Saturday, February 25, 2012

Volume 4 Issue 8: Intelligent Investing

DC Metro Violinist - People Don't Appreciate Beauty? Or Have You Fallen Victim to Fallacies?

When I saw a bunch of people shared this on Facebook, my initial reaction was to agree with the passage. I was about to shake my head in dismay with the rest of the world when I realized that the passage was utter hogwash. Those of you who felt that people these days no longer stop and smell the roses have fallen prey to the tricks of journalism.

I am not saying that the story is a lie, but the scenario was twisted to demonstrate "a fact" when in fact, it actually shows nothing. It is actually a fallacy, as I will soon show.

But first, for those of you who have not read the passage, here it is below:

 A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that 1,100 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. 
Three minutes went by, and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace, and stopped for a few seconds, and then hurried up to meet his schedule.
A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping, and continued to walk. 
A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work. 
The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried, but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally, the mother pushed hard, and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on. 
In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money, but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition. 
No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the most talented musicians in the world. He had just played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. 
Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100. 
This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste, and priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context? 
One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be:
If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing? 
By: Kristof Burm
Now, how many of us know Joshua Bell? Not many, I am sure. He sold out at a theater in Boston at an average ticket price of US$100. Now, every one knows that paying US$100 for a performance is a luxury many of us cannot afford. Would you pay US$100 to listen to a musician you don't really know? Perhaps it is my ignorance, but it is more likely that a performance by Joshua Bell is a luxury good.

Imagine the following scenario. If all the rich people in the world decided to buy up all the caviare in the world and open a stand in Africa and start giving it out for free. Do you think that the starving people in Africa would appreciate the luxurious food that is caviare? They would not even know what it is. Some may not even like it. Anyone with half a brain would argue that the Africans would most certainly appreciate it more if all that money was used to buy them rice instead.

Let us return to the Joshua Bell scenario. The passers-by at the DC Metro are average Joe's from the main street. They wouldn't be able to tell the difference between Joshua Bell and a Grade 12 violinist (I don't even know if there is such a thing). Heck, I would not even know what Bach's music sounds like. Is it because I am ignorant? Perhaps. But I think it is because classical music is no longer main stream. People's tastes and preferences have evolved. People who pay a tonne of money to see someone perform classical music are not very different from those who are willing to pay a lot of money for antique tables. To a normal person, an antique table is just a really old table. It is a luxury that an average Joe like you and me would not care for.

I'd much rather spend 10 times less and get a hyper-modern looking desk from Ikea. The reason people did not stop for Joshua Bell was because the music that he is playing is not main stream enough for the main streeters.

Now, imagine another scenario. Let us say that instead of Joshua Bell, there was a flame eater who was performing at the DC Metro. I would bet you a nickel that he would probably end up collecting more money than Joshua Bell playing the violin. Why? Simply because it is something people from the main street would appreciate a lot more. People would stop and watch. They would appreciate the talent of a flame eater a lot more than the talents of Joshua Bell.

Perhaps the people from the good paper of the Washington Post should conduct a control experiment as well. Place a flame eater on the same corner. OK, maybe it is not so practical due to safety concerns. Then measure the number of people who donate money and the number of people to stop and watch. It is safe to say that a lot more people would stop and appreciate that talent.

To push the argument a bit further. Imagine if Taylor Swift, or worse, Justin Bieber was singing at that corner. I think the amount of floor space at that station would not be able to cater for the crowd that would gather around that performance. This is simply because their music is a lot more main stream.

So next time, before you jump to any conclusions about a news article, pay attention to the slants of the journalist. Don't fall prey to dirty journalism tactics. Good information is so hard to come by.

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