Mechanical Wonders

A Wall Street Journal headline stopped me in my tracks today.  In Guangzhou, China, you can now buy a car from a vending machine.  Starting with a smartphone app, you book a test drive before you arrive.  Once at the “dealership”, facial recognition software kicks the machine into gear, delivering your car-of-choice from an eight-story automated garage.  If you’re happy with the test drive, you negotiate the purchase through the app – no haggling salesperson to be seen – and off you drive with a new car.  I’d fly to China and take a test drive just to see the automated garage vend a car.  That’s some cool technology.

Photo by Aleksandar Plavecski

Vending is more sophisticated these days than the plain-Jane cigarette and candy machines of old, of course.  Airports dispense cell phones and other pricey electronics to travelers from vending machines.  Food-truck-like boxes dispense made-to-order pizzas.  A mall in Beverly Hills vends Beluga caviar from self-serve refrigerators ($500 a pop).  Las Vegas’s “The Lobster Zone” is like one of those machines where you joystick the claw to your toy of choice, only here you’re plucking live lobsters from a tank.  Finally, the cupcake company Sprinkles makes serious bank with its street-side “cupcake ATM’s”.

           

Speaking of bank, I used to collect mechanical banks when I was a kid. That sounds like a strange (nerdy?) admission – collecting toy banks – but that’s what kids did in the 1970’s. They collected things. Mechanical banks wouldn’t appeal to today’s youth for a couple of reasons. One, they’re battery-operated or “wind-up”, so you can’t control them with a phone or an app. Two, they work on the assumption you’re saving up nickels, dimes, and quarters for future purchases. Today’s kids seem less likely to save that way (if at all), and their purchases are with bills or electronic cash.  Mechanical banks prefer coins.

My collection of banks – which disappeared years ago – is a good example of the limitations of what and how a kid could purchase back then.  Almost all my banks came from the Johnson Smith Company, a manufacturer out of Chicago (“Since 1914!”)  Johnson Smith sold endless novelty and gag gift items: x-ray goggles, whoopee cushions, joy buzzers, and those really annoying “chattering teeth”.  They also sold mechanical banks; not the beautiful collector’s editions of old, but plastic, battery-operated cheapies, probably manufactured in China.  Johnson Smith was the closest thing a kid in my day had to Amazon.

Because I lived in Los Angeles and Johnson Smith sold their mechanical banks in Chicago, the U.S. Postal Service was a lifeline; the critical link between my quiet suburban neighborhood and the Midwest’s biggest city.  When I saved enough money, I’d stuff my bills and coins into an envelope, hand-address it, add several postage stamps (Mom helped with the calculation), and walk it out to the mailbox at the end of our driveway.  Four to six weeks later, a small brown box would arrive from Chicago, addressed to me and containing my latest mechanical wonder.

Think about that for a second.  Not only was I putting cash into a flimsy white envelope to be processed through the endless shipping and handling of USPS, but I was also leaving my hard-earned money out by the street, alerting the world to its presence with the little red mailbox flag.  That same transaction today – with “1-click ordering” – takes a single keystroke or voice command and shows up on my doorstep in two days or less.

The irony of collecting mechanical banks is that you’re spending your hard-earned pennies on the very thing designed to keep you from spending them.  Truth be told, my banks weren’t about saving money at all.  Instead, they were entertainment in the form of plastic-and-battery-operated mechanics, watching coins go here-and-there before finally disappearing from sight.

I never lost my fascination for mechanics.  I remember grade-school field trips to commercial bakeries, going behind-the-scenes to see how big vats of dough methodically evolved into sliced, packaged loaves of bread.  My kids and I used to watch the Food Network’s “Unwrapped”, a half-hour tour through the sophisticated mechanics behind a product’s evolution, from individual ingredients, through various stages of assembly (and several conveyor belts), finally to the finish line: a brightly-wrapped ready-to-eat consumable.

Mechanical banks may be long gone, but even in today’s age of electronics I say we’re still fascinated by mechanics itself.  It’s the reason we buy cars from vending machines or cupcakes from ATM’s.  And it’s the reason I still haul my pocket change down to the bank, just to see the teller dump the lot into the coin-counting machine; the noisy, mechanical wonder that sorts, counts, and spits out a receipt just before gobbling up every last penny.

