Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The 411 on 212

New York City’s iconic 212 area code is featured in a Seinfeld episode.  Rapper Pitbull named his record label Mr. 305, Inc., in an homage to his South Florida origins.  A beautiful and talented bar manager in South Beach (hi Kat) incorporates her former and current hometown area codes (718 and 305, respectively) in her social media user names, elegantly and succinctly hinting at her cultural identity.  Area codes (some of them, at least) have developed their own character and have become treasured cultural identifiers for many of us.  And their history is fascinating.

When three digit area codes were originally implemented in the late 1940’s, the overarching design objective was to minimize the time required for hardware resources (mostly electromechanical switches and relays) to complete each telephone call.  Two design decisions made at that time and for that reason resulted in the eventually iconic area codes we know and love.  One was that the second digit of all area codes would be a 0 or a 1, and the second digit of all exchange triplets (the first three of the seven local numbers) would never be a 0 or a 1.  This design permitted the switches to recognize whether an area code or an exchange triplet was being dialed as soon as the second number was entered, so they “knew” how many more numbers to expect and were able to complete each call (and be available for the next one) faster.

The other decision was based on the rotary dial systems of the day.  The time it took for numbers to be dialed was proportional to the number itself; for example, on a rotary phone it took much longer to dial a 9 than to dial a 1.  From the same Wikipedia article linked above:

The densely populated areas of New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Detroit had large incoming call volume and were assigned the shortest area codes (212, 312, 213, and 313, respectively). A sparsely populated area of rural Texas received area code 915. Area codes which covered an entire province or state received the less-desirable '0' middle digit.

At that time, given the second digit convention, to reach a number in your own area code you only needed to dial 7 digits (the only exceptions were local “toll” calls).  And, to dial across area codes, you would dial the area code plus the number (10 digits).

The demand for telephone numbers was increasing rapidly, and the remaining n0n and n1n combinations were insufficient to sustain growth. This area code scheme was abandoned, with the result that area codes and central office codes could not necessarily be automatically distinguished by the switching equipment. The solution was to require the dialing of a preceding 1 for calls across area codes, in which case the equipment expected 10 more digits. If the first digit dialed was not a "1", only 7 digits were expected and the area code was inferred from the originating subscriber's area code.

Younger readers may be scratching their heads in puzzlement regarding the preceding “1” described above.  It only applies to land lines, not mobile phones.  Since cell phones send the entire number to the network at once, not one number at a time like land lines do, the preceding “1” was never necessary for them.

More recently, due to the proliferation first of fax machines and later of cell phones, more numbers were needed than could be sustained by the system, so more area codes were added (instead of adding more digits to phone numbers).  In some cases, existing area codes were “split”.  An example is South Florida, where the area code 305 initially covered both Dade (now Miami-Dade) and Broward counties, but in 1995 was split, and Broward County was assigned the area code 954.  The splitting of area codes was widely criticized due to the cost to businesses of updating stationary, business cards, etc., so most of the following area code additions were implemented not by “split” but instead by “overlay”, where the area code in operation would continue for existing numbers, but new numbers would be assigned with the new area code.  Again, South Florida provides an example, as the area code 786 was “overlaid” on the 305 region in 1998.  In New York City, both 917 (in 1992) and 646 (in 1999) were “overlaid” onto the 212 region.

I have no doubt that because of area code overlays, and, more significantly, the fact that these days we typically select contacts instead of manually entering telephone numbers into keypads, the iconic nature and cultural significance of area codes will inexorably wither away.  Who knows, telephone numbers themselves may soon be abstracted away by our communication devices the way IP addresses are abstracted away by our browsers and the magic of DNS.  

Sadly, 212, 305 and their ilk will mean nothing to our grandchildren.

Friday, February 7, 2014

No Way, Jose

In April of 1988, Oakland Athletics outfielder Jose Canseco guaranteed he would hit at least 40 home runs and steal at least 40 bases during the upcoming season, a then-unprecedented  feat in major league baseball.  Canseco went on to hit 42 home runs and steal 40 bases that season, fulfilling his guarantee and becoming the first 40/40 man in baseball history.  The City of Miami promptly renamed a stretch of SW 16th Street, in front of Miami Coral Park High School, which Canseco attended, “Jose Canseco Way”.

