Saturday, June 27, 2009

The King is Dead

I'm well aware that the world doesn't need another blog post mentioning Michael Jackson, and I'm certainly cognizant that it would be superfluous to intone that his passing symbolizes the "death of an era." But while commentators, pundits, and bloggers often imbue news events with more significance than they deserve, I think this is one time when they are right-- there is a story here beyond the fact that a famous person died. So I can't help but make my own observations: about the inextricable links between culture, media, and celebrity, and about how a cyclical narrative has concluded.

Consider the story of a boy born into poverty, in a geographical area infamous for its poverty. At a young age, he exhibits musical talent and catches on with one of the nation's pre-eminent record labels. He fuses elements of black and white culture and manages to achieve widespread appeal, thanks in part to noteworthy appearances on television (though some are scandalized by the way he moves his body while performing). He eventually becomes known for his gaudy and sequined wardrobe, and is given the nickname of "King." His fame comes at a price, though, as he becomes detached from reality (in part because he surrounds himself with sycophants). He builds himself a mansion on an estate so stunning it is given its own name (ending with the suffix -land). His lifestyle becomes ever more lavish and opulent, even as the money starts to dry up. His health deteriorates, and he apparently becomes addicted to prescription drugs. Nevertheless, his death at a relatively young age shocks the world, and he is mourned in round-the-clock vigils around the globe.

Of course, but for the fact that one got too fat and the other too skinny, this story fits both Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson (and there is also of course the Campbell-esque element of Jackson symbolically asserting his right to the monarchy by marrying the first king's daughter). Yet this story will not be told again. There will not be a third entertainer to rise as king (and they would not have been kings had they not been born in the right time). Elvis and Michael rose and fell in essentially the same world, and that world is now gone.

I don't need to belabor here the extent to which both of them tapped into the power of mass media, specifically television. But not many people are aware that after Carl Perkins's version of "Blue Suede Shoes" went to #1 for Sun Records in 1956, the people at RCA Records were nervous that they had signed the "wrong guy" away from Sun. But after Elvis's national TV debut a few weeks later, their nervousness was assuaged. Upon Presley's death, Perkins himself showed that he recognized the importance of visuals in the supposedly aural medium of popular music, as well as the importance of style along with substance, saying: "This boy had everything. He had the looks, the moves, the manager, and the talent. And he didn't look like Mr. Ed like a lot of the rest of us did. In the way he looked, way he talked, way he acted… he really was different."

I'm struck by the cultural reference in Perkins's quote. Just as everyone knew who Elvis was because of television, everyone knew who Mr. Ed was. And though I was born years after the show ceased production, and I have never seen an episode, I know who Mr. Ed was and I (unfortunately) can sing at least part of the theme song. But Mr. Ed is dead; one talking horse is no match for millions of twittering birds. Mass culture has splintered Elvis and MJ's kingdom into fiefdoms, and I don't think there will ever come a knight powerful enough that can unify them--at least not one from the entertainment industry. I think if we do have another "king" it will be someone who comes from a realm entirely outside that of song and dance.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Proposals For the Betterment of Sports

The other night I was watching a major league baseball game, and there were exactly two plays at second base that required the umpires' judgment. Replays showed that he got both of them wrong. He was paid thousands of dollars to stand around all night, work for a total of 10 seconds, and deliver a 100% incompetency rate. This example is no doubt fuel for those who would argue that we need more instant replay in baseball, but I don't see why we can't take it even further. I'd like to see umpires wholly replaced. You can't tell me that we don't have the technology to allow sensors and computers to make all the calls more accurately than human beings. Searching the web for counter-arguments to allowing technology in baseball reveals gems like this:

The problem lies in taking away the human error that makes baseball a beautiful game.....Where would we be if we couldn't harass the umpire about the wrong call? What would we do if we didn't think we knew better than those who spend almost a decade training, practicing, and working their way up to become Major League Umpires? Every fan loves to argue a call. Why take that away for a home run?

Even allowing for the subtle point that umpires are well-trained and mostly (but not always) correct, this is the classic rhetoric of someone who is afraid of any change, who just wants to keep things the way they have always been. Well, I propose a compromise then. You could pay random people a couple of bucks to stand out on the field with an earpiece hooked to a computer and render the decision. That way it would look like an umpire is still making the call and you could still argue with him or her (if that floats your boat).

