The Shaft

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Feb 292012

I’d rather try to lick a passing bus than read most of what passes for content on the Internet these days, and professional “content marketers” are one of the main reasons. Times are tough, and under tough circumstances no doubt some people are looking down at their degrees, noticing the words “English Writing” on there, and panicking. I’ve been there, and any job is at least a job, but make no mistake: writing bullshit copy for search engine spiders makes you no friend of mankind. You better hope the future robot overlords keep you around for energy generation and amusement, because humans are getting sick of your shit. Churning out high volumes of disinformation is making our world worse.

Let me put this in terms English majors can understand: you know how Tolkien’s Orcs were apparently Elves all physically twisted and morally perverted by dark magic or some such shit? That’s you.

Probably the only honorable thing you can do if you find yourself writing “Ten Ways I Love to Use My Shamwow!” articles is to bake in some self-deprecating humor and definitely avoid taking your job seriously. You’re writing keyword love letters to web crawling bots for crissake! Do you really think your boss even reads this shit? And if the clients contracting you to write it actually had legitimate products, would they really be trusting you to write about them?

We last met content marketers when I mentioned those rad Jeep bikes, and in that case, too, the most disturbing aspect of the article with the contrived sense of “expertise.” These are essentially people writing without any background in or ever cursory understanding of, the subject of their article. Probably the worst thing you can do in that situation is pretend to know something.

Which brings me to the Dynamic Bicycles Tempo Cross 8 “review.”

Right out of the chute, we get this:

In the world of bicycles, innovations are generally small things – changes in the aerodynamics and the like – so when something as interesting as a “chainless” bicycle comes my way, I’m more than happy to get on board.”

In bullshit Internet marketing terms, this is the “introduction.” Establish that you “know something,” preferably by dropping a “term” like “aerodynamics” that you discovered in a ten second Google search. Presto! Street cred: established! Sad little “innovations” like suspension forks, oversized axles, carbon fiber, and disc brakes are going to have to ride in the back seat today, because you don’t even know they exist, and yet you’re doing to be our tour guide to the world of bicycles today, and just what is it that’s so magical about the Dynamic Bicycles Tempo Cross 8 (besides the name)?

It has no chain.

That’s right! We’re talking some shaft drive! The most skin-crawling aspect of these posts is the faux-authoritative tone, and that’s in rare form as we move into the meat of the mighty Tempo Cross 8.

While there have been different chainless bikes throughout the ages (heck, the first bicycle the “penny-farthing” actually had no chain), Dynamic Bicycles has put together a bicycle that works tremendously. From the elegantly refined color scheme, to the quiet gear box, the Tempo Cross 8 was literally everything I could have asked for in a bicycle.”

Wow. That’s a pretty strong endorsement from a random stranger with no discernible bicycle knowledge who cut his reviewer’s teeth on video games.”. Helpful tip for consumers: if the author of a bike review is talking about the “color scheme,” and we’re not reviewing the freaky rubberized texture coat of an Ibis frame or some new “Predator” technology that renders your Spring Classics bike invisible for final kilometer sneak attacks, you’re in the wrong place.

Roll up those pantlegs, though. We’re about to pimp some shaft. Here’s why the triple-named Tempo Cross 8 smokes a “so-called normal bicycle”:

A chain can break. A chain “pop off” of the teeth on the gears. A chain can seriously screw up your ability to have a good ride should damn well anything go wrong – top that off with the fact that fixing it will often be a very dirty job, and you can see why people would look for another solution.”

Yes, chains have clearly proven to be highly unreliable in their continued dominant use over the past kajillion years. But I’m familiar with nicer gearbox technologies and haven’t heard of this strange budget-oriented bike’s clearly revolutionary and car-like transmission. Please tell me more.

Yes, you pump a bit of grease into the gearbox every now and then (in truth, they say every hundred miles – or about once every three years for most people), but even that it cleaner than the grubby chain grease you see. On top of that, there’s no worry of a gear randomly flying off (like a chain might) – making the mechanical side of this bike virtually maintenance free (perfect for someone lazy like me).”

I’m leaving in all the typos, by the way. That’s just a part of all things web content these days, sad as it is, and my interest here is the actual content, or lack thereof. One of my favorite examples of “anti-content” is the implied high maintenance and inherent–apparently explosion-related–danger of a conventional chain. Clearly someone who rides less than 100 miles every three years would have chain wear issues with a regular bike, whereas one with a proprietary transmission few self-respecting bike shops would touch is perfect for such grueling Fred conditions, under which a bike usually receives most of its wear and tear while in the garage.

