Posts tagged ‘history’

When not having something drives creativity


I hadn’t expected this reply Tweet to get so many likes, probably a record for me.

   It is true. That book was NZ$4·99 in 1979, when it was offered through the Lucky Book Club at school, at a time when many books were still priced in cents. Some kids in the class got it, and I admit I was a bit envious, but not having a book in an area that interested you can drive creativity. While my parents didn’t make a heck of a lot in the 1970s—we flatted and didn’t own our own car at this point—they would have splashed out if I really insisted on it. After all, they were sending me to a private school and their sacrifice was virtually never going out. (I only recall one night in those days when my parents had a “date night” and my maternal grandmother looked after me—and that was to see Superman II.) But when you grow up having an understanding that, as an immigrant family that had to largely start from scratch in a new country, you have a rough idea of what’s expensive, and five bucks for a book was expensive.
   As an adult—even when I was a young man starting out in my career—I did not regret not having this book.
   Someone in the thread asked if I ever wound up buying it. I never did: as a teenager I managed to get my hands on a very worn Letraset catalogue, which ultimately proved far more interesting. But it is good to know that, thanks in large part to my parents’ and grandmother’s sacrifices, and those in my partner’s family who helped her in her earlier years, we could afford to buy this book if anyone in our family asks for it.

Were we fleeing anything when we came to Aotearoa? We left Hong Kong in 1976 because my parents were worried about what China would do to the place. In other words, what’s happening now is what they hoped for me to avoid. They called it, in the 1970s. And here I am.

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Posted in design, interests, New Zealand, typography, Wellington | No Comments »

Have we stopped innovating in online publishing?


For a while, we’ve been thinking about how best to facelift the Lucire website templates, to bring them into the 2020s. The current look is many years old (I’ve a feeling it was 2016 when we last looked at it), which in internet terms puts this once-cutting edge site into old-school territory.
   But what’s the next step? When I surf the web these days, so many websites seem to be run off one of several templates, and there aren’t many others out there. After you scroll down past the header, everything more or less looks the same: a big single-column layout with large type.
   I know we have to make things responsive, and we haven’t done this properly, by any means. The CSS will have to be reprogrammed to suit 2020s requirements. But I am reminded of when we adopted many of the practices online publishers do today, except we did them nearly two decades ago.
   Those of you who have been with us a long time, and those who might want to venture into the Wayback Machine, might know that we provided “apps” for hand-held devices even then. We offered those using Palm Pilots and the like a small, downloadable version of the Lucire news pages. We had barely any takers.
   Then Bitstream (if I recall correctly) came out with tech that could reduce pages to a lower resolution and narrower pixel width so those browsing on smaller devices could do so, and those of us publishing for larger monitors no longer needed to do a special version.
   So that was the scene 20 years ago. Did apps, no one cared; and eventually tech came out that rendered it all unnecessary. It’s why I resisted making apps today, because I keep expecting history to repeat itself. I can’t be the only one with a memory of the first half of the 2000s. As a non-technical person, I expect there’d be something like that Bitstream technology today. Maybe there is. I guess some browsers have a reader mode, and that’s a great idea. And if we want to offer that to our readers, it can’t be too hard to find a service that we can point modern smartphone users to, and they can browse all sites to their hearts’ content.
   Except I know, as with so many tech things, that it isn’t that easy, that in fact it’s all so much harder. Server management hasn’t become easier in 2020 compared with 2005, all as the computing industry loses touch with everyday people like me who once really believed in the democratization of technology and bridging the digital divide.
   Back to the templates. I wrote on NewTumbl yesterday, ‘Remember when we could surf the web pretty easily and find amazing new sites, and creative web designs, as people figured out how best to exploit this medium? These days a lot of websites all look the same and there’s far less innovation. Have we settled into what this medium’s about and there’s no need for the same creativity? I’m no programmer, so I can’t answer that, but it wasn’t that long ago we could marvel at a lot of fresh web designs, rather than see yet another site driven by the same CMS with the same single-column responsive template. Or people just treat a Facebook page or an Instagram feed as their “website”, and to heck with making sure it’s hosted on something they have control over.’
   And that’s the thing: I haven’t visited any sites that really jumped out at me, that inspires me to go, ‘What a great layout idea. I must see if I can do something similar here.’ My very limited programming and CSS design skills aren’t being challenged. This is a medium that was supposed to be so creative, and when I surf, after finding a page via a search engine, those fun moments of accidental discovery don’t come any more. The web seems like a giant utilitarian information system, which I suppose is how its inventor conceived it, but I feel it could be so much more. Maybe the whole world could even get on board a fair, unbiased search engine, and a news spidering service that was current and didn’t prioritize corporate media, recognizing that stories can be broken by independents. Because such a thing doesn’t really exist in 2020, even though we had it in the early 2000s. It was called Google, and it actually worked fairly. No search engine with that brand name strikes me as fair today.
   I am, therefore, unsure if we can claim to have advanced this medium.

