End Of The Stick

When I took drivers’ ed in high school, the classes themselves (taught by the phys ed teacher, of course) provided basic instruction on the rules of the road and touched on the existence of both manual and automatic transmission cars. That’s when I first was introduced to the mysterious functioning of something called a “clutch”–which, when you think about it, is an odd yet evocative name for an automobile part. In those days during the early ’70s, most cars came in manual and automatic options.

My in-car drivers’ ed classes, though, were taught in an automatic transmission car, so the mysteries of the “clutch” and the “stick shift” were left unexplored. And during my driving career, which is now approaching the 50-year mark, I think I’ve driven a manual transmission vehicle twice–once when I drove out west in a van, and once when I used a rental truck to move from city to city. Each time, I muddled through the stick shift process without really getting the hang of it, and was pretty much glad when the adventures ended and I could go back to the automatic world.

In the battle between automatic and manual, automatic transmissions have triumphed, and manual transmissions are increasingly rare–and soon will be no more, according to a recent article in The Atlantic. A sign of the decline of the stick shift is that in 2000, 15 percent of the new and used cars offered by CarMax were manual transmission vehicles; in 2020, that figure was 2.4 percent. Only about 30 of the hundreds of new vehicles for sale in the U.S. have a manual transmission option, and there are reports that even more manufacturers will be dropping that option in the near future. Even with sports cars that you associate with stick shift driving, automatic transmissions have had their way; in every year since 1970, for example, sales of the automatic versions of the Corvette have surpassed the manual option. After the last manual transmission car rolls off the assembly line, stick-shift aficionados will have to find their clutching pleasures in the used car market–but don’t be surprised if they buy up the last brand-new manual transmission vehicles first.

If you talk to a manual transmission driver, you’ll find there is a deep attachment between them and their stick shift. People drive a stick only by choice these days, and when they explain why they sound like the faithful trying to convert you to their religion. A manual allows you to really be in control of your car, they’ll say, or they will argue that manual drivers are better and safer than automatic drivers, because the need to constantly clutch and shift makes them much more attentive to traffic and road conditions. Really, though, you get the idea that they really just like fiddling around with the stick shift and that weird extra pedal, and for them driving their car is just like playing with a fun toy every morning.

It’s curious that manual transmissions have hung on as long as they have; after all, other throwbacks to the dawn of the automotive era–like hand-cranking the engine–have long since been tossed to the side of the road. The staying power of the stick shift is a testament to the true believers. It will be tough for them when we reach the end of the stick.

Life Habits Of The Rich And Famous

CNBC recently published an interesting article by a writer who interviewed 225 millionaires to evaluate their habits and analyze common themes. He found that the interview subjects all fell into one of four categories: “saver-investors,” “company climbers” who work for a company, climb the corporate ladder, and ultimately secure a senior-level position, “virtuosos” who are very good at what they do and are paid accordingly, and “dreamers” who follow their passion and do things like form their own businesses or write books.

The most common habit people in the four groups shared–besides working at something, which obviously is the basic foundation for each of the groups–was the habit of saving money. 88 percent of the millionaires interviewed said saving was a key part of their financial success. And the savings process itself involved three common themes: automatic saving of a significant part of income, investment of their savings, and frugal lifestyles. Reaching millionaire status using these techniques can be a slow process–it took the millionaires who were interviewed between 12 and 32 years to accumulate their nest eggs of between $3 million and $7 million–but the process worked.

There are a lot more millionaires now than there were during the era of Thurston Howell III and Lovey, the “millionaire and his wife” on Gilligan’s Island. It is estimated that 20 million Americans have reached millionaire status, producing 13.1 million households–more than 10 percent of the total number of households in the U.S.–that have assets of at least $1 million. About 20 percent of the millionaires inherited their wealth, but the rest made their money, in whole or in significant part, through their own effort and hard work.

Not everyone wants to become a millionaire, of course–but if you do, the statistics show that it is a reachable goal that can be achieved with work, a long-term focus on saving and asset growth, prudence, and the good luck to avoid serious illness or unprovoked job loss.

How Green Was My Garden?

In 2007, Gay Street in downtown Columbus was changed from a one-way to a two-way street. As part of the project, about $1 million was spent on environmental improvements, including landscaped median strips that were added at points along the street, as well as “rain gardens.” The rain gardens were designated areas surrounded by cement berms that were supposed to look like an actual garden, with flowers and other plantings. They were intended to serve an important purpose: to absorb and filter storm water runoff from the surrounding area before it found its way back to local rivers.

