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The same old bullshit, for 2 hundred years. First it was the Catholics - German, Italian and Irish - and then Asians, and then Jews. Whose next?

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Saturday, November 01, 2008

EDSEL

I find it hard to believe that major American auto makers could have ever been so stupid as to get themselves into the current financial fix. Oh, sure they’ve all made mistakes. After all, you never hear about people collecting a model “S”, or a Model “P” Ford. And that is not just because old man Ford sold fifteen million of the mythical Model “T”s. It was the Model “T” that made Time magazine’s list of the fifty worst cars of all times; “…a piece of junk, the Yugo of its day.” And that wasn’t even the worst disaster that Ford ever made. That had to be the Edsel.
It wasn’t just a car. It was an entire new line of cars, originally conceived in 1954, to compete with General Motor’s Cadillac division. The chief designer on the project was a young man from Canada, Roy Brown. Years later Brown told "The New Yorker" magazine, “Our goal was to create a vehicle which would be unique…and yet somehow familiar.” The design team took ‘front on’ photos of the 19 other cars on the road at the time and realized that from a few hundred feet away they were indistinguishable from one another. But clay models of Brown’s original grillwork were so graceful and delicate the engineers questioned how much fresh air would reach the engine.

So Brown created what he called the “Horsecollar” (officially known as “the impact ring”), front and center. It reminded one critic of “a vagina with teeth”. In fact, while the design still existed only in clay, a prankster taped fur in-between the front grillwork which left it, according to Robin Jones, then a young Ford designer, looking like “…a hormonally disturbed cow after giving birth”. Kinder critics said it resembled “an Oldsmobile sucking on a lemon”, or just “a toilet seat”. Looking for the perfect name Ford hired one of the largest advertising companies in the world, Foote, Cone and Belding, (“Successful Advertising is Only a Foote Away”) who offered up 6,000 possible names (including the “Mongoose Civique” and the “Utopian Turtletop”). Growled one Ford executive, “We hired them to come up with a name. They came up with six thousand.” Finally, after months of searching in vain, they settled on “Edsel”, as a tribute to Edsel Ford, son of old man Henry Ford.

Edsel Ford was a civilized, cultured, talented and intelligent man who was also a skilled car maker. But suffice it to say that if he hadn’t died of a heart attack from overwork in 1943 there would never have been a Ford Edsel named after Edsel Ford. When Ford’s Public Relations chief, C. Gayle Warnock, was presented with the name for the new cars he claims to have said, “We have just lost 200,000 in sales”. They financed the Edsel with the infusion of cash they got by going public in 1957, and from the success of the new Thunderbird. But at the last minute they decided to start pinching pennies. Rather than establish a brand new production line, management chose to assemble Edsels on the same production lines used to make Lincolns and Mercurys, and at the same time. The resulting confusion was perfectly predictable. The assembly line workers and plant management both saw the Edsel as an intrustion in their regular work scheduals and gave the new cars short shrift. Too many of their "mistakes" would slip through because of the advertising campaign.

Ford chose a mystery introduction for the Edsel. Cars were shipped wrapped in fabric, and the 1,160 brand new Edsel dealers were strictly instructed to keep the cars wrapped up on their lots until “E” day, which was supposed to be September 4, 1957. However, a used car dealer in Cleveland, Ohio had an unwrapped white Edsel on display two days early. So much for the surprise

Meanwhile the $2 million advertising campaign ($14.5 million in 2007 dollars) began by showing only the hood ornament, and then blurry shots of speeding Edsels, and drawings of draped cars on transporters, always with the taunting tag line, “The new Edsel is coming!” Finally, on Friday night, September 13, during the premier of the “Edsel Show”, staring Bing Crosby, with Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Louis Armstrong, Bob Hope and the Four Preps on CBS, an announcer, standing in front of a curtain –the car’s silhouette only hinting at its design - spoke in warm golden tones; “And now for the moment I'm sure you've all been looking forward to, a look at the newest member of the Ford family of fine cars ... the Edsel!" It may have been the greatest advertising buildup since Moses came down off the mountain. And like Moses' trip, it was all downhill from there - one stumble downhill after another.

The dealers' showrooms were full of people, but few customers. Ford had expected to sell 2 million Edsel the first year. They only sold half a million. What went wrong?

