Posts tagged ‘1990s’


The 1970s: when TV shows were New

12.11.2019

As a child of the 1970s, I was exposed to this English word: new. Now, before you say that that isn’t anything special, for some reason, in the ’70s, there was an obsession with newness. It wasn’t like the news (by this I mean the plural of new) of Amsterdam or Zealand, but an adjective that was adapted to really emphasize that you should pay attention and consume, consume, consume.
   Perhaps the earliest exposure was a Tomica model I had: the Blue Whale Crown. The base plate and box read ‘Toyota New Crown’. Even as a child, I wondered: what happens to the old Crown models? And what happens to this Crown model when a new new Crown comes out? It didn’t matter: Toyota wanted us to live in the present and bask in the newness, and back in the early 1970s, this Crown certainly looked like nothing that had come from Toyota prior, or since. It was almost saying, ‘Yes, we know it looks weird, but hey, it’s “new”, so that means it’s good!’
   The real car flopped (relatively speaking; they still shifted plenty given top Japanese managers still needed transportation), and it was the last generation of Crown to be sold in the US, but to me it remains iconic, even if it is garish. After a mere three years on sale, very short even by Japanese standards, its ‘New’ successor emerged in 1974 with all the idiosyncrasies gone. Conservatism ruled in this segment, at least till fairly recently. The old toys hung round, still ‘new’, so even if your parents bought you one in 1975 or 1976, you could still relish the adjective.
   It wasn’t a case of Japlish. It was all over television as well. When we emigrated here, the Anglophone television introduced me to The New Dick Van Dyke Show. Never mind that I had never seen the old Dick van Dyke show at this point. This was the white-haired man doing the New Zealand Fire Service PSAs. Everyone knew him. And why was it The New? Because we needed to be told that despite the same network in its home country (CBS), Dick van Dyke wasn’t playing Rob Petrie, but a new character altogether. Please don’t take this as a continuation of the previous one.




Here are the News: The New Dick Van Dyke Show; The New Perry Mason; and The New Avengers.

   Van Dyke, in his autobiography, recounts a fan coming up to him berating him for leaving Laura (Mary Tyler Moore’s character from the earlier The Dick Van Dyke Show), so it’s not as though the qualifier worked; goodness knows how the same fan would have computed The Mary Tyler Moore Show, on the same night as The New Dick Van Dyke Show. Maybe that was proof that Rob had left Laura or vice versa and they were forging ahead with their separate lives.
   The New Dick Van Dyke Show wasn’t alone. A couple of years later, there was The New Perry Mason (1973), starring Monte Markham in the title role (though no one ever called him ‘New’). The Fred Steiner theme was nowhere to be heard. I’ve seen a few of these, and they are pretty good in a 1970s sort of way—which is to say more exterior filming and more flash cars (product placement was growing) on the back lot and on location. To make it more confusing, when Perry Mason returned in a bunch of TV movies in the 1980s, starting with Perry Mason Returns, it wasn’t Markham, but original actor Raymond Burr once more. You see, it wasn’t The New Perry Mason Returns.
   The New Perry Mason starred a different actor, so I can comprehend its Newness, and at least the presence of another actor underscored this. It didn’t do that well, which is probably why hardly anyone remembers it. Probably more people remember Markham as the Seven Million Dollar Man. I’m not kidding.
   One that I do remember extremely well was The New Avengers, in 1976. Again, given when I was born, I had no exposure to The Avengers, but The New Avengers was a favourite of mine then, and I bought the DVDs when I saw them decades later. Unlike the other two series, this was a direct continuation, though it wasn’t explained just how John Steed returned to Earth after Tara King blasted them both into space when they had their Endgame in 1969; but we do know they enjoyed Laurent Perrier champagne when they got back. It’s a third definition of new as far as the TV shows were concerned, with the same motive: if you want to be seen as in, hip and groovy, come watch the new.
   Perhaps more obscure were one-off TV movies: Halloween with the New Addams Family (1977), which had the same cast (grandmother aside, as actress Blossom Rock was ill), and where the new serves no useful purpose other than attempting to sell us on newness where there is none; and The New Maverick (1978), which sees the return of James Garner as Bret and Jack Kelly as Bart, though there’s no sign of Roger Moore as Beau (presumably too busy being James Bond) and Robert Colbert as Brent, but it did introduce a first cousin once removed called Ben Maverick (Charles Frank). I imagine Ben is the new Maverick, and a short-lived TV series, Young Maverick, did appear afterwards.
   No one really did much more New shows after this—it seemed to be a 1970s phenomenon. With one exception: CI5: the New Professionals in the 1990s, an attempt to recapture the glory days of The Professionals but winding up more like episodes of Bugs. There, new sort of meant old, reminding us that some of the writing and directing was out of step with late 1990s’ audience expectations; and, with the greatest of respect, showed that certain parties were past their prime. By then, we had had seven episodes of Bodyguards, which perhaps showed how a modern-day Professionals might be. All that needed was to be “laddified” for the FHM audience, at least in theory, and certainly, after 9-11, there may have been some scope for an élite, globally coordinated, anti-terrorist squad (which is what The New Professionals suggests the fictional CI5 unit morphed into, probably to accommodate its backers and the South African location filming in some episodes). But in 1998, there was less of an appetite for revival shows, especially when the top-rated series were ER and Friends, and the Americans were a year away from The Sopranos. Britain, meanwhile, was gripped with the tension of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and the FHM lads were more that catered for by Babes in the Wood.

