Woods (No) Fun Center

…or why I can’t “buy local.”

So, I took my motorcycle out last night for the first time in about six months. Yes the battery had been boiled dry by the charger at some point, and yes there were a few pieces sitting on the floor, but from initial inspiration to free and clear to navigate it was still under 30 minutes.

Just a few minutes into my ride, I heard a loud crack and then, on deceleration, the sound of the chain slapping against the swingarm. A quick inspection revealed that the chain slider, a piece of rubber that encases the swingarm and keeps the drive chain from rubbing against it, had disintegrated and disappeared (all the mounting hardware was present, but none of the rubber). Not shocking for a 20-year-old bike. I went home, tightened the chain a couple of notches and kept on riding.

This morning I began investigating my options for replacing the chain slider. A google search revealed no aftermarket availability, but several places now have the Honda factory parts diagrams online for perusal (everything was still microfiche when I was in the industry). The first one I located, Power Sports Pro, had a system called Parts Fish, which yielded the part for $74.49.

power sports pro catalog

Some sticker shock there, I admit, but not totally out of the range of expectation. Motorcycle dealerships, like car dealerships, make all their money in parts and service. New and used vehicles barely cover their own overhead and are really just a gateway to warranty and repair work for the service departments. The parts counter is the ultimate margin-maker. I know when I managed a parts department suggested retail from Honda was double the dealership’s cost for most parts, and the dealership’s internal pricing rule was suggested retail plus 10%. For example, the last time I bought a carburetor gasket kit at retail (admittedly about 20 different gaskets, but collectively they’d all fit in a #10 envelope and not require extra postage!) I think it was about $50. A dealership pays less than $20 for it.

Anyway, forging on via Google I next located Temecula Motorsports. They offered the same part for $68.20.

temecula motorsports catalog

The skin is a little different, but this is obviously the same parts look-up system. There must be a service provider offering a subscription parts database for dealership web sites. Anyway, slightly better price, though not significantly (they could make it up in the shipping and handling, basically). Next I found Mr. Cycles out of North Carolina.

mr. cycles catalog

$54.39. Now we’re talking! Though still outrageous for a 12″ piece of rubber, this is a significant savings over the first price. Again, from the same system (look, even the product index number is the same). Interestingly, Mr. Cycles is not a better deal across the board, only on big-ticket items. The next item on the list, around $3, is actually more expensive at Mr. Cycle. I could do some statistical analysis here to figure out what’s going on, but I’ll assume it’s a per-item charge mixed in with the markup and leave it at that. Another interesting thing: unlike the other dealerships, Mr. Cycles gives you the Honda SKU. With this you could call any Honda dealer in the country and order the part. I doubt you would though, and here’s why.

My next step was to attempt to “buy local.” I have a neighborhood motorcycle dealership less than two miles away, Woods Fun Center. I also have a “neighborhood” Walmart, so don’t get too sentimental just yet. The place is truly awesome, and I mean that literally, not as an affectation of respect (“like, totally awesome”). It’s a motorcycle and sportcraft dealership the size of a Home Depot. As a combination dealership of every Japanese brand, plus ATVs, plus watercraft, plus other stuff, they must have $5 million worth of inventory sitting on the sales floor at any given moment.

On the way over there I decided to be reasonable. I decided that if they came in around the middle price–$68–I’d buy on the spot (which of course means special order and wait a week). So I walked up to the parts counter, waited for the pimply, 19-year-old clerk to stop bullshitting with his frat buddies (or whatever kind of buddies they are when you’re all high school dropouts and too young to drink), and began the demeaning ritual of being that old guy with more money than sense ordering parts for a dinosaur bike that he just won’t get rid of. Remember, I was on the other side of that counter when I was 19 too. I knew plenty of me. Shudder.

Anyway, he looks up the part, and then he does that thing that doctors, mechanics and parts guys all have down to a science–that shoulder-slumping, deep sigh-accompanied, “I feel your pain, but really I’m not the cause of it” act they put on to let you down easy. In this case, I think the guy actually cursed. And then he gave me the damage: $90. Here’s another thing I know about that job: you only round the number off when you know the customer is not going to buy. If you think there’s a chance in hell, you get specific. You say $88.42 or $92.50 or whatever the book (or in this case computer) says. You try to keep the customer engaged. Except this is a motorcycle dealership, so here’s what’s really going on: you’re looking at this price on screen and it’s dealer cost marked up 100%. But the policy is, add 10%, if you’re lucky, because you can do that in your head. But at Woods it’s probably more like 15% or even 20%. So standing behind the counter, you see this already big number (I’m guessing list is somewhere around $75), and you know you’re supposed to add exactly 15%. You also know there’s no way in hell even the old guy with more money than sense is going to shell out just south of a C-note for what is essentially a rubber bushing, so you don’t even bother to do the calculation. You just say “90 bucks” and it’s over. And it was, I said thanks and left.

