Saturday, June 26, 2004

Back at You

So I've returned to Agoraphilia from my guest stint at the VC, but Neal has decided to move on with his own blog. I've posted a link in the right column, and also in the blog roll. It's really been great having Neal as a co-blogger. I'm glad I can say I played a key role in sucking him into the blogosphere - especially since Ellen says she and Neal used to snicker about my being dorky enough to have my own blog! Someday soon, Ellen, someday soon...


Friday, June 25, 2004

Thanks, Glen

Thanks, Glen, for inviting (nay, encouraging) me to blog my linguistics-related thoughts at your place, and thanks, Agoraphilia readers, for your comments. I've had enough fun that I'm starting up a blog of my own: Literal-Minded ("linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally"). Stop by sometime!


Wednesday, June 23, 2004

We've Got to Ramble

Neal and I are guest-blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy for the next three days. I’ve composed a haiku in honor of the occasion:

Nomads of the word
Find homes in many places
But return in time.


Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Bar Flight, Part 2

When I first discussed the Clear and Sapphire situation, I characterized it as a coordination game, i.e., a game in which the players wish to coordinate their choices. The sides-of-the-road game is the classic example of a coordination game: it doesn’t really matter which side of the road people drive on, so long as all drivers do the same thing. The model applies to bars because people generally want to go where other people go.

However, Ellen made an interesting comment in the comments box: “Reminds me of the star-bellied sneeches [sic] and the plain-bellied sneeches [sic].” Although there are some similarities, this is actually a quite different game. For those who don’t know Dr. Seuss’s parable of racism, the story goes like this: Some Sneetches had stars on their bellies, while other Sneetches did not. The plain-bellied Sneetches wanted to hang out with the star-bellied Sneetches, but the star-bellies excluded them. So the plain-bellies went through Sylvester McMonkey McBean’s Star-On Machine, which gave them stars. Upon discovering this, the star-bellied Sneetches had their stars removed using McBean’s Star-Off Machine. And then the once-plain-but-now-star-bellied Sneetches went through the Star-Off Machine, and then the once-star-but-now-plain-bellied Sneetches went through the Star-On Machine, ad infinitum.

This game is identical to other famous games of game theory, including Matching Pennies and One-Two-Three-Shoot. In all these games, there is one player who wants an outcome in which both players take the same action (the initially plain-bellied Sneetches wanted to blend in), while the other player wants an outcome in which the players take different actions (the initially star-bellied Sneetches didn’t care whether they had stars or not, as long as their bellies differed from those of the initially plain-bellied Sneetches). Unlike the sides-of-the-road game, in which there are two equilibria, in the Sneetches game there is no equilibrium unless the players randomize. Instead, you get a round-and-round chase effect like the one described by Seuss.

So how does all this apply to the bar situation? Suppose there are two kinds of bar customers, the “hip” and the “unhip.” The unhip want to hang with the hip, but the hip do not want to hang with the unhip. The analogy to the Sneetches is straightforward. The hip will colonize bars, thereby attracting the unhip, whose presence eventually drives away the hip, who then colonize another bar, where they are eventually followed by the unhip, ad infinitum.

So now we have two game theoretic representations of the bar situation. Which is correct? Both have plausible characteristics. One the one hand, it is certainly true that people tend to want to coordinate their bar choices, at least with the kind of people they like. On the other hand, it also clearly true that some people seek to avoid other kinds of people (without the other people necessarily feeling the same).

I suspect that a complex combination of both games is going on. Early in the game, a new bar is discovered (or rediscovered) by some fraction of the hip. A coordination game ensues, because hip people want to hang with other hip people. The bar acquires a reputation as a hipster hangout, which is good because it attracts even more hip people, but bad because word eventually gets out to the unhip, transforming the coordination game into a Sneetches game. Once enough unhip people start showing up, the desirability of the bar begins to wane, and some hip people eventually try a new place with fewer hip people but a better hip-to-unhip ratio. A new round of the coordination game follows.

This combined model provides a better explanation than the coordination game alone. The basic story is one of coordination – people want to congregate in the same place. But the Sneetches aspect of the game helps to explain the switching phenomenon I described in the earlier post. The arrival of an undesirable crowd creates instability in an equilibrium that would otherwise be hard to escape.


Monday, June 21, 2004

Acronymic Acrimony

The college I work for used to be called the “College of Business Administration and Economics,” a.k.a. COBAE (pronounced "co-bay"). Close observers will notice that the acronym doesn’t quite match the words. Why should “of” get representation while “and” does not? I figured the acronym should be either “COBAAE” or “CBAE.” I attributed the use of “COBAE” to its greater ease of pronunciation.

But then the faculty voted a couple of years ago to shorten the college’s name to “College of Business and Economics.” Ah, I thought – finally the COBAE acronym will have become accurate. To my surprise, many people here now refer to the college as COBE. Having subtracted “Administration” from the full title, they subtracted an “A” from the acronym. I see the logic, but I still protest. I’m willing to give nouns privileged treatment (as in CBE) or not (as in COBAE), but I can’t abide the disparate treatment of conjunctions and prepositions. If “of” gets representation, so should “and,” since the new name has rendered the pronunciation issue moot.


American Decadence and the Marginal Terrorist

The preliminary report of the 9/11 Commission included many disturbing revelations, but there was one detail I found heartening. The following is from the print version of an L.A. Times article from last Thursday (abbreviated version, without the portion below, available online with registration)

The report also revealed that some of the conspirators grew skittish about the plans in the final weeks and days of preparation and may have considered dropping out.

Among the possible defectors was Ziad Samir Jarrah, the suspected pilot of the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, whose frosted hair, taste for Beirut discos and beer drinking apparently caused friction with plot leader [Mohamed] Atta. [emphasis added]

The report indicates that Jarrah reconsidered withdrawing after “an emotional conversation” with [Ramzi] Binalshibh, who “encouraged Jarrah to see the plan through.”
Why is this heartening? Because it indicates that American-style decadence very nearly induced at least one terrorist to abandon his murderous plans. American culture does not always triumph, and it did not triumph here – but it is still, I contend, a force for good in the world. Contrary to the popular all-or-nothing model of the terrorist mind, according to which one is either a terrorist or not, what we see here is the marginal terrorist, who can potentially be turned from terror by the enjoyment of material pleasures. And material pleasures are what America does best.