Archive for June 2018


The maternity ward of the early 1980s was a very different place

24.06.2018


Virginia McMillan/Creative Commons

Now the PM and her partner, Clarke Gayford, have shown off their daughter to the world (video at the end of this post), it reminded me of my own experiences in the maternity ward many years ago.
   I’m not a parent at the time of writing: I’m talking about the 1980s when I visited Wellington Women’s Hospital (as it then was), to wait for my Mum, a postnatal midwife, to finish work.
   The 1980s don’t seem that long ago to me, and all these memories are still very clear, but when you relay the story, you realize decades have passed.
   Mum shifted to WWH in 1980, when it first opened, and I still recall having a preview tour of the building before it opened. New carpets, new fixtures. Hand-held buzzers hooked up to the wall where you could call for a nurse—how modern! The 1980s had well and truly arrived, and how lucky of those patients, because this place was like a hotel. We really did think it was that flash in 1980.
   And it was a nice place to visit. I finished school at St Mark’s at 2.45 p.m. and the bus would usually get to the hospital by around 3 p.m. There was a long walk to the building at the back, taking an internal route, and walking through a basement tunnel with painted stripes—it felt like a science-fiction movie. I’d get to Ward 15 and I was expected to wait in the TV room.
   The TV room was next to the ‘day room’, which really meant the smoking room, where new Mums could pop in and have a fag. Every now and then, you’d get a naughty new mother who’d take an ashtray into the TV room, where I’d be waiting, but we are talking the early 1980s, and the term secondhand smoke had not entered the vernacular.
   Of course, we youngsters weren’t allowed to change the channel if adults were watching. Unfortunately, in the days of two state-run channels, most new mothers would watch Prisoner, and I don’t mean The Prisoner, with Patrick McGoohan. I meant the Australian soap opera Prisoner, set in a women’s prison, and known to British readers as Prisoner: Cell Block H. I could never comprehend why anyone would watch the sheer misery of the storylines about a women’s prison, but I suppose in the early 1980s, these ladies were thinking: ‘No matter how tough things are for me, at least I’m not in Wentworth.’ I would wait patiently for 3.30 p.m. to tick by, and Lynne Hamilton singing ‘On the Inside’ (itself a depressing, haunting theme tune) and the Grundy logo were signs that relief was coming. However, to this day, I still know this blasted song, and can play it by ear on a piano. Without checking online:

On the inside the roses grow,
They don’t mind the stony ground.
But the roses there are prisoners, too,
When morning comes around.

   Only once do I remember a Mum offering me control of the TV during the Prisoner hour to watch whatever channel I wanted, and of course, that meant the children’s programming, eventually an after-school show imaginatively titled After School, hosted by a cheerful Te Reo-speaking man called Olly Ohlson.
   Mum would be another 15 to 30 minutes, so my time in front of the telly was fairly limited. We’d walk home to Newtown in those days, and my memory of that journey home was that it was often sunny. Of course, that couldn’t have been the case, as I have equally strong memories of below-zero temperatures on the radio in the morning in 1981, and very grey weather watching Springbok tour marches (including fights between protesters and police officers) outside my window growing up. Those may or may not be the subject of another blog entry, as I’m not traditionally one to post childhood reminiscences on this blog.

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Posted in New Zealand, TV, Wellington | No Comments »


As the most experienced long-video Instagrammer, welcome to the club

21.06.2018

It appears my friend Justin was spot on: I probably was part of a test group trialling longer Instagram videos since April.
   Today, Instagram announced that people could upload 10-minute videos, and an hour for those with big followings.
   This news article (hat tip to Cachalot Sang on Twitter) says there’ll be a new app called IGTV, although I’ve always just uploaded mine via regular Instagram. I haven’t cracked nine minutes yet, but I’ve uploaded videos in the high eights. Regular Instagram seemed to balk at doing anything too large. Also bear in mind—arguably from someone who has had more experience of this than anyone in Instagram-land—that these uploads take ages and can sometimes fail.
   Don’t be disappointed if your views are low, since Instagram only counts full views. I have videos still saying they have had zero views, yet I have likes and, in some cases, comments. Not everyone’s going to sit back and watch these in full.
   I had noticed that in the last week, my videos, all of which are over a minute, have successfully uploaded—up from the one in two ratio that I experienced when Instagram first gave me the ability to upload videos longer than one minute in April. No wonder, if the official announcement was made today: they probably began allowing all the big ones through.
   As the one user (that I know of) who has publicly been uploading videos of over a minute for nearly two months, welcome to the club. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