Wait For It

Let’s wager a guess over something that happened to you in the past few days. It probably happened several times in the past few days. It wasn’t by choice, nor were you alone.  It might even be happening right now. What is this recurring, oft-maddening event in your daily world (and mine)? Somewhere, for some good reason, in person or in the car, deliberately or unintentionally, you found yourself waiting in line.

Call it a common courtesy or call it the primary by-product of consumer demand. Waiting in line is a timeless (or time-wasting) necessary evil with no satisfactory alternative.  While the world behaves efficiently with smartphones, computers and even data-consuming “IoT” appliances, those snaking, switch-backing, several-option, several-category lines of humans seem to grow ever longer.  Including traffic on the highways – another version of waiting – you’ll spend one to two years of your life in line.

Consider some of the common reasons why we wait in line:
– store cashiers
– airport security
– phone calls (on hold)
– amusement parks
– voting
– public restrooms

If I wrote this post fifty years ago, I would’ve listed the very same reasons why we wait in line.  We have options now, but let’s face it; those options are waiting-in-line in disguise.  Store cashiers now work side-by-side with an area of self-check-out machines (which draws its own line).  Airports promote pay-for lines like TSA Pre and CLEAR.  Telephone on-hold mechanisms offer callbacks instead of waiting (“for an additional $0.75”).  Disneyland installed “FastPass” lines; again, for a fee.  Voting can be done by mail (forcing your ballot to wait in line instead of you).  And public restrooms?  Okay, there’s no option to waiting for the potty.  Maybe reconsider that second beer.

The Brits refer to a line of people as a queue.  I like that (and not just because we need more words beginning with the letter “q”).  Leave it to those on the far side of the pond to class up the most mundane activity imaginable.  At least we have our phones as distractions when we “queue”.  But the old-fashioned distractions still work.  It’s why they put candy bars by the cashiers, magazines in the waiting room, mirrors by the elevators, and televisions in the airport.  Anything to help you forget you’re waiting in line.

Julio C. Negron

You’d think waiting in line is mindless – no-brainer science really – but I have experienced flaws in the system.  Recently in Lowe’s, waiting patiently in a single, central line at the self-check-out area, I was confronted by the person behind me, who demanded I “choose one side or the other” (as if logic demanded a separate line for each row of self-check-out machines).  My response to him was not one of my finer moments.  Another example – at the airport – my wife and I waited at the curb with a dozen others for the parking lot shuttle, only to discover the “front of the line” was a variable determined by the point on the curb where the driver chooses to stop his vehicle.  If you want to see what not waiting in line looks like, try to catch a parking lot shuttle at the airport.

In today’s world, we have new reasons why we wait in line:
– to purchase the latest iPhone
– at restaurants, with pagers (clever disguise for waiting in line)
on-line (i.e. for concert tickets or sports tickets at a specified time)
– Black Friday sales

Finally, we will always stand in line for our kids, whether to see Santa Claus at the mall or to buy something they simply must have.  Years ago, I remember taking my kids to the local bookstore for the latest “Harry Potter” (which they started and finished before the next sunrise).  It was the only time I’ve stood in line for the right to stand in line again.  The bookstore insisted on selling a limited number of tickets at noon, to be exchanged for the book later that same day, when the publisher allowed its release.

I believe the longest I’ve ever waited in line is five hours – to see the first Star Wars movie in 1977.  With no electronic devices to keep my friends and I company back then, five hours was even longer than it sounds, especially knowing two consecutive showings of the movie would run before I even entered the theater.  Then again, the truly morbid among us believe we are all simply waiting to die.  If that’s the case, let’s hope we’re in a really, really long line.

Land of Flying Cars

My wife and I live in a rural area of Colorado known as the Black Forest.  The high density of Ponderosa Pines in our small geography gives us our name.  Remarkably, there’s only one other notable place on the planet named “Black Forest”: the region near Bavaria in southwest Germany.  As it turns out, I have personal ties to both places, though I’ve never been to the south of Germany.  Follow along as I connect the Forests.

Fill in the blank, “Best Childhood Movie: ________”.  Most of you would respond with an offering from Disney.  Including “Snow White…”, “Mary Poppins”, and “The Little Mermaid”, you’ve already covered sixty years of film-making, with countless other Disney classics in between.  I don’t think I missed a single Disney growing up in the sixties and seventies, yet – go figure – my favorite childhood movie doesn’t come from the Mouse.  It doesn’t even come from my home country.  My childhood choice?  The UK’s “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”, based on the 1964 novel by Ian Fleming.

