Saturday, September 29, 2007

My Humble Suggestions for the Improvement of the National Pastime

Maybe it's the elimination of the Brewers from the post-season, but for whatever reason I have a sudden urge to re-vamp baseball. I have come up with two innovations that I believe could be the best thing to happen to baseball since mandatory steroid testing.

The first came to me while sitting in a chair at the dentist's office. My attendant (not sure what her exact title would be) informed me that I'd have to wait awhile for x-rays, and she offered me a magazine from the corner of the room. Now, unlike the waiting room proper, which contained the very latest in periodicals, the examination room itself offered the stereotypically dated material. I snagged a Sporting News that originally hit newsstands during spring training. Fortunately, there was some timeless material; I found a particularly interesting article about baseball pitches. While reading this article, I felt a drip of water. It turns out the air conditioning system above me was leaking. Sitting a dentist chair with water dripping on me, my thoughts could have wandered to new and innovative ways for our government to interrogate terrorism suspects. But they didn't. Instead, my thoughts wandered to new and innovative ways for pitchers to get batters out. Well, perhaps "new and innovative" wouldn't be an apt description for my solution, which would involve the legalization of the spitball, a pitch that was banned in 1920. I did some research on the matter, and I found out that Ty Cobb was against the banning of the pitch, saying that the owners "greedily sold out to the home run."

Regardless of how chicks feel about the longball, we've reached a saturation with the level of home runs in the game, and we have a disproportionate emphasis on power hitting. Too high of a percentage of runs being scored are coming via the home run.

The legal spitball would be the great equalizer. It would de-emphasize the home run, and though it wouldn't bring us back to Cobb's dead ball era, it would at least restore the type of baseball being played not too long ago-- an era where every run mattered, where teams tried to move up baserunners by hitting the ball to the opposite field, where teams didn't sit back and wait for home runs. The spitball would also restore the arts of basestealing and bunting to their former glory. And it would open up new jobs for the weary-armed pitcher who can perfect the art of throwing the spitter, which is important given my next proposal.

I submit that the number of major league teams should be doubled. However, rather than find 30 new cities, I propose that each existing city add a new team. I guess you could call it a "B" squad, though I actually envision a parity between all 60 teams. For example, you would have a Milwaukee Brewers which would compete in the National League Central, and a Milwaukee Cheeseheads which would compete in the Federal League Central, along with teams like the Pittsburgh Buccaneers, the St. Louis Browns, and the Chicago Billy Goats.

Here's the thinking: There are 162 games in a season: 81 home and 81 away. For every 81 times the Brewers play on the road, their ballpark sits vacant. Why not plug in a team that would play a parallel schedule, in which they would be home every day that the A-team is on the road, and vice versa? You could even stack it so that, as often as possible, one team would be playing during the day while the other team is playing at night, giving the local fans lots of chances to cheer on local teams. The infrastructure would already be in place for each team, so there wouldn't be an overwhelming amount of expense for this start-up venture. I would envision each owner inheriting the new franchise in each city. This is important because, though profits would decline for each of the existing teams, the overall profits would only increase, and perhaps increase by a lot.

Another advantage of such a set up is that rules could be separated by league. Right now, the DH is split between AL and NL. In the future, it could be split between the A and B Leagues. You could also experiment with a legal spitball in one of the leagues.

Of course, people will argue that talent dilution would be a problem. I'd argue that as long as there is parity, the average fan wouldn't notice a drop off in overall skill level. I'd also argue that if baseball continues to promote itself overseas, there will be in increase in the talent pool. Whatever happens to all those Little League World Series players from the Far East? Let's get them over here and populating the new teams. Finally, a surefire way to bring competitive balance across the board would be to, you guessed it--legalize the spit!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Civil Disobedience in 2007

The Jena Six case has been the big story so week, so much so that even O.J. got bumped off the front pages. Obviously, a racially charged incident is going to draw attention, but I think part of the reason for the fascination is that this situation resonates because of our familiarity with the past.