But our author clearly has serious cyclists in his crosshairs as well, slinging the hardcore lingo. “Sometimes when you’re driving a normal chained bicycle,” he tells us, “you can get a ‘clunk’ when the chain gets pushed by the derailleur, but nothing like that here”–no doubt a result of his superior ability to drive a bicycle. And he goes out of a limb when it comes to the saddle. “I’ve tested out a good number of other high end bicycles,” he asks us to believe, “and one of my biggest complaints has always been that some companies charge you over a grand for a bike, but give you the equivalent of a rock to sit on. Not so with the Tempo Cross 8 – I’m not sure but I think that the seat that comes standard could be the most comfortable bicycle seat I have ever sat upon. It is completely comfortable to sit on, and the bumps on the road pretty much feel like nothing at all while riding on it.”

At this point, I don’t know about you, but I’m sold. But wait a minute . . . the Tempo Cross 8 sounds a little too perfect. Surely there was something this author can tell us he didn’t like–you know, like to gain our trust and seem sort of objective.

The only real complaint I can register on the bike is that just like other high end bikes, the Tempo Cross 8 doesn’t have a standard kick stand. I’m not sure why companies don’t feel like putting kick stands on their bikes, but it’s irritating to have to go and pick one up – especially if you’re dropping close to a grand on a bike hoping for a complete package.”

Here, he has a point. I mean really. What is it with high-end bikes and their persistent, infuriating lack of kickstands? And to think the Tempo Cross 8 was this close to a perfect five star rating!

Taking it With You

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Feb 282012

I’m at that stage of my life when I ponder the big questions, like, “Why can’t my cat fit into a platypus costume?” and “How can I take plants with me when I ride my bike?” The former being hopeless (believe me), I’ve recently been given fresh hope for the latter by this article about bike-friendly plant holders.

Admittedly, these little Knog-like weed pockets are pretty amazing, but they don’t really satisfy my desire to travel extensively with a few rhododendrons or a three foot square section of corn field, forcing me to wonder, just how much stuff could I pedal around on a bicycle?

Yes, one trip to Portland, and I find myself thinking a lot about bikes as genuine car replacements. The technology is closer than you think, and it’s super awesome.

By now everyone knows that nearly every parent in places fat, geographically-challenged Americans traditionally think of as cold and dreary is transporting kids to school by bicycle. The barrier for me hasn’t always been the elevation gain involved in ferrying my kids around by bike, so much as the general inability of most bike transport methods to sufficiently terrify them. But the Dutch Taga bike finally has me covered.

The Dutch are a forward-looking people, breaking new ground not only in child transportation, but in the potentially far more lucrative children-as-airbags market. Still, I think the really untapped potential here has to be infant jousting, particularly if the Dutch can manufacturer suits of armor as tiny as they apparently can helmets. Seriously, is that the same helmet the woman is wearing, only freakishly Photoshopped down to scale for the baby, or can you really get stylish, visored helmets for six-month-old babies somewhere? Here it is again, from a slightly more suspicious angle.

That can’t be a real helmet. Or a real baby. And why does this woman look so much like my friend Jeff? I find all of this very suspicious, and a little off-putting, but still, the ability to strap one of my kids to the front of a bike and charge out into the world has genuine appeal. Nothing in the article says you shouldn’t take your Taga bike off sweet jumps.

NPR just mentioned the huge percentage of tech sector companies competing to be more and more bike-friendly, and there’s really a quality of life thing going on there. For a lot of people, getting to ride a bike to and from work almost means never having a bad day at work–or at least being able to leave it at work.

At any rate, I’m having a tough time forgetting you, Portland. The next time I get back, I need to be on a bike.

Personality Tests

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Feb 272012

In my recurring theme of form versus function, I noticed these images from Paris designer Juri Zaech, which I think of as a kind of inkblot test. If you think the image above is generally pretty cool, you might tend to prioritize form over function. If, on the other hand, looking at that “bike” is the visual equivalent of listening to Nickleback for you, then you must have the same visual compulsive disorder that I do. I don’t necessarily “dislike” the image above. It’s more accurate to say it “bugs shit out of me.” I believe the technical term is “gives me the willies.” Disturbing. I don’t know why, but something about completely disconnected bike tubes floating around really bothers me. Would it have been so tough to maybe add paint to the frame and fill in those structurally missing sections? It might make these “word bikes” less “whimsical,” but at least I wouldn’t want to hunt down the artist and force him to weld something.

