Newspapers and Stick-Shifts

My life is made brighter by special things, quality things that suit me particularly well. Following are some notes on my continuing quest to bring special things into my life.

Much to my surprise and pleasure, I found an article that I enjoyed in our old newspaper. I am surprised because it has seemed to me that the quality of journalistic writing has diminished over the last 2-3 decades in areas of balance, independence, imagination, organization, and any sort of feeling for quality writing (more on that later). It is true that many newspapers of the past have not set the bar very high in these areas, but at least the major city papers had striven to reach some standard of excellence. Now, the lowest common denominator seems to be the level of the bar.

In this frame of mind I was perusing the Friday Business section from my Sunday-only subscription (more on this later) and encountered an article about a new car model. Since I have a love affair with cars, I allowed the writer to suck me in. It took me a paragraph or two of annoyance, at not finding any points of fact, before realizing that this was not the typical new car infomercial, but a mini-essay on driving zen. Thus re-oriented, I relaxed and enjoyed. The facts about the new model didn’t appear until the 7th paragraph, but this was cool stuff and I was no longer annoyed.

It turns out, the über-subject was the state of the art of transmissions, a subject dear to me. How often does a new car ad even mention the transmission? Nobody cares any more, because choice has been eliminated. Yet, whenever I investigate a new model, my first question is not about the engine but the transmission. Here’s the strange thing. I can’t drive an automatic transmission. They drive me nuts, always shifting gratuitously, mostly when I don’t want them to. Manual paddles – forget about it. The delay in the torque converter response makes it unsatisfying. Show me an automatic that can hit red line in 2nd gear and then shift to 5th gear, a common shift pattern for me. And don’t get me started on CVTs, the undead of transmission technologies.

I am on the losing side in the manual vs. torque converter debate. The automobile industry is blowing directly against me. Long ago, almost all American car companies, headed by marketeers and finance wizards, eliminated manual transmissions except on specialty cars. And what would one expect from interchangeable CEO widgets who empathize only with process and not with product, and further believe that people will learn to buy from them whatever it is they choose to sell. We saw these men recently, hat in hand before Congress, petty corporate wonks, hiding the extent of their problems and malfeasance, asking for bailout pork in the guise of bridge loans, a more pathetic lot not imaginable.

They blame external causes for their pain, but they should question their own competence first, second, and third. European and Japanese car companies have no bailout mentality and they compete in the same global environment. Further fueling the indignation we feel is the compensation disparity between Japanese auto execs and American CEOs. The Americans make 10-20 times more in total compensation per year based on figures I have seen.

The newspaper article turned out to be about a new version of a sports car, packing a twist on the classic manual transmission. I was shocked, shocked that I had been scooped by a newspaper. I have the entire net at my command and a passion for automotive advances, and yet I am learning something first from a print source.

It seems there is this electronic enhancement dohinky to control the throttle to match engine revs on downshifts. Apparently there are sensors to detect the driver’s intention with the stick, thus allowing the control computer to ensure engine revs are correct when the clutch is re-engaged. This device apparently will not prevent my magic 2nd-5th upshifts, so I’m cool with it. Will we see it in a sedan soon?

Many complain that a stick makes traffic-jam driving a chore. On the contrary, my stick is the only thing that allows me to keep my sanity in tough traffic. I’ve been at it for so long that my entire driving experience is oriented toward smooth driving, anticipating slowing and compression braking where possible. Perhaps it is some type of withdrawal when I am forced to drive an automatic and despair. Perhaps the shift stick is my drug of choice.

Recently, Debby and I bought a roadster with a transmission we both could enjoy. Debby could drive it fully as an automatic (but without torque converter), and I could drive it as a manual (but with only sequential gear changes, no 2nd-5th magic). It was marvelous, the best of both worlds, a compromise I could live with, and its dual-clutch gearbox exceeded even my own ride’s in sexiness and high art. But sadly, that little car was too impractical and we sold it after just two years. Perhaps that transmission will some day make it into a compact-sized sedan. I keep waiting, probably a wait without end, except for stratospherically-priced specialty cars. American car companies have actually dabbled in dual-clutch transmissions, but their clunky offerings are further dumbed-down in cheapened vehicles.

Over 55 years, my personal cars have never utilized a torque converter. What’s the story? First, there’s the practical issues of functional mediocrity and 5% fuel inefficiency penalty. Then there’s the reliability history; the torque converters in my past association (spouse vehicles) never lasted beyond 80K miles. They were very expensive to repair, the transmission never shifted properly after repair, and the repair was lucky to last 40K miles. By comparison, my gearboxes have never failed me, my average clutch life is ~140K miles, and the car runs as new after a clutch renewal. Then there’s the emotional lift that manual shifting provides me. This gene is missing in a majority of Americans, and has been effectively suppressed in most of the remainder. Hence, I am increasingly a market outlier.

