Wednesday, January 19, 2011

My Broken Stuff

This article will sound a bit like whining... well, because I suppose it is to an extent. But really I've just been marveling lately at how much of my stuff is broken currently, has been broken recently, or is likely to break in the very near future. I have some thoughts on the subject, and then I'll tie it in to my writing so that perhaps somebody other than me will find this all of interest. Or not - nobody makes you read this, right?

So let's see:

My minivan was in the shop for 9 days to get a head gasket replaced, after a week or two of intermittent warning lights and suggestions that something was very wrong. Also, the gas gauge doesn't work reliably. After I got it back, it stalled on me twice the following day, requiring that I take it back in for another visit. A week later, it failed to start while my wife was running errands. That turned out to be a separate issue with the starter. I'm pretty well sick of this van and am thinking strongly of selling it, trading it in, or otherwise making it go away. It's about eleven years old, with 90,000 miles on it, which isn't really what I'd consider "a good run," but it's not really a lemon, either.

My car has an intermittent "coolant level low" light that comes on briefly. This is similar to what I saw happening with the minivan, and if it's the same problem it would mean another lengthy, costly repair on this vehicle as well.

My watch isn't a Rolex, but it's not a $12 Timex, either. When I moved from "worker bee" into management, and was regularly meeting with upper-level managers and executives, I decided I ought to try to look the part a little more. To that end, I dumped my digital Timex for a nice, solid, silvery metal analog watch that ran me about $100. It looks very nice and worked fairly well for about seven years. Then the watch band started to lose its ability to stay fastened. At first it would pop open a couple times a day at inconvenient times, but three years later it is now held closed with a twist tie. Good thing I don't meet with executives much anymore, I suppose. That was bad enough, but last week it simply stopped altogether. It might be the battery or something more significant, but I consider it broken because I'm not sure I want to replace the battery on a watch that won't stay on my wrist anyway.

My snowblower was tuned up and repaired last year and worked just fine through the 2-week "blizzard of 2010" in December. Then I didn't need it for a bit, and when I finally did need it in early January, it would start and then immediately quit on me. It's currently back in the shop. The fact that they obviously didn't fix it very well the last time probably won't matter to anybody but me.

My home furnace is working fine at the moment. It's just over two years old. In those two years, however, it has failed completely... twice. The same part - the impeller? inducer? something like that - failed on it both times, something that the repair techs insisted was virtually unheard-of. I'm hoping that I've seen that last of that problem, but I wouldn't say I have complete faith in my furnace at this point.

My hot water heater sometimes produces copious amounts of nice hot water like it's supposed to. Sometimes it produces moderate amounts of warm water. Sometimes it produces a half-assed amount of slightly-warmer-than-tap water. I've had some suggestions about how to fix it, but I think it's just a piece of crap and I look forward to when it stops working completely so I can replace the piece of junk.

The windows in my home were the rock-bottom cheapest the builder could find, I believe. They're utter garbage. They're very inefficient. Several of them are all fogged up between the layers of glass, and that's AFTER we replaced five or six of them for the same problem back when we bought the house. We need a complete window replacement, but doing that costs anywhere from thousands to many thousands of dollars, so we keep putting it off.

My 55" rear-projection TV is a massive beast of entertainment pleasure. It has a circuitboard in its guts that has failed twice so far. The TV is over twelve years old, so I figure it's only a matter of time until it craps out entirely.

Last year, the wire rack in my closet that serves as both the rod to hang clothes from and as a shelf to store stuff completely collapsed. We decided to replace it with a fiberboard in-closet organizer that was supposed to be a relatively quick "do it yourself" job. It's been sitting half-complete for over six months now, because I hit a snag. I decided I couldn't finish it without help and my wife and I don't seem to give enough of a crap to make it a priority.

My main computer died on me a few weeks ago. It got a new hard drive and some RAM and it's back up and running, but being without it for a week was a royal pain. My wife's PC occasionally flips out and my kids' PC is ancient, so I figure it's only a matter of time until one of those bites it.

So that's everything that comes to mind with a quick mental survey. Ten items, at the moment, that are failing, have failed, or are expected to fail soon. Is it any wonder I often feel as if everything I own is broken?

It's not necessarily directly related to these particular items, but the role of technology in everyday life is a theme in nearly every novel or story I'm currently working on.

My current novel is post-apocalyptic, where the means to make technological items (anything involving advanced manufacturing or a global supply chain) is gone. That's not even the main problem of the story, but it's certainly a major factor in their lives. Their society can't support big cities, for instance - there's no means to grow all that food and get it in to the residents, and no economy to support classes of merchants and craftsmen. The world has returned to the pre-industrial age of steam, where technology is limited mostly to what can be made by hand from iron, leather, or wood. Some remnants of the industrialized age remain, but they're finite resources, subject to wear and deterioration and loss, and then gone forever. I've enjoyed building a society that has to deal with these technological challenges even as they strive against the main threats of the story.

My first novel - by which I mean the one I started first and then sort of abandoned - was even more extreme. The main characters were dumped in a world with no access to technology at all - not even information on how to create technology. They had only the clothes and minimal supplies they carried (none of which were intended for long-term survival) and the knowledge in their heads. And, being modern, information-age Americans, that knowledge was extremely limited in terms of really useful, practical information about things like growing food (or just finding food), hunting, and crafting. I mean, sure, there definitely ARE people around who know this stuff - from hunters to farmers to Eagle Scouts to hobbyists with an interest in things like leatherworking or metalsmithing. But they're not entirely commonplace, and we've done a pretty good job of raising one or two generations of Americans who just don't know this stuff at all. From inner-city kids (and later adults) to middle-class and upper-class Americans who live in a world of cell-phones and iPads and on-demand service providers for their every need, the ability to live without assistance from a wide array of experts and technical assistants is severely limited.

Another story I have in mind takes the notion a bit farther. What happens as we continue to advance technologically, to the point where we're even MORE used to technology being an ever-present, reliable part of every moment of our lives. What happens, then, if you lose your access to that technology, or it turns against you? How much farther will humans progress away from their roots - their comfort with basic tools, with nature itself? And what do they give up in exchange for the comforts, the ease of advanced technology? Their independence? Their humanity? Their souls?

I enjoy exploring those themes in my work, and I think about them often. Every time a piece of my technology - technology that I'm increasingly incapable of living without or understanding enough to fix myself - fails. In fact, it's one of the only things I enjoy about this damn technology, but then I'm not exactly planning to give it up, am I?

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