Saturday, March 31, 2012

Inspired By an Inspired By

We are now just over a month away from the release of the highly-anticipated Avengers movie. And we are about one month away from the release of the less highly-anticipated Avengers Assemble "inspired by" soundtrack. Actually, I thought a snarky comic book blog hit it on the head with a post entitled: "Tie-In Album For The Avengers Would Make More Sense If The Film Was Set In 2002."

Obviously, this snark is mostly as a result of the tracklist, which features Bush, Buckcherry, Evanescene, Papa Roach, Scott Weiland, and Soundgarden. I'm actually interested in hearing the contributions of the latter two, but I have to admit that the list has an anachronistic feel. I just can't imagine a soundtrack album from 1992 that features so many bands that were prominent in 1982. But it's not just the list of artists that feels anachronistic to me. The idea of an "inspired by" soundtrack feels like such an outdated concept.

Of course, nobody ever believed that the songs on such albums were inspired by a particular motion picture. Perhaps in rare instances an artist was commissioned to write a song that would be featured in a film, but in most cases, such songs, when original compositions, have been studio outtakes and orphans without albums. So everybody always knew that soundtrack albums have always been cynical attempts to cash in on a brand. But at their best, they did offer a legitimate reasons to make a purchase. In the era when people primarily listened to music on CDs, especially in the era prior to easy CD-burning on personal computers, the soundtrack album offered a ready-made mixtape. And now that we can easily create our own playlists on any number of devices, we no longer need record companies to team up with motion picture studios to do it for us.

But I think there was another level to the appeal of the "inspired by" album. When I was in college living in the dorms, a company came by at the beginning of every school year selling posters. Prior to that, I had no idea such an entrepreneurial enterprise existed, but it made perfect sense when I first saw it. A market was ripe for the tapping; students had walls that needed to be filled with temporary decorations, and somebody was willing to step in with hundreds of options. While browsing the selection, I saw a lot of sports and music posters. This seemed reasonable to me, since I can imagine a lot of people wanting to use their wall space to declare allegiance to athletes, teams, or bands.

But I was struck by the number of movie posters for sale. While I didn't buy any, I noticed many dorm walls that were adorned with advertisements for films. And this seemed strange to me. Usually, it wasn't a case where a particular actor or actress was featured, but the poster was usually a promotional image for the film itself, including casting and production credits. I wondered why someone would feel the need to declare allegiance to a two-hour block of entertainment. It just seemed to be so transient of a thing to be regularly engaging with on any kind of a regular basis.

But upon further reflection, the transient nature of that particular media may be precisely what drove the poster market... as well as the demand for soundtrack albums. It was a time when media required time, effort, and money to access. And by nature of having to invest time, effort, and money, those doing the investing assigned a premium value to that which they accessed. And since the payoff for such an investment was only two hours of life experience, it became incumbent on the investor to find ways to stretch out the investment, to make the experience last. By viewing a poster or listening to a soundtrack album (even if such media required their own additional investments), the consumer could accomplish just that.

But now that there is such a proliferation of free and/or easily accessible media in the Neflix/Spotify/Youtube world that we live in, I've got to think that the premium placed on any particular media experience has diminished, and with it the demand for ancillary media. So I will not be purchasing Avengers Assemble. But I do hope to see The Avengers the day that it is released.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Zone Defense and Ninjas

This week, while watching the famous Syracuse zone defense, I started thinking about other zone defenses. This got me thinking about John Cheney's Temple Owls teams, and that got me thinking about one of his players, a guy by the name of Mark Macon. Specifically, I thought about a Sports Illustrated article I read over 20 years ago about Mark Macon.

It may seem odd that I would remember a magazine article about a fairly obscure college basketball player that was published more than two decades ago. I often do boast about the quality of my memory, but recollections are never truly random. We remember things that, for whatever reason, make an impression on us. And the reason this article made an impression on me was because it made me think that Mark Macon was a ninja.

