I’m sick of the Foxconn bullshit

In 1996, I was invited to visit a factory in the USA  which produced laptop computers for a colossal global technology brand.

The visit was conducted by a supervisor who walked us around the factory floor. At one point, within earshot of workers, he said words to this effect:

“These people don’t need any skills. In fact we want them to be just like robots. We just want them to do the same thing over and over all day. That’s why it is a minimum wage job. When we need new people we just hire them for as long as we need them. We can train them to do this in half an hour.”

That incident is a vivid memory 15 years later,  because of the extreme bluntness of the comments and the fact they were made within workers’ earshot.

Now let’s fast forward to late 2010 and the present, when it has become fashionable to write about – and then wring one’s hands about – working conditions at Chinese manufacturers in light of reports of suicides at Foxconn and followups like this one in Wired or this one in the SMH.

I have no problem with these stories premises, although the latter inhabits that grey zone between conventional journalism and techniques that see journalism almost but not quite admit it’s a secondary or tertiary source.

But what I am sick of is the moral relativism that comes when we analyse one company and ignore others, and consider one issue but ignore others.

My personal experience means I know that workers who assemble consumer electronics get a shit deal. Living in the USA on minimum wage as a casual and being told to your face by a supervisor that you have no valuable skills is not a good gig. Is it worse than life in the Foxconn campus? Is the forced overtime worse than the economic reality of being offered more hours as a casual knowing that you have no power to negotiate?

For me, there are parallels.

But where was the media when I was touring that factory? Why has it taken a “sexy” product to get this debate started? Why is  our collective sense of social justice aroused by one manufacturer and the company it serves?

Where’s the inquiry into the many, many other issues that accrete around our consumption of gadgets and the companies that make them? For what it is worth, the plant I observed is now owned by a Chinese concern. Why aren’t we reading about investigations of its practices?

I’m partly to blame. I could have  reported on what I saw. It was beyond my remit at the time but I could have found somewhere to run a story about the working conditions I observed.

I chose not to.

And lots of journalists and readers around the world are also choosing to ignore things that are probably at least as bad as what goes on a Foxconn.

We can all vicariously slough off  some guilt  by tut-tutting about these stories, but that won’t make a difference. And I suspect, as I also read reams of speculation about the next shiny gadgets, that we don’t really want to.


A tale of global stupid

I like The Strokes, so when I saw that I could pre-purchase the band’s new album for just $US7.99 I jumped at the chance.

The official Sony Music download site offering this service is US based and has made the album available on March 22nd.

So fancy my surprise when I learn that the album has already been released here in Australia. I can even buy it on iTunes.

Without waiting for the 22nd.

I’ve argued before that territorial copyright just ain’t working no more. Giving away distribution fiefdoms to subsidiaries or rights-holders in different nations makes little or no sense in an age when no matter where you disseminate information it can reach the whole planet.

But this incident takes the whole thing to  new dimension of stupid. We’re all used to the USA being the “master market” where stuff gets released first. Now territorial copyright is making even that assumption unreliable.

I just wanna buy the entertainment I wanna buy, when I wanna buy it?

Can someone get rid of all these arsehats who decide on the dates it suits THEM to release something ?

An era of Australian cricket ended today

I’m making the call: an era of Australian cricket ended today.

The era started in 1987, when Australia unexpectedly won the World Cup.

It ends today because the  continuous improvement that started with that win has stopped.

Time to go back to the drawing board.

In 1987 Australian cricket was hungry. A decade of sputtering cricket since the mid-1970s, helped by the World Series circus, meant Australia had not had a cohesive team for a decade. The advent of one-day cricket meant leading players were being asked to play more than ever before. We know now that as late as 1986, Australian players thought drinking Fanta was the best preparation for a day’s play. They figured the sugar was important.

From 1987 onwards, the team started to get more support. Sports scientists and academies became part of the scene.

Our national team soared: we’ve played in all bar one World Cup final since 1987 (and won three we did play in) and swept all before us at test level.

The lineage from Border to Taylor to Waugh to Ponting was always about taking the foundations of the predecessor and building on them. Taylor added tactical sophistication. Waugh played on the edge of the rules as a kind of cricketing thought experiment. Ponting’s job has been to adapt a team, to find a way to dominate without generational genius.

Alas, the great batter (check his numbers, he is a great) has not been able to pull it off.

With a second collapse for under 100 in six months (we were all out for 88 vs. Pakistan) it is clear that the team is in crisis and Australian cricket needs to rebuild?

