Follow by Email

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

That Other March Madness: College Admissions

Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into CollegeSince our son is only a Junior in HS, we are still a year away from that other "March Madness" -- namely, the time of year when most colleges announce their admittance decisions. The often hilarious travails of one parent are captured in the book, "Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College," by Andrew Ferguson.  George Will has a nice summary of the book in the SJ Mercury News ("The real March Madness: Was my child accepted?"), a piece that originally appeared in the Washington Post ("College daze: The insanity of the application process"). For instance,

[Ferguson] begins in Greenwich, Conn. — a hedge fund habitat — watching Katherine Cohen, an “independent college admissions counselor,” market her $40,000 “platinum package” of strategies for bewitching Ivy League admissions officers. “Everyone in the room,” writes Ferguson, “was on full alert, with that feral look of parental ambition. They swiveled their tail-gunning eyes toward Kat when she was introduced.” Kat introduced them to terror:
“There are 36,000 high schools in this country. That means there are at least 36,000 valedictorians. They can’t all go to Brown.”
What about your son's gazillion extracurricular activities? Kat sniffs:
“He’s a serial joiner . . . just running up the score. He was 'invited' to participate in a 'leadership' program in Washington? The invitation came in the mail, I guess. It said he was 'selected.' Do you know why he was selected? Your ZIP code. They knew you could pay.”
Will's recounting of Ferguson's story about a mom who is just bursting to share her child's SAT scores is humorous. The mom can't just tell everyone what the scores are. She has to be asked, and Ferguson evidently takes his own sweet time doing so. At the end of the column, Will offers some sage advice:
"The college admission process occasions too much angst. America is thickly planted with 1,400 four-year institutions. Motivated, selective students can get a fine education at any of them -- unmotivated, undiscerning students at none."
I suspect such wisdom is something many of us need to hear.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Cosby Show, Civil Rights and Modern Family

I seem to recall that when "The Cosby Show" was on TV it was criticized by some for not being more explicit about civil rights for African Americans. Such criticism seemed to assume that the only way to bring about change is to be explicit about what you want to change. I, however, beg to differ. My sense was always that by portraying an affluent Black family where the lead characters were an attorney and a doctor and the kids aspired to attend college, "The Cosby Show" shattered the stereotypes that many people had about African-Americans.

Now consider the new hit show, "Modern Family," which focuses on the lives of three families: (1) one (relatively) traditional family; (2) one where the man of the house, after divorcing his long-time wife, has married a much-younger woman from Colombia and is helping her raise her pre-teen son; and (3) one gay couple that is raising an adopted Vietnamese girl. I'm not sure whether it is having the same effect that "The Cosby Show" had, but I can't help but wonder whether "Modern Family" is shattering a few stereotypes of its own.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Best Baseball Movies

Back in 2000 Baseball America chose its top 10 baseball movies of all time. Two important criteria for choosing the movies (developed with the help of film critic Gene Shalit) was that a movie had to be worth watching ten years after its release, and its characters had to be interesting enough to be enjoyed by people who knew nothing about baseball. Its top ten are:
  1. Bull Durham (1988)
  2. Field of Dreams (1989)
  3. Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)
  4. Eight Men Out (1988)
  5. The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
  6. The Bad News Bears (1976)
  7. The Natural (1984)
  8. A League of Their Own (1992)
  9. The Sandlot (1993)
  10. Major League (1989)
I don't think there is too much to argue about this list although I'd probably rearrange it a bit -- I'd switch "Field of Dreams" and "Bull Durham," move "The Pride of the Yankees" up to #3, "The Natural" to #4 and "Major League" to #5. I'd also add "The Rookie" (2002) and "Damn Yankees" (1958) to the list, and I'm tempted to drop "The Sandlot" because it never did much for me, but because everyone else seems to like it, I'll keep it in my list. So I guess I'm stuck with a top 12, rather than a top 10. Here's how it looks, but, what do I know?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Is the Two-Party System Making America Ungovernable?

I almost didn't listen to it but glad I did. I've referred to Intelligence Squared US debates before, but this was certainly one of the more enjoyable ones. Listening to David Brooks and P.J. O'Rourke trading witticisms made it worth it, but Ariana Huffington and Zev Chafets proved to be pretty funny in their own right.  The motion up for debate this time was "The Two Party System is Making America Ungovernable." Arguing on behalf of the motion were Brooks and Huffington; arguing against it were Chafets and O'Rourke.

If you recall Intelligence Squared US debates are held in the traditional Oxford Style. Those attending vote prior to and after a debate, and the winning debate team is decided by which way the vote swings. So, for instance, if prior to the debate the audience favors the propositions by 55% but after only 51% favor it, then the opposing team is considered to have won the debate.

Here's a brief description of the participants (from the Intelligence Squared website):

David Brooks became an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times in September, 2003. He has been a Sr. editor at The Weekly Standard, a contributing editor at Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly, and he is currently a commentator on “The Newshour with Jim Lehrer.” He is the author of “Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There” and “On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense,” and the soon to be released, "The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement."

Arianna Huffington is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, a nationally syndicated columnist, and author of thirteen books. She is also co-host of Left, Right & Center, public radio’s popular political roundtable program. In May 2005, she launched The Huffington Post, a news and blog site that has quickly become one of the most widely-read, linked to, and frequently-cited media brands on the Internet. In 2006, she was named to the Time 100, Time Magazine's list of the world’s 100 most influential people.

