Posts Tagged China

There’s no glory in hindsight

1990 Lexus LS400They say hindsight is always 20/20. It’s also not very stimulating.

The Klingons were right to believe that life isn’t much without glory, and there’s not much glory in reassessing things after the fact.

Take Thomas Friedman’s seminal globalization text The Lexus & The Olive Tree. Friedman chose a Japanese luxury car as a representative of all things modern because, when he wrote the book, it looked like Japan was going to take over the world.

Friedman was blown away by the robots that assembled each Lexus, because after installing and caulking a windshield, they would spin around to allow a well-placed knife to slice off the residue. It’s the little things, I suppose.

The Japanese car industry’s dominance went beyond its products’ well-sealed windshields. When it debuted at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1989, the Lexus LS400 was a revelation: a car with the luxury of a Mercedes-Benz, and the durability of Keith Richards.

As a kid, I remember the adults around me being very impressed when a friend or relative drove up in a Lexus. This was the mid 1990s; Lexus had been around for less than 10 years, and it was already a byword for exclusivity.

Then there was the Acura NSX, which whipped a Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1, Lotus Esprit Turbo SE, Porsche 911 Carrera 4, and Ferrari 348 in a 1991 Car and Driver comparison test, among others.

It seemed like Japan would ruin everything by being too good, but reality turned out to be a lot less dramatic.

Japanese cars are still big sellers in the United States, but they compete with reinvigorated American and European makes, as well as a couple from Korea. Plus, many of them are actually built here.

As Motor Trend editor at large angus Mackenzie noted in a recent column, Japan is now just one of many competitive nations in the automotive world.

Just look at the most recent Lexus LS 460hL: it’s a nice car, but it’s no longer a leader. While Japan continues to excel in other areas of the automotive sphere, it doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of analysts any more.

Qoros 3 sedanSo what’s past is past, right?

The media has a tendency toward sensationalism that doesn’t seem to ebb no matter how many times people are wrong.

There’s been plenty of hysteria over the past few years that China would take over the world economy because of its rapid growth, and its government’s tendency to borrow the most convenient bits from capitalism and totalitarianism.

But are things really that bad? China is already starting to show the strains of unlimited industrialization, so maybe we’re not doomed after all.

“Not doomed” doesn’t sound as exciting as an apocalypse, though. Or a car-building robot.

Advertisements

, , , ,

Leave a comment

The Space Rush

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launchThey say space is the final frontier, and like all terran frontiers, people are rushing to claim it.

In a way, we’re in the midst of a space-exploration renaissance, with a bizarre mix of nations, corporations, and random billionaires looking to stake their claim in the heavens.

Earlier this week, China announced that it had landed a robotic rover named Jade Rabbit on the Moon, while Iran is sending monkeys into space. Its the 1960s all over again.

Meanwhile, a host of private entities are making their way into space, helmed by a list of names that looks like it was generated by a random search of Wired.com.

There’s Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is already delivering cargo to the International Space Station, and hopes to modify its Dragon capsule to carry human passengers.

Then there’s Jeff Bezos’ mysterious Blue Origin, which is testing rockets and capsules at a top secret facility in Texas. Is Bezos trying to explore the galaxy, or conquer it?

Other, less practical schemes include Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which hopes to send a few (very wealthy) tourists to the edge of space soon, and Mars One, which plans to send colonists on a one-way trip to the red planet. Don’t laugh: there are already 200,000 volunteers.

While it may seem haphazard and–at times–zany, this should be encouraging for those who believe space exploration is an important pursuit.

That’s because while we’re a long way from Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets, space exploration is taking on the exact same tone as nearly everything else humans do on a large scale.

Exploration purely for its own sake is a nice sentiment, but what really drives people is money and competition. Whether its the Cold War or potential business opportunities, things tend to get done faster when there’s another motive.

Today’s space pioneers may turn out to be more like the money-grubbing Ferengi or expansionist Romulans than Starfleet officers, but hopefully they will at least ensure that humans leave Earth orbit at all.

, , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

First world problems

So I’ve encountered a new phrase called “first world problems.” I have a problem with this phrase.

It seems to mean something that really isn’t a big deal, like having to prepare a presentation or being peeved that the barista put cream in your Starbucks concoction instead of milk. You know, things that don’t have to do with subsistence.

I see what people are getting at here. We all get wrapped up in our lives, make mountains out of mole hills and forget how lucky we are to live the way we do. That’s fine.

Checking your whining with a phrase like “first world problems” is a little obnoxious, though. It sounds like the person is saying “I know I shouldn’t be complaining about this trivial thing, but I will,” or “See how conscious I am of other people’s suffering?”

Both are very “first world” things to do. I’m a huge fan of irony, but too much of a good thing is still a problem. Drawing an implied comparison between oneself and a starving African child or a smog-choked Chinese factory worker doesn’t make a person sound smart or sensitive, it just makes them sound like they are trying to license their whining.

The phrase “first world problems” is also etymologically dubious. Do you ever notice why people never talk about the second world? It’s because the terms first world and second world were coined during the Cold War to describe the United States and its NATO allies and the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies, respectively. Any countries not within either the U.S. or Soviet sphere were referred to as the third world.

So maybe we should stop using outdated political terms to label our trivial complaints. It’s perfectly fine to complain, even if you know that someone else would be happy to be in your position. It’s not a big deal, and certainly doesn’t merit a snarky term like “first world problems.”

, , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Saab: The zombie car company

Saab-badgeThis is turning into the Week of Revisited Posts. I’ve spent a lot of time sobbing over Saab, the quirky Swedish car company that went bust last December. But now Saab has risen from the dead. A Swedish-Asian conglomerate bought the company’s assets and plans to use them to build an electric car. The real question is: will zombie Saab be the same “Born from Jets” basket case we know and love?

In May, Japense investment firm Sun Investment and Hong Kong-based National Modeern Energy Holdings Ltd. put together a phantom car company called National Electric Vehicle Sweden (NEVS) and started bidding on Saab’s remains within a week of registering the Swedish company.

Now, National Electric Vehicle and its Asian backers have control of Saab’s assets, which include its production facilities and designs. The new company does not have the rights to Saab’s last two cars, the 9-4X and 9-5, both of which were designed by General Motors.

What it does have are the intellectual property rights to the 9-3, Saab’s smaller sedan, convertible, and wagon. NEVS plans to build an electric 9-3 targeted at the Chinese market, and put it on sale in 2013 or 2014.

So, like any other zombie, Saab’s reanimated corpse is walking the streets, but the company is still dead. NEVS may not even use the Saab name on its electric car, and that’s fine by me. This looks like some investors’ idea of making a quick buck by cobbling together a “new” car from someone else’s design, and selling it to people who are so eager for new cars that they don’t care if said cars are any good.

Still, it’s hard not to feel a pang of emotion. Like seeing an old friend shambling around and crying for human flesh, it just doesn’t feel right. The people of Trollhattan, where Saab’s factory currently lies dormant, will have jobs again, so that’s something. Nonetheless, Saab is still dead, and I’m still sobbing.

, , , ,

Leave a comment

The Republicans’ worst enemy

Nixon portrait by Norman RockwellEvery political party has members that it is ashamed of. The Democrats have Lyndon Baines Johnson and, to some extent, Jimmy Carter. The Republicans have that incompetent oaf William Howard Taft. However, the GOP’s biggest political bogeyman is Richard Milhous Nixon, and not just for the obvious reasons. Republicans could probably excuse Watergate, but they could never excuse Nixon’s love of big government.

Today’s Republican Party is obsessed with small government, but few presidents have done as much to expand government power as Nixon. Like any power-hungry leader, his foreign policy was a one man show. Nixon made many controversial decisions, such as the Christmas Bombings and the invasion of Cambodia near the end of the Vietnam War, unilaterally. “Tricky Dick” was also pathologically secretive. He sent Henry Kissinger to negotiate secretly with China, a move that would surely be out of line in a party that believes the president shouldn’t even raise taxes.

When President Obama authorized air and cruise missile strikes against Qaddafi loyalists in Libya, the right wing decried his actions. They said Obama was overstepping his authority by authorizing military action without consulting Congress, and accused the President of dragging America into another war. Those are valid points, but Obama didn’t do anything Nixon wouldn’t have done. American troops did not invade Libya, but they did invade Cambodia.

Nixon was also a fan of big government in domestic policy. He may have thought everyone under the age of 30 was a filthy hippie, but he also created the Environmental Protection Agency and approved the Clean Air Act. Most Republicans believe the government should spend less, but Nixon authorized massive agricultural subsides, so you can thank America’s 37th President for all the high-fructose corn syrup in your food.

In a stump speech, Newt Gingrich implied that all African-Americans are lazy, and the conservative backlash against birth control made the Republican Party seem a tad misogynist. In that context, the current frontrunners would be appalled by Nixon’s platform. In 1970, Nixon implemented the Philadelphia plan, the first major federal affirmative action program. While he was not exactly a feminist, he also supported the Equal Rights Amendment.

Clearly, a lot has changed since 1974. Today, Republican candidates are encouraged to take a more absolutist view, saying “yes” to tax cuts, “no” to health care reform, and leaving it at that. Nixon, who ran on a “Southern Strategy” meant to play on whites’ opposition to the Civil Rights movement, but also supported affirmative action, seems much more rational and nuanced than his successors. How could that be?

Many people shudder every time Newt Gingrich talks about the biased liberal media, or when Rick Santorum talks about religion or family values, but they were nothing compared to “Tricky Dick.” This was, after all, a man who kept a list of enemies. Nixon cut his teeth politically in the “Red Scare” days of he 1950s, and thought he could convince North Vietnam to sign a peace treaty by dropping more bombs. There was that whole Watergate thing, too.

The Republican Party of 2012 is very ideological; its members adhere to certain ideas and believe they are non-negotiable. Nixon was the same way, which is what drove him to act unilaterally. He sent Kissinger to meet with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in secret because he did not want to deal with opposition from Congress and the media.

Nixon could be just as stubborn as any current Republican candidate, but he was also more interested in holding onto power. Anyone in 1968 could tell that supporting peace in Vietnam would garner a significant number of votes, so that’s what Nixon did. In office, he supported liberal policies because he knew it would give him political credibility beyond the Republican base. In other words, Nixon was a real politician.

That level of activity is in stark contrast to the current Republican strategy, where members of Congress stall debates and candidates spend more time talking about what they disagree with than what they actually plan on doing. When Richard Nixon starts looking like a big government liberal in comparison, America is in a very scary place.

Nixon’s abuse of power was a clear demonstration of how badly things can go when a Commander-in-Chief shuts out the voice of opposition. Yet Nixon was able to acknowledge that opposition, at least for his own selfish political reasons. Even that is too much compromise for today’s Republican party.

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment