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From Unemployment to Underwear: 4 Alternative Economic Indicators

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On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) informed the country that the U.S. unemployment rate has dropped to 8.6%. This was good news as the national unemployment rate had been hovering around 9% for quite a spell.

The BLS is in charge of putting together some rather mind-boggling statistics. In order to calculate the unemployment rate the BLS surveys more than 100.000 businesses and over 400,000 worksites. And they do this every month. When they’re not busy with unemployment, they spend their free time calculating the national inflation rate and bird watching.

Unemployment and inflation, however, are only two figures that we can look at to tell us how the economy is faring. Over the years, economists and non-economists have come up with small ways to either judge the present or predict the future. Here’s a sample of some of the more interesting indicators.

1. The Underwear Index

The Men’s Underwear Index (MUI) was originally developed by Alan Greenspan. According to this indicator, if men are not quite as well off, they’re less likely to replace worn out underwear, and more likely to wear it out completely before replacing it. As expected, men’s tightie-whitie sales have been down throughout the recession, but they've recently shown an uptick. So, whether you’re a boxer or brief man, things might be looking up.

2. The Waffle House Indicator

Part economic indicator, part disaster recovery index, the Waffle House Indicator is a way to see how down on its luck, or completely out of commission, a city or town is. Open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the Waffle House is a simple gauge with which to evaluate the economic health of a community. Basically, if the 'House is closed, something pretty massive is going down. Craig Fuguate at FEMA has actually come up with a color-coded system to evalute the Waffle House-related damage in a given area:

"Green means the restaurant is serving a full menu, a signal that damage in an area is limited and the lights are on. Yellow means a limited menu, indicating power from a generator, at best, and low food supplies. Red means the restaurant is closed, a sign of severe damage in the area or unsafe conditions."

3. The Marine Index

There are two ways to use our nation’s elite fighting force to judge our current economy. One is by looking at recruitment statistics. Currently, the Marines have a pretty steady stream of recruits coming through the doors, and if recruitment is up, typically the economy is down. If we look at the armed forces in strictly an economic way, then the jobs they offer are typically more dangerous than average, lower paying than average, and more restrictive than average. These jobs, however, bring with them more job security than average, and have more geographic mobility. Therefore, if these positions are nearly full, it shows that the average citizen is willing to take risks to secure a job.

The other way we can use the Marines to tell how we’re doing is to look at their television ads. If their recruitment quotas are met, then they can afford to make their ads less inviting, tougher, and more intimidating. So, if you’re watching Monday Night Football and you see an ad with some gents going through grueling torments to be a Marine, then odds are, the economy still isn’t flying high.

For example, check out this ad, released in 2006 , featuring sci-fi, video game trials rather than real life exertions.

Compare it to this commercial posted earlier this year:

4. The Hot Waitress Index

New York Magazine has reported on a less concrete index, but one that they promise is just as reliable: the Hot Waitress Index. The theory goes that when times are good, people in the “general attractiveness business” (to mongrelize a phrase from Party Down) find many jobs – modeling, marketing, partying, acting – that put their beauty to use. When the economy falls, however, the last resort of the beautiful is to waitress. How one would ever quantify this index is beyond me. I guess it’s one of those gut-feeling things. Or maybe economic indicators are in the eye of the beholder.
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Are there any offbeat measures of the economy's health that you rely on? Feel free to coin your own right here.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Chinese Museum Is Offering Cash to Whoever Can Decipher These 3000-Year-Old Inscriptions

During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province began discovering oracle bones—engraved ox scapulae and tortoise shells used by Shang Dynasty leaders for record-keeping and divination purposes—while plowing their fields. More bones were excavated in subsequent years, and their inscriptions were revealed to be the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia. But over the decades, scholars still haven’t come close to cracking half of the mysterious script’s roughly 5000 characters—which is why one Chinese museum is asking member of the public for help, in exchange for a generous cash reward.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province has offered to pay citizen researchers about $15,000 for each unknown character translated, and $7500 if they provide a disputed character’s definitive meaning. Submissions must be supported with evidence, and reviewed by at least two language specialists.

The museum began farming out their oracle bone translation efforts in Fall 2016. The costly ongoing project has hit a stalemate, and scholars hope that the public’s collective smarts—combined with new advances in technology, including cloud computing and big data—will yield new information and save them research money.

As of today, more than 200,000 oracle bones have been discovered—around 50,000 of which bear text—so scholars still have a lot to learn about the Shang Dynasty. Many of the ancient script's characters are difficult to verify, as they represent places and people from long ago. However, decoding even just one character could lead to a substantial breakthrough, experts say: "If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Chinese history professor Zhu Yanmin told the South China Morning Post.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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