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Posted in culture, internet, media, publishing, technology | 2 Comments »


The end of US ’net neutrality: another step toward the corporate internet

11.06.2018

That’s it for ’net neutrality in the US. The FCC has changed the rules, so their ISPs can throttle certain sites’ traffic. They can conceivably charge more for Americans visiting certain websites, too. It’s not a most pessimistic scenario: ISPs have attempted this behaviour before.
   It’s another step in the corporations controlling the internet there. We already have Google biasing itself toward corporate players when it comes to news: never mind that you’re a plucky independent who broke the story, Google News will send that traffic to corporate media.
   The changes in the US will allow ISPs to act like cable providers. I reckon it could give them licence to monitor Americans’ traffic as well, including websites that they mightn’t want others to know they’re watching.
   As Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, puts it: ‘We’re talking about it being just a human right that my ability to communicate with people on the web, to go to websites I want without being spied on is really, really crucial.’
   Of course I have a vested interest in a fair and open internet. But everyone should. Without ’net neutrality, innovators will find it harder to get their creations into the public eye. Small businesses, in particular, will be hurt, because we can’t pay to be in the “fast lane” that ISPs will inevitably create for their favoured corporate partners. In the States, minority and rural communities will likely be hurt.
   And while some might delight that certain websites pushing political viewpoints at odds with their own could be throttled, they also have to remember that this can happen to websites that share their own views. If it’s an independent site, it’s likely that it will face limits.
   The companies that can afford to be in that “fast lane” have benefited from ’net neutrality themselves, but are now pulling the ladder up so others can’t climb it.
   It’s worth remembering that 80 per cent of Americans support ’net neutrality—they are, like us, a largely fair-minded people. However, the FCC is comprised of unelected officials. Their “representatives” in the House and Senate are unlikely, according to articles I’ve read, to support their citizens’ will.
   Here’s more on the subject, at Vox.
   Since China censors its internet, we now have two of the biggest countries online giving their residents a limited form of access to online resources.
   However, China might censor based on politics but its “Great Wall” won’t be as quick to block new websites that do some good in the world. Who knew? China might be better for small businesses trying to get a leg up than the United States.
   This means that real innovation, creations that can gain some prominence online, could take place outside the US where, hopefully, we won’t be subjected to similar corporate agenda. (Nevertheless, our own history, where left and right backed the controversial s. 92A of the Copyright Act, suggests our lawmakers can be malleable when money talks.)
   These innovations mightn’t catch the public’s imagination in quite the same way—the US has historically been important for getting them out there. Today, it got harder for those wonderful start-ups that I got to know over the years. Mix that with the US’s determination to put up trade barriers based on false beliefs about trade balances, we’re in for a less progressive (and I mean that in the vernacular, and not the political sense) ride. “The rest of the world” needs to pull together in this new reality and ensure their subjects still have a fair crack at doing well, breaking through certain parties’ desire to stunt human progress.
   Let Sir Tim have the last word, as he makes the case far more succinctly than I did above: ‘When I invented the web, I didn’t have to ask anyone for permission, and neither did America’s successful internet entrepreneurs when they started their businesses. To reach its full potential, the internet must remain a permissionless space for creativity, innovation and free expression. In today’s world, companies can’t operate without internet, and access to it is controlled by just a few providers. The FCC’s announcements today [in April 2017] suggest they want to step back and allow concentrated market players to pick winners and losers online. Their talk is all about getting more people connected, but what is the point if your ISP only lets you watch the movies they choose, just like the old days of cable?’

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Posted in business, China, internet, New Zealand, politics, publishing, technology, USA | No Comments »


It’s not a rumour: longer Instagram videos are already here

08.06.2018

I see the media (led by the Murdoch Press) have been reporting that Instagram plans to let people upload videos of an hour long. It’s a ‘rumour’ at the moment, apparently.
   As those of you who follow this blog know, I’ve been able to upload videos exceeding one minute since April, and one theory that Justin Bgoni, who’s the bursar at my Alma Mater, St Mark’s Church School, advanced when I mentioned it to him was that I must be part of a trial.
   That makes perfect sense and it shouldn’t be a surprise that someone with a great financial mind like Justin’s would conclude this. He says: we’re in New Zealand, it’s a small country, and there are probably 10,000 people who have been given the capability in advance. Soon, he theorized weeks ago, Instagram will roll it out to the general public. I think he’s right.
   I’ve so far fielded two questions from strangers on how I do this, and I tell them the truth: I’ve just been able to, and I was as surprised as anyone else.
   I don’t claim to have ‘special super power’ like this user does—and when I visited his Instagram, he doesn’t have a single video over a minute, so goodness knows what he’s talking about. (Having said that, I do like a lot of his uploads.) If you’re uploading 10 one-minute videos into a single post, that doesn’t count: almost anyone can do that, and it doesn’t take special powers, just patience.
   There is a limit for me, however. I’ve attempted four times to upload a 9′3″ video to Instagram, and have failed each time, so we can conclude that that’s too long. However, I have managed 8′37″ as of today, so the present maximum length on Instagram must be between the two times.
   I haven’t discovered too much more since I last posted on this topic, other than enjoying the freedom of having the greater length. (Instagram’s probably noted that, which is why the rumours have begun surfacing.) Engagement is still rather low on the long videos, for starters. Instagram only (rightly) counts full views, so there are videos with likes but 0 views recorded.
   It’s nice, once again, to be ahead of the ball when it comes to these technologies, just as I have been with Google and Facebook. The exception here is that it’s been a positive feature rather than the usual negative ones, though I realize that since it’s Instagram, it comes with a load of Facebook-linked privacy issues. Just today it fired through another alcohol ad despite my having turned them off in my settings, again underlining Facebook’s blatant dishonesty.
   Yet here I am, still using one of their services despite having mostly de-Facebooked (and de-Googled years before that). Like millions of others, I’m still a sucker because I continue to use a service they own.

Speaking of the Murdoch Press and Google, we (at work) actually deal with the former when it comes to advertising. Let that sink in for a moment: I trust Murdochs more than I trust Google when it comes to our users’ privacy. That’s saying something.

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Posted in internet, media, technology, USA | 1 Comment »


If FCA kills Chrysler today, then it’s another chapter of a company weakening its brands