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Posted in design, internet, New Zealand, publishing, technology, Wellington | No Comments »

The ‘A’ (Aotearoa) Team


Now that Aotearoa New Zealand has lifted our COVID-19 restrictions after getting rid of the virus on our shores, other than keeping our border closed, I Tweeted:

and between Cachalot on Twitter and I, we actually wound up with a variation of the song (incidentally, he was first with the chorus, showing that great minds think alike).

Then back to the refrain.
   Out of respect to the language in which the song was composed, te reo Māori, here are the original, poignant lyrics. It’s a beautiful, heart-wrenching song. There’s a further explanation to it here.

Pōkarekare ana,
ngā wai o Waiapu
Whiti atu koe hine,
marino ana e.

   E hine e,
   hoki mai ra.
   Ka mate ahau
   I te aroha e.

Tuhituhi taku reta,
tuku atu taku rīngi,
Kia kite tō iwi
raru raru ana e.


Whati whati taku pene
ka pau aku pepa
Ko taku aroha
mau tonu ana e.


E kore te aroha
e maroke i te rā
Mākūkū tonu i
aku roimata e.


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Where does Hong Kong’s new national anthem law leave parody?


Steve Cadman/Creative Commons 2·0

I don’t profess to be an expert on how Hong Kong law functions these days with its mix of old British ordinances and the laws made after 1997, but one thing that struck me with at least the news reports covering the criminalizing of insults against ‘March of the Volunteers’, the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China, is whether parody—a fundamental part of free speech—will still be permitted.
   I don’t have a problem with the anthem being taught to children as it was sung long before 1949, the establishment of the PRC. It was a wartime anthem, which people like my father knew, having been born in the 1930s at the time of the Sino–Japanese War. It is historical, and it has meaning. It is arguably even more familiar to older Chinese than the Republic of China’s anthem generally sung on the island of Taiwan. But, even back then, ‘March of the Volunteers’ had picked up this parody:

起來! 買嚿牛肉蒸葱菜!

   If I recall correctly, the parody emerged when the Communists and Nationalists were trying to entice the citizenry over to their side, and the Communists were promising food.
   I won’t go in to parody and its relationship to freedom of speech here; there are plenty of resources on it online.
   But does it mean that repeating the parody lyrics would put me at risk in Hong Kong?
   Of course it has escaped no one that the law was passed on June 4, a ballsy move by Beijing.
   Meanwhile, a few members of the UK government have talked about giving BN(O) (British National [Overseas]) passport holders a pathway to British citizenship, leading some to say there would be a brain drain. What I will say here is: the British have talked about defending the rights of Hong Kong people under the joint declaration ever since 1997—indeed, even before, with the Blair-led opposition—and nothing has happened. I’ve gone into my issues entering the UK with this passport before, so you’ll excuse me if I say that actions speak more loudly than words. British politicians have been high on rhetoric for over two decades on this issue and I have no reason to believe the least trustworthy lot they have ever elected.
   I disagree that they are interfering with Chinese affairs if they are simply looking after those that identify themselves as British, but at the same time I don’t think Beijing’s foreign ministry has anything to be concerned about. The British have their own doorstep to think about, and the prospect of millions of Hong Kong Chinese heading there was too hard for them to stomach under Major or Blair, and I do not expect that attitudes have changed.