Many of the stories I saw had a variation of the phrase "A throwback to the days of the Jim Crow South." Despite laments of how poorly our educational system teaches kids about important events in history, I think a sense of our country's historic injustice toward African-Americans is something that is pretty well ingrained into most students (which is not to say that there is necessarily much discussion about ongoing injustices). I think the only other concept that is as ubiquitous throughout social studies curricula is the notion that Hitler was evil. In fact, there is even a concept called "Godwin's Law," which both humorously and aptly observes the use of Hitler as the go-to example of evil personified. For this reason, I think a neo-Nazi in America would have a better chance of getting publicity than a neo-Maoist (maybe I can make this into my own Law which would someday get a Wikipedia page....).

So it would seem that the American historical-cultural canon stands at two items. Perhaps there are a few more here and there, but I think most would agree that it wouldn't be a bad thing to expand our common pool of reference. And one item I think deserving of inclusion is Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience." And if this particular essay had the type of broad currency that it has in select political and intellectual circles, I think an incident this week would have garnered perhaps as much attention as the Jena Six.

A 68-year-old Massachusetts man was jailed for refusing to pay a 50 cent toll (I guess if you were associated with the concept of 50 cents, it was an all around bad week in general). You can get the full story here, but the short version is that he had previously purchased tokens that could be used on tollways, tokens which are now apparently null and void. He passed the tokens instead of coins, was subsequently issued a citation, and chose a day in jail rather than pay the fine.

There are some obvious parallels to Thoreau, including his home state and the length of his stay in the big house. There are some differences, though. Thoreau never considered a lawsuit, and this man didn't take the opportunity to compose a treatise on resistance of state power.

The question I ask: is this significant? Does this represent a contemporary example of the Kafkaesque? Should this man be applauded for asserting a human dignity in the face of an illogical, inane and indifferent state bureaucracy? Or should be be mocked for choosing to fabricate a conflict where none existed?

And does this action make a significant statement about American justice? When a man is willing to contest an injustice of such minuscule proportion, does that actually speak well to the whole system? After all, could such a thing happen in Baghdad? Is there something to celebrate in the fact that this man's concept of justice is so ideal, that he refuses to compromise even at harm to himself? And if such a man exists, isn't that a testament to the culture that helped him to form such an ideal?

And if these questions can be answered in the affirmative, can the same significance be assigned to the public's reaction to the Jena Six case? And finally, what about O.J.? O.J. Simpson is the figure in America today most likely to inspire cynicism about the concept of justice. Is the fact that we take an interest in his latest misadventures necessarily a bad thing?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The R and A of the all time Top 10

Today has been a great day. No matter what happens, nothing can change that, for today I have discovered the RIAA list of best selling artists of all-time. Previously, I've seen lists for best selling albums of all time, I've seen lists of highest grossing movies of all time, but never before have I seen a list that objectively breaks down, by career, which artist or group has sold more than any others. I'm still taking time to process the data, and to that end, I've decided to test my theory, first proposed about a year ago, in the following post:

In short, I will examine each of the top 10 artists. I will first close my eyes and determine which song first comes to mind as the most quintessential representative of the artists commercial success, then assess whether it fits the criteria outlines above, namely whether the song, and by extension the artist, is accessible and relatable.

1. The Beatles, 170 million albums sold
Quintessential Song (Hereafter "QS"): "I Wanna Hold Your Hand."
While this particular track probably won't show up on many critics lists as one of the top all-time Beatles song, I would argue that it most encapsulates the Beatlemania era, without which they would not have sold 170 albums. Every Beatles song from inception to Rubber Soul was highly accessible and relatable. Even after they became more experimental, they still had a number of relatable and accessible songs. While "Tomorrow Never Knows" enjoys a healthy critical reception, "Hey Jude" with its simple message of "taking a sad song and making it better" and its incredibly accessible sing along chorus, is the one that has sold albums to the masses. In fact, my anecdotal experience, tells me that it is the greatest hits albums that moved the most units. When I was in high school, years after the Beatles hey-day lots of my classmates had the so-called "red" and "blue" CDs in their collection, but not so for "Revolver" or "Sgt. Peppers." "Beatles One" exploded onto the charts a few years later, absent great but inaccessible tracks such as "Within You Without You."

2. Elvis, 118.5 million
QS: "Jailhouse Rock"
I just wrote a post on Elvis a few weeks ago, so I won't go into detail here, but the argument in that post is relevant: Elvis's work is relatable and accessible.

3. Garth Brooks, 116 million
QS: the only one I know is "Friends in Low Places"
Country music today is all about relatibility and accessibility (hereafter ironically referred to as R&A). If anyone could have stepped outside of that paradigm and remained successful, it would be Garth Brooks. Chris Gaines anyone?