Here’s another one. Check out this photo:

Fashionable young woman on a fashionable bicycle, or pre-sparkling hippie Nosferatu for a new HBO “True Blood/Sex in the City” crossover project? It just so happens you’re looking at the first bicycle by fashion house Dolce and Gabbana. You’re welcome. Clearly nothing stood in the way of Yo Gabbana Bana’s pursuit of fashion on this bike, including taste and what I can only describe as “bike-ness.” If ever there was a bike for people who frequently get shit caught in their chains, this is it. According to the author of the article, the Editor/Test Rider was quoted as saying, “This bike is absolutely gorgeous! I’m totally besotted! I want one!”

Besotted, indeed.

Quick tip for you fashionistas out there who just have to have it, but can’t pony up the suspected $1000k premium upcharge for a bike made by people who specialize in making sunglasses for muppets: go to Wal-Mart, buy a bicycle for under $100 and some sweet leopard print yoga pants. Everybody knows DIY is the new black, and exactly nothing is more DIY than artisanally resewn animal print yoga pant bicycle tubing covers. So much cheaper than the custom paint applied to this garbage scow of a bike, plus you might be able to find florescent green leopard print (the “Holy Grail of leopard prints). Sure, the Dolt Cabana mobile can technically “function” as a bicycle, but it’s the form here that will clearly be moving units, so to speak.

Finally, ponder your own feelings about this device, which takes the raw functionality of a bicycle and a desk and, in combining them, renders both completely useless.

That’s sort of a brilliant triumph in the particular strain of fashion known as “function deconstructionism.” Not since the combination bathtub-meat locker have two otherwise distinct things commingled so successfully. Still, I’m holding out for the IKEA model, which I hear is translucent green acrylic and filled with live fish.

If I seem a little snarky and function-obsessed this week, it could be that I spent the last few days in Portland, which, compared to most places I’ve been, seems genuinely designed to accomplish stuff. Not only are Chris King and Zen–two of the only places still producing quantities of bicycle components and frames in the U.S.–based here, but so are an endless stream of small builders and blue collar entrepreneurs doing things to make money without first securing a round of VC funding. If you build stuff or want to, Portland really is a little like an amusement park disguised as a city.

Good meetings there, too.

Maybe best of all, I got to endure the company of my old friend, Jason, who was kind enough to put me up during my stay and show me around, and who once again casually dropped a piece of wisdom so profound that I’m still processing its full implications. Cruising through the “Bizarre/Mystical” section of venerable bookstore, Powell’s, Jason went out on a limb and declared, “Hitler ruined high boots for men.” Fashion isn’t often discussed in a city where many women choose not to wear makeup and “business casual” works five days a week, but when it is, it’s pretty good.

Friday’s Vaporware Update

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Feb 242012

Some readers have let me know I’ve accidentally released images of my next project, the pedal-powered AT-AT microbus in this post. To that all I can say is “shit!”–if you’re seeing that accidentally leaked image above, please cover your eyes and disregard it until the patent comes through. But yes, it is pretty bitchin’.

In fact, here’s the rough sketch of what should be the final version of my suspension system. Ain’t much, but all the bones are in there–all the key pivot locations and shock orientation.

Bicycle Suspension System Drawing

And here, in no particular order, are the priorities behind the design:

  • Both rockers as short as possible while still being able to fit decent sized bearings
  • Shape of each rocker is as simple as possible
  • No wasted material and the shortest distances between points everywhere possible
  • Clean, open design with many fabrication possibilities–no structural gymnastics that inevitably mean “heavier”
  • Potential for cartoonishly low standover–that drawing would be of a size “Large,” and the smaller models should allow the seat tube to be lower than the rear tire
  • Stupid short chainstays without excessive chain growth during compression (it’s an axle path that took three years to develop)
  • Sensible and flexible options for front derailleur mounting
  • Bottom bracket system options (leaning toward Press-fit 30 or something proprietary that doesn’t work with anything–kidding!)
  • A “shit-ton” of mud clearance
  • Tight and simple rear triangle
  • Absolutely perfect shock location–out of the way for low standover and decent water bottle placement
  • Optimized stress points–points on a frame that always need beefed up anyway handle all the load, meaning no super-heavy straight gauge downtube necessary because a shock is t-boning it, and no extra struts and beams just to orient the shock or rocker

That’s it for now. Next step is, hopefully, a prototype.


 Bikes  Comments Off on Acronymonious
Feb 232012

Like starting a band, the only real reason to start a bike company is that you get to name stuff. And the best thing about creating a full-suspension frame is that you get to come up with acronyms. Acronyms, otherwise known as “those abbreviation things like M.A.S.H.,” are key to marketing a suspension system because they take something somebody spent years figuring out, working and reworking, and distill that thought and energy down into a few “hot” letters people seem to like. You should really try to have an “X” in there, if possible, and “Z” and “V” are also pretty cool. Riding a mountain bike is still pretty male-dominated, so bonus points if, like “XTR” it sounds vaguely related to extending something.