“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” – the captivating musical about the inventor and his kids who lived in a windmill cottage; about those wonderful-though-not-always-perfect inventions (my favorite: the eggs-toast-sausage breakfast machine); about the candy-maker and the toy-maker and the captivating castle world of Vulgaria; and most importantly about the magical flying motorcar itself – created figments of my imagination like no other movie.  The lyrics to the title song (“…Bang Bang Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, our fine four-fendered friend…”) were burned into my brain.  Someday I vowed to visit the lands of Caractacus Potts and Baron Bomburst.

     

As it turns out, the Potts’ windmill cottage really does exist (and not on a movie set) – as the “Cobstone Windmill” in Buckinghamshire, England. The mansion where “Truly Scrumptious” lived is in the same area of the country.  And the Scrumptious Sweets Company was a working factory in Middlesex (today a steam-engine museum).  But it was the castle and village in Vulgaria I really wanted to see.  Not long after seeing the movie of course, I learned “Vulgaria” was a fictitious country.  Baron Bomburst didn’t actually lord over the land, nor did he ever keep all those children as slaves beneath his castle. But the castle and the village are based on actual places.  The village is Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Bavaria.  The castle is Castle Neuschwanstein, also in Bavaria.  And how ironic; both locations were inspirations for Disney as well: Rothenburg for the village in “Pinocchio”, and Neuschwanstein for the Cinderella castles in the theme parks.

To bring my journey full-circle, Rothenburg, Castle Neuschwanstein, and Bavaria sit in southwest Germany, adjacent to… the Black Forest.  Germany’s version of the Forest is a mountainous land of picturesque villages, castles, vineyards and spas.  This is the region that brought the world Black Forest Ham and “truly scrumptious” Black Forest Cake.  This is the land of glass-making and cuckoo clocks.  From the photos above, it looks every bit as charming as “Vulgaria”.

  

Colorado’s Black Forest barely amounts to a dot on Google Maps.  Within our pines, the “town” is a hodge-podge of nondescript businesses clustered around a couple of traffic signals, with nothing more alluring than a Subway, a post office, and a couple of coffee shops.  The terrain is fairly flat, with no windmill cottages or mountaintop castles or cuckoo clocks.  But it’s a great place to live, with its own unique charm.  And every now and then, when I’m deep in the pines, I’ll start humming that forever-familiar Chitty-Chitty tune, as I gaze up to the skies in search of a flying motorcar.

Sweet Charity

Several times during the recent year-end holidays, I passed through the drive-thru at Starbucks, and as I paid, I asked the cashier to include the purchases of the car behind me. I’ve been participating in this Starbucks-wide trend for several Christmases now, and it brings me an inexplicable feeling of goodwill and satisfaction.  The goal of the effort is anonymity. Or to put it more comprehensively, blind faith.

Blind faith is defined as “belief without true understanding, perception, or discrimination”.  That’s powerful.  “Faith” is a spectrum that starts with basic trust and ends with the highest forms of religion.  But add on “blind” and it elevates the meaning.

Buying a free cup of coffee at Starbucks is the easiest form of blind faith, like handing over a dollar to a beggar.  No judgment as to “what happens next” allowed.  But the intention behind an act of blind faith is worth a bit of exploring here.  Dissecting my Starbucks gesture, I note the key components.  First, I don’t waffle over the amount of the purchase I’m covering.  That’s the blind faith in choosing to pay in the first place – it shouldn’t matter how much.  One time I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw a car with four passengers.  Their bill was well over $20.  But my decision had been made before the car even pulled up behind me, so the point was to stick with it.  Another time my recipient was a well-dressed woman wearing sunglasses and driving a recent-model BMW.  Again, no judgment.  Pay for her coffee and move on.

