Wednesday, 23 July 2003

Being Angry Doesn't Make Things Right

Something I have several times encountered when visiting the US is quite angry responses when I innocently step out of line using a bus, or buying something in a shop. Quite a high fraction of these incidents result from interaction with people from disadvantaged minorities.

The University of Michigan has an amazing free bus system to work around its highly dispersed campuses. Even in off-peak times like the summer break, you seldom have to wait more than 5 minutes for a bus. This morning, I climbed onto a bus rather quickly, in the interests of allowing the driver to move off, and didn't see someone planning on getting off, who had been standing a little back of the door.

The driver really chewed me out. I had seen that guy standing there, and showed no respect, walking right in his face.

If I had really done this, he would have a case, but how did he know what I had or had not seen? It would have served his purpose just as well if he had made the same comment in a lighter way -- you didn't really mean to do that did you? You should look where you are going. I would have taken the point without feeling someone was trying to be obnoxious to me.

A few days back, I was shopping in the Borders bookstore (I believe the Ann Arbor branch is the original). No one was waiting to pay, and it wasn't clear where to line up, so I just walked up to the nearest till. The cashier, who hadn't been watching me before, got very annoyed, and gave me the same kind of "who do you think you are" response. Who I think I am is a stranger in town who doesn't always see things which may be obvious to locals.

Some years back, when I was visiting Palo Alto, I had a more extreme case of this, after I arrived at San Francisco airport. I knew I needed the 7F bus between San Francisco and Palo Alto, in the Palo Alto direction. A 7F bus arrived, and as it stopped, the scrolling writing on the side wasn't showing the direction, so I climbed on and asked the driver if he was going to Palo Alto. He grunted something which sounded like "Yes". In any case, I knew that the bus service had a rule that you weren't allowed luggage if you were doing the segment between the airport and the city. What's more, I paid him the fare for Palo Alto, not for the trip to the city. Soon after we left, I realised we were going the wrong way and asked the driver about it. He was uninterested in my problems, and I had to go into the city and wait a considerable time for a bus going the other way. As I climbed onto this bus, the driver started yelling at me for bringing luggage onto the bus. I eventually managed to get the words "Palo Alto" out, and he said, "Why didn't you say so?" like it was my fault he was rude. I wrote a letter to SamTrans complaining about all this. It's not that the bus fare was very high -- only a dollar or 2 -- but I would have expected at least a form letter back, but I heard nothing from them.

No doubt those drivers are still there being unpleasant to random strangers, which is a pity, because their jobs depend on the service they are offering. Not only their jobs, but those of the other drivers who are nice and helpful.

Don't get me wrong. I know some people have a good case for feeling hard done by. The US in the 21st century is still a very unequal society. But picking on confused strangers doesn't solve the problem. All it does is increase the hard-done-by person's own feeling of bitterness. When I go home, these unhappy people will still be unhappy.

What's Wrong with US Cars

US car makers are forever getting fussed about offshore competition -- remember the Saturn, which was going to out-Japanese the Japanese? Still going, but it's just another American brand going nowhere.

So what's the big problem?

Design by committee and badge engineering.

Look at the Buick Rendezvous if you dare or the Pontiac Aztek (no link, it's too ugly -- well, ok here it is, but promise not to look without a throw-up bag).

Both of these vehicles are misbegotten combinations of mismatched curves and surfaces. If you look at them a small piece at a time, the pieces aren't too ugly on their own. Put them together and you have something which reminds me of the animal-drawing party game I played as a kid. You draw a section of the animal, starting from one end, then fold the page so only the ends of the lines are visible, then pass it to the next person. The result? A weird animal with the rear end of a horse, the midsection of an alligator and the front of a chicken. A Pontiac. Choose the animal parts in the opposite order. A Buick.

My guess is that companies like GM have a different design team for different parts of the car -- probably with different management processes to get design approval. Hence, no design integrity.

How can this kind of thing happen?