Acronyms are in the back of my mind right now, which is probably the best time to be thinking of them. When you need to come up with a name in a hurry, things usually go wrong. But for now I don’t yet have a real bike company, so this is all just Dead Milkmen naming, and that’s the best way to do it.

So feel free to send me suggestions for acronyms for this suspension system. If I really like one–and it turns out we made a bike company after all–I’ll owe you something bitchin’ like a sweet t-shirt with an animal on it or something. The company is also going to need a potent and ferocious mascot, or several.

While I’m hoping as many of you as possible will just wing it and e-mail me crazy-ass names, taking this seriously and offering serious acronym suggestions is also acceptable. To that end, I figured I should mention some of what the suspension system is designed to actually do, and some of what makes it unique, just in case that sort of thing inspires anybody. There’s actually a lot going on here, so I’ll only focus on a few details.

One of the key features I was going for in designing the lower rocker was mechanical efficiency, and in my head I could see this weird scenario where the tension of the chain–the force that’s trying to pull your rear wheel forward into your crankset–helps cancel out any bobbing, but without compromising small bump response. (Damn, I’ve always wanted to type “compromising small bump response”–also a great band name.)

Explaining this gets a bit hairy, but here goes: because my swingarm attaches to my rocker at the front of the rocker (opposite everyone else’s design I’ve ever seen, except Yeti’s new one), chain forces want to keep the rocker stretched out and horizontal with the ground–basically as extended as possible. This slight underside shot might help clarify, but probably not:

Basically pedaling the bike makes the lower rocker want to stay horizontal, and when it stays horizontal, you don’t bob.

So that’s how that part of the system is supposed to work. If I can get a prototype made, and it works, suddenly all of this matters a lot more, and I’m definitely going to need an acronym, or several. Remember, great marketing acronyms seem to need the letters “X” and “V” and it helps to have an “S” or “T” in there, too, but right now, I’m leaning toward “N.I.B.,” which has nothing to do with the suspension system, but is a pretty kickass song.

Hope to have a little sketch of the new shock orientation tomorrow.

Lemmy Up

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Feb 222012

Portland Zoobomber Zach Rodenfels

I’ll be traveling to Portland on Thursday, and I have to admit, I’m a little intimidated. I’ve ridden mountain bikes, road bikes, and various things in between for a whole lot of years. I’ve also spent a good bit of time on single-speeds, done some stupid stuff on tandems, and towed kids on the fixed. I am also, apparently, associated with the bike industry, meaning a trip to Portland, even one strictly for business, is supposed to feel just a little like coming home.

But the thing is, I’ve never ridden a tallbike, and I have no intentional piercings. If left to my own devices, I will not drink Pabst Blue Ribbon or make my own bike parts out of leather. More concerning still, the creativity of my facial hair ranges only from “getting slightly straggly” to “just shaved.” My riding conditions here in Mayberry also couldn’t be more different. Much of my experience sharing the road involves places where cars rarely travel (though, in fairness to me, when you do see a truck on some of the roads I ride, it’s usually best to dismount and scurry up the nearest tree before it can even get near you). To my credit, I’ve been in a band and own some really nice cloth grocery bags, but the band was a long time ago, and I think the bags were mass-produced.

Portland just bore witness to the Mini Bike Winter Olympics in general and the Ben Hurt Chariot Wars in particular, which, to my untrained East Coast eye, appears to be a cross between a GWAR show, a Michael Bay film, and that eviction scene at the end of Michael Moore’s Roger and Me. Of the various places where you can check out the festivities on the Internets, the most hipster ironic is a site out of Texas with completely corporate name.

Further irony, I’m headed into the heart of Steampunk to, among other things, discuss a bicycle frame that’s pretty non-retro and very “not steel.” In fact, it’s pretty damn high tech. Blog entries may be patchy over the next few days, but I’m hoping to show everyone a rough sketch of the new frame design. I’m finalizing a revised drawing of the the suspension that shows the shock now in the (hopefully) final, vertical position, and I hope to be able to post that up here before the week is out.

In the meantime, I’m concerned about how high the pivot is on the Superlight 29er, but I still want one. I’m a single-pivot guy from way back (but, then again, everyone who owned a full-suspension frame before 2000 pretty much had to be a single-pivot guy), and I think this bike would be just a total and absolute blast to ride.

Santa Cruz Superlight 29er

And the new dropouts on the Highball Alloy frame? So very, very nice. I’ve had a man crush on Graney and the entire SC engineering department for years (guess I’m just drawn to the dangerous bad boy types who–literally–wear the engineering hats at bike companies). Seriously, look at the dropout.

