Page Created: 6/24/2014   Last Modified: 3/18/2016   Last Generated: 5/3/2019
When I learned how to drive, I quickly realized that if the car broke, I would have to repair it, since I couldn't afford a mechanic.
I read the Reader's Digest Car Care Manual, which explained in simple illustrations how cars worked. It was a wonderful book, and I still use it today.
I figured a car is a complex system, a system of interrelating systems, multiple interdependent variables, but ultimately had to obey the laws of physics. I had to learn how to translate my knowledge of computational systems into mechanical ones, and found they were very similar.
Computation was my only frame of reference, as I was not interested in biological systems. Biology was too messy, it was poorly understood, it was too close to my own mortality. I was also not interested in mechanical engineering, as electricity was where the magic was, which I felt at the time was a more advanced and mysterious technology. I felt that if I could master electricity, then I could master everything else.
Essentially, a car is a mobile robot, one big enough to transport people around.
My father would bring in a supply of different vehicles regularly, buying, driving and selling used cars, and later frequenting the auto auction in St. Louis.
I first began working on old American cars like a 1976 Chevorlet Caprice Classic, and helped my father rebuild his alternator, replacing the carbon contacts. That was electrical. That was easy.
My father later began buying old diesel Mercedes, like the 240D and 300D, perhaps four of them over several years. He told me that German engineering was superior, and that I needed to look closely at the cars small parts and how they interrelate to see the genius. At first I ignored this... the cars were sluggish and slow to accelerate.. the fuel stayed oily and didn't evaporate, they were hard to start in cold weather.
I bought a stick shift 1984 Misubishi Tredia from my father, a car he was in the process of buying and reselling. Since the car was mine, I decided I would apply what I learned from books into this vehicle.
The Japanese car was very different. Many of the parts were not as repairable as the Mercedes, but meant to be replaced. I eventually began to dissect the vehicle, replacing the water pump, ball joints, removing the timing belt, removing the timing belt, adjusting the timing, and performing a valve adjustment.
People would see me working on that car and laugh at me, thinking I was a fool for putting so much work into a tiny, cheap car, but when I engaged them in discourse on technical details, they backed off and I realized that they didn't really know anything about cars. I found that most men actually know very little about cars, that it is another part of machismo, to sound manly by boasting about them.
I never cared about any of that--I was on a mission to find out what this system was made of. My HyperSystemizing mind was in tune, it was seeing the interrelationships, computing probabilities, isolating variables.
In my earlier years, I used to listen to Car Talk on NPR, and envied the knowledge of the two brothers. I began reaching a point where I could analyze with equivalent skill, and would try to find the problem before they did. They were excellent logicians, by the way.
My knowledge of car repair came almost entirely from books. I read, then I taught myself by trying to apply the knowledge in books. I ignored verbal advice from so-called "experienced" men, such as friends, neighbors, auto parts clerks, and even mechanics, as this was unverified hearsay, and compared the written knowledge with the results in the real world. If I found that something in the world did not match up with the book, I noted it as an error in the book, and continued. I began keeping a revised, internal book in my head. This process has worked very well in my life and has allowed me to do things in life that no one has taught me.
The car engine is a miniature world, an ecosystem. It reminded me of the fractal, complex systems I read about in James Gleik's Chaos.
Over the years, I repaired some of the Mercedes cars as well, water pumps, brakes, glow plugs, and a steering pump bracket. During his trips to Iran, my father would leave the cars with us, a motorized memory of himself. I started seeing the perfection in the car that my father mentioned, the tiny details like the knobs, the electrical switches were different, more logical. The diesel fuel system was simpler and more reliable; it had lower horsepower but a surprisingly large amount of torque. The diesel design meant the engine block was heavy and extremely durable. They could be started and run without a starter, alternator, or battery. If you rolled them down a hill (which we did a few times), and it was warm enough outside, you could pop the clutch and the high cylinder compression would start the chain reaction. Diesel fuel does not require a spark to ignite, like gasoline. They were designed to be repaired by human beings, they were serviceable, not like the cheaper, non-serviceable parts on the Japanese car.
When he returned back to the states, I bought my second car from him, a Swedish Saab 9000. It was so costly to repair, though. I couldn't find parts at the auto parts store, and the Saab dealer was prohibitively expensive, more than Mercedes parts. There were no repair books, the only one being the large, expensive one meant for the dealer mechanic.