The second component concerns my “getaway”.  As I’m waiting for my own purchases I’m considering my escape route – the path that gets me away from Starbucks as quickly as possible, with enough turns and traffic lights to deter my beneficiary.  My goal is to remain anonymous, and unless the person behind me memorizes my license plates (or something else unique about my vehicle), I’ve achieved a moment of goodwill and will never see them again.  Frankly, it would spoil the whole effort if the car pulled up next to me at a nearby red light.  They might offer their gratitude, or they might offer to pay me back.  They might even be annoyed, as if I had no business intruding on their “personal life”.  I’d rather not know.  I prefer to lean on blind faith that I brought an unexpected smile, or delivered a tiny give-me-a-break in an otherwise trying day.  Maybe they’ll even “pay it forward”, as a string of 374 consecutive cars did at a Starbucks in Florida back in 2014.

Come to think of it, there’s a third component in the Great Coffee Giveaway.  Never expect the gesture in return.  In the countless times I’ve driven through Starbucks during the holidays, I’ve never thought to myself, “I hope the car in front of me picks up the tab”.  If I knew this was happening, I might just order a half-dozen breakfast sandwiches and several cake-pops to go with my Flat White.  Just kidding, of course.  I hope the thought never crosses my mind.

This week and last – no surprise here – I’ve read dozens of blogs about resolutions for the New Year.  Allow me to contribute my one-and-only.  I’m going to lean on blind faith in the coming year, whenever I have the chance to give someone a break.  Remember the rules: 1) No conditions on the amount (read: cost) of the help.  2) Keep it anonymous, as a) recognition defeats the spirit, and b) giving simply for the sake of giving might inspire “pay it forward”.  3) Don’t expect a similar gesture in return.  That’s not to say you won’t be pleasantly surprised when someone buys your Starbucks coffee one of these days.  You’ll just know there were no hidden agendas.

 

Carefree Highways

Here’s a connect-the-dots challenge, tapping what’s left of your road-trip driving fever from Labor Day weekend. Pull up Google Maps, pick two towns on opposite edges of the continental United States, and see if you can discover the longest driving trip. The only rules: you must start and end with U.S. cities, and your answer must be the blue line (not the grey line alternatives).

My first guess on Google Maps (above) is effectively the longest drive between the borders of Mexico and Canada.  San Ysidro in California wouldn’t exist if not for the busy border crossing just to the south.  Van Buren in Maine wouldn’t exist if not for a small group of Nova Scotia citizens exiled from Canada in 1785.  As you can see, my southwest to northeast traverse gets me 3,291 miles of driving and takes more than two days (including a wealth of bathroom stops).  In the process, I pass through ten U.S. states and three Canadian provinces.  Label this trip a long-distance segue from “Ole!” to “Eh?”

My second guess chooses a sun-starved soul north of Seattle, seeking some beach time in the Florida Keys (though someone named Irma would object right about now).  Our friend finishes his oyster stew in tiny Blaine, WA; points his car to the southeast, and arrives in Key West, FL two-and-a-half days later, just in time for a twilight margarita with Jimmy Buffett.  His drive also passes through ten states (like my first guess) but lasts 3,559 miles.  If our friend finished in Miami he’d drive the same distance as my first guess, but Highway 1 – further south through the Florida Keys – buys him a 160-mile tiebreaker.

A recent Wall Street Journal article asserts we Americans are endlessly romanced by the allure of the open road (a “four-wheeled traipse” if you will), and the Labor Day holiday conveniently marks the end of the summer travel season.  Thus, you get a lot of drivers on the first weekend in September – 600,000 in Colorado alone, or 11% of the state’s population.  That translates to over 3.5 million road-trippers across the entire United States.  Traffic jam, anyone?

                  

In the prehistoric times of street-corner pay phones and folding road maps (read: 1970’s), the American Automobile Association (AAA) offered a service called “Triptik”.  Go to an AAA office, tell ’em where you want to go, and they’d hand you a step-by-step book of maps “prepared expressly for you”.  My parents gave me a Triptik – and all the station wagon gas I needed – as a high-school graduation present.  My buddy and I created a Western States round-trip starting in Los Angeles, driving as far north as Montana, as far east as South Dakota, and returning through the Southwestern states.  Our aim was to hit as many national parks as possible.  We spent a few nights in motels (on our own dime), but most nights in sleeping bags in the back of the station wagon.  No agenda, no worries – just a couple of teenagers making a ton of memories on the open road.

