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“Improving” things to the point of brokenness

I’m still thinking of the deer-in-the-headlights stare of the mechanic who told me the Xterra needed a $1,100 computer replacement.

He was so obviously, blatantly just guessing. And so obviously dependent on whatever the diagnostic code said. “P1320? Not the distributor? Not wiring? Then it can only be the ECM. No other possibility.”


Yet he was the second mechanic to take a “the code is everything” approach. I was concerned about the health of the Xterra. But much more I got to wondering whatever happened to actual mechanics. You know, people who can poke around under the hood, listen to the engine, drive the vehicle a bit, and let experience and evidence tell them the real problem.

That may sound hopelessly old-fashioned. Yes, but what do the code-only guys do when the code is misleading?

Stare like a deer in the headlights, I guess. Then rake in absurd payments for fixes that fix nothing. Then fix something else based on the next wild guess.

Thank heaven for the Commentariat.


This morning, though the ankle isn’t quite ready for it, I pushed the vacuum around the living room rug. Don’t freak out, nurse friends. The rug is a whopping 6×9 and the job takes five minutes. I just couldn’t live with the crud any more.

But once again, the vacuum did its old trick. It sucked all the dog fur and such into the hose, but not into the little plastic cup that now replaces old-fashioned paper bags. The cup remained utterly pristine.

The plastic cup is one of those things that falls under the category of “bright idea.” Those bags were a nuisance. But they actually held a large quantity of carpet leavings and could get bursting full before causing problems. The clever plastic cup has to be changed three or four times in the course of a single vacuuming, and if — heaven forfend! — you don’t notice within 30 seconds, everything backs up into the hose. Sucking stops, suckage starts!

Again in the name of clever, compact design, the hose system on my upright vacuum (damn you, Eureka!) is permanently affixed in position and has seven — count ’em, seven! — bends in it. Now who thought seven bends in a vacuum hose could possibly be a great notion?

The last two bends before the cup are 90 degrees and are partially or fully hidden within the machine. They’re theoretically reachable with the right tools. But that’s another issue. Their very existence offends the laws of physics.

Some former owner of my vac (garage sale purchase) must have let the pipes get backed up and now I periodically have to haul the contraption outside and spend half an hour unclogging as much as I can in hopes that the small clogs I can’t reach will blow out and permit me to … you know, actually vacuum the house.

I can’t see how this is any vast improvement over the monstrous metal Electrolux my mother used to haul behind her once a week. (And that had a cloth bag capable of holding entire neighborhoods’ worth of dirt.)


Don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeon. It’s absolutely true that some things — many things — have been wondrously improved. Computers? OMG, what little miracles they’ve become! (But let’s not discuss disastrously “updated” software. And all the Big and Little Brothering.)

Um … what else is genuinely improved? Frozen dinners! Big improvement over Swanson’s tasteless TV tins. Flat-screen TVs. LED flashlights. Thinsulate! (Though for some purposes, wool continues to be supreme.) Laser surgery instead of scalpels. Of course, there are loads of genuine improvements.

The cars of the 1970s beat the heck out of the forever-broken vehicles of the 1950s.


I’m not sure that the cars of the 21st century are any big “improvement” over the cars of the 1970s. They seem to be great if you like GPS systems, black-box recorders, little voices telling you what to do, and mechanics who are helpless if deprived of computer codes. (The Xterra, 15 years old, has none of those things, but it still carries the curse of 21st century computer dependency.)

And vacuums? I’m now deeply regretting that I gave away the Electrolux I acquired for $2 a few years ago.


