Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Parable of Bob and the UltraMeister 3000

Today I tell a parable, and tomorrow I'll give my meaning behind it.

We're going to follow the adventures of two normal American guys, Clark and Bob. Clark and Bob are good friends, and both have always wanted to own a high-end sports car. They save up their money, and when they have enough, they go to the dealer to buy the newest hot thing. The sports car comes with a new type of German engine, a 24-cylinder platinum-plated, gold-tipped titanium UltraMeister 3000. Both Clark and Bob are very happy, but a good $150k poorer.

When they pick up their Infinity+1s, the dealer admonishes them that the UltraMeister 3000 engine requires a special synthetic oil. "If you use normal 10W30 in this engine, the engine won't last 100,000 miles," the dealer says. "With the synthetic, you are guaranteed at least 200,000 miles. We can do the oil changes for you; it'll cost $99.99, including oil and labor."

Clark and Bob drive off happy until it is time for their first oil change. Clark takes the car to his mechanic, Ed, and asks Ed if he really needs the synthetic oil. After all, Ed routinely changes the oil in Clark's Family Truckster station wagon. The Family Truckster is up to 180,000 miles and uses normal oil, with a typical oil change costing just $24.99.

Ed looks Clark in the eye and says, "I've read all about the UltraMeisters. They really do need that high-end oil. I can change the oil, but it'll cost $79.99."

"Why so much?" Clark asks.

"The oil ain't cheap. And I needed special training on the new engines, and it was expensive. I have to pass the cost on. But I guarantee that the engine will last 200,000 miles."

So, Clark decides to bite the bullet and pay up for the synthetic oil change.

Meanwhile, Bob goes to his mechanic, Gus, and asks about an oil change.

Gus is an honest mechanic who always wants to give his customers good service at the lowest possible cost. Because of this, Gus wasn't able to afford the UltraMeister 3000 training course that Ed went to. "You don't need the synthetic," says Gus.

"Really?" Bob asks.

"Yup," drawls Gus. "I've been working on cars for 20 years, my dad was a mechanic all his life, and my grandfather was the first mechanic in town. Cars come and go, but an engine's an engine. Those dealers just want your money, as do the oil companies. The government's even putting a special tax on those synthetics. Besides, those engines are new, and they just don't have enough data on them yet to show that nothing's wrong. I'll just give you the standard oil for the usual price, $24.99." And so Gus changes Bob's oil.

Later, Bob and Clark are talking. Clark tells Bob that he better use the expensive oil, but Bob reiterates Gus's accusations that the dealers, oil companies, and government are all in it together to get higher profits.

Time goes on. Every 3000 miles, Clark gets an expensive oil change, and Bob gets the cheap one. After about 50,000 miles or so, Bob notices that his engine doesn't sound as smooth as it once did. He wonders if he should get the synthetic oil, but his daughter is about to go to college, and he needs the money for tuition.

Clark also has a daughter in college, and hates having to pay for the oil changes. But then he realizes that if he skips his morning gourmet coffee once a week, he saves enough money to pay for the synthetic oil.

Months later, Bob is watching his favorite car show on TV, Top Gear. The show is reviewing the UltraMeister 3000 engine series, and they are very pleased. But then Hammond intones, "The only thing about this car is that you have to use this special synthetic oil, or you'll ruin the engine in just 100,000 miles."

Bob, feeling spooked, takes his car in to the dealer. The dealer looks at the engine and says that the pistons are showing signs of wear due to his use of the cheap oil. They urge Bob to replace the pistons and to start using the synthetic oil. Price for piston replacement: a cool $15,000.

Bob is worried, but he can't afford new pistons at the moment. The economy is bad and he's worried for his job. Clark convinces Bob to take the car to Clark's mechanic for a second opinion. Ed agrees with the dealer that the pistons need replaced and that Bob should use the synthetic oil. "At least get the synthetic oil, that will slow the damage," Ed urges Bob.

But Bob is still worried about the cost of the synthetic oil, so Bob takes his car back to Gus for a third opinion. Gus says, "Ain't nothing wrong with the pistons; you just need a transmission flush and to use a slightly higher octane of fuel. Those dealers are just out to get you, I'm telling you!"

Bob is uncertain what to do. But Gus is a good mechanic and has never lied to Bob before, so Bob follows Gus's advice. And, with the higher octane fuel, the car does seem to be driving better. Seems that the dealer and Ed were just out to take Bob's money after all.

After about 90,000 miles, Bob's engine really starts acting up. Gus replaces all the gaskets, hoses and valves he can think of, but the engine still isn't running smoothly.

Bob calls in to Car Talk to ask their opinion. Tom and Ray ask, "Have you been using the synthetic oil?" Bob demurs. Tom says, "Bob, I hate to tell you this, but the engines ruined." Ray chimes in, "I fear I agree, Bob. Didn't your mechanic tell you that you should use the synthetic?"

A few thousand miles later, Bob and Clark take their cars for a joyride on a sunny afternoon. Bob is driving alongside Clark on a deserted road when Bob's UltraMeister 3000 finally gives up and freezes. Bob loses control of his car and veers into Clark. Both cars run off the side of the road and are totalled. Bob and Clark survive, but take several weeks to recover from their injuries.

So, who's at fault here? Is it Ed and the dealer for wanting so much money for an oil change? Is it Gus for his well-meaning but misinformed/ignorant views on a subject that should have been his area of expertise? Or is it Bob, who loved his car, who wanted to take care of it, but who kept putting off costly service until it was too late? And what about poor Clark? He took proper care of his car, but due to his friend's miserliness, Clark lost his beloved car, too.

Certainly none of the parties involved intended for Bob to ruin his engine and crash his car. But Bob could have avoided all of the trouble if he'd payed a little extra money and had critically considered the different advice he was given.

Tomorrow, we'll talk about my meaning behind this sad tale.

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