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Reflections about Lee Iacocca—unfortunately, not all of it is positive

03.07.2019


The car Lee Iacocca will be remembered for, the 1965 Ford Mustang on the right.

Before I found out about Lee Iacocca’s passing, on the same day I Tweeted about one of the cars he was behind when he was president of Ford: the 1975 US Granada. Basically, Iacocca understood that Americans wanted style. That really was at the core of his thinking. It’s also why the Granada—really a warmed-over, restyled Falcon that had its roots in the late 1950s—was always compared to Mercedes-Benz models. It was a mass-market American pastiche of the German car, with the same size. It had a grille and hood ornament. But it was frightfully slow, underpowered, and heavy, one of the most inefficient cars that Americans could buy.
   It’s the antithesis of the Mustang, which Iacocca arguably spearheaded, though in his autobiography, he noted that so many people claimed to be the father of the Mustang that he didn’t want to be seen with the mother (or words to that effect—the book’s next to my partner who’s already gone to sleep as I write).
   That was a stylish car, too. It was a Falcon-based coupé. But it could be specified with the right power to match its looks, and it was priced and marketed brilliantly. Ford hit a home run, and Iacocca’s reputation as a car industry guru was sealed.
   He was also the man who came up with the idea for the Lincoln Continental Mark III. No, not the 1950s one (which technically wasn’t a Lincoln), the one that came out in the 1960s (Ford didn’t really follow a sequential numbering system—remember it went Mark, Mark II, III, IV, V, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII). The idea: stick a Rolls-Royce grille on a Thunderbird. It beat the Cadillac Eldorado, and Iacocca finished the ’60s on a high.
   I felt that history hadn’t been kind to the Mustang II, which also came out under Iacocca’s watch. The fact was it was a sales’ hit, at a time when Detroit was reeling from the 1973 fuel crisis. No V8s initially, which in the 21st century looks like a misstep; in 1974 it would have looked smart. Growing up, we didn’t think the II was as bad as history remembers.
   But the US range was, in some ways, lazy. GM was downsizing but Iacocca noted that people were still buying big cars. To give the impression of downsizing, Ford just renamed the Torino the LTD II. Look, it’s a smaller LTD! Not really: here was yet another car on old tech with another pastiche luxury-car grille.
   When Iacocca was fired from Ford, he went to Chrysler, and pulled off his greatest sales’ job yet: to secure loan guarantees from the Carter administration and turn the company around with a range of modern, front-wheel-drive cars. The K-car, and its derivatives, were a demonstration of great platform-sharing. He noted in his autobiography that Chrysler even worked out a way to shave a tiny amount from the length to fit more Ks on a railroad car. And Iacocca’s penchant for style re-emerged: not long after the original Plymouth Reliant and Dodge Aries, there were fancied up Chrysler LeBarons, and a woody wagon, then a convertible, the first factory US one since the 1976 Cadillac Eldorado. Most importantly, Chrysler got the T-115 minivans on sale before Renault got its Espace out, though after Nissan launched the first MPV, the smaller Prairie. Nevertheless, the minivan was an efficient family vehicle, and changed the face of motoring. Iacocca was right when he believed people want style, because it’s the SUV that has succeeded the MPV and minivan. SUVs are hardly efficient in most circumstances, but here we are in 2019, with minivan sales projected to fall, though Chrysler has managed to stay the market leader in its own country.
   Chrysler paid back its loans years early, and it was under Iacocca that the company acquired American Motors Corp., getting the Jeep brand (the real prize) in the process. And it’s thanks to François Castaing and others who came across from AMC that Chrysler wound up with its LH sedans, the “cab-forward” models that proved to be one of the company’s hits in the 1990s.
   While having saved Chrysler, it was burdened with acquisitions, and in Iacocca’s final full year as Chairman Lee, the company posted a $795 million loss, with the recession partly to blame. The press joked that LH stood for Last Hope.
   It’s an incredible record, with some amazing hits. They do outnumber the duds. But what really mars it is an incident of sexual harassment I learned some years ago that never appears in the official biographies. Now, I don’t have a sworn affidavit, so you can treat this as hearsay. But until I heard that from a good friend—the woman who was harassed—Iacocca was a personal hero of mine. I bought the autobiography. I could forgive the financial disgrace Chrysler was in for 1991—one year out of nearly a dozen isn’t a bad run, even though the writing was on the wall when so much money was spent on acquisitions, hurting working capital.
   I know, his daughters and their kids won’t appreciate what I just said. That it’s wrong to speak ill of the dead, especially when they can’t answer back. You could say that that was the era he was from, in an industry steeped in male privilege—his boss at Ford, Henry the second, was carrying on an affair behind his wife’s back. You might say that one incident that I know of shouldn’t mar this incredible business record. He has left his mark on history. It’s just when it happens to one of your own friends that it’s closer to home, and it’s hard for me to offer the effortless praise I would normally have done if not for that knowledge.