On the topic of road trips, I owe a nod to America’s beloved “Main Street” – U.S. Route 66.  Though nowhere close to the longest road trip in the U.S., Route 66 is certainly the most renowned.  Built in 1926, the “Mother Road” ran from Chicago to the Pacific Ocean west of Los Angeles – fully 2,448 miles.  Early 1900’s migration to the Western U.S. owes some of its success to 66, and all those road-trippers “got their kicks” at the hundreds of restaurants and motels born along the highway.  It wasn’t until 1985 – sixty years later – the last remnants of Route 66 were replaced by newer segments of the U.S. Interstate Highway System.

Now then; time to solve the Google Maps challenge (with a twist).  The winner of the point-to-point American road trip is some nearby version of my second guess above: Washington to Florida.  However, for my money I’d much prefer the drive from Oregon to Massachusetts (above).  The twist?  You can do it all on one ridiculously long highway!  U.S. Route 20 – “The Big Daddy” – starts in little Newport, Oregon (pop. 10,000) and ends in Boston (pop. 673,000).  You’ll cover 12 states and 3,154 miles before you hit the checkered flag.  It’ll take you almost two days without stopping, but please stop.  Along the way you’ll find the Idaho Potato Museum, Yellowstone National Park, “Carhenge” (a Stonehenge homage made entirely of autos!), Iowa’s Field of Dreams, Hall of Fame’s for RV’s/motor-homes, rock & roll, and baseball; and most importantly, the Jell-O Gallery Museum, your one-stop-shop + tribute to the jiggly dessert.  C’mon, how you gonna top that road trip (with a dollop of whipped cream?)

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Go For a Drive

Imagine the conversation you’re having with your grandson several years from now, where you’re waxing nostalgic about a favorite car you used to own.  You’re smiling into the details, remembering how your stylish sedan hugged the open highway curves at a crisp 75 mph; how the in-dash digital receiver cranked favorite tunes via smartphone; how the feel of the steering wheel leather gave you the perfect combination of comfort and control.  Only then, your grandson interrupts you and says, “what’s a steering wheel“?

This week, the Wall Street Journal published a make-you-pause article titled “Your Next Car May Be a Living Room on Wheels”.  The subject matter is the technological luxuries in a vehicle where “driving” is no longer necessary.  Forward-facing seats rotate to face each other, perhaps around a central console.  Touchscreens – to control the vehicle; cameras – to enlarge the outside views; movie screens – simply for entertainment; each of these appear on the window glass with simple voice commands.  Microwaves, refrigerators and ice chests hide nearby for always-available snacking.  In other words, the very definition of “car” gets turned on its ear.  Your grandson won’t even know what a “dashboard” is.

Your grandson won’t remember “The Jetsons” either – the Hanna-Barbera animated sitcom from the early 1960’s.  In a mere twenty-four episodes, “The Jetsons” gave us a peek into a fascinatingly advanced world of the future.  George Jetson and his family enjoyed luxuries only present in a 1960’s imagination, like robot housekeepers or in-home treadmills.  The Jetsons lived in a high-rise apartment building floating in space.  My favorite concept: the “aerocar”.  There were no roads in George’s world, so he and his family bopped around in a airborne car.  Per the illustration above, the aerocar is effectively a flying saucer with a transparent bubble top.  I still hear the sound of its little engine.

At least George still drives, which is the premise of this post.  No matter how advanced the mode of transportation, I want the option to navigate whenever my heart desires.  If my family and I are heading out for a Sunday jaunt, I want to be able to steer us wherever the wind blows.  Maybe that’s the provider in me, or maybe that’s just driving for the sheer enjoyment of it.  We need our steering wheels.

Flying cars are closer to reality than you might think.  Airbus, Uber and a handful of other companies have created concept “cars” that take-off and land vertically – no wings.  No rotors either, like you’d see on a helicopter.  Yet some models – like Airbus’s “Vahana” – are designed to be pilot-less.  What fun is that?  Who’s at the controls?  Sounds like going for a ride in an oversized drone.  Regardless, even with perfect technology the real hurdles with flying cars lie in regulating airborne travel.  There must be rules.  You’d better believe the environmentalists will have a seat at the table too.

In my childhood days at Disneyland, I was led to believe monorails were the future mode of transportation.  I pictured vast elevated networks of elegantly formed concrete spreading out across the country, with graceful trains slithering along topside at impressive speeds.  Alas, Disney’s monorail in Florida – at 14.7 miles – remains one of the longest of its kind.  Only two others, in Japan and China, claim more riders.  Monorails just never took.