At least part of the problem is badge engineering -- respinning a basic design to fit marginally different niches by making it look different. The British car industry was big on this in the 1970s, and look where they are now. If a car is designed as a basic platform, with different corporate looks pasted on, it is bound to look as if it's designed by a committee -- unless a chief designer with the clout to maintain integrity is in charge.

Why is this done? For one thing, the focus is wrong -- if you have two divisions selling similar products, your mindset is how to differentiate them from each other, not from the competition.

But there's another thing.

From the look of many American cars, I would say that designers are specialized into small niches, like tail lights and door handles, and no designer is in overall control. (The project head is probably an accountant.)

This is probably cheaper because you don't have to pay some star designer to get the product right.

But making a product which no one would be seen dead in is a false economy. The market for hearses isn't that big.

Tuesday, 22 July 2003

What's wrong with Hollywood?

In the 1950s and 60s, a fair number of great movies were made, still considered classics today. Some Like it Hot. Casablanca. The Apartment. Rebel Without a Cause.

These movies weren't "art" movies or "alternative" movies, or unusual productions by unknown directors.

They were mainstream.

They featured the hottest stars of their day.

How often, today, do you see a mainstream movie that's really good? One that you think people will still be keen to see in 40 years?

What's changed is that Hollywood movies used to be about people.

Today, almost every movie is about situations. Car chases. Special effects (which sometimes are just meaningless light shows -- not even situations).

Many successful movies in fact are parodies -- sometimes not even of other genres, but of themselves. Look at Johnny English, a parody of the Bond genre, which is itself a parody of itself. These movies work because they laugh at themselves and, by extension, all of Hollywood.

Why? Because Hollywood produces nothing to take seriously -- at least not as mainstream entertainment.

Hollywood is a victim of its own success. The star system, which used to produce acting of great character, has become overblown to the extent that even mediocre actors can be marketed as stars, and their inability to portray anything like real people convincingly means that frills and tinsel in the form of car chases etc. have to substitute for real entertainment.

Marketing has replaced imagination, because the process of identifying real stars is too risky.

But there's hope for the future.

Some of recent animated movies have shown the potential for replacing human actors by animation. We aren't quite there yet, but we're getting close. Once we factor out the costs of manufactured stars of mediocre ability and maximal fees, movies can return to imagination as their currency.

Screen Actor's Guild, beware.

Sunday, 20 July 2003

Chewing the fat?

While I was walking around Ann Arbor, MI, I found a restaurant called "Dinersty". I guess they really meant "Dynasty". But the name kind of fits, judging by the size of some of the people I see walking the streets ...

That brings me to good advice to people who want to lose weight.

Look at what fat people do, and do the opposite.

For instance: stay off diet drinks. Look at the size of people who drink them.

I used to think this was a joke, but it's not. Someone told me recently that artificial sweeteners confuse your metabolism, because they are chemically similar to sugar, even if they don't digest the same way. A diabetic she knew had been using artificially sweetened drinks and was suffering all sorts of problems. As soon as the artificial sweetener was removed from the diet, the problems went away.

Another strange thing is the way some people appear to be able to eat anything without gaining weight, and the way some people appear to absorb calories through their eyeballs (they only need look at food to get fat). The truth is that the first bunch are social eaters: they forget food when others aren't watching. The other kind are self-conscious about their food problem around other people, but secretly nibble all the time when they aren't being watched.

Again: observe, and do what the trim people do. Only eat while other people are watching.

Life's mysteries go away if you just take the trouble to observe.

The Latest Thing in Hegemony

I am starting to see opinions that the US should extend its hegemony in the wake of the great success of regime change in Iraq.

I won't go to whether Iraq has been a success (tell me when the jury's back).

But the concept of regime change is actually not new.

All that has changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union is that what used to be done covertly is now done overtly.

What has the success of past regime change been? On the whole, pretty pathetic. With the excuse of opposing Communism, democratically elected governments were overthrown and replaced by vicious dictatorships. Of course, things have changed now: there is no evil empire to oppose so maybe the New Regime Change will be more benign. But ask the people of Angola, Congo, Southeast Asia and countless other countries and regions whether regime change US-style is such a popular option.