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Thursday, December 28, 2017

Putting "Christ" Back into Xmas

This time of year, it's not unusual for some Christians to rail against the use of "Xmas" rather than "Christmas," arguing that it is a secular attempt to remove the religious aspect of Christmas by taking the "Christ" out of "Christmas." Such arguments, however, are misplaced. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the letter "X" was used as an abbreviation for "Christ" as early as 1485. It comes from the Greek letter Chi, the first letter of the Greek word Χριστός, which is translated "Christ." It is also found in the labarum (an example is to the right), often referred to as the Chi-Rho, and is a Christian symbol representing Christ.

Moreover, Christmas has never been much of a religious holiday. In fact, it's far more "religious" now than it was in the 17th and 18th centuries. Back then, celebrations got so out of hand that the Puritans passed a law making it illegal to celebrate Christmas and an Anglican clergyman remarked that we do more to dishonor the name of Christ during the 12 days of Christmas than we do in the other 11 months of the year.

In short, then, seldom has "Christ" been at the center of the Christmas season. Not that it isn't a good idea. More emphasis on the plight of a refugee family with no place to sleep strikes me as a welcome change from the current political environment which tends to treat the stranger more as an enemy than as a child of God.

Monday, December 25, 2017

The 12 Days of Christmas Begin Today (or Tomorrow)

This is my annual reminder that the 12 Days of Christmas are not the 12 days leading up to Christmas (December 14th to 25th), but instead are the 12 days after Christmas, either from December 25th to January 5th or from December 26th to January 6th, depending on what tradition one adheres to. Either way, the 12 days culminate on Epiphany (January 6th), which commemorates when the wise men present gifts to the infant Jesus, who may have been as old as two years old when they finally track him down.

When most people think of "The 12 Days of Christmas," they think of the song. The song's origins are unclear, but one story, which has little historical support but is fun to consider, claims that the song originated as a Roman Catholic "Catechism Song" during a time when Catholicism was "discouraged" in England (1558-1829). According to this tradition,
  • The "true love" in the song refers to God, while the "me" refers to those who receive the gifts mentioned in the song from God
  • The "partridge in a pear tree" refers to Jesus Christ whose death on a tree (i.e., the cross) was a gift from God
  • The "two turtle doves" refer to the Old and New Testaments - another gift from God
  • The "three French hens" refer to "faith," "hope" and "love" three gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 13)
  • The "four calling birds" refer to the four Gospels, which sing "the song of salvation through Jesus Christ" 
  • The "five golden rings" refer to the first five books of the Old Testament, also known as the Torah. 
  • The "six geese a-laying" refer to the six days of creation
  • The "seven swans a swimming" refer to the "seven gifts of the Holy Spirit." (1 Corinthians 12:8-11) 
  • The "eight maids a milking" refer to the eight beatitudes
  • The "nine ladies dancing" refer to the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) 
  • The "ten lords a-leaping" refer to the Ten Commandments
  • The "eleven pipers piping" refer to the eleven faithful disciples
  • The "twelve drummers drumming" refer to the twelve points of the Apostles' Creed
For a more scholarly (but almost certainly less entertaining) take on the song's origins see its Wikipedia article.
 
Note: If you add up the number of gifts for each of the twelve days (i.e., one on the first day, three on the second, six on the third, and so on) you get 364, which (of course) is the total number of days in the year if you don't count Christmas (got that from a Hallmark movie).

Monday, December 18, 2017

History in the Christmas Stories?

It's conventional wisdom among many biblical scholars that Christmas stories contain more theology than history. They believe this largely because of the differences between Matthew's and Luke's stories. For example, in Matthew Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem and Jesus is born at home, whereas in Luke they live in Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem for a census where Jesus is born in a stable. And while in Matthew, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee to Egypt after Herod orders that all male infants two and under be killed and then settle in Nazareth after all is safe, in Luke, Jesus and his family simply return home to Nazareth after his birth. Finally, in Luke Jesus is visited by shepherds, whereas in Matthew he is visited by the magi. Nevertheless, Matthew and Luke do agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, and descended from King David although they trace the lineage through different genealogies.

These differences lead most mainline scholars to conclude that what we find in Matthew and Luke is mostly fiction. For example, most believe that Matthew and Luke say that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in order that a prophecy in the book of Micah, which predicted that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, would be seen as fulfilled. However, this strikes me as a bit of stretch since most (but not all) first century "messiahs" didn't come from Bethlehem:
  • Simon of Peraea (c. 4 BCE), a former slave of Herod the Great, who rebelled and was killed by the Romans (birthplace = unknown)
  • Athronges (c. 4–2? BCE), a shepherd turned leader of a rebellion with his four brothers against Herod Archelaus and the Romans after proclaiming himself the Messiah (birthplace = unknown)
  • Judas of Galilee (6 CE), Judas led a violent resistance to the census imposed for Roman tax purposes by Quirinius in Iudaea Province around 6 CE (birthplace = Gamala in Gaulonitis)
  • Menahem ben Judah (?), the son or grandson of Judas of Galilee, was a leader of the Sicarii (birthplace = unknown)
  • Theudas (?–46 CE), a Jewish rebel of the 1st century CE, at some point between 44 and 46 CE (birthplace = unknown)
  • John of Gischala (? after 70), was a leader of the Jewish revolt against the Romans in the First Jewish-Roman War, and played a part in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE (birthplace = Gush Halav)
  • Simon bar Kokhba (also: Bar Kosiba) (?– died c. 135) (birthplace = unknown)
This may help explain why the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar, hardly the bastion of theological conservatism, didn't entirely write-off the claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. In fact, they voted the passage in Matthew, which states that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as gray, not black, and although gray passages can be interpreted in different ways, they essentially indicate that although something has been lost in the transmission, they still contain a trace of history. Of course, all this doesn't challenge the claim that the Christmas stories contain less history than they do theology, but it also doesn't mean they we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater either.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

16 Christmas Movies Worth Watching

1. A Charlie Brown Christmas (Charles Schultz)

It's been over 50 years since "A Charlie Brown Christmas" first appeared on TV. It's probably the best of the Charlie Brown movies (although "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" is almost as good) and is one of the few Christmas movies that refers to the biblical story. After Charlie Brown asks, "Can anyone tell me what Christmas is all about?," Linus quotes Luke 2:8-14:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.'"
And then Linus concludes, "... and that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." Yes, that's what Christmas is all about. Note how he lets go of his blanket as he says, "Fear not!" (thanks to the Rev. Walter Taylor for pointing that out).

2. A Christmas Carol (George C. Scott, David Warner, Susannah York, Roger Rees)

There are several great versions of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," but this is my favorite. When George C. Scott's Ebenezer Scrooge yells, "Mr. Cratchit!", there's little doubt that he holds poor Bob in contempt. Plus, Scott is (was) such a great actor. That said, several other versions are worth considering, such as the one starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge ("A Christmas Carol"). When I was kid, I was especially taken with "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol." An alternative is listening to Jonathan Winters's reading of Dickens's book, which is also quite good. I can't say that I am too wild about the 2009 Disney version featuring Jim Carrey ("A Christmas Carol"), which I think take too much license with the original story.