Stumble Number One was that between August 1957 and February 1958 American industrial output declined by 10%. During the same six months two million were added to the unemployment rolls, retails sales dropped 2% and so did take home pay. The recession was bad enough that it gave Democrats a majority in the House in 1958, and set up Kennedy’s victory in 1960. In short, this was not the time to introduce a new line of expensive automobiles. And, Stumble Number Two, there were a few small problems with the cars. The much ballyhooed "Vac-U Start" feature, which was supposed to help you if the car should stall, displayed a dangerous tendency to restart the car after you had put it in park, turned the engine off and walked away. And the “Teletouch” push button transmission shifter, located in the center of the steering wheel, was so new and so secret that nobody knew how to service it.

And then there was the famous hood ornament. The first look many customers had gotten of the new Edsel line was an advertising photograph of the hood ornament. But when the big V8 engine was pulling the Edsel at over seventy miles an hour, which was easy to do, the hood ornament had a nasty tendency to come flying off and turn into shrapnel.

Stumble Number Three was that many Edsels left the factories with wrong or missing parts, brought on by the confusing assembly process. When the wrappers were finally taken off after "E" Day, many Edsels simply would not start. Wires had been incorrectly connected and an occasional transmission had been installed backwards. And many of those Edsels that did start prompted dissatisfied owners to later claim that Edsel stood for “Every Day Something Else Leaks”. (Decades later, when Ford failed to respond well to the invasion of well made inexpensive Japanese cars, the name Ford was said to stand for “Found On Road, Dead”).

Stumble Number Four was that Ford had introduced the 1958 Edsel in September of 1957, so it was competing with other Ford products being sold at 1957 inventory closeout prices.

And then there was the advertising blitz. As one observer has noted, although customers had been primed to expect a “…plutonium-powered, pancake-making wonder car…” what they were being offered was, “…kind of homely, fuel thirsty and too expensive…”; Stumble Number Five.

Almost over night the Edsel went from wonder kid to village idiot. In 1958, when a crowd in Peru pelted Vice President Richard Nixon with eggs while he was riding in a brand new Edsel, he would quip, “They were not attacking me. They were attacking the car.” And in 1961 when funny man Deputy Barney Fife, on the Andy Griffith Show, bought a used car, it simply had to be a sky blue Edsel convertible. The audience was laughing even before the steering wheel slowly projected itself into Barney’s face. The Edsel had become “…an aggalmoration (sic) of everything the public had grown tired of…vulgar ostentation and superferlous (sic) size…”.By November of 1959, after building 110,847 Edsels and losing $350 million ($2 billion, 463 million 926 thousand dollars in 2007 dollars) Ford surrendered, and stopped production of the Edsel. A legend was born.

Three years later Ford would introduce the Mustang, a car designed to fit what the customer wanted, rather a car design looking for a customer, which the Edsel was.

Today just six thousand Edsels survive. And Roy Brown, the now elderly designer of the “vagina with teeth”, still insists with a straight face, “The car is a complete success as far as I'm concerned." And that kind of thinking is what is wrong with Detroit, today.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

