Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Secret of the Universe

 Circa fourth grade, I read a "Choose Your Own Adventure book" called War With the Evil Power Master.   At the time, I thought nothing of the ridiculousness of a villain named the "Evil Power Master."  Literalism isn't a bad thing for a fourth grade brain.  But there was one element of the book that did blow my fourth grade mind.  The Evil Power Master was threatening not just because he was genocidal or possessed weapons of mass destruction or because he was evil and powerful and masterful.  He represented a threat because he knew "secrets of the universe"...and he was threatening to tell them.

As the second-person protagonist of the story, I took the omniscient narrator's word for it that this was a bad thing (and I suppose an omniscient narrator would also know the secrets of the universe).  I succeeded in stopping the secrets from being revealed without finding them out myself.

Until now.  Listening to a Freakonomics podcast this week, I found out at least one of the secrets of the universe.  Host Stephen Dubner actually used that very term to describe the importance of the subject he was exploring.  So without further ado, here is a secret of the universe, as summarized by Dubner himself: "Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called 'Riding the Herd Mentality.' The gist: How peer pressure – and good, old-fashioned shame – can push people to do the right thing."

One may question how this is a secret, much one that could be considered a secret that is foundational to society.  Everybody knows that peer pressure is a factor in human behavior.  Then again, everybody (involved with baseball) knew that baseball players with high on-base percentages were good--yet prior to Billy Beane incorporating his "Moneyball" philosophy, most baseball executives underestimated how good baseball players with high OBPs (but relatively low batting averages) were.   Likewise, peer pressure is a great market inefficiency of our era--people consistently underestimate the impact of social stigma.

The podcast details an experiment where four different kinds of flyers were distributed in a neighborhood, all of them with a different message imploring homeowners to consume less energy.  Three of them gave logical reasons why less energy consumption would be beneficial, one of them said something like "Your neighbors have committed to using less energy.  Please join them."  In a survey, this message was rated by homeowners as the least likely to influence their behavior.  But when actual energy consumption was empirically measured, which homes do you think showed the most marked decline in energy usage?

People underestimate the power of peer pressure because they overestimate their own resistances to it.  Those who are in charge of trying to influence the behavior of others rarely employ it, since they believe they wouldn't be swayed by such an approach.  The end result is that more often than not, marketers or advocates who are attempting to influence social change choose to highlight the prevalence of a negative behavior in order to shock an audience out of complacency.  But because of our "herd mentality," such a tactic often inspires the opposite effect--"If so many people are doing it, maybe I should be, too."  (Listen to the podcast for an incredible story about how an anti-theft sign in a petrified forest caused more theft than it prevented).

So the take away is that if you are attempting to effect change, attempt to show how the desired action is normal and the current behavior is abnormal.  For example, if attempting to stop people from texting while driving, don't be in a hurry to share with them how common of a practice it is.  Instead, emphasize all the people who don't text and drive.

And the other element Dubner discussed involved making fun of people who don't follow a desired behavior.  He shared the incredible story of a Colombian mayor who hired mimes to make fun of jaywalkers (which resulted in fewer people jaywalking).  Perhaps in the future, mimes can solve all of our social problems.  I know I would gladly read a book with mimes pitted against the Evil Power Master.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

On Wisconsin

This week, I violated a longstanding personal policy to never vote in online polls.  Like online advertising, I've gotten really good at training my brain to never notice them.  And when I do, I am usually steadfast in my refusal to waste the few seconds to click on one of the options.  But this week, there was a call to action.  As a Wisconsinite, I was compelled to participate in ESPN's "Battle of the Ballparks."   Initially, I heard last week (off-line) about Miller Park being seeded #24 out of 30 ballparks for the head-to-head voting.  But I could muster no ire for this supposed disrespectful designation.  This hyper-connected twitterized world has desensitized me to most opinions, even those that supposedly carry the extra weight of carrying the stamp of the ESPN brand.

But as the week went on and a full-fledged movement developed in my home state to "stick it to ESPN," I couldn't resist partaking.  I read one theory that Jim Caple, the commentator on the voting, was secretly favoring Miller Park, and that his sarcastic jabs at Wisconsin were calculated to inspire a reaction.  I don't believe that, but I do think that had Miller Park been seeded higher in the initial rankings there would have been no viral reaction, and it's quite likely that a different ballpark would have triumphed.