3. A Christmas Story (Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon)

Adapted from a memoir by Jean Shepherd (who narrates the film), the movie is primarily about Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley), a young boy living in Indiana in the 1940s who desperately wants a Red Rider BB gun for Christmas and tries to convince his parents, teachers, and Santa that it's the perfect gift for him, while they counter that he'll shoot his eye out. In 2012, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." I confess that it isn't one of my favorites, but I'm clearly in a minority on this point, which is why I include it my list.

4. Christmas with the Kranks (Tim Allen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Dan Akroyd)

It's too bad that the movie's producers didn't keep the title of John Grisham's book on which the movie is based: "Skipping Christmas" (see picture at right). I think the movie's title leads people to expect one kind of movie when in fact it's something quite different. It tells the story of a couple (Luther and Nora Krank) who, because their daughter (Blair) is going to be Peru for Christmas, working for the Peace Corps, decide to skip Christmas (i.e., don't buy a Christmas tree, hold their annual Christmas party, decorate their house, etc.), and use the money they save to go on a cruise. Their decision to skip Christmas doesn't sit well their neighbors (especially Dan Akroyd), who pressure them to get into the holiday spirit. A battle, of sorts, plays out between the Kranks and their neighbors. Then Luther and Nora get a call from Blair and learn that she's coming home for Christmas after all, and they now have less than 24 hours to prepare for their annual party. How the neighborhood comes together to pull this off and what Luther does with their cruise tickets speaks volumes about the true meaning of Christmas.

5. Die Hard (Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson)

OK. Not your traditional Christmas movie, but it takes place on Christmas Eve, is a battle between good and evil, and includes some traditional (and not so traditional) Christmas songs. It stars Bruce Willis (when he still had hair) as NY police detective John McClane, who flies to LA to reconcile with his wife. He meets her at her company's Christmas party, but while he's changing clothes in the men's room, the party's taken over by a terrorist group (headed by Hans Gruber -- played by Alan Rickman, who a few years later played Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies), which holds them hostage, all except for McClane, who sneaks away before they know he's there. The rest of the movie is the battle between McClane (good) and Gruber (evil) and includes a lot of classic lines ("Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs..." -- see picture above).

6. Elf (Will Ferrell, Bob Newhart, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel)

This movie is too fun. Will Ferrell is great as someone (Buddy) who thinks he's one of Santa's elves but is actually a human being who, through a twist of fate, was adopted by an elf (Bob Newhart) when just a baby. Unfortunately, he's not a very good at elf things (e.g., making toys), and once he learns that he's not an elf, he heads to New York where his biological father (James Caan) lives. There he falls in love with Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), helps NY recapture the Christmas spirit, and has a heck of a lot of fun along the way (well, most of the time). The movie is also educational. We learn, for instance, that the four main elvish food groups are candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup. There's also allusions to other Christmas classics like "Rudolph, the Red Nose Reindeer" and "Miracle on 34th Street" (see #12 and #13 below).

7. The Family Man (Nicholas Cage, Tea Leoni, Don Cheadle)

One of my favorites. It's is a cross between "It's a Wonderful Life" and "A Christmas Carol." It tells the story of Jack Campbell (JC = Jesus Christ?; his boss/advisor is named Peter), played by Nicholas Cage, who chooses to spend the year after graduating from college in London as an investment banker rather remaining in New York with his girl friend (Tea Leoni). Not surprisingly, the relationship doesn't last, and when the movie begins (13 years later), he's a very successful investment banker who loves money and fine things, but cares little for women or family. However, when he wakes up one Christmas morning, he's living the life he would've lived if he hadn't gone to London. He's married (to Tea Leoni), has two kids, and works as a car tire salesman (for his wife's father - Big Ed). Although he initially despises this life, he eventually comes to love it more than the one in which he drove fast cars, wore designer suits, and had his pick of women. The movie's climax occurs after he wakes up back in his old life, tracks down his old girlfriend, and tries to convince her not to leave New York to take a job in Paris.

8. Hallmark Christmas Movies (Various)

Okay. There isn't one Hallmark Christmas movie. There's probably thousands. Well, maybe not quite that many, but in 2017 Hallmark produced 33, with a new one premiering almost every night in December. Almost without exception, they're a bit corny and very predictable. They're almost always a love story, and one or other of the couple has sworn off Christmas because of some bad experience (e.g., divorce, death in the family). Moreover, you can pretty much count on them breaking up with about 15-20 minutes to go (usually due to some sort of lack of communication) and then getting back together with only a few seconds left on the clock. However, in a world where bad news feels like the norm (and with a President who seems to be more bent on creating divisions than building community), a lot of us prefer predictability and corny over "real life." As the Washington Post columnist, Monica Hesse, recently put it, "We can’t take any more of 2017, so we’ve turned to the Hallmark Channel in desperation."

9. The Holiday (Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Jack Black, Eli Wallach)

This movie tells the story of two women (Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet) who, suffering from guy-problems, swap homes with each other (they don't know on another -- they "meet" through an on-line home exchange website) where they each meet someone and fall in love. Diaz's character (Amanda) lives in LA, is a producer of movie trailers, and breaks up with her boy friend after she discovers that he's cheated on her. Winslet (Iris) is a journalist working in London, who's in love with someone who wants to keep her around but doesn't want to commit. When she learns that he's engaged to another journalist, she becomes suicidal, but luckily chooses to spend the holidays in LA instead. A side story concerns elderly gentleman (Eli Wallach--the "ugly" from "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"), who lives near Amanda and whom Iris befriends. It turns out that Wallach is a widowed and retired screen writer whom the screen writer's guild wants to honor. He doesn't want to attend, but Iris talks him into it. Personally, I think Wallach should have won a best supporting actor for his role. A pleasant surprise about the movie is that shows that Jack Black can actually act. It's too bad he doesn't get more parts like this.

10. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Boris Karloff)

One of the best holiday movies ever (the animated version, that is, not the one that Opie Taylor directed several years later). In it the Grinch, a cave-dwelling creature with a heart "two sizes too small," lives on Mount Crumpit, a steep mountain above Whoville, home of the Whos. His only companion is his faithful dog, Max. Every year from his perch atop Mount Crumpit, the Grinch hears the "clangy" noisy Christmas festivities that take place in Whoville. Annoyed and unable to understand why the Whos are so happy, he sneaks into town on Christmas Eve and takes all of their Christmas presents, decorations, and food in order to prevent Christmas from coming. However, when Christmas morning arrives, the Whos still celebrate Christmas even though all their presents and decorations have been stolen. Realizing that Christmas is more than gifts and presents, the Grinch's heart grows three times in size, and he returns all the presents and trimmings and joins the Whos for the Christmas feast.