THE BUTCH BABE

I would write Mary Walker a love letter, but frankly I don’t think she would respond. In the first place she’s been dead for a hundred years. They buried her in 1919 in her suit, complete with pants and a vest, and her medal of honor pinned to her coat - still the only one ever awarded to a woman. But secondly, and more importantly, I suspect that Mary was gay. Not that it really matters, or is any of my business, but...
I know some people would rather believe that “gayness” is a recent “liberal” life style choice, but really it has been around for as long as sexual reproduction has. Now, I have no proof that Mary Walker was a gay except that she wore pants, which at the time was the Lesbian “Sine qua non”.. Thank God we have moved past that. But gay or not the lady was very butch. And I mean that in a complementary way.My suspicion is also that she was far more attractive in person than the still photographs of the time admit, because Mary was always in motion. Her father was a self taught surgeon in Oswego, New York.
It was and is a port town, and in the years leading up to the civil war was a railroad and canal junction as well, 140 miles from Niagara but just 60 miles across Lake Ontario from Kingston, Canada.
Mary was the youngest child of six - five of them girls - and graduated from the Syracuse Medical College in 1855, the only woman in her class. After graduation she married Albert Miller, and they set up a joint practice in Rome, New York. But neither the marriage nor the practice took. I have to wonder if poor Albert had any idea what he was getting into. But I also wonder if Mary did. She was just twenty-one, and had already taken to wearing pants in public. The enormity of that decision for a 19th century woman is difficult to envision today. The Victorian ideal was the hourglass figure, with a waist no wider than 10 to 20 inches. Now, the only adults on earth with a natural 15 inch waist are really skinny people. But skinny women tend to have no bosoms and no behinds, because they have no body fat. Women got around this impediment to beauty with the hoop skirt (patent number 4548 granted in 1846) which hid the real shape of the legs and the behind and which by 1860 had reached six feet wide, and the corset (179 patents for which were granted between 1815 and 1895) and which was designed to force the bosoms up and out (for maximum visible cleavage) at the same time as actually forcing the two bottom ribs under the rib cage (for maximum minimum waistline).
The triumph of this fashion immediately led to two other inventions – the armless “fainting couch” , which also resembled a psychiatrists's couch, and which was usually located in a “fainting room” just off the grand ballroom, and “smelling salts” for women recovering from oxygen deficiency and perforated diaphragms. Wearing a Victorian gown on a shopping spree was the full body equivalent of wearing 12”stiletto heels while trying to escape a smoky house fire. And God forbid you should have to “tinkle” while out of the house because it could take twenty minutes and a couple of servant girls for a Victorian woman to gain clear access to the required body parts. However Mary Walker had several advantages. She had been raised on a farm, and knew the freedom of dressing for comfort. She also had the advantage of being raised in upstate New York, ground zero for the suffragette movement. Mary regularly read “The Lilly” a temperance and suffragette newspaper, which was published in nearby Schenectady and edited by Amelia Bloomer, who gave her name to the rational women’s fashion, “Bloomers”.
And Mary also had the advantage in not really caring what other people thought about her. By the time the civil war broke she had not only dumped her husband, she had traded her hoops for bloomers. She wrote, “It is my motto to live by my principles”. And she did. The U.S. government refused to recognizer Mary Walker as a doctor, so at the battle of First Bull Run in 1861 she served as a nurse and surgeon’s assistant. By 1862 her abilities had earned her a commission as a full field surgeon at the battles of Fredericksburg, Virginia and Chattanooga and Chickamauga in Tennessee. Mary argued that doctors were too quick to amputate, and often used her sex to pass through enemy lines to treat and rescue wounded Union soldiers trapped there.
In 1864 Mary was caught behind Confederate lines on her way to tend to women and children struck with Cholera. Having never heard of a woman doctor before, they assumed she was a spy. She was sent to Libby Prison, in Richmond. And she was proud that when there was exchanged for Confederate medical personnel, she was considered the equal of a rebel Major, and a man. On November 11, 1865 Mary Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor, for service above and beyond the call of duty. The same bill named her as ““…the only woman allowed to appear in male attire” As she later said, “I looked ever inch a man and I am sure I acted it.”After the war Mary became a lecturer and writer, touring Great Britain, and kept getting arrested for impersonating a man because she dressed solely in a black frock coat, trousers, a high silk hat and carried a cane – which she was not afraid to use.
Arrested yet again in Chicago she flashed the documents showing her congressional dispensation for her attire, and then loudly described the policeman as “He’s an old idiot.” Mary argued that tobacco led to paralysis and caused insanity, and that women’s clothing standards were inconvenient. In 1917, at the age of 85, after testifying before congress in favor of woman’s suffrage, Mary fell on the capital steps and broke her hip. She was brought back to Oswego, but she could no longer care for herself and had to be nursed in a neighbor’s home. And there she died, just at 8 P.M. on February 21, 1919. One year later the 19th amendment was ratified, recognizing a woman’s right to vote. You could almost hear Mary’s voice from grave; “And it was about time, too, you old fools.” How could you not fall in love with a great broad like that?
But let the final words be hers; “"I am the original new woman...Why, before Lucy Stone, Mrs. Bloomer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were—before they were, I am…I have prepared the way for the girl in knickerbockers."
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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