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Posted in China, Hong Kong, politics, UK | No Comments »

Even the web is forgetting our history


Hernán Piñera/Creative Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

My friend Richard MacManus wrote a great blog post in February on the passing of Clive James, and made this poignant observation: ‘Because far from preserving our culture, the Web is at best forgetting it and at worst erasing it. As it turns out, a website is much more vulnerable than an Egyptian pyramid.’
   The problem: search engines are biased to show us the latest stuff, so older items are being forgotten.
   There are dead domains, of course—each time I pop by to our links’ pages, I find I’m deleting more than I’m adding. I mean, who maintains links’ pages these days, anyway? (Ours look mega-dated.) But the items we added in the 1990s and 2000s are vanishing and other than the Internet Archive, Richard notes its Wayback Machine is ‘increasingly the only method of accessing past websites that have otherwise disappeared into the ether. Many old websites are now either 404 errors, or the domains have been snapped up by spammers searching for Google juice.’
   His fear is that sites like Clive James’s will be forgotten rather than preserved, and he has a point. As a collective, humanity seems to desire novelty: the newest car, the newest cellphone, and the newest news. Searching for a topic tends to bring up the newest references, since the modern web operates on the basis that history is bunk.
   That’s a real shame as it means we don’t get to understand our history as well as we should. Take this pandemic, for instance: are there lessons we could learn from MERS and SARS, or even the Great Plague of London in the 1660s? But a search is more likely to reveal stuff we already know or have recently come across in the media, like a sort of comfort blanket to assure us of our smartness. It’s not just political views and personal biases that are getting bubbled, it seems human knowledge is, too.
   Even Duck Duck Go, my preferred search engine, can be guilty of this, though a search I just made of the word pandemic shows it is better in providing relevance over novelty.
   Showing results founded on their novelty actually makes the web less interesting because search engines fail to make it a place of discovery. If page after page reveals the latest, and the latest is often commodified news, then there is no point going to the second or third pages to find out more. Google takes great pride in detailing the date in the description, or ‘2 days ago’ or ‘1 day ago’. But if search engines remained focused on relevance, then we may stumble on something we didn’t know, and be better educated in the process.
   Therefore, it’s possibly another area that Big Tech is getting wrong: it’s not just endangering democracy, but human intelligence. The biases I accused Google News and Facebook of—viz. their preference for corporate media—build on the dumbing-down of the masses.
   I may well be wrong: maybe people don’t want to get smarter: Facebook tells us that folks just want a dopamine hit from approval, and maybe confirmation of our own limited knowledge gives us the same. ‘Look at how smart I am!’ Or how about this collection?
   Any expert will tell you that the best way to keep your traffic up is to generate more and more new content, and it’s easy to understand why: like a physical library, the old stuff is getting forgotten, buried, or even—if they can’t sell or give it away—pulped.
   Again, there’s a massive opportunity here. A hypothetical new news aggregator can outdo Google News by spidering and rewarding independent media that break news, by giving them the best placement—as Google News used to do. That encourages independent media to do their job and opens the public up to new voices and viewpoints. And now a hypothetical new search engine could outdo Google by providing relevance over novelty, or at least getting the balance of the two right.

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Posted in culture, interests, internet, media, New Zealand, publishing, technology, Wellington | No Comments »