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Volvo: boxy, but good

02.07.2019

Long before Mad Men, and before I got into branding in a big way, I had an interest in advertising. One of the greatest send-ups of the industry was the 1990 Dudley Moore starrer Crazy People, set in the advertising industry against a politically incorrect—actually, cruel and inaccurate—look at mental health. It’s one of those films that could never be made today, and for good reason. But there are some gems in it, as Moore’s character, Emory Leeson, embarks on “honest advertising”. It gets him committed to a facility—who ever heard of an advertising agency telling the truth, right?—until his ads become a hit, welcome by consumers who don’t want BS.
   I came across this wonderfully copywritten and set ad from a PR professional in London trying to sell his Nan’s 1981 Volvo 244DL:

   It’s bloody good. The copy kept me engaged—like all good ads used to—and he’s done a reasonably good job with the Volvo Broad headline typeface (it was wider back in the day). The body text type should be Times rather than Baskerville, but considering the exact cut of Times isn’t available digitally (to my knowledge; it’s for larger text, and has very short descenders), there’s no wonder he opted to use another family.
   It got me thinking: I’ve often posted the Crazy People Volvo ad in comments, as a humorous response. However, the ad doesn’t exist in a decent res online. The only ones that have wound up online are from screen captures from the movie. This 22 kbyte file is actually the best one around, save for one on the Alamy stock photo website that I found after the fact:

   I couldn’t re-create the image—I assume the only person who has it (or had it) is the art director of the film, or the photographer that was commissioned—but maybe I could have a go at the type?
   The digital Volvo Broad had to be widened 25 per cent, and I didn’t attempt to match the kerning.
   The body type was the interesting one. I opted for Times Headline, since it wasn’t at a text size, but as I discovered, Volvo used a particular cut that had short descenders and was slightly condensed. I tried to match the leading.
   Therefore, here it is, offered under Creative Commons with attribution to me for the typesetting, please, while noting the image is not mine:

   And sometimes, I use my powers for good.

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Tumblr is dead, long live NewTumbl