CHEERLEADERS: A DIGRESSION

I started Tuesday with my usual early morning monetary fix at CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street”, hoping the Asian and European markets had regained a little sanity. They had, at lest for the day. But that allowed the financial junkies Becky Quick and Joe Kernen the time to comment on Wayne Huizenga. Wayne had told a reporter that he was going to sell his 50% ownership in the Miami Dolphins before Senator Obama became President and raised the capital gains tax. In Huizena’s words, “I’d rather give it to charity than to him. If you do it this year or you do it next year, the difference is humongous because of the taxes.” And Becky and Joe “tut-tutted” over the hopelessly unrealistic liberal policies of the Junior Senator from Illinois. It’s so sad all those liberals don’t understand economics like the geniuses Becky and Joe-the-stock-maven do.
It was a bad way to start my day; very, very angry. I was not angry with Huizena. He is just a business man. And as the realist hanger-ons on CNBC will be happy to tell you, profit is morally neutral, neither moral nor immoral. And with that guideline Wayne Huizenga is a very good businessman. He’s a self made billionaire who never graduated high school. Who knew there was that much money in Waste Management – other then Tony Soprano? Who knew there was that much money in video rentals – other than Sumner Redstone? And who knew there was that much money that could be milked out of the government and fans for sky boxes in a stadium you only use fourteen weeks out of fifty-two – and with a losing franchise no less - other than every other NFL owner? But I digress… Yes, I could spend the next four hundred pages running on about Wayne Huizega and number of south Florida sports clubs (the Marlins & the Panthers & the Dolphins) Wayne has used to siphon money out of the taxpayers’ wallets, until he had squeezed the team for maximum value and then sold for profit. His attitude seems to be that somebody owes him “a purple cushion for his pampered”…ah,…behind, to paraphrase Henry from the “Lion in Winter”. But there is an even deeper truth buried beneath the usual billionaire whining here, buried perhaps in section six hundred in Arlington National Cemetery, among other places; because, like loyalty to a sports franchise, patriotism seems to represent to Wayne (and by extension the cheerleaders at CNBC) just another commodity, sold to the suckers in the form of flags and banners and meaningless phrases like “We’re number one”. Yes, we are number one, as long as we pay Wayne for the privilege. But asking Wayne to help pay for the war in Iraq or Afghanistan or even his own stadium seems to be as pointless an exercise as to ask the cheering squad at CNBC to be more restrained in their unquestioning adulation for billionaires. It is profit that they are talking about, and profit, as pointed out earlier, is neither moral nor immoral. Unless, of course, you are a cheerleader on CNBC, and then profits are clearly a moral judgment, and validates those who make them – both the profits and moral judgments. In short, CNBC seems to see itself at times as a megaphone for the over enfranchised, such as Wayne. But now might be a moment to make one thing perfectly clear. I am being morally neutral about profits, as opposed to CNBC. The Wikapedia definition of a capital gain is as follows: “…the profit realized on the sale of a non-inventory asset…”, like the sale of a sports franchise. In other words, tires for your auto parts store which you sell for a profit are not a capital gain. That is earned income. At present the individual earned income tax rates in America are 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33%, and 35%. Selling stock or oil futures for a profit is a capital gain. Under the Bush tax cuts, capital gains are taxed at 15% and 0%. In the pre-Bush tax era, which Wayne is so horrified of, capital gains were taxed at 15%, 28%, 31%, 36%, and 39.6%. In other words, in the pre-Bush era, those who ran a small business or labored in one are treated much the same as those who invest in big business. That, it seems to me, is a lot closer to moral neutrality than the philosophy preached by Becky and Joe on Tuesday morning.
A long term capital gain, an asset held for more one year, ,such as Waynes Dolphin francise, is taxed at an even lower rate. But that merely makes my point even stronger. And of course there are fleets and swarms and schools of lawyers and accountants who will ensure that Wayne will rarely if ever be forced to pay the same tax rate on his capital gains as the guy who runs a bar outside of Dolphin Stadium has to pay on his earned income. Being a billionaire will always have its advantages. And that is, maybe not as it should be, but as it really is. And that is about a morally neutral as I am going to get on the subject of Wayne and his profits margins.

