals and Haynes and Chilton and Clymer manuals all assume you're
already pretty comfortable working on cars. I needed something that
I'd been kicking around the idea of getting a car just for autocross --
some older, simpler car that would be easy to learn on. One option
I was considering was a Scirocco, and that put me on to Poor
Richard's Rabbit Book: How to Keep Your VW Rabbit/Scirocco Alive.
It was fabulous. It explained everything from the beginning -- what the
various parts do, how to find them in a Rabbit/Scirocco -- but it was
clear enough that it worked for any car, not just a VW. I inhaled that
book. It was my bible for years, even after I gave up on the Scirocco
idea. I chose a Fiat X1/9 instead.
Everyone knows Fiat's reputation. The joke is that it stands for "Fix
It Again, Tony" (though I always preferred "Fix It Alla Time").
A Fiat would surely force me to learn, fast.
My new baby, Colibri (Italian for "hummingbird") was a mess of a car.
It had been in several accidents. Just about everything needed some
amount of work. It was perfect. I loved it.
My first big job was a brake job in the parking lot of a San Diego Pep Boys,
Poor Richard's and the Haynes manual in hand, the store handy
so I could go in and buy tools I discovered I needed, a pay phone
nearby so I could make long-distance calls to my boyfriend when I hit snags.
(We were in the process of moving, but the brake job couldn't wait
until he was there in person -- and besides, I wanted to learn how to
do things myself!)
I was there for hours, and used the pay phone several times. But I emerged
triumphant -- covered in grime, but with brakes that worked great.
Over the next few years of driving and racing Fiats, I learned how to
re-jet a carburetor (and how to do it really fast when a bit of
fluff from your sketchy aftermarket performance air filter clogs a
carburetor jet when you're stuck in traffic on 101 and the car
suddenly isn't getting any power from the primary). I got good at
replacing the alternator,
working on suspension; I replaced the exhaust system a few times,
and eventually the head.
We don't have to be at the mercy of the repair people in our lives.
Fixing and Making
And that brings me to the Maker movement -- because fixing things,
very often, is making,
and that's something I hadn't realized at first.
I remember watching my master mechanic boyfriend (the one who'd helped
me with the 200SX) faced with
the problem of a pop-up headlight that rattled. The link that held the
light in place was worn from so many years of rattling along potholed
roads. The part was available -- but look at it, he said. This will
just wear out again in a couple of years. There's no lubrication, no
adjustment, no compensation for how the angle changes as the headlight
goes up and down.
He redesigned it using a
rod end --
a lovely piece of hardware that has a threaded rod (adjustable!) at
one end and a nylon-encased ball bearing at the other. It came out
far more solid and adjustable than the original ever was. No more bouncing!
Later, when I got more confidence in my own automotive ability, I
could do some of that myself. My proudest accomplishment was a set of
adjustable spring perches made out of a toilet part from the hardware
store. They cost about a tenth as much as the custom spring perches
the top-flight autocrossers were using, and worked almost as well. I only
wish I'd been prescient enough to have taken photos for a future website.
When you take your car to a mediocre mechanic, like the one who lied
to me about my turbo because he was too inept to recognize the real
problem, you get the wrong idea.
You come away thinking that fixing things is all about
replacing one part after another until the customer stops coming back.
But real fixers aren't like that. They look at a design
and ponder how to make it better. They fiddle with things, and try out
new ideas. If they're not sure what's wrong, they set up experiments,
just like a programmer does chasing a bug, or a scientist testing a new theory.
In today's world,
being a Maker is hot now,
while being a mere fixer isn't held in such high regard. But it should be.
People who fix old stuff -- who can figure out how to take
something broken and make it better than it was to begin with -- not only
are creative Makers, they're also environmental heroes. They're our
best hope to keep us from drowning in a sea of discarded junk.
I'm still not that good at it. I try to fix my computer stuff when it
breaks. I've learned a little
painting, plumbing and other home-maintenance skills from my husband,
who grew up in a culture where most people worked on things like that.
(That definitely wasn't true where I grew up.)
I don't work on the car nearly as often as I used to in the Fiat days --
I have more money and less energy and free time -- but I try to do
enough that I know what does and doesn't need fixing. When I don't
know something (which is still most of the time), I google for help,
and fiddle with things, and invent solutions, and sometimes I succeed,
sometimes not. When I do go to a repair person, I can ask the right
questions, and I can tell if I'm being lied to.
Jon Carroll is right, of course. There's so "much we do not know about,
well, most things." None of us has time to know everything about
everything we own. But that isn't going to stop me from trying. Fixing
is just as cool as making ... and maybe they're the same thing, really.
And I still want to be Kaylee. Maybe I'm making progress.
[ 20:34 Oct 02, 2011
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