11. It's a Wonderful Life (Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Henry Travers, Lionel Barrymore)

I'm not sure how much I need to say about this movie since it is so well known. Briefly, it stars Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has repeatedly given up his dreams in order to help the dreams of others, and whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve (because of a financial disaster not of his own doing) brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), who has yet to earn his wings (he's an angel second class). However, by showing what the world would have been like if George had never been born, Clarence keeps George from committing suicide (and thereby earning his wings). George sees that his life hasn't been a waste but has in fact touched (and improved) the lives of almost all those around him in Bedford Falls. He is, as his younger brother Harry puts it, "The richest man in town." Although the movie opened to mixed reviews, it has become a perennial Christmas classic that captures the true meaning of Christmas. There is a scene at the railroad station when George Bailey learns that his younger brother is not going to take over the family business so that George can go to college. For about 5 seconds, Stewart says nothing; his (i.e., George's) disappointment and frustration only shows in his facial expressions. It's a wonderful example of why Jimmy Stewart is one of the greatest actors of all time. For more on the movie, see the following post ("It's a Wonderful Life").

12. Love Actually (Numerous)

A 2003 British Christmas-themed romantic comedy explores several separate stories involving a wide variety of individuals, whom we learn as the movie progresses are connected with one another. The movie begins five weeks before Christmas and plays out in a weekly countdown to Christmas, followed by an epilogue that takes place a month later. The movie includes numerous British stars, including Rowan Atkinson, Colin Firth, Martin Freeman, Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, Laura Linney, Martine McCutcheon, Liam Neeson, Bill Nighy, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, and Alan Rickman. You may be skeptical, but recently FiveThirtyEight called it the greatest Christmas movie of all time ("The Definitive Analysis Of ‘Love Actually,’ The Greatest Christmas Movie Of Our Time").

13. Miracle on 34th Street (Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Natalie Wood)

Although the 1994 remake of this movie, starring Sir Richard Attenborough (as Santa Claus), Dylan McDermott, and Elizabeth Perkins, is decent, it doesn't come close to the original with Maureen O'Hara and a very young Natalie Wood. The story takes place between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day and focuses on the impact of the Santa Claus hired to work at the Macy's on 34th St. in NY City, who claims to be the real Santa and acts accordingly. For example, he some times he ignores instructions to steer parents to goods that Macy's sells like the time he directs one shopper to another store for a toy fire engine that Macy's doesn't have in stock. And he tells another mother that Macy's rival Gimbels has better skates for her daughter. The film won Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Edmund Gwenn), Best Writing, Original Story (Valentine Davies) and Best Writing, Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Picture but lost to Gentleman's Agreement with Gregory Peck.

14. Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer (Burl Ives)

When I was a kid, I couldn't wait for this to come on TV. I only got to see it once a year, and it was a big deal when it came on. Not just for me, but for most of my friends. Now, of course, you can get it (and virtually any other Christmas movie) on DVD or Blue Ray, or download it from iTunes or Amazon, so it (and other Christmas movies) has lost its "specialness." Nevertheless, I still love watching this retelling of the original Robert L. May story ("Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer"), in which Rudolph's rejection by his peers (for his shiny nose) leads him to run away from home with by a similarly-outcast elf (Hermey) whose dreams of becoming a dentist. These two eventually join up with a prospector named Yukon Cornelius, and after a battle with the Abominable Snowman, they return home to the North Pole just in time for Rudolph to lead Santa's sleigh through a terrible snow storm, thus keeping Christmas from being cancelled.

15. The Santa Clause (Tim Allen, Judge Reinhold, Eric Lloyd, David Krumholtz)

Tim Allen stars as Scott Calvin, a cynical, divorced, advertising executive for a toy company, who accidentally causes a guy dressed like Santa Claus to fall to his death from his roof on Christmas Eve. Scott and his son Charlie (who is spending Christmas Eve with Scott) discover a sleigh with eight reindeer on the roof, and they conclude that the man must have been Santa Claus. They also find a card in the Santa's suit, instructing that if something should happen to him, that whoever finds the clothes, should put them on and get in the sleigh. Charlie convinces Scott to follow these instructions, and the reindeer take Scott to children's houses around the world to finish Santa's deliveries. After fthis, the sleigh takes them to the North Pole where they learn that Scott is the new Santa (because of the clause in the instruction card they found -- that is, the "Santa Clause") and convince his former wife that he's the new Kris Kringle.

16. White Christmas (Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen)

What more can you say about this one? It's got Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" (not once, but twice); it has Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen dancing (several times); it has George Clooney's aunt singing and dancing; and it tells a nice, heart-warming story that some may think is a bit corny. But, to paraphrase Kate Winslet's character in The Holiday (see above), sometimes corny is just what the doctor ordered. The song, "Count Your Blessings" (written by Irving Berlin), was nominated for an Oscar (White Christmas won the Oscar 12 years before for the movie, Holiday Inn), but my favorite (aside from White Christmas) is Snow, sung by Crosby, Kaye, Clooney, and Vera-Ellen on the train from Miami to Vermont (pictured above).

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

I Hope Niner Fans Were Watching

Last year, Dallas Cowboys' quarterback Dak Prescott had a great rookie season, and for the most part, his sophomore season has been going pretty well too. In fact, along with Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback Carson Wentz, who was also a rookie last year, Prescott has had one of best starts that any NFL quarterback has had in their career ("Wentz And Prescott Are The Best Second-Year QBs We’ve Seen In A While"). The last two weeks have been a bit rough for Prescott, though, especially this past Sunday against the Eagles when he had his worst game as a pro, throwing 3 interceptions (including one during garbage time) and registering a QB rating of 30.4. What changed? A key Cowboy offensive lineman, Tyron Smith, was lost to an injury, and the team's star running back, Ezekiel Elliott, is serving a 6-game suspension for domestic violence.

Hopefully, a lot of Niner fans were watching. If they were unaware of Prescott's past success, he might've reminded them of Niner quarterbacks over the past couple of years, all of which emphasizes an important fact: quarterbacks with little or no time to throw seldom experience a lot of success. It also helps when they aren't the only weapon; a talented running back helps quite a bit too. In order for quarterbacks to succeed, not only do they need to be talented, they need to be surrounded by talent. While the Niners need a talented quarterback to lead them out of the abyss created by former GM Trent Baalke and current CEO Jed York ("Win With Class? The 49ers Can't Even Lose With Class"), they need much, much more than that. But now that Baalke is gone, they may have a chance (as long as York keeps his nose out of things).

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Thanksgiving: The American Exodus Story

Beginning in the 1990s, a series of books, sermons, and articles called into question the story of the Exodus as it appears in the Bible. For example, in 1998 S. David Sperling, a professor at Hebrew Union College in New York, wrote in his book, The Original Torah, that the Exodus did not happen. "The evidence," he concluded, was decisive. "The traditions of servitude in Egypt, the tales of wandering in the desert, and the stories of the conquest of the promised land appear to be fictitious." Similarly, in 2001, David Wolpe, a Conservative Rabbi, preached a Passover sermon that called into question the Exodus's historicity. He noted "that virtually every modern archeologist who has investigated the story of the Exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all." Also in 2001, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman, in their popular and controversial book, The Bible Unearthed, concluded that "one can hardly accept the idea of a flight of a large group of slaves from Egypt."