It's also clear to me that this vote was about more than Miller Park.  It wasn't just our ballpark that we felt was being disrespected, but our entire way of life.  Caple felt the need to vehemently assert that he has never lived on the East Coast, and therefore his initial rankings and subsequent comments were not the result of any "East Coast bias."  To that, I would say that first, it is possible to be so influenced by an East Coast based media that such a bias is possible even without a direct personal connection to the East Coast.  Second, whether Caple himself is perpetuating such a bias is beside the point.  The fact that so many feel such a bias exists, and are motivated to action, says something.  Some might point out that the "action" that people were motivated to take (clicking their mouse one time) is rather meaningless.  I would argue that precisely because the action is meaningless the action is meaningful.  There is really something going on here when people who actually stand to gain literally nothing are still motivated to some kind of action.

This outpouring of Wisconsin pride this week coincided with someone posing the question "What is it like to live in Wisconsin?" on the Q and A website Quora, in which 10 positive answers (to one negative) were given.  Full disclosure: one of the positive answers came from my brother, who boasted of his Wisconsin tattoo (comparing himself to Bon Iver in the process).

One of the Quora commentators remarked that there is more of a sense of geographical pride exhibited in my state than in others he has seen.  I have heard the same from others who have become acquainted with Wisconsin residents.  "Wisconsin people really like being from Wisconsin," is a sentiment that I never really knew until I heard it expressed by multiple people who aren't from Wisconsin.

But is this the result of an authentic sense of identity, or is it a reaction to perceived disrespect from those who inhabit other geographic regions?  Reading the Quora comments, it is clear that there are concrete elements of Wisconsin culture that its residents esteem and defend.  But nobody listed Miller Park as one of those elements.  The effusion of support for Wisconsin's major league ballpark this week was certainly born in part from a pre-existing condition.  And it's ironic that Miller Park would be a unifying element of Wisconsin culture, given the divisiveness that it initially inspired.  Long before recall elections became the order of the day in Wisconsin politics, the first legislator in the state to be recalled was removed because of his vote to levy a tax to help pay for the ballpark.

Wisconsin is definitely not red or blue (unless it's a Badger or Brewer game day).  But it's definitely not apolitical, either.  It's passionately purple (though also passionately anti-Vikings).  And while there are certainly people on both sides of the political spectrum who would assert that the state would be more prosperous and more just if it weren't for the people on the other side, I've got to think that if either side ever got their wish, not only would we be harder to distinguish from other geographical regions, we'd have less to be prideful about.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Public Challenge

It's been a long time since I've watched a telethon.  I have more entertainment options at my disposal than I used to.  Yet I definitely have childhood memories of not only the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethon, but PBS fundraisers, which that network seemed to air with the regularity of Sesame Street.  I don't ever remember giving anything on any of these occasions (I had a limited budget and no checking account or credit card), but I nonetheless emotionally invested in the fundraiser's ability to meet certain "challenges."  As a clock ticked down, I would hope against hope that random strangers would call in pledges so that the challenge could be met (and they usually were...funny how that worked). 

I'm not sure if anyone has ever done a study to compare such a technique to a control technique in which dollars are solicited without suggesting a desired unified total within a limited amount of time.  But it does seem that people respond to the concept of a "challenge," even if logically there is no real reason for the challenge or particular benefit for its attainment.

And yet, how rarely do we see instances of "challenges" outside of sales, marketing, or fundraising efforts.  We are told all through school that "setting goals" is important, and most of us do operate with some long-term aspirations that we might call "goals," and many of us set short term "resolutions" for ourselves, but unless you are a contestant on a reality television show, rarely do people live life responding to any kind of concrete, tangible, dictated "challenge."

Even rarer (in practice if not in theory) is the idea of a societal challenge.  The most famous one that I can think of is JFK's appeal for a man to be on the moon by the end of the 1960s.  Actually, that's the only successful one that I can think of at all (alas, we failed to meet the "George W. Bush challenge" of going to Mars by the end of 2010).  There have certainly been public health challenges that have received some degree of publicity.  I am particularly nostalgic for the optimism expressed in the idea of a "smoke free class of 2000."  And much as I would love for Michelle Obama to successfully inspire the end of childhood obesity within a generation, I fear that we will see the end of underage smoking prior to the end of childhood obesity.

Of course, bold challenges in the public health realm are likely more about raising awareness and inspiring an incremental change rather than any realistic hope of attaining the totality of the stated goal.  But what would it take to truly accomplish a radical paradigm shift?  It would probably look something like this--an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that suggests that "preventable" childhood deaths can be wiped out the way that smallpox was wiped out.  I'm not going to pretend that I understand all the math in the linked article, but it's obvious that this isn't a mere P.R. vehicle.  These researchers truly believe this can happen and they present a formula for how it can happen.

It's intriguing to consider this article in tandem with this other one that I ran across a few days ago.  With the technology that exists now, it's not difficult to envision a time in the not-too-distant future when automobile collisions could be almost completely eliminated.