The switch to a two-way street has worked well for Gay Street. The “rain gardens,” on the other hand, were kept up for a time and were a nice addition to the street; they also were featured in The Rain Gardener newsletter and won awards for the consultants who developed the project. But at some point along the way, whoever was responsible for taking care of the rain gardens stopped doing so. The photo above shows one of the rain gardens as it looked yesterday when I walked by on my way to the library. It’s an unsightly, muddy area, but more importantly it probably doesn’t do much to serve its stated purpose of absorbing and filtering storm water runoff–at least, no more than would be accomplished by untended open ground.

Only the sign below remains to remind passersby of what this area was supposed to be. Interestingly, Columbus’ submission to The Rain Gardener newsletter, linked above, stated that one of the goals of the rain garden project was to educate downtown workers, residents, and others “about the issues that storm water runoff creates.” Now the rain gardens serve a different educational purpose: they show what happens after the awards and the fanfare, when a well-intended “green” project is ignored and you wonder why the money to create it was spent in the first place.

Sticks Throws Stones

Today Triston McKenzie threw a two-hitter over eight innings as the Cleveland Guardians beat the Houston Astros, 1-0. Emmanuel Clase, who has been terrific all season, pitched a perfect ninth for his 24th save.

The Guardians are a very intriguing team, and McKenzie–who is known as “Dr. Sticks” and looks like he weighs about 98 pounds soaking wet–is one of the more intriguing players on the squad. (According to ESPN, McKenzie actually weighs 165 pounds, stretched over a 6′ 5″ frame.) Dr. Sticks, who is 25 years old, is 8-8 with a 3.16 ERA and is one of the big reasons why the Guardians–who no one other than Terry Francona expected to do anything this year–are still hanging around, four games over .500, just behind the Twins in the AL Central. Fortunately for the Guardians, the AL Central isn’t exactly filled with powerhouses.

Dr. Sticks has pitched some brilliant games this year, like today’s gem, but he has also pitched some clinkers. He’s one of those pitchers who seems to just need to get through the first inning unscathed. If he does, you can expect something good to happen. If he doesn’t watch out. Many observers think he is still learning how to pitch at the big league level, and when he fully figures it out, he’ll be very good indeed.

Thanks to Dr. Sticks’ brilliant effort today, the Guardians ended up with a split in their four-game series with the Astros, and seem to be showing that they can compete with the better teams in the American League. There’s still a lot of baseball to be played, but I like what I’m seeing from Dr. Sticks and the other players on this very young team.

Road Radio

It’s been a while since I’ve listened to the radio for an extended period. This weekend’s air travel mishap, and the resulting need to drive from Bangor, Maine to Columbus, Ohio, changed all that. I got a substantial diet of radio offerings as I rolled through Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and finally into Ohio.

Some things about radio have changed, dramatically, and some have stayed the same. If you’re looking for NPR or classical music, for example, you’re going to want to look around the low end of the FM dial, just as you always have. (Good luck finding classical music, though; I tried, again and again, and regrettably there doesn’t seem to be much of it on the airwaves these days.) Sermons and church music tend to be clustered there, too. If you’re looking for sports or aggressive political talk, on the other hand, you’ll want to switch over to AM. (I stuck to FM until I got to Ohio, when I decided to risk brief exposure to political screeds in search of some coverage of the Buckeyes, Browns, and Guardians.)

Popular radio–that is, everything you’d find above 92 on the FM dial–seems to have gone through a consolidation phase, in two ways. First, in different states you’ll find that five or six formerly independent radio stations based in different cities and towns have jointed together and become one station playing the same content that you can listen to at various channel settings as you drive along. These consolidated stations tend to have generic names like “The River.”

And that phenomenon has produced the second form of consolidation: there’s a lot less content variety on the radio than there used to be. Classical music and jazz aren’t the only victims. A local station in the past might play “Polka Varieties” featuring Frankie Yankovic, or crop reports. You’re not going to get that any longer. Flipping through the radio dial on my journey produced a lot of soulless modern country stations and mushed together “classic rock” options that might play songs from the ’60s to the ’90s. And the “classic rock” stations seem to have the same playlists, too. I heard Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust no less than four times during my drive. and got heavy doses of Bon Jovi, Cheap Trick, and Heart, too. Surprisingly, to me at least, I didn’t hear a single Beatles tune until I got to Ohio and tuned in a Youngstown station that was playing Let It Be.

And here’s another thing: there don’t seem to be actual, live DJs anymore–at least, not on Friday night and Saturday. I didn’t hear what seemed to be a live voice on any station until I turned to a sports station in Ohio. Most of the stations seemed to be going with totally recorded playlists. If you’re aspiring to be a radio DJ these days, good luck.