23.04.2019

Tumblr is dead, long live NewTumbl.
   I came across NewTumbl (formally newTumbl) a few days ago, after finding my Tumblr feed just wasn’t what it used to be. It’s not that the dirty pictures are gone—I only ever followed one blog where the images might be considered sensual—but that the energy was. Those friends whose posts interested me weren’t posting much any more, and it wasn’t just them: my posting had diminished significantly. Platforms, I imagine, have a shelf life, and when announcements such as Verizon’s last year, which became known, perhaps incorrectly, as Tumblr’s ‘porn ban’, it was bound to affect the platform. It was the language that opened Verizon up to ridicule: apparently, they had a problem with ‘female-presenting nipples’, and some innocent content was flagged for removal.
   What Verizon had really underestimated was that among the adult imagery were communities that were having free and safe discussions about sexuality, and sex workers themselves had a place where they, too, could post. It wasn’t an “adult” site per se, considering the overwhelming majority of the content was family-friendly. That perhaps kept the place relatively safe: you could have these private discussions while coming across general posts featuring interesting photography or good political viewpoints. Tumblr also hadn’t descended into the political divisiveness that plague platforms such as Twitter.
   I liked Tumblr for many reasons. It became a fun place to post interesting graphics for me, and to put anything that I didn’t want to structure into long-form thoughts. It was image-based. Every now and then I would put up a quotation. The Font Police blog is still there, with over 20,000 followers.
   I liked the fact that for years, someone would get back to you when you posted a query. This was true even after Yahoo acquired it.
   But during the Blogcozy experiment, which sadly resulted in that platform’s closure, I cut down my time on Tumblr, because I had found a more suitable place to put those brief thoughts and to share with friends. Had Tumblr been a greater draw, I wouldn’t have considered it. After Blogcozy closed, I didn’t really resume my Tumblring to the same extent. Social seemed to be dying, since it was being run by Big Tech firms that lied as their main position. Even if Tumblr was more honest (and it was), the age of social media seemed to be at an end.
   I may have been wrong, because since posting on NewTumbl I’ve been impressed by the sense of energy there. Yes, it has attracted a great deal of the adult posters who left Tumblr. But if you don’t want to see X-rated stuff, you say so in the settings, and adjust to M (for mature), O (for office), or even F (for family). You won’t see anything coarser than what you chose (with the occasional exception when posters did not have a clue how the ratings’ system works). The interface is familiar-but-different-enough for Tumblr users and Verizon lawyers. Yet it goes beyond what Tumblr does, with the smart use of Interstate as the body typeface, and photos in multi-image posts actually appear in the order you load them.
   It’s not perfect: I couldn’t link a video but I could upload; and I managed to stumble on a 404 page by following links, both of which I’ll report, since they make it so easy to do.
   But here’s the really good thing: the transparency. One of the main developers, Dean, talks to users and provides feedback. He’ll even post when an error occurs during development—that’s something you’ll never see Facebook do when its databases die.
   He and I have already exchanged notes via DMs after I joined for two days, and I said I saw so many parallels between what he was doing and what I saw with Tesla when Martin Eberhard was running it (transparency over ego), or even in the days when Jerry and David were building Yahoo—I’m old enough to have been submitting sites to them while they were still being run out of a garage. There’s an exciting sense with Dean and the small NewTumbl crew that they’re building something useful for the world, celebrating free speech and humanity. Am I being overly optimistic? I don’t think I am: I enjoy the UI, I like the openness and honesty, and these are just what the tech sector needs. I see a draw for spending my time here even though I have zero followers to my blog. The buzz feels similar to when I discovered some sites back in the 1990s: it seems new and exciting.
   It’s also rather nice being the first person to populate some fandom hashtags, though I was second for Doctor Who, and for anyone ever searching for The Avengers, they will see, rightly, a photograph of Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee.
   I’ll see you there at jackyan.newtumbl.com. Lucire also has a NewTumbl at lucire.newtumbl.com.


Above: The one thing I posted to Tumblr that went viral, in 2011.

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Posted in business, culture, design, internet, marketing, New Zealand, TV, USA | 3 Comments »


Forced to take prime-time nostalgia trips

20.07.2018


‘There’s an old Polish proverb …’ I believe it’s ‘Reality television can’t stop the motorways in Warsaw from getting icy.’

I’ve always known what sort of telly I liked, and often that was at odds with what broadcasters put on. In the 1970s, my tastes weren’t too dissimilar from the general public’s, but as the years went on, they diverged from what New Zealand programmers believed we should watch.
   Shows I liked would prematurely disappear (Dempsey & Makepeace), only to return very late at night a decade later. Some only ever appeared late at night (Hustle), then vanish (in New Zealand, seasons 5 to 8 have never appeared on a terrestrial channel, and they have also never been released on DVD).
   We had a British expat visitor on Wednesday. He arrived here in 2008, and had no idea that TV1 had once been the home of British programming, and TV2 was where the Hollywood stuff went.
   By the late 2000s and early 2010s, I was watching either DVDs or finding a way to get to BBC Iplayer et al, because less and less of what was on offer had any appeal. We had boxed sets of Mission: Impossible, The Persuaders, and others.
   When the country switched to Freeview, I couldn’t be bothered getting a decoder. We were fine with online. Eventually, I did buy a TV set with Freeview, but only because the previous one conked out.
   On Thursday night, it became very apparent just how bad television had become here.
   Every English-language and Te Reo Māori terrestrial channel had unscripted drama, i.e. “reality” shows, or the occasional panel show or real-life event, other than Prime, showing the MacGyver remake.
   Who in the 1980s would have predicted that MacGyver would be the only scripted series on air during prime-time here between 7.30 and 8.30 p.m.?
   I realize the economics of television have changed, and there’s no such thing as a TVNZ drama department any more.
   Shows which might have had the whole country watching would be lucky to pull in a quarter of the audience today.
   But it is a sad reflection that the televised equivalent of the weekly gossip rag is what rates. The effort needed to produce quality drama is expensive, and not enough of us support it.
   I also imagine scripted Hollywood shows are cheaper than British ones, hence what we see on our screens is American—and why some kids these days now speak with American accents. Yet to some New Zealanders, Chinese-language signs on Auckland high streets are a bigger threat to the local culture. Really?
   In this household, we vote with our attention spans—and over the last month that has meant DVDs of Banacek and, in true 50 shades of Grade fashion, The Protectors. Sometimes, you feel it’s 1972 in this house—but at least the telly was better then.

