Sunday, December 16, 2012

Why Them?

Last week I wrote a post that explored the inherent strangeness of fame,celebrity, and notoriety.  We don't think it's strange that there is such a thing as famous people only because we are used to living in a world where individuals achieve fame.  If all of us made a list of the people that we know, we could then subdivide the list into two further lists--people we know and people that we don't know.  Our way of life would be dramatically altered if the latter list was stricken from our minds.  Our national conversation revolves around the premise that the lives, or at the very least the personas, of certain individuals are shared in common.  But I'm still hung up on the fact that the odds of becoming a name on that list are mind-bogglingly small, and then to sustain fame over a protracted length of time is even more challenging.  I'm interested in the psychology of those who find themselves in such rarified circumstances.

Of course, everything becomes normalized over time.  Mick Jagger has been a celebrity for such a ridiculously long stretch of time that I'm sure he's grown quite accustomed to the role. And for those who have achieved his stature, the genie can't be put back into the bottle.  For better or worse, he'll always be on the list of people who other people know but don't actually know.  And this reality shapes every aspect of his existence.  I'm sure it's the same for lottery jackpot winners.  Assuming they don't squander their winnings (which I grant is a big assumption), after a certain passage of time the lotto winner will get used to the new reality, they will no longer think it strange they have a sudden windfall in their bank account, but again, this new status quo will shape every aspect of their existence for the rest of their life.

So what I've always wondered--just as victims of misfortune might be tempted to pose the question, "Why me?", do those who see such a radical alteration of reality pose the same question.  To not pose such a question would seem to imply that they have been especially favored by mysterious forces, that their destiny was inevitable.  But could it be that in posing the question, the implication becomes explicit?

Next week I'll explore whether this is the case.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

All-Time Individuals

Most nations on this globe have been around for hundreds of years, and exactly 157 nations currently have populations of more than one million people.  But despite the millions and millions of people who have lived within any given nation's borders, history books are comprised by and large of the names of select individuals.  The "Great Man Theory" has been long discredited, but it's still the shorthand default for how we think about important events in history.  Artistic movements are usually summarized by recitation of names of people who exemplify the movement, and every single artistic endeavor has inspired innumerable lists and arguments about who is the all-time best individual in a particular field.  Sports franchises are synonymous with the hall of famers who have played for them.  Time Magazine is famous for designating a "person of the year" who supposedly has influenced the world the most in the previous twelve months.

But despite all this, I know of no effort to compose a list of all-time most influential or emblematic individuals for specific nation-states.  I would think that in our list-obsessed society, we'd love to argue about "Top Icelandic citizen of all-time," but apparently not.  So to fulfill a gap that may or may not need to be filled, I've decided to name the "all-time person" for the top 10 most populous countries in the world, from an American perspective.  My criteria is simple--when a country is mentioned, who is the first person that most Americans will think of?  Without further ado:

1. China: Nobody would argue that it's Mao.  Kind of ironic given that a supposed champion of collectivism, in a nation that is more populous than any on Earth, is the one guy that stands out.  Yao Ming would probably be second.

2. India: Again, this one isn't close.  Ghandi is the only Indian that most Americans could name.

3. USA: In 1984 Michael Jackson probably would have taken the prize, but in the Internet era fame is too diffused for one mega-star to embody America.  So it's got to be a Mt. Rushmore figure.  Washington is the father of our country, but nobody has made any movies about him lately.  America loves martyrs, too.  So Abraham Lincoln joins the list.

4. Indonesia: I've got to cheat.  There are 237 million Indonesians living today, and I don't know any of them (though I have visited a few of their Facebook pages).  But Wikipedia tells me that Eddie Van Halen is part Indonesia (Alex is, too, of course, but Eddie is obviously the choice here). 

5. Brazil:  It's got to be Pele.  Ayrton Senna has has fanbase, and is probably more iconic in most parts of the world, and David Beckham has more cache with the youngsters, but to many Americans, Pele is still the Babe Ruth of soccer.

