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When I was in high school, I worked evenings and weekends in a gas station. Cars at that time were a lot less reliable than they are today, and I got pretty good at fixing a wide variety of simple things that could go wrong. I could tune an engine, fix a carburetor, clean and adjust spark plugs, adjust batteries and ignition systems, and do a lot of other routine chores that were required just to keep cars running.

Not long ago, my current automobile wouldn't start. I hadn't looked at a car engine for some time, but I raised the hood to see if I could fix whatever was wrong. I felt pretty confident that I could take care of the situation because I had so much experience dealing with car problems in general -- especially simple problems like an engine that would not start.

Boy was I surprised. Instead of the familiar carburetor, distributor, spark plugs, and other ingredients I know about and can fix, my car's engine compartment was completely filled with things I didn't even recognize. I saw a collection of boxes and other strange objects and a maze of wires, cables, and hoses that made no sense at all. Computers, it seems, have changed the automobile engine from something I can understand and even fix, to a complicated mess that I can't possibly figure out by myself.

There was simply nothing I could do to understand what might be wrong with the engine or even attempt to fix it. I called the dealer who towed my car to a service facility where technicians (not mechanics) plugged their computer into my car's computer to see what was wrong. The diagnostic printout from their computer showed them what part to replace, which they did, and the car has worked fine ever since.

I realize that modern automobile engines are a lot better because of their computer controls. Pollution is much less that it used to be. Engines today develop much more power and use less gasoline because their built-in computers constantly adjust for the most efficient operation. There's no question that things have improved. But there is a price to pay, and the cost of improving our technology is often a loss of our ability to deal with that very same technology on a personal level.

Now for the happy ending. Just the other day my vintage tractor with no computers at all stopped running. I was delighted. I spent most of the day tinkering and puttering around until I had found and fixed the problem -- a combination of a cracked spark plug insulator and a partly clogged gas line filter. Working on a vintage tractor is actually quite easy, compared to trying to figure out modern engines and equipment. And I really enjoyed being able to simply look carefully at something and understand it.

If you are the kind of person who likes to figure things out, you would probably enjoy reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. I recommend this book highly. You won't learn much about Zen, or motorcycles for that matter, but you will gain important insights into the meaning of quality.© 2014 Ainsworth & Partners,