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OpenLearn Live: 22nd October 2015

Updated Thursday 22nd October 2015

A car which warns against innovating for the sake of it; the rise of Bernie Sanders; then more free learning through the day.

OpenLearn Live is the place to discover free learning which relates to your world. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Yesterday was Back To The Future Day, and we also found time to explore drugs that can give you gas and met a parasitic wasp new to the UK

See the complete collection of OpenLearn Live

Today's posts

Counting migrants

The ongoing borders crisis at the edge of the European Union is a much-debated subject. But are the figures we're using when we talk about the crisis correct - and if not, does that mean we're talking about a problem without really understanding what we mean? Nando Signoa investiagtes:

These figures are immensely important. They have a profound impact on the public debate about the refugee and migration crisis. They are quickly picked up by the media – especially when they change dramatically. Anti-immigrant politicians looking for definitive confirmation that the EU is being invaded are just waiting for figures like these to come along to bolster their arguments about closing the borders.

I have been concerned for some time about how Frontex collects, collates and presents data from different sources. I have been worried that the agency conflates the number of border crossings with the number of people actually entering the EU.

The two are not necessarily the same, especially if one considers the land route from Greece via the Balkans. People who arrive in Greece are counted by Frontex as crossing EU external borders. The very same people, however, then leave the EU into countries such as Albania, Macedonia and Serbia, only to reenter via Hungary or Croatia in order to reach their preferred destination (such as Germany). If for any reason an EU country returns the people to a transit country (as Hungary has been doing with neighbour Serbia) and make another crossing into the EU, they appear in Frontex data for the third time.

Read: Can we be sure the data is correct?

On iPlayer now: Building Cars Live

Good news if you were too busy to catch Building Cars Live live, as it's now packaged up and available to watch on iPlayer.

Catch up with Building Cars Live on iPlayer

Read: Robot cars parking the future now

Farewell, Esther

It's a grim day here at the OpenLearn offices, as we're saying goodbye to one of the site's longest-serving team members. Esther Snelson has been with OpenLearn for five years, helping steer the site from a basic course repository to the fully-featured, rich resource you're currently looking at. It's probably fair to say that nobody matches her in terms of understanding and knowledge of the course content on the site, and so in that sense she will be missed; but also we're going to miss her determination and passion for pushing through sometimes challenging projects. We'd like to take this opportunity to thank you for your contribution over the years, and wish you luck in your future endeavours. 

Bernie Sanders on the rise

Time for a check-in on the American election. With still over a year - a year! - until polls open, Bob Rigg offers his personal take on a race which has seen Bernie Sanders go from outsider to dark horse:

Although the concept of democratic socialism does not resonate positively in an America still overshadowed by decades of anti-communism, Sanders is tapping into deeply-rooted popular frustration with inauthentic politicians who read from scripts, consult with focus groups and deliver polished sound bites prepared for them by others, and who rarely deliver on their false promises. Strangely enough, his appeal to an absolutely alienated electorate is comparable to that of Donald Trump.

Read Could Bernie Sanders be the next president of America?

Breaking cars: The Pontiac Aztek

We're marking the week of Building Cars Live by exploring some of the vehicles that performed less well. Yesterday, we unpicked the story of the DeLorean DMC12. Today, we're exploring the sad, short life of the Pontiac Aztek.

Pontiac Aztek Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Ifcar

The Pontiac Aztek should be lauded as a first of its kind - before GM launched the model, nobody had made an attempt to fuse the manoeuverabilty of a standard car with the space of an SUV; nowadays, there are many such vehicles. In addition, it was the first time GM designed a car completely using digital technology and introduced a rapid prototyping model. But the Aztek isn't remembered as introducing a whole new class of automobile; instead, it routinely turns up on lists of terrible cars and is blamed for helping slide GM into bankruptcy.

GM had predicted it would sell 75,000 Azteks every year, and everything over 30,000 would put the line into profit. The year it was introduced, in 2000, they managed just 11,000 sales; the following three years they never quite managed to sell 28,000.

So what went wrong? 

Bob Lutz, the respected Auto Industry expert, explained that much of the problem lay in poor project management and attempts to design by committee.

The car was being aimed at "Generation Xers", although nobody on the project seemed to understand the fundamental defining point about Xers was that they were not cash-rich. As a result, throwing things into the design they assumed these younger people would like made for a clunky design and an expensive proposition. (As an example, some models came with an inflatable mattress. To a Generation Xer, an inflatable mattress was what they wound up sleeping on when going home for a family Christmas and Aunt Susan was in the bed because of her sciatica.)

As everybody chipped in, the project seemed to be running smoothly - as one executive told Lutz:

"That was the best program we ever did at GM. We made all our internal goals, we made the timing, and I'm really proud of the part I played in it."

Trouble was, as all those goals were being met, the car was being destroyed, and what went from a fairly sleek initial prototype ended up as a thing with - in pundit Mickey Kaus's words - "a gratuitous, fierce animalistic snout". Chief Designer Tom Peters said, with a degree of understatement, that they had "wanted to do a bold, in-your-face vehicle that wasn't for everybody."

Frustratingly, Pontiac knew there were problems - there was market research done on the vehicle which reported that people hated it. GM, though, had form for assuming that feedback like this was a sign that the market had to change, and pushed on regardless.

The car inside was fine - it performed well, and worked smoothly. But the design of the exterior frightened people out of the showrooms. Lutz suggests this is a fundamental problem of the car industry's approach at the time:

Many people in the car business do not understand that a vehicle has an image. To them, a vehicle is a collection of attributes. If your attributes are better than the other guy's attributes, you're gonna win. It's engineer thinking, along totally rational lines. Their advice to an alcoholic is "stop drinking—is there something about that you don't understand?" That's not how people actually think.

Pontiac had known that not everybody would like their car. They overshot that target and wound up with a car nearly everybody hated. There's lessons there for everyone involved in designing anything, from a truck to a website: if you don't listen to, and understand, your market, you might just end up breaking your business for good.

GM - as it careered towards financial oblivion - eliminated the Pontiac brand in 2009.

See more on Building Cars Live

More from OpenLearn on design and innovation

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