Santa Cruz Highball Alloy Dropouts

Others have done similar things, but somehow the guys in Santa Cruz keep taking the rough-edged ideas normally found only on Hand Built Bike Show bikes and adding shit like “mechanical engineering” to create things that look good and work really well. They’ve made all kinds of slick shit at SC, but for my money, “captured nuts” is the concept that pretty much sums up the brilliance of that company’s entire crew; they’ve harnessed the power normally reserved for building the worlds first 100% deadly potato cannon or remote control 4×4 beer keg, and used it to create arguably the most rider-friendly bike designs ever made. Just very polished, usable products.

In contrast, consider the particularly un-usable Motörhead box set even Lemmy doesn’t want you to buy. First Elvis Costello, and now Lemmy Himself, is telling fans a record company’s box set of his early material is overpriced. According to this article from the Consumerist, “Unfortunately greed once again rears its yapping head,” says head Motörhead Lemmy Kilmister. “I would advise against it even for the most rabid completists!”

Only in the UK can you look like Lemmy . . .

and use a phrase like “rapid completists.”

Come to think of it, I have my mantra for the whole Portland trip. When it comes to being authentic without going hipster, Lemmy is the way and the light.

Supply Chain Reaction

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Feb 212012

Supply Chain Chaos

If you’re a dealer cog in the complex drive train of bicycle sales, a big gear in your system started turning last weekend. You might not have felt it yet, but you will.

This was the first year I didn’t attend Frostbike, a mammoth bike industry get together at the mothership of the industry’s most formidable distributor, Quality Bicycle Products, in Minneapolis. I’d like to think I didn’t attend because there just wasn’t any challenge in it, given the incredibly mild weather the Twin Cities had this year–at least, compared to last year, when our flights home were canceled and we had to rent a car and idle through a 300-mile white-out at a blistering fifteen miles an hour while subsisting on cheese curds and counting wrecked cars to pass the time. Sadly, not attending this year means I missed something that’s been many years in the making. Bicycle Retailer is describing it as a “war”. The mighty Q’s El Presidente and Raison d’Etre All in One, Steve Flagg, called out some large retailers, including Amazon, in a pretty unequivocal way:

“I believe that our industry is losing the war against the Chain Reactions, the Wiggles, the Amazons. We think that together with all of you we can address this problem.”

Well damn. This is a tremendous statement. If it doesn’t seem to tremendous consider that QBP’s headquarters is very much in Minnesota, where the average denizen could be handed a foamy-mouthed possum instead of a burger at a drive-through window, and just politely drive away for fear of hassling the store manager and maybe getting somebody in trouble. In fact, this statement translates from the native Midwestern parlance just about like this:

And just what does QBP intend to do about it? According to BRAIN’s article, Flagg is quoted as telling the gathered dealers:

Via mobile device, a customer in a shop could log on to a QBP service with access to its stores’ inventory and search for a specific product. A map would pop up indicating the nearest shops that have the product in stock or that will have it in a predetermined number of days.

If a retailer is selected for same-day pickup, the customer would pay for it online and then be asked if they want the product installed at the shop. Flagg noted this would play to local dealers’ key strength and offer what online competitors can’t: service, warranty information and deep product knowledge.

“I believe we have the capacity in 2012 to do this.”

BRAIN has a known weakness in what I believe is generally considered “journalism” and involves things like follow-up questions, and, having not been there, I’m left to wonder if Flagg was merely musing here (as he did one year when he asked the gathered dealers clamoring for him to basically make them all web sites why he shouldn’t just become the biggest on-line dealer himself), or if this technology is on the short list of to-dos at QBP. Even if this idea is only that, though–merely an idea–it marks a technological answer to the problem of mobile price shopping apps released by the likes of Amazon–an issue heretofore only addressed by Specialized, who only whined about it and used for their own political ends. To be sure, QBP stands to experience their own political gains–not to mention top line growth–in pursuing something like this, but a trademark QBP distinction is also evident: this helps local dealers.

But showing us a shiny new weapon in the battle for independent bike shops is only a small part of the significance of this statement. I’ve long been rambling on about how local bike shops need to get their asses on the Internet and start staking their claim to bicycles in the digital age, or stop whining, give up and become a repair-only shop.This newly announced stance by the major player in the wholesale distribution space is a big deal for reasons that might not initially be so obvious. In singling out a particular type of massive on-line retailer–the digital equivalent of Walmart–and pitching a new mobile technology for local shops, Flagg is legitimizing the Internet as a means of selling bicycle parts.

