US bike shops boomed early in the pandemic. It’s been a bumpy ride for most ever since

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Updated 18 May 2024
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US bike shops boomed early in the pandemic. It’s been a bumpy ride for most ever since

  • A surge of interest in cycling in the US pushed sales up 64 percent to $5.4 billion in 2020

For the nation’s bicycle shops, the past few years have probably felt like the business version of the Tour de France, with numerous twists and turns testing their endurance.
Early in the pandemic, a surge of interest in cycling pushed sales up 64 percent to $5.4 billion in 2020, according to the retail tracking service Circana. It wasn’t unheard of for some shops to sell 100 bikes or more in a couple of days.
The boom didn’t last. Hobbled by pandemic-related supply chain issues, the shops sold all their bikes and had trouble restocking. Now, inventory has caught up, but fewer people need new bikes. So, bicycle makers have been slashing prices to clear out the excess. It all adds up to a tough environment for retailers, although there are a few bright spots like gravel and e-bikes.
“The industry had a hard time keeping up with the demand for a couple of years, but then demand slowed as the lockdowns ended, and then a lot of inventory started showing up,” said Stephen Frothingham, editor-in-chief of Bicycle Retailer & Industry News. “So now for the last, a year and a half, the industry has struggled with having too much inventory, at the supplier level, at the factory level, at the distributor level, at the retail level.”
In 2023, bike sales totaled $4.1 billion, up 23 percent from 2019, but down 24 percent from 2020, according to Circana. The path out of the pandemic has been uneven — national retailers, such as REI and Scheels, are stabilizing faster than independent bike stores, said Matt Tucker, director of client development for Circana’s sports equipment business.
For John McDonell, owner of Market Street Cycles on the popular thoroughfare of Market Street in San Francisco, the shift to hybrid work brought about by the pandemic has been particularly tough on business. There used to be 3,000 bikes passing by his shop a day during the summer. That’s fallen to below 1,000, with fewer people commuting to work.
According to Pacer.ai, which tracks people’s movements based on cellphone usage, San Francisco lags all other major cities when it comes to workers returning to offices, with April office visits still down 49 percent compared with April 2019.
“Our downtown is still a wasteland,” McDonell said.
Independent bike stores not only have to compete with national chains, but increasingly, bike makers such as Specialized and Trek as well. They’ve been buying bike shops and selling their bikes directly to consumers, essentially cutting out the middleman. Frothingham estimates there are now around a thousand bike shops in the country owned by either Trek or Specialized.
“They’ve got the money to absorb the fact that bike stores, you know, are not a super profitable thing, and in the process, they’ve also been able to cut us out of it,” McDonell said.
McDonell has been forced to cut down to using a skeleton crew of himself and another staffer, down from five previously. His dream of selling his shop to a younger bike enthusiast when he retires is fading. He might close his store when his lease is up in a couple of years.
“Now I am just trying to land it with both engines on fire and trying not to lose money on my way out,” he said.
In Boulder, Colorado, Douglas Emerson’s bike shop, University Bicycles, is faring better, boosted by its location in one of the most popular places to ride bikes in the country. He’s had the shop for 39 years and employs 30 staffers.
Like other bike stores, the pandemic spurred a frenzy of bike buying at University Bicycles. Emerson recalls selling 107 bikes in 48 hours. But right after the boom, sales slowed dramatically because inventory was scarce, and rentals died down since no one was traveling.
“It became a struggle right after the boom,” Emerson said. “And since then, the manufacturers have overproduced. And they’ve slashed prices dramatically which is good for the consumer. But with the small shops they’re often not able to take advantage of those prices.”
Emerson says the shop reached a “saturation point” – everyone who wanted a bike bought one. Now, he’s selling those customers accessories like clothing, helmets and locks. His shop has returned to its 2019 sales numbers.
University Bicycles has also benefited from some of the shifts in buying patterns. Continued high demand for e-bikes and a growing demand for children’s bikes have helped. And gravel bikes, which are designed to be ridden both on paved and gravel roads, are replacing road bikes as a popular seller.
John Ruger, who has been a cyclist for 50 years and is a loyal University Bicycles customer, hasn’t bought a bike in 10 years, but plans on taking advantage of the current prices to buy a gravel bike. A top gravel bike he’s eyeing that would normally sell for $12,000 to $14,000 is currently retailing for $8,000, he said.
“The timing is good,” he said. “I can get a bike now because they’re less expensive and my bikes are getting old.”
Shawna Williams, owner of Free Range Cycles in Seattle, Washington, didn’t have the sales surge others did because her 700 square foot shop was so small she took customers only by appointment from March 2020 to May 2021.
But Williams did have to deal with the eventual shortages. She spent a lot of time “checking in with other shops to see if we could buy something, even at retail, from them, just in order to get a repair done or a build done.”
She adapted by offering more services like repairs and maintenance to offset lower sales of bikes. The maneuvering helped her keep overall sales steady even throughout the pandemic.
“Bike sales, the way that I have kind of framed the shop, are an awesome bonus, but we really need to be sustaining the shop through repair and, like, thoughtful accessory sales,” Williams said. “A bike sale to me, if we do things well, that means creating a customer for life.”