As others have pointed out, however, just because there is little to no evidence that supports the Exodus story as the Bible tells it, that doesn't mean that some sort of exodus didn't happen. In fact, in his recently published book, The Exodus: How It Happened and What It Means, Richard Elliott Friedman argues that a considerable amount of evidence exists which suggests that that an Exodus did occur, albeit on a much smaller scale than the Bible says it did. In particular, he contends that a small group of individuals, later known as the Levites, left Egypt, settled in Canaan, joined with the other Israelite tribes, and eventually became their priests. And along the way, their God, Yahweh, became Israel's God, and their story of how they fled Egypt and settled in Canaan, became Israel's story.

While this may strike some as odd, as I have noted in previous posts ("Thanksgiving and American Civil Religion"), it is similar to how the story of the first Thanksgiving became a story embraced by most Americans although few actually descend from the Pilgrims:
In many ways, Thanksgiving is... the American Exodus story. Just like the ancient Israelites, many of whom probably didn't descend from the families that had fled from Pharaoh's wrath but later affiliated with those who did, most Americans don't descend from the Pilgrims. However, just as the Exodus story became the story for all who chose to worship Yahweh, the Thanksgiving story has become the story for most Americans. On the 4th Thursday of every November, most of us sit down with family and friends and either implicitly and explicitly recall the Thanksgiving story.
And like the biblical story of the Exodus, the American Thanksgiving story contains a number of fictitious elements. Nevertheless, retelling it can help us, if only for awhile, transcend our differences as we recall a story of sharing, celebration, and the welcoming of strangers to our table. And given the current political climate, that strikes me as a good thing.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Virginia Polls Missed by More than National Polls Did Last Year (But Few Seem to Have Noticed)


A year ago, a lot of left-leaning voters expressed their anger at statistician Nate Silver because his FiveThirtyEight election model gave Donald Trump "only" a 30% chance of winning. They assumed that someone with only a 30% chance of winning really had no chance of winning. Such a belief, however, reflects the fact that most of us aren't trained to think probabilistically. However, as I noted back then, a 30% chance is actually pretty high ("Don't Blame Nate Silver"). One way to cultivate just how high a 30% chance is, is to have you imagine a scenario in which bullets are placed in two of a revolver's six chambers. How many of you would be willing to spin the revolver's cylinder, place the gun to your temple, and pull the trigger? My guess is not too many even though there's "only" a 33% chance that you'll put a bullet through your head.

Unlike most of us, however, Silver does think in probabilistic terms. In fact, he repeatedly cautioned readers about overconfidence, noting that Clinton's leads in the battleground states were slim and within the range of sampling error, which meant that if the polls were slightly overestimating Clinton's support, the election could break in Trump's favor. Which, of course, is exactly what happened. But many people still blamed Nate Silver.

Silver wasn't the only one who was criticized. Polling agencies were too. However, the 2016 polls weren't too far off. Their average predicted margin of a Clinton popular vote victory was a little over 3.0%, which was only 1.0% higher than her actual (popular vote) victory of 2.1%. For a presidential election, 1.0% miss is remarkably close. In fact, the 2016 polls outperformed the 2012 polls. However, few noticed (or cared) because in 2012 the polls underestimated the Democrat candidate's popular vote share, while in 2016 they overestimated it.

Interestingly, last night in Virginia's gubernatorial election the polls performed worse than the National polls did in the 2016 presidential election. They had Democrat Ralph Northam winning by approximately 3%, but in the end he won by almost 9%. However, hardly anyone has complained (or noticed), and as far as I can tell, no one has blamed Nate Silver (one of the few who has noticed).

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation's 500 Anniversay

Tuesday marks the 500th anniversary of when Martin Luther reportedly nailed his 95 Theses ("Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences") to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg. It's uncertain whether he actually did nail the these to the door but it is certain that he sent them to his bishop, Albert of Mainz. Even if he did nail them to the door, it wouldn't have been seen as an act of defiance. The door functioned as a local bulletin board where faculty members routinely posted matters to be debated. Regardless of what happened, whether he nailed his 95 theses to the church door, mailed them to his bishop, or both, his act is symbolically seen as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

As many readers know, Luther became concerned with the selling of indulgences. The selling of indulgences is related to the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, which holds that there is an intermediate state between heaven and hell for people who die neither as saints nor as unredeemable sinners. In Purgatory, souls are cleansed by purging fires, which makes them fit for entry into heaven. Roman Catholics believe that the Pope holds the spiritual key to a “treasury of merit,” which is a superabundance of merit attained by Christ and the saints, and indulgences are certificates the Pope issues by which he transfers some of this merit to repentant sinners. If such sinners perform an adequate number of acts of penitence and devotion, a portion (or perhaps all) of their time in Purgatory can be remitted. Indulgences can also be obtained on behalf of another, living or dead. In his day, Luther believed that the practice of selling indulgences was being abused. He argued that they were being issued with little consideration for the remorsefulness of the penitents but rather more for the funds that the Church was able to collect by issuing them.

Unsurprisingly, numerous books have recently been published about the Reformation and Martin Luther (not to mention Playmobil versions of Luther -- see picture, upper right). There are so many, in fact, that it's difficult to know where to begin. A helpful resource is Peter Marshall's, The Reformation, which is part of Oxford University Press's "A Very Short Introduction" series. The Wikipedia articles on Martin Luther and The Reformation also provide good overviews, as well as links to other papers and books that offer more detailed information. Finally, the University of Washington political scientist, Anthony Gill, has recorded a series of podcasts on the Reformation (or Reformations) that feature a number of excellent scholars. These podcasts can be found at the Research of Religion website (Protestant Reformation Series) or can be downloaded from iTunes. A brief description of (and link to each of) the podcasts appears below.

