Sunday, March 4, 2012

"The Efficiency Expert" - a film review

An efficiency expert will almost always play the villain or the fool in any fictional scenario. His rigidity will be mocked, and he will eventually proven to be narrow-minded. The people he sets out to study and correct will teach him some valuable lesson about how there are things that are more important than efficiency. He will throw away his stopwatch at the end, and fall in love. Or something similar.

So it’s no surprise that Mark Joffe’s 1991 film “The Efficiency Expert” sets out to follow this well-traveled path in its nostalgic look at labor, management and “modernization” in 1960s Australia. The theme of the movie can be grasped virtually entirely through the first few scenes, which contrast the old-fashioned, companionable folks of Spotswood, a humble Melbourne suburb, with the dour and by-the-book efficiency expert brought in to “modernize” a failing footwear company. Yet, curiously, Joffe hasn’t bothered to make his workers sympathetic, nor his efficiency expert unreasonable. In fact, he’s done quite the opposite, and yet has allowed the scenario to play out as if this weren’t the case.  

Errol Wallace, the efficiency expert portrayed by a wondrously deadpan Anthony Hopkins, knows how to work a stopwatch, but is so overworked that he barely has any time to spend with his family (the irony!). It is telling that it’s not until about ¾ through the film that the viewer even learns that he has a daughter. 

What Wallace finds at the Ball moccasin plant, meanwhile, is a confounding mess of a company, but one where the relationship between the owner and his humble, unassuming employees, seems closer and more loving than Wallace’s relationship with his family. So far, par for course.

But the company is struggling, and despite Wallace's efforts, he can't get to the bottom line to figure out what the problem is. He observes plenty of things that confound his orderly brain, including men dancing, repairing cars and reading magazines on the job, and women who spend more time taking breaks for tea than they do sewing up moccasins. But the financial records Mr. Ball provides him don't seem to reveal any problems.

Thanks to a slimy salesman played by a young and dapper Russell Crowe, Wallace learns that Mr. Ball has been propping up the company by selling off his holdings, and that the end is near. But when Wallace confronts Ball about his bottom line, the kindly old man is unwilling to make the hard choices needed to keep himself in business.  

Ball: Robert … Gordon … they’d have to go too. I’d be losing 60 percent of my people.

Wallace: The Asians can do it for half the price. Importing is the future. You simply cannot afford to be in manufacturing.

Ball: But we must. People need to make things. We can’t just import everything.

Wallace: You’ve been a very kind employer, Mr. Ball, but I’m afraid your people have let you down. They haven’t paid you back in kind.

Ball: No. You’re wrong. You don’t understand. You never could. With respect, Mr. Wallace, they’ve paid me back double - treble. If you’d been here when the place was busy, you’d have seen them working day and night, no overtime. They did it because they believed in the place. They trusted me. It’s not their fault. I won’t have that.

Wallace: No. It’s your fault. You haven’t helped these people, letting them live in a fool’s paradise. What did you think was going to happen in 18 months’ time when you’ve run out of money?

Ball: You cannot see past the dollars and cents, can you? Work isn’t just about money, Mr. Wallace. It’s about dignity. It’s about treating people with respect.

If anyone had bothered to make this film make any sense, Wallace’s “improvements” would be cruel and unreasonable; the workers would all pitch in to make a better go of it; and everyone would realize that the old, tried-and-true way of doing things was better in the end.

But Ball has no real retort to Wallace’s very legitimate question about what will happen to the employees when the company runs out of money. And the old way of doing things is, in this case, quite rubbish. While Mr. Wallace’s recommendations may seem cruel -- laying off people who have worked at the factory for decades -- there seems to be no realistic alternative.

There is a bit of foreshadowing here, where Mr. Ball approves the design for a dressing gown and tells Mr. Wallace that he plans to branch out into clothing. Mr. Wallace has no comment.

