19 March 2010

There's No 'I' in Team

Have you ever sat and watched a flock of birds moving through the sky in what seems like perfect unison? Or, similarly, have you ever been at an aquarium and seen a school of fish darting through the water like one solid mass? Ever wondered how they do that with such synchronization and perfect coordination? I have.

When watching these amazing natural, living (and moving) formations, I have wondered if there is some extra sensory organ, perhaps similar a bat's sonar or a spacial field of sorts, that helps these groups move. I imagined scientists having done, or currently undertaking research to discover an incredible new source of honing and spacial mapping. The world would never be the same. Such technology would be added to cars to prevent collisions (a technology that already exists for help in baking up), to people to limit embarrassing slams into doorways (you know how that goes, you think you'll make it through fine, and then somehow, part of you just doesn't make it and is now throbbing with a vertical imprint of the molding to show for it) and the entire world's population of deer (to stop them from running into the cars that will also be working to stop running into them). I finally researched the answer some time ago, and it turns out the answer is actually (and maybe disappointingly) much simpler.

Birds and fish travel in flocks and schools primarily for protection. The large, traveling animal mass can confuse and intimidate predators (would you just jump into a heard of fast-moving apples or a gaggle of tortilla chips?). Protection is most guaranteed to those in the middle of the pack, and hence the tight-knit nature of these groups.

In 1984, zoologist Wayne Potts filmed flocks of birds to observe their coordinated movement. From his research (which was published in Nature, a preeminent scholarly publication on all things, well, nature-related) he found that the behavior does not come from any mystical super-sense, but just common sense. As birds on the outer portions of the flock turned inward (either simply to change direction, or to move more to the middle of the group), those around them reacted by moving in the same direction. This movement spread like a wave across the flock until every bird changed direction in order to stay with the group (those who don't stay with the group tend not to last long in the wild). Incidentally, typically movement into the flock is the only movement that is mimicked, individual birds who choose to turn away from the flock tend to go it alone.

What is particularly interesting about the reaction time in this sudden changes, is that it was far faster than could be easily explained by simple visual recognition. The mean reaction time to a bird's startle at a flash of light was measured at 38 milliseconds, but reactions to flock movements were measured at under 15 milliseconds. In response to this finding, Potts developed what he called the chorus line hypothesis, so named because of the Rockettes at Radio City Music Call. He proposed that the birds could anticipate a wave as it approached them from farther away than the bird next to them. This quick reaction is much like how the New York performers could react to an unexpected high kick nearly twice as fast as normal human visual reaction time due to anticipation from movement further down the line.

There you have it, it's simple as a desire to stick together. Truly, there's no 'I' in team, but in this case, there should be an 'I' in flock and school, because of one final tidbit: flocks and schools have no leaders. All the birds are acting on there own in direct reaction to everyone else. The result can sometimes be what seems like a confused group of animals. One individual turns inward, and so the group follows out of instinct. They dart one way and then the other and then back again. Apparently this behavior is normal (albeit inefficient), and eventually the will of the majority is able to get everyone moving in the right direction. Now if only we could take a few cues from that bit of avarian sociology!

16 March 2010

Ga-Ga for Gaga

At the very least, you have probably heard her name. It's almost impossible these days to have any connection to the media and not hear it. You may have caught a few of her tunes on the radio (even, if like me, don't listen to the radio, couldn't really name the songs, or maybe didn't even realize they were performed by her). You've possibly even picked up an urban legend or two about her, or gone so far as to have gawked at her incredibly eccentric dress code, inspired by her friend, Lady Starlight (search "red lace music awards," if you haven't).

Four months ago, I heard her name once in a while, but didn't know any of her music and was frankly bothered by the scent of extreme pop idol status she seemed to be earning. Now, I need to admit to my intimate friends here on the World Wide Web that I am slightly obsessed with Lady Gaga. She deserves every ounce of extreme pop idol status she has earned.

For what it's worth, I still only know two of her songs (Telephone and Paparazzi), but my interest (and admiration) in this nearly-instant sensation comes from much more than "just" her music. Lady Gaga is an example of someone who has created a personal brand empire through her own hard work and determination. She began playing the piano by ear at age four, and by 13 had written her first piano ballad. Now, at 23 years old, she has commanded the rise of a monarch-like media presence and surging fan base in less than 24 months. Since landing on the international scene with the launch of her first album, The Fame (Aug 2008), Gaga has won 54 music awards (according to a tally on Wikipedia), including two Grammys (with six Grammy nominations).