If the possibility exists, all that is needed is motivation.  And what could be more motivating than a concretely-stated public challenge?  Everybody loves "grass roots" efforts, but it seems to me that there is a time and a place for the top of the plant to shake up the roots.  Maybe we can get PBS to put up a constant countdown ticker until all "preventable" deaths are prevented.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Kid Rock as Synthesis

How can someone be superficial, banal, and yet fascinating?  That's the question I find myself asking about the entertainer known as Kid Rock (who is in his 40s and has never rocked).  What makes Kid Rock fascinating to me is not anything to do with his personal ethos or his artistic output, but the way that he, in this era of fragmentation, synthesizes so much in and of our culture.

It fascinates me that while I was at a high school softball game this last week, the between innings music played over the P.A. system was this snippet from the 2008 Kid Rock song "All Summer Long": "She was seventeen and she was far from in-between/It was summertime in Northern Michigan/...And we were trying different things/ We were smoking funny things/ Making love out by the lake to our favorite song/Sipping whiskey out the bottle, not thinking 'bout tomorrow/Singing Sweet home Alabama all summer long."  So, as actual 17-year-old girls completed their warm-up throws, they and the crowd on hand were regaled with Rock's savvy ability to narrate a tale of (underage) sex, drugs (and alcohol), and rock and roll within the span of a single chorus.

Now, it's nothing new for a popular recording artist to smuggle transgressive content into song with an innocent top 40 hook and end up getting mainstream exposure.  But Kid Rock has never tried to smuggle anything.  He has always been overt in his entire persona.  And in any of his songs, including "All Summer Long," his enunciation is such that, in opposition to most pop music, it is difficult to ignore the words.  Actually, maybe I should say it is not difficult to hear the words.  It may be easy to ignore most of what actually comes out of Kid Rock's mouth, because his mass appeal has never been about his language (his breakout hit song after all, was named "Bawitdaba.")

When Kid Rock emerged, he was very much a part of the rap-rock or "aggro rock" trend of the late 1990s, right alongside Fred Durst and his ilk.  Like Eminem, he played up his Detroit roots. He had been on a record label named "Jive," he had toured with Ice Cube and people with names like Too Short and D-Nice.  In short, he was very much a product of a particular time, a time that has since passed, and with it the relevance of people like Fred Durst and Eminem.  And as of the turn of the millennium, there was no reason to believe that Kid Rock had any more prospects of long-term relevancy than the rest of this cohort.

But we should have known.  Kid Rock didn't wear a backwards baseball cap.  He wore a fedora.  Regarding his background: True, he was "forced" into drug dealing by a gang that he associated with at age 15...but prior to that he grew up picking apples in his family's orchard in little (lil'?) Romeo, Michigan.  His dad owned multiple car dealerships.  I didn't know any of this 10 years ago.  If I had, I wouldn't have been as surprised as I was when Kid Rock started duetting with country singers and getting airplay on country stations for his song "Picture" in 2003.

In a Hegelian sense, perhaps it was inevitable the genres of rap and country would somehow synthesize.  These were the two dominant genres of the time, and in some ways they represented opposite cultural experiences.  If a Hegelian synthesis was inevitable, it would be also inevitable that someone like Kid Rock would be the unifying avatar.  With a background simultaneously urban, suburban, and rural, he would know how to put it all together--not necessarily in terms of creating a potent new art form, but in presenting the signifiers of the various art forms in a way that would be palatable to the largest possible cross section of mass culture.  Eminem's biography was celebrated in his day, but he was never destined to be boasting of his teen-age delinquency between innings of a high school softball game.  He never wore a fedora and he never picked apples.

It was around the time that Kid Rock first began branching out that I saw him for the first and only time in my life.  I don't mean that I saw him in concert--rather, I saw him in the tunnels of Lambeau Field.  I was a sports reporter covering a Packer play-off game, waiting for the players' locker room to open.  All of a sudden, Kid Rock and entourage walk by.  If I blinked I would have missed him.  Pamela Anderson was not with him.  She would not be in Green Bay, Wisconsin in January.

Since that time, I haven't been surprised by anything that Kid Rock has done or not done.  This certainly includes his getting into a fight in a Waffle House in 2007--in between trips to the Middle East to entertain active duty military troops.  Moreso than any recording, these events may exemplify why Kid Rock is now an icon.

And how many people who have been in fights in a Waffle House are afforded a personal visit by a presidential candidate?  A couple months ago, Mitt Romney drove to Kid Rock's house in order to seek an endorsement (which came in the form of a Kid Rock performance at a Romney appearance prior to the Michigan primary).  Some might have found such a meeting incongruous.  Imagine trying to tell someone ten years ago that one day a Mormon presidential candidate would go out of his way (literally) to win the support and favor of a guy whose resume includes an appearance on the Insane Clown Posse's album Carnival of Chaos.  But in reality, this meeting was no more incongruous than the playing of "All Summer Long" at a high school sporting event.

