Sunday, September 22, 2013

Any Other Name

I love maps, especially maps that present data in unusual ways. I used to follow Strange Maps, an awesome little web site that collect odd and unusual maps from around the world. (Sadly, they moved to a bigger website and it's harder to navigate, which is the link above, so I only go there occasionally.)

Anyway, from a different source, here's a link to a map of the most common baby names in America today. I'm not going to reproduce the maps; you can go there and look.

On the girl side, there's not much to look at. I'm always sad when I see how little variation there are in names. Names are a personal thing, and it sucks when you get to elementary class and you have to be referred to as "Emma C." Emma M." and "Emma T." I don't know what on earth is up with Vermont and Idaho; I guess they just have their own ideas as to how their classrooms will look in about five years. (For the record, Olivia sounds like a basic cable talk show host and Eva sounds like the nicest person at the DVM.)

Thankfully, for the boys, things are a lot more diverse. It's still irritating that Liam is so popular in the Rocky Mountains (there are apparently people who somehow think that it's easy to mistake Wyoming for Ireland) but the rest of the nation plays it safe with a lot of Jims, Michaels, and Jakes.  I'm actually a little surprised that the South stuck by the standard William; I assumed it would be Jefferson or Rascal or Starsnbars.

Still, I'm baffled how things like this happen. Clearly the South likes William and the Mid-Atlantic likes Michael...but why? William a pretty standard name, so what makes the west pick it out amongst the others? My assumption is that there is some regional reason, like there was a kickass governor names William or some sports star who was Jake, but I think it's just one of those odd sociological things that happens. People know people who name their kids something, and then it slowly gets passed around person to person until an entire region trends towards it. I wonder if social media will eventually erode this away?

Monday, September 16, 2013

Fourth Down

It's football season. I've refrained from making my annual "I like football but I can't get into it this year" post mostly because it's boring, but also for the first time there are some plausible explanations as to why: the Pittsburgh Pirates are doing well in September (heck, "doing well" is enough to get me excited*) and the Steelers are probably going to suck this year. For the first time in this fair city, I'm not alone in hearing about the game and going, "eh."

Still, that doesn't mean I'm not going to watch; I still find football to be an entertaining pasttime, and I'll still probably watch more games than I miss.

There's an article going the rounds, however, about a reporter (Fuzz Hogan) who is going to abstain from watching football this year. At first I thought it was just a "I'm bored with football this year" banality of an article, but, no, since he's a journalist it has to be about actual, legitimate, grand outside-the-game reasons. Which is fine, of course, but I think it bears looking at his reasons.

1. Concussions. I'm mixed on this one. On the one hand, I believe that concussions are a legitimate concern and I think the NFL has avoided the issue for a variety of reasons, some warranted but most not. Of course, the NFL is in the midst of a PR nightmare; they're not allowed to act sympathetic (lest they cause themselves legal liability) but if they don't they look like monsters. So I've cut the NFL a lot of slack on this issue because I know they can't say too much. On the other hand, I think the issue is overblown. Players know exactly what they are getting themselves into when they sign up for a young lifetime of gridiron football. It's going to put your body through hell, and it's not going to get better as you get older. You're rolling the dice that any given Sunday you might have your bell rung, and doing that too many years in a row is going to be a problem. Still, it's clearly not enough of a problem that players are willing to quit, or at least listen to medical opinions about it. Every player knows this, and anyone who tells you different is a liar or has an agenda. This isn't like smoking, where there was a question about what its effects are; anyone can quit football any time they like. So I'm effectively neutral on this issue, and it's not going to be enough of an issue that I'm going to stop watching football over it.

2. Performance-enhancing drugs. Really? This doesn't seem to have been a major issue in football, and usually when it happens the perpetrators are duly punished. It's not like baseball, where the entire thing is a mess.

3. The awfulness of the college football system. I agree that the college sports program has to be overhauled; from nearly every perspective it's a disaster for students, athletes, education, and taxpayers. The only ones ahead are the universities. However, I'm not sure the link to the NFL is valid. While I'm sure the NFL is perfectly happy with having a more-or-less free farm team system they get to cull their players from, and actively encourage it, I don't put the faults of the NCAA at the NFL's feet. His point is circular reasoning: he says that the NCAA wouldn't be a problem if the NFL didn't exist. Well, of course, but you can use that sort of reasoning to defuse pretty much any debate.

4. This reason isn't really a reason to not watch the NFL, but to point out that his action, while minor, still contributes to (hopefully) reforming the NFL. Not a bad point--I actually agree--but it's not really a reason to stop watching professional football; it's an implementation of how to do so. I'm not sure what he's driving at here.

Anyway, I find this article to be a little...weak. It almost seems like he's fishing for reasons to not watch football, and this is the best he could come up with (and, um, punted on the fourth point.) Personally, I could find plenty of reasons not to watch the NFL (the insane amount of commercials, the obnoxious fan base, the glorification of thuggery by its players), but none of the article's points really made me evaluate why I do watch it.

