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Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Democrats Might Retain the Senate After All

Anyone following my posts on the upcoming election will know that I've been predicting an Obama win but with the Republicans retained control of the House and captured the Senate. A big part of the Democrats' problem was that of the 33 seats up for reelection this year, 23 are currently held by Democrats. This fact combined with an anti-incumbent mood, put Democrat control of the Senate in jeopardy.

Now, however, it looks like the Democrats might hold on to the Senate. Their' fortunes improved somewhat when the  Republican Senator from Maine, Olympia Snow, chose not to run. Although that wasn't enough to throw Senate control to the Democrats, it did raise the probability that neither party would control the Senate because the front runner in Maine (Angus King) is an Independent.

Democrats' fortunes really began to improve when the Republican nominee from Missouri, Todd Akin, commented that there were legitimate forms of rape ("What did Rep. Akin mean by ‘legitimate rape’?"). If he had dropped out of the race, then the Republicans would still have a good chance at gaining control of the Senate, but since he hasn't, it now appears that the voters will send the Democrat nominee, incumbent Claire McCaskill (who is very unpopular), back to the Senate for another 6 years.

Add to this the improved odds of Democrat nominees in Wisconsin, Virginia, and Massachusetts, and all of a sudden it looks like the Democrats will hold on to the Senate ("Democrats likely to retain Senate as four critical races shift in their favor"). Nothing, of course, is a done deal until after the election, but if the races in Missouri, Wisconsin, Virginia, and Massachusetts keep trending in the same way, then it appears the during first two years of President Obama's second term, Congress will look very much like it has the past two years. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Is Zito's Contract Really One of the Worst Ever?

It is not uncommon for sports writers to point to the signing of Barry Zito for $126 million for 7 years by the San Francisco Giants in 2007 as one of the worst contracts ever (see e.g., "15 Worst Contract in American Sports History"). While I don't believe that signing Zito was a good deal for the Giants, I do believe that it wasn't one of the worst contracts of all time. In fact, I don't think it was the worst contract of 2007. How so?

The same year the Giants signed Zito, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed former Giant Jason Schmidt to a three-year, $47 million contract. In his years with the Dodgers, Schmidt won only three games and lost six. That's a cost of $15.67 million per win for the Dodgers. By contrast, since 2007 Zito has won 57 games (and lost 69), which is a cost of $2.21 million per win for the Giants. Not a great deal, but its certainly a better deal than the Dodgers got. Moreover, Zito's still pitching (and winning -- he's currently 14-8 this year), while Jason Schmidt's completely out of baseball.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Why the MLB Wildcard Playoff is Unfair

Many readers know that Major League Baseball (MLB) expanded the number of wild card teams in each league from one to two this year. This could be a good idea, but the way MLB implemented it could lead to unfair outcomes. As it is currently set up, the two teams that qualify as wild cards will play a one game "playoff" to see which team advances to the next round. What this means is that there's a strong probability that the poorer of the two wild card teams could advance to the next round.

This is less of an issue in the American League this year because it is likely that records of the two teams that qualify, whether its the New York Yankees, the Baltimore Orioles, the Oakland A's, the Tampa Bay Rays, or the Los Angeles Angels, will be very similar. In the National League, however, the Atlanta Braves, which has already qualified for the playoffs, will play a team (probably either the St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, or Los Angeles Dodgers) that will have a substantially worse record than the Braves, and it will be a travesty if Braves are knocked out of the playoffs by only losing one game.

There's a reason why most sports hold multi-game playoffs: the odds are simply too high for inferior teams to win a single game. I suspect that professional football would hold its playoffs similarly if the players could play several games in a short period of time. Thus, here's my playoff proposal if MLB insists on having two wild card teams in each league:
  • The wild card teams meet in a best of 5 playoff with the winner advancing to the second round against the division winner with the best record
  • The remaining rounds of playoffs all be a best of 7 series
This, of course, would extend the season even farther into October, so if MLB were to do this, it would probably want to consider scaling back the number of regular season games from 162 to 154 (which was the number of games played until the 1962 season).