For the benefit of those who didn't grow up in the 1980s, this was a time when ninjas were a pop culture phenomenon. You couldn't turn on a cartoon without encountering a ninja. I once witnessed a playground debate in which the de facto resolved statement was "It is possible for a ninja to catch another ninja's throwing stars." G.I. Joe couldn't fight Cobra without having a ninja on their side. The "Teenage Mutant Turtles" wouldn't have ever emerged from the sewer.

What made ninjas spectacular to my generation was not their physical capabilities. Ninjas were awesome because their physical skills were an extension of the power of their minds. A ninja's mastery of their environment started with their ability to cogitate.

And this article made clear to me that for Mark Macon, his performance on the basketball court started in his dorm room. He would make up proverbs, write them on index cards, and tape them to his dorm room wall. For as remarkable as this seemed to me at the time, it is even more remarkable now. I hadn't been to college when I first read the article, so for all I knew, it was fairly common for college students (athletes, at that) to decorate their dorm rooms with 3X5 cards with sayings like "Suffering + Sacrifice = Success." And actually, this particular Maconism stayed with me all through the years. I was able to access the original article within minutes by googling "Suffering + Sacrifice= Success."

Re-reading the article after all these years, I am struck by how utterly bizarre Mark Macon's high school coach, Norwaine Reed, was. Here is an excerpt that describes what it was like to play for him:

Reed coached Macon at Buena Vista High in Saginaw, Mich., and taught him a course, as part of the basketball program, called Competitive Edge to Peak Performance. Reed's pedagogy is a sort of Norman Vincent Peale for jocks, with an overlay of mysticism. Says Reed, "We sought to instill in our youngsters a commitment to truth, and to have a spiritual commitment—to teach them that there are things in the metaphysical realm that they can control just by how they think."

The Reed method involves memorizing affirmations and repeating them three times daily. His Knights keep a journal of their goals and an "image book," with graphic renderings of these objectives to help them "visualize."

Reed's beliefs scared up some controversy while Macon was at Buena Vista. Players had to sit together in the cafeteria and nosh on affirmations with their lunches. The team practiced on Sunday mornings, which gave the Knights "a feeling of being one, of aspiring to something higher," says Temple's Shoun Randolph, a classmate of Macon's at Buena Vista.

Players even had to forswear girlfriends during the season. "When you get caught up in one girl, you lose sight of what you're striving for," says Macon, who found this to be the most difficult of Reed's rules to follow.

This was a few years before Phil Jackson made the term "Zen master" something that could be attributed without irony to a basketball coach. But both Jackson and Norwaine Reed were products of a particular zeitgeist, one that I don't think exists anymore (as evidenced perhaps by Jackson's appearance in a luxury car commercial last year, in which the nickname was gently mocked).

True, the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid was a box office success, but the Mr. Miyagi archetype is not nearly as prevalent as it was when Mark Macon matriculated at Temple. Nor am I seeing any of the coaches in this year's March Madness tournament being compared to Splinter the Rat.

After the initial romanticism and allure of the culture of martial arts has worn off, and with it the belief that some mixture of asceticism, secret knowledge, and willpower would yield success, we don't get coaches who give athletes reading assignments and "affirmations." Nor do we get players developing arcane equations as dorm decorations.

And in my estimation, basketball (and all of pop culture) is better off for it. It's possible to be a good player without being a ninja. In fact, based upon the evidence of the trajectory of Macon's pro career, ninjas were highly overrated. Using a draft lottery pick on a ninja is a bad idea. Also, I highly doubt that any ninja would be able to catch another ninja's throwing stars.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Paid Speech

I celebrate a birthday tomorrow. I continue to be older than than the defining innovation of my era, the World Wide Web. As such, I recall many of the discussions surrounding this innovation as it advanced into the mainstream. I remember struggling in the pre-Google days to locate relevant information. I remember the cumbersome load times of the dial-up days. I remember being totally confused by this 1994 commercial starring a pre-teen Anna Paquin. And I remember these as the two major questions about the web in the mid 1990s:

1. Will this medium improve our democracy, expanding the public square and giving a greater voice to those who wish to enter the marketplace of ideas?
2. Will anyone ever make money of off websites?

A few years later a third question was added ("Can the free circulation of copyrighted material be stopped?") Several years later, I think we are still searching for definitive answers to all these questions.