The minute you’re pro-actively heading onto the web to pursue sales, you are an “Internet retailer,” and this is precisely what Flagg had to sell at Frostbike this year. Whether the mobile app involved takes us to a local shop’s web site to make a purchase, or tells us where we can walk in their door is, ultimately, inconsequential here. He is suggesting the IBD move from “gatherer” to “hunter.” That’s a big deal. More importantly, he’s letting us all know this is not a drill, and he’s not a guy you should ignore. Even if Flagg wasn’t one of the smartest people in the industry, listening to everything he says very carefully would be wise, if only because of the huge quantities of industry intelligence and analytics his company is constantly gathering. Add the fact that he is one of the smartest guys in this or any other industry, and you’re looking at a genuine warning for all IBDs. Far be it for me to say I told you so, but with or without QBP’s help, dealers need to do something now.

The Thin Green Line

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Feb 202012

Smurfs Confront Bike Lane

This weekend news of L.A.’s Spring Street and the infamous Green Bike Lane that Shall Not Be Filmed spread across the country with a speed normally reserved for stupidly large sunglasses and bad music. Really, it’s one thing when America has to tolerate bicycles getting all stuck in the fender wells of their pickups, but the idea that the most famous street in the world for filming movies and car commercials has quite literally gone green, well, that might be too much. This is, apparently, an “Anytown U.S.A.” icon where freakin’ car commercials are filmed for crissake. While I suspect Republican Senator Darrell Issa has already subpoenaed “everyone in Hollywood” and “cars from car companies” to testify to the utter job destruction this has caused and requested a special “grief” round of tax breaks for oil companies, it occurred to me that this green lane might not be all bad.

Not because of the bike thing. Everybody knows that riding a bike to work without barely escaping several life-threatening personal assaults does nothing to promote the more marketable “extreme” side of cycling so vital to the fashion industry. No, I think this strange and accidental new shade of green that renders streets impervious to film crews is a good thing for the most obvious of reasons.

Fewer movies.

At the rate we’re currently creating what passes for movies, by some calculations we will have utterly depleted everything that passes for “culture” in America for 2019.

Think about it. At some point, we’re going to run out of Dr. Seuss and comic book characters and both Starsky and Hutch and the Dukes of Hazard have already been turned into movies. Sure, we can release a Kojak movie, and–I was going to say CHiPs, but, no shit, I think there’s already a CHiPs movie planned for release in 2013–but after that, the resources are nearly gone. Like any resource, prices will go up as the availability of creativity decreases, meaning only the very fortune among us will be able to afford $250 tickets to see sparkly vampires and Resident Evil 19: Underworld, Werewolves and Vampires vs. Zombies, but even that can only last for so long. Eventually, like savages, we’ll be forced to film the cryogenically preserved head of Nicolas Cage starring in Bratz 3: It’s a Mall, Mall World.

No, there’s only so much creativity to go around, and that’s why we need to slow the pace of consumption now, while there’s still time to do something.

We need green bike lanes everywhere. In wrapping nearly every major city around the world in unfilmable green paint, we can at least cause fewer horrible movies to be made while slowing the inevitable end of all creativity as we know it. It’s clear we’ve found something–possibly the only thing–that can stop movies from being made. It falls on us now to take bold steps and act on this technology before movies leave us with nothing. Green bike lanes can save us if we take bold action now.

Or after the next Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie. Those are awesome.

Friday’s Fifteen Minutes and the Power of 300

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Feb 172012

Over the past six months I’ve thought a lot about a new type of retail shop. You know how all bike shops are supposed to be “about great service”? I’ve been wondering what would happen in the world of on-line retail, if we redefined that whole relationship between “store” and “customer” to better suit today’s consumer. In other words, can we build the store around the modern consumer. Literally.

To do it, we’d have to figure out what a consumer looks like these days. No small feat, because the definition is changing so rapidly. The blog photographer Jason Lee created for his daughters is pretty wonderful across the board, but this “cookie monster” image might just also happen to be one of the greatest comments ever about identity in the 21st Century. “Interactive” is one of those buzzwords that gets kicked around a lot in development and marketing circles, but I think Lee’s photo is a quiet little statement about where we’re headed as consumers. Despite not having any clear idea how it will look, or where it’ll originate, everyone–and I mean everyone–is looking for something called “social commerce” to be the Next Big Thing. I think–and hope–it’s going to look a bit like this photo.