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Podcasts on Mormonism

Here are four insightful interviews on Mormonism from Tony Gill's Research on Religion podcast (the descriptions are from the Research on Religion website). I've mentioned some of these in previous posts:
Michael McBride on Religious Free-Riding and the Mormon Church: Prof. Michael McBride – associate professor of economics at the University of California, Irvine – discusses how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day States (known informally as the Mormon Church) is organized to overcome free-rider problems. We begin our podcast with an observation that the LDS Church has maintained a high rate of growth, members show remarkable satisfaction with their church, and how the church relies on a remarkable network of unpaid volunteers serving as clergy and in other organizational positions. Mike then lays out the theory of religious clubs that has been used to explain the growth of strict churches. We then focus the majority of our attention on how the LDS Church is organized and how they overcome the common tendency of individuals to free-ride on the voluntary efforts of other. Perhaps more than most denominations, Mormons have been able to solve this problem and obtain high levels of participation from their members. McBride also notes that some free-riding is actually important for church growth and discusses how the LDS works with “free-riders” to increase their levels of engagement. At the end of the podcast we speculate as to why other denominations haven’t adopted the LDS form of organization. Prof. McBride is also affiliated withUCI’s Center for the Study of Democracy, the Institute for Mathematical Behavioral Sciences and the university’s Religious Studies Program.
Patrick Mason on Anti-Mormonism and Mitt Romney: With Mitt Romney making waves as a presidential candidate frontrunner for the Republican Party, we visit withProf. Patrick Mason – the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Momon Studies at the Claremont Graduate University– to discuss the history of anti-Mormon bigotry in the United States tracing it back to the founding of the faith in the 1820s. We start be examining the diaspora of Mormons westward and into the postbellum South, the latter which is the focus of Prof. Mason’s most recent book. Patrick provides a detailed description of the Cane Creek Massacre, which exemplifies some of the violent hostility faced by Mormons in the 19th century. Our conversation covers Mormon relations with Native Americans and African Americans, and then moves on to cover one of the most controversial aspects of Mormon history — polygamy — which served to animate a great deal of the animosity that the LDS Church faced. Prof. Mason explains the historical aspect of that practice, how it was viewed by non-Mormons, and why it was eventually abandoned by the main church. Tony then raises two interesting questions about why Mormons have become one of the most patriotic segments of American society, and why anti-Mormonism has persisted even though many of the issues that gave rise to bigotry have been resolved for over a century, namely the polygamy question. As to the former question, we speculate about why a persecuted religious minority would strongly embrace the patriotic norms of a nation that once excluded them. The latter question leads us into a discussion of whether lingering bias against Mormons will affect the presidential aspirations of Mitt Romney, and we make comparisons to the cultural obstacles that Catholics and Jews had to overcome to be accepted into the mainstream of American political life.
Allison Pond on Being a Mormon Missionary: What is it like to be a young missionary in a foreign country that is undergoing major religious and legal changes? Allison Pond, an editorial writer at the Deseret News (Utah) and formerly with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, recounts her days as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Russia from 1997 to 1998. Mormons are well-known for their missionizing activity around the world, so we explore the preparation, training, experience, and results of such missionizing work. Allison begins by describing her spiritual upbringing in the LDS Church and reveals that she never thought of mission work until volunteering for a youth program while at BYU. She then discusses the process for being selected as an LDS missionary, which includes an interview with a local bishop. We inquire as to whether her work teaching English in Moscow played a role in her being selected for her to missionize in Russia. Following this, we look at how Mormons, who are mostly young adults at the time, are trained in the Missionary Training Center and what goes on during the first few weeks in the field. We discuss language training as well as preparation for hostile situations. Allison then tells us what it was actually like to be in the field, especially the anxiety she felt on the first day and how this dissipated over time. The typical routine of a missionary is discussed and we also focus on what is like to be a female missionary, considering that roughly 80% of all Mormon missionaries are young men. We then discuss the changing religious scene in Russia and what complications that may have played in the mission trip. Russia, which experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, initially allowed a great degree of religous freedom leading to a rapid influx of foreign religions. By 1997, the Russian Orthodox Church was pushing back with intensified rhetoric against foreign missionaries and with legal changes that made it difficult for such folks to operate. Allison closes with some reflections about what she learned while on her sojourn and provides a bit of “looking back” advice for people considering missionary work, be it for the LDS Church or any other faith.
Lynita Newswander on Mormons in America: What role have Mormons played in shaping America’s national heritage? We examine that question in light of the increased scrutiny that the Latter Day Saints have come under with one of their members in contention for the US presidency. Lynita Newswander discusses her book “LDS in the USA” (co-authored with Lee Trepanier), talking about the difficulties Mormons have had in terms of social acceptance. Our conversation takes us through a range of topics including how Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith may affect his chances at being elected president.
You can listen to these at the Research on Religion website, or download them into iTunes. The most recent podcast (the interview with Lynita Newswander) is probably still available through iTunes.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