Running alongside Mr. Wallace’s seemingly fruitless work in Spotswood is his work with the Durmack auto company. Wallace and his young associate are meant to be preparing this slick and modern company for a possible sale, and need to make the balance sheets look a bit better to a prospective investor. Unfortunately, someone has leaked the news of possible layoffs to the union, exaggerating the figures to suggest that as many as 1,000 workers could lose their jobs. Things get ugly, with crowds picketing the plant and a brick thrown through Wallace’s window. (His wife comes downstairs to hiss at him, nonsensically, “Are you satisfied?” before storming back upstairs with their mute daughter.)

Even back at Spotswood, things are heating up from tepid to lukewarm. Wallace enlists the help of Carey, a young man whose job is not entirely clear, to take some time and motion studies of the workers. Carey is the sort of de facto protagonist of this weak narrative; the film opens with him biking to work with his pal Wendy, played by a very bland-looking Toni Colette.

“I’ve chosen you, Carey, because I think you’ve got the right attitude,” Mr. Wallace explains. “You could have quite a future, if you set your mind to it.”

This is puzzling, given that Wallace’s interactions with Carey up to this point in the film are virtually nil. They share the screen in a couple of scenes, but do not speak to each other, nor does Carey say anything of significance. Apparently Wallace’s business acumen is such that he can discern these things from thin air.

When Wallace learns it was his partner who tipped off the union as part of a scheme to ensure that the company agrees to their recommendations, he responds by falling into a sort of halfhearted depression. He walks out of a meeting and stares mutely at his car, which has had paint thrown on it by the union protesters. From all this, we are presumably to understand that he is weighing the particular costs of his chosen field. Or maybe he’s just weighing the costs of having his car repaired.

Meanwhile, young Carey spends a few short scenes observing his fellow workers working, or, more accurately, imploring them to get on with working so that he can take some notes on his fancy clipboard that has a clock embedded in it. They go along with it, but when Mr. Ball announces the first of Wallace’s major changes -- that workers will take their lunch breaks in shifts, rather than all at once -- Carey feels the sting of being on the wrong side of things. (The Spotswood equivalent of throwing paint on Wallace’s car is letting the air out of Carey’s tires.)

After his sad chat with Mr. Ball, Wallace gets what should be good news from his partner -- the Durmack folks have gone along with the deal and have come to an agreement with the union that includes some job cuts (but stops short of the 1,000 figure). At a posh cocktail party thrown to celebrate the deal, Wallace gets drunk and belligerent and lets his partner have it.

“Tell me something,” Wallace says. “Did you ever talk to any of these 500 people we’ve put out of work? Did you ever find out how many kids they had? Or what they did in their spare time? Or if they ever raced slot cars?”

Touche! The answer, presumably, is no. But were it yes, it’s hard to imagine what would change here. Wallace’s partner would still be a jerk; Wallace himself might be saddled with the same sort of remorse that is visited upon him from his work in Spotswood. But what would really change?

The viewer is expected to sympathize with the workers of Spotswood, and to understand that they are somehow noble, or that their way of doing things would be better than whatever Mr. Wallace was going to propose -- which is never really made clear anyway, except that it involves layoffs. And certainly, these seem to be kind and generous people, with the exception of the slimy salesman played by Russell Crowe. But as workers, they deserve not sympathy, but contempt.

These workers are not like “Schmidt,” the dull-witted pig-iron handler who F.W. Taylor sets right in his “Principles of Scientific Management” -- too stupid to analyze the simple tasks they’re being asked to perform. Nor are they canny unionists who know better than to work too quickly, for fear they will be expected to keep up such a pace at all times. They are simply bad workers. They barely work at all, instead spending most of their time gossiping, drinking tea and engaging in extracurricular pursuits, such as preparing for a model-car derby. (Through a fairly improbable series of events, Wallace winds up participating in the derby and, naturally, winning it all for the Spotswood team.)

Yet all this is presented as charming and quaint, as though the only thing standing between the Ball company and success is a bit of luck -- maybe a new product line to catch customers’ eyes again.

