19 July 2007
SETI League
PriUPS Project

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I'm disappointed, but I don't have the blues.  Although this story begins with them not having the blues, either, it ends with a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger, not-really-a-diatribe, kind of whine.  These things happen.  They happen if you don't do research, they happen if you don't pay attention.  If you do pay attention, and sometimes if you do research, they happen anyway, plus you've wasted your time.  Striking the correct balance a priori is impossible.  So I'm disappointed, but that's about all. 

Car Story

This is a car story.  It's not all that interesting, either, and, by my standards (or by your standards for me) not even that eccentric.  I had a problem, I tried to solve it, I sort of succeeded and sort of failed.  And it does begin with blue

It is no secret that I like blue.  (If it were a secret, I wouldn't have mentioned that it was my favorite color in my very first blog.)  And it's not a secret from others, even those who don't read my blog.  For example, once, back in the 90's I decided I needed a new chair for my office and bought a red one, mostly to prove that I could.  For days people walked into my office, looked at the new chair, directed at me a penetrating stare, and asked "What have you done with Richard?"  Liking blue is generally a great convenience for me.  Many people, especially those with "taste," will agonize over color choices.  None of that for me!  If blue is one among many selections, I pick it instantly.  If I must select among shades of blue, I'll usually go for a medium version, one not too dark.  I tolerate an admixture of green (e.g., turquoise or teal), but that is the extent of my catholicity.  If you see me studying color chips for more than a few seconds, it's because I'm bored and my mind has wandered to something more interesting.

When I moved to New Jersey, I was faced with winter, that vexing season which insists on being a noun.  Perhaps some day I will turn it into a verb and winter somewhere else.  Living as I do on a hill, I decided that I needed a 4WD vehicle to be able to commute reliably.  Based on recommendations and price, I bought a Subaru "Legacy" small station wagon.  Not one to assign myself gratuitous tasks, when it was time to replace it, I went to the dealer with the old one and said "Please sir, may I have another one of these, but clean."  Two more Subarus with not so much dirt on them later, and with #3 having passed the 100,000 mile mark (well over 1/2 light-second), I repeated the performance.  The salestron, brochure in hand, pointed out that I could not, since blue wasn't offered for that particular model year.  I'll spare myself recreating the inspired lecture I delivered about how blue wasn't some outr color seen only in hot rod magazines, how I had previously purchased three blue Subarus, and that if I lived long enough and if they kept making them in blue I'd be able to complete the whole Pleiades.  No use.  He explained that Japan selects the colors, and that he wasn't about to go to Japan and paint one himself, even for a good customer.  I allowed as to how my current Subaru would last another year and I'd be back then.

A Year Passed

Just one.  No math this time.  The Subaru Legacy endured another modest fraction of a light-second worth of wear and dirt, and I returned to the Subaru dealer.  Another brochure.  Another "Sorry, no blue," another inspired lecture.  This time I was unable to wait another year, and I began to actually look for a non-Subaru 4WD small wagon.  Research.  Ugh. 

I finally found that Audi, the company that suffered the idiotic "unintended acceleration" scandal in the mid-'80s, made a small wagon which was about the size of the Legacy and which had 4WD.  A trip to the showroom ensued, I looked at the car.  "I'll take one like that only blue," I told them.  (It was already clean.)  What is the problem with blue?  He kept trying to talk me out of it!  You can imagine how amenable I was at this point, and he disclosed that the "Penguin Blue(!)" color was an extra-cost option and I would have to wait for the car to be manufactured and shipped from Germany.  How long?  "Four months." 

OK.  Four months is less than a year and much less than a light-second of additional wear.  We made a deal and I drove off in Mr. Ancient Subaru.  Four months passed.  When I returned to the dealer my new car was at the curb.  It was the most beautiful shade of blue I had ever seen!  And, since you just know this story will end with a whine, I'll issue a few praises first.  Compared to the series of Subarus, the Audi A4 was more comfortable, quieter, peppier, and just plain nicer to drive.  It even had heated seats.  One item of controversy preceded it:  It had those high-intensity blue(ish) headlights.  I loved them; my housemate hated them.

A Fractional Decade Passed

Have to get a little math in here.  It was actually about half of one, but if half isn't a fraction, what is?  Did I mention that the Audi was more expensive than the Subaru it wouldn't have replaced if Subaru had blue?  It was, and I think it was worth the extra expense.  But I haven't yet mentioned how expensive the Audi would become.  Starting at around 50K miles and proceeding into the dim future, things started going wrong.  Little things.  Big things.  I could list them, but I'd have to dig out the receipts and you don't really care any more than I do by now.  I'll mention a couple:  The anti-lock brake warning light came on.  $2000 to replace the system.  The main display developed a thermal intermittent.  It would get dim in the summer but work fine when it was cold out.  $1000 to replace it.  A thousand here, a thousand there, and soon you're talking new-car time.  That happened yesterday, when the "check engine" light translated to a $3200 repair quote.  All in all, I think it's better to have the "check engine" light on and get rid of the Audi. 

There's a tiny bit of philosophy here, and maybe even someone from Audi will read it by accident.  None of this will be a surprise to them, I expect, but here goes:

Getting a customer is a big expense and a lot of work.  Getting a happy customer, even if his happiness comes mostly from a paint job, is a good thing for a company.  I was happy until things started breaking.  I did not expect a trouble-free existence.  It is true some cars have a much better reputation for reliability than others, but Toyota can put out a lemon and Audi can put out a gem.  Not often for either, but it does happen.  I think that my Audi A4 had more problems than most, but I wouldn't call it a lemon.  I'm pretty tolerant, in part because I realize just how difficult it is to make something subject to temperature and vibration and mechanical wear stand up year after year.  Giving Audi the benefit of the doubt, let's say that the car was about as good as can be expected, and the problems roughly what I was entitled to.

The problem for me was those multi-thousand dollar repair bills.  I don't think Audi is unaware of their reputation.  And I'm sure they're doing what they can to make the car more reliable, although that is an engineering challenge.  What is NOT an engineering challenge, but rather a management one, is to make the repairs inexpensive enough so that people such as myself are not tempted to whine about them.  Example:  The display costs $1000 to replace.  There is almost nothing wrong with it.  It works when cold, dims to unreadability when hot.  This means that some component or solder joint is temperature sensitive.  If the component itself costs more than a few cents I'd be shocked and bemused.  Why replace the whole display?  Because no Audi dealer is going to be competent to find the bad component.  What's the solution?  Send the old display back to a repair facility and replace mine with one that had come out of that facility earlier.  Why don't they do that?  Either management doesn't care about losing customers, or management doesn't care about losing customers.  (I had already typed "Either" but I couldn't think of a second reason.)

That's pretty much it for the whine.  $2000 to replace the entire ABS system because some tiny part is bad?  What are they thinking?  See abovethe part about management.  Loved the car, tolerated the frequent but probably-not-excessive failure rate.  I gave up on paying for the car a second time just to replace some parts.  The new hybrid version of the Toyota Highlander is due out in a few months.  I'm patient; I hope they have it in blue.


If I'm going to mix colors with my blue, I prefer a slight tinge of green.  Azure is blue with a slight tinge of red.  I should have known better than to pick it. 

Microsoft offers an amazing bargain:  Unlike their programming suite "Visual Studio," for which you have to pay, you can download "Visual Studio Express" for free.  This is an ideal tool for learning certain types of programming.  I installed it on a PC for which I had no Visual Studio license and started working the first example program.  Part of the example calls for selecting a color from a drop-down list of the colors available.  Probably because it begins with "a" and my mouse cursor was near azure, I selected it for the foreground color of a particular "control."  I continued working the example and tried it out.  Nothing!  The screen was blank where the control and information should have appeared.  I checked and rechecked my code.  Perfect, or at least as perfect as the exemplar.  I looked at the source code on the web page it produced.  It was all there as it should have been.  After puzzling a bit more, I finally had a hunch.  I went to the source code and manually typed "blue" to replace "azure."  It now worked perfectly.  What more can I say?

NP:  "Gazpacho" - Marillion

Richard Factor

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