The team approach


At the end of the last century, the National Government announced its Bright Future programme. Their research had identified that one thing holding back our national competitiveness was our devotion to the team rather than the individual, when in fact there have been many times New Zealand individuals have made immeasurable contributions and had not been fêted. It compared us with the US, where someone like Bill Gates—I seem to recall he was held up as an example—could be recognized by many as an innovator, while the equivalent Kiwi wasn’t generally known. One of the first moves was to knight Angus Tait, the Christchurch entrepreneur.
   These Kiwi pioneers are still around—people like Dr Sean Simpson of LanzaTech, for instance, using bacteria to consume carbon monoxide and turning it into ethanol—but other than news programmes, they’re not part of our mainstream, and part of me wonders if they should be. They are doing work that should be rewarded and recognized.
   However, the team spirit that New Zealand exhibits all the time, and admires, such as the All Blacks, the Black Ferns, or yachting’s Team New Zealand, could help with the COVID-19 pandemic, as it’s invoked in our response. The four-week lockdown ordered by the New Zealand government has, from what I see out there, been generally accepted, even if I’ve publicly Tweeted that I’d like to see more testing, including of all those arriving back on our shores, including the asymptomatic. (I note today that the testing criteria have been loosened.) The places held up to have done well at “flattening the curve”, such as Taiwan, have managed it because, it is believed by the Financial Times and others, there is a community response, and, I would add, a largely homogeneous view when it comes to being in it together, helped in part by experience with the SARS outbreak, and possibly by the overall psyche of ‘We have an external threat, so we have to stick together.’ Each territory has a neighbour that it’s wary of: Taiwan looks across the strait at the mainland, since there hasn’t really been an armistice from 1949; Singapore has Malaysia as its rival; and South Korea has North Korea.
   Across Taiwan, there have been 13·5 cases per million population, or a total of 322 cases; New Zealand is currently sitting on 134·5 per million, or 647 cases. Singapore is on 158·7 per million, or 926 cases; South Korea, which is now seeing a fairly low daily new case increase, is on 190·9 per million, or 9,786 cases.
   I support the Level 4 approach in principle, and having the lockdown, and while we aren’t accustomed to the “external threat” as the cited Asian countries, we are blessed with the team spirit that binds Kiwis together. We are united when watching the Rugby World Cup or the America’s Cup as we root for our side, and the unity is mostly nationwide. There are some on the fringe, particularly on Facebook, based on what others have said, with ideas mostly imported from foreign countries that are more divisive than ours.
   On that note, we might have been very fortunate to have the national culture that we do to face down this threat—and not have any one person standing out as we knuckle down together. Even those who are seen regularly delivering the news—the director-general of health, for instance—do so in humble fashion, while our own prime minister goes home after we go to Level 4 and answers questions in her Facebook comment stream via live video. Even if economically we aren’t egalitarian, culturally we believe we are, and it seems to be keeping us in good stead.

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Posted in business, China, culture, leadership, New Zealand, politics | 1 Comment »

Boris Johnson is hardly Churchillian


I’ve heard world leaders describe the fight against COVID-19 as a war, and there are some parallels.
   As any student of history knows, there was such a thing as the Munich Agreement before World War II. I’ve managed to secure the summarized English translation below.

   For those wondering why the UK initially thought herd immunity would be its official answer to COVID-19, placing millions of people in danger, I’ve located the following document, which was previously covered by the Official Secrets Act.

   The British PM confirms he’s been in contact with the virus in this video from the Murdoch Press, cited by The Guardian’s Carole Cadwalladr:

   No doubt he followed it up with a rigorous hand-washing, as advised by his chief scientific officer, Sir Strangely Oddman.

   Now, of course, he has contracted COVID-19. He likes drawing comparisons to Winston Churchill, but nothing here suggests he measures up.

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Posted in culture, humour, leadership, politics, UK | 1 Comment »

Roger Nichols performs the original Hart to Hart theme


In 2013, I wrote a small note on my Tumblog about Roger Nichols’ theme to the TV series Hart to Hart. The music was played as the opening and closing themes in the pilot, and as an incidental theme to many episodes later, but few remember it. I’ve even seen websites proclaim that the Mark Snow theme that most of us know was the ‘original’, not unlike how The Love Boat attempts to exorcise the two pilot films starring Ted Hamilton and Quinn Redeker as the captains.
   The tune was later commercially released by the Carpenters as ‘Now’, among the final songs recorded by Karen Carpenter. However, that was with a different set of lyrics, and the original by Leslie Bricusse has never been heard. I suggested in 2013 that the closest might have been Mariya Takeuchi’s recording in Japanese, though that has since vanished from YouTube.
   However, there is now a post on YouTube at almost the original tempo, performed by Nichols himself, but the Bricusse lyrics remain unheard. You’d think that there’d be a fan somewhere who has the inside story.