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A letter from composer Terry Gray, 1991

18.07.2018

What a coincidence to come across a letter from composer, arranger, conductor and former TVNZ bandleader Terry Gray, dated May 25, 1991, after I blogged about him on (nearly) the seventh anniversary of his passing. Here it is for others who may be interested in a little slice of Kiwi life. It looks like ITC Garamond Book Narrow here, though the resolution doesn’t make it very clear.

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Neil Gaiman on JY Integrity on his UK paperbacks

09.07.2018

When Neil Gaiman pays you a compliment about one of your typeface families (JY Integrity, which I designed in 1993), you gratefully accept.

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The big difference with the internet of the ’90s: it served the many, not the few

11.09.2016


Above: Facebook kept deleting Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph each time it was posted, even when Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten did so, preventing its editor-in-chief from responding.

There’s a significant difference between the internet of the 1990s and that of today. As Facebook comes under fire for deleting the “napalm girl” photograph from the Vietnam War shared by Norwegian writer Tom Egeland, then by prime minister Erna Solberg and Aftenposten newspaper, it has highlighted to me how the big Silicon Valley players have become exclusionary. In this latest case, it is about how one firm determines what is acceptable and unacceptable without regard to cultural significance or free speech; it even punished people who dared criticize it, and has failed to apologize. Earlier this year, in one of my numerous battles with Facebook, I noted how a major German company falsely claimed videos that did not belong to them, yet there was no penalty. An individual or a small firm would not have been so lucky: when we file copyright claims, we do so ‘under penalty of perjury’ on the form.
   Google, never far from my critical eye, is the same. I’ve watched Google News, for instance, become exclusionary, too, or, rather, a service that prefers big players rather than the independents. When deciding to send traffic for a particular news item, Google News now ranks big media outlets more highly, and to heck with journalistic quality or any regard on who broke the story first. It’s damaging to the independent voice, as Google concentrates power in favour of larger firms today, and it’s rather disturbing when you consider the implications.
   Mainstream media can be homogeneous, and, in some cases, damaging, when bias and prejudice get in to the system. When it comes to politics, this can be detrimental to democracy itself. And why should a search engine prefer a larger name anyway? Many newsrooms have been stripped of resources, ever more reliant on press releases. Many now engage in click-bait. Some have agenda driven by big business and their technocratic view of the world, especially those that have their corporate headquarters outside the country in which they operate. Those who desire to wake people up from their slumber get short shrift. Google is aiding this world, because since it became publicly listed, it has had to adopt its trappings, and one might argue that it is in direct conflict with its ‘Don’t be evil’ mantra (one which never held much sway with me).
   This is the world which Google and Facebook, and no doubt others, wish to serve up to users. They may well argue that they’re only delivering what people want: if a lot of people get their news from the Daily Mail or The Huffington Post, then that’s what they’ll show in their results. There’s little freshness online as a result, which is why people aren’t as inclined to share in 2016 as they were in 2010.
   Yet it was not always this way. The hope in the late 1990s and early 2000s was that Google et al would be tools in distributing power equally among all netizens. Started an independent online publication? If the quality is there, if you’re the first to break a story, then Google News will lavish attention upon you. If you have specialized news outside what mainstream media deliver, then you’ll pop up regularly in the search results’ pages. The blogosphere rose because of this, with people seeking opinions and research outside of what the mainstream could deliver. The reason people blog less isn’t just because of social networks making one-sentence opinions de rigueur; it is because people have found it harder to reach new audience members, and their own tribe is the next best thing.
   It makes the ’net a far less interesting place to be. Without fresh, new views, we run the risk of groupthink, or we become particularly influenced by the biases of certain media outlets. We don’t really want to surf casually as we once did because we don’t learn anything new: it’s harder to find novel things that pique our interests.
   There are potential solutions, of course. I tend not to Google, but use Duck Duck Go, so at least I don’t get a filter bubble when I search for particular subjects. However, Duck Duck Go does not have a comprehensive news search, and Google’s index size remains unbeatable.
   What we really need next is something that brings back that sense of equality online. I believe that if you put in the hours into good content and design, you should excel and get your site ranked above the same old sources. Google claims that it does that when it tweaks its algorithms but I’m not seeing this. Facebook merely builds on what people have found—so if you can’t find it, it won’t wind up being shared. Twitter, at least, still has some interesting items, but if you don’t catch it in your feed at a given time, then too bad. It’s not geared to search.
   Duck Duck Go is a start, at least when it comes to general searches. It becomes easier to find views that you might not agree with—and that’s a good thing when it comes to understanding others. Google’s approach lulls you into a sense of security, that your views are sacrosanct—and all that does is give you the notion that the other half is wrong.
   So what of news? Duck Duck Go could well be a starting-point for that, too, ranking news based on who breaks an item first and the quality of the site, rather than how much money is behind it. Or perhaps this is the space for another entrepreneur. Ironically, it might even come out of China; though right now it’s equally likely to emerge from India. What it then needs is a bit of virality for it to be adopted, spread by the very people it is designed to aid.
   We need something that rewards the independent entrepreneur again, the people who drove so many innovations in the 1990s and 2000s. This isn’t nostalgia kicking in, seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses while happily ignoring all those businesses that failed. I completely acknowledge there were sites that vanished at the time of the dot-com bust, triggered in no small part by 9-11, the anniversary of which we celebrate today.
   Society needs those distinctive voices, those independent entrepreneurs, those people who are willing to put themselves forward and be judged fairly. What they don’t need are reactionary media who want to silence them out of fear that the world will change too much for them to bear; and big Silicon Valley firms all too happy to join in these days.
   It’s high time the most influential websites served the many rather than the few again.

