Introducing CivilMechanics

Since its inception three years ago, the Lowell's blog ( has been a strange beast.  

It has been an admixture of news about Lowell's, tips for car maintenance, thoughts about business and the economy, and assorted commentary on our community, on downtown, and on the city of Lexington.

While this assortment was in line with our stated intent to offer "our perspectives on cars, business, Lexington, and life," it also resulted in a divided audience: those who care about cars and what is happening at Lowell's (usually customers); and those who care about more civic matters.

As you might imagine, the practical overlap between these groups is quite small.  The car folks probably don't care about musings on CentrePointe or Lexington's streets and roads.  The civic folks probably don't care about what's happening with the Lowell's website or how a brake flush works.

Still, I could kind of rationalize the Lowell's blog as a local blog by, for, and about a local business and local issues.


I have been the sole contributor to the Lowell's blog.  And over the past year or so, my postings have been far less frequent than I'd like.  

Part of that has to do with the busy-ness of our business (I haven't had as much time to devote to writing), but most of it lies in the fact that I've been wanting to write about new and different things.

In particular, I've wanted to shift my focus from predominantly local issues to predominantly national and global ones – to try, for instance, to decode what's happening in Washington or Wall Street from my own distinct perspective.  These topics just didn't feel at home among car care tips and shop news.

At the same time, I've wanted to extend the content of the Lowell's blog to include new contributions and new kinds of content from my employees here at Lowell's.  As I contemplated such a move, I didn't want them to feel overshadowed by strongly-expressed views which they might not share.

CivilMechanics To resolve this dilemma, I've created a new blog called CivilMechanics ( – sponsored by Lowell's – in which I will express my unique perspectives on a variety of issues.  (And, yes, "CivilMechanics" is an intentional multiple-entendre. I like that kind of stuff.) Please check out our first post, "Confessions of a Job Creator".  

I've also taken the liberty of migrating a few old Lowell's posts to CivilMechanics which capture some of the spirit of this new blog.   

Over the coming weeks, we'll introduce new contributors to the Lowell's blog.  I'll also continue to post on the Lowell's blog from time to time with items of interest to Lowell's customers and Lexingtonians.

With these changes, I'm hoping to increase our overall frequency of posts, both for customers (through the Lowell's blog) and for civic-minded followers (through CivilMechanics).  Please check them out, and be sure to let us know how we're doing.

The Lowell's Blog:


April in Review

April has been a busy month in the shop and on the blog.  Here's a sample of what we've been writing about this month:

  • Lowell's School Tools and the Bluegrass Vehicle Report.  We provided data about the vehicles we drive in Lexington and surrounding areas, as well as tools for parents and teachers to use to make the data come to life for their students.
  • Why CentrePointe will fail.  Our all-time most popular post analyzes why Lexington's CentrePointe project is doomed even if it is built.  (Also published in Ace Weekly)
  • But it isn't enough to simply grouse about the failure of CentrePointe.  We need to understand what went wrong, what to do about it, and what to do with the empty block downtown.  We need a plan.  Toward that end, we offer The UnTower Manifesto as a starting point for moving beyond CentrePointe. (Portions cross-posted to Ace Weekly and Barefoot & Progressive)
  • We weren't always serious in April.  We speculated on the real source of the Toyota truck logo.
  • What do you hate about Lowell's?  We ask you what you don't like about Lowell's.  We want to be better. 
  • Why Twitter matters.  Twitter has become something of an online sensation of late, with everyone from Oprah to the White House jumping on the Twitter bandwagon.  We talk about how to make it work, and why Twitter is more important than it may seem.
  • A better brand for Lexington.  We talk about what it will take to truly re-brand Lexington.  Hint: It doesn't involve a blue horse or Pentagram.  (Also published in Ace Weekly, and cross-posted to Transform Lexington)

Many thanks to our friends at Ace Weekly, Transform Lexington, and Barefoot & Progressive for amplifying much of what we wrote here this month.


Making Twitter work

A couple of weeks ago, Oprah began using Twitter.  Some saw her adoption of the service as a milestone that Twitter had gone mainstream.  Others decried it as a sure sign that the Twitter fad was about to flame out.

Why all the fuss about Twitter? 

I have to admit that I just didn't get it.  At first.  In this post, I'll talk about how I learned to love Twitter. In my next post, I'll talk about Why twitter matters.

How Twitter works

Twitter is a microblogging service which allows users to post messages of 140 characters or less.  These messages – called 'tweets' – chronicle what the user is doing / reading / thinking in that moment.  You can follow other users, and they can follow you as well.  [Note: There are privacy settings in Twitter which allow you to protect who sees your tweets.]

