What I learned from listening to Car Talk

I’ve been a Car Talk fan for decades.  My parents weren’t big NPR listeners, instead preferring car talkone of the AM talk radio stations, or one of the news stations that had “traffic on the twos.”

However, every Sunday we’d drive to Brooklyn from NJ to see my grandparents, and during that drive, we’d listen to Car Talk.  In fact, when I listen to Car Talk now, I swear I can smell Freshkills Park, at that time a garbage dump.

Ray and Tom, whose voices I still find indistinguishable – well, distinguishable, but not identifiably belonging to one or the other of them – were like an Italian mechanic version of my dad.  They made the same kinds of jokes, laughed at the same kinds of things, and, being roughly his age, made a lot of similar pop culture references.  They also approached problems the same way my dad does.

Reading Tom’s obituaries, I’ve learned how much those guys influenced what public radio is today.  Even Ira Glass, the patron saint of public radio, agrees.  But what strikes me the most about them is how good they are at troubleshooting.

For someone technical, troubleshooting is one of the most important skills to have in your arsenal.  And within troubleshooting, I include things like being sure you know what the problem is, separating confounding variables, getting actual data rather than perceived impressions, and understanding how repeatable problems and solutions are.

Tom and Ray were great at this.  They were great at zooming in on the crux of a problem and quickly figuring out the root cause – or at least forming one or more hypotheses and testing them out.  They’d ask great questions and probe at symptoms and request specific information – exactly how to do problem solving.  They’d also keep each other honest – reminding each other when they were drawing a scientific conclusion and when they weren’t incorporating all the information they had.

They were funny, down-home, as-Boston-as-they-come mechanics, but they were also strong disciples of the scientific method.  (Likely from the many science degrees they held between them, eschewed by their big laughs and thick accents.)

One responsibility I had in my first job was for tech support.  I was pretty good at the methodology of it, but I didn’t have the subject matter expertise to actually draw any conclusions.  So that was the other thing about these guys – they knew everything about cars.

I know that it’s radio, so it’s likely they had some manuals or, later, Google in front of them, but I like to think that they rarely used them.

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