James Felak on the Counter-Reformation
As a capstone to our Protestant Reformation Series, we give the “other side” its day in court to make their case. Prof. James Felak (University of Washington) discusses how the Roman Catholic Church reacted to Luther and the Protestant fervor that followed in the decades after Luther sparked a religious fire. We cover everything from the Diet of Worms to the Council of Trent, and to Jesuits, Inquisitions, and Carmelites without shoes. This is an inordinately fun exploration of the 16th century religious landscape.
Robert Nelson on Lutheranism and Nordic Social Democracy
The Nordic states are known for their high levels of socio-economic equality, good governance, and high levels of social trust. While some scholars have attributed this to their unique brand of secular social democracy, Prof. Robert Nelson (U of Maryland) argues that Nordic social democracy has deep roots in the “Lutheran ethic.” We discuss how the Lutheran ethic is different than the Calvinist ethic (as seen by Max Weber), how contemporary social democratic thought in Nordic countries has similar elements to Lutheranism, and what is in store for social democracy.
Rodney Stark on Myths of the Reformation
Many misconceptions surround the Protestant Reformation, from it being the birth of capitalism to it prompting Europe’s secularization. Noted sociologist of religion Rodney Stark (Baylor ISR) joins us to discuss these myths and more. With the 500th anniversary of the Reformation just about a month away, this is a great opportunity to refresh on some interesting talking points to engage your friends, family, and colleagues.
Emily Fisher Gray on Luther’s 95 Theses
The 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation will be celebrated on October 31st of this year, marking the date that Martin Luther disseminated his famous 95 Theses on papal authority and indulgences. Prof. Emily Fisher Gray of Norwich University contextualizes this historically important document and explains how the themes of liberty and authority play out in this and other of Luther’s writings. We review the impact of this document, as well as Luther’s thoughts about a peasant uprising he inspired.
Rob Sorensen on Martin Luther’s Life
With the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of his “95 Theses” to the doors of the Wittenberg Cathedral approaching, we take a pause to examine the early life of Martin Luther with Rob Sorensen, a PhD candidate at Faulkner University and author of a book on Luther’s life. Our attention is devoted mostly to Luther’s formative years leading up to his defiant act in 1517, but there are reflections on his life following excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church.
Steven Pfaff on the World of 1517
What did Europe look like economically, politically, and religiously on the eve of the Protestant Reformation? What broad historical trends facilitated the success Martin Luther’s schismatic break from the Catholic Church where others in the past had failed? Prof. Steve Pfaff (Sociology, University of Washington) discusses the factors spurring on the Protestant Reformation, sharing some of the most up-to-date research on how social movements spread.
Marion Goldman on Martin Luther and Spiritual Virtuosity
With the quincentennial anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (dated from October 31, 1517), we begin an occasional series looking at the events and people that made up this historic event. We start with Prof. Marion Goldman (sociology, University of Oregon) who argues that Martin Luther had the characteristic of a “spiritual virtuoso” and that this factor was critical to the split that transpired between the Catholic Church and Protestants. Spiritual virtuosos are individuals who are concerned with personal sanctification, are reluctant leaders, but do acknowledge their role in inspiring social movements. Our conversation also covers other similar individuals such as leaders of the Abolitionist Movement and Steve Jobs of Apple fame.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Strangers in Their Own Land

In her wonderful book, Strangers in Their Own Land, sociologist Arlie Hochschild asks us to imagine waiting in a line at the end of which lies the American Dream. However, not only are we waiting in line, but we've been waiting in line for a very long time. And while we've been waiting, people have been cutting (unfairly) into the line ahead of us, and they aren't doing it by themselves. They're getting help. In particular, they're getting help from the government, usually the federal government. Moreover, there are others (many of whom have already reached the end of the line and are openly contemptuous of how we live and what we believe), who think it's just fine for the government to help the line-cutters.

Although with far more detail and nuance than I do here, Hochschild crafted this imaginary scenario in order to illustrate what she calls the "deep story" of the Louisiana Tea Party supporters she got to know after spending five years (2011-2016) interviewing and living among them. She believes it helps explain why many of those who live in one of our nation's poorest and most polluted states vote for candidates who resist the federal government's help and oppose regulating industries such oil and gas. She argues that over the years they have come to distrust the federal government and are more inclined to place their faith in capitalism and the free market. While the former gives away jobs to others (i.e., the line-cutters), jobs which they believe rightfully belong to them, the latter does not. Instead, capitalism and the free market promises them employment, and if pollution is one of the costs, so be it.

All this leads her to conclude that to understand the appeal of someone like Donald Trump, we need to pay more attention to how emotions inform the political choices that people make. She argues that many of the people she met vote for their emotional, rather than economic, self-interest because they've grown tired over feeling marginalized, left behind, and mocked by liberal elites who typically support big government. And they see Donald Trump as someone who is willing to put an end to the line-cutting and defend their way of life.

All this sounds right to me. Elsewhere, I've argued that folks on the left need to stop mocking the beliefs of blue collar individuals ("Don't Mock Working Class Religion" "Hillbilly Elegy: A Good Place to Start"). Merely advocating for policies that will benefit them economically is not enough. Some empathy for their way of life needs to be demonstrated ("Two Cheers for Conservative Religion"). That doesn't mean that we have to agree with all that they believe and practice, but there's a difference between civilly disagreeing with someone and making fun of what they've always believe to be true. A very big difference.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

One Thing Liberals Can Thank Trump For

I know, I dangled a preposition in the title, but there's actually something political liberals should thank President Trump for.1 For the first time in a long time we don't seem to be afraid about talking about "truth." For too long we've been enamored with postmodernist notions of moral relativism, but we finally seem to be okay with the idea that not all news is "fake news," that "facts" do exist, and that not all of reality is socially constructed ("The Social Construction of Reality (Sort of)." This shift was brought home to me while reading Timothy Snyder's, On Tyranny, which contains 20 "lessons" on how to prevent the U.S. from devolving into tyranny. The tenth lesson is entitled, "Believe in Truth," in which Snyder argues that
To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is not basis on which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the the most blinding lights. ("On Tyranny," p. 65)
This does not mean that our perceptions of reality aren't colored by our social location, but it does suggest that lying behind those perceptions is a reality, a truth, that we can catch a glimpse of from time to time, and our goal should be to adopt methods for capturing that reality. So, let's thank our President for bringing us face-to-face with the fact that there really are facts. It's one of the few positive things he has wrought in the few short months he has been in the White House.

1 There I go again, but phrasing it that way makes a lot more sense than saying, "there's something for which political liberals should thank Trump." Undoubtedly, that is why Winston Churchill once remarked, “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Why We Coffee Drinkers Should Thank Starbucks

I'm sensing that it's becoming increasingly fashionable to "dis" Starbucks. Starbucks coffee is bland, it has no bite, it's become a corporate behemoth, so we should support the local coffee house instead. All that may be true, but for those of us old enough to remember, before Starbucks (and Peet's), it was hard to find a good latte. Local coffee roasters routinely burned the milk when steaming, and the beans they ground were often little better than Folgers.

But the advent of Starbucks brought consistency to the making of lattes, cappuccinos, and so on. This forced local roasters to improve what they served, or they'd go out of business (and many did). That's why most of the baristas working in coffee shops today know how to brew an excellent cup of coffee. And that is why all of us coffee drinkers should thank Starbucks (and Peet's).

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Should the Giants Panic?

Four years ago, almost to the day, the Giants were struggling, and I wrote that they Giants shouldn't panic ("Why the Giants Shouldn't Panic"). Most of their struggles could be explained by injuries (primarily to Angel Pagan) and a bit of bad luck. In retrospect, I look like a genius since the next year the Giants went on to win their third World Series in five years.