Two beluga whales evacuated to Spain from war-torn Ukraine

Updated 19 June 2024
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Two beluga whales evacuated to Spain from war-torn Ukraine

  • The whales, a 15-year-old male named Plombir and a 14-year-old female named Miranda, arrived “in delicate health” at the Oceanagrafic aquarium
  • They were first transported overland from the NEMO Dolphinarium in Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine to the country’s southern port of Odesa

MADRID: Two beluga whales have been evacuated from an aquarium in war-torn Ukraine to Spain by road and plane in a “high-risk” operation, officials at their new home said Wednesday.
The whales, a 15-year-old male named Plombir and a 14-year-old female named Miranda, arrived “in delicate health” at the Oceanagrafic aquarium in Spain’s Mediterranean port of Valencia on Tuesday evening officials there said.
They had completed “a gruelling journey across the war zone,” the aquarium said in a statement.
They were first transported overland from the NEMO Dolphinarium in Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine to the country’s southern port of Odesa, a 12-hour drive.
After health checks, they were taken across the border to Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, from where they were flown in a six-seat chartered plane to Valencia.
“The high-risk, complex rescue operation presented numerous challenges and required multi-national collaboration,” the statement said.
Experts with the Georgia Aquarium and SeaWorld in the United States took part in the rescue.
A team of medical and nutritional experts are looking after the belugas in Valencia, and two Ukrainian caregivers will stay with them for several weeks to help with their transition.
“This courageous rescue constitutes a historic milestone worldwide in terms of animal protection,” said the head of the regional government of Valencia, Carlos Mazon.
Russian artillery fire against Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, had intensified in recent weeks, with bombs falling just a few hundred meters from the aquarium where the whales lived.
The director of zoological operations at Valencia’s Oceanografic aquarium, Daniel Garcia-Parraga, said if the whales had stayed on in Kharkiv “their chances of survival would have been very slim.”
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the NEMO Dolphinarium in Kharkiv has evacuated several seals, sea lions and dolphins, but evacuating the belugas required months of preparations due to their size.


Mouse shakers, power naps: Corporate America fights ‘keyboard fraud’

Updated 19 June 2024
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Mouse shakers, power naps: Corporate America fights ‘keyboard fraud’

  • In one viral Reddit post titled “My manager caught me with a mouse jiggler,” an employee noted that the transgression was the “last straw” after he excused himself from several meetings citing “power outages” and “thunderstorms”

WASHINGTON: A US banking giant fired more than a dozen employees for “simulating keyboard activity,” highlighting a battle within productivity-obsessed corporate America to tame a culture of faking work with gizmos such as mouse jigglers.
The sackings by Wells Fargo come as employers use sophisticated tools — popularly called “tattleware” or “bossware” — on company-issued devices to monitor productivity in the age of hybrid work that took off after the Covid-19 pandemic.
Some workers seek to outsmart them with tools such as mouse movers — which simulate cursor movement, preventing their devices from going into sleep mode and making them appear active when they may actually be getting a power nap or doing laundry.
The cat-and-mouse game — no pun intended — has spurred a wider debate in corporate America about whether screentime and the click-clacking of keyboards are effective yardsticks to measure productivity amid a boom in remote work.
The Well Fargo workers were dismissed last month following a probe of allegations involving “simulation of keyboard activity creating impression of active work,” Bloomberg reported, citing the company’s disclosures to financial regulators.
Wells Fargo “holds employees to the highest standards and does not tolerate unethical behavior,” the company said in a statement, without elaborating.