4. Led Zeppelin, 109.5 million
QS: "Stairway to Heaven"
Oh-oh. I'm not sure this works. Stairway is famously abstract. Their power ballads and puffed-up blues songs are certainly accessible, but I'm not sure how I can reconcile the relatibility factor to this band's oeuvre. On the other hand, they did have a lot of songs about love, and their more mystical songs tap into primitive archetypes. And it was the 1970s.

5. Eagles, 91 million
QS: "Hotel California"
All right, this is more like it. The Flying Burrito Brothers, a band that came out of the same crucible which spawned the Eagles, were ten times the band that the Eagles ever were, but they wouldn't be caught dead doing a song like "Tequila Sunrise," and therefore slipped into relative obscurity. The Eagles took the most accessible parts of rock, mixed them with the most relatable parts of country, and proceeded to sell 91 million lifeless records. "Hotel California" actually tips toward abstract, but then again, as noted above with Zeppelin, the 70s was probably the decade most open to abstraction as a part of life.

6. Billy Joel, 79.5 million
QS: "Piano Man"
Now we're really talking. A guy sitting at a piano and pouring his guts out about bad relationships, or in the case of "We Didn't Start the Fire" a history lesson that just requires the knowledge of the words in bold type without the higher level critical thinking skills. Speaking of "Piano Man," I ran across this gem which posits a scenario in which the song is taken to its literal conclusions.

7. Pink Floyd, 73.5 million
QS: Another Brick in the Wall Part 2
Ah, I know what you're thinking. But unlike Zeppelin, I'm not fazed at all by this band. Because it's "Dark Side" and "The Wall" that result in this chart placement. These are songs that, for all their Wizard of Oz sensibility, are actually about things like mean teachers and greedy businessmen. If "Arnold Layne" a Barrett-era Floyd song about a guy who stole women's underwear from clothesline, resulted in this band's popularity, we'd have a problem. But when it comes down to it, post-Barrett Floyd is another A&R band. And speaking of "Oz," for all the proto-stoner mentality of that film, the tagline "There's No Place Like Home" makes it, in the end, a comfortable R&A story.

8. Barbara Streisand, 71 million
uh, yeah

9. Elton John, 69.5 million
QS: "Rocket Man"
See Joel, Billy

10. AC/DC, 68 million
QS: "Shook Me All Night Long"
The secret of their success? No matter who was singing lead, they always had a clear and concise vocal track. How many metal bands could take a phrase like "Dirty deeds done dirt cheap" and make it into something fun to sing along too?

On the list, we've got examples of A&R rock, pop, country, metal, and whatever Barbara Streisand is. Zeppelin throws a curveball, but in the end, I think the theory is more validated than not.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Boom Goes Miss Teen South Carolina: Why Internet Memes Attain Prominence

If I ever have the time or inclination to write a book, I might be interested in researching the history of Internet memes, also known as Internet phenomena or viral phenomena. I'd be interested to learn if there is a common thread that connects those images and videos that have "gone viral." Most dauntingly, I'd like to try to discern if there is a formula for becoming a phenomenon. From a very cursory analysis, I'd say that if there is a formula, it might be found in the intersection between the concepts of failure and bathetic self-promotion. In other words, we like to see people who try to puff them self up make fools of themselves.

Consider the case of the Boom Goes the Dynamite guy. There is a whole genre of youtube clips of TV anchor meltdowns, with this one being the most spectacular failure. Applying a McLarenesque reading to this phenomena, I think it can be argued that the TV screen (in ways the computer screen hasn't yet) automatically creates a hierarchical dynamic, with the mere presence of a figure on screen assuming a position of superiority (if that is not the case, how to explain the people outside the windows of the Today show?) . Consequently, it is satisfying to see such a figure stumble and sometimes burst into flames, assuring us that they are no better than we are. But what of the Boom Goes the Dynamite guy, who is obviously not a professional TV figure? Wouldn't we be more sympathetic to him? I maintain that this clip would never have become the phenomenon it did, if not for the injection of his eponymous phrase. By trying to emulate the Sports Center anchor with his catchphrase, he aspired to more than he deserved, and a Greek sense, was punished.