Zev Chafets is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine and a former columnist for the New York Daily News. He was the founding editor of the Jerusalem Report and is the author of twelve books, including "Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One." Chafets spent 30 years living in Israel with their multi-party system, during which he was an active participant in the Egyptian-Israeli peace process and a delegate to the first Israeli-Egyptian peace negotiations.

P.J. O'Rourke is America’s premier political satirist, the H.L. Mencken Research Fellow at the Cato Institute, and the bestselling author of 13 books, including "Don’t Vote: It Just Encourages the Bastards," "Parliament of Whores," and "Give War a Chance." Both Time and the Wall Street Journal have labeled O’Rourke “the funniest writer in America.” He has written for such diverse publications as Car & Driver, the Weekly Standard, the Atlantic Monthly, and Rolling Stone, where he was foreign affairs desk chief for 15 years. In the 70s he was editor-in-chief of the National Lampoon.

Not only can you listen to the debate at the Intelligence Squared website ("The Two Party System is Making America Ungovernable"), but you can access transcripts of the debate as well.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Part IV: Sources

Biblical scholars involved in the quest for the historical Jesus try to follow a number of criteria in determining whether a particular saying or act of Jesus is true. Briefly, these are:
  1. The Earlier the Better: Sayings and events found in texts dated earlier (e.g., 30-50 CE) are considered more likely to have originated with the historical Jesus than are sayings found in texts dated later
  2. Dissimilarity: Words and deeds of Jesus that cannot be derived from either the Judaism of Jesus’ day or the teaching and beliefs of the early Church are more likely to have originated with the historical Jesus 
  3. Multiple Sources: Sayings and acts that are found in two or more independent sources are more likely to have originated with the historical Jesus 
  4. Embarrassment: Sayings and acts that would have caused the early Church embarrassment are more likely to have originated with the historical Jesus 
  5. Rejection and Execution: This criterion differs from the first four because it focuses on those deeds and sayings that may have contributed to Jesus’ death. According to this criterion those sayings and deeds of Jesus that infuriated, disturbed or agitated people may have originated with the historical Jesus 
  6. Coherence: This final criterion holds that other sayings and deeds of Jesus that fit well (e.g., in terms of theology) with the other sayings that have already been determined to be authentic using the other criteria are likely to have originated with the historical Jesus
I'll return to these criteria (or rules of evidence) in more detail in my next post on the historical Jesus. In this one I focus on the sources (see #3 above) that scholars draw on in order to tease out the outlines of Jesus' life, ministry, death and resurrection.  Scholars consider some writings outside of the New Testament to be potential sources for what Jesus said and did. Also, as I detail below, the don't consider the New Testament gospels to be entirely independent of one another (note that criterion #3 gives more weight to a saying or event from two or more independent sources).  I begin with a discussion of the New Testament Gospels and their relationship to one another. I then briefly consider a few extra-canonical Gospels before concluding with a reflection on the controversial and hypothetical "Q" Gospel.

The Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John

Among moderate and liberal biblical scholars, the Gospel of John generally takes a back seat to the other three Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke, which are commonly referred to as the synoptic gospels. Scholars refer to Matthew, Mark and Luke as the synoptic gospels because they narrate Jesus’ life similarly and present a common view of who Jesus was. John’s Gospel, on the other hand, presents a very different picture of Jesus from the Synoptic Gospels. Some scholars argue that John's Gospel was written as a rebuttal to the Gospel of Thomas (e.g., see Elaine Pagels "Beyond Belief"), which suggests, as my good friend and frequent interlocutor Dave notes, that John's understanding of what it meant to be a Christian was not the only game in town. Others, however, believe that Thomas was written after John (e.g., Bart Ehrman, "Lost Christianities"), which if they are correct means that John couldn't have been written as a rebuttal to Thomas although I suppose that one could entertain the hypothesis that Thomas was written as a rebuttal to John.

Most mainline Protestant (and Roman Catholic scholars), such as the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar, dismiss the Gospel of John as contributing anything valuable regarding the historical Jesus. For instance, they concluded that they could trace none of the sayings in the Gospel of John back to the historical Jesus. Instead, they believe that the Gospel of John reflects the voice of the early Christian community, not the historical Jesus.

Why would the author of John’s Gospel create such a Gospel? Why would he put words into Jesus’ mouth?  Marcus Borg argues that the community in which the author of John lived experienced risen Jesus in all of the ways the Gospel of John portrays him. So, the Jesus of John’s Gospel claims he is the Light of the world.  Borg argues that the community of John experienced the risen Christ as someone who is a light in the midst of the darkness. John’s Jesus also claims that he is the bread of life, which Borg interprets to mean that the early Christians experienced the risen Christ as someone who can nourish his followers with spiritual food. And John’s Jesus announces that he is the way and the truth and the life, which means, according to Borg, that the early Christians experienced the risen Christ as someone who can set us free, lead us to eternal life, and help us discover true wisdom in the midst of the world’s foolishness. In many ways, this sounds like a sermon, and in fact, that is essentially what Borg is arguing.  He believes that the Gospel of John is an extended sermon on what it means to encounter the risen and living Christ. In other words, he Borg believes that while the Gospel of John is not historically true, it is theologically and spiritually true.

Not every contemporary biblical scholar believes that John’s Gospel has nothing to contribute to our understanding of the historical Jesus, however. Paula Fredriksen, for example, contends that John tells us quite a bit about Jesus' last days (why he was arrested, tried and executed) and most scholars appear to believe that John's three year time-frame for Jesus' ministry is more accurate than Matthew, Mark and Luke's one-year time frame.

