On the Black and Silver Dance of Consumer Electronics


A 1976 JVC VCR, metallic silver with a fading touch of wood.

In the beginning, they were covered in wood. It was so obvious really.  The furniture was made of wood, and they sort of were like furniture after all, these new fangled devices.  So their ugly innards were covered in wood panneling so they could blend in with the neighbours.  The 1920s phonograph, the 1930s radio, and through to the bulging 1960s colour television.  Cloth grills were added if ventilation was needed.  Even the first Apple computer in the 1970s was bundled into a wooden box.  It lasted for their first fifty years, but at some stage in the 1970s, someone somewhere, probably in the bowels of a Japanese electronics manufacturer, decided that consumer electronics would shed their wooden coats.  And they would not be red or blue or yellow or green.  No, to be taken seriously, consumer electronic could not be wooden or colourful.   They would oscillate between black and silver, metal or plastic. 


Mid-1980s Black Sony Walkman

First up was silver.  Aluminium, chrome or brushed steel ,it didn’t really matter, the bottom line was silver coloured metal was futuristic.  Early attempts had leftover wood panels, but by the end of the 1970s, all traces of wood were gone.  And sets in the panels were rows of solid shiny metal knobs for tone,volume and balance.   Some made nice clicks as they were turned, others just had smooth bearings.   With no flashing LEDs or displays yet on offer, everything was nice, solid, and shiny.  It all looked professional, like real industrial products, not cheap consumers versions. 

But maybe that was just from looking through the eyes of  my 1980s childhood.   Because the electronics of my younger years were very different.  Sure, other people parents might have had an old silver JVC Hi-Fi in their houses, but by the mid-80s, everything had turned black.  It was a matt , sometimes grey black, and mainly plastic.  Our Sony Trinition came a flimsy grey-black plastic case, with a single big red LED lighting up when the remote was used.  The Walkmans, CD players and the VHS players, they all were blackish grey or grayish black plastics, with hints of colour painted on to explain what the buttons did.  Now and again, an manufacturer would launch a yellow “sport” walkman or a red TV aimed at teenagers, but nobody took them seriously, colours just looked childish and amateur.

It fended off the skirmishes with colour, but after a long reign, sometime in the mid-90s, black began to fade and silver started coming back.  I think I first noticed it when wide-screen TVs arrived.  But is soon spread to everything.   Black became passe and silver came back.  But this spell of silver was not a return to the 70s.  It was matte silver, with much less metal and many more acres of plastic.  And while the black plastic of the 80s had grown on me, this was a spell that never did. 


An ugly silver plastic late 90s Philips TV

Before Christmas, I went into town to buy a new flat screen television, and was greeted with an array of shiny black devices.  I had never noticed this last changeover happening.  Maybe it is because I have had a general apathy for keeping up with technology in recent years.  But the new black of the flatscreens was not the matt grayish black of a circa 1985 Sony Trinitron.  These were solid black with a shiny clear plastic coating.   

So we are into the fourth phase and the fourth decade of this dance between black and silver.   Clothes fashions are generally very hard to analyse, with no trends that are in any way analysable.  But the colouring of consumer electronic seems so rhythmical, moving between black and silver every ten years of so.   There are a few strange things about this.    Looking at the 40-odd flat-screen TVs in the shop, I noticed not a single one was silver.  Now, you would think maybe one manufacturer would try to stand out from the crowd, but none appear brave enough.  Perhaps it is fear.  While releasing a light coloured TV amidst a sea of black screens might convince consumers it is next generation, there might be a greater risk it appears older generation.  And why does it go from silver to black or gray, and then back again?  Why do music players or DVD player designers never make them red or blue?  It’s not like clothing vogues still to black and white.   Why does each rule for a decade before ceeding control to the other extreme?  Maybe it is a big conspiracy.  The companies plan the changes so that we have to upgrade all our electronics so that everything matches.  We could have a black hi-fi clashing with the Silver television, now could we? 


Back is black - A modern day Sony Bravia flatscreen

So I am going to make a bold prediction.  In about five years time, I have no idea whether I will be watching my TV in a new super ultra hi-definition format or as some kind of hologram projection, but I am quite sure if the device comes in a box, it will be a silver toned one.  And I am hoping it will be brushed steel, not plastic

On the Exponential Growth of the Irish Economist

Ah, the Irish Economist.  In the current climate, ask the average man on the street to name a full team of national soccer players that might tog out against Georgia next week and he would struggle.   Sure there is Keane, Duffer, Shay Given, and that guy with three grannies who won’t play, Stephen Ireland.   But the rest of the squad is not very visible, and wouldn’t slip off the tongue of Joe public.   However, ask him to name his economist dream team, and he would have no shortage of names to throw on the team sheet – Jim Power, David McWilliams, George Lee, Morgan Kelly, Alan Ahearn, Austin Hughes, Dan McLauglin.  These guys and their brethren get an enormous amount of face-time and print-line in our media, both back during the boom and now even more during the recession.   Do other countries have such an array of high profiles economists?  I doubt it.  Americans would generally know whether Greenspan or Bernanke are in charge of the federal reserve, but that would be as far as it goes.  Likewise in the UK.  But over here, these guys are borderline celebrities.  And they come in so many different flavours.