“There are other approaches,” Wallace tells Ball rather bashfully after turning up on his doorstep, half-drunk, pleading with him to throw out the layoffs plan he had recommended only hours earlier. “Not foolproof, but …”

The two men then proceed to talk about adding clothing to the Ball product line. At no point does either man reference the fact that Mr. Ball was already planning to do just that. And the company is thusly saved, with everyone back to their old, tea-drinking, knitting, slot-car-racing ways.

If this story has a moral, it's not clear what it is. The tagline for the movie is, curiously, "He's about to teach big business that there's more to life than the bottom line." How exactly Mr. Wallace has done this is not clear. 

What "The Efficiency Expert" does, then, is trade on some vague tropes about "efficiency experts," labor and management, and corporate greed, without really exploring any of these things in any real sense. But the power of these tropes is sufficient to cause Urban Cinefile to call the film "charming ... a minor classic of Australian cinema." So powerful is the idea of the cold, calculating, Grinch-like efficiency expert that the writers need not even set this character up with a reasonable foil. Errol Wallace could be playing against a labor union composed of a liar, a thief and a lout, and the audience would still root for the union.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Leap second decision put on hold

The International Telecommunication Union recently postponed a decision on whether to do away with the leap second -- which means, by default, it will remain until at least 2015.

The leap second is artificially inserted into the stream of time every now and then to account for the slowdown of the earth's rotation. Like the leap year, this system speaks to a fundamental clumsiness inherent to our system of timekeeping -- however precise it may seem on a day-to-day basis.

Felicitas Arias, director of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, is among those arguing for the abolition of the leap second, as she explains in this interview from December. But scientists could not agree at the ITU's recent summit, so the decision got put off.

"We are using a system that breaks time," Arias argues. "The quality of time is continuity." 

True, but it is hard to accept Arias' unwillingness to come up with an alternate system, instead leaving it to future generations to puzzle out. Does the insertion of a "leap second" truly interfere with the continuity of time, in any real, perceivable sense? 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

'Slow' cycling in the Guardian

Peter Walker of the Guardian muses about the journey vs. the destination, via bicycle, in this recent blog post.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Dipping into the stream of media

From The Daily Star:

After writing last week about my secret longing to stumble upon the occasional Christmas program, I started thinking about intentional versus unintentional consumption.

I don't mean "unintentional consumption" like realizing you've eaten an entire box of Girl Scout cookies in one sitting. I mean leaving the TV on after your favorite program is over and watching whatever comes next, or putting the radio on just to have a little background noise. This is the cultural experience I still associate with TV and radio: an ongoing stream of content I can dip into at will.

My current experiment with on-demand viewing has made me realize, however, that this is an increasingly archaic idea. Thanks to the Internet and devices such as digital video recorders, fewer people are dipping into this ongoing stream of content. Instead, like myself, they are siphoning off their own selective streams that contain only the content that interests them.

I can't deny that the ability to self- select media has distinct advantages. I love being able to watch episodes of "Perry Mason" or the original "Star Trek" (thanks, CBS Classics) whenever I want. But I sincerely miss the thrill of accidental discovery. I miss flipping channels and finding PBS' "American Experience" documentaries on the lives of the presidents, or watching MTV and hearing a new song that knocks my socks off.

In some ways, I feel like these happy accidents give broadcast media its reason for existing. As a teenager, I drove around town with friends, trying to catch the shaky AM signal of a nearby alternative-music radio station. If I managed to stumble upon a re-run of the Canadian sketch comedy TV show "Kids in the Hall," I would call my friends at once to let them know.

These cultural offerings were not at my fingertips: they flitted in and out of my life unpredictably. As such, they were a highly prized quarry. Not to sound too much like an old curmudgeon, but "kids these days," I suspect, don't drive around trying to tune in obscure radio stations, or scour the TV dial in search of a program that may or may not be on. I know I don't. I can seek out what I want effortlessly, with certainty of finding what I seek in the vast landscape of the Internet.