The Two-Source Hypothesis

Nevertheless, when it comes to reconstructing the historical Jesus, most biblical scholars focus on Matthew, Mark and Luke.  One of the first theories that New Testament scholars developed argues that Mark is the earliest Gospel and Matthew and Luke used the Mark as the narrative basis for their own Gospels. They marshaled considerable amount of evidence in support of this theory:
  • Sometimes the same wording & sequence of material is found in Matthew, Luke & Mark
  • Sometimes Matthew & Mark agree in sequence and/or wording of passages, while Luke differs
  • Sometimes Luke & Mark have the same sequence and/or wording of passages, while Matthew differs
  • But the texts of Matthew & Luke almost never agree in both wording & sequence except for material found also in Mark
  • In passage after passage Mark is demonstrably the middle term in any narrative agreement between the synoptic gospels. Thus, the first premise of the two source hypothesis is that Matthew & Luke each followed the text of Mark as their primary narrative source
A Gospel synopsis, in which all three synoptic Gospels are printed in parallel columns, permits scholars and students to observe how Matthew and Luke used (and changed) Mark to create their own Gospels.

New Testament critics also note that there appears to be a second source on which Matthew and Luke draw. In some places in the Gospels there is considerable verbal agreement between Matthew and Luke where there is no parallel passage in Mark. Although scholars have yet to find this mysterious source, they have given it a name: “Q,” from the German word “Quelle,” which means, “source.” Together, this led scholars to argue for what they call the “two-source” hypothesis, which is simply a fancy way of saying that Matthew and Luke made use of two written sources – Mark and Q -- in constructing their Gospels. This relationship between the three Gospels and Q can be pictured as follows:




The Four-source hypothesis

While this was a good start, scholars couldn’t help notice that Matthew had material that was not in either Mark or Luke, and Luke contained material that was not in either Mark or Matthew. This led later scholars to expand the two-source hypothesis to a four-source hypothesis, which, as the figure below illustrates, argues that the author of Matthew used Mark, Q and his own special source (“M”), while Luke used Mark, Q and his own special source (“L”). It is likely that "M" and "L" are drawn from multiple sources, possibly even the same sources, including Q, but for convenience scholars treat "M" and "L" as single independent sources:




In other words, the sayings and events that we find in the Gospels come from one of four separate sources: Mark, "Q," "M" or "L." By definition, no saying or event can come from more than one of these sources because what is found "Q" are those verses that appear in both Matthew and Luke but don't appear Mark. And the verses that appear in "M" are those that appear only in Matthew, and "L" are those verses that only appear in Luke. 

What this means is that if scholars are adhere to the multiple sources criterion, they have to look beyond these four sources to find a second independent source in order for a saying that appears in Matthew, Mark or Luke to be deemed authentic. In other words, because any saying or event that appears in Matthew, Mark or Luke can only be traced back to either M, Mark, Q or L, scholars need to look to other sources for additional independent attestations of the event or saying. 

Take, for example, the beatitude, "Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6:20). A parallel saying occurs in Matthew (5:3), and scholars trace this saying back to Q (because it appears in Luke and Matthew but not in Mark). In other words, while the saying occurs twice in the Gospels, it is only seen as having one independent source. Scholars do believe that there is a second independent source for this saying, however, and that is the Gospel of Thomas (Thomas 54). Thus, because this saying is seen as having two independent sources, most scholars believe that the saying goes back to the historical Jesus.