6. Pakistan:  The first guy that pops into my head is Pervez Musharraf.  And it's hard to think of anybody else.  I think of the Carmen Sandiego theme song before I think of anyone else.  So by default, Pervez Musharraf embodies Pakistan.

7. Nigeria: Tell me that most Americans who lived in the late 1980s wouldn't immediately think of "The Nigerian Nightmare," Christian Okoye.  Most American academics would name Chinua Achebe.  But he's didn't have a nickname with the word "Nigerian" in the title.

8. Bangladesh: Does George Harrison count?  He'll have to do, since I don't recognize any names on the Wikipedia list.

9. Russia: Certainly lots of possibilities.  I'm partial to Dostoevsky.  But in the end, Stalin is still the face of Russia.

10. Japan: There have been some great Japanese artists.  Japanese technological products are a part of American life.  But when it comes to specific Japanese people, most Americans think of baseball players.  And the Japanese baseball player who stands above all others is Ichiro.

Conclusion: I can now see why no one has done this before.  And if you got Mao, Ghandi, Abraham Lincoln, Pele, Eddie Van Halen, Pervez Musharraf, Christian Okoye, George Harrison, Stalin, and Ichiro in a room together, they might not agree on much.  But they probably would agree on one thing: individuals are a lot less influential than we give them credit for.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Satisfaction Guaranteed?

Coming up this Thursday, the Phoenix Suns are going to finally do something that I have been thinking about for a couple of decades.  They are offering to refund the price of admission for any of their fans who are "unsatisfied."  They are officially leaving it up to the individual customers to determine what that means, but I think the obvious implication is that if the team doesn't win, or doesn't make the game interesting, fans are entitled to demand their money back.

The reason I have been thinking about this for decades is because that's how long I've been going to live sporting events (albeit much less frequently in recent years).  And in my early years of going to games, I saw my favorite teams lose with a great deal more regularity than the opposite.  And it always struck me as kind of weird that the team got paid the same regardless of the outcome.  Fans are quick to complain about individual athletes making money when they are underperforming, but I haven't heard the same kind of criticism leveled against teams.  Once in a while there is a minor rumbling when a losing team raises ticket prices the next year, but most often there is a resignation that pro and major college sports is a caveat emptor proposition.

But a sporting event is also one of the few areas of life in which a customer is expected to pay for an objective failure.  If a manufactured good does not produce as it is intended to, the manufacturer is expected to make good.  Performance arts or entertainment productions have no objective standard for success or failure.  Food falls somewhere in between, but in most cases, if a customer can make a case that a chef failed, the customer doesn't pay.  Granted, this argument assumes that the desirability of a fan experience is predicated exclusively on a the final score of the game, and all teams (even the Phoenix Suns) would argue that it is possible for a fan to enjoy the experience of attending an event even if the final outcome of the game isn't optimal.  And of course this is how teams get away with charging fans the same amount for wins and losses.  But it doesn't change the fact that they are charging fans the same amount regardless of the outcome of what is purportedly the most important thing about the competition.

But how desirable would it be to live in a world where home teams give back gate receipts when they don't win?  As with any economic exchange, the unintended consequences would need to be considered.  It has already been theorized that much, if not all, of the home field advantage that exists in sports is due to officiating bias.  According to the theory, it's not that referees are intentionally biased for the home team, it's just that the influence of thousands of people has a psychological effect on how the officials view reality (I'm convinced that this was a factor in the infamous Packers/Seahawks Monday night game this year).

But in a world where the home team refunds for losses, fans actually have an economic incentive for the home team to lose.  This would probably result in a demolition of home field advantage, which arguably creates a fairer reality, but probably a less satisfying one.  As it is, if fans believe that the only way they can realize a full value for their purchase is if the home team wins, they will, consciously or not, exert all the influence they have in order to derive such a realization.  If the ticket represents a win-win proposition for the fan, the stakes are lowered, and the end result may just be a loss for everyone--dissatisfaction guaranteed.