*Well, as excited as I can get for baseball.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Outlook Hazy: Try Again Later, You Dashing Young Rogue

Work vendors are, as a general rule, pretty awesome. As anyone knows, having a vendor show up at your office means that, most likely, there is going to be a sweet treat for everyone in the building. They almost always come equipped with boatloads of swag for workers to take, which effectively means massive amounts of free advertising in the form of notepads and keychains. Make no mistake: it doesn't matter what you pay your workers or what benefits you provide or how you treat them; if you shove a free ballpoint pen in their hands they're probably going to have an awesome day. (As an aside, that's when I knew this last recessions was capital-S serious: the vendors stopped showing up with free gadgets and just handed out as many sad-looking pamphlets as they could.)

So, anyway, it was Vendor Day earlier this week. (I forgot to get a card! Again!) I went downstairs to get the standard required information about whatever thing they were there to display, but once the pitch was over I was all about scooping up all that free stuff. I made off with a pen, a small keychain, and...a box! A mystery box, no less! So I eagerly snatched it up, grabbed a baby carrot off the vegetable tray they brought to balance out the four chocolate chunk cookies I also grabbed, and ran upstairs to open my gift like it was Upside Down Christmas Morning.

I open it up and--it's a mini Magic 8 ball! On a keychain! Sweet!

So this was awesome. This is the sort of thing that gainful employment was specifically made for: not for salary, not for pride in one's work, not even for the satisfaction of a job well done. No, it's made for waiting years to have some random guy in a staff shirt show up with a miniature version of a toy you didn't have when you were a kid because you were too old by the time it came out. I was ecstatic. And it was like some sort of Mayan Prophecy: I had, in fact, been asking myself existential questions all morning long while running reports. Why am I here? What am I doing? When will Excel stop being such a little bitch?

And here it was, a modern-day Oracle, small enough to fit in a pocket, awaiting whatever pondering I chose to ask it.

I won't lie; the decision to make this Magic 8 Ball a keychain puzzled me. Who would need that in their pocket? Are people walking to their house, fumbling around in the dark trying to get into their garage, and suddenly have a burning need to ask, "Should I go for that big promotion at work? I should ask my keychain."

Anyway, I held the tiny ball in my hands and gave it a vigorous shake. I eagerly asked a question. (I hain't tellin'. That's bad juju.)  And this is the answer I got:

Wait, what? Let's try this again: I asked a different question. Maybe I didn't phrase it right the first time.

WHAT IS THIS NONSENSE? You're #1? Is this a Little League game? I hoped those didn't count as questions.

Son of a dammit.

Magic 8 Ball, you are one condescending prick.

I kept going, out of sheer curiosity. How far does this little ball of low societal standards go?

Was the Fake Magic 8 Ball making a pass at me?

Either I just got hit on by a Chinese-made promotional gadget, or else it turned into the partner on a 1970's television detective series.

That's some positive reinforcement. At least that's how I remember most of my dates growing up going. 

I didn't get a Magic 8 Ball. I got some weird bastardized dime-store version of a Magic 8 Ball that just gave random snippets of false positive reinforcement, like a shitty fortune cookie that you don't get the benefit of eating afterwards. I get enough false positive enforcement just from my regular human interaction, like "That haircut looks nice" and "You most certainly don't look like a horse licking peanut butter out of his teeth when you eat spaghetti." Here I was hoping that all of life's questions would be answered, but instead I got a series of primary-school everyone-gets-a-reward microsized pep talks filtered through some gross blue syrup.

And so I basically chucked it in the back of my drawer. If I can't get answers, nobody else will, either. I'll do everything I can to make sure no one's life-questions will ever be answered.

Oh, Magic Self-Esteem Ball, you are one sarcastic jerkhole.

Monday, September 9, 2013

What Goes On At Rocky Top?

This past weekend my wife and I enjoyed a performance by one Mr. John Hodgman, the humorist who is a contributor to The Daily Show, writer of several books, fake judge, and self-proclaimed deranged millionaire. It was a fantastic performance, the sort of thing that really can't be explained unless you were there.

Part of the performance--spoiler alert--involved a remarkably haunting performance of Rocky Top, the bluegrass standard. (There's a reason he sang it, and, no, I ain't telling.) I'm a sucker for bluegrass standards and so it was particularly enjoyable, especially in a room full of nerds and hipsters who probably only hear good ol' shitkicking banjo-playin' when they pass the country station on the Sirius Radio receptor they've ironically soldered to their Schwinn.

However, for whatever reason, I decided to look up the lyrics to Rocky Top, since I didn't really know them. After reading them, I think perhaps we should have someone investigate Rocky Top, because it's pretty much X-Files strange up there. (For the record, each version of the lyrics I've look up for Rocky Top are slightly different, in what I am assuming is chalked up to "charming regional dialects" but in reality are "alarmingly irritating" when doing vigorous research like this.)