01.06.2018

There’s a rumour circulating that Fiat (specifically, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, or FCA) will kill the Chrysler marque today.
   The range currently consists of two models: the ageing 300 and the relatively fresh Pacifica.
   It seems to be another step in the mismanagement of car marques, especially US ones, something I wrote about many years ago when Condé Nast Portfolio was still running. (Note: it was a published letter to the editor, not an article.)
   Marques do disappear, but when the wrong ones get killed off, long-term it leaves the company in a weaker state.
   DaimlerChrysler found that out in the early 2000s when it decided Plymouth was surplus to requirements. Suddenly, its entry-level budget brand was gone—a very bad move when the recession hit later that decade. Plymouth had been conceived as a low-priced line that kept Chrysler afloat during the Depression.
   DaimlerChrysler then found itself having to sell Plymouth products under the Chrysler marque, which was traditionally the priciest between Plymouth, Dodge and Chrysler.
   Today’s Chrysler resembles, at least in market ambition, the one of old, where it offers reasonably good quality vehicles, with Plymouth a distant memory.
   It also offers Fiat a relatively premium brand in the US market. It’s not Jeep, Ram or Dodge, all of which have very different brands, messages and brand equity.
   The fact it is light on product could have been solved long ago if Fiat had adopted the sort of platform-sharing that is now commonplace in the car world—you only have to look at Volkswagen and the Renault–Nissan Alliance, now Renault Nissan Mitsubishi. Even Jaguar Land Rover is realizing economies of scale with Jaguar SUVs and a car-like Range Rover (the Velar).
   While Chrysler found that the 200 had flopped, there was always room for a premium, American SUV to take over from the Aspen, for example. If Jeep can build SUVs on Punto and Giulietta platforms, why couldn’t Chrysler, aimed at very different buyers?
   The truth is that Fiat has a very confusing platform strategy, something I alluded to in earlier posts both here and in Drivetribe, and there appear to be no signs of bringing any harmony to the mess.
   The firm hasn’t been properly merged, and not enough thought has been given to reducing platforms, and sharing them between marques. There’s more in common on this front between Fiat and British Leyland than between Fiat and Volkswagen, which it once vied with to be Europe’s number-one.
   The domestic range has cars on platforms shared with Ford, Chrysler and GM, not to mention OEM vehicles from Mazda, Mitsubishi and Peugeot. I might not love SUVs, but the public does, and the Fiat range is light on them. There’s not enough of a global effort, either: the Ottimo and Viaggio are Italian-styled, based on the Alfa Romeo Giulietta (or more specifically the Dodge Dart), and they are only sold in China—a ridiculous situation when Fiat doesn’t have a CD-segment saloon in any other market. The rationalization of the range in South America has helped, with the Argo and Cronos streamlining a confusing array of Palio, Linea, Siena and Grand Siena models, but they bear little resemblance to the models on offer in Europe.
   Lancia, which had benefited from Fiat platforms, is practically dead, its 500-based, Polish-made Ypsilon being deleted this year. As models at Lancia died out, they were not replaced. Yet things could have been so much better, had Fiat allowed Lancia the sort of freedom it needed to sell Italian luxury and innovation. Those values are different from Alfa Romeo’s, yet through its conduct, Fiat seems to think that if Alfa and Lancia have similar prices, then they must vie for similar buyers. They never did. It seems to believe that costs will be saved through axing marques and model lines, which can be true in some cases—but those cases tend to presume that what remains, or what replaces them, is stronger.
   I’m not being a Luddite or pining for the “good old days” when it comes to Chrysler. I hold no romantic notions for the brand. But I do know that once they’re gone, the firm doesn’t necessarily find its resources are freed up to pursue surviving lines. It finds that it’s lost a segment that it once fielded.
   It’s sadder to realize that Chrysler, as a group, was much stronger in the early 1990s, with record development times and good platform-sharing. Plymouth was in the process of developing its own identity—the PT Cruiser and Prowler heralded a new retromodern design language that was to spread throughout the range, while utilizing the same platforms as Chryslers and Dodges.
   Fiat itself, too, was a strong company at this same period, riding high on great styling, with a reinvigorated line-up. Think Bravo, Brava, Barchetta, Coupé Fiat, 456, Quattroporte, Delta, Dedra, Kappa, 145, 146, GTV and Spider. A lot of these vehicles were talked-about, and considered some of the most stylish in Europe.
   Last year, in Europe, luxury marques Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi all outsold Fiat, supposedly a mass-market brand. Its market share in Italy and Brazil, traditionally places where it was strong, has continued to dip.
   In the US, it’s the same story, with Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi all outselling Chrysler both last year and year-to-date.
   It’s all very romantic, and good press, to show off premium Alfa Romeos and Maseratis, or money-making Jeeps, but many of these models don’t donate any of their architecture to Fiat’s troubled brands.
   In 2018, when you see that certain Fiat marques aren’t getting access to platforms, you have to wonder why—especially when so many other big players don’t place such restrictions on their brands.
   A new 500 and Panda might be around the corner, but we’ll need to see far more logic applied to the business, especially with Alfa’s Mito and Giulietta looking more dated, Fiat’s range in a mess, and Chrysler barely making an effort in China, a market where its sort of positioning would have attracted luxury-conscious buyers who might prefer foreign brands, such as Buick.
   Even if Chrysler gets a stay of execution, Sergio Marchionne’s successor will have a very tough job ahead.

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Posted in branding, business, cars, China, marketing, USA | No Comments »