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Saturday, September 03, 2005
So let's see... What has happened in the entertainment world lately?
In Singapore, a televised singing contest modelled after American Idol created a minor storm of sorts when Kelvin Tan, a blind busker who performed outside a local Chinese temple, beat off the challenge of a former air stewardess to be crowned a new superstar. At press time, it is unclear whether the losing finalist will return to flying.
Meanwhile, over in China, another talent show, also based partly on American Idol, saw a curiously plain-looking girl by the name of Li Yuchun emerge as the winner. How plain-looking? Some say she looks a little like Yao Ming. Yeah, that's right, the Houston Rockets basketballer Yao Ming. Oh, of course she has much longer hair.
Okay, so it doesn't matter that she doesn't look outstanding in any way. What's important is whether she can sing, right? Well, apparently some commentators over at China's state-run CCTV network have slammed the show (which is organized by a private southern TV company, not the state-affiliated CCTV) for selecting as the winner someone who is, to paraphrase, patently the most untalented. Harsh words, those.
Okay, maybe CCTV's concept of singing ability is a bit outdated. After all, lots of technically incompetent people get to launch singing careers nowadays on the backs of good packageable looks, funky music arrangement and other gimmickry. And maybe CCTV is still stuck in the era of old, classic melodies with rich, abstract lyrics that describe traditional Chinese culture and scenes of spring and winter. Maybe all of that is true, but it still puzzles me how Li Yuchun won the contest. What's her magic?
Now, for those who don't know how the Idol class of shows operate, here's a quick primer. Essentially, Idol shows operate by having these contestants sing before a studio audience and a bunch of judges who - it is presumed - represent the music industry. And, of course, the show is telecast live to the whole nation. The judges score the contestants, and also give real-time (almost) comments on how the contestants fared, which may or may not give away just how many marks they gave. At the same time, and for a few hours thereafter, members of the audience nationwide are allowed to cast their votes via SMS on their mobile phones.
Ah, yes, mobile phones, that ubiquitous must-have in the 21st Century. But I digress.
The point is, because these shows operate on the Idol premise, that is, selecting someone who is popular rather than good, the judges' scores will only make up a minority of the final result, if at all. Audience votes make up the bulk of each contestant's score, and the lowest-scoring contestant each week will be eliminated, and the process repeats itself until the final round, where there is, of course, only one winner.
This, of course, creates the altogether possible scenario of an experts' favourite being voted out anyway because of people power. And that could explain a number of otherwise puzzling results that have emerged in these and similar contests worldwide. The logical next question to ask, of course, is why these things happen.
In some cases, like Singapore's Mr. Kelvin Tan, part of his appeal in the competition may be down to the fact he has a physical handicap. As I've said before, he is blind. Now, while a person who has other kinds of physical handicaps, like a lost arm, or a horrific-looking lump or tumour, finds his route to singing stardom completely shut off, blind people are less affected because they are otherwise pretty normal-looking. Which is why Mr. Tan even got onto the show in the first place. But he's handicapped, nonetheless, so people like him may draw huge numbers of sympathy votes. Of course, it helps if he could sing a bit!
However, not all surprise survivors survive because they have physical handicaps. No, sometimes the reasoning is even pettier than that. Sometimes people win the vote because other, better people lose them, and believe it or not, they lose them not despite, but because of, their better technical abilities.
Let me explain.
We are supposed to live in a world that merits talent. The logical belief is that if you're talented, you'll eventually make it when the opportunity comes along, supposing it does. Now, the merit trap enters play when people are convinced that a person is good enough to win in an election - for that's what Idol-style talent shows are, an election of sorts. When people think a person is good enough to the point he or she doesn't need your vote, it's quite possible that you simply don't vote for her because you think the vote isn't going to make any difference. Not to mention that you get to save about fifty cents or a dollar for casting that vote.
Therein lies the merit trap of complacency - where you believe that a candidate is so good you don't vote because you think you don't have to; the candidate will win anyway. And then, you can look at your expression in the mirror when you realize, to your shock and horror, the strong candidate ends up dead last thanks to the complacency. Historically, traps of complacency may have cost a few political elections, particularly the case of John Kerry back in 2004.
But there's another kind of merit trap that is worse, and particularly small-minded. It's called the merit trap of petty envy, also known to some as "listening to the experts' opinion, and then deliberately doing the exact opposite". The experts back Candidate A? Well, get out the vote and back Candidate B instead, just so we can get one over the experts! Never mind that the result isn't going to matter - much - to the voter. (In fact, if the result mattered, the voter will likely protect his vested interests first.)