Other Sources

If biblical scholars have to look beyond the synoptic Gospels, where do they turn? As we saw above, the Gospel of Thomas is one source, and of course the Gospel of John is another. As I mentioned above, thought, biblical scholars don't believe that John has a lot of historical material, at least when it comes to Jesus' sayings.  However, there are a number of non-canonical sources (i.e., Gospels that don't appear in the New Testament (NT)) that scholars turn to in their quest uncover the historical Jesus. Here is a brief synopsis of some of these:
  • Gospel of Thomas – This gospel contains 114 sayings and parables of Jesus, but it lacks a narrative framework (much like what scholars believe the hypothetical Q must have been like), and is believed to be an independent witness (source) to the sayings of Jesus. Members of the Jesus Seminar date the earliest version of this Gospel around 50-60 C. E. but believe that the version we have probably was completed somewhere between 100-150 C. E. Most scholars don’t date it so early, however. They believe that it is actually based on the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and, as such, was composed after the Synoptics were completed (90 C. E.) and, thus, is not an independent source for the sayings of Jesus.
  • Egerton Gospel – We know very little about this gospel apart from the five fragments of it that have been found. These fragments contain a few stories and sayings of Jesus, and members of the Jesus Seminar generally treat the gospel as an independent source for the historical Jesus. Like the Gospel of Thomas, members of the Jesus Seminar date the earliest version of this gospel around 50-60 C. E. but believe that the final version probably was not completed until between 100-150 C. E. Most scholars date it a much later, arguing that it is also based on the New Testament Gospels. If that is so, it cannot be regarded as independent sources of the historical Jesus.
  • Gospel of Peter – According to at least one member of the Jesus Seminar (John Dominic Crossan), this Gospel contains within it a “Cross Gospel” that lies behind the accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion that we find in all of the Gospels. Crossan does not believe that the “Cross Gospel” is a historically accurate account of Jesus’ crucifixion but rather a theological interpretation of Jesus’ death. He believes that the disciples and the early Christian community had no idea what happened to Jesus’ body after he was crucified, and that what we read about in the New Testament Gospels is a creation of someone’s theological imagination that first appeared in the Cross Gospel. Furthermore, he is relatively certain that Jesus’ body was not placed in a tomb but was abandoned and probably eaten by dogs. Crossan’s position is a minority one, however. Most scholars believe that all of the Gospel of Peter was written in the 2nd century and based on the New Testament Gospels.
  • Secret Gospel of Mark – According to members of the Jesus Seminar, this is a fragment of an early edition of Mark’s Gospel that they regard as an earlier source of stories about and sayings of Jesus. Here again, though, most scholars believe that the Secret Gospel of Mark was actually written after the New Testament Gospels, so it cannot be regarded as an independent source for the sayings and doings of Jesus. Moreover, there is increasing belief among scholars that the Gospel was forged by Morton Smith (a former professor of ancient history at Columbia University) who claimed to have found it in in Mar Saba monastery in 1958 (see Bart Ehrman, "Lost Christianities," Chapter 4).
  • Gospels of Philip and Mary -- These two gospels received a lot of press when the Da Vinci Code was released, primarily because the book argues that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had a child. It is true that both gospels say that Jesus kissed Mary and loved her more than all the disciples, but it is unlikely that these gospels intended for the kiss to have any sexual overtones. That is because both of these gospels are Gnostic gospels, and Gnostics considered the material world a corpse and were uninterested in doing anything to perpetuate it like having children (see my earlier post, "The Da Vinci Code, the Gnostic Gospels and Wishful Thinking about Jesus and Sex"). Instead, the kiss is probably better understood symbolically in the sense that with the kiss Jesus passed a secret revelation to Mary that he didn't give to his other disciples. Moreover, both Gospels were written quite late -- the Gospel of Mary probably dates to somewhere in the 2nd century CE, while the Gospel of Philip probably dates to the 3rd century but it could be as late at the 4th (see Bart Ehrman, "Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code," pp. 175-179) -- which seriously calls into question whether they provide any historical details of Jesus' life and ministry.
What About Q?

As I noted above, in developing the two-source hypothesis, New Testament scholars noted that there appeared to be a second source on which Matthew and Luke drew in constructing their Gospels.  In some places in the Gospels there is considerable verbal agreement between Matthew and Luke where there is no parallel passage in Mark, which suggests that a second source was available to them. And while scholars have yet to locate this source, they named it, “Q,” from the German word “Quelle,” which means, “source.”

A key belief held by most scholars of Q (yes, there are NT scholars who devote most of their career to studying Q) is that it contains no birth, death or resurrection narratives.  Consequently, they conclude that since the earliest collection about Jesus (i.e., Q) show no knowledge or interest in stories about Jesus’ Resurrection, the stories about the Resurrection were creations of the Gospel writers and do not reflect the beliefs of the earliest Christians. However, Q was written around 50-60 CE, which is the same time the apostle Paul wrote his letters, and unless I'm misreading Paul, Paul clearly believed in the Resurrection. Almost all his letters mention it, and he claims that the Resurrected Christ appeared to him personally. Moreover, he repeats the tradition about Jesus first appearing to Peter, then to the 12 (disciples), and then to more than 500 followers before finally appearing to him.

I intend to return to the topic of the Resurrection around Easter, but for now I think it is worth pointing out that version of Q that scholars work with is what they are able to reconstruct from Matthew and Luke. Thus, what they have in hand is the minimum of what we know was in Q. It is possible that those verses in Matthew that are only found in Matthew ("M") could have come from Q, but Luke chose not to use them. And it is possible that those verses in Luke that are only found in Luke ("L") could have come from Q, but Matthew chose not to use them. And it is very likely that there are portions of Q that neither Matthew nor Luke used and have been lost to history.
"Despite the exuberant claims of some scholars, we cannot fully know what Q contained because the document has been lost. We have access to it only through the materials that Matthew and Luke both decided to include in their accounts, and it would be foolish to think that one or both of them included the entire document. Indeed, if only one of them included a passage from Q, then we would have no solid grounds for knowing that it came from Q rather than, say, M or L. It is entirely possible, for example, that Q had a Passion narrative, and that neither Matthew nor Luke chose to use it., or that only one of them chose not to do so (so that some of the verses of Matthew's or Luke's Passion narrative not found in Mark actually derive from Q). At the same time, it is equally possible that Q was almost entirely sayings, without a Passion narrative (or nearly any other narrative). Regrettably, we will never know, unless, of course, Q itself should serendipitously turn up" (Bart Ehrman, "The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings," p. 88)!
One way to think about this is imagine that the situation was reversed. We have Q but not Mark. Then all we would know about Mark is what is contained in both Matthew and Luke. The common material in Matthew and Luke would tell us a lot about Mark, but certainly not all. Indeed, it would leave out some very important parts.

Thus, it strikes me that many of the claims and conclusions that scholars make about Q are unwarranted because they are premised on the belief that we have access to the entire Gospel, which we almost certainly do not (sometimes I think a basic course in logic would do some New Testament scholars well).