Google searches return results too quickly to invoke the thrill of the chase. There is a certain loneliness in my solitary viewing of "Perry Mason and the Case of the Rolling Bones." Can I re-hash the episode with my mother, my husband, my friends? Not likely. Pundits and scholars have bemoaned the loss of shared cultural experiences inherent to this type of personalized, rather than shared, consumption.

Writing about the BBC program "Doctor Who" in April for The Guardian, Mark Lawson wrote that "the biggest defining feature that TV has had, in comparison with other art forms such as theatre, film and literature, is that millions of people watched the programmes at precisely the same moment _ in the way they still do for a football match or news of a terrorist attack."

In the 2006 debut issue of "Critical Studies in Television," a biannual journal of critical studies in television, Deborah Jermyn and Su Holmes wrote about how the field of television studies has had to adapt to the changing existence of the theoretical "TV audience."

"As we settle into the twenty-first century," Jermyn and Holmes wrote, "this perception, and the concomitant notion of a �mass' audience, has become increasingly fragile and problematic."

Yet we do experience the communality of television and other media, even if there are gaps in the time line. I can still discuss episodes of "Project Runway" with my sister and my friend, despite the fact that one of us watched the show live, another through Netflix and a third via the Internet. Jermyn and Holmes speak of a "fragile" mass audience that is "splintered across the Internet." Just as this splintering may alienate us from our next-door neighbors, it also connects us to a vast and virtual online universe of fans, critics and commentators who flock around any program, no matter how esoteric.

We still don't know where this new frontier of TV viewing will take us, but I remain hopeful that, as long as there are compelling programs, people will continue coming together over these shared experiences, both virtually and face-to-face. As for me, I'm relying on family and friends to steer me toward new and exciting TV shows, movies and music, and accepting the fact that the chase I once found so thrilling is, at least for now, called off.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Book review: "The Greenwich Time Lady"


With its brusque opening lines ("What time is it? It’s a simple question and this book looks at some of the ways we have tried to answer it over the last couple of hundred years"), Ruth Belville: The Greenwich Time Lady plunges the reader headlong into a densely packed gem of a history—one that author David Rooney, curator of timekeeping at the British Royal Observatory, is uniquely qualified to tell.

The book’s eponymous heroine was the last in a short line of Belvilles who made their living in a unique manner: they literally brought time itself from the Greenwich Royal Observatory to a London subscriber base that included shopkeepers, shipping firms and clockmakers. Through a tenuous and complex arrangement with the observatory’s Astronomer General, the Belvilles were granted weekly entry to the observatory, where a clerk would adjust their steadfast watch (nicknamed “Arnold” after its maker, John Arnold) to the correct time and provide a certificate denoting the same.
cover art

The Belvilles then carried this corrected watch around London to the diverse group of businessmen willing to pay money to find out exactly what time it was. This arrangement lasted from the 1830s, nearly half a century before Greenwich Mean Time officially existed, until the 1940s, when technologies such as radio and telephone service finally became perfected enough to render the service obsolete.

Through the story of the Belvilles—father John, his wife Maria and their daughter Ruth—Rooney introduces the reader to a singular epoch in England’s history, when technological progress both responded to and created a new demand for the accurate and consistent dissemination of the correct time according to Greenwich. Along the way, we learn who gave voice to the “speaking clock” that gives out time signals by telephone; what a marine chronometer is; where the Unabomber got some of his ideas about bombs; when the BBC came up with its characteristic “six pips” time signal; and why daylight-saving time exists, along with quite a bit more.

At a terse 192 pages, The Greenwich Time Lady carries no dead weight and reads as an exemplar of the principles set forth in Strunk and White’s classic Elements of Style: “Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language...Omit needless words. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” Yet Rooney’s prose is not skimpy or spare; rather, it breathes life into the characters and events that form this unusual story.