In a small shop, like the one I used to work in, I could have argued. I know that for a ridiculous situation like that–$70-$90 for a piece of rubber–we used to routinely cut back as far as actual retail even for a casual customer. Hell, get them to buy some chain lube and an oil filter at the same time and you’re ahead of the game. The perspective to have here–the dealership’s perspective–is that everything that happens in the parts department is pure profit. They shouldn’t let me walk out without offering me something. Because whether it’s $30 or $50 walking away, you’ve already done 90% of the work for it. Knowing the cost on this part is somewhere around $40 (because someone in North Carolina will sell it to me for under $55, remember), the thing for any parts counter guy to do, when I hedged, and definitely when I walked away, was to say, hold up, you need anything else? because I can maybe work with you on this price. It’s called sales, people. And what’s amazing to me is that even back when we could play hard ball, before the Internet, back when we knew the customer would come back eventually because there really was nowhere else to go, we didn’t play it that hard. I gave plenty of discounts (again, almost down to suggested retail). These days, on some level, Woods has to know its going to lose that over-the-counter business to the Internet. All I can figure is they don’t care.

Conservatism, The Next Generation?

I already didn’t like MySpace, so much so that I’m not even going to hotlink it, but whatever I might have perceived to be bad about it in the past is eclipsed by the fact that Rupert Murdoch just bought MySpace’s parent company. I know, I know, you could argue that he owns the network that airs the Simpsons, a show that’s managed to be “hip” and “new” and at least tongue-in-cheek leftist for about a hundred years. But he also owns Fox News. So forgive me if I get a little nervous when I read that Murdoch now has “instant access to millions of computer-literate teenagers and is adding on average four million more every month.”

Serverless AJAX = SPA?

The technologies I’ve been working with the last six months and uninspiringly calling “Serverless AJAX” now have a name: Single Page Application or SPA. There are a couple of examples listed, but they’re hard to grok at first glance. The central premise is that the web browser is now rich enough to constitute an operating system–you have DHTML for the display layer, the DOM for in-memory object and data structures, JavaScript for programming, XML as a database and the file system/web for “off-line” storage.

The funny thing is, you start off with a “web browser” and find yourself at a point where you don’t need the web any more. The web browser becomes a uniquely accessible presentation interface with surprisingly few constraints. What I mean is, it becomes theoretically possible for people with basic web skills to create applications with broad platform compatibility and very low resource requirements. So, for example, imagine something like Gmail–with both that level of compatibility and complexity–and remove the web-connectedness of it (or at least the necessity of web-connectedness). Imagine an off-line version of Gmail. I’d bet it’s on the way. It would be here already if connectivity wasn’t so ubiquitous or at least ubiquitous seeming (I qualify because I have to wonder if we don’t unconsciously tether ourselves to foster that illusion of ubiquity, if we simply consider our computers broken if they’re not connected, but that’s a thought for another post).

Anyway, I find “SPA” and the even more stretched “SPADE” to be uninspiring. Yes I like working on things better before they have a name, but “Single Page Application” is particularly vague and boring. I think we can do better. Let me think about it…

Want to Save the Planet? Give up Flying, and Fish

It’s been one of those weekends where I serendipitously end up reading a lot of environmental articles. It could be because SXSW Interactive is next week and I need to mentally balance my karma before getting stuck in a conference center for four days listening to people talk about meaningless technological bullshit. In any case, I ran across both an article on the death of the global ocean and one on the environmental evils of air travel. I also read an excerpt from Tim Flannery’s new book about global warming and climate change in Playboy, but that doesn’t appear to be online.