Nevertheless, it seems likely that there was a common source of sayings that both Matthew and Luke used in composing their Gospels (Luke essentially admits as much in the opening to his Gospel). Indeed, Q's likely existence suggest that about 20 years after Jesus's death, a list of his sayings was compiled in order to serve the needs of wandering preachers and others who were curious what Jesus taught (Catherine Murphy, "The Historical Jesus for Dummies," p. 46). What we (and scholars) need to be careful of is not to make more of Q (or rather what we have of Q) than we can.

Next Time: A closer look at the criteria that scholars use to better distinguish the authentic from inauthentic sayings and deeds of Jesus.

Friday, March 18, 2011

When Bad Things Happen, Part II

In this morning's San Jose Mercury News there was an Op-Ed ("In Japan and Elsewhere, 'Murderous' Nature is a Neutral Party") by Fenton Johnson that initially appeared in the LA Times ("Shaking Open Our Self-Centered Eyes"). In it he takes to task those who see the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami from a human perspective:
"The key is not to rid ourselves of seeing the world in human terms; we're imaginative creatures, our imaginations are where our greatest fun lies, and besides, we comprehend the universe by placing it in a box whose boundaries and metaphors we draw from human experience. We don't need to abandon anthropomorphism, but we desperately need a bit of distance from the tendency to see the world through our inevitably self-centered eyes...
"To describe an earthquake as cruel (or a tsunami as murderous) assumes that good and evil are qualities established and defined by some overarching, presumably supernatural power whose ways and means lend themselves to human comprehension and even control. But who says the universe was created so that human beings might understand it -- that it must make or is supposed to make sense?"
Johnson's understanding of the Japanese disaster is an example of what I labeled in an earlier post ("When Bad Things Happen: The Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami") the gnostic approach in my thesis. This is the position individual's take that rather than seeking a rational explanation of evil, it instead seeks to transcend it through the acquisition of some greater knowledge (i.e., gnosis) of the way things truly are.  In fact, when recounting feminist theologian Sallie McFague's  ("Models of God") understanding of evil that "McFague is forced to conclude that God, in some sense, must be responsible for the... evil that has befallen human history... Evil, however, is in the eye of the beholder:"
"But is God, then, not in some sense responsible for the horrendous evil that has already occurred... in human history? In a monist ontology, one has to give a qualified yes to the question: since there is no evil power comparable to God, God is in some sense responsible for the worst that happens in the cosmos. But qualifications are crucial. First, the universe is, as an evolutionary phenomenon, so immense and complex, with so many constituent phenomena interrelating in so many ways, that evil is a relative concept. What is evil to some species, what diminishes or destroys them, is to other species for it brings them satisfaction and fulfillment (p. 141)."
In other words, what may be bad for one of God's creatures could be good for another. I suspect that very few individuals living in Japan would find such a perspective comforting. Taking such a position is far easier from behind a desk in a divinity school than in the rubble of an earthquake. Nevertheless, it illustrates how one might attempt to distance oneself from the tendency to see the world through our self-centered eyes.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

On the Lighter Side: Memorable Baseball Quotes

Baseball's Greatest Quotations Rev. Ed.: An Illustrated Treasury of Baseball Quotations and Historical LoreA recent issue of the AARP Bulletin (yes, I'm old enough to get it), culled several baseball quotations from Paul Dickson's book, "Baseball Greatest Quotations." Here are a few of the better ones:

"It ain't nothin' till I call it." -- Bill Klern, umpire

"Ninety percent of this game is half mental." -- Yogi Berra

"If a woman has to choose between catching a fly ball and saving an infant's life, she will choose to save the infant's wife without even considering if there is a man on base." -- Dave Barry

"I didn't mean to hit the umpire with the dirt, but I did mean to hit that bastard in the stands." -- Babe Ruth

"Bob Gibson is the luckiest pitcher I ever saw. He always pitches when the other team doesn't score any runs." -- Tim McCarver

"Trying to sneak a pitch past Hank Aaron is like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster." -- Joe Adcock

"The other teams could make trouble for us if they win." -- Yogi Berra

"I think I throw the ball as hard as anyone. The ball just doesn't get there as fast." -- Eddie Bane

"When they start the game, they don't say, 'Work Ball!' They say 'Play Ball!'" -- Willie Stargell

"I never took the game home with me. I always left it in some bar." -- Bob Lemon

"All I remember about my wedding day in 1967 is that the Cubs lost a double-header." -- George Will

"Sure I played. Did you think I was born age 70 sitting in a dugout trying to manage guys like you?" -- Casey Stengel to Mickey Mantle

"Think! How the hell are you gonna think and hit at the same time?" -- Yogi Berra

"A hot dog at the game beats roast beef at the Ritz." -- Humphrey Bogart

"As a nation we are dedicated to keeping physically fit... and parking as close to the stadium as possible." -- Bill Vaughn

"If you don't succeed at first, try pitching." -- Jack Harshman

"So I'm ugly. So what? I never saw anyone hit with his face." -- Yogi Berra

"The baseball mania has run its course. It has no future as a professional endeavor." -- Cincinnati Gazette editorial, 1879

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Terrorist Stereotypes and Misconceptions