The signs beyond the performance of the national team? How about these:

  • Sheffield Shield cricket is a shadow of itself: The competition is producing lopsided results with teams bowled out for very little while tailenders rack up centuries.
  • Young players are not achieving: the Shield does not have a cohort of uncapped players pushing the 1000-run or 50-wickets in a season marks. When Australian cricket was on the up, we had the likes of Stuart Law, Matthew Hayden and Damien Martyn scoring heavily without being able to make the team
  • Players enter the national team with striking flaws. Philip Hughes is vulnerable on leg stump and outside off. Steve Smith is terrible under sustained off-stump pressure and wobbly under short balls. Mitchell Johnson is acutely inconsistent
  • As Peter Robuck points out, young players don’t come up against superior players often. Instead, they play against their peers in tournament play. This produces situations like a retired Glenn McGrath predicting in a festival 20/20 game just how he would get Dave Warner out (straight one, straight one, away cutter) and then doing so. Up and coming players may have great body fat levels, but little nous.

And at the peak of the game, the mens national team, we see a bowling attack without wit or discipline.

Not all is grim. In Hughes and Smith – and others outside the team, no doubt – we have players with raw talent and the spark to succeed.

But they won’t get there, I feel, with the current management and methods.

Ponting must be retained as captain for the World Cup. He won the last two without losing a match.

For the next tour, a new captain must be tried. Off the field, a thorough review is needed. The line and length of Australian cricket is now predictable.

It’s time for a new era.

Why the big four banks win

A couple of weeks ago, wearing my magazine editor’s hat, I attended a meeting at which I was asked for some input into a project one of the big four banks will run in the second half of 2011.
Yep that’s right … at least eight months from now.

These guys are thinking long term about their customer acquisition and retention strategies.

I mention this because, in the last few weeks, we’ve been thinking of refinancing our mortgage.

As part of my research for a new financial institution, as one does these days, I hit Google and searched for “credit unions Sydney”. The results were poor. Most of the credit unions had confusing websites. Contact details were hard to find and call centres did not operate out of business hours. Email seemed not be a medium with which credit unions were familiar.

This all left me thinking that, for all their faults, the big four are at least pretty good at communicating with prospects and customers. Even if they screw us once we’ve signed up.

Two more things have since told me more about why we stick with the big four.

One was a full-page ad placed in the SMH by the Credit Unions, pointing out that they represent a financial services alternative. The ad had no call to action and no contact details, which is pathetic.

The second was ongoing analysis of the deals on offer across several financial institutions. Long story short, we’ve found that bundling products, going for credit cards with points schemes (and always paying on time) then using points for things like shopping vouchers saves quite a bit each year. A little more, in fact, than moving to another financial institution.

So the big four have the littl’uns outmuscled on marketing and products.

No wonder there’s no-one at Credit Union HQ sharp enough to notice the missing call to action.

The results of my Apple vs. Microsoft auction experiment

Some of you may have read my last post,  in which I announced my way of celebrating the 1st birthday of WIndows 7 with an auction of my pristine, never-worn, Windows 7 t-shirt, cap, shopping bag and 2GB USB memory stick.

That auction was crosslinked with another for a frequently-worn Apple Store Sydney opening t-shirt, from 2008.

I’m a big, sweaty, guy. You don’t want to wear my old t-shirts. Trust me.

The result?

The Windows collection attracted 106 page views, five watchers and a couple of bids. The winner, who bid more than 24 hours before the auction closed, will pay $4.25 for the collection.

The Apple t-shirt attracted nine watchers, 12 bids and a final price of $51.00.

The proceeds of both auctions will be donated to MS Australia, as part of my participation in the Gong Ride.

Are media consumers killing the media with love? And is Tony Abbott helping?

Since the Australian election I’ve been feeling a strange ennui.

The media cycle has slowed down and I don’t get novel or interesting information anywhere near as often as I’ve become accustomed to.

I wait for a new factoid to arrive, something to get my thought processes going or fire my emotions.

There’s nothing there.

That’s not to say the media – of which I am of course a part – is not trying.

All through the negotiations between the major parties and the independents, there was speculation galore. Every word seized on. Tiny factoids analysed.

Like many, I revelled in it. But I now see the same sort of writing, at a time when less is happening.

It’s made me realise that I go looking for news a lot, but that the content on offer is not very nourishing. I get a lot of “who” and “what” and “where” but very little high-value “why.” And it is the “why,” I have always believed, that is the reason to consume media because I want to be able to make sense of the world, not just know how it is turning.

Now as it happens, I think the Liberal Party’s communications plans are tailor-made for this environment where there’s a lot of interest in the “who what and where.”

I surmise those tactics as containing the following elements:

  1. Always attack;
  2. If you cannot reasonably attack, cast doubt on whatever the government is doing;
  3. Make any weakness a strength by linking issues on which you are weak to related issues on which your opponents are weak. Hence the NBN is not argued against on grounds of utility, but on potential to create wastage;
  4. Never admit mistakes, instead dispute the interpretation/and or motives of the source whose views have become dominant and made yours appear in error. Thus the Attorney General’s advice on pairing the Speaker can be dismissed as somehow errant.
  5. If all else fails, drape yourself in the flag and say you are defending Australian values and your opponents are dangerous pinko flakes.