I’ll be driving back to Maine next weekend, as part of the continuing fallout from modern air travel hassles. Already I’m bracing myself for more airings of Living On A Prayer and I Want You To Want Me. It’s not the greatest music in the world, but it beats the political craziness. And that’s about the best you can say about the state of road radio these days.

Irrational “Rebooking“

Traveling by air seems to get worse by the day. Yesterday I experienced a new variation in irrationality that made the travel experience worse than ever.

I was flying from Bangor. Maine to Columbus through D.C. After checking the monitor in Bangor and seeing everything was a “go,” I got a text message that the D.C. to Columbus flight had been abruptly cancelled for some unstated reason. When I was digesting that unhappy bit of news, I got the message that the airline had “rebooked” me on a flight leaving this afternoon, meaning I’d have to find a hotel room near Reagan National and spend the night. I’ve had that happen before. What made this “rebooking” even more ridiculous was that it had me flying today from D.C. to Asheville, North Carolina—away from Columbus, if you consult your map—then flying from Asheville to Charlotte, and then finally from Charlotte to Columbus. A three-legged trip, with all of the attendant risk of delays and more cancellations, that would get me in a day later than planned, with a hotel hassle to boot? That’s a “rebooking “ only in the most absurd sense of the word.

There were no rental cars available in D.C. for a one-way ride to Columbus, either. Fortunately, I drove to the Bangor airport, so the obvious answer was to drive back to Columbus. That’s why I’m writing this from a Homewood Suites room in bucolic Southington, Connecticut.

Sure, gas is expensive, and driving takes time. But given the airline shenanigans I’ve experienced lately, my circle of preferred driving range keeps getting wider.

Spinning The Shortest Day Ever

When you said–as everyone who is truthful about it must admit they did say–that it seemed like August got here faster than ever this summer. . . well, it turns out you were right. August literally arrived more quickly than ever before because the Earth is spinning faster than ever, producing shorter days. In fact, scientists have determined that June 29, 2022 was the shortest day ever, clocking in at 1.59 millisecond shorter than the average day.

Our planet apparently started to rotate more quickly in 2016, and the quicker spinning seems to be accelerating, with 2022 seeing a speedier spin that 2020 and 2021. Scientists aren’t sure exactly why the quicker cycles began, but think it might have something to do with the tides.

The shorter days may require that atomic clocks and other devices be recalibrated to keep precise time. Because all of those lost milliseconds will add up, scientists have floated the idea of a “negative leap second” to account for the reduction in the length of days, employing the same concept that causes us to add a leap day to the calendar every four years. Engineers hate the idea and raise the possibility that messing with the clocks could have a devastating impact on technology and cause massive outages. Their position may remind some of the dire “Y2K” forecasts of what might happen when we hit the year 2000 that didn’t materialize, but I’m with the engineers on this one: if attempting a “negative leap second” could cause mass failures, panic, and the end of the civilization as we know it, I’d rather live with the fact that our clocks are off by a few milliseconds.

None of this should affect the proud reaction of those who admittedly did say (as I did) that August got here earlier this year. Isn’t it nice to know that your finely honed internal chronometer is working more reliably than our atomic clocks?

A Taste Of Peru

These days I’m back at 44 North–literally and figuratively. Literally, because Stonington is located on the 44 North latitude, and figuratively, because being back in Stonington means I’m once again drinking the excellent coffee roasted by 44 North Coffee. And drinking 44 North coffee is a feast both for the taste buds and for the imagination.

Consider the Peru roast that we are drinking today. The tasting notes on the bag–which I faithfully read and try to experience with every slug–say this roast has a “big body with notes of roasted pralines and a heavy finish.” Having never tasted a roasted praline, I can’t assess whether the referenced “notes” exist. As for the “big body” and the “heavy finish,” it seems to this unschooled coffee drinker that the body and the heaviness will depend mightily on how how much coffee you put into the filter and how strong the corresponding pot of brewed coffee is. In any event, I definitely like the taste of the Peru blend, even if I can’t fully appreciate its nuances and subtleties.

I also like when the coffee shop identifies the origin of the coffee beans, so you can think about that while you are trying to detect the notes, the body, and the finish. When I think of Peru, I think of crisp air on the slopes of the Andes, rain forests, the Pacific Ocean in the distance, and of course Macchu Picchu, the city in the clouds. It’s not a bad mental image to accompany your morning cup of joe.

Drinking 44 North

Real People, Real Politeness

For the past month or so, I’ve been getting very persistent emails in the same person’s name. The emails say they desperately want to help me to be better at my job. “Please,” they implore, “can’t we just schedule a short call to discuss our fantastic capabilities?” And then, when I delete those emails, I’ll get follow-up emails saying I must have missed the earlier emails, and asking to set up a call all over again. And when I delete those emails, yet another round will hit my inbox. It’s maddening that the putative person just won’t give up.

