Friday, May 15, 2009

Must be a slow news day

Best and worst lists are a bit like kidney stones. Some magazines are prone to having them and they keep coming back at inoppertune times as painful as they may be. Perhaps is taking a breather from stories about airhead beauty queens and governors and its other obsessions, but for whatever reason, they've launched into another one of their short sighted, opinionated and irrelevant exercises: 50 worst cars of all time, 10 biggest tech failures, etc.

It's fun to go back a few years and read about the things journalists rave about that eventually seem to have had little merit other than advertising revenue, but it's less funny to endure the spectacle of a journalist imposing an ill informed, narrow minded view of history on people who know more and know better. The phonograph, for instance, must be a crude and laughable thing because it isn't an iPod, you see.

Of course there are always enough people who submit to critics to allow them to make a living, but that that brings up my second opinion of the day: nobody likes critics, not even other critics and that's probably the reason so many of them make a career out of being vindictive.

So what's the first car on the 50 worst of all time list? The 1909 Ford Model T. "A piece of junk" says Dan Neil, Pulitzer Prize-winning automotive critic and syndicated columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

It was also the best selling car of its day, being ideally suited to the roads of America and the budgets of Americans. Faster, lighter, more efficient, vastly easier to drive and priced at a small fraction of the competition, it changed Western culture.That in itself is a negative to Neill who thinks we'd be better off without cars at all, it seems.
"with its blacksmithed body panels and crude instruments, the Model T was a piece of junk, the Yugo of its day."
That hardly fits with the fact that it was an unprecedented commercial success, produced for 20 years and that Ford sold 15 million of them, nor with the fact that the body panels in 1909 were in fact made of wood and that in the absence of speed limits, you didn't need a speedometer. Of course it engendered such an aftermarket that you could purchase countless accessories if you really needed them. In truth, its monoblock 4 cylinder engine was more advanced than cars that cost many times as much but had one or two cylinders or even bolted together two twin cylinder blocks to make a four. Its semiautomitic transmission was the ancestor of today's automatic -- nobody else had one for many years afterward.

Was the Edsel one of the worst cars ever because it didn't sell well -- or did it just not sell very well because people like Neill made it a giggling point? They're worth a fortune today and are no more bizarre looking than other cars of the day. Was the 1934 Chrysler Airflow a terrible car, or was it that aerodynamic efficiency wasn't selling any better in 1934 than it does in our box obsessed era? Again, they're worth a lot of money today.

So what then do we make of Time's ten most "collossal" tech failures? Not much in my opinion. To be listed, a product had to clearly miss the mark of living up to the potential that its creators expected, and that the public and press were lead to believe was possible. Nice, so we're looking at things that are failures because tech editors with journalism degrees didn't really understand what it was all about or that disappointed the inventors. If we used these criteria universally, the printing press and the telephone were failures and nearly everything else from Velcro to radio was too.

One has to wonder whether or not the entire print media would fall prey to some future "worst failures" list when Time's time has past. Everything is crude in the beginning, few things become immediate successes and immediate success is no indicator of continued success and the opinions of critics, including this one, mean very little in the long run.

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