  1. Kyle MacLachlan
    Kyle MacLachlan May 28, 2015 2:11 pm

    Over the past ten years I have had the good fortune to have a “Mechanic” at the shop I go to and not a “Technician”. This garage is a two man shop (boss and mechanic) and more often than not the boss is right under the hood as well. They are both “old school” and have been able to get me out of a few scrapes with a lot less money than the regular shop. The boss told me about a year back that the new generation of “Technicians” are not taught to diagnose problems themselves but instead rely on the computer to tell them what’s wrong and then just swap out the parts that the computer tells them to.
    A few times when I was able to find the problem myself, only to find out that the required part was a “dealer only item” (meaning the auto parts store won’t sell it to you), he got me the part for cost (I know because one time he forgot the invoice in the package). And if I get stuck when I’m working on the truck myself I can call him and ask for advice!
    I return the favor by ALWAYS paying in cash and that day! I pray those two will be around for a long time!!
    About the vacuum: I’ve had a little Eureka for thirteen years now and it’s still working like a charme. I have to get the bags through the mail, because nobody carries them locally but other than that it’s a great machine without any modern frills.
    I generally think that most items made before 1980 are better quality and easier to fix than any modern “wonders”.

  2. Matt, another
    Matt, another May 28, 2015 2:13 pm

    Those old school mechanics are a disappearing breed. I think they can still be found but might not speak English. I think the young code readers and sub assembly swappers are products of mechanic school, not products of building cars with their Dad when kids. I have the pleasure of driving a well loved twenty old Nissan pickup. I can tell by sound when it is off and make a decent guess to what the.problem is. It has a computer somewhere, probably an Atari.

  3. Pat
    Pat May 28, 2015 3:22 pm

    The week my “old school mechanic” retired 12 years ago, I bought a new car (RAV4), don’t drive it much, and keep it maintained. It looks like heck, but purrs like a kitten. I expect to sell it and start walking before it breaks down. It does have computer codes all over it, but it’s been a dream. Even though Toyota has recalled all around it in the past few years, not one part on it has broken down or been on a recall list.

    I bought a $50 Kenmore 2-speed vacuum 15 years ago (uses bags). Anything it can’t suck up gets swept with a broom, which often does a better job anyway.

    (And yes, a 6 x 9 rug is OK, medically speaking. Next month, you can graduate to an 8 x 12. :-))

  4. jed
    jed May 28, 2015 4:11 pm

    Sounds as if your vacuum is a very poor design. I have a Eureka “World Vac” I bought new in 1985. It’s a cannister model, with a cyclonic dirt cup. I almost never have to change bags, and only rarely does it clog, and then only down where the hose connects to the beater head. It uses HEPA bags, so it cleans quite well *. I have seen, and used, other models of upright cyclonic vacuums, and except for Dyson, they were crap. I’m not fond of Dyson either — at least not the yellow one we have at work – it works well, but emptying it is a PITA. You have it right that all those bends are trouble spots.

    I’ll never own another upright. Pushing around the beater head is way easier than pushing around an entire vacuum.

    It’s true that Dyson started a revolution in vacuuming. But the cheap knock-off designs are junk. Unfortunately, a well-made new vacuum will set you back a few hundred and more.

    If you were here, I’d know just whom to send you to for the XTerra. I feel fortunate to have found an old-school mechanic I trust. Good thing is, he’s about my age, maybe a bit younger, so I expect him to be around for as long a I need him.

    *Yes, I know, vacuuming actually stirs up dust. And you can’t really get wall-to-wall carpeting clean anyway. But with good suction, and good filtration, you can get a lot of crap out of the carpet. I remember the old Kirby, which would blow a puff of dust out of the bag when you turned it on – there’s where HEPA filtration helps a lot. I don’t need to sneeze when I vacuum.

  5. Mike
    Mike May 28, 2015 5:57 pm

    If they replace the computer and problem isn’t solved, they should put original back and eat the labor. BBB may have info about such situations.

    Good Luck!

  6. Bear
    Bear May 28, 2015 6:06 pm

    I drive an old ’96 4-banger, manual Ranger. It’s now gotten to the point that people drive up to the house and try to buy it just because it’s old and repairable without a megabucks computer lab and enough Snap-On tools to build a WW2 battleship.

    And I decline to sell it because it’s old and repairable…

  7. Claire
    Claire May 28, 2015 7:09 pm

    Mike — Thanks. I’m sure the people at this shop would be honorable enough to do that. However, I’m equally sure I’d never let them try a $1,100 repair on the basis of obviously desperate guesswork!