I’m fairly confident that I’m dealing with a robot here. There’s no way that a real person would be reaching out to some stranger, getting no response, and continuing to beat their head into the proverbial email wall. And yet, all of my upbringing teaches that when I see a person’s name, there’s a real person attached to that name, and the proper thing to do is to treat them with appropriate politeness. In this case, since sending any acknowledgement email is just going to provoke yet another totally unwanted email–and confirm that my email address leads to a real person, besides–“appropriate” politeness means just deleting the repeated emails without sending a fire-breathing response saying that I don’t need or want his help and please, for the love of God, leave me alone and stop clogging up my inbox!

I wonder if this reaction and assumption of a real person who deserves real politeness is due entirely to coming of age before the era of email and the internet. In those days, human beings were, in fact, on the other end of phone calls or mailed solicitations, and there weren’t bots blasting out millions of emails in hopes of getting one or two responses. But if you grew up instead when spam and bots were just part of the landscape, you wouldn’t hear that Mom’s voice in your head reminding you to mind your manners and could respond to unwanted emails as you saw fit, without worry or guilt.

It’s just another way in which Millennials and Generation Z have a leg up on the codgers these days.

Safe Travels, Lieutenant Uhura

I was saddened to read over the weekend of the death of Nichelle Nichols at age 89. She brought to life Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, one of the greatest Star Trek characters from the original series. Her portrayal was so good that later shows in the Star Trek universe, such as the current Star Trek: Strange New Worlds couldn’t resist exploring new facets of this very compelling character.

Lieutenant Uhura–the name is based on the Swahili word for freedom–was the communications officer on the original crew of the Enterprise. She was always poised at her comm station, with her cool receiver in her ear as shown in the photo above, ready to open a hailing frequency, put an image on the view screen, or announce that an important message had been received from Starfleet Command. Along with Spock and Captain Kirk, Lieutenant Uhura was a mainstay on the the bridge crew. The guys at the helm and on other stations on the bridge might change, but Uhura was a rock of stability and such a good officer that from time to time Captain Kirk would call upon her to fill in as navigator, too.

Lieutenant Uhura was one of my favorites because she was one of the most well-developed characters and she seemed like a real human being. She laughed, she sang, she hummed songs she liked, she enjoyed furry, trilling tribbles, and she hung out with the other members of the crew during her free time. You got the impression that Lieutenant Uhura would be a great friend and crewmate. And, in many of the episodes, Lieutenant Uhura was the voice of common sense and reason, pointing out something that others missed. One website has collected some of her most memorable moments here.

My favorite Lieutenant Uhura moment came during the classic episode City On The Edge Of Forever. She was on the landing party that went down to the planet’s surface to try to find Dr. McCoy, who had inadvertently injected himself with a powerful hallucinogenic drug. When McCoy eludes the crew and goes into the past to change history, Kirk and Spock decide their only option is to also go into the past to try to find McCoy and stop him from changing history. The task seems impossible, and each member of the landing party is told that they will have to try, too. When Kirk and Spock prepare to depart, Mr. Scott, the ever-proper engineering officer, says “Good luck, gentlemen.” Lieutenant Uhura, in contrast, says: “Happiness at least, sir.”

“Happiness at least.” That was Lieutenant Uhura as portrayed by Nichelle Nichols. We wish her safe travels.

Scene From A Walk

This scene greeted me this morning when I turned the corner from our street and headed down the hill for my walk at about 6:15 a.m. It’s amazing how a few clouds can make the sky more interesting, and produce just the right amount of shimmer on the surface of the water in the harbor. The temperature was around 60 degrees, and the salty air was fresh and invigorating.

It’s scenes like this that make a morning walk so enjoyable.

A Weeding Weekend

Stonington, Maine is a great growing climate. Plants seem to thrive here, but unfortunately that includes weeds—lots and lots of weeds. So when I returned after a two-and-a-half month absence, I found on the positive side that my lupines had grown to colossal sizes, but weeds had invaded all the beds and were on the verge of overwhelming our plantings. The photo above is an example of just how overgrown things had become.

So this past weekend featured a lot of weeding, to try to get the growth under control. I dug out countless broadleaf weeds, yanked out creeping vines, chopped back encroaching chokecherry trees, and pulled out unwanted grass. My favorite weed to remove, whose name is unknown to me, has a weird hollow stem, grows rapidly, and has a purple flower on top and very shallow roots. You can extract it with a gentle tug, and it is satisfying to then fling it onto the weed pile.

By the end of the weekend, as the photo below shows, I had got things back to about where they were when I last left in May. In the never-ending War of the Weeds, that’s about all you can hope for.