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Posted in business, culture, globalization, interests, internet, media, politics, publishing, technology, USA | 6 Comments »


It’s all going fines at Volkswagen

05.01.2016

Volkswagen Golf VIIGeneral Motors’ fine in 1995 for 470,000 cars using defeat devices against EPA testing: US$11 million. Volkswagen’s fine in 2016 for 580,000 cars using defeat devices against EPA testing: potentially US$40,000 million (or $40 billion, as the Americans say). The local companies get off far easier in the US. In fact, GM can even get a US$49,500 million bail-out from Uncle Sam. I realize there’s a difference between a settlement and a claim, but I wonder if Volkswagen’s going get away with paying less than a figure in the milliards.

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The political caricatures of old have taken human form, but they’re still nothing like us

09.05.2015

That’s another British General Election done and dusted. I haven’t followed one this closely since the 1997 campaign, where I was backing John Major.
   Shock, horror! Hang on, Jack. Haven’t the media all said you are a leftie? Didn’t you stand for a left-wing party?
   Therein lies a fallacy about left- and right wings. I’ve never completely understood the need to pigeonhole someone into a particular camp, when I would say most people on this planet hold a mix of views from both sides. Now that politicians are not unlike caricatures—there has been a “rightward” shift where the policies being adopted by some are so outside economic orthodoxy that they look like what their Spitting Image counterparts would have uttered back in the day—this holds more true than ever. We know what subscribing to certain parties’ views fully and completely is like: we risk looking loony, and, if taken too far, we risk becoming loony.
   But the spin doctors and advisers aren’t in to transparency. They are into their talking heads conveying what they feel the public responds to, hence Mitt Romney, once an advocate of universal health care in his own state, becoming an opponent of it when he ran for president; or, for that matter, Ed Miliband’s insistence on the ‘budget responsibility lock’, to demonstrate that he had a handle on the economy, when Economics 101 told us that austerity isn’t a good way to help the economy along and Miliband began sounding like Cameron lite.
   My support of Major in the 1997 General Election, which went against the prevailing view at the time, was down to several reasons. Unlike Cameron, Major didn’t practise austerity, but he did practise conventional economics with the government going more into deficit through increasing spending during the early 1990s’ recession, knowing the stimulus to be affordable, and knowing it had to be paid back once the economy was healthy again. It is interesting to note Sir John’s own goal while campaigning for the Tories in this General Election, when he said at the Tory Reform Group annual dinner, ‘We need to acknowledge the fact we have a pretty substantial underclass and there are parts of our country where we have people who have not worked for two generations and whose children do not expect to work.
   ‘How can it be that in a nation that is the fifth richest nation in the world, that in the United Kingdom we have four of the poorest areas in Europe? I include eastern Europe in that question.’
   How indeed. The John Major who was prime minister will have answered that easily, and his own record illustrates just why he avoided such consequences in the 1990s that Cameron was unable to.
   The second reason was that I really believed the ‘classless society’ speech, and if you have read his memoirs, or even biographies written about him, then there was a real personal experience woven into that. Critics will point at the fact the speech was written by Antony Jay (Yes, Minister) or the fact that Britain invented To the Manor Born and such sitcoms, but, generally, why should only certain classes have the ability to excel and do their best? Everyone should have that opportunity, and the measures implemented under the Major premiership, while not as far to the left as traditional socialists would have wanted, struck a good balance in my view in an immediate post-Thatcher period. We should always be wary of sudden shifts, whether they’re swings from the left to the right, or vice versa. A pragmatic approach seemed sensible.
   Third, it was precisely that Major was not a Thatcherite, even if Margaret Thatcher might have believed him to be when she made him Chancellor of the Exchequer, a job that he wanted most of his political life. But what we had in his very shrewd opponent in 1997 was Thatcherism, or at least monetarism. As we know from Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s early move in allowing the Bank of England to be free of political control, their belief that this would avoid boom-and-bust cycles was not realized. However, the evidence does show that the freedom has coincided with a period of low interest rates and stable inflation, but equally one can credit the work of the Tories in handing New Labour a booming economy in May of that year. As Major noted at the time, it was rare for a government to lose while the economy was improving, but the Labour campaign, ably assisted by biased media at the time, and the easy pass Blair got from the British establishment despite being very, very vague about his policies, was hard to beat. All he had to do was utter ‘Change’ and ‘It’s about New Labour, new Britain.’ It hid, to those of us watching the General Election and the year before it, New Labour’s Thatcherite aims. I am not even that sure what Blair, Brown and Peter Mandelson were doing in the party to begin with.
   This might be contrasted with a Tory party weakened through allegations of sleaze (and we know now that no party is any less sleazy than the other, but it depends on when you are caught out) leading Major to fight a campaign largely alone with the occasional publicity boost from the Spice Girls. No matter how specific the PM got, it didn’t matter. (Or, as I had told many of my design classes at the time when I was teaching, the Conservatives’ Arial was no match for Labour’s Franklin Gothic, a typeface family that, incidentally, was used by Thatcher in her 1983 election campaign, and by Labour in New Zealand in 1999 and 2002.) It was frustrating to try to discern what Labour’s specific policies were from Down Under, watching the General Election campaign with keen interest. And those lack of specifics worried me from the start, which explains why when I ran for office, I issued a manifesto early in the game. I liked being first, even if the electorate didn’t put me there.
   Whether you agreed with Labour or not, and many would argue that the Blair and Brown years were not stellar, the divisions in their party—which I imagine we will see reemerge in the next few days—indicate that even within there is a great deal of polarization. The Thatcherites are in there, except they are called Blairites. And while Sir John put his weight behind his party out of loyalty, and from his earlier political years witnessing how ‘Labour isn’t working’ (the Wilson–Callaghan years must have been formative for him given his age), his comments at the dinner are telling on just where modern Conservative economic policies under George Osborne differed to his own and those of Norman Lamont. If people are suffering, if they aren’t getting their shot at the ‘classless society’, then is the place any good? If the class divide has grown, contrary to Sir John’s own views, and weakened Britain as a result of the contraction of economic players in it, then even the “right” can’t support that. To me, I thought conservatism was letting everyone have a shot, and about solid, national enterprise, and this century hasn’t given me much faith that that applies very widely.
   Labour might have campaigned on that and on preserving the NHS although having listened to Miliband, I was never totally convinced. Perhaps, I, too, had concerns about Labour vagueness, and until this General Election I had not followed the Shadow Cabinet closely enough to know the thinking and histories behind the players. That area, I will leave to others to comment. In some respects, the caricature comment I made above applies to Labour, too.