This kind of communications style, I believe, lends itself to constant coverage because it always creates drama. You cannot attack without being colourful.

Media consumers who want more, more often, get what they want.

And the sheer volume of it means the meme of the day or the week floats to the top pretty fast.

I’m not sure if anyone’s understanding of issues really gets advanced all that far, or if debate improves as a result. Others have talked about how the blogosphere can become an echo chamber for one’s own prejudices, so there’s no need for me to go there again.

Slow News

Myself? I’m trying to wean myself off the expectation there’s always novelty springing up, and that I could or should seek it out.

I’m trying to reduce my media consumption, to seek out byways of perspective and analysis instead of always wading into the river fact.

I don’t want all this news any more.

I like paying taxes, with them I buy civilization

The US juror Oliver Wendell Holmes uttered the title of this post.

I’d love to hear it spoken in the next few days in Australia.

But today, when our government announced a new excise on cigarettes, the opposition has immediately labeled it a tax grab. This weekend, when the government releases the first serious attempt at long-term thinking on tax I can recall in my lifetime, expect the same reaction, namely shrill arguments that the government wants to tax us more.

Well …. d’uh. Of course it wants to tax us more. We want our government to do more stuff and someone has to pay for it. We want better roads, schools, hospitals, industry protection, defence, refugee rejection mechanisms and environmental band-aiding. We want it all and we want it to be excellent, because if our kids aren’t adept on PowerPoint when they leave school, or if we ever get stuck in a traffic jam or hospitals can’t do everything right, instantly, we feel ripped off or behind the rest of the world.

I’ve benefited from this attitude thanks to middle-class welfare I frankly did not deserve.

So it’s time for this debate to wise up.

Surely we can all make the intellectual hop to realize that taxes pay for civilization. So why can’t we also rationalise that Australia’s expectations of its government to provide more, better, services means taxes are also likely to rise? And why can’t we also realise that immediate, knee-jerk negative reactions to tax rises are ignoring the bleeding obvious.

If lower taxes are really what is needed, I am happy for the Right to propose a massive disengagement of government from service delivery and more user-pays. But frankly Australia’s Right just has no credibility on this. They’ll prop up their favorites and justify that as necessary while also talking up the wrongs of government interference in the market. Hamstrung by the Nationals, their version of the free market is a horrible compromise.

But instead of falling for the “more tax is bad” shouting that’s about to start, let’s please have a sensible debate about just how we fund the things this country wants , and whether those are the things we really need.

Post 14, 2009: Reviewing the Cuddlee

Sometime last year, Jo White (aka @mediamum) wrote a series of tweets describing an object called a Snuggie.

If you are disinclined to follow the link it’s a fleecy blanket … with arms. And it has a “so bad, it’s good” advertorial I’ve embedded below.

There’s also a parody video.

Now you would think that after watching the parody, I’d think the Snuggie is a stupid, ugly thing. But no … ever since @Mediamum’s tweets I had been oddly intrigued by the Snuggie.

So when catchoftheday offered a local alternative/clone, the “Cuddlee”, at a price of less than $20 , including postage, I bought one.

It arrived with this …
… which gives you a fair idea of what is on offer.

But I felt like I should go further and describe it in more detail. So here goes.

The Cuddlee is made of thin polar fleece. Thin as in you can see through it. Perhaps thin as in “spare blanket from a $40/night
truckstop” is a more accurate description.

The garment, if that is the word, has at least been finished with a blanket stitch. But it is quite rough cut and there are some small tears around the outside.

The sleeves are enormous. You’ll start to remember really off jokes from Borat when you wear it.

It certainly warms up the front of you, but as soon as you put it on, your back feels cold. This could be solved with some kind of fastening mechanism, but I doubt the thin fabric could cope with that. The lack of fastener means the Cuddlee drapes awkwardly and is not easy to wear while walking. Nor is does it make any accommodation for the human neck and chin, and its rectangular shape means you have to somehow shunt bits of it out of the way so it does not cover your face. The resulting folds have nowhere to go and drape in a silly way.

As I have been warned, it makes a lot of static electricity. My daughter has walked away from it with her hair in considerable dissaray!

Having said that, I have found it quite useful when sitting down in front of my computer. The back of my chair keeps my back warm and the Cuddlee takes care of everything else, other than the rear of my calves.

The Cuddlee is, if anything, too large. I’m 190cm tall and heavily built and the garment covers me very comfortably when reclining on a pile of pillows. 20090515_0311

Overall, the Cuddlee has some utility. It does keep you warm. But it is hideous, with its only aesthetic redeemer being the fact it makes you look a bit like the Avout from Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.

If  someone gave you a Cuddlee in, say, 1985, as a freebie when you flew business class on an airline owned by a developing nation’s government, you’d think it was pretty cool.

In 2009, it’s just tat. But it’s my tat and it’s quite warm and I think I will be able to hang onto it for one season before I feel like I’ve gotten $20 worth of fun out of it.