In retreat - Austin "Comical Ali" Hughes and "Desperate" Dan McLaughlin

There are the bank chief economists, the paid shills for mortgage banks who constantly predicted during the property bubble would never end and interest rates would never go up.  Austin Hughes at IIB and Dan McLaughlin of Bank of Ireland were the too most shameless mouthpieces here, constantly predicting interest rates would drop while in the real world they clicked up every month.  Finally, with the the house crash barbarians at the gate, they talked of a “Soft landing”, then a “Soft-Hard landing”, and finally gave up and retreated back into bank headquarters.    There hasn’t been a peep heard out of either in months.  A closely related species was the estate agent chief economist.  Again not sighted for some time, they may also be in hiding but more likely extinct.

Then there are the academic economics. These are a more recent media phenomenon, slowly coaxed out of the wood work as the clouds began to darken, with all sorts of doomy predictions that were not really predictions at all since the crash was apparent.  Morgan Kelly and Alan Ahearne seem to be the two main players in this grouping.  In fairness to Mr Kelly, he made a very strong if somewhat late call on the direction of the banks and the housing market, while his academic economic brethren kept their eyes closed.  A particularly rare species is the trade union economist.  I know it sounds like an oxymoron, but they do exist, and occasionally someone like Paul Sweeney from SIPTU will turn up on the radio waves to argue the economic benefits of communism.


Who is number one? - David "McDreamy" McWilliams or Jim "Max" Power

 And of course, who could ignore the freelance economist like David McWilliams.  Tied to neither boom nor bust, this guy has been a constant presence , coining the phrase Celtic Tiger, and predicting a house-price crash for over 15 years.  However, I think it would be cruel to say a stopped clock is right twice a day.  Despite the ginger Hugh Grant look ,and an awful habit for gimmicky stereotypes like the increasing extinct “Breakfast roll man” and the Asbourne inhabiting “Decklander”, I actually have quite a lot of time for him.  He stuck to his guns while others threw muck at him and called him a crackpot for ten years.  He even proposed the idea of a bank guarantee in the Sunday papers just before the government brought it in.  And while a scary thought, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine one of the Brians got the idea by idly reading the Sunday Business Post over breakfast.  In recent months, I think even McWilliams might have been overtaken as number one all round media economist by Jim Power.  He seems to be on Questions and Answers, Primetime, Newstalk, and writing newspaper editorials all day, every day.   Representing pension product operator  Friends First as their chief economist,  I can only surmise the company’s current sales strategy for flogging PRSAs is to put him on the airwaves 24/7 to whinge about public sector pensions and pile on uncertainty over the future of the masses.

Economist is a title that has been muddied and devalued over the years, particularly in this country.  It seems like any old hack with a business degree can now use the title.  And while the shameless exploits of the bank mouthpieces have done much damage to the profession’s reputation, the main reason I have little time for them anymore is that they are just not very good at their job.   As a social science, economics is always going to be a bit fuzzy, lacking some of the harder laws and certainities of the physical sciences.  But as current climate shows, none of them really have a clue what is going on.  They never agree and their predictions seem to change on a daily basis.   I would would have more faith the Eamonn Dunphy’s prediction on whether Ireland will qualify for the world cup finals than when Jim Power predicts we will climb out of recession. 

The reality is the global economy is a vast, interconnected, non-linear system, and any prediction you hear on the radio from any economist, a shill or a genuine academic, should be first dipped in a tub of margurita salt.  We simply do not understand the system we have created.  And while economists never have a concensus on whether we are going to shrink or grow, because their simplistic models make accurate predicitons impossible, they are unified in believing that economic growth is a good thing that should be pursued at all costs.   Indeed, all economic theory revolves around the idea of growth.  In my opinion, that is the biggest problem.  And modern economic and monetary policy doesn’t just require linear growth, it needs to be exponential.  Unfortunately we live on a finite planet with finite resources.  Until the  economic theory moves to a model where things don’t go haywire when economies stop growing, it is doomed to failure.  And not just the failure of repeating cycle of recessions but the complete destruction of the planet.

However, I  am not asking the world’s economic theory be upended immediately.  The planet should survive my lifetime.  But what I do want is an exponential decline in the amount of Irish economists fighting for room in our media.  I’m over you guys.  Yes, we are in a recession.  Yes, you didn’t really see it coming.  Yes, I know, you have no idea when it will end.  But get off the TV, the matches are starting.  Did Andy Reid make the squad?