Rooney’s plain language does great service to his subject. His concise description of the marine chronometer fills about one page, but leaves the reader with no doubt about how such devices worked and why they are significant to the matter at hand. The book reads as a lively lecture delivered by a practiced instructor, one who foresees his audience’s questions before they arise and smoothly steers his narrative accordingly. Rooney also drops in the occasional humorous aside, as when he describes a newspaper advertisement to illustrate how the concept of uniformly synchronized time had captured the public consciousness: “Readers of the Manchester Guardian on 8 May 1908...were faced with an extraordinary advertisement for Beecham’s Pills. ‘You will have noticed that a clock left to itself is rarely right; it requires to be regulated carefully.’....Go on then, thinks the reader, tell me why Beecham’s Pills and unregulated clocks go together.”

There are a very few occasions when Rooney’s story seems to come in a bit fast and furious. In chapter one, the reader is introduced to 24 characters within ten pages, few of whom stick around to do anything of significance as the book progresses. For the most part, however, Rooney keeps the promise made in his introduction, delivering “a book written for a wide readership and, in particular, for those with no detailed knowledge of timekeeping history”.

Writing about the end of the “remarkable decade” that was the 1920s, which saw Ruth Belville’s career as the Greenwich Time Lady drawing to a close, Rooney reminds us that “New technology doesn’t just sweep aside old systems. They co-exist for far longer than one might expect. Even in the 1930s, for instance, market workers in east London received a daily time signal from knockers-up blowing dried peas through pea-shooters at their bedroom windows. Whatever worked remained appropriate.”

Throughout this brief but intriguing tale, Rooney emphasizes again and again the complex relationships between old and new, between man and machine, reminding the reader that such cultural interstices neither happen in a predictable fashion, nor do they follow linear paths. As Rooney puts it, “Stuff endures”, especially when there’s sufficient demand for it. The “stuff” of The Greenwich Time Lady will no doubt endure in its own right as a charming and thoughtful history of a subject that fascinates eternally: time.

Oh! Do not attack me with your watch. A watch is always too fast or too slow. I cannot be dictated to by a watch.
Jane Austen (1775 - 1817), "Mansfield Park"

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Read all about it

"An American will never meet, or even know the names of more than a handful of his 240,000-odd fellow-Americans. He has no idea of what they are up to at any one time. But he has complete confidence in their steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity."
-- Benedict Anderson, "Imagined Communities," 1983

When Anderson wrote about the origins of modern nationalism, he selected the newspaper and the novel as cultural touchstones that exemplified man's ability to visualize himself as part of a unified mass of people who share a common understanding and experience of the world they inhabit. This "imagined linkage" of "print-capitalism ... made it possible for rapidly growing numbers of people to think about themselves, and relate themselves to others, in profoundly news ways."

Today, of course, we need no literary devices to lend the impression of simultaneous experience; thanks to the Internet, we are instead having simultaneous experiences all over the place. We hear a 28-year-old obscure folk song in a VW commercial, Google "VW commercial song," and before you know it, Nick Drake has posthumously sold more records within a month than he had during his entire career. But strangely, this ability to connect with anything at any time has proved largely to be an isolating experience rather than one that, well, connects us. 

"Connect" is the great verb of the Internet, but for the most part, we are not connecting with other human beings or with anything that can be described as a community. We are mostly connecting with our own needs and desires, largely anonymously. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, we are mostly checking e-mail, looking up information, getting maps and driving directions, shopping, checking the weather, reading the news and gathering information about hobbies or other personal activities. We are also downloading proprietary forms of entertainment, often at no charge, something that is technically illegal but widely practiced, like drinking during Prohibition. 

Participatory activities, such as posting comments on a blog, instant-messaging, social networking and online discussions, rank low on the list, indicating that the adolescent frenzy for Facebook, MySpace and the like hasn't spread out enough through the general population to make a dent. Even when we are in ostensibly "social" online environments, however, we can (and do) avoid actual contact with other people. We can hide our online status, set ourselves as "busy," or lurk on message boards. We can be anonymous, even duplicitous, usually with no negative consequences. So much for simultaneous experiences. 