What the hell does that mean? Well, partly it just means that it’s no longer any fun to support a company that doesn’t support us back. Still blurry, I know, but if I had a highly specific description of “social commerce” to offer, I’d be engaged in some yacht crash derby with young Mr. Zuckerberg this morning, and, having paid Salman Rushdie to write today’s post in my absence, would be subjecting you to some genuinely intelligent commentary about the state of the world. As it is, you have me, showing you bitchin’ Cookie Monster photos.

But we do know the future is going to be about each of us–or some such over-simplification. Already we’re seeing the down sides, including the political ramifications of each of us having our own separate and incompatible red or blue echo-chamber version of reality. (Which reminds me, I need to rewind my Glenn Beck “Time to Buy New Gold Coins and Guns Because We Have a Black President”-edition combination water purifier and Rapture-Watch™ alarm clock. My friends at Goldmine have a great price on some super-rare, chocolate-centered gold coins I can purchase right now as a hedge against Mayan end time currency devaluation.) There’s also the chaos that tends to follow from listening only to those who reinforce the really stupid voices in your head, but on the other side of all this deafening feedback, there could be some music. The only logical extension of where we’re headed is full personalization of the web, including each and every one of us:

  1. Realizing we’re responsible for our opinions
  2. Realizing those opinions are now commodities
  3. Taking an active role in marketing those commodities ourselves
  4. Knowing if we don’t, somebody else will be doing it for us

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve never understood why corporate Facebook pages would have “fans” or why people would bother to “like” Coca-Cola, but of course that’s not entirely true. People like these brands to connect with other people who also like the brands. The brand itself is just the umbrella. And while I still think “me-tooing” something as enormous and bland as Coke or McDonald’s makes even less sense than liking “breathing” or “the sun,” letting people connect over more meaningful brands makes a lot of sense.

That’s a fair chunk of philosophical pondering to boil down to this: if somebody started an on-line bike shop and let visitors make money selling the products, would people do it? I’ve been thinking about this for a long time now, and it seems to me that we’re not going to have “social commerce” until people have a vested interest, not just in the buying process, but also the selling. I can’t figure out why nobody has yet crowdsourced sales.

One answer might be that sharing your own opinions about stuff is easy, but curating a mash of those opinions is hard. While we’re all interested in getting in on things, sometimes none of us what to be a part of what all those separate opinions and ideas produce. Consider the new town bike concept, designed by Philippe Stark, a designer who “has applied his talents to products as diverse as a lemon squeezer and the Virgin Galactic Spaceship,”, not to mention the fugliest goddamn motorcycle I have every personally seen:

Yes, Mr. Stark has turned his attention to the urban bicycle.

According to this article, sponsored by a company selling bike riding insurance in the UK (which surely needs it), Stark “distilled” the opinions of three hundred people from Bordeaux, a city in which, , “ten per cent of trips are undertaken by bicycle,” (which frankly seems low for a European city) to create the “City PIBAL Streamer – a concept that allows the rider to sit and pedal in the conventional way, or stand on a platform and use like a scooter.” Here is the result of that collaboration.

Shitty Bike

"Tonight, we ride in hell!"

Maybe I’m being a little hard on Bordeaux, but of the horrors 300 people are capable of producing, I’m pretty sure this is the most gruesome accomplishment yet. As such, Peugeot has agreed to do the manufacturing. I’m not entirely sure what occurs in Bordeaux that requires augmenting a basic commuting bike with some of the sweet design features of a Razor scooter, but it’s obvious Mr. Stark and his 300 Bordeauxians have given the world something . . . else.

No doubt we’ll be seeing some interesting new social business models in the next six months, but the problem with crowdsourcing will still the crowd.

The Dude Effect

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Feb 162012

The Dude

Last night I had a few beers with the guys I used to work with back when my company was in Pennsylvania and still owned by me. From what I understand, this sort of thing goes on all the time in bars and bowling alleys around the world, but it was notable for me, because I’d never done it before. Ever.

Don’t get me wrong: I’d been in a few bars before, when it was unavoidable (keep in mind, I grew up when smoking was still not only allowed, but seemingly encouraged, in bars around Pittsburgh), and I’ve had to attend various social events and business lunches and dinners and such that involved talking to people and simulating fun. And, to be fair, part of never going out for beers was that I didn’t drink. I hadn’t had a beer until working under the interesting new ownership of my company last year. But I’m forty one years old now, and the statement’s true: I’d never gone out with the guys just to have a few beers.

For the last decade and a half, I didn’t go out after work partly because there was no after work. There was the more intense “daylight” phase of work, and then there was the calmer, more introspective “planning” phase of work that normal people call “after work.” A lot of people who own their own businesses fall into this trap, and lots of over-simplistic stuff has been written about how you need to learn to enjoy yourself and step away from your business now and again, but I always ignored all that.

