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Dip sticks are even sliding into a futuristic mode

July 11, 2012

Today’s modern vehicles have computers that can monitor the air pressure in your tires. They have onboard calculators that can figure out your average fuel economy, the amount of time you have been traveling and the number of miles you can drive before you run out of gas.

Cars today can park themselves and sound alarms if you begin to drift into another lane. They watch your blind spots for you and have video displays of what’s beneath your rear bumper. They have cruise control that automatically maintains a proper distance between you and the car ahead. It even applies the brakes if you appear to be falling asleep at the switch.

Global Positioning Satellites track our bearings down to the foot, and tell us where we are and where we must turn to arrive at our destination.

Yes, all this automotive genius is at our fingertips.

But we still measure engine oil with a stick.

Have you ever thought about how insane that is? A stick. This is caveman territory. “Hey Gug, me check oil now, put stick in big gourd. See how much still there. Oooo, look Gug, half quart low. Me so smart.”

Truth be told, the whole dipstick paradigm probably wouldn’t have irritated me five or 10 years ago, before I needed my first set of reading glasses.

Sure, there were always some minor irritants. Like the only time you ever remembered to check the oil was when you were driving — and no matter how good a multitasker you are, you can’t do both.
On the flip side, checking the oil was the one kinda, sorta mechanical thing that we males could perform, even if we have no other automotive skills whatsoever.

We would hang around the gas pumps and take a long time doing it, hoping some babes would notice. “Hey sweetheart, dig me, I’m checking the oil here.”

But two things happened. One was the loss of my short-range vision, so that now I can see the stick all right, but that’s about it. I have literally been reduced to feeling the dipstick to see where it starts to get damp.

The other problem is that the makers of gasoline engines for some reason have made dipsticks harder and harder to read, to the point that even with an electron microscope it is impossible to tell where and how the oil relates to a number of primitive and nonsensical whittlings on the stick itself.

Of course, you know me well enough to understand that I would not drone on for 400 words about something as meaningless as a dipstick if it weren’t personal.

That’s because despite the recent power failures, I felt pretty smug because I had just bought me a honkin’ big generator that was hardwired into the home’s electrical panel. So when the power went out, all I needed to do was pull a cord and the house would light up like Charlie Sheen.

Which it didn’t, of course, because the generator wouldn’t start. We had to drive it all the way back to where we bought it, and even worse, the man had it running in three seconds because I had simply misread the dipstick. (The machine has a kill switch that won’t permit it to run without adequate engine oil.)

The dipstick has two little notches like what you’re probably familiar with as being the “minimum” and “maximum” marks on the stick. But apparently those marks are only there to fake out the operator because the real “full” mark is way up by the pull-ring.

So not only are machines smart enough to require a full tank of oil, they are smart enough to play practical jokes. I, for one, am not laughing.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 6997, or via email at

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