Earlier technologies, including radio and television, influenced our ideas about simultaneity just as novels and newspapers had earlier. Families gathered 'round the old wireless set or the 10-inch TV screen to share a common experience, if a silent one, that was no doubt being replicated in thousands of other homes at that same moment. We still have these experiences, of course; it was television that brought most of us the disaster of Sept. 11, 2001's World Trade Center attacks, and a generation of people will refer back to this moment the way Baby Boomers talk about Kennedy's assassination. But the experience has become dilute, its power weakened. Chuck Klosterman references this dilution in his 2005 essay, "Here's Johnny," in which he argues that Johnny Carson "was the last universally shared icon of modern popular culture." Klosterman argues that Carson's "Tonight Show" was "almost in totality, the entire construction of watching television late at night. Everybody knew this, even if they didn't own a television. It was a specific piece of knowledge that all Americans had in common."

This could never happen today, Klosterman says, and I happen to agree with him. We still have newspapers, and radio, and novels and television. But what we lack are unifying phenomena. Newspapers pump energy and resources into websites that attempt to mirror other online successes, making the paper product something of an archaic afterthought. Everything you encounter, from soda pop to car commercials to fast food, seems to have a Web tie-in, however ridiculous. 

Perhaps this is the end, then, of nationalism as Anderson described it. Perhaps without this understood unified narrative, we also lose any sense of ourselves as being in this whole experience together. However culturally insignificant "The Tonight Show" may seem, it was an experience shared more universally than anything we can imagine today.

Time does not change us. It just unfolds us.
-- Max Frisch

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Saving daylight

In light (forgive the pun) of the recent switch to Daylight-Saving Time, I offer the following editorial, originally published in 2007:

This weekend, clocks across the country will "spring forward" earlier than usual, as we observe daylight-saving time in March, rather than April, in compliance with the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

It was 100 years ago that William Willett, credited as the father of daylight-saving time, published his pamphlet, "The Waste of Daylight," advocating that clocks be changed in spring to take advantage of summer’s late-day sunlight and readjusted in fall.

While Willett’s writing dwells largely on issues of human comfort, it does also discuss the potential energy savings that would result from such a shift _ the same savings that led to the 2005 act that has Americans changing their clocks in March.

Since its introduction in the United States in 1918, daylight-saving time has been the subject of numerous studies.

Does it save energy? How much does it save? Does it lead to more automobile accidents? More crime? Less productivity?

Those questions are still being debated _ not only in the United States, but elsewhere in the world where forms of daylight-saving time are observed.

Even the 2005 act is subject to review, including as it does a stipulation that the effect of the shift be studied by the Department of Energy to determine how much energy, if any, is being saved.

At the time the Energy Policy Act was passed, it made headlines for several reasons.

On one hand, the original bill would have allowed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which many environmental advocates oppose and others argue is key in diminishing the United States’ dependence on foreign oil.

On the other hand, many critics denounced the act as being too friendly to oil companies and not doing enough to commit the United States to renewable energy sources.

With these issues in the forefront, the daylight-saving time switch understandably got short shrift, for the most part, in the media.

But the change has gained new prominence in recent weeks, drawing comparisons to the dreaded Y2K bug for its impact on technology. In 1999, the problem of updating the nation’s time-sensitive computers seemed nearly impossible.

This switch, it turns out, is no less challenging. A March 6 Chicago Tribune article dubbed it "mayhem lite" and quoted the University of California at Berkeley’s chief information officer, Shelton Waggener, observing that the switch is "more complex than the people in Washington considered."

This is no doubt not the last instance we will see of "mayhem lite," as society’s dependence on technology shows no sign of waning. It is poignant to remember, amid installing computer software patches, programming microwave clocks, synchronizing PDAs and reprogramming cell phones that the very idea of daylight-saving time was suggested first and foremost as a way to better enjoy our leisure time.

One wonders: What would Willett think of us now?

Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.
-- Douglas Adams