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Saturday, March 21, 2020

People Seem Nicer

With the "shelter in place" in effect, I've been biking a lot on local trails and streets. And people seem nicer. Cars stop to let bikes cross (what were once) busy streets, and people seem more willing to make room for people to pass. Of course, the latter could simply be people seeking to maintain a safe social distance, but people also greeting random others with a smile and well wishes. To be sure, there've been a few "Lord of the Flies" moments, such as people fighting over household goods at Costco, and then there were those folks waiting in long lines to stock up on guns and ammo. Not sure I want to know what they think they're preparing for. Still, although my bike-riding experiences don't constitute a random sample, I'd like to think (hope?) that they reflect the fact that people are acting nicer.

This has made me wonder if one long-term benefit of the coronavirus pandemic may be that it helps bring us together after years of political polarization. It won't happen overnight. Although Trump cleverly exploited it to win the 2016 election, the divide that separates us has been with us for some time. The political scientist, Liliana Mason, traces it back to at least 1972 (Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity"). And there's plenty of blame to go around. Some point to the racially-tinged southern strategy of Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater's as a cause, but as the political scientist, Mark Lilla, points out, liberals have also been complicit ("The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics"). Regardless of the causes, we have sorted ourselves into competing tribes or teams that often appear more interested in winning than in doing what's good for the nation as a whole.

Nevertheless, people who study our tribal tendencies also point out that when divided groups are presented with a superordinate task, they often put their differences aside and band together. And I wonder if, perhaps, coming together to tackle the coronavirus might just be the superordinate task that does it for us. There are some, however, who argue that it will have just the opposite effect, exacerbating other divides, in particular those defined by race, class, and age: "Slurs against Asian Americans. Jokes about baby boomers dying. And blue-collar workers’ plight is nothing like the 'work from home' lifestyle" (see "Covid-19 Is Becoming the Disease That Divides Use"). I'm hoping I'm right and they're wrong. People really do seem nicer.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Church and the Coronavirus

In the 1990s the sociologist, Rodney Stark, sought to answer the question: "Why did an obscure religious sect (Christianity) evolve into a dominant religious institution in just a few centuries?" The result was his book, "The Rise of Christianity," which over the course of several chapters, he speculates on a number of possible factors.

One of the more intriguing chapters concerns the effect that the epidemics that struck the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries of the Common Era had on Christianity and its religious competitors. Briefly, Stark, who at the time considered himself an agnostic, argues that Christian doctrine enhanced the ability of the early Church to better survive the epidemics, and consequently, its social networks emerged from the plagues relatively intact, while those of its competitors did not. This, in turn, increased the likelihood that the early Church would attract new converts (because of an increase in the ratio of personal ties to non-Christians), which helps explain part of its success. It also raises issues to how today's Christians will respond to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Explanations and Effectiveness

Why reasons does Stark offer to back up his argument? First, he argues that the church offered better explanations for and appeared more effective in combatting the epidemics. Stark notes that social scientists have long believed that natural and social disasters often produce crises of faith because they can challenge the legitimacy of dominant religious traditions. This can happen in at least two ways: First, when a dominant religion is incapable of offering adequate explanations of a disaster, and second, when it may be, or at least appears to be, ineffective in the face of the disaster. When crises of faith do occur, societies often turn to “new” religions that provide better explanations and appear more effective. Moreover, people almost always prefer explanations that help make life, even in the face of a disaster, coherent and understandable.

Stark believes that a crisis of faith (or faiths) occurred when the epidemics hit the Roman Empire. He argues that neither the pagan priests nor the philosophers offered adequate explanations as to why the plagues occurred, why some people died, and so on, but the early Christian church did. It offered “a system of thought and feeling thoroughly adapted to a time of troubles in which hardship, disease, and violent death commonly prevailed” (McNeill 1976:108, quoted in Stark 1996:80–81).

As we will see in the next section, however, not only did Christianity offer its adherents better explanations, but Stark also believes that it appeared to be, and probably was, more effective in combatting the epidemics. Because of doctrines that insisted that Christians minister to the sick and dying, it is likely that Christians enjoyed higher survival rates, and this would have been seen by many non-Christians as nothing short of miraculous. Moreover, the higher survival rates would have produced a larger proportion of Christians who were immune to the disease because those who contracted it and recovered were protected from further infection. Thus, they could “pass among the afflicted with seeming invulnerability” (Stark 1996:90), and this was almost certainly seen by some non-Christians as