Maglev (magnetic levitation) replaced monorails as the potential mass-transit solution of modern times.  Magnets are super-efficient, providing both lift and propulsion towards a high-speed, low-friction, no-moving-parts solution.  Assuming an aesthetically-pleasing design, even the environmentalists would be on board with zero-emissions engines.  But there’s always a negative.  In this case, costs of maglev are projected at $50-$100 million per mile.  No wonder the few installations around the world travel very short distances.

Even if we mapped America with arteries of monorails or maglev, I’d still find dissatisfaction in the notion no one’s driving the bus.  More to the point, I am not driving the bus.  But at least we’re talking about mass-transit here; an option I chose willingly over my own car.  If I’m not “licensed to drive” I’m happy to leave the controls to someone else.

Living rooms on wheels will be tough for me to swallow.  The focus has shifted from enjoyment of the drive to enjoyment of the ride.  Maybe I should’ve seen this coming when automatic transmissions became an option to stick-shift.  Certainly it hit me over the head when Uber debuted its self-driving fleet.  Sir, please step away from the controls.

Here is my futile plea for now: don’t take away my steering wheel.  Let me have the option to play pilot.  At the very least, give me a set of handlebars and a little weight-shift control.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Refining Buy-Products

Let’s chat about your last visit to the gas station (assuming you don’t own a “plug-n-play” vehicle).  Chances are you hit the pumps in the last week or so.  If you’re like me you drove in and drove out, mindlessly fueling to be on your way again as fast as possible.  But lately I’ve learned there’s more than meets the eye as you fill-er-up.  We’re all unknowingly playing the great retail chess game known as dynamic pricing.

Here’s the drill.  My local Shell station asks me a lot of questions before I get my first drop of unleaded (which makes me crazy but what choice do I have?)  Cash or credit?  Rewards Program number?  Zip Code?  Car Wash?  Paper Receipt?  All that info is “pumped” out of me (ha) up front.  Even then I must choose the octane before I finally get what I came for.

Now here’s the rub.  Every one of those data points feeds a Watson-like computer somewhere far removed from the gas station.  Watson brews a big customer-transaction stew, mixing in time-of-day, day-of-week, gallons purchased, and even weather conditions.  The result?  The “optimal” price point, delicately balanced between a) what you the consumer are willing to pay and b) what the supplier wants to net.  It’s a price-per-gallon computation that changes as many as ten times a day.

Coca-Cola may get the credit for the advent of dynamic pricing – with soft-drink vending (almost 20 years ago now).  Coke added a heat sensor and a computer chip to their machines, and as the outside temperature increased so did the cost of a soda.  Bad taste, and bad decision.  Consumers figured out the game and raised a big stink.  The running joke at the time – maybe not so funny today – was Coke would next install a camera to determine how much change was in your pocket.  Pepsi seized the opportunity to lure the unhappy customers and Coke quickly dropped the techno-gimmick.  But dynamic pricing took hold and never looked back.

Dynamic pricing is easier to digest when it targets times or situations where customers don’t notice or don’t even care.  The better example is school supplies.  Towards the end of summer your local Wal*Mart or Target will deep-discount pencils and paper and the like, often as much as 50%.  Kids will flock to the sale and load up on everything they need.  Parents will give their receipts an approving smile.  But guess what?  The store still wins.  That’s because “impulse purchases” bagged up with the school supplies are priced slightly higher than usual, more than offsetting any loss from the sale.

Dynamic pricing is hardest at work in hotels (what rate makes sense to fill that empty room?), utilities (do you really need the air conditioning right now?), and outdoor sporting events (are you willing to watch your baseball team during that unexpected rainstorm?).  And of course, any time you shop Amazon or Uber, dynamic pricing is asking the question, “how much do you really want that product or ride?”

Let’s pull up to the pumps again.  If you use “GasBuddy” or some other app designed to locate the lowest price-per-gallon, you’re winning the battle – but not the war.  I wish I had GasBuddy the first time I filled up as a teenager.  I crunched the numbers: forty years of driving; a tank of gas per week; eighteen gallons or so per tank.  If I purchased at $0.03/gallon less each time I filled up, I’d have an extra $1,000 in my pocket by now.

