Sunday, May 31, 2009

'Twister,' Trucks and Dead Scrap Driving

I'm sitting here watching the 1996 movie "Twister," as storm chasers zip around the backroads of the Midwest, dogging tornados and hashing out their romantic and professional differences.

One the one side are the good guys, driving a motley caravan composed of pickup trucks (including a red one that executes some fairly sweet maneuvers, including driving through a house) and a battered station wagon. On the other side are the "corporate kiss-butts," piloting a sleek convoy of big black SUVs.

It's car heaven. Can you imagine this movie shot with a Prius, two Smart cars and a vegetable-oil-fueled minivan that smells like a taco stand? But that's where we're headed. If you thought the teeny-car chase in "Demolition Man" was the greatest thing ever, this auto future's for you.

(By the way, if you've never seen "Demolition Man," get it. It's prophetic, only I suspect that in many ways, its future is now.)

Very likely, by the time you read this, General Motors -- founded by entrepreneur William C. Durant, who transitioned from horse-drawn to horseless vehicles -- will have declared bankruptcy. The fate of the venerable American automaker will then be in the hands of the courts and its chief stockholder, the United States Government.

Oh, joy, the people that just sent stimulus checks to the dead will now be running a major manufacturing company.

One thing's for certain, my poor Pontiac Vibe -- the latest in an unbroken string of GM vehicles I have owned -- is now an orphan. In 80 years or so, it could become a collectors' item. But, unlike the odd Ford Model-T that's still motoring around, I doubt it will survive long enough to to be a treasured remnant of a bygone era (Ford Motors may, though, and no doubt there's a lesson in that).

My car's just dead scrap driving, doomed to represent the beginning of the end of an automobile era -- a phenomenon political satirist P.J O'Rourke captured with mordant wit and flashes of road poetry in this brilliant piece for the Wall Street Journal.

At this moment, much of the U.S. auto industry knows what it felt like to be the village smithy, standing under his spreading chestnut tree on the day the first Flivver rolled into town. Unfortunately for him -- along with farriers, stable boys, saddlemakers, tack suppliers, hay farmers and carriage builders -- nobody was around to prevent the inevitable downsizing, reorganizing, retooling and even professional demise.

How many horses wound up as dog food or glue when the world just didn't need as many of them anymore?

Who weeps for them today? The same "no one" that will be weeping for 20th-century automakers decades from now when we're tooling around in whatever comes next. This is creative destruction, evolution, if you will, as those lucky enough to have the skills and clever enough to have the ideas suited to the new reality rise from the ashes of the past.

I suspect that even the United States Government can do little but prolong the agony. America's mighty manufacturing engines must adapt or die.

As the daughter in a family of men that love cars, and as a dedicated fan of the British boys-and-toys car show "Top Gear," the prospect of driving the Los Angeles freeways in an egg crate on wheels is not appealing.

Because, until they perfect the transporter, and Scotty can beam us to work or the grocery store, people will still need to get around.

"Oh, what about public transportation and bicycles for all?" you may ask. They have their place and their dedicated devotees, and always will, but if there are personal motorized wheels available, whatever the form or fashion, plenty of Americans will burn rubber to grab them.

But I have faith that somewhere out there, maybe in a garage in Sausalito, or a body shop in Bangor, or the back of a dealership service bay in Tampa is a William C. Durant or a Henry Ford, just itching to reinvent those wheels.

And if the experts and the know-it-alls and the car czars and the "pointy-headed busybodies" of O'Rourke's piece can just manage to get out of this kid's way, I'll get to drive something that's not only safe and fuel-efficient, but way cool.

To Netbook or Not to Netbook...

There's this image, perpetuated in advertising, of young people lost in thought, curled up on a bench or perched on edge of a stone wall (preferably with greenery or the ocean in the background) or lounging on a pillowy sofa with a cashmere throw tossed casually over their legs (all in tasteful neutrals, of course, with maybe a cat), tapping away on a tiny computer, connected to the world with little effort and lots of style.

I've tried the above with my laptop, and while it's pretty small as laptops go, generally wound up either having my leg fall asleep or getting a crick in my neck. Also, laptops get kind of warm, and it's hard to type while balancing it on one knee so that the cooling fan is uncovered.

So maybe I need to get a little netbook for two or three or four or so hundred dollars, one of those miniature laptops that's bigger than makeup case but smaller than a Stephen King hardcover. Then I could sit in coffeeshops or parks or at the beach, updating my blogs or writing my deep thoughts or editing my multimedia files.

Of course, if there isn't free-wifi at the beach, I'd have to get broadband internet access, which costs, like, $60 a month, or I'd have to sync the netbook to the Bluetooth on my smartphone, providing, of course, I have good cell coverage in the area, and who knows how much extra that would cost.

The battery life on netbooks isn't that great, and if you bring the power cord, well, you might as well bring the laptop...

Or, I could just go out into the world and actually talk to people and save my computer use either for sitting in my ergonomically correct chair at my desktop, with my ergonomically correct keyboard and mouse, or with my laptop set on its cooling tray, in my lap in the recliner.

But I want a neat little netbook. I want to be one of those free, easy, connected people who can just blog from any position and location, without respect to proper circulation or maintaining correct posture to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome.

Unfortunately, I'm just not that cool. And I can Twitter from my smartphone. That's about all I have patience or inclination for at the average coffeeshop anyway.

Turn left, do not pass Go -- but do pass Best Buy -- do not spend a few hundred dollars. Today, that is.

Think I'll wait until the third or fourth time I say to myself, "Drat, a netbook would sure have made my life easier right there!" Hasn't happened yet. So far, my smartphone has got my mobile connectivity covered. And it takes really good pictures. And, a phone.

For more on the debate, click here. To see the netbook of my current dreams, click here. To see my smartphone, click here.

What's the future for netbooks? Great idea, take connectivity with you without the bulk (or risk) or lugging a primary laptop around. Better idea, sell a cheap version in the same way cellphones are sold. Oh, look, Verizon's doing that (still not all that cheap). Who's going to top their offer? Maybe Radio Shack (and you can get some batteries and a thingamajig to hook the whatsis to the splitter on the whatchamacallit while you're there).

I'll let you know if conditions change...