Which was stupid.

The thing about me was that I really loved work. I loved working on web sites, talking about bike parts, designing bike parts, creating supply chain management systems, overseeing groups of people, working out marketing campaigns–all that stuff. Something about me just considers that stuff fun–or more than fun: the kind of thing I’d prefer to do if left to my own devices. I love building shit. I blame Legos.

This is what owning your own business feels like.

Maybe I’m an extreme example, but just in case, my advice to any similarly self-destructive entrepreneurial types out there is to put the shit down and go have a beer. Or a coffee, if that’s your thing. The beverage doesn’t matter. Stepping outside the box you’ve made for yourself to get some perspective is what matters.

After this first foray into uncontrived socialization, I came home to a bunch of work I need to have done soon and some comments WordPress had pushed to my email. Carson Leh, the guy raising funds on Kickstarter to produce a series of “brogue” leather-covered saddles had contacted me to point out that his life wasn’t all fun and games. I recently gave Carson a bit of a hard time over the biography included on his project page, which, like a lot of Kickstarter bios, seems more focused on establishing credentials as a dynamic young person with a lot of exciting personal interests than it does convincing people you’re trying to build a responsible business. Carson, and a friend I tend to suspect might be his mom, wanted me to know he was no “Trustafarian,” and that he was holding down a day job in addition to sewing up leather saddles, and that–basically–I needed to lighten the fuck up.

He had a point. Sort of.

I’ve not found many people discussing this, but I think the Internet has fundamentally changed what we look for in a company. To some degree, bloated corporate statements about “hard work” and rigorous dedication to laboring away at the nuts and bolts of your business are giving way to a more narcissistic but genuine emphasis on the very personal story behind the business. Facebook and Twitter have fundamentally changed the game for marketing departments everywhere, and one of the reasons large corporations struggle figuring out how to use social media or just plain relate to people, compared to someone like Carson, is that these mega-corporations have no compelling, human stories to tell. Maybe they did once, but suffice to say that’s no longer our perception of them. Our perception is that they employ hundreds of thousands of people to produce hamburger-shaped objects each day, or use robots to mass produce millions of widgets we then purchase, but their businesses are largely built on avoiding personal stories–so much so that, when they try to, it just comes off hollow and a little sad. Our bought and paid for government might have decided corporations are people, but companies still haven’t figured out how to tell convincing personal stories, because all they are to us is their product or service, whereas some people will want to contribute to Carson just because he’s Carson.

In other words, this has to be the most interesting time ever to be involved in marketing. I have profoundly mixed feelings about what I see as a major transformation in how businesses communicate, and what people choose to value about a business. How much should personal story matter? Would people have ever bought shoes from Tom’s if not for the compelling social story behind the company? Can appealing to our better angels be both marketing and genuine social good? The danger I see is that we’re increasingly unable to draw a line between the quality of a product and what we believe to be that product’s story. At the risk of overwhelming my point with too charged an example: typing on an iPhone just plain sucks. I don’t see how anyone manages to crank out emails with that keyboard compared to Swiftkey on an Android phone or even a clacky Blackberry, but ask almost anyone which smartphone has the best “user interface” and the general consensus is that nothing touches an iPhone, despite the fact that what many of us do on our phones to communicate–more even than talking–involves typing, and typing on an iPhone is just painful. But the iPhone keyboard has to be better because Steve Jobs was totally OCD about that shit. Right? “I heard he once threw somebody down a flight of stairs because he didn’t like the beveling on a Macbook.” That sort of thing.

The new reliance on personal story is significant. Really significant. I don’t expect we’ll ever see a return to a labor-driven middle class in America, for instance, in part because we no longer value hard work when it’s done in the background, as part of a team of people. Instead, we value narcissism, a lack of humility, and constant personal recognition for everything we do. If Carson makes great saddles, people should buy a lot of them, but not just because they like him, and not just because he likes himself. I could see a market for what he does–hell, if the leather was a little less artsy and the price could be dialed in, who doesn’t have a beloved saddle that had to finally be put down because of a ripped cover, and would’ve much rather sent it off to be covered in industrial strength leather to start life all over again? (And while we’re at it, who doesn’t want a nearly theft-proof bike light that looks like the chambers of a revolver?) Having a human backstory matters, but it shouldn’t overshadow the product (which makes me highly suspicious of epic bike rides across the country to “document” things).

So some well-deserved credit to Carson for putting a product out there, and sincere good luck to his business. If you want to get your brogue on–or maybe go basic black–you can get in touch with Carson through Kickstarter. Just don’t criticize the pelican logo, or his mom will bust your ass up.