Contrasting the Tories this time with the party I knew a bit better through observation—the two terms of John Major—I feel they are very different. And, sadly, I draw parallels with the National Party here at home, where people attempt to compare incumbent John Key with Sir Robert Muldoon (1975–84), and I simply cannot see the parallels other than the colour of the branding.
   Sir Robert resolutely believed in full employment, the rights of the unemployed, the state ownership of assets, energy independence, and his ability to fight his own battles. Had attack blogs been around then, he wouldn’t have needed them. I do not agree with everything about his premiership, and his miscalculation of public opinion over the Gleneagles Agreement and the environment is now part of history. However, his terms are still being misjudged today, with an entire generation happily brainwashed by both the monetarist orthodoxy of the 1980s and a prime-time documentary (The Grim Face of Power) aired after his death (probably to avoid a defamation suit) to belittle his legacy. (The contrasting documentary made many years later, Someone Else’s Country, was buried on a weekend afternoon.) We did not have to wait months for a telephone, nor did we not have cars to buy; yet the belief that the electorate has a collective memory of only five years means we haven’t a hope of comprehending fully what happened thirty years ago. But to those of us who pride ourselves on a decent memory, and I believe if we seek public office we must have one, then things were never as bleak as people believe. He was sexist, yet I do not believe him to want to preside over a divided New Zealand, and his own books reveal a desire for unity. Unfortunately, looking at a man born in 1921 through the prism of 2015, plenty of his sayings look anachronistic and passé, but once context is added, the New Zealand we look at today looks more divided.
   We, too, have an underclass that has emerged (those begging for change weren’t there two decades ago, nor were so many food banks), through economic policies that have weakened our businesses. Both major parties deserve criticism over this. For a country where experts have said we must head toward technology to end our reliance on primary products, other than software patents, we have had a strange record over intellectual property with a prime minister who was against certain copyright amendments before he was for them (and voted accordingly). A New Zealand resident who adopted the same rules over copyrighted materials as Google and Dropbox has been indicted by the US Government—that’s right, I am talking about Kim Dotcom. It’s a reminder that we haven’t done enough for our tech sector, the one which governments have said we should aid, which can help our overall economy.
   We are hopelessly behind in how much technology contributes to our economy, and we have done little to support the small- to medium-sized businesses that form the backbone of our economy. Instead, we have been selling them short, welcoming ever-larger multinationals (who usually pay tax in their home country, not ours) and giving them more advantages than our own. Since when has allegiance to these foreign players ever been part of politics on the left or on the right? If we are to support businesses, for instance, we should be negotiating for our own milliard-dollar enterprises to make headway into new markets. Xero et al will thank us for it. Globalization is as much about getting our lot out there so they can pay tax back here. Politicians should be patriotic, but toward our own interests, not someone else’s.