When my blower motor failed, the only way Saab said to repair it was to lift up the engine and put in a new, expensive Saab motor. I said no, I decided to cut a hole directly into the firewall and insert a cheaper Ford Escort motor. I did, and it worked well for the life of the car.
My later cars were again of Japanese origin, such as a 1990 Suburu Legacy. The Subaru was the first piece of Japanese engineering that I felt was equivalent to German. It lasted forever.
Over its lifespan, I replaced (sometimes more than once) the radiator, ball joints and wheel bearings, CV joints, brakes and rotors, valve cover gaskets, alternator, ignition coil. One day, at close to 200,000 miles, the head gasket failed. Subaru said they would charge over $1000 to perform the repair, and the engine would have to be hoisted out of the car. It was a flat-four, horizontally opposed engine, with two cylinder heads on each side of the engine, and two head gaskets. I decided I would attempt the repair myself, and spent weeks meticulously dismantling the engine. I thought the mechanic and books were wrong, that the engine didn't have to be removed, and I was right. I barely had enough clearance to get the cylinder heads off.
When I replaced the head gaskets, I did not have the cylinder heads resurfaced as many had told me I needed to do, as warping would have occurred when they failed bad due to extreme heat differences.
I said no, that due to the split heads, warping would be minimal, something to be concerned about if it was a single head. It was only an educated guess on my part. I believed that the gasket failure was due to the age of the car, the two gaskets meant the probability of failure was twice that of a normal engine, that it probably wasn't due to damage of the head itself. My thought experiment also concluded that shorter cylinder heads would be less likely to warp, since there was half the length of material.
This was a risky gamble, since I put weeks of work into it, and if I was wrong, it would all be in vain. But I believed that resurfacing the heads was risky and expensive, and that it would only be successful if the people doing it knew what they were doing. I could only be certain that the original Subaru engineers and factory workers were capable of this, anyone else was another gamble.
Well the gaskets held, and the car went for about another 70,000 miles before the fuel injectors started to fail, well worth the repair. I bought four new injectors, but shortly after I installed them, the head gaskets failed once more, so I decided it was time to donate the car shortly thereafter.
I got the car to exceed the distance between the earth and the moon, well over 250,000 miles (around 270,000 I think). And it was a 4 wheel drive vehicle, with twice as many drive train parts to fail, but it held. What a wonderful piece of engineering.
That was the last car I bought from my dad and it died shortly before he did, like how the spring on the grandmother clock broke before my grandfather died.
So what does this all mean?
These beautiful creations, clocks and car engines, are one and the same, they are mankind's partners in time, they move in repetitive cycles, something only a 4th dimensional entity can do, a reciprocating, simple harmonic entity.
They are microcosms of our greater world, a great fractal world, traversing time and space, perhaps miniature models of the cyclical engine that recursively generates the fractal universe.
When the car engine misbehaved, it sent my mind into overdrive, like how I stare at chessboards for an eternity before I move a piece, since the number of variables gets so complex that most people, and mechanics, don't try to solve the problem.
I found that most mechanics, like most IT people, and like most doctors, will not try to get to the root of the problem, but will simply try to replace or fix what is most probable, continuing on until the problem appears to resolve itself.
They fix a car by replacing most of the engine, they fix a computer by replacing its hardware or re-installing the OS, and they fix a person by treating the symptoms hoping that the body will manage to heal itself, using trial and error if they don't get results the first time.
But, alas, logic can actually find those variables the first time if you look hard enough. If one thing is broken, logic will find it quickly. If there is more than one thing broken at the same time, the complexity goes up, and it will be harder to solve, but it is still within the power of logic.
The second variable will hide sneakily behind the first, and the third, if there is a third, however improbable, the third is phantasmal, caught only indirectly, or through happenstance, requiring detailed knowledge of the entire system, but it still cannot escape logic.
I've found that toiling over a car engine in bad weather or waning daylight with no other form of transportation and little money is a BIG motivator to sharpen one's logic skills and find those variables.
Logic was humanity's great tool, a gift from our brain. What happened to us? Why have we neglected critical thinking, the thing that brought humanity to great heights?
Critical thinking is the light that saved us from the Dark Ages.
My father once told me a parable of an ornate box with candle in it that was buried in the desert, a candle people said that burned forever.
The people who lived there did not believe such a candle existed, and one day they dug up the box and opened it... and the candle suddenly blew out.Comments