I blame the decades of brainwashing by American car companies for producing a genetically modified consumer base that now wants/knows only a lowest-common-denominator product set. It is also clear that in addition to this unsophisticated gene, America has naturally come by a lazy gene as well. We have emerged as the world’s foremost effortlessness society; our masses increasingly don’t want to think and don’t want to do. We increase our overall obesity while constantly reducing physical activity. Fifty years ago, physical activity was taught in public schools. Rigorous PE courses were mandatory. How far we have fallen. We now largely fit the mould created for us by our car manufacturers and food industry.

These facts are not lost on the product and technology-driven European companies. Although their at-home customers have a galorious selection from which to choose, they now export only a small fraction of their available drivetrains to the US market, those do-everything-for-you models that match the consumer buying trends being sculpted here. It first happened with the big sedans from Europe. Then the mid-size, and now even the compacts for US export are migrating to the lowest common denominator. Only sub-compacts and sports cars are now routinely, affordably available in the US with a manual option, and the sub-compacts are no longer planned for export here due to perceived incompatibility with American XXL tastes.

Our American safety and emissions certification processes do not penalize American manufacturers’ one-size-fits-all mentality, but they make it very expensive for enlightened foreign manufacturers to offer their multiple options here. So they are forced to cater to the bulk of the market only. The foreign manufacturers correctly assess American taste: white bread and big gulp. Models for export to the US therefore offer only the lowest common denominator, the torque converter. This is a subtle form of American protectionism that is harmful to the consumer seeking choice.

Reportedly, performance and reliability of automatics has improved. But for those that remember quality issues and have been seduced by the siren stick, it’s too late to make the sale. So I have not been in the market for a new car for many years, hanging on to my current ride, a compact sedan with six speed stick. My dispassionate side recognizes that this issue of transmission choice will evolve markedly with the coming electrified drive trains that are the near future of automotive design. Torque converters are targeted for replacement by electric motors. Perhaps then my passionate side will be nourished once more.

What matters to producers of today is achieving high market share while offering limited choice. There are a load of model choices to be sure, but they differ only in style and size, with zero functional distinction in the underlying modular platforms. Generic is easy and cheap, so push generic. Then bundle necessary options in packs with pricey add-ons to maximize profit. It is sexier to game the public than to respect the public, even when there is no difference to the bottom line (assuming good will and loyalty are worth something on the balance sheet, perhaps not a good assumption when the quants are running the show).

We see from the preceding verbosity that a good newspaper article gets one to thinking, dredging up all sorts of stuff from one’s unconscious. Yet I would have given up the printed rag years ago as perceived quality declined, but for D still liking the Sunday paper. So we subscribed just to that. Remarkably, Sunday-only came to mean Thu-Fri-Sat-Sun and sometimes Mon and Wed as well (never received Tuesday though). The newspapers are hurting, and they must keep their circulation volumes up for their advertisers. Just like those sad-sack auto execs, the publishers blame external causes for their hurt. These certainly exist. But it is the lack of quality in the day-to-day writing that they should look to first.

I haven’t kept a log of my journalism disappointments, so this is a weak indictment. But I think of how many times I have been unable to glean the subject of an article from any of the pile of words on the first page. Does the author really think I will follow on to page A-45, when I don’t have a clue what s/he is on about? I think of the times an article draws marvelous conclusions from some data, but neglects to reveal the underlying data, and of those times I have discovered those data on my own, and then been confounded at the unsophisticated analysis or downright deception of the printed conclusions.

Such deception is diffuse throughout a lot of the writing, articles filled with attitude, thinly disguised agendas masquerading as legitimate news, penned by editorial page wannabes. There has been in the past a solid core of journalism. Occasional in-depth reporting is still often first rate, perhaps due to more accomplished staff and higher editorial oversight. But it is the occasional, and seemingly frequent, hack jobs that make this paper seem second rate overall.

The lesson is clear; if editors allow unsophisticated staff hacks to go to print, the reputations of all involved are diminished. Describing this complex world requires bright, curious, talented, balanced, mature people. A communications or journalism degree is apparently insufficient guarantee of quality these days.

It is one of my roles in life to sort the Sunday newspaper to separate wheat from chaff. If the newspaper truly cared about its subscribers, it would package the different types of content, news, entertainment/social, and advertising flyers, in easily separable bundles. But to please their advertisers, their real customers, they intertwine the flyers with the rest in the most complex way possible, to ensure the maximum probability that each ad will be handled by the reader.