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

LAST MAN KILLED


I want to tell you a heck of a story. As the autumn sun ineffectually rose above the eastern horizon, Private First Class Arthur Goodmurphy peered suspiciously across the Canal du Centre, which split the tiny village of Harve, Belgium in two.
At the tender age of twenty-one, Arthur was already a veteran. He’d been part of the slaughter on the Somme in 1916, and a witness to the horror of Passchendaele in 1917. And now, as the winter of 1918 waited just over the horizon, Arthur could sense that the war was almost over. The Germans were almost done for.
In the last three months the Canadian Corps had driven the German army out of the trenches, and then left the trenches, those symbols of slaughter and misery, far behind; along with their protective dugouts and tunnels.
The last month of the war, fought above ground, in the open, had seen the worst butchery so far in a war renowned for butchery. What kept Arthur Goodmurphy and his fellow Canadians fighting despite the lengthening causality lists was that they were finally winning. God only knew what kept the Germans fighting. Just at dawn the Canadian troops had fought their way into the Belgium town of Mons, where the British army had begun the war four long bloody years before. Arthur had been ordered to take four men and advance to the canal and see what the Huns on the other side were up to.
With his first sight of the canal, what worried Arthur was what the next day would bring. Would his battalion have to fight to cross this canal? Was the footbridge across the canal mined? Was German artillery zeroed in to cut his battalion down as they crossed the bridge? Or had the Germans just kept running this time? Arthur felt a long way from the open prairies of his native Saskatchewan. But he knew the way home lay across that canal. He stood up, and said to the young man beside him, “Come on, George. Let’s have a look.” As they took their first steps in the open the patrol spotted a German machine gun crew setting up in the attic of a house on the far shore. Experienced soldiers, they knew they had to cross the open ground before the deadly weapon could begin shooting. They dashed the hundred yards across the bridge, their boots pounding on the boards.
On the other side they ran up the narrow street, up to the door of the first brick house. Without pausing, young Private George Price kicked the door in, and the others followed him. Inside they found Monsieur Stievenart and his son, six year old Omer. Monsieur Stievenart explained that the Germans had just left by the back door. Immediately the four privates moved on to the next house, where they crashed in on an elderly couple, the Lenoirs. Again they were told the Germans had just run out the back door. But now they could hear a German machine gun firing somewhere in the village, and bullets chipping off the outside walls. Arthur realized the patrol had now accomplished its goal. The Germans had been forced to reveal their intentions to defend the canal. And now the patrol had to get back with that word. George Price led the way, out the door, and Arthur followed. As they stepped into the street the machine guns suddenly stopped. In that second of silence George turned as if to say something to Arthur and a single shot rang out. George fell forward, into Arthur’s arms. Awidening red stain spreading across George’s chest.
The squad struggled to pull their comrade back inside. From somewhere a Belgium nurse appeared and began to tend to George. But it was to no effect. Private George Lawrence Price died a few moments later on the floor of small house in Belgium. The Lenoirs provided a blanket, which the three Canadians used to carry their fallen comrade back across the canal. Strangly they had to dodge no fire on their ran cross the footbridge.
As they reached the western shore, they were met by Captain Ross, who informed them that the firing had stopped because the war had just ended; on the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, of 1918. That made George Price the last man killed in World War One. It is a great story, and partly true. George Lawrence Price, serial number 256265, had been born in Newfoundland and enlisted in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, a town of just 14,000 in 1918. He was "conscripted", meaning he was a draftie, and so was a perfect example of the sacrifices demanded by this war. He was officially listed as being killed by a sniper’s bullet at 10:57 A.M., just three minutes before the cease fire was to take effect.
The last Frenchman to die was forty year old Augustin Trebuchon, who was carrying word of the armistice to the front lines when he was killed at 10:45 A.M. Private George Ellison was supposedly the last Englishman killed, at 10:50 A.M. The last American killed in World War One was alledgedly Private Henry N. Gunther, from Baltimore, Maryland, who died in an attack on the town of Ville-Devant-Chaumont, again at 10:50 A.M.
Of course none of the grieving families were told at the time their loved one had been the last to die. That would have held them up as an example of the futility and waste of the war. Instead most were told the deaths had occured on November 10th. However, there is also the story of German Lieutenant H.G. Toma, who, after the cease fire, had disarmed his own men and was leading them across the lines when they were gunned down by American machine gunners who had not yet gotten the order to cease fire. Lt. Toma was so despondent and incensed at the senseless slaughter of his men that he shot himself. And all of this occured after the cease fire took effect. Toma’s death was said to be the inspiration for the final scene for the novel “All Quiet on the Western Front”. From the cynics view the very idea of a “Last Man” killed in a war that killed 10 million soldiers (and another 10 million civilians) may seem an exercise in futility. In fact, the last day of this war, which lasted just 11 hours, saw almost 11,000 dead, wounded and missing; more casualties than in the 24 hours of D-Day, in World War Two. Worse, as an historian has noted, “The men storming the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944, were risking their lives to win a war. The men who fell on November 11, 1918, lost their lives in a war that the Allies had already won. Had Marshal Foch (the Allied Supreme Commander) heeded the appeal…to stop hostilities while the talks went on, some sixty-six hundred lives would likely have been saved… So,...the men who died for nothing when they might have known long life, ‘would all be forgotten.”Well, not entirely. We all die eventually, and we are all eventually forgotten, as our bones and reputations turn to dust. But the death of twenty million should mean something greater than the sum of their individual petty lives. And in that regard those millions who died in the “…war to end all wars”, require our respect, a memory, an image to keep their memory alive. And in that regard the face of George Lawrence Price, staring out from the now distant past, does better many. His is the face of confident innocence: a confident time, familiar and distant, innocent, and yet no more innocent than your life today; George Lawrence Price was, officially, the last man killed in The Great War of 1914-1918, and as good a symbol as any of all who have died in wars meant to stop wars.  God rest his soul.

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