Understanding Terror NetworksConventional wisdom has it that most Islamic terrorists are ignorant, religious fanatics whose childhoods were mired in poverty and whose education consisted of memorizing the Qur'an. The conventional wisdom is wrong, however. Marc Sageman discovered in his 2004 study of terrorist groups ("Understanding Terrorist Networks") that most Islamic terrorists come from a middle-class backgrounds, attended secular grade schools, weren't terribly religious as children, and have attained a higher level of education than average person from their respective countries of origin. Of course, we probably shouldn't get too wound up about one study, but other studies have confirmed what Sageman found. To wit:
  • Alan Krueger of Princeton University found that there is little evidence that terrorists are poor or poorly educated
  • Claudia Berrebi of the RAND Corporation compared the characteristics of of suicide-bombers recruited by Hamas and Islamic Jihad from the West Bank and Gaza to the general Palestinian population and found that almost 60% of the suicide bombers had a high school education, which is a higher percentage than the general Palestinian population (approximately 25%) 
  • Berrebi also found that they were less than half as likely to come from an impoverished family as a typical man from the general population
  • The 2004 Pew Global Attitudes Project surveyed adults in Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey and discovered that there is no evidence that sympathy for terrorism is greater among economically deprived individuals -- instead, more schooling correlated with more sympathy
Is there anything that correlates with terrorism? Yes. Countries that deny or severely limit civil and political rights to their citizens produce more terrorists than do those that grant them.  We probably can't do too much about this, which means that we may need a few more Egyptian revolutions . However, as we have seen in Libya, such revolutions can be hard to come by.

A summary of these and other findings can be found in the December 18, 2010, issue of the Economist ("Economic Focus: Exploding Misconceptions"). They suggest at least two things. One is that if we treat terrorist organizations as if they're run by ignorant fools, then we'll probably lose the war on terrorism -- or, it will last a lot longer than it has to. A second is that focusing solely on economic development in poorer countries will probably not reduce terrorism's appeal. Instead, what we probably need are multifaceted strategies that address the complex problem that it is.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

When Bad Things Happen: The Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami

The Japanese earthquake, tsunami and subsequent meltdowns at more than one nuclear plant inevitably raises questions about where God is in all this or whether God exists at all. After all, if God is all good and all powerful, why would God let something like this happen? There are a number of answers that people give to this question, some more satisfying than others but none completely satisfying or irrefutable.

I actually wrote my thesis at Vanderbilt on this. Building on the work of theologian James Hopewell ("Congregation"), I found that most (not all) of the answers to this question can be sorted into four world views:
  1. Canonic: This is something of a tragic or sobering view of God and the world. It is a place where evil (e.g., natural disasters) happens, whether do to demonic forces or imperfections in the created world, so all we can do is place our faith in God, knowing that in the long run God is in charge and ultimate happiness lies in the next life. This is something of a traditional understanding of the problem of evil and theologians such as St. Augustine and C.S. Lewis ("The Problem of Pain"), would fall into this category.
  2. Empiric: This outlook sees the world as arbitrary and untrustworthy. To explain the problem of evil, this world view often places limits on God's power (i.e., God may not be all powerful) and sometimes God's goodness (e.g., C.S. Lewis's "A Grief Observed").  Most process theologians fall into this category. So does Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" (note that the title isn't "Why Bad Things Happen to Good People"), as do most agnostics and atheists. Empiricists often doubt the existence of heaven, so appeals to the next world carry little weight.
  3. Charismatic: Individuals holding this world view see the world as ultimately trustworthy, and see living in such a world as exciting because it provides opportunities to experience God's healing presence.  From this perspective evil happens because of demonic forces, but rather than being resigned to this fact, charismatics often see such events as opportunities to "do battle" with these forces, believing that in the end they and God will be victorious. An example of this can be found in the books by Frank Peretti (e.g., "This Present Darkness").
  4. Gnostic: Here are individuals who, rather than seeking a rational explanation evil (as the empiricists would do -- e.g., by limiting God's power), instead try to transcend it through the acquisition of some greater knowledge of the way things truly are.  Here, we might locate the pop-theologian, M. Scott Peck ("The Road Less Traveled") and the former Dominican priest, Matthew Fox ("Original Blessing").
To be sure, these world views don't exhaust all that people have to say about evil, and it is probably better to see these as resulting from two crosscutting dimensions: (1) the degree to which God is active in the world (i.e., the transcendence vs. immanence of God) and (2) whether the creation is ultimately good, spontaneous, or creative vs. whether it is evil, entropic or in a state of decay:




What the above graph illustrates is that some of us may be more "charismatic" than are others who drift "dangerously" close to the canonic, gnostic or empiric options. Similarly, some of us may be more or less "empiric" than our fellow worshipers, and so on. Who knows, some of us may be located in the cross-hairs of this graph and entirely confused about what we should believe (that's OK too.)!

Those of you who recall my earlier post on "America's Four Gods," might notice that there is some similarity between these world views and the ways in which Americans view God. 

Friday, March 11, 2011

Social Networks and Twitter: The Egyptian Revolution and More

Social network analysts analyze a whole host of data, basically, any data that display connections between actors (which can be individuals but they don't have to be). An example comes from the recent Egyptian revolution. The following social network map graphs, over time, the network of retweets with the hashtag #jan25 on February 11 2011, at the time of the announcement of Mubarak’s resignation.


 

The network movie lasts about 3 1/2 minutes and is interesting. You can find a more detailed description of how the twitter data were collected at the following website ("The Egyptian Revolution on Twitter"). I believe that the node on the right with a lot tweets points at and away from it is a guy from NPR.