So, what about this season? Should they panic? I don't think so. This season has been characterized by injuries to key players (Posey, Bumgarner, Crawford, Pence, Cueto, Melancon) and sub-par years from Crawford, Belt, and Pence. Pence's off year could reflect that he's getting older ("Aging Curves and Big Contract"), but there's a good chance that Belt and Crawford will bounce back next year. In fact, I'm convinced that Crawford is playing with an undisclosed injury -- he hasn't been the same since he returned from the DL. Belt's more of a mystery. His defense is as good as anyone's in the league and a key reason why Crawford and Panik won Gold Gloves last year, but he never seems to hit as well as expected, which is why the Giants might be tempted to shop him in the off season. Indeed, doing so may help them shore up the few holes that they have. Here's my mild prescription for the Giants woes:
  1. First, they need to acquire a position player who can hit with genuine power (Yoenis Céspedes would've been an ideal pickup last year, but he's no longer available). Jarret Parker has a lot of power, and I'd love it if he blossoms into an everyday player, but I don't think the Giants should take a chance that he won't. Instead, let him compete with Pence for one of the outfield positions, and use free agency to acquire a true power hitter.
  2. The Giatns also have to bolster their bullpen. With Hunter Strickland, Kyle Crick, Corey Gearin, and Sam Dyson, they have the makings of a good one, but they need a left-hander, like Javy López, who can enter a game and shut things down. They also need to find someone who can pitch the 9th inning without having a meltdown, something that has happened far too often the last couple of seasons.
  3. Finally, they need to find a fifth starer. As much of a fan as I am of Matt Cain, I think his days as a starter are over. Perhaps he can turn into a mid-inning reliever, but that's a debate for another day. Instead, the Giants need to resign Johnny Cueto, which should give them a solid starting four (Bumgarner, Cueto, Blach, Samardzija), while at the same time jettisoning Matt Moore. Perhaps, next year Moore can compete for the fifth position, but hopefully they'll find another starter or top prospect (and Vanderbilt grad) Tyler Beede will be ready by next year's All Star break.
Then, of course, there's the issue with Pablo. Three years ago I expressed skepticism about his long-term worth ("Aging Curves and Big Contract"). He was past the age that most major league baseball players begin to decline (which were reflected in his own output), and he seems to have difficulty keeping himself in shape, which only will accelerate his decline. That said, the Giants are basically getting him for free right now, so why not give him a tryout over the next couple of months. He has an incredible amount of raw talent ("Pablo, You Could've Been One of the Best"), so it may be worth seeing if he can turn it around.

I think that's about it. The Giants shouldn't panic. They have the best catcher and perhaps the best big-game pitcher in baseball. They just need a couple of players to bounce back from off years, pick up a power hitter, and find someone to replace Matt Moore. Piece of cake. And let's not forget. Next year is an even year.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Two Cheers for Conservative Religion

Not long ago ("Don't Mock Working Class Religion"), I urged folks, in particular those on the political left, to refrain from mocking the conservative religious beliefs of working class women and men. In doing so, I didn't argue that they couldn't be critical of them, but that's different from mocking them. In order to critically engage others about what they believe, you first have to respect them, which means that at the outset you can't think that you're smarter or more sophisticated than they are. If you do, then no matter what you may tell yourself, it's impossible to truly respect them.

It is just as important to recognize that although some of the beliefs embraced by theological conservatives are problematic, there is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Or, to put it differently, there are some aspects of theological conservatism that are redemptive, that actually improve the lives of individuals. For instance, there is considerable evidence that Pentecostal churches have helped improve the lives of thousands in South America; by demanding that members (in particular, male members) stop drinking and put in a full days work in their jobs, family incomes have risen substantially and spousal (and child) abuse have dropped dramatically. Similar effects have been witnessed in the U.S. as well. Consider, for instance, the following examples:

1. The book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, tells the true story of Louis Zamperini's journey from juvenile delinquent to track star to prison of war. As the book (but not the movie) makes abundantly clear, after he returned from the war, Louis's life slowly spiraled downwards. To forget his tormentors (one in particular), he drank increasingly, waking up at home sometimes without knowing where he left his car. And his marriage deteriorated to such an extent that his wife announced that she planned to divorce him. However, Louis turned his life around, and it was a Billy Graham Crusade that did it. Louis stopped drinking, smoking, and spent the rest of his life preaching the virtue of forgiveness. In fact, he returned to Japan in order to meet with and forgive his captors (one--the "Bird"--refused to do so).

2. The movie, Hacksaw Ridge, tells the true story of Desmond Doss, who as a combat medic refused to carry or use a firearm or weapons of any kind. He became the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor, for service above and beyond the call of duty during the Battle of Okinawa. In particular, during the battle, he saved the lives of 75 wounded infantrymen atop the area known as Hacksaw Ridge. It will come as a surprise to some that Doss's pacifism was rooted in his Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs, beliefs which most observers of religion would consider to be "theologically conservative."

3. In his NY Times best seller, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J. D. Vance recounts his experience of growing up poor in Appalachia (in Ohio and Kentucky). In it, he notes the important role that the church can/could play in the revival of the area. "Regular church attendees commit fewer crimes, are in better health, live longer, make more money, drop out of high school less frequently, and finish college more frequently than those who don’t attend church at all… It’s not just that people who happen to live successful lives also go to church; it’s that church seems to promote good habits” (p. 92). According to Vance, the
church offered something desperately needed by people like me. For alcoholics, it gave them a community of support and a sense that they weren’t fighting addiction alone. For expectant mothers, it offered a free home with job training and parenting classes. When someone needed a job, church friends could either provide one or make introductions. When Dad faced financial troubles, his church banded together and purchased a used car for the family. In the broken world I saw around me—and for the people struggling in that world—religion offered tangible assistance to keep the faithful on track. (pp. 93-94)
Thus, as those on the theological and/or political left (of which I consider myself a part) try to address and understand the grievances of those who supported Donald Trump for President, a good first step would be to recognize that conservative religion confers tangible benefits to its adherents and that it's okay to embrace its positive aspects. A second step would be to take the time and energy needed to truly understand conservative forms of religion, not as they are often caricatured in the media, but in terms of their actual beliefs and practices. Those who take such time would discover a level of sophistication that many on the left don't realize exists.

More than once I've remarked that it's  tempting to portray our ideological opponents as immoral, stupid, or both. It may be tempting. It isn't, however, helpful.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Lakers Are Why the Warriors Signed Durant

Have you heard that Paul George wants to play only one more year for the Indiana Pacers and then move to Los Angeles and play for Lakers? And the rumor that LeBron James plans to finish his career with the Lakers seems grows stronger everyday (much to the chagrin of Cleveland fans); the latest is that James's wife wants to live in LA year round, which may prod James to jump ship sooner rather than later.

George and James are not unusual in their desire to play for the Lakers. Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone, Ron Artest, and Gary Payton are among several players who left the teams that drafted them in order to play for LA. Why? Most hoped they would win a title, and many (but not all) did just that. That's probably what's floating around in the back of George's mind, and James is still chasing Jordan's six titles (never mind that Bill Russell has 11!), and he may believe he has a better chance of doing so in LA than in Cleveland.