  8. Claire
    Claire May 28, 2015 7:10 pm

    “(And yes, a 6 x 9 rug is OK, medically speaking. Next month, you can graduate to an 8 x 12. :-))”

    LOL, Nurse Pat. Thank you — and I’ll be sure to measure carefully. 😉

  9. Claire
    Claire May 28, 2015 7:11 pm

    I shoulda wondered why someone would donate a fancy, nearly new vac to a charity garage sale. But then, people donate the most amazing things. Dunno whether I’ll ever buy a brand-new vac, but whenever and wherever I get my next one, I know certain “features” I want to avoid.

  10. Tahn
    Tahn May 28, 2015 7:46 pm

    Back when I had enough battery storage from my solar system, I used a wet/dry Shop Vac with a long hose and just set it out the door so it vented outside. Worked fine but no rotary head. Now I use a broom but no rugs, so it works fine also.

  11. LarryA
    LarryA May 28, 2015 7:46 pm

    Life was a lot easier before our gadgets got intelligent.

    I recently had to replace my 99 Jeep. (sigh) The new one is bugging me every time I turn it on because it wants an oil change. The spare key I keep in my wallet will open the door, but won’t run the engine without a chip in the fob, which won’t fit in my wallet.

  12. Thomas L. Knapp
    Thomas L. Knapp May 28, 2015 9:17 pm

    I’ve had the “hose gets clogged, stuff never makes it to the cyclonic cup hangamajigger” problem with more than one brand of vacuum — the two that come immediately to mind because I still have them are Dirt Devil and Bissell.

    I assume it does have something to do with the properties of animal hair, as that seems to be most of what the clogs consist of (we have a dog and numerous cats).

    Awhile back, I was surprised to see someone on Freecycle offering an Oreck upright, and I jumped right at that. It uses bags. I hear they’re expensive, but it came with a package, so I haven’t had to buy any yet. They are BIG bags, and I am only on the second of four. The Oreck sucks, which in vacuum cleaner talk is a GOOD thing.

  13. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty May 29, 2015 3:55 am

    I have a Hoover built especially to pick up pet hair. It does a wonderful job, but with a corgi that sheds like a 90 foot tall cottonwood, I thought about ways to avoid needing to empty the generous size dirt cup so often. I decided to use the broom first, which lifts the dog hair out of the matted mess it so easily falls into. I can pick up lots of it before I run the vacuum. One thing I discovered was that I had quite a bit of my own human hair in the mix, especially in the bathroom and by my bed. I had been frustrated with the old Eureka vac. because hair and other stuff got wound around the brush and stopped it turning eventually. A real pain to clean.

    So now, the broom picks up most of the human hair, and I watch carefully for string and other strands of crap that would become tangled in the brush. Takes a little longer to vacuum, but it does a terrific job and I suspect my machine will last a lot longer. Of course, lots of things I own now will last me “the rest of my life,” unless someone invents regeneration very quickly. LOL

  14. mary in texas
    mary in texas May 29, 2015 6:38 am

    Our dependable mechanic retired two years ago. He had told his customers well in advance; so for the last month or so that his shop was open they were swamped with people getting everything done that they thought would be necessary for a long time. We got the radiator flushed and hoses replaced. They might have lasted a year longer, but why take chances when the price was half what it would have been elsewhere. Two of his mechanics retired at the same time since they of approximately the same age. His son went to another job and left after two months–too much deliberate overbilling. He is now at a place that suits him better. That’s probably where we will go as his presence is a recommendation. He had several offers when his dad’s shop closed. He learned from three old-school mechanics and is also of the same type.

  15. ODG
    ODG May 29, 2015 6:54 am

    LarryA – If you feel like being daring, just leave the fob in the car, taped under the dash, and modify the door key to fit in the ignition as well as the door. That’s what I did on my Ford Focus. I just had to lengthen the grooves along the sides of the door key to allow it to seat deeper in the ignition.

    Claire – I have my Grandmother’s old Electrolux from the 60s. It works great and is QUIET. I hate the screaming vacs of today. Just like my 97 year old grandmother, it’s still alive and kicking!

  16. Paul Bonneau
    Paul Bonneau May 29, 2015 6:55 am

    Just throw away that Eureka, Claire. No point in beating your brains out. Some designs are nothing but dumpster bait.