Another example comes from the Freakanomics blog/podcast ("Is Twitter a Two-Way Street").  Stephen Dubner interviews Duncan Watts, the former Columbia sociologist (he actually was trained as a computer scientist) who now works at Yahoo! Research.  Watts is the author of the book, Six Degrees, (no, Kevin Bacon isn't the one who came up with the term -- it goes back to the social psychologist, Stanely Milgram), which is a very readable (and entertaining -- he's a good storyteller) book on network science. He's also the author of Everything is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer) and the co-author of a recent paper called “Who Says What to Whom on Twitter.”

Dubner also interviews Justin Halpern, who turned his Twitter feed “Sh*t My Dad Says” into a best-selling book of the same name and a TV show.  Halpern has millions of followers but follows only one other person.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Social Networks and the Fight Against Terrorism

In an earlier post ("Facebook, Social Networking and Social Network Analysis") I distinguished between social networking and social network analysis. I noted that social network analysis (SNA) is a collection of theories and methodologies that analysts use to better understand and predict social behavior. A key assumption of SNA is that our behavior is affected by our ties to others and the networks in which we are located. And it isn’t just our direct ties that affect our beliefs and behavior; our indirect ties affect them as well. Indeed, social network theories assume that our structural location (i.e., where in a social network we find ourselves – center, periphery, member of core group, social isolate, and so on) affects what we say, do and even believe.

In recent years SNA has been used to track and disrupt terrorist and criminal networks. If there has been a trend in this research, it has been that many have used SNA metrics to identify central players, who can then be targeted for capture or elimination (a.k.a., the whack-a-mole approach). What one of my co-authors (Nancy Roberts) and I have been concerned about is stressing that there are a number of ways to disrupt terrorist networks, many of which that use non-coercive approaches and may provide longer term success. We have written an article to this end, which you can read if you are so inclined ("Strategies for Combating Dark Networks"). The abstract of the article reads as follows:
Our goal in this paper is to explore two generic approaches to disrupting dark networks: kinetic and non-kinetic. The kinetic approach involves aggressive and offensive measures to eliminate or capture network members and their supporters, while the non-kinetic approach involves the use of subtle, non-coercive means for combating dark networks. Two strategies derive from the kinetic approach: Targeting and Capacity-building. Four strategies derive from the non-kinetic approach: Institution-Building, Psychological Operations, Information Operations and Rehabilitation. We use network data from Noordin Top’s South East Asian terror network to illustrate how both kinetic and non-kinetic strategies could be pursued depending on a commander’s intent. Using this strategic framework as a backdrop, we strongly advise the use of SNA metrics in developing alterative counter-terrorism strategies that are context- dependent rather than letting SNA metrics define and drive a particular strategy.
P.S. The social network "map" that appears above is of the Noordin Top Terrorist Network (it appeared in the earlier post as well).

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Kids and Sports: How Young is too Young? How Much is too Much?

Until It Hurts: America's Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our KidsFor those of you who live in the Bay Area, many of you may have seen the article in the San Jose Mercury News this past Sunday about kids and sports (it appeared in the Oakland Tribune a couple of weeks earlier): "How young is too young?". Its basic premise is that many of us parents start our kids out in sports at too young of an age, assuming (incorrectly) that the earlier they start, the better they'll become. However, as Mark Hyman, author of "Until It Hurts: America's Obsession With Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids" notes,

"If I had any advice for parents it would be to relax, and let your child's natural interests lead. Parents are invested in this idea that they can turn their kids into... super athletes. The psychology of parenting is: Earlier equals better. There is not a lot to support that, except our own insecurities as parents."

What researchers have found is that when kids begin a sport too young, there is an increased chance of burnout (the game ceases to be fun -- 70 percent of kids drop out of organized sports by age 13) and injury. And one of the most common type of injuries (over half) are "overuse injuries," that is, injuries that come from repeating the same motion for too long a period without taking time off (three months rest is the recommendation I usually see).

I would add that it is not only a question of "How young is too young?", but also of "How much is too much?" Our kids are playing the same sport year round on travel baseball teams, club soccer teams, and the like, without giving their bodies time off to rest, which is why the rate of arm injuries among baseball players and knee injuries among soccer players have been increasing exponentially. Moreover, if they play baseball, soccer, volleyball, football, etc. so much that they are no longer fun for them to play (but are more like a job), then they'll probably stop playing and do something else. As Hall of Famer Willie Stargell once noted, "When they start the game, they don't say 'Work Ball!' They say 'Play Ball!'"

Since I have written about this previously ("Aristotle, Virtue & the Youth Sports-Injury Epidemic"), I won't belabor the point any further. The bottom line is that if our kids play too much of any one sport without any rest, whether from starting too young or playing year round, they will either burn out or sustain potentially career-ending injuries. So, read the article, spread the word and let our kids try something different.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Courtesy and Costco Shoppers

This article came across in one of my emails (from my cousin Jon) and is just too funny ("Small Wonders: Courtesy and Costco Don't Get Along"). It is written by Patrick Caneday and appeared in the Glendale News-Press. It recounts, in often hilarious detail, how inconsiderate shoppers can be -- in this case, Costco shoppers. Here are a couple of gems from the article:

Dear Costco shopper: It occurred to me last Saturday, as 200,000 of us simultaneously ran out of toilet paper and converged upon our Wholesale Mecca, that we need to get a few things straight:
  • You are not the only person on this planet.
  • Please take the first empty parking space you see. Blocking the driving lane with blinker on watching Grandpa load his ’81 Pinto hatchback takes more time than if you’d left your car at home and walked.
  • Once inside, DMV rules of the road apply. Would you stop your car in the middle of a busy street, get out and walk to the sidewalk for a cup of lemonade? Then please don’t do that with your cart in the middle of the main aisle for one free tortilla chip. Pull over.
  • This is not England. Please drive on the right side of the aisle. Keep up with the flow of traffic. No faster, no slower. Blindly cutting across four lanes because you spotted a good price on Jordache jeans is likewise ill-advised. If driving an oversized flatbed cart laden with a barbecue, sauna or Hummer, you have a greater responsibility to be careful. Our shins and ankles thank you.
  • Despite his seeming wisdom, the smooth-talking gent selling “nutritional” supplements is not a doctor. Tomorrow he will be hawking ShamWows at JC Penney. The only harmful “toxins” to eliminate are the ones coming out of his mouth.
  • The register is no place to ask for a price check. There are 18 very pissed-off people behind you with crying children and weakening bladders. It's a 3-square-mile warehouse, not the corner market. In 1994, an employee went to price check a 20-pound bag of diced Guatemalan pineapple and was never heard from again.
  • The giant red border painted on the ground surrounding the store is a “No Parking” zone, not a “Just Waiting for My Wife” zone. No one “is coming right out” of Costco. I saw a baby conceived and delivered during a single trip to Costco. Please find a parking place.
Check out the entire article. I think you'll find that it is worth it.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Tony Campolo and the Essence of the Gospel

When he was fresh out of seminary, Baptist minister Tony Campolo climbed into the pulpit and blurted out:
"I have three things I'd like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a $%^&. And what's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said $%^& than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night."
Not that I'm advocating cussing in the pulpit, but I dare say that Tony was probably right. We often confuse what's central to the Gospel and what's peripheral, and I'm relatively confident that God is more concerned with the plight of children suffering from malnutrition than whether a Baptist minister slips in a swear word into his sermons every now and then (those of you from the Bay Area may be familiar with Father Jim Mifsud, who experienced similar "difficulties" in his youth).

Campolo is an interesting character. An evangelical Baptist minister with a liberal bent who ran for State Senator as a Democrat and served as one of President Clinton's counselors after the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he is unapologetically pro-life and consistently opposes same-sex marriage (although his wife Peggy supports it). His views tend to align with what is known as the "completely pro-life" stance associated with the Sojourners Community, which means that he opposes warfare, abortion, poverty, capital punishment and euthanasia, which in turn puts him at odds with many political groups (Wikipedia, Tony Campolo).

He speaks at numerous Christian conferences (in the past his appearances in a given year have sometimes outnumbered the number days in the year), and he is probably best known for his sermon, "It's Friday, but Sunday's Coming!" and book by the same name (the "Friday" in the title refers to Good Friday, while the "Sunday" refers to Easter Sunday). He is at his best when telling stories (like how he through a birthday party for a hooker in downtown Waikiki) and uttering memorable quips. To wit (mostly from Wikipedia):
"How many people are working in Valley Forge (where American Baptist Churches USA headquarters is located)? About half of them."
"I think that Christianity has two emphases. One is a social emphasis to impart the values of the kingdom of God in society - to relieve the sufferings of the poor, to stand up for the oppressed, to be a voice for those who have no voice. The other emphasis is to bring people into a personal, transforming relationship with Christ, where they feel the joy and the love of God in their lives. That they manifest what the fifth chapter of Galatians calls 'the fruit of the Spirit'. Fundamentalism has emphasized the latter, mainline churches have emphasized the former. We cannot neglect one for the other."
"There are 2,000 verses of Scripture that tell us we must be committed to protecting the poor and the oppressed... There is no concern of Scripture that is addressed so often and so powerfully as reaching out to the poor."
"A person is as young as their dreams and as old as their cynicism."
"Jesus transcends partisan politics. That's what's wrong with the religious right... they have made Jesus into a Republican, and he's not!"
"I have serious problems with fundamentalist Christians and their creationist theories. Although I believe that scripture is divinely inspired and infallible, I have a hard time going along with the belief that the whole creation process occurred in six twenty-four hour days. My skepticism is due, in part, to the fact that the Bible says that the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day of creation (Genesis 1:16-19). I have a hard time figuring how twenty-four hour days could have been measured before that."
"Those in favor of Darwin’s theory usually act as though his explanation of evolution has empirical validation. It doesn't! It’s just a theory. A very reasonable theory, to be sure, but still a theory. The highly-touted biologist, Kenneth R. Miller, supports evolution and not ID. But even he claims that rabid Darwinists go 'well beyond any reasonable scientific conclusions that might emerge from evolutionary theory.' To prevent discussion of any other explanations of human origins is hardly what I would expect from open-minded educators."
"When you were born, you cried and everybody else was happy. The only question that matters is this: When you die, will YOU be happy when everybody else is crying?"
"I've always been skeptical of those television healers who are bald. I mean, if I had that gift, that would be the first thing I'd fix."
He's written a number of books. My favorites include, The Kingdom of God is a Party, A Reasonable Faith and 20 Hot Potatoes Christians are Afraid to Touch. His sermons and other talks are available from his website as well ("Tony Campolo").

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Success is...

Here's something that came across on email. Evidently, what constitutes success at different ages follows a chiastic pattern:

At age 4 success is.... not piddling in your pants
At age 12 success is.... having friends
At age 17 success is.... having a driver's license
At age 35 success is.... having money
At age 50 success is.... having money
At age 70 success is.... having a driver's license
At age 75 success is.... having friends
At age 80 success is.... not piddling in your pants