All of which might help explain why the Warriors went after Kevin Durant last year. It wasn't just because he added a level of insurance to an already great team ("The Warriors Might Have Won the Championship Without Kevin Durant"). It was because they knew, or at least sensed, that before long, some of the NBA's top players would bolt for LA and (once again) turn the Lakers into a contender if not a "superteam." If the rumors are to be believed, it looks like they were right.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Warriors Might Have Won the Championship Without Kevin Durant

The dominant narrative is that the Golden State Warriors wouldn't have won this year's NBA Championship if they hadn't signed Kevin Durant last July. That's entirely possible, but it ignores the fact that last year, when they "blew" a 3-1 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers, in the final two games of last year's finals, the Warriors played with an injured Steph Curry and without their starting center, Andrew Bogut, whom many consider to be one of the best, if the not the best, defensive center in the NBA. As I've noted previously, winning championships not only takes a lot of talent, but it also usually requires a little bit of luck ("What Makes a Winning Combination? Talent, Luck, and (Sometimes) Chemistry"). Last year the Warriors didn't have it. This year (and in 2015) they did.

But that still doesn't mean that they couldn't have won it all this year without Kevin Durant. As a recent FiveThirtyEight article noted ("The Warriors Didn’t Need Kevin Durant To Be This Good"), what Durant means for the Warriors is that rather than having a very good shot at winning the title every year, now the Warriors have an excellent shot. Injuries and other forms of bad luck will stay play a role, but Durant's presence on the team helps minimize the ill effects of such bad luck:
While adding Durant has been a success, it didn’t end up breaking basketball any more than the Warriors had broken it already.

Counting the regular season and playoffs, the Warriors won 84 percent of their games this year — up from 83 percent last year and 81 percent the year before. Teams have only won 80+ percent of their combined season games 11 times in the 70-year history of the NBA.1 The Warriors have now done it three years in a row.

But the Warriors’ mission isn’t just to win titles, it’s to guarantee them. And Durant is both icing and insurance policy — a guarantee that the Warriors will always have an MVP-caliber, one-man offense available. Though he makes them a little bit better in his own right, his main value comes from making what happened to them in the 2016 playoffs less likely.
So, haters can complain about the Warriors signing Durant in the off season, but there's still a good chance that the Dubs would've paraded around Lake Merritt this past week anyway.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

It's Really Not OK to Kill People

This morning, James Hodgkinson, 66, of Belleville, Illinois, opened fire on Republican Representatives and staffers, who were practicing for the upcoming baseball game between Democrats and Republicans. According to his brother, he was unhappy with the recent election and had recently traveled to DC to protest policies proposed by President Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress.

I get why people get frustrated. When laws and regulations are passed that one opposes, its easy to feel powerless, to get angry, because it seems like there's nothing one can do, especially when the next election is almost two years away. But violence is not the answer. Not only is it morally wrong (we used to call it a sin, but that's intellectually unfashionable these days), it solves nothing, and in fact only hands the opposition a moral victory. So, it's time for folks to dial things back. It's okay to be angry, but take it out by sending emails to newspaper editors, calling your local and state representatives, marching "vigorously" against policies that you oppose, or on the elliptical cross-trainer at your gym. But, it's really not okay to kill (or try to kill) people. Really.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

NBA MVP: Who'd You Rather Have on Your Team?

Recently, a news reporter asked a Montana Republican who he trusted more: Donald Trump or James Comey. "About the same," the guy answered. Then the reporter asked a follow-up question, "Who would you buy a used car from?" After an uncomfortable chuckle, the man replied, "James Comey." To get to the truth of a matter, sometimes you have to ask the right question.

This exchange comes to mind when I think about the debate over who should be the NBA's MVP. The finalists are James Hardin, Russell Westbrook, and Kawai Leonard. My guess is that it'll come down to either Hardin and Westbrook. However, I think people are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking, "Who's the NBA's MVP?", they should be asking, "Who would you want on your team?" And seriously, would anyone pick Hardin or Westbrook over Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, or Kyrie Irving (or Kawai Leonard for that matter)? I don't think so. If there's anything these playoffs have made clear is that James, Durant, Curry, and Irving operate at a completely different level than do others in the league. Especially when it counts.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Why Do Terrorists Attack Just Before Elections?

I'm sure I'm not the only one who's noticed that it seems that some terror attacks are timed just before an election. It happened a few weeks ago in France, and it happened just yesterday in the UK, less than a week before June 8th's Parliamentary election. In the current climate many, if not most, observers believe that such attacks help more conservative political parties because they're typically seen as being more supportive of "robust" security measures ("The London Terror Attacks May Mean More Votes for Theresa May's Conservative Party").

However, if they are right, then that raises a interesting question: Why do terrorists carry out such attacks if they help political parties that are more likely to oppose them coercive? It isn't because they don't know what they're doing. As I've pointed out previously, terrorists are not stupid and, in fact, are often quite well educated ("Terrorists Aren't Stupid (Nor Are They Ignorant)"). Thus, it's likely that they carry them out because they believe it's to their benefit to do so.

But what benefit might they derive from such attacks? I'd argue that it triggers political reactions that leaves the impression that those of us living in the West do not like Muslims, that we are hostile to the Islamic way of life. For instance, ISIS has reportedly referred to President Trump's proposed travel ban as the "blessed ban," not because it helps the world's Muslims, but because it helps to reinforce the belief that Muslims are not welcome in the West.

What can we do? Well, we need to work hard to counteract such an impression, whether we do so through ecumenical events at our own faith communities or by paying friendly visits to local Islamic mosques. I confess, however, our task is quite difficult when so many of our politicians seem more interested in inciting animosity toward Muslims than they are in welcoming them as full and faithful members of the democratic West.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

What Was Hunter Strickland Thinking?

With two outs in the top of the 8th inning of yesterday's game between the Washington Nationals and the San Francisco Giants, Giants reliever Hunter Strickland threw a 98mph fastball at the Nationals' Bryce Harper, hitting him in the hip, apparently in retaliation for Harper's behavior after hitting two home runs of Strickland in the 2014 playoffs. (To be fair, Strickland denies throwing at Harper, but most observers find this hard to believe.) Harper then charged the mound, the two exchanged punches (I think Strickland landed a better right), and both benches emptied. Evidently, this is the first time Strickland has faced Harper since then, so he decided to take advantage of the situation. Who knows? He may not get to face Harper for another 2 1/2 years!

But, what was Strickland thinking? The Giants were losing 2-0 at the time, very much in the game against a team with a sketchy bullpen. It's not as if the Giants are tearing up the league at the moment (at least not in a good way), and they need every win they can get. And true to form, the runner who took Harper's place (he was ejected) eventually scored. The last thing the Giants need right now is to intentionally give other teams opportunities to score. It's telling, I believe, that when Harper charged the mound and both benches emptied, Giants catcher Buster Posey remained out of the fray, possibly a subtle message from the Giants' best player, that Strickland's actions were ill-advised and inappropriate.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Was Hillary's Campaign Really Doomed?