How can either of these events be anything but incongruous?  A few years ago, New York Times writer David Brooks made the provocative statement that the culture wars are nearly over.  "Today's young people...seem happy with the frankness of the left and the wholesomeness of the right," he wrote.  To the extent that frankness and wholesomeness can coexist without incongruity, Kid Rock continues to fascinate.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Bucket Listing

Some time ago, my wife caught me listening to the George Michael album Faith.   Having been married to me for over nine years, she knew that this behavior on my part was out of character.  "Why are you listening to this?" she asked me.  "Because Rolling Stone named it the 480th best album of all time," I replied.  "Um, that doesn't seem like a very high ranking," was her response.

And she was very right of course.  This was a horrible reason to listen to an album which I didn't enjoy listening to.  Perhaps if a reputable music magazine had ranked the album in the top 10, or even the top 100 all-time, I could have made a better case for listening to it.  But 480?  Then again, I had decided a couple of years ago that I was going to try to listen the top 500 albums of all time, in order, as ranked by Rolling Stone in 2003.  By no means have I been obsessive in this pursuit.  I am listening to plenty of other things in addition to the Rolling Stone quest.  In fact, at the rate that I've been on, I realized today that it would take me between 30 and 40 years to finish all 500.

The other thing that I just realized about this pursuit is that it qualifies as a "bucket list" item. recently ran an article by Simon Doonan condemning the bucket list phenomenon (subtitle: "America's most idiotic new pastime").  I nodded along as I read this take-down of the practice, feeling smug about my ability to refrain from such foolishness.

But then today I ran across a news item that stopped me in my (album) tracks.  2003 was a long time ago, and Rolling Stone has now updated their list of top 500 albums.  I'm left with the choice of either starting over completely (which would make me feel like I haven't accomplished anything by listening to the 23 albums that I have listened to), ignoring the new list until I finish the old one (which might take me until I'm retirement age), or going back and filling in with new additions to the list (which seems so blasted imprecise).  At this point, I've chosen option #2--which clearly means I've given myself at least one bucket list item.

Now, I definitely want to avoid the pratfalls that are covered in the Slate article.  Doonan observes two bucket list categories: death-defying adventures (e.g. skydiving) and materialistic or hedonistic accomplishments (e.g. buying a speedboat).  Regarding the second category, I'm good.  Regarding the first category, I understand that "throwing a dart at a map" is a popular bucket list item.  But who uses darts anymore when random generators exist?  Two years ago, I wrote on this blog about my desire to use Wikipedia's random page generator to plan a future vacation.  So I guess I've uncovered another item.  And since plural items make a list, I guess I have a bucket list.

So now that I'm stuck with a bucket list, I may as well go all out and consciously fill it out.  A bucket list with two items is kind of pathetic, so let's shoot for five.  Given my lack of ambition when it comes to active accomplishments, I will use my Rolling Stone project as a model.  The rest of my bucket list will consist of the passive consumption of media.  I have a lot of books that I still want to read in my life, but none that I feel compelled to read.  I've already done the complete works of Shakespeare.  Going through Harold Bloom's recommended Western Canon seems just a bit too daunting.

I've read a lot and listened to a lot, but I haven't watched very much non-sports programming in my life.  I've probably watched fewer movies than anyone that you know.  So catching up on the "western canon" of film may be a worthwhile project for me someday.  Here's my proposal (for myself): to watch every "best picture" Academy Award winning film in order.  I've previously seen only Lawrence of Arabia, The Sound of Music, Gandhi, The Last Emperor, Schindler's List, Forrest Gump,  and Lord of the Rings: ROTK.  That leaves 77 that I haven't seen, and another 30-40 by the time I get around to doing this.  If I watch two movies per week, I can cover 120 films in a little less than three years.  I promise to blog my reviews of these films when I get around to it circa 2050.  (As a bonus, I might even review The Bucket List).

Along the same lines, everybody tells me that I ought to watch the Star Wars films sometime.  It might be fun to watch all six in order in one day.  I won't have to wait until retirement to do that; I could foreseeably do that when I get a vacation day sometime.  So I'll tentatively plan bucket list item #4 for 2030.

And finally, I'm intrigued by the idea of experiencing serialized fiction in real time.   The obvious candidate is 24, of which I have seen one episode.  I could see myself and my teen-age kids taking a summer day (and night) to watch a whole season.  Let's put that one down for 2026 or 2027.  Just don't expect us to listen to George Michael during the commercial breaks.