When Singapore had its own version of the global Idol franchise show, the audience promptly voted off a contestant the judges picked as the wild-card entry. Writing to the local letters page in support of the voters' riot, a viewer of the show remarked that the contestant made it into the show because "she was the judges' choice, not the people's choice". That supposedly justified, all within itself, the voters' decision to show her the door in the very first TV round.
When I heard about this, I initially laughed and shook my head. These guys are nuts, I thought. Singling someone out for ejection because the judges had recognized her talent? You've got to have a better reason than that, surely.
Then I realized something. You don't. In an election, the rules are plain and simple. Each person chooses, and then you count the votes. Every vote is of equal value, because no one asks why you voted in a certain way. Thus, a seriously thought-out vote has the same weight as a frivolous, random one. Motive is not assessed, and votes are not dropped for having weak motives. Because nobody asks questions that can modify the value of any single vote cast, you can have stupid votes swinging an election. Worse, you can have stupid votes dominating an election.
So the problem with voting in deliberate defiance of expert opinion is this: those votes count just as much as votes sincerely based on calm, rational merit comparisons. In fact, because of the demographic quirks that dominate Idol-style shows, the problem gets even bigger. What quirks am I talking about? Well, you'll probably notice how these Idol-style shows draw as their primary audience the 'tweenager' section of the population, that is, the 12-25 age brackets. People in these age brackets tend to be quite resistant to grown-up opinion. They are 'rebellious', although the simpler way to say it is that they don't like people telling them what's good and what's not, and will make it a point to register that on people who try that anyway.
The result, of course, is that if they hear experts (who also happen to be over 30) say that Candidate A is good and likelier to win, unless they happen to support Candidate A, you could bet your last coin that they will go all out to vote against Candidate A, just to "prove a point" - not that there is one to prove. Thus, meritocracy breaks down when it comes up against "tweenager democracy". Call it "people power", but this kind of power is very dumb when the people behind that power are themselves behaving dumb.
As it turns out, the Chinese authorities, through their affiliate TV station CCTV, have already expressed that they are not amused by what happened with the Chinese talent show. They have criticized it as being "too democratic", which should be read as their way of saying the voters are immature and prone to making stupid decisions. Which, I must add, is quite possibly true considering the demographics.
We can be reasonably assured that we'll have no "political idol" television shows coming up in the near future, so the CCP doesn't need to worry about that. That said, it still doesn't change the fact that you can't depend on Idol-style shows to consistently yield decent winners. As evidence of that, let's see whether Kelvin Tan and Li Yuchun will make anything of a dent in the entertainment scene over the next couple of years.
For some reason, I'm not holding my breath. gambitch [
Thursday, September 01, 2005
I've kinda lost track on whether the Ashes series is over, but if anyone suddenly feels like playing a bit of cricket online, here's a website where you can get some fun. Be warned, though - it's quite difficult to actually win.
I think the website also has an India vs Pakistan game.
Meanwhile, Newcastle have signed Michael Owen from Real Madrid. Lots of hype going around, but I think that's exactly what it is - hype. Bearing in mind that Newcastle let Jermaine Jenas leave for Spurs on the same day, and rumours regarding buying back Nolberto Solano actually look rather improbable, Newcastle are going to have to think hard about just how to feed Shearer and Owen. Boumsong apart, Newcastle have always had problems with their back four, and the midfield, while strengthened significantly by the presence of Emre and Parker, might not be capable of properly feeding the front two, unless Luque is pulled back into a more conservative wing position.
More field work to come later in the day. I'm looking forward to this, actually.
Finally, in site updates, I've put up a link to the US Open tennis tournament, which started on Monday and will end on September 11th - no joke. Also, it's time to start getting ready for The Amazing Race, which will have its first Family Edition premiere at the end of September. gambitch [
Wednesday, August 31, 2005
Ian, who recently survived some very foul weather, just came up with something strangely funny. Particularly amusing is the section about couples.
(Note: This is not meant to offend any couples I happen to know. It's just funny coming from a single and read by another single.) gambitch [
Sunday, August 28, 2005
I've just become a football writer, by which I mean I actually get paid writing about football.
Now if I can just squeeze off some of my competitors and make loads of cash writing about football... In the meantime, I will have to write about other things as well, like food and medicine. gambitch [