Because the messages are limited to 140 characters, a kind of Twitter shorthand code has developed to convey key concepts.  Responses to other users contain an 'at' sign (@) before their user name – so, for instance, other Twitter users respond to my posts with an '@robmorris2'.'

When discussing a particular topic, users often apply a hashtag (a pound sign – #) to their post.  Right now, there are a lot of #swineflu hashtags in the twitterverse as people tweet about the current flu outbreak in Mexico, the US, and New Zealand. 

Many users want to share interesting stories or blog posts with their followers.  But because regular web addresses (URL's) can run 60 or 70 characters, many people use URL 'shorteners' to compress a web address to just 16 or so characters.  So many of Twitter's addresses are from the,,, or similar odd-looking domains.

When users want to share someone else's tweet with their followers, they often 're-tweet it'.  They do so with 'RT' and the user's @name.  So, when I saw a Dave Winer tweet that I thought was worth sharing, I shared it this way: "RT @davewiner: Why NPR is Thriving (They’re Not Afraid of Digital Media).".

Critical Mass
Twitter gives you some basic tools to help you find and add other friends who use the service.  When I first started using Twitter, I added a few close friends.  I twittered something about what I was doing, careful to use my 140 character allotment.

And nothing happened.  I really wondered what this Twitter fuss was all about…

Only one of my friends really used the service more than a few times a month.  And he (@billder – well worth following) was in Portland, used a bewildering array of #'s and @'s, was talking with folks I didn't know, and I wasn't quite sure what to make of it all.

I posted to Twitter once or twice a week through January.  And then I drifted away until April.

After listening to an audiobook of What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis (@jeffjarvis on Twitter), the prominent blogger of the BuzzMachine blog, I decided to give Twitter another try.

I followed many more folks the second time around: local and national news sites; favorite authors, bloggers, and personalities; technology sites; interesting companies and their executives; and whatever else I found interesting.

When I got up to about 50 people, Twitter started to get really intriguing.  With more and more interesting people sharing more and more interesting thoughts, links, and re-tweets, Twitter suddenly became much more vibrant.

Going Real-time

But there was something which still didn't work for me: the Twitter web page.  As a static page with maybe 20 tweets on it, I had to keep reloading.  If a lot of folks were tweeting, I often missed important tweets from friends in the flurry of tweets from other, more prolific users.

It was (and is) all a bit chaotic. 

But there are solutions.  Twitter has allowed software developers to graft their products onto the Twitter platform.  There are a bevy of such products out there: Seesmic, Twhirl, TweetFon, Tweetie, and many others.  Each has different features and functions.

My current favorite is desktop software called TweetDeck.  With TweetDeck, Twitter finally came alive and started making sense for me.  In other words, I finally 'got' Twitter. 

There are four key features of TweetDeck which make it work for me.

First, TweetDeck auto-refreshes.  This means that I get nearly-live updates as soon as they happen.  For me, it transforms Twitter from a static web page into a real-time social messaging system.

Second, TweetDeck lets me create groups of people that I can follow.  This means that I can group folks according to how important they are to me or by which parts of my life they belong to.  By default, TweetDeck has an 'All Friends' column which contains live tweets from everyone I follow.  But I created another column which has tweets from folks that I really want to pay attention to.  The 'groups' feature let me create some order out of Twitter's chaos, and helped ensure that I didn't miss important local or topical or personal tweets.

Third, the software made tweeting easier.  TweetDeck has a lot of built in stuff to respond to (@) or re-tweet (RT) other users.  It lets me shorten a URL right inside the interface. 

Fourth, TweetDeck has a search function which allows me to monitor what anyone in the twitterverse is saying about a particular topic (like, say, "Toyota") live.  So I can get a sense of what is happening with things that are important to me right now.

These four features of TweetDeck (some of the other Twitter software has them too) brought Twitter to life for me.  They allowed me to connect with new people and have new conversations that would otherwise never have happened. 

Making Twitter Work
What made Twitter 'work' for me was 1) making sense of its shorthand, 2) following a critical mass of other users to make things interesting, and 3) using a 'live' interface (for me, TweetDeck) which catapulted the service from a website into a many-to-many conversation.

In my next post, I'll talk about Why Twitter matters.

Why Twitter matters

[In my previous post, I described how I made Twitter work for me.  If you'd like to see how I got the most out of Twitter, click here.]

