Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Encounter with Homo Soccerfanus

Tell me nothing; I don't want to know.

There are two subspecies of humans: the rest of us, and the soccer fans (homo soccerfanus). The latter resemble the former in appearance; but they can be identified by occasional peculiar behaviors, such as extreme emotions after the victory or loss of their teams, shouting and yelling at critical moments in a game, excessive consumption of beer during a match event, and, sometimes, animosity and violence toward the fans of the opposing teams.

Yu Chen is one homo soccerfanus. He roots for Liverpool, which just won the European Champions League after a dramatic comeback against AC Milan. We watched the final game in Kezar’s pub. It was not a live broadcast, but every one of us arrived without knowing the outcome. That evasion, however, was futile, for as soon as we walked in the pub the result was obvious. A group of Liverpool fans, all dressed in the red uniform, were celebrating on top of the tables. Simultaneously happy and disappointed, Yu Chen sat down to witness Liverpool’s path to triumph.

It was a game of climax and drama. Each team played one half. AC Milan scored three goals in the first half. All hope seemed to have vanished for Liverpool, then miracle happened. In the second half, within a span of five minutes, Liverpool scored three goals. Eventually, Liverpool won in the penalty shootout.

Unfortunately, this dramatic twist was lost amidst the premature celebration of the Liverpool fans in the bar. It was outrageous. Each time Milan scored, Liverpool fans cheered. When Liverpool was three goals behind, its fans danced and laughed and toasted to their team and gulped down their beers. Yu Chen talked to us in a slightly patronizing tone.

Exhibit 1. The Liverpool fans in the bar cheered when their team was 0:3 behind AC Milan.

I took my camera with me, hoping to capture Yu Chen’s reactions in the course of the game. There was, of course, no emotional reaction at all. No intense pleasure or sorrow can come from certainty. Only at one moment was Yu Chen surprised, when Liverpool scored its equalizer. It was a penalty shot. Yu Chen’s reactions were recorded in the following sequence of photos.

Exhibit 2. The penalty shot by Liverpool's Alonso was blocked by Milan's goal keeper Dida. Stefan, sitting next to Yu Chen, was a Milan fan.

Exhibit 3. The ball bounced off Dida. Alonso on the second attempt kicked the ball into the net.

Exhibit 4. Now the score was 3:3. The Liverpool fans would smile to the last.

Simply Free

It has everything, and nothing more.

Nike just introduced a new running shoe, Nike Free. I tried it on in Nike Town. It was the most comfortable running shoe my feet had worn.

Holding Free in the hands, one will immediately notice its light weight. The upper of the shoe is extremely thin. It also has numerous tiny slit openings to enhance ventilation. The sole is flexible, so flexible that the shoe can almost fold in half. Running in Free is an exhilarating experience. I did it on the treadmill in Nike Town. My feet felt light and free, just as the shoe’s name suggests.

I also watched the TV spot for the shoe in Nike Town. It must be one of the most effective commercials ever made. A group of runners, all wearing white T-shirts and shorts, run barefoot on a wet sand beach. Yet it is no ordinary beach. The runners step over a manhole; they zoom past by parking meters, fire escape ladders, newspaper venders, mailboxes, and fire hydrants. A yellow cab drives by. Pedestrians. Then a bus crosses the screen. When it is gone, the scene has changed to a street corner in New York City. Only one runner remains. The camera switches to his feet. He is wearing Nike Free. The scene blurs, and a message appears on the screen: “Run barefoot”.

The music used in the commercial? Chariots of Fire. The tune, repeated twice, imprints in anybody’s mind.

What makes a great product? Invariably, a great product is built around a simple concept. It is conceived with a clear vision of how it will be marketed. Run barefoot, run free. Nothing can be simpler than that. Everything about Free revolves around this simple concept, from the choice of fabric to the shape of the shoe. It has not an ounce of extra weight. It flexes to conform to the shape of the foot. It is probably the most plain-looking sneaker that Nike has ever made. Once the simple concept is established, no effort is spared to realize that concept in the product.