Thanks to Watson and his endless algorithms however, GasBuddy isn’t much more than instant gratification.  The suppliers are always one step ahead.  Unless you keep an eye on prices (and a few gallons in your tank), you’ll inevitably purchase when your demand takes priority.  Did you know gas is less expensive in the early hours of the day?  That’s because commuters are more likely to fill up at the end of the day, when they unknowingly drive up demand.  The computer is only too happy to adjust the price.

Maybe now you’ll leave the house a little earlier in the morning.  Fill up on your way to work instead of on your way home later in the day.  You will save a couple of cents per gallon if you do that.  And good for you – you’re beating the dynamic-pricing game.

Just don’t buy a cup of coffee while you’re at it.

 

 

 

You Can’t Walk and Chew Gum

In the local news this week, we learned Amy Wilson and her newborn – residents of our fair city – are in critical condition in a Salt Lake City hospital as victims of a head-on collision. Wilson and her newborn suffer brain injuries as they struggle to survive, while two of three teenagers from the at-fault car are dead. The heartbreaking interview with Wilson’s husband here in Colorado included loss of words as he tried to reconcile the happiness of a birth with the tragedy of the accident.

My reaction to this story – besides donating to the “Amy and Baby Wilson Support” GoFundMe campaign – was the teenagers must have been texting at the wheel.  I wonder if they even left skid marks.  Prayers be with them, Amy Wilson and her newborn will survive and their injuries will be short-lived.  But the same cannot be said for the kids in the other car.  As it turns out they were street-racing when they jumped the median.  They might as well have been texting.

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The victims on both sides of this accident will join the rising morbid statistics tied to “distracted driving”, which includes use of smartphones. We just can’t put them down, even with risk of life staring us in the face.  By no coincidence, the Wall Street Journal published an article this week about rising insurance rates tied to use of smartphones while driving.  36% of State Farm customers admitted to texting while driving, up 5% from five years earlier.  20% admitted to taking a photo while driving; another 10% take videos.  In those same five years smartphone ownership among drivers increased from 50% to 90%.

I will never understand the urgency to check a text while driving.   Apparently I’m not as addicted as most.  If I’m “late” in responding to a message, I can’t think of a better excuse than “I was behind the wheel”. When my phone rings or a text message dings, I will find a safe place to pull over if I can.  More often I’m not going to answer until I get where I’m going.

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Perhaps I’m more motivated than most, because my son caused a distracted driving accident several years ago in high school.  As he fiddled with the car stereo leaving campus, he braked too late when he saw the red light in front of him, causing a chain-reaction fender-bender involving five cars.  Thankfully no one was hurt, but even at school-zone speeds my son caused a lot of damage.  Because of that incident I chastise my children any time I receive a text from them and realize they are driving.

Technology is trying to improve things, of course.  Voice-activated control is a lot better than it was just a few years ago.  But we’re not there yet.  Until it is commonplace to conduct a stream of communication from start to finish hands-free, the senseless accidents – and the insurance rates – will continue to rise.  Even if you perfect the technology, you still have the distraction.

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Sure, you can walk and chew gum at the same time, but not so texting and driving.  I looked at the photo above and thought, “what if you saw that through the windshield of the car coming towards you?”

The next time you’re on the road and you get that familiar ding, just keep going where you’re going.  No matter the message, it’s infinitely less important than the safety of those around you.

phenomenon

Our neck of the woods is considered “country roads” by most standards.  Some call us “outside the city proper” while others go with “unincorporated county”.  No matter the label, living in these parts presents its unique challenges.  It takes a little longer to get to your groceries and gas.  The wind gusts enough to make the patio furniture take flight.  The wildlife big and small sneaks into the backyard or peeks through the dog door.

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There’s one more aspect of “the country” I didn’t expect when we moved here: washboard.   Washboard is a constant phenomenon on our dirt roads.  The pressure of rotating car tires makes small ripples in the dirt, which quickly turn into bigger ripples, and eventually you have speed-bump city.

The concrete on the interstate is smooth as silk, while the asphalt on the city streets generates a soothing hum.  But washboard is all kinds of nasty on the ears.  If I could drop an audio file into this post you’d think I was riding a Harley in need of a tune-up.  Just try to have a conversation while you’re bumping along on washboard.