23 Adult Truths

Forwarded to me by a good friend: 
  1. Sometimes I'll look down at my watch three consecutive times and still not know what time it is. 
  2. Nothing sucks more than that moment during an argument when you realize you're wrong. 
  3. I totally take back all those times I didn't want to nap when I was younger. 
  4. There is great need for a sarcasm font. 
  5. How the hell are you supposed to fold a fitted sheet? 
  6. Was learning cursive really necessary? 
  7. Map Quest really needs to start their directions on # 5. I'm pretty sure I know how to get out of my neighborhood. 
  8. Obituaries would be a lot more interesting if they told you how the person died. 
  9. I can't remember the last time I wasn't at least kind-of tired. 
  10. Bad decisions make good stories. 
  11. You never know when it will strike, but there comes a moment at work when you know that you just aren't going to do anything productive for the rest of the day. 
  12. Can we all just agree to ignore whatever comes after Blue Ray? I don't want to have to restart my collection...again. 
  13. I'm always slightly terrified when I exit out of Word and it asks me if I want to save any changes to my ten-page technical report that I swear I did not make any changes to. 
  14. I keep some people's phone numbers in my phone just so I know not to answer when they call. 
  15. I think the freezer deserves a light as well. 
  16. I disagree with Kay Jewelers. I would bet on any given Friday or Saturday night more kisses begin with Miller Light than Kay. 
  17. I wish Google Maps had an "Avoid Ghetto" routing option. 
  18. I have a hard time deciphering the fine line between boredom and hunger. 
  19. How many times is it appropriate to say "What?" before you just nod and smile because you still didn't hear or understand a word they said? 
  20. I love the sense of camaraderie when an entire line of cars team up to prevent a jerk from cutting in at the front. Stay strong, brothers and sisters! 
  21. Shirts get dirty. Underwear gets dirty. Pants? Pants never get dirty, and you can wear them forever. 
  22. Even under ideal conditions people have trouble locating their car keys in a pocket, finding their cell phone, and Pinning the Tail on the Donkey - but I'd bet everyone can find and push the snooze button from 3 feet away, in about 1.7 seconds, eyes closed, first time, every time. 
  23. The first testicular guard, the "Cup," was used in Hockey in 1874 and the first helmet was used in 1974. That means it only took 100 years for men to realize that their brain is also important.
Ladies.... Quit Laughing

Friday, September 14, 2012

Hillary Clinton on Middle East Riots

Unless you've been in hiding, you're probably aware of the riots that have broken out and the embassies that were stormed all over the Middle East and across North Africa ("Embassies targeted as anti-film protests spread") in response to an anti-Muslim film produced by a Coptic Christian living in California. So far, the riots have led to the deaths of four people, but I wouldn't be surprised if there are more.