As long as I'm upsetting the apple cart (and overusing cliches), here are some other things I would change in major sports leagues:

NFL: This is an amazingly well-run league. The games themselves are like a good novel--they can be enjoyed without all that much analysis, or they can be dissected and examined from multiple angles. The competitive balance in the league is remarkable, and this means that the individual games are more often than not thrilling and unpredictible. Factor in that the limited schedule results in most games holding significance, and you have a winning formula. Yet there is one thing that I would change. The practice of using chains to measure for first downs is absurd. They are basically pretending that they have a precise way of determining if a team has gained ten yards, when it is purely guesswork. In many cases, there is no way to accurately determine where a ball should be spotted when a player has been pushed back, or a pile of bodies is present. Yet if you always rounded to the nearest yard, you'd take out almost all of the ridiculous subjectivity. Occasionally it might still result in replay (as when we review whether a ball crosses a goal line), but overall it would streamline the whole process. And you could save money on having to employ a "chain gang."

College football: Um, yeah. I'm still waiting for my play-off proposal to be adopted.

Pro basketball: The regular season is a bore. Play 50 games instead of 82, and everything matters a whole lot more. You wouldn't hear about Kobe Bryant's fatigue, player careers would likely last longer, and quality of play would be higher. These factors would spur more interest in the sport, meaning less empty seats at arenas, higher TV ratings, and enough revenue to make up for the lost gates. And the play-offs and Finals would be in the spring instead of summer, presumably also causing higher ratings. Also, get rid of the tired music and sound effects pumped through arena P.A. systems. If you are that afraid that fans can't make enough noise (a proposition more unlikely if you reduce the regular season schedule), bring in college-style bands.

College basketball: Not a whole lot I would change. I'd do away with conference tournaments. And I'm still advocating July Madness.

NHL: Contract to the original four teams.

Auto Racing: Simplify how season points are calculated, so that an average fan can watch a race and then tell you (on their own without any help) how the points race has been impacted.

Boxing: Reduce the number of sanctioning bodies to one, and then reduce the number of weight classes to six or seven. Make is so that a casual sports fan can have the capability to name the champions and top contenders in each weight class.

Golf: One annoying aspect of watching golf is that it looks like the players just got off of their corporate day jobs. Players should wear uniforms, complete with jerseys with numbers and their names on their back (which would allow for a killing in merchandising). Anyone wearing a visor instead of a baseball cap is subject to fines and suspensions.

MMA: I'll admit that I've never watched this, but I would if they adopted the rules of the WWE, only with real fights.

Soccer: Let the players use their hands. Also, make the ball oblong, and replace the nets with end zones. Also, mark off 100 yards and allow players the ability to tackle the person with the ball.

Olympics: Create a Superstars-like competition for a select group of champions. How awesome would it have been to see Michael Phelps go for another gold, but needing to beat Usain Bolt in a boxing match to win it? Also, have a grand medal ceremony during the Closing Ceremonies--all of the medalists from the country with the most medals would assemble on a huge podium while their national anthem is played (and the second and third place countries would also be recognized). Finally, re-introduce tug-of-war as an Olympic sport.

Sumo Wrestling: Allow all of the out of work baseball umpires to participate.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Non-Existent Books I'd Love to Read

I once had a social studies teacher who described the process of voting this way: "When someone casts a vote for a candidate, they are saying 'I don't have time to run for office, so this is the candidate who is most likely to do the job the way that I would.'" That explanation has always worked for me, and I think the sentiment can be applied in other areas. For example: "I don't have time to write a book on this subject, so I'll see what this person has written." However, there are any number of books that I would love to read, that to the best of my knowledge, haven't been written. I have no ambition to write these books myself, but if any potential authors want to adapt any of these ideas, you can consider one sale already in the bag:

1) The Greatest Mistake of Each President. Forty-three chapters (I'd put Cleveland twice, why not?), each chapter devoted to exactly one mistake that a president made in his term. Though obviously subjective in nature, a well-researched approach would still be instructive. It'd be fascinating to see whether certain mistakes are repeated.

2) Unsung Heroes of American Wars. Two consecutive weekends I watched Book TV on CSPAN-2 and learned about completely unknown people who were instrumental in American war efforts: Andrew Higgins and Tadeusz Kosciuszko. It might not be the most opportune historical moment to extol American military might, but I think there are names that should be made more prominent, and a good book constructed around the theme would help to accomplish this.

3) The Cemetery (working title). The idea of the importance of mobility has been central in American history, but residents of cemeteries are decidedly immobile. On the third hand, their descendants are not. I would love a book in which an author goes to some 19th Century Cemetery and does two things a) a historical (not literal) excavation, in order to reconstruct in print the lives of the cemeteries' residents and b) writes alternating chapters following the descendants of the buried, whomever and wherever they might be. The amount of time and resources to such a project would be daunting, but again, I'm pledging twenty bucks right now to anyone who follows through.