On Visualising Time

I was discussing mathematics with some friends last weekend.  One complained they were useless doing numerical calculations in their head, but good at complicated algebraic maths written on paper.  Another was the opposite, finding algebra impossible, but able to do long division in their head without any brow scrunching .  Which lead me to think whether representing quantities with number or symbols is even close to optimal.  To some autistic savants, numbers take on very different qualities.  3 might be green, furry and oval shaped, while 42 is red and narrow.  But somehow, by combining green,  furry and oval-shaped to red and narrow, another coloured shape forms, maybe brown and smooth, which in turn maps to 45.  Somehow, they are able to map numbers into another domain where mathematical operations are incredibly straightforward, which leads to seemingly extraordinary computational abilities. 

Haha, these silly humans still use digits!

"Ha-ha-ha, these silly humans still use digits!"

 I get the impression to standard way non-autistic people represent numbers is probably highly sub-optimal for doing easy calculations, and one of these days some aliens are going to discover us and our crazy numerical notation system and have a good laugh, like the robots in the old smash advertisements laughing at how we make mash potatoes.  Numbers are quite abstract and something we have difficult visualizing in our mind’s eye, particularly when trying to see them long-multiplied in our heads.  All this lead me to think about another abstract quantity, Time.   I am fascinated about how we visual it in our heads.  We know it moves in one direction, and between the time-lines in history school-texts and talk of it as a the fourth dimension in modern physics, it is often portrayed as a very linear concept.  Yet quantities like days and years, based on the circular motions of the planet,  can also give it a circular feel.  So clocks representing the hour of the day have been represented by a circle, but for some reason annual calendars are not.  I have always found this strange, because in my own head, the year is a flat ring.  When planning the year’s holidays on airlines websites or discussing project time lines in work, I don’t find calendars with group of weeks clumped into months an easy way of understanding dates and planning different events.  Listed below are the different time quantities, along with how I visualise them in my head.

Seconds – No fixed image, but they are a linear concept.  I tend to just count them like I do numbers.

Minutes and Hours – A circular concept, the second and minute hands of the clock hanging on the wall in my parents kitchen.

Days-  Two loops of the hour hand of the same clock.

Weeks- A  linear image, it is a narrow band I stand on, where I can look in either direction at future or past weeks.  The weekdays are flat, but the weekends are elevated, sort of like mini mountain ranges.   There is also a slight curvature of the band, related to my year visualisation.

Months – Don’t really visualise these at all.

Years - The year is a flat ring, but horizontal, not vertical like the hanging clock.  My viewpoint is like I am standing on the present, and I can look forward or backwards around the disc into the future or previous months.  This image is very much at odds with how years are represented in calendars and planners.

Decades to Millennia - Back to linear again, I visualize this as a reel of tape.  Probably the best way to describe it is like a reel of old film negatives.  Because when I move through the decades, I fill the tape with images relevant to the time period.  The tape also has a peculiar shape.  The future is higher than the past, and for some reason it loops around itself between the 1970s and 1990s.  Elsewhere it is reasonably straight, although different decades have different slopes.  I have tried to do a rough sketch in the picture below.

Beyond Millenia – No fixed image. 

When planning time-related activities, using the visualizations above, I run into problems when I move from something visualised as circular to something more linear.  In planning an event over two days, like a weekend, I constantly switch from a linear view to a circular one and visa versa.  Neither is comfortable.  But once the event becomes longer than a few days, I resort completely to the linear view.  The same thing happens when planning events over a few years.  Each year is a circle, but my decades image is strictly linear.

This is soft of what the last fifty years looks like in my head (Click to enlarge)

This is an approximation of what the last fifty years looks like in my head (Click to enlarge)

 I would be intrigued to find out how other people visualize time.  Somewhere there must be a guy who gets around the phase transition from circular days and linear weeks by inventing a sort of spiral shape, like a spring.  While I have thought about using that image,  unfortunately the clay is already too well set in my now thirty-something brain. 

Another interesting aspect about my images of time is how three dimensional they all are.  While the basic lines and circles may be two dimensional, in my head, I am actually standing on the them, and their surfaces have curves and bumps.  The strangest curve is the loop in the decades just before the millennium.  While the decades can be stretchy, slowing meander upwards, this is the only time they ever loop.  This time period corresponds to my childhood and teenage years.  I would like to redraw the diagram in another thirty years if I am still around.  Perhaps there will be more loops in what now looks like a flat future, the time line getting tangled as I move through the years and fill it with everyday events.  I’m sure sure someone like Freud or Jung has already written a book on this sort of stuff.

  However we imagine the passage of time in ours heads, we are giving it a visual form that is doesn’t really have in the real world. But it greatly aids our understanding, enabling us to chop it into usable quantities, to map it to underlying time dependant processes like to rotation of the earth around the sun, and to easily understand where different events lie relative to each other.  With all my talk of time looping and stretching, it might sound like some sort of high end relativistic physics is going on in my head.   But alas those sorts of concepts are something I never really got my head about fully, giving up on about page 35 of Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” many years ago.  But I often think there must be an easier way to visualize time that makes understanding that sort of physics easy.  Perhaps somewhere there is an autistic savant that has visualized a solution to the Einstein field equations. But his particular solution has no actual symbolic representation, it just resembles a yellow wedge of mouldy cheese.