Although people are certainly wiling to use the web to make purchases, I think there is still a general consensus that intellectual content should be freely accessible. Newspapers and other content-providers are now setting up "paywalls" in the hopes that the public will be willing to shell out for what used to be free. Most sites, including the most popular (Facebook, Youtube, Google) rely on advertising, even as people decry the supposed invasion of privacy of the most lucrative targeted advertising.

Meanwhile, the web has certainly allowed commentary to flourish. But anyone who has waded into the cesspool of Internet commentary knows that it is not the ideal public sphere envisioned by philosophers like Habermas.

I think most would separate the above as separate problems and separate issues. But I'm not so sure. I'm certain that a newspaper website trying to sell its content would never venture to try to promote reader comments among the package it presents to readers. But could the comments be hurting the perceived value of the website? If an upscale dining facility also had a bar with a bunch of drunks constantly yelling at each other, would that affect the public perception of the dining experience being offered, no matter how good the food?

Alternatively, what if the facility's bar stocked only premium, high quality, expensive beverages? You may still have people consuming drinks, but chances are the bar's clientele would improve, and quite possibly influence the overall perception of the facility for the better.

The problem with quality control on the Internet is that there is no problem of scarcity. Because there is no limit, there is no value. And the easiest way to impose limits and create value is to start charging for it. What if, in order to post an online comment, one had to pay a one dollar user fee?

I guarantee that the quality of a discussion would improve if the participants were forced to make some kind of investment, however minimal, in order to join in. Of course, some may argue that when we are literally limiting free speech, we are violating one of our most sacrosanct national principles. I would argue that this reveals a misunderstanding of what free speech is. I'm not advocating that one be forced to pay a user fee to exercise speech, but rather, the privilege to exercise speech on another's forum.

And not only would the quality of discussion be raised, perhaps a viable revenue stream for content providers could be realized. I'm so confident that this is a good idea that I'd be willing to pay a dollar to publicly suggest it.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Tweeting Against Evil

I'd be surprised if, even now, after the Invisible Children Kony 2012 Campaign, 5% of Americans could pick out Uganda on a map. I'm mildly shocked that a Youtube video 30 minutes long has been viewed 66 million times in five days. Whether or not Joseph Kony is ever caught, life will probably not change to the slightest degree for almost all of those 66 million people.

Machiavelli famously argued that people (i.e. "subjects") are motivated primarily by self-interest ("men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their inheritance"), and that a prince or politician should base policy decisions on whether subjects will perceive that their interests are being met. To be sure, every instance of American interventionism has been met with at least some criticism that it does not advance the interests of the American people to get involved in messy affairs of foreigners.

A cynic would point out that it takes very little effort to "like" something on Facebook or to re-tweet a link to the video, that the outpouring of support for this campaign has only occurred because no concrete action or sacrifice is required on the part of the would-be activist. But then again, there are countless opportunities everyday for one to "like" a cause or to share a link to a video produced by an activist group (most of which are far shorter than the Kony 2012 video). There does have to be something crystallizing about this particular cause.

To help understand what that is, I think we can consider the popularity of Adolf Hitler. I don't mean popularity in terms of favorability, but in terms of awareness. Although some argue that our society has a high level of cultural illiteracy, everybody knows who Adolf Hitler was (I'm convinced more Americans know who led Nazi Germany than know who the presidents were during the second World War).
We have Godwin's law for a reason. In a world of complexity, we love to have a cut-and-dried supervillain to help us orient our moral compasses.

A few years ago authors Lisa Adams and John Heath wrote a book that analyzed "persistent themes" in over 200 bestselling books. One of their findings was that villains lacked complexity, that they were evil for the sake of being evil. Also, they were inherently "different," possessing characteristics that made them distinctly "other" than the protagonists of the stories that readers are meant to identify with. Unfortunately for those who enjoy rooting against such bad guys, those types of characters tend not to surface in real life, and when they do, they rarely have the means to accumulate much power.

In our "culture wars," segments of the population routinely designate individuals as villains, but often such a designation just makes the designee a hero in the eyes of another population segment. In an obscure Ugandan warlord we have found someone that unites us, someone we can all agree is a "bad guy" that we can root against.