Apple also makes great products. iPod Shuffle, for instance, took the flash player market by storm. The simple concept here? Life is random, so give chance a chance. So goes the tiny LCD screens, so goes the cluttered buttons of controls. All the fat is stripped off the Shuffle, and the result is a lean flash player that the market has never seen.

The technology that goes into Nike Free or Ipod Shuffle must be enormous. Yet Nike and Apple mention none in their commercials. They sell the concept, not the technology. Ever watch the infomercials? “Our product is made of materials used in spacecraft.” Hello! Anybody interested in buying a spacecraft?

So what makes Nike Free, or iPod Shuffle, a great product? In short, it has everything, and nothing more.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Hand versus Penis

We humans are obsessed with sex. Whereas other animals copulate only when they come into heat, which happens once or twice in a year for most mammals, we humans screw all year round. We enjoy sex; we view it as a recreation as much as the means for procreation. We seek sex when we are not having any. We seek more sex when we are having some. The proverbial wisdom has it that a man thinks about sex every three seconds. A woman thinks about sex not much less, if we believe Sex and the City.

Sex sells. Most magazines in any newsstand have on their covers some beautiful women in revealing clothes and suggestive postures. Nudity and strong sexual contents boost box office for movies and promote ratings for cable TV programs. Viagra has annual sales in the billions and has prompted a number of me-too drugs from competitors. Experts tell us: sex is important for relationships, marriages, and health.

Just how important is sex to us? We may glean some idea from how much we value our sexual organs.

The following is an excerpt of the schedule that the state of Connecticut uses to compensate for work-related injuries, in descending order of value.

Lost or Damaged Body Part and Corresponding Compensated Weeks of Pay

Heart 520
Pancreas 416
Liver 347
Arm (master) 208
Arm (other) 194
Hand (master) 168
Eye 157
Hand (other) 155
Foot 125
Penis 35-104
Vagina 35-104
Thumb (master hand) 63
Thumb (other hand) 54
Finger (first) 36

The most valuable organs are apparently the vital organs. We cannot live without a heart, a pancreas or a liver. The second most valuable organs are the ones that we rely on in everyday life and work: master arm and hand, and eyes. But the surprise is that penis and vagina – our reproductive and pleasure organs – are valued much less than the subordinate hand and arm, and foot. Sometimes, they even rank below the thumbs and the first finger.

So maybe we do not value sex THAT much after all. As the Chinese saying goes, he who is fed and warm desires sex. Foremost we want our arms and hands intact to fend for ourselves. Sex is a thought after that.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Price Index

What do you measure money in?

Purchasing power is an important concept in macroeconomics. Defined loosely as how much goods a unit of currency can buy, it is a measure of the worth of money. The most careful analysis of purchasing power usually looks at the average price of a basket of essential goods. But there is a simplification. The price of Big Mac turns out to be a good indicator of the purchasing power; therefore the famous Big Mac index.

Also important in macroeconomics is the consumer's price index, which can reflect the living expenses in a region. It is again measured by the average price of many things. But I accidentally discovered a simpler way.

I was talking to Johannes the other day, who was complaining how expensive it was to live in Milan. Exactly how expensive? A pint of beer cost 10 Euros! "How much does a pint of beer cost in New York City?" Johannes wanted to know. That was how he assessed the living expenses in a city.

Of course, Johannes is German. So the living expense will be different for a French, an Italian, and a Chinese. We all have our own essentials in life, and we measure money accordingly.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Time to Leave

When things start to break, it is time to leave.

I have lived in San Francisco for twenty months by now. Things started to break. About a month ago, I dropped the lid of my Brita water filter, and it broke. That was the first of a chain of incidents. The handle on my Dell laptop bag gave way two weeks ago, and I had to use the shoulder strap since, until last Friday when the strap also came off the hook. I lost my keys. Even my eyesights seem to have deteriorated.

Maybe it is a sign. When things start to break, I probably have stayed in a place for too long. Time to leave. I am moving to New York City in June.