4) The World's Greatest Detectives. I'm actually sure this has been done in some form, but go to a bookstore and you'll notice that the "true crime" genre almost always focuses on antagonists. On the other hand, there has been a lot of fictional portrayals of great detectives (from Sherlock Holmes to CSI and Cold Case). I'd like some more nonfiction about gumshoes, please.

5) The Wikipedia Road Trip. I haven't read very much, if anything, from the travel genre, but I would read a book based around the premise of someone hitting the random page generator on Wikipedia until they got a municipality to come up, then going to that municipality, then hitting the random page generator again. I'll start... and in a moment of extreme irony, I alight on Winner, South Dakota. (The odds of me landing on this page are probably less than the guy who won the lottery after buying a ticket in Winner a couple weeks ago).

6) Flame Wars. Who doesn't love to read Internet flame wars? People passionately arguing about matters of infinitesimal consequence--makes for a good metaphor about our lives. A collection of them would make for a good book.

7) What If? I found out through Internet research that this genre actually exists, so I'm about ten years too late on the idea, and I might have to put my money where my mouth is.

8) Annotated Critical Editions of Classic Literature: I know there is such a thing as annotated editions of books, but what I'm looking for is the experience of getting a critical reading alongside the original text. The way it is now, you read Moby Dick, then if you want a critical perspective you have to go and track down essays. I'd like it if it were all in one place: you read several paragraphs, then you get the critic's take, then you go back to the original text.

9) Annotated Editions of Ghostwritten Autobiographies (with annotations by the ghostwriter): This is probably contractually impossible, but what if the ghostwriter for say, Jose Canseco's Juiced got to go back and fill in what they were thinking as they were constructing the text?

10) The output of a group of monkeys given a typewriter. I know they can do better than the last time.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Carrots and Circumstance

It's graduation time again, and that means that a combined six years of time is going to be spent handing out various awards nationwide. (Actually, this statistic is completely made up. In truth, I have no idea how much combined time is going to be spent handing out awards, though I think my own high school graduation is still going on now, and it started more than six years ago). Valedictorians and salutatorians are going to be recognized, along with those who earned special departmental awards. Some lucky graduates will be given trophies and plaques commemorating their dominance at band, athletics, and drama. Others will be given special faculty awards to showcase that they have succeeded in not alienating authority figures. Some will get citizenship awards to mark that they have made outstanding contributions to their community and world. Others will get perfect attendance certificates, indicating that they have good immune systems.

Meanwhile, commencement speakers will attempt to impart wisdom and advice upon the departing masses of both award-winning and non-award winning graduates. In their speeches, many will provide quotations uttered or written by others. Some might even cite research studies. Most likely though, no one will quote an author by the name of Daniel Pink, or bring up the research that he cites in a book coming out this December called Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. I recently saw Pink on CSPAN-2, speaking at a Book Expo. Here is some of what he said (courtesy of this blog):

“There are two main drives that power primates — replenishing physical needs and avoiding punishment.” Threats and bribes. “But maybe there’s a third drive — doing things for their own reward. One professor who was doing some testing brought two groups of people into a room with some puzzles and then left them. What do the groups do after he leaves? The group not receiving money for working puzzles gets interested in the puzzles anyway, while the ones getting monetary rewards soon lost interest. Rewards make even interesting things become uninteresting.

“This book is about why people do what they do. We respond to more than just carrots and sticks — because we get interested. The way that we run our schools and business right now is way off. The wheels have fallen off the bus.”

Of course, when we think of carrots and sticks in the education system the first thing most of us think of is the grading system. And certainly there have been many head-in-the-clouds theorists over the years who have posited that our system would be more pure (and perhaps more effective) if we were to do away with grades. However, I have never heard anyone rail against Honor Rolls, Dean's Lists, and all of the other honors and designations that one can attain in academia. But couldn't a case be made that these things diminish the idea that education is its own reward? Already, there seems to be a strong public sentiment that education is a means to an end. Do educators really need to further this sentiment?

Some may argue that we have a long tradition of bestowing carrots in academics, but we also have a long tradition of using the stick as a motivator, quite literally. Just as we have succeeded in realizing that it is counterproductive to physically punish academic failure, perhaps we will realize that it is counterproductive to reward success. And maybe it would take some of the pomp out of our commencement ceremonies, but it might lead to far preferable circumstances.