I hope that he is caught and brought to justice. I hope his victims find peace and that he has no further victims. But I also hope that in our pursuit of him, we don't shirk out responsibility of navigating more nuanced moral issues, or that we come to think of evil as something that only exists in African jungles. And even if he is caught, I hope we aren't lulled into thinking that we have achieved a decisive blow in the fight against evil.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Translating Body Language

"We didn’t want to hang our heads and have bad body language. We were able to come out and play a good basketball game tonight"-- Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith on his team's game against the Oklahoma City Thunder 3/3/12

“No doubt our attitude and some of our body language during the second quarter wasn’t what it was supposed to be"-- New Tier (Illinois) High School player Connor Boehm 3/2/12

"The body language from Beatrice's Jill Faxon (31) and Gretna's Jordan Meadow tells the story as the Lady Orange defeated the Dragons 47-41 in their Class B state tournament semifinal at Devaney Sports Center on Friday, March 2, 2012."-- Lincoln (Nebraska) Star Journal

“ 'I told them to man up,' recalled Rigoglioso, who didn’t like the body language he saw on the tape. 'No matter how many shots you miss you have to carry yourself like a man on the court. I told them to stop acting like boys and start manning up as basketball players."-- 3/2/12

"They all stepped up when Bernard went out of the game. You could see it in their body language, their level of communication, the intensity in their voice and their eyes. It was obvious they were more determined."-- Florida State basketball coach Leonard Hamilton 3/2/12

“I thought going into the game that our mental approach was very calm, our body language was really solid.”-- Illinois Wesleyan women's basketball coach Mia Smith 3/2/12

As the above quotes demonstrate, at every level of basketball, high school through the NBA, men and women, boys and girls, people are looking at body language. Since the above are all from the last couple of days, we see from a just a small sample size that the focus on body language has become pervasive. Certainly, we've been aware for years that there is a level of meaningful communication that takes place on a nonverbal level, that people's posture and body movements may reveal things that their utterances do not. But I think, based upon a greater frequency of usage of the term, that there has been more attention in recent years paid to body language (perhaps too much attention). Why might that be? There are probably several reasons.

We are in a golden age of data mining. In particular, there has been a push toward discovering "hidden" or "undervalued" data. The "Freakonomics" books, which have now grown into a larger brand, promise to explore the "hidden side of everything." Moneyball revealed that in the culture of sports, marketplace advantages can be gained by locating data streams that competitors undervalue. But even as we are aware of the tantalizing possibility that we can access greater knowledge by looking a little bit deeper, the truth is that very few of us have the skills or training to be able to practically do this. On the other hand, most of us have a little bit of practice at interpreting body language. It's easy enough in some circumstances to learn about people by watching their reactions to stimuli. But might we be a little too eager to apply judgments in other circumstances?

Also, we may be becoming a more nonverbal society. Given the ease with which we can now communicate with people by nonverbal (and nonpersonal) means, there may be even more of a premium placed on the nonverbal cues that go with those communications. But as a generation comes of age with a different cultural context for communication, do the old "rules" for judging engagement apply? I'm not convinced that the adolescent who isn't making eye contact isn't paying attention.

And another thing that strikes me about the above quotations is that they are all applied in hindsight. Granted, athletes and coaches aren't interviewed in the middle of a competition (though a time may be coming when in-game tweets won't be viewed as taboo). But can you imagine a coach saying "We won in spite of our body language"? Or "We showed some really good body language out there, but the results wouldn't follow"? Of course, it is presupposed that poor performance results from poor energy exertion, and poor energy exertion may be diagnosed by analyzing body language.

Yet isn't it more likely that poor performance results from a combination of inferior talent and random bad luck? And isn't it probable that bad body language is a consequence of poor results, rather than the other way around?

But at the rate we are going, maybe body language will someday be known as "language," and utterances will be known as "spoken language." So in the final analysis, I think we may have a market inefficiency that can be exploited by those who are savvy. It may be a crazy thought, but by paying attention to actions and words, be just might learn more than those who are hung up on studying postures, twitches, and gaits.