This moves into the province of William Hung territory, of course. The concept of the American Idol wannabe is fast becoming a contemporary archetype. Many of these have become viral phenomena, and disturbingly, there seems to be a racial component to many of them. Foreigners, minorities, and curiously, children, seem to make up the majority of meme subjects. Is the dominant culture bringing attention to what might happen to those who don't know their place, by substituting ridicule for violence? The classic example of punishing a subject for hubris would be the "Impossible is Nothing" video resume (again targeting a foreigner).

Speaking of Greek philosophy, there is something cathartic about most Internet memes. In the pre-Internet days, I remember a couple of general interest magazines that would carry a regular feature called "My embarrassing moment." With this new medium, we have found a way to circulate the actual embarrassing moments for our cathartic needs.

The most recent example is the Miss Teen South Carolina contestant. This 45 second clip has all the components discussed so far. We've got a reinforced stereotype, as viewers can be content that the blond cheerleader is really as dumb as we've always hoped, and we don't need to be insecure if we can't be her or date her. We've got a contestant for a crown exposed as a sham (come to think of it, mocking royalty in entertainment goes all the way back to Moliere, if not before).

But what struck me the most about this clip was the cathartic potential, as we see a bare naked stream of consciousness unfold before our eyes. It is a dizzying inchoate collection of words and ideas, but it unfolds slowly enough that we can actually see the tenuous connections and the free associations. Much as we disguise it, and we're so well practiced that we are able to repress it, this is the substance of our thoughts. Underneath the veneer of coherence, our minds are a frightening stew of words, pictures, and associations. On some levels, it is a relief to see this exposed.

Lost in all of this is that she got a really tough question. I might be able to fashion a theory for what makes an Internet meme, but I'm still struggling with why 20% of people apparently can't find the U.S. on a world map.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Why Do Some Businesses Prosper and Others Don't?

Successful businesses accept change by initiating new ideas. They recognize new buying trends and develop profitable objectives.

Successful businesses use innovative marketing techniques.

Successful business respect the buying public.

Is anyone still reading? I wouldn't fault anybody for clicking onto more stimulating content after reading this. The words (and the headline) are taken verbatim from an advertisement I happened to randomly see in the back of the Yellow Pages. I've always enjoyed looking through the Yellow Pages for odd categories, so when I got my hands on a phone book for Sheboygan County, I set out to do just that. However, I was stopped in my tracks by a page with a huge pot leaf and the accompanying text "It makes you respond to 'hey stupid' ten seconds slower." Paid for by the partnership for a drug free America. It should also be pointed out that this page was located in back of the main section, and relatively difficult to stumble upon. I believe I've read in the past that studies have been conducted which showed that anti-drug advertising has been a waste of taxpayer money. I'm not sure which is more disturbing, the idea of a lethargic government worker indiscriminately buying ad space because that's their job, or the idea of an earnest government worker doing their best to prevent drug abuse and thinking that this ad was a good idea.

Curious to see if there were any more bad ads to be found, I flipped the page and was greeted with the above text regarding successful businesses. I don't even know where to begin to assess it. Apparently, business owners are supposed to be drawn in by the rhetorical question, then follow the line of argumentation. However, not only is the language overblown and empty of signification, not only is it borderline insulting in its tone, it is incredibly boring. Here's the pay-off (italics theirs):

Yellow Book Directory Advertising Can Help Your Business Prosper!
Telephone Directories are Recognized as a Successful Tool for Creative Marketing Techniques

Yellow Pages are Used by 3 out of 4 People

The Yellow Book is Preferred by Customers 2 to 1*
*According to Research Conducted by McGladrey, Hendrickson, and Pullen, Certified Public Accountants

Wow. Just wow. The statistics have the potential to be compelling (though the second needs to be clarified), but no normal person is still reading by the time the statistics are revealed (and yes, I realize what this says about me).

So why is this noteworthy? Is it noteworthy? I'd argue that the meta-ad is more disturbing than the anti-drug ad, which we would almost expect to be comically bad. The concept of a meta-ad, or an ad for advertisement, failing on so many levels, is worrisome in its implications. In a world where information is being disseminated in new ways, the traditional modes and mediums are being accused of "not getting it," not understanding what they need to change, or alternately, not exploiting the advantages they possess. This ad may be indicative of a dying medium, and it's own rhetoric is an eerily ironic self-indictment.