Multiple US surveys show that demand for employee monitoring software — systems that track activity via desktop monitoring, keystroke tracking and even GPS location — has shot up since the pandemic.
One Florida-based social media marketing company, according to the Harvard Business Review (HBR), installed software on employees’ devices that took screenshots of their desktop every 10 minutes.
Such surveillance has given rise to what human resource professionals call “productivity theater” — in which some employees seek to project that they are busy while doing nothing constructive.
A series of “tutorials” on platforms including TikTok and YouTube even teach how to appear busy on computer screens, which generally go black after a few minutes of inactivity.
Those include fake PowerPoint techniques for “when you need to take your afternoon nap.”
“Just hit ‘slideshow’ and you’re good,” Sho Dewan, an influencer who identifies himself as an “ex-recruiter sharing HR secrets,” said in a TikTok video that garnered millions of views.
The device will stay “active” while the presentation is on, he said flashing a thumbs up before a slide that read: “Really important work meeting.”
Among the hundreds of comments under the video, one viewer quipped: “At one point I taped a mouse to an oscillating fan — why couldn’t I have found (this) sooner?“

Another trick noted in the tutorials involves opening a notes application and placing a lock on any keyboard letter. The worker thereby appears active to tracking devices while the page fills up with row after row of the same letter.
But the most popular trick appears to be the deployment of mouse jigglers, widely available on Amazon for as little as $11.
“Push the button when you’re getting up from your desk and the cursor travels randomly around the screen — for hours, if needed!” reads one product review on Amazon.
But there remains a serious risk of getting caught.
In one viral Reddit post titled “My manager caught me with a mouse jiggler,” an employee noted that the transgression was the “last straw” after he excused himself from several meetings citing “power outages” and “thunderstorms.”
He noted that he had installed a software-based jiggler, prompting some readers to suggest using “non detectable” physical ones.
HR professionals warn of the dangers of surveilling employees and confusing keyboard activity with productivity.
One survey cited by HBR suggested that secretly monitoring employees can “seriously backfire.”
“We found that monitored employees were substantially more likely to take unapproved breaks, disregard instructions, damage workplace property, steal office equipment, and purposefully work at a slow pace,” the HBR report said.
A.J. Mizes, chief executive of the consulting firm Human Reach, said the use of mouse jigglers demonstrated a “work culture driven by metrics rather than meaningful productivity and human connection.”
“There has been a growing troubling trend of excessive surveillance in corporate America,” Mizes told AFP.
“Rather than stirring up innovation and trust, this surveillance approach will only push employees to find additional ways to appear busy.”
 

 


Noam Chomsky discharged from Sao Paolo hospital

Updated 19 June 2024
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Noam Chomsky discharged from Sao Paolo hospital

SAO PAULO: American intellectual, linguist and dissident Noam Chomsky was discharged from a hospital in Sao Paolo Tuesday, the facility said, and would continue an undisclosed treatment at home.
The report came as the 95-year-old’s wife, Valeria Wasserman, dismissed media reports that Chomsky had died, saying in an email to AFP: “It’s false. He is well.”
The newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo reported that Chomsky was recently taken to a hospital in the city after a stroke a year ago left him with difficulty to speak and move the right side of his body.
The couple have a home in Sao Paulo.
Chomsky first became known in the 1950s with the revolutionary theory that the ability to form structured language was innate.
He became an outspoken activist on an array of issues from US intervention in Vietnam to labor rights and the environment.


Unveiling Tunis: mural celebrates ‘invisible’ talents

Updated 19 June 2024
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Unveiling Tunis: mural celebrates ‘invisible’ talents

  • Supported by a Swiss foundation, the project utilized clay bricks for their availability and wide use in Tunisian construction

TUNIS: In the old medina of Tunis, a wall installation titled “1001 Bricks” showcases the talents of “invisible” creators, including art students, people with disabilities and school dropouts.
Led by Swiss artist Anne Francey, the project took shape over a year through workshops that culminated in a large bas-relief made of carved and painted clay bricks, reimagining the cityscape.
The massive artwork now graces a square in the UNESCO-listed old town of the Tunisian capital.
Its main creators are “the invisible, all these people who are on the margins of society, who have disabilities” and whom “we tend keep in the shadows and not really acknowledge,” said Francey, 68.
Despite challenges, the project engaged a wide spectrum of 550 participants including art professionals, students and members of AGIM, an association for people with motor disorders.
Mohamed Boulila, an AGIM trainer, said all those who contributed to the project left a personal touch.
“We have the power to do things despite everything and show society that we shouldn’t only be considered disabled,” Boulila, who also lives with a disability, said during a workshop.