In response to the violence I was glad to learn that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton not only criticized the film but argued that religious insults and denigration shouldn't be an excuse for violence ("Secretary Clinton Delivers Powerful Religion Speech After Middle East Embassy Attacks"):
When Christians are subject to insults to their faith, and that certainly happens, we expect them not to resort to violence. When Hindus or Buddhists are subjected to insults to their faiths, and that also certainly happens, we expect them not to resort to violence. The same goes for all faiths, including Islam... I so strongly believe that the great religions of the world are stronger than any insults. They have withstood offense for centuries. Refraining from violence, then, is not a sign of weakness in one's faith; it is absolutely the opposite, a sign that one's faith is unshakable... We can pledge that whenever one person speaks out in ignorance and bigotry, ten voices will answer. They will answer resoundingly against the offense and the insult; answering ignorance with enlightenment; answering hatred with understanding; answering darkness with light.
Clinton's absolutely right. All religions, at one time or another, will be mocked and subject to ridicule, the Tony Award winning Broadway play, "The Book of Mormon," being a recent example of this. However, that doesn't give religionists the right to strike back with violence. I think it's instructive that after "The Book of Mormon" began its run on Broadway, the Mormon Church responded not by rioting but with its "I'm a Mormon" campaign (note: this wasn't only in response to the Broadway play). Too bad, the radical Salafists that are evidently lying behind the riots couldn't respond similarly. In fact, I can't help but wonder what would have happened if the South Park creators who produced "The Book of Mormon" had instead focused their penetrating (but often offensive) wit on Islam and produced a play called "The Book of Muhammad" instead ("Broadway, Memphis (the Musical), and The Book of Mormon (the Musical)").

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Does Selling Beer Reduce Public Drunkenness?

The latest Freakonomics podcast considered the question, "Can Selling Beer Cut Down on Public Drunkenness?" More precisely, it explored whether selling beer at college football games would cut down on public drunkenness. It features Oliver Luck, a former NFL quarterback and the current athletic director at West Virginia University (and father of top draft pick, Andrew Luck) who grew tired of the excessive drinking at WV Football games:
People [were] drinking far too much at pre-game parties and tailgate parties before games. Sneaking alcohol into games. Leaving at halftime or any point during the game to go back out to the tailgate to drink even more and come back into the game. … They would usually drink hard liquor — ‘get their buzz back on’ and come back into the game for the third quarter. And the police again would know exactly at what point in the third quarter these ‘throw-up calls’ would start to come over the radio
Although there is evidence that drinking and football games are correlated with public disorder (e.g., in 1996, the University of Colorado at Boulder, which did sell alcohol in the stadium, found a significant decrease in arrests and assaults after banning alcohol), Luck proposed (and got) for a middle solution: sell beer inside the stadium but don't allow students to leave and return to the stadium. What happened? According to Luck, it’s been win-win: about $500,000 in alcohol sales and less alcohol-related trouble:


As always, you can listen to the podcast at the Freakonomics website ("Can Selling Beer Cut Down on Public Drunkenness?") or download it from iTunes although I actually think the corresponding blog post more informative than the podcast itself, which was featured on NPR's "Marketplace."

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Faith of Jeremy Lin

I've posted previously about the interplay between faith and sports ("Faith, Sports, and Pressure""A Hijab Fencer, The Flying Scot, and Tim Tebow"), and I've written about last year's surprise NBA sensation, Jeremy Lin ("Jeremy Lin and Conventional Wisdom"). But I haven't written about Jeremy Lin's faith (he's an evangelical Christian) and the fact that he's just as vocal about his faith as is Tim Tebow although, for whatever reason, isn't subject to the same ridicule by the secular media (and some Mainline Protestants) for doing so.

On this topic is a wonderful interview by Tony Gill of Timothy Dalrymple ("Timothy Dalrymple on Religion, Sports, and Jeremy Lin"), who is a former champion gymnast and was a member of Stanford's 1995 National Championship Team and a contender for the 1996 Olympic squad before he fell and broke his neck.  Dalrymple went on to earn a BA degree in the Philosophy of Religion from Stanford, an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a PhD in Religious Studies from Harvard (so much for those who argue that religion is anti-intellectual). He's currently the Managing Editor of the Evangelical Portal of Patheos.com and has recently written the book, Jeremy Lin: The Reason for Linsanity.