Her music is fresh, fun and lively (and she writes most, if not all of it) with a great mix of meaning. She is an activist and has contributed to raising millions of dollars for a number of causes. Her work has even landed her in the surprising role of creative director for Polaroid. Her skills portfolio seems to include a wide gamut that is serving her well in the fast-paced entertainment world of today.

She's definitely not boring, she isn't without controversy, and keeping with the music world du jour, she certainly isn't without considerable innuendo. That said, she's still very good, and no one can deny that, no matter their Gaga misgivings.

In a recent Advertising Age, cover story, the periodical outlined her incredible rise to global prominence fueled, in no small part, by her business acumen and social media genius. Wielding the powers of the internet, Facebook, Twitter and others as an arsenal at her well-managed hand, Gaga has created an impressive, connected and dedicated fan base of millions. The Ad Age article cites her November Bad Romance music video launch as a perfect illustration of her media control. The video became available first exclusively on LadyGaga.com, causing the Universal Music server to crash, a week-long trend topic on Twitter and more than 110 million views on YouTube. Her most recent video launch, Telephone, has been heralded as a return to music videos as cinema experiences (see MJ's Thriller), rather than the typical song-length artsy clippings of lip-syncing artists traipsing around overly monochromatic, or sickeningly technicolor sets with wind-blown curtains and confusing scene shifts (phew).

In the same Ad Age article, Gaga's manager since 2007, Troy Carter, credits here with control over the vast majority of decision-making in relation to her empire. While his comments hint at a "my way attitude," with the pop princess, who can blame her, it's working terribly well.

In a recent Parade article, American Idol super judge Simon Cowell, when naming Gaga as his number one pick to replace him at the end of this season, called her "the most relevant pop artist in the world at the moment... And I've met her. She is very smart. I like her." Coming from anyone else in his position, that'd be nice, but Cowell, who is known is his day to have made more than one grown man cry, isn't notorious for throwing out loose-lipped compliments.

No matter what your preconceived notion of her may be, Lady Gaga has reached levels in less than two years that many artists have never reached in a lifetime of work, and she seems to be doing it with some staying power. That deserves respect.

At first glance, Gaga has all the surface characteristics of a one-hit wonder, or one of the many shallow pop starlets of our hyped-up world, but with the non-sequitur depth and track record of a true artist, diva (see Christina Aguilera's unexpected rise over Brittany Spears) and long-term fixture. She is genuine, open and real, and stands up for what she believes in. She hasn't been afraid to be an eccentric, young powerhouse risen from an slightly insecure, Catholic school girl, to harness an image and brand of international acclaim.

Where will she be in five or ten years? I don't know. I hope it's still at the tops of the charts, but at the least, I hope she's cemented herself in a place with the likes of Madonna, Michael Jackson, Elvis and Marilyn Monroe--icons whose times may pass, but whose contributions, controversial as than may be, remain timeless.

07 March 2010

Luxurious Snacks

Isn't it funny how words bring certain thoughts and references to our minds? Any variety of word can draw on innumerable experiences from our lives and paint a picture as brief as a clip or flash, or as long and detailed as a memory or series of thoughts and concepts. I get a particular kick out of words people don't like.

I have a friend with whom I used to work who had a thing against the word "snacks" and similarly against the word "luxurious." He couldn't really ever describe why he didn't like the sound, thought, or connotations that came with those words, but nonetheless, he just didn't like them. (It goes without saying, that we often though of types of foods that we could offer him between meals that might somehow be considered decadent or extravagant to necessitate the use of luxurious snacks to describe them).

For me, the work is "stinky." I just can't handle the idea of something being stinky. It's the smell of cheese, dirty socks and other rank odors. I detest the word, and it makes me think of those stinky things when the word comes up. Just smelling something bad makes me think of the word, which sets me on a spiral of stink. Stinky stinks.

When I overcome my crazy spiral, I really enjoy asking other people about words they don't like. It's particularly rewarding to see their faces and the passion they pour into their lists. Some of the favorites (or least-favorites, as it were) that I've heard are: moist, damp, finger, slacks, blouse, crotch (ha!), flesh, smear and sore. The list could go on and on, but it's so interesting really. What makes certain words unappealing? Is it the type of word, what it describes, or just our reference points to the particular word?

Words are so funny to begin with. No matter the language, we are just combining symbols (of one form or another) that represent sounds and concepts. Sometimes the same combination of symbols can mean different things depending on the context, or different symbols can sound the same even if they mean different things. It's really amazing that as you read this, your mind has associated all of these random symbols together to make sentences and meaning just as I wrote them on the screen.

, what about you, what words are on your list of least favorites?

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