It took me a while to understand Twitter, as documented in my last post.  I'm certainly not the most prolific or most informed user, but I've come to gain some insights about Twitter that I haven't seen a lot of other commentators pick up on.  These are by no means exclusive to Twitter, but I think it is the platform which most embodies these characteristics today:

  1. New kinds of connection.  More than any other medium I've come across, Twitter enables new kinds of social interactions.  Conversations become multilateral public events, instead of one-way or two-way forms of communication.  And those conversations can coalesce around personal, local, or topical interests.  I can dip in and out of many different conversations happening simultaneously.  If I have nothing interesting to say about an interesting topic, I can just observe while others contribute.
  2. The new news.  As a news junkie, I used to troll blogs and websites for the latest information on what was happening in business, in technology, in Lexington, and in the world-at-large.  Now, Twitter serves as my news station.  I can easily ignore tweets which I don't find interesting, but follow links which are of interest.  What is best is that this news is already vetted by folks I respect and trust.

    Further, Twitter's hashtag convention allows me to follow what topics are 'hot' through tools like TwitScoop, which is enabled by default in TweetDeck (see my last post if this last passage looks like Greek to you).  The news on Twitter often unfolds long before mainstream media picks it up.  In Ace Weekly (@AceWeekly), Kakie Urch (@ProfKakie) put together an excellent analysis of how Twitter acted as the new news in the #amazonfail case, including how long it took traditional media to even notice, while the twitterverse was exploding in outrage.  (As I write this, a friend of mine, @JasonOney, is mounting a campaign to save the NBC series Chuck, using the #savechuck tag.  And he's got friends marching with him.  Look out NBC.)

  3. Twitizenship. What the #amazonfail and #savechuck cases (among many thousands more) demonstrate is a new form of online citizenship, characterized by immediacy, openness, and cause-centered organization.  This 'twitizenship' can create what some call 'flash mobs': groups which form nearly instantly in either the virtual or physical worlds.  Twitizens expect speed, transparency, and action from both businesses and civic leaders.

    My favorite recent example: Kickeball at CentrePointe ParqueWhere?  Let me explain.  Using Twitter and Facebook, a flash mob formed around the idea of playing a kickball game on the pit of rubble in Lexington where CentrePointe is not being built.  So, last Friday at 5:30 PM, they had a game – and a wonderful bit of public theater and civil disobedience.  It was quick.  And you can read the best account here (Thanks, @KeeganFrank) and see the best video here (Thanks, Mick Jeffries).  You should check out these accounts, because the local media completely whiffed on coverage over the ensuing 24 hours.  I left work to go to the pit and witness the game (but not to participate – I was chicken, and I didn't want to get arrested).

    This is a fun example, but I hope my main point shines through: Twitter allows citizens to form into and disband from interest groups at lightning speed.  These groups have higher expectations of their leaders and of businesses, who must respond with greater speed and openness.  Those who fail to respond will surely #fail. 

Twitter's platform allows for new social formations which are important, and will be changing the way we interact, the way we get our news, and the way we create a better city, state, nation, and planet.  Governments, businesses, and citizens must adapt to this changed world, or they will be left behind.

Those are my thoughts on why Twitter matters.  What are yours?

What do you hate about Lowell’s?

OK, so 'hate' is a strong word for it.

But as much as we try to be the best mechanic in Lexington, we know we're not perfect.  We know that there must be some parts of your experience with us which could be better.

So tell us.  Let us have it.  We can take it.  And we need it.

To get the conversation started, here are some aspects of our business you might want to riff on:

  • Our location
  • Our pricing
  • Our service
  • Our website
  • Our blog
  • Our lobby
  • Our restroom
  • Our people
  • Our honesty
  • Our attitude
  • How we checked you in
  • How much time we took
  • How well we explained what we did
  • How we checked you out
  • Something we did
  • Something we didn't do
  • Something we should do

Please let us know how Lowell's can get better.  Use the comments section below, call the shop at 233-1173, or email us at lowells [at] iglou [dot] com.

We can't promise we'll do everything you suggest, but we will work to make your overall experience with Lowell's a better one.

And thank you.

[where: 111 Mechanic St., Lexington, KY, 40507]

Dealership Economics: Wall Street Journal Edition

Here at Under the Hood, we've spent a lot of time analyzing the automotive industry.  You might remember the three-part series about the economics of dealerships (Click here for Part I: Car sales, Part II: Service, and Part III: Toyota) or the entries about the problems of the Big 3

Today, The Wall Street Journal has Page 1 profiles of two car dealerships in London, Kentucky (about 75 miles away from us here at Lowell's).  The profiles echo a lot of the themes you've heard here:

  • How the financial fundamentals of dealerships have been deteriorating.
  • How the Big 3 have too many dealerships (look closely at the WSJ "Dealership Decline" chart).
  • The relative strength of Toyota and the Japanese carmakers versus those from Detroit.

My guess: In 2009, we're going to hear a lot more Johnny Watkins-type stories of dealerships going out of business, especially in smaller towns.

[where: London, KY 40507]

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