Air travel is, of course, something I was vehemently against already. Separated from causality, September 11th and 12th were sensorially, viscerally, when I stepped outside and stared up at the clear, incredibly blue sky, the best days since my youth. I literally have not seen or heard skies that clear and quiet since I was a little kid–and I was in Dallas, Texas at the time–a place not usually known for its air quality (or any quality for that matter). And, like a 10-year-old, I allowed myself to foolishly hope that maybe the planes wouldn’t come back. That maybe this was a brave new world. Of course it was, but only exactly in the way that Huxley envisioned–a brave new world where the status quo would be maintained at all costs and we would reward and support those leaders and peers who most effectively enabled us to maintain our illusions. Still, the foolish hope remains. I hope that some day we’ll realize just how inefficient and destructive (and face it, unnecessary) air travel is. We’ll realize that the whole thing only exists through government subsidy at every level–from the eminent domain exercised to build ever-larger airports to the tax-advantaged jet fuel that keeps planes aloft. Buying a seat on a jet airplane for a transoceanic journey is the same as making a monthly payment on a Hummer–it costs the same, it has the same environmental impact and it makes the same statement: a big fuck you to planet Earth that negates a year’s worth of suburban recycling or carpooling.

Air travel isn’t the only culprit. As one article points out, all methods of high speed travel that can potentially replace air travel (rail, hovercraft) have equally abysmal greenhouse gas issues. Automobiles get a bad rap, but they’re relatively efficient and well-regulated compared to almost every other form of transportation and energy production. And what’s really killing us is not localized energy usage anyway, it’s globalism. By some estimates, the worldwide container shipping fleet alone pollutes as much in terms of greenhouse emissions in a given year as all U.S. land-based sources.

But concepts like “go back,” “slow down,” “use less,” “stop and think” are antithetical to our culture. We know no other engine–economically, intellectually, emotionally–than the narrowly-defined “progress” of permanent growth and expansion. We have difficulty imagining large-scale institutions that are not based on resource exploitation. Sustainability is still a loaded term, one once uttered which instantly labels one as a “bleeding-heart liberal” or a socialist. Say global warming and you’re Chicken Little. Talk about government subsidies on fuels and fertilizers that harm the environment and you’re “anti-farmer.” Mention documented, admitted collusion (often labeled “lobbying” or “consulting”) between government and big business and you’re labeled a conspiracy theorist.

But politics aside, it’s impossible to argue with certain facts: Global biodiversity is in well-observed decline. Ocean water temperatures are climbing at rates never previously observed, neither directly nor in the geologic record, and warmer oceans mean stronger storms. Every person, plant, animal and body of air, land or water that we’ve tested contains measurably-higher levels of pollutants than in the recent past. What these facts mean is that by definition the Earth is becoming a less interesting, less safe, less healthy place to live. How is this not our number one concern? Why are we so easily distracted by divisive political issues while ignoring the elephant in the corner desperately trumpeting that the world is becoming a worse place to live?

Malcolm Gladwell Answers My Question

A while back, in one of my musings about the nature of work, I wondered why, if work is so clearly in our best interest and so often fulfilling, we still hesitate to engage in it. Now I read this interview with Malcolm Gladwell in which he asks and answers this very question:

This is actually a question I’m obsessed with: Why don’t people work hard when it’s in their best interest to do so? …

The (short) answer is that it’s really risky to work hard, because then if you fail you can no longer say that you failed because you didn’t work hard. It’s a form of self-protection…. The point is that it is far more psychologically dangerous and difficult to prepare for a task than not to prepare.

This is so incisive, so instantly obvious that I was stunned. I stopped, re-read it, and then started composing this post. The odd thing is, I already knew this about myself. I’m well aware of my risk aversion and failure aversion, even specifically as it relates to motivation. But for some reason I was never able (or willing) to condense it down to this concise explanation. It’s disturbing how many problems in my life can be explained by misdirected psychological self protection.

It’s interesting to note that this interview appears on ESPN.com, which you may remember was Hunter Thompson’s last place of employment. I’ve often wondered about the connection between writing and sports–why so many great writers have either been sportsmen or sportswriters or sports fans. The (short) answer (as Malcolm would put it) is that most of the recognized great writers have been men (this is not a judgement, merely an observation, along the lines of saying that most historically-recognized people have been men) and most men have historically been sportsmen or sports fans. It’s statistics.

The longer answer might be that writing and sports require similar qualities of intellect and character–dedication, attention to minutia, perfection of form, competitiveness, hubris. And the dislike of sports and writing might also share similar causes–fear of failure, avoidance of pain. Which puts as right back in Gladwell land. Read the interview, there’s other good stuff in there, if you can get through all the sports crap.