Gill's interview of Dalrymple not only covers Jeremy Lin's faith (who was at Harvard at the same time as Dalrymple), but also Dalrymple's, Tim Tebow's, Gabby Douglas's, and (briefly) Albert Pujols's. The podcast also explores the world of gymnastics and how much time promising gymnasts put in at the gym (8-10 hours a day, 6 days a week, year round, from the time they are 10 years and old). Here's a summary of the podcast from the Research on Religion website:
What does it take to be an elite athlete? And what role does faith play in that lifestyle? We are pleased to be joined by Timothy Dalrymple who knows all about being an elite athlete and religion. Tim was part of the 1995 NCAA national championship gymnastics team at Stanford University and was on his way to the 1996 Olympic trials when he tragically broke his neck, unbeknownst to him for several days. He recounts all the dedication and time it took to become a junior nationals champion at age 15 as well as to make it to the highest levels of collegiate competition. We also follow Tim’s journey beyond athletics through his M.Div. at Princeton Theological Seminary, his Ph.D. at Harvard, and his current position as the managing editor of the evangelical channel at Patheos.com. He provides numerous insights into the life of an elite athlete and how his faith played an important role in shaping his character during his journey in this world, including his career-ending neck injury on the cusp of a possible appearance at the 1996 Olympics. The discussion of this injury alone is worth the (free) price of admission into this fascinating interview. Tim corrects a number of misperceptions that the general public has about how religious athletes approach their faith. Interestingly, Tim notes that what challenges one the most is not the failures, because elite athletes learn about those all the time, but the victories. This discussion helps Tony understand the personal faith commitments of athletes such as Gabby Douglas, Tim Tebow, and Jeremy Lin. We then turn our discussion to the incredible phenomenon of Jeremy Lin, noting how he captured the nation’s attention coming off the bench to play for a “down-and-out” New York Knicks team and leading them on a miraculous seven game winning streak in February of 2012. Tim knew of Jeremy long before his appearance in the NBA spotlight and recalls his first discussion with him at Harvard University, where Jeremy played collegiate ball. He then details the trajectory of Jeremy’s career based upon his recent book, Jeremy Lin: The Reason for the Linsanity. We use this discussion to reflect upon the current state of religion in America. Whereas many scholars and pundits have argued that America’s religiosity is in decline, the attention and adoration that athletes like Lin, Tebow, and Douglas draw — not only for their athletic performances but for their public witness to their faith — provides an indication that our nation still thirsts for heroes who celebrate their Christian faith.
You can download the podcast from iTunes or listen to it at the Research on Religion website ("Timothy Dalrymple on Religion, Sports, and Jeremy Lin")

Monday, September 3, 2012

The "Cause" of San Jose's Spike in Violence

On Friday August 24th, San Jose Police Chief announced that the City of San Jose is increasing the number of officers on patrol and boosting the police overtime budget in response to the spike in the number of killings in San Jose ("San Jose steps up policing efforts in wake of violence"). While the City's response is entirely understandable, I'm skeptical whether it will make much of a difference. I'm certain there'll be a decline, but it will probably have little to do with the planned increases in the number of police patrols. How so?

All types of phenomena, whether its home runs, traffic accidents, PhDs granted, cancer, and so on vary in number from year to year (and place to place). That is, the number of home runs hit by the Yankees, the rate of traffic accidents in California, the number of PhD awarded by Stanford's Sociology Department, and the incidents of kidney cancer is not constant from year to year. This may seem obvious, but it helps explain why the increase in violent crimes in San Jose may have more to do with natural variance than a breakdown in San Jose police department's policing abilities, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

One characteristic of the observed variance of a particular phenomenon is the fact that greater variance occurs with small numbers than with large numbers. To illustrate this imagine a large urn that contains 1,000 marbles, 500 of which are red and 500 of which are white. Now, assume that you repeatedly reach into the urn and take out 4 marbles until the urn is empty. Chances are each time you reach into the urn, the 4 marbles you take out will be a mix of white and red. And after you've removed about half the marbles, you'll have approximately the same number of white and red marbles. Nevertheless, every so often, you'll pull out 4 marbles that are all of one color. Now consider a related example
From the same urn, two very patient marble counters take turns. Jack draws 4 marbles on each trial, Jill draws 7. They both record each time they observe a homogenous sample--all white or all red. If they go on long enough, Jack will observe such extreme outcomes more often than Jill--by a factor of 8 (the expected percentages are 12.5% and 1.56%) (Kahneman, "Thinking, Fast and Slow," p. 110). Why? Because you are more likely to experience an extreme event (in this case, drawing marbles of the same color) when working with small numbers than with large ones. That is why surveys that interview 1,200 people are generally more accurate than those that interview 600.