The paper tries to keep both sets of customers, advertisers and readers, as happy as possible. Occasional format changes are attempted to enhance aesthetic value. The latest, colored banners in a pleasing font, is a nice update. I now lay out the paper on the table with the banners showing, rather than just in a pile. But style never makes up for lack of quality content.

We finally gave up on the local paper. Although it was a major city newspaper, it seemed intolerably provincial in its news treatments. The final straw was inclusion of full page political ads for a clueless gubernatorial candidate. It was bad enough that they editorially endorsed the guy, but the ads, paid for by the newspaper, were toxic. How did they think their reputation could survive tossing their independence under a red bus?

We cancelled and subscribed to the NY Times, providing a magnum increase in substance (although it takes each of us an extra half hour daily to get through it). This revelation has caused me to reverse course. I have a renewed sense of appreciation of our morning print newspaper. Maybe there is still a need after all. And thank you, NYT, for those much appreciated column breaks, where you insert in large print a brief excerpt that gives the bent of the article at a glance, and an unerringly accurate view at that.

Our provincial ex-newspaper called us after our cancellation, to attempt to get us to change our mind by offering instead a two-week protest hold (presumably until after the election, when the ads would cease to run). We declined. The spokesperson explained it was an attempt by the paper to sell more political advertising by showing how effective such ads could be. What horses**t. I could only reply that it reflected colossally poor judgement (not those precise words, but a sugar-coated, non-prejudicial substitute). As for their premise regarding the effectiveness of their print political ads: their endorsed and publicized candidate was roundly defeated. Of course, getting one of the undead elected governor is in the really hard pile, so at least I give them an attagirl for trying.

So far, I have groused about American car manufacturers, the food industry, the American public, the protectionist American government import standards for cars, print newspaper quality, transmissions and gubernatorial candidates from the undead, and lowest common denominator market-shaping strategies. All these areas are ripe for improvement through informed consumerism, new technology, and ensuring things that should be dead remain so. Believe it or not though, I’m basically a happy person.

I get it. Things relevant to me may have no relevance to the bulk of America nor to the future, except when indulging in nostalgia. Yet I adopt a positive attitude, looking forward to the transformations I will yet get to experience that may deliver me from mediocrity. My fellow Americans require style, size, and convenience. I require soul in design and function. These are not incompatible.

My automotive wants are simple. I will buy the first version of the following vehicle when it becomes available here: a plug-in hybrid AWD five passenger car costing under $35k that will go 50km on electric power alone, with manual shift paddles and no torque converter, offering fully automatic function, and delivering overall fuel efficiency < 4 L/100km. Sadly, it will not be made in the USA. Sadly the technology for this is a decade old, but there are still only promises. It is the marketeers and market protectionists that stand in the way. They have convinced the producers that there is no market for this vehicle here. But build it, and I will come.

My news needs are simple and traditional, but others’ news needs are way more basic or non-existent. The public is finding news less relevant in their lives, and those that still find relevance get their news on the go: headline services, twitter, etc. Perhaps the world has become so complex that issues are no longer understandable, or seem beyond our ability to deal with.

I see the successful blending of print, broadcast, and online media working in my life. The PBS News Hour now offers background information related to their stories on their website, integrating the traditional with the new. The NYT offers its subscribers an online version as well. I also read my updating news on the Internet throughout the day. Along with the Apple infosite, http://www.macintouch.com, one of my main daily reads is the Google News site, http://www.google.com/news. It is simple and not ad-riddled. It also now offers a publisher filter. I can ask for less news of the yellow-tinged variety. My news reader is now a noise-free zone (with Fox News, Huffington Post, WSJ, and thirty others of their ilk in the trash can).

One cool benefit of reading online news is that many sources allow reader comments, satisfying our urges to pontificate to a large audience. This audience is always bifurcated, as is our country, but here we are all united by one attribute, our desire to pontificate. The signal to noise ratio in the comments section is lower than low, but when one is in that spirit, it just doesn’t matter. I guess I am already one foot into our brave new world, but judiciously so.

I hope there may be one print survivor who can deliver us a quality morning paper at a price we can live with. Reading headlines and excerpts on the iPad works well. But for the daily news experience, a paper is just right and seems more at home at our breakfast table. It’s a little bit of our civilization that I am reluctant to part with. Do it right and we’ll keep subscribing, just as we do to PBS.

Questions for another time:

How many print newspapers does the country really need? Best guess answer: as many as can support themselves, plus one competent one that the rest of us will be sure to support, as we do PBS.

Would it have been material to our decision if our ex-newspaper had tossed its independence under a blue bus? Best guess answer: No, but I doubt many people on that red bus cancelled their subscriptions.

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