I have this recurring nightmare where I’m driving on washboard and all four wheels simultaneously vibrate off the axles and bound away.  Then my car slams to the surface of the road and comes to a skidding halt.  Then one of my neighbors walks by, chuckles at me and my car-with-no-wheels, and wanders on.

Scientists (with way too much time on their hands) have determined that a car’s suspension – once thought to be the cause of washboard – actually has no bearing on the creation of all those ripples.  They also ran a few experiments and decided the only way to avoid the creation of washboard is to drive at 3 mph or less.  I guess I could do that – if I wanted to take twenty minutes to drive the distance I normally cover in two.

Now that I have you utterly spellbound over the phenomenon of washboard (not), look for it on sandy beaches and snow-covered ski slopes.  Ocean waves and speedy skiers produce the same effect on entirely different surfaces.

How our county resources “fix” our washboard roads drives me nuts.  Our street is a mile long with a half-dozen houses on either side.  That’s not enough country bumpkins to generate the tax revenue (or traffic) to justify paving the road.  Instead, every couple of weeks the county sends out a giant Caterpillar tractor, which drags and pushes and manicures the dirt until all of the washboard is gone.  But those grooves just reappear in the next day or two.  This futility reminds me of the Golden Gate Bridge, where once the painters finish a fresh coat it’s time to go back to the other end and start again.  That’s how it is with washboard.

The upside of living on washboardy roads is that you never have to wash your car.  There’s no point.  The moment you hit the washboard you’re giving your car an all-over dirt bath. So I just ignore the thoughtful “wash me” notes that show up on my back window every now and then.

The other day at the gym I was working out and I overheard a guy talking about his “washboard abs”.  For reasons that are now obvious to you, I cringed and promptly left the room.

insentient

My 2002 “Red Rock Pearl” Acura has been my faithful companion for the last thirteen years.  She’s racked up an impressive 285,000 miles on Colorado’s streets and highways.  She’s weathered the extremes of winter blizzards, the instability of our roads (potholes! washboard!), and the novice driving skills of my formerly teenage kids.  Through it all she’s given me safe passage with a minimum of maintenance and repairs.

photo - incendient

Back in 2002 when I purchased her new, the salesman claimed she would go 400,000 miles.  More than a decade later I’m inclined to agree.  When I take her in for service and see the newer models, I’m reminded there are still plenty of miles left in her tank.

When you’ve been with a car this long you tend to forgive the little things.  Like, the stereo holds six CD’s but at some point the mechanism jammed and now they’re all stuck inside my dashboard.  Or the GPS system has mapping which is slowly dating itself because it pulls from a DVD instead of a wireless network.  Or the gold accents I added when she was new that have long since fallen off the body.  Hail damage and a run-in with a pasture fence (driver to remain nameless) have left her less than “cosmetically pleasing”.

Recently my wife and I have been talking about getting a new car.  A newer-model Acura or perhaps another make.  Either way, a replacement for the old girl.  And to be honest, I don’t think “she” is happy about it.

Let’s address this “she” thing, shall we?  Somewhere in her early years my kids decided my car was a girl.  They named her “Roxanne”.  Forget the blow to my masculinity; giving inanimate objects names and personalities is just weird.  Cars have no feelings.  They are insentient.  Or are they?

Lately I’ve noticed the little things:

  • At random the gear shift sticks on “P” and you have to jam it with a pen to get it to “D”.
  • The little light in the glove box goes on and off, even when the door is closed.
  • The air conditioner makes a nasty screechy mechanical noise when it comes to life.  It only gives you cold air when it feels like it.
  • Adjusting the stereo volume or tuning radio stations is an adventure.  Whether you use the buttons on the steering wheel or the knob on the dashboard, you never know what you’re going to get. Sometimes it’s better to just drive in silence.
  • The rear cargo hatch doesn’t cooperate. When it’s really cold the door freezes shut.  When it’s mildly cold the door doesn’t stay in the “up” position by itself.

None of these inconveniences compromises my safety or demands an immediate fix.  Instead, it’s as if “Roxy” is finding ways to discreetly disagree with the new car discussion.  I guess I can’t blame her – she’s been delivering me safely from Point A to Point B for almost a quarter of my lifetime.

Hold the phone.  Did I actually just consider my car’s point of view?