Now, consider a study of the incidence of kidney cancer in 3,141 US counties, which found that the counties with the lowest rate were mostly rural, sparsely populated, and located in traditionally Republican states. As the statisticians Howard Wainer and Harris Zwerling noted, "it is easy and tempting to infer that their low cancer rates are directly due to the clean living of the rural lifestyle--no air pollution, no water pollution, access to fresh food without additives." Such an inference would be wrong, however, because the counties in which kidney cancer rates are highest are mostly rural, sparsely populated, and located in traditionally Republican states. As Wainer and Zwerling remarked, focusing on just these results, "it is easy to infer that their high cancer rates might be directly due to the poverty of the rural lifestyle--no access to good medical care, a high-fat diet, and too much alcohol, too much tobacco." Again, however, such an inference would be wrong. So, what's going on? As Daniel Kahneman notes, "Just as in the game of Jack and Jill, extreme outcomes (very high and/or very low cancer rates) are most likely to be found in sparsely populated counties. This is all there is to the story" (Kahneman, p. 111).

Which brings us back to the spike in San Jose's violence. The average number of homicides in San Jose is relatively small (33), which means that extreme outcomes (i.e., extreme spikes and drops in the murder rate) will be the norm, not the exception (see the chart below). Moreover, after a wide swing in one direction, it is quite common for rates to move back toward the average (known as regression to the mean), which is why if the homicide rate declines for the rest of 2012 and into 2013, it will probably have more to do with the natural pattern of things than the efforts of the SJ Police Department.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Election Update (One More Time)

It's time to revisit the upcoming national elections. Since March I have argued that as long as the European debt crisis or rising oil prices didn't cause the U.S. economy to go into the tank, President Obama should be reelected (or at least win the popular vote). Nothing that has happened over the summer has changed my mind on this account. The economy isn't terribly strong, but it's probably strong enough to keep President Obama in office.

Currently, prediction markets have Obama as a favorite to win (around a 58-63% chance of winning as compared to Romney's 37%-42% chance). As I've noted in previous posts, prediction markets are speculative markets created for the purpose of making predictions, and they  tend to be quite accurate (see the chart from Scientific American to the right -- I shared this same chart in a post in June). People make money by buying low and selling high. For example, currently the price of a President Obama share sells for around $0.58, which means that if he wins, the holders of Obama shares will get $1.00 for each share that they own. People who invest are in such markets are interested in making a profit, so they attempt to take into account a variety of factors (e.g., the economy) in making their decisions. The one thing they don't try to do is bet on  a candidate just because they want him or her to win.

The following graphs from the University of Iowa Electronic Markets (IEM) illustrate the rise, fall, and rise of Obama's prospects. The first graph indicates the probability of either the Democrat candidate (blue line) or Republican candidate (red line) winning the election. As you can see, back in the Fall, the red line was actually above the blue line for a little while, but then once 2012 arrived and the prospects of a healthier economy became real, the market shifted in back in favor of the Democrat candidate until May when worries about the European economy began to take a toll on Obama's prospects. As those worries subsided, however, shares for Obama climbed back up, and now you can buy a share of the Democrat candidate for $0.63 on the IEM and around $058 on the Intrade prediction markets.


This graph should not be interpreted as indicating that Obama will receive around 60% of the vote. Rather it merely attempts to capture the odds of him winning. There are markets that seek to predict the vote share, however, and the following graph maps the results of one such IEM market. As you can see, here the red and blue lines are a lot closer, and while it is difficult to read, they indicate that currently, it appears that around 53-54% of the vote.


On other fronts, the Republicans will almost certainly retain control of the House and have a very good chance (around 54%) of seizing control of the Senate although it is possible (around 20%) that neither the party will control it when the dust settles in November. In short, although things look good for the Democrats in the Presidential election, they look even better for the Republicans in the Congressional races.