    I wrote about wrenching here:
    There was a lot that was good about those old always-broke cars – the owners knew their vehicles and could fix them.

    There is also some good about codes, but one has to realize that the code recording mechanism is itself subject to failure, and adds complication as well, so one should take them with a grain of salt.

  17. Claire
    Claire May 29, 2015 7:50 am

    I wasn’t so much meaning to talk about vacuum cleaners or cars, but about the practice of “improving” things until they either can’t perform their basic functions or are otherwise more difficult to use.

  18. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty May 29, 2015 9:13 am

    Ha ha!! You into herding cats this morning? 🙂 Define improved, and even basic function. In the eye of the beholder. People want to have machines and stuff make life more convenient, and often don’t recognize that they usually trade far more than money for it. I suspect a lot of younger people don’t even understand the basic function of many things… let alone how to fix anything.

    As for something “improved” to the point of non functioning, we could talk about toilets and shower heads, built to severely limit water use. The previously terrific gas “match,” now “improved” with the child proof thing that makes it almost impossible for older hands to operate. Child proof caps… the list is depressingly long.

  19. s
    s May 29, 2015 10:52 am

    Those “actual mechanics” were every bit as rare and precious in the good old days as they are today. Clueless mechanics who just replace stuff until the car starts working again, or until the owner runs out of money, are as old as cars.

    To be a really good mechanic is demanding and difficult. Not only do you need a deep understanding of internal combustion, hydraulics, electricity, vehicle stability and dynamics, metal work, plastic work, pollution controls, paint, and now electronics, but you have to keep abreast of always-changing technology and new models, while remaining proficient in old models. You have to possess a brain that can take disparate, often conflicting clues arising from several different defects, and synthesize a theory about what is happening, why, and how to fix it.

    Few people can do that. If you find a great mechanic, treat them like the fantastic gift that they are.

    *I am not a mechanic, but I have put the boots to my own automobile in the privacy of my garage.

  20. jed
    jed May 29, 2015 3:59 pm

    Ah, the vacuum cleaner as a proxy for the modern world. There is certainly an epidemic of “improving” things. In some ways, this is just human nature. We see this in the world of Free Software, where the point is often made that the really talented developers much prefer to work on new and interesting things, rather than bugfixes, which is why some bugs don’t get fixed as quickly as one might think. As a former code monkey, I understand that point quite well. Maintenance programming was always considered to be drudge work – not the sort of thing a hotshot programmer would do.

    Often, the motivation is to generate more sales. If you want people to give up their 3-5 year-old car and buy a new one, you need to come up with some enticement. Particularly now, when a car will last many many years, there’s less reason to replace one, so added features are the carrot. But, as ML points out, people don’t realize what they’re losing. Most, however, don’t care. For example, there’s an ill wind blowing about your ability, or your mechanic’s, to repair your own vehicle. The vast majority of car owners won’t even notice that.

    One aspect of this that I, in particular, note, is that it’s often a case of just accepting it, or getting left behind. I suspect this will just get worse as I get older.

  21. Shel
    Shel May 29, 2015 5:16 pm

    My recollection is that Elizabeth Dole, Bob Dole’s wife, when she was the Secretary of Transportation under Carter mad the public statement that it was their intention to make cars that individuals would not be able to work on. For bottom line dependability and absolute simplicity, I’m sticking with my old 12 valve straight stick 2nd generation Dodge Diesel. The ’94’s and ’95’s, BTW, have hydraulic automatic transmissions. If you were to get a beater in one of those years it would improve your macho image 🙂 I also have a Mercury Grand Marquis (aka Ford Crown Vic) with 200k miles on it. The only problems so far have been with the climate control system. It has been extremely practical, has a great amount of space inside, and still gets over 20 mpg.

    It’s time for me to look into a vacuum or steam cleaner. The above information has been very helpful.

  22. LarryA
    LarryA May 31, 2015 6:44 pm

    If you feel like being daring, just leave the fob in the car, taped under the dash, and modify the door key to fit in the ignition as well as the door.

    Good idea, except the fob is part of the key, which already fits both door and ignition.

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