In the years that followed, Canseco:

  • Was arrested for reckless driving in February of 1989.
  • Was arrested for carrying a loaded semi-automatic pistol in his car in April of 1989.
  • Was charged with aggravated battery for allegedly ramming his then-wife Esther’s BMW with his Porsche in February of 1992.
  • Was arrested for hitting his then-wife Jessica in November of 1997.
  • Was arrested (along with his identical twin brother Ozzie) for aggravated battery after getting into a fight with two California tourists at a Miami Beach nightclub in October of 2001.
  • Had his probation revoked after missing a court appearance in March of 2003.
  • Was arrested for probation violation after testing positive for steroids in June of 2003.
  • Lost his house in Encino, California to foreclosure.
  • Admitted to using anabolic steroids throughout his baseball career in a tell-all book published in 2005.
  • Was detained by immigration officials at a San Diego border crossing as he tried to smuggle in a fertility drug from Mexico in October of 2008.
  • Absurdly campaigned to become mayor of Toronto, Canada in 2012, using the slogan Yes We Can(seco), even though he is not a Canadian citizen and is thus ineligible to become mayor of any Canadian city.
  • Was named as a suspect in a rape allegation in Las Vegas in May of 2013.
  • Was pulled over by police in November of 2013 while he was transporting goats wearing diapers.

In 2008, the City of Miami sheepishly rescinded the renaming of SW 16th Street.

Canseco is an extreme example, but the point is, given enough time we will all somehow screw up.  I thought of Canseco while re-watching “Titanic”, and then again while reading “First Love”.  In the former, a nascent relationship is cut short (and thus left forever perfect) when young Jack Dawson freezes to death in the North Atlantic.  In the latter, a nascent relationship is cut short (and thus left forever perfect) when young Oscar James Robinson succumbs to cancer.

On the surface, Rose DeWitt Bukater (who survived Dawson) and Axi Moore (who survived Robinson) are tragically cheated out of decades of romantic bliss.  The truth is actually the opposite.  Rose and Axi received a wonderful gift: the ultimate lifelong partners, never tarnished by reality.  The ideal relationships, shaped to perfection by their imaginations.  No matter what else happens in their lives, they already have that which so many strive for, permanently protected from its otherwise inevitable erosion by the confines of their nurturing minds.

Jack and Oscar will never bring shame to anyone.  Hell, you could even name a street after them.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Meaning

Whenever I see football coaches nervously pace the sidelines I’m always amused by their pained, stressed demeanor.  To watch them, you would think that either they are passing a particularly large kidney stone, or whatever is happening on the field is critical to the survival of the universe.  And, in the contrived world they live in, it is.  Yet just outside of the borders of the concoction they inhabit, whether their team wins or loses the game is absolutely meaningless.  It only matters to those who choose to live within the confines of the construct.

Woody Allen (who may or may not have been a sexual predator; I’m a huge fan of his work and hope Mr. Weide is correct) goes much, much further in a 2010 interview with Robert E. Lauder:

Everybody knows how awful the world is and what a terrible situation it is and each person distorts it in a certain way that enables him to get through. Some people distort it with religious things. Some people distort it with sports, with money, with love, with art, and they all have their own nonsense about what makes it meaningful, and all but nothing makes it meaningful. These things definitely serve a certain function, but in the end they all fail to give life meaning and everyone goes to his grave in a meaningless way.

I only disagree with the “awful” and “terrible” parts.  No question, in the context of the universe, our lives are meaningless, no matter what arbitrary contrivances we come up with to try to give them the meaning they lack.  Nihilism makes sense.  But does that make the world awful?

Allen, from the same interview:

Human existence is a brutal experience to me…it’s a brutal, meaningless experience—an agonizing, meaningless experience with some oases, delight, some charm and peace, but these are just small oases. Overall, it is a brutal, brutal, terrible experience…

Ironically, avowed atheist Allen’s position is similar to that of people of religious faith.   In Allen’s view, life’s meaninglessness makes it brutal, agonizing even.  The devout would feel the same way, except that they’ve found a way to make their lives meaningful (to themselves, at least) through religious contrivance.  Others make their lives meaningful (again, to themselves) in other ways.  But Allen, whose life is vastly meaningful within the context of our overall human construct, does not accept gimmicks, realizes life is meaningless, and agonizes over that.

I have a difficult time understanding either position.  Like Allen, I believe life is meaningless.  Also like Allen, I believe artificial contrivances do not make it meaningful.  But unlike Allen, those beliefs do not make my life a “brutal, terrible experience”, quite the contrary.  I know life has no meaning, but why would that make it terrible?  It is what it is (or, more accurately, it is not what it is not).  Existential nihilism is not necessarily dark; it can be liberating.

According to Donald A. Crosby, “Those who claim to find meaning in their lives are either dishonest or deluded.”  Allen would certainly agree, as do I.

But who says a meaningless life can’t be fun?