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Z cars


I did say I’d blog when Autocade hit 4,100 models, which it did yesterday. Proof that the hundredth milestones aren’t planned: the model was the Changan Zhixiang (長安志翔 or 长安志翔, depending on which script system you prefer) of 2008, a.k.a. Changan Z-Shine. A less than stellar car with a disappointingly assembled interior, but it did have one thing many period mainland Chinese cars lacked: a self-developed engine.
   It shows the nation’s quick progress. The Zhixiang was Changan’s (back then, we’d have written Chang’an) first effort in the C-segment, after making microvans, then A-, then B-segment cars, with quick progress between each. The Changan Eado, the company’s current C-segment sedan, might still be rather derivative, but the pace of improvement is still impressive.
   After 1949 through to the late 1970s, Chinese cars in the PRC were few in number, with mass production not really considered. The first post-revolution cars had panels that were hand-beaten to the right shape in labour-intensive methods. Some of those cars borrowed heavily from western ones. Then came licensed manufacture (Jeep Cherokee, Peugeot 504, the Daihatsu Charade at Tianjin) as well as clones (Citroën Visa, SEAT Ibiza). By the 1990s some of these licensed vehicles had been adapted and facelifted locally. The PRC started the new century with a mixture of all of the above, but by the dawn of the 2010s, most Chinese press frowned upon clones and praised originality, and the next decade was spent measuring how quickly the local manufacturers were closing the gap with foreign cars. It’s even regarded that some models have surpassed the foreign competition and joint-venture partners’ offerings now. Style-wise, the Landwind Rongyao succeeds the company’s (and Ford affiliate’s) Range Rover Evoque clone, the X7, with a body designed by GFG Style (that’s Giorgetto and Fabrizio Giugiaro, the first production car credited to the father-and-son team’s new firm) and chassis tuned at MIRA. The Roewe RX5 Max is, in terms of quality, technology, and even dynamics, more than a match for the Honda CR-V—a sign of things to come, once we get past viral outbreaks. Styling-wise, it lacks the flair of the Rongyao, but everything else measures up.
   But the Zhixiang was over a decade before these. Changan did the right thing by having an original, contemporary body, and it was shedding Chinese manufacturers’ reliance on Mitsubishi’s and others’ engines. To think that was merely 12 years ago, the same year Autocade started.

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Cellphone? What cellphone?


It’s true. I spent time on business development, answering emails, doing tech stuff on our sites, and generally kept on top of things. I often wonder if I would have become an active Facebooker or Tweeter had they been invented and come into my orbit in, say, 2002. We all may have been too busy with our own ventures. The fact they surfaced (for me) in 2007, and became part of my routine the following year as the economy slowed can’t be a coincidence. Instagram, in 2012, also falls into this period. I convinced myself that these social media would provide some advantage, or bring opportunities that otherwise couldn’t be readily located elsewhere, but that wasn’t the case. Like Linkedin, I’m not sure if any of these websites have brought work opportunities that resulted in an invoice.
   Once you fall out of the habit, then the device itself isn’t that useful, either, for someone who never really embraced the cellphone as a primary means of communication—I maintained a landline all these years. I never even had a regular cellphone number till 2006: I got people to call my colleagues who did carry them (I was paying for the damned things, after all). I’m not sure I want to be contactable in my waking hours that readily. I’ll take work calls in my office, thank you, and personal calls elsewhere; and if I’m out, then I’m driving or meeting with someone, and neither is a good time to be interrupted. The landline has this amazing feature called an answerphone, and it records and plays back messages when I’m good and ready to hear them.
   Since Dad passed, there’s one fewer need to be contactable day and night, and realistically I only see it as something that other members of my family and close friends should reach me on now. The number has never appeared on a single business card of mine, for good reason. As we head into the 2020s I’m hoping each of us decides where lines should be drawn. I think mine’s right here: no more cellphones for work; at best, they’re a last resort. I need to organize my schedule better and cellphones just don’t help, apps even less so. It comes back to this crazy belief of mine that technology is here to serve us, not the other way round. By all means, if your cellphone serves you, then use it—I can think of countless professions where it is a must. But for the rest of us, it’s a relief not to be burdened with it.

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