Therein lie my many posts about the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement on my Facebook. It is precisely because I support business that I am against a good part of what has been leaked so far. (I am aware that many trade agreements are negotiated in secret, so there is nothing new there.) It is precisely because I believe in a level playing field for Kiwis that we should be careful at how we liberalize and in what sectors and at what pace we should do it. The curious thing there is that the substantial arguments (obviously against it) have come from the “left”, or friends who identify as being left-wing, while some who have identified as being right-wing have bid me an indignant exit from the discussion by attacking the players and not their utterances, and yet somehow the lefties are branded the woolly, emotional wrecks?
   As I wrote last year, ‘All I want are facts, not emotional, ideological arguments. On the evidence for me, things are leaning toward the anti side. I come from the standpoint of the market being a man-made construct and people are not numbers.
   ‘… [T]here are cases going on with tobacco companies where they are using IP to argue that plain packs are contrary to trade agreements. So where do you draw the line with public health versus a foreign enterprise profiting? I’d like to see healthy people not taxing the system, and plain packs were a foreseeable development IMO for a tobacco manufacturer. [I know this is an argument that is typically trotted out, but I use it since there is at least one case out there.] A wise tobacco company would have acquired businesses in other fields (as some have done), just as Coca-Cola, seeing the tide turn against sodas, have bought up water, energy drink and juice businesses. It’s wise investing, and it’s progress.
   ‘There is nothing wrong with the notion of a trade tribunal but what has been emerging from the leaks are ones where corporations can be compensated for loss of profits based on, say, plain packaging. If a government is democratically elected to implement such a policy, and corporations have always understood investments to be subject to the laws of the land (including the risk of divestment in some), then should their rights trump that of the citizens? This is the danger here, and this is the heart of the sovereignty argument.
   ‘Another example is with software patents, which our country has voted to do away with. It’s been shown that that would spur innovation.
   ‘The tendency is that TPPA is against these moves, although given the secrecy we do not know for sure. But reading other IP provisions it does not take a big leap of the imagination.
   ‘… Do I believe in global free trade? Absolutely. But I also believe in making sure that people have the means the buy the stuff I sell, and to me this treaty (based on what has been leaked) does not ensure that. I also believe in social responsibility and that citizens have their basics looked after so they can participate in commerce. I am pro-innovation, especially in smaller enterprises where some great stuff is taking place, and we have reasonably robust IP laws already and conventions that govern them. I’m not saying I have a complete alternative that replaces it, but some of the work we have done at the Medinge Group touches on these issues.’
   One argument in favour is: if we are not party to this, then does this mean we will get shut out of it? I’m not entirely sure we will in that we are already one of the freest markets in the world, although I welcome arguments and past examples. In the areas I know well, the absence of a free-trade agreement with the US, for instance, have never hampered our firm exporting there, but I realize for our primary producers there have been obstacles. But do such agreements mean unimpeded access when it’s so easy, even under WTO, to erect non-tariff barriers? And why should corporations’ rights trump citizens’, as opponents are quick to point out?
   ‘At the end of the day,’ to borrow a phrase, all human systems are imperfect. And the market is just as human as any other. My belief is that your own citizens, and their welfare, must be placed first, and we should support our own people and our own businesses. The political caricatures that certain parties have now rendered into human form don’t necessarily appear to understand this, certainly not by their actions. This is at the crux of the arguments that I saw from Labour supporters in the UK General Election, and to some extent from those who opposed National and ACT in our one last year. Labour’s loss here, too, in my view, can be placed on a leader who himself came across as unsubstantial on TV as his opponents; and his refusal to resign can be contrasted to the behaviour of Miliband and Nick Clegg yesterday. He could have always pulled a Nigel Farage.
   The sooner we get away from notions of “left” and “right” and work out for ourselves where we’d like our country and our world to head, we will start working together without these false divisions. I might add that “being Asian” in this country is yet another false division. No wonder most people are sick of politics, politicians and “politics as usual”, because most of us cannot be bothered pigeonholing ourselves. We just want to do what’s decent and honourable and have the chance to get on with it.

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