Let's take a look:
Well, I wish that I was on old Rocky Top
Down in the Tennessee hills
'Cause there ain't no smog, no smoke on Rocky Top
Ain't no telephone bill
OK, this isn't so bad. There's a large portion of every population center everywhere whose sole goal is to get to the point where they can get away from everyone and everything, including utility debt collectors and your boss wanting to know why you haven't shown up to work for six days in a row and why your voice mail is just someone playing a Dobro. Still, taking refuge where you actively know that there isn't any cell phone coverage tastes a little Ted Kaczynki to me.

Once there was a girl on Rocky Top,
Half bear the other half cat.
Wild as a mink, sweet as soda pop,
I still dream about that.
I get the broad metaphor strokes in all this, but there's a little bit too much weird animal imagery going on here. I get the feminine allusions to cats and the sexy mink part, but I'm not exactly sure what the bear is supposed to represent. More importantly, once you get past two in the "animals used to describe the person I am physically attracted to," it's no longer straight-up description and more creepily Frankensteinish. And if I am dreaming about a sexy three-part yet somehow half-and-half Cat-Bear-Mink (Tennessee fractions, I presume), it's not sweet as soda pop, it's a fucking night terror.
Once two strangers climbed on Rocky Top,
Lookin' for a moonshine still.
Strangers ain't come back from Rocky Top,
Guess they never will. 

What sort of transaction was this? Some guy is wandering around town, meets a complete stranger, and thinks to himself "Hey! I know, person I've never met, let's go look for illegal moonshine stills in the dark forest the sort of which are usually defended by protective hillbillies who own multiple firearms! What could go wrong?" I get the burning desire to get a little thunder in your belly, but if you are trawling the streets picking up strangers so you can tromp through the woods looking for illegal alcohol production, maybe none of us should really be all that surprised when they don't come back.
Corn won't grow at all on Rocky Top,
Dirt's too rocky by far.
That's why all the folks on Rocky Top
Get their corn from a jar.
Here's an admission that the agricultural limitations of the area won't allow for advanced agricultural production, although I suspect in the dark forests of Rocky Top people have tried alternate methods of farming techniques. (Pot. I'm talking about pot.)
Now I've had years of cramped up city life,
Trapped like a duck in a pen.
Now all I know is it's a pity life
Can't be simple again.
I very much doubt that people living "city life" feel like they are trapped like a duck in a pen, unless that duck comes with an orange glaze and broccoli. And while I get the sentiment that city life is messy, complicated, and often overwhelming, it seems vastly superior to a place where people routinely don't come back from the woods and you can't grow shit to sustain yourself without first distilling it down and drinking it with buckwheat pancakes and is overrun by genetic hybrid female monsters that you fantasize about in your sleep. You'll wish you had that phone bill when you're blind from unpurified grain alcohol and running from a cat-mink on the rag.
Rocky Top, you'll always be
Home sweet home to me.
Good ole Rocky Top,
Rocky Top Tennessee

I'm come to the conclusion that maybe we should all sort of stay the hell away from Rocky Top. A lot of weird shit goes on there.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Ronald Coase

Ronald Coase died yesterday at the age of 102.

Most people won't know who Coase was. He was an academic, an economist who won the Nobel Prize in 1991 for his development of the Coase Theorem. Not exactly a household name, of course, and even in economics and political science and other related disciplines he isn't known much more than a few passing references.

The Coase Theorem itself is reasonably simple: given no transaction costs, two parties who negotiate will always come to an efficient conclusion regardless of the initial allocation of property. (Note for academics: this is ridiculously simplified. I get it.) It's usually applied in the case of externalities, such as noise or pollution or spectrum allocation. It may be better to see it in the form of an example, of which there are many on the Internet. The opinion about the theory is split: while it's academically sound, due to the presence of transaction costs it's rarely applicable in real life. And yet it *can* be, and in fact there are plenty of examples where it certainly applies, especially in the Internet age where transaction costs can be practically zero. And, in fact, the theory was the basis for more than one legal precedent for tort law.

More importantly, on a personal level, the Coase Theorem was one of the first concepts that "clicked" with me. It was one of the driving forces for me to switch my major to economics in college. The concept itself isn't difficult, but it's esoteric enough that it's not something that can be picked up in ten minutes. It's one of the few times--like you see in the movies--where I was sitting at my desk, poring over my papers under a sad yellowish light, looking up from my textbook and suddenly realized that it all made sense. It wasn't long after that where I started teaching other people the basics of economics; his death has reminded me how much I miss that. Sadly, there really isn't a market, outside of college freshman, for me to practice that.

There was plenty more after that, of course. I've always said that the dismal science could benefit everyone, regardless of their profession, though I recognize that pretty much everyone feels that way about what they do every day for their job. Still, I have to give credit where it is due: Ronald Coase was the impetus for me to study economics. I should be equally grateful and alarmed.