A recently released book, Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign, purports to explain "why" Hillary Clinton lost the election for president to Donald Trump. As the subtitle suggests, the campaign was doomed from the start. However, even the book's authors (Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen) were surprised that Hillary lost, which should give readers of the book pause. In fact, as the physicist and sociologist Duncan Watts reminds us in his book, Everything is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer), it's very easy to "predict" the future, once you know what it is.

As I noted in a previous post (For Those Condemned to Study the Past - Whenever Possible, Count!), this is known as hindsight bias, a term coined (I believe) by the social psychologist, Amos Tversk, which (according to Tvesky) is "the tendency [for historians] to take whatever facts they had observed (neglecting the many facts that they did not or could not observe) and make them fit neatly into a confident-sounding story:”
All too often, we find ourselves unable to predict what will happen; yet after the fact we explain what did happen with a great deal of confidence. This “ability” to explain that which we cannot predict, even in the absence of any additional information, represents an important, though subtle flaw in our reasoning. It leads us to believe that there is a less uncertain world than there actually is, and that we are less bright than we actually might be. For if we can explain tomorrow what we cannot predict today, without any added information except the knowledge of the actual outcome, then this outcome must have been determined in advance and we should have been able to predict it. The fact that we couldn’t is taken as an indication of our limited intelligence rather than of the uncertainty that is in the world. All too often, we feel like kicking ourselves for failing to foresee that which later appears inevitable. For all we know, the handwriting might have been on the wall all along. The question is: was the ink invisible?
So, yes, I'm sure that the Clinton campaign made mistakes, but on the other side of the election, I'm willing to bet that they weren't all that obvious, even for Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Why Your Local Public High School Is Probably Better Than You Think (a repost of sorts)

Status reproduction is a process highlighted by the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu; it refers to how the status of a person, group, institution, etc. is reproduced by virtue of its status. Consider, for example, college football programs. The best high school players generally want to play for the top programs, which makes it easier for those programs to recruit and attract more of the best players, which in turn helps them remain top programs. This can be true even if they don't have great coaching. Because of the level of talent they attract, they often win in spite of the coaching on the field.

A similar process occurs in many industries. Take the venture capital (VC) industry, for instance. Most entrepreneurs hope to receive funding from top VC firms, not just because these VC firms are seen as being more "wise," but also because their ties with the top attorneys, accountants, and investment bankers raise the probability the entrepreneurial companies will succeed. What this means for VC firms is that the top (i.e., the high status) VC firms often have their "pick" of the entrepreneurial companies to fund, while lower status VC firms do not. Moreover, top VC firms will typically be able to command better terms with their investments, such as getting a larger stake in the start-up's equity. To illustrate, imagine two VC firms, X and Y, with X being a high status firm and Y being a low status one; if both invest $1 million dollars in entrepreneurial company Z, all else being equal, X will get a greater share of the company Z's equity than will Y. Then, if company Z goes public, X will reap higher profits than will X.

What does this have to do with high schools? Status reproduction among them as well. Imagine, for example, two schools: A & B. Available teachers have been randomly assigned to both so that the teaching quality at both schools will be the same. The schools differ, however, in that most of the best students attend A and most of the worst students attend B. It doesn't take a genius to see that school A will score better on various standardized tests, enjoy a higher graduating rate, send more students to college. But it won't do so because of the teaching but because it attracted more of the best students.

Now, consider a slightly different scenario with the same two schools, except this time their average performance on standardized tests is a combination of innate student ability and teaching quality. On their own (i.e., without teaching) students can score between 0 and 50 (out of 100), but with teaching they can raise their scores by 0 to 50 points. So, for instance, a student with the highest innate ability (50) who receives the best possible teaching (50) will score 100 out of 100, and a student with no innate ability who receives the worst possible teaching will score of 0. Now, imagine that the average student ability at school A is 45, while the average student ability at school B is 30. This means that in order for B to score as high (or higher) than A, the quality of teaching at B has to 15 points better than A. Now, imagine a scenario where school B has the best teachers in the state and add 50 points to their students' scores, which raises school B's average standardized score to 80, while A has good but not great teachers who add 40 points to their students' scores, which raises school B's average standardized score to 85.

To be sure, these two examples are stylized, but they illustrate how school performance is not necessarily an indicator of teacher quality. To be sure, at one time school A may have had some of the best teachers in the district, and that's why it initially attracted better students, but that doesn't mean that it still has the best teachers. Unfortunately, a lot of parents interpret scores and graduation rates in just that way, and consequently (if they possess the requisite resources) they send their kids to schools they think are better but actually might not be. Currently in Silicon Valley, the divide between school A and school B type schools tends to lie between private and public schools, and among public schools, the divide is typically between those in wealthier neighborhoods and poorer neighborhoods.

Divides such as these are almost certainly overstated. My own daughter (Tara) attends a public school (Del Mar) that some folks still see as having a bad reputation. However almost all of her teachers have been excellent, and she has been accepted into the top two public universities in the U.S. (UC Berkeley and UCLA), two of the top regional universities on the West Coast (Chapman and Cal Poly San Louis Obispo), along with UC Santa Barbara, University of Washington, and Sonoma State. In other words, if parents paid less attention to test scores and more to teacher quality, they might realize that their local public high school is probably better than they think it is. Acting on such a realization could save them a lot of money. It would also help boost public schools at a time when they're under attack.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Russell Westbrook Needs to Play More Like Joe Montana


Back when Joe Montana still played for the 49ers, a glance at his passing yards could tell you in an instant how the Niner offense functioned that day. If Montana threw for 250-290 yards in a game, then you knew that the offense had put together a well-balanced attacked, and the Niners probably won the game. However, if Montana threw for more than 300 yards, then it was likely that the offense struggled and the outcome of the game into doubt. In other words, the Niners were better as a team when Montana's personal stats were more modest.

I think the same could be said for Russell Westbrook. The Thunder play better when his personal contributions are more modest. He put up some incredible numbers this year for the Oklahoma City Thunder, but when he got his teammates involved and stopped trying to do it all by himself, that the Thunder played well. As Fox Sports columnist Brent Pollakoff recently noted ("5 Things the OKC Thunder Need to Fix"). Westbrook needs to "dial it back":
This is the most difficult task ahead for the Thunder, especially after Westbrook likely will be coming off of an MVP season. But his historically high individual usage rate didn't translate into any real team accomplishments, and as we saw in the fourth quarters throughout this playoff series, his insistence on taking seemingly every single shot (no matter what the defense was like or where he was on the floor) only hurt his team's chances down the stretch of close games. 
Westbrook proved his point in his first season without Kevin Durant by his side; we all know now that he can play as well as anyone in the league whenever he feels like it. But he needs to dial it back next season and get his teammates involved so he doesn't have to do it all alone. Only then will his team have a chance at true success.
This means, of course, that the Thunder need to upgrade the talent surrounding Westbrook, but, as Pollakoff points out, it also means that the Thunder need to use the regular season to develop the Thunder into a "team" so that Westbrook he doesn't feel like he has to do it all but instead can relax and play more like Joe Montana.