Samia Souid, 56, a longtime teacher at AGIM, said the project had a positive impact on youths.
“Children who cannot speak expressed their feelings and their ideas” through the project, she said.
Each group of creators “imagined a metaphorical city,” with AGIM participants focusing on a city of challenges, producing sculptures akin to contemporary art.
Supported by a Swiss foundation, the project utilized clay bricks for their availability and wide use in Tunisian construction.
The initiative follows Francey’s 2019 project “1001 Hands,” inspired by the “One Thousand and One Nights” fairytale, emphasising stories that intersect endlessly, she said.
Francey noted the rarity and difficulty, on a global scale, of such a “participatory art project,” since it challenges the tradition of top-down artworks.
The installation helped blend the creations of “people of all social status,” from architecture students to youths in reintegration — people facing unemployment, substance abuse and other forms of social invisibility.
It is “a way of coming together around a constructive project that makes us dream of a harmonious society despite the hardships the country is going through,” she said.

Beyond that, the mural is a statement on public space, as the square it occupies has endured years of neglect, serving as a garbage dump and parking lot until recent renovations.
Raouf Haddad, a 42-year-old porter in the commercial neighborhood of Hafsia, said he checks in on the artwork every day and helps whenever needed.
“The entire medina should have initiatives like this,” he said.
“There are collapsing roofs and walls, alleys devoid of public lighting where people cannot pass.”
He hopes the square will one day become like Batman Alley — a once-neglected passageway in Brazil’s Sao Paulo which artists turned into a tourist attraction with a myriad of graffiti tags.
For now, however, what matters most is that “1001 Bricks will lead to new projects” in a neighborhood full of “abandoned and unexploited public spaces,” said Firas Khlifi, a 28-year-old project manager working on children’s awareness on global warming in the neighborhood.
The installation “will bring more animation because there are several festivals” in the medina each year likely to use the square for artistic performances and exhibitions, said Khlifi.
“With families there and children playing, it will increase the community’s commitment and belonging to the project.”
 

 


AI goes mainstream as ‘AI PCs’ hit the market

Updated 19 June 2024
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AI goes mainstream as ‘AI PCs’ hit the market

TORONTO, Canada: A new line of PCs specially made to run artificial intelligence programs hit stores on Tuesday as tech companies push toward wider adoption of ChatGPT-style AI.
Microsoft in May announced the new AI-powered personal computers, or “AI PCs,” which will use the company’s software under the Copilot Plus brand.
The idea is to allow users to access AI capabilities on their devices without relying on the cloud, which requires more energy, takes more time, and makes the AI experience clunkier.
The PCs feature a neural processing unit (NPU) chip that helps deliver crisper photo editing, live transcription, translation, and “Recall” — a capability for the computer to keep track of everything being done on the device.
However, Microsoft removed Recall last minute over privacy concerns and said it would only make it available as a test feature.
For now, the devices built by hardware makers like HP and ASUS run exclusively on a new line of processors called Snapdragon X Elite and Plus, built by the California-based chip giant Qualcomm.
“We are redefining what a laptop actually does for the end user,” Qualcomm’s senior vice president Durga Malladi told AFP at the Collision tech conference in Toronto.
“We believe this is the rebirth of the PC.”
At the May launch, Microsoft predicted over 50 million AI PCs would be sold in 12 months, given the appetite for ChatGPT’s powers.
Such a result would give a much needed boost to PC sales, which declined for two years from the halcyon days of the coronavirus pandemic before returning to growth in the first quarter of 2024.
Best Buy, the US retail giant, said it had trained tens of thousands of staff to sell and maintain the new line of AI PCs.
Some industry experts are more hesitant about their promise, predicting the actual benefit of upgrading to an AI laptop isn’t compelling enough yet and will need more time.
“AI’s evolutionary features aren’t revolutionary enough to disrupt traditional buying patterns,” said analysts from Forrester.
“For most information workers, there aren’t enough game-changing applications for day-to-day work to drive rapid AI PC adoption.”
Microsoft has aggressively pushed out generative AI products since ChatGPT’s release in late 2022, with new AI features available across products including Teams, Outlook and Windows.
Feeling the pressure, Google quickly followed suit while Apple entered the game earlier this month, announcing its own on-device AI capabilities rolling out to premium iPhones in the coming months and year.
The latest MacBooks and iPads already have the capability to run high-performing AI features, but Apple has been slower to highlight those powers.
“I guess we missed the boat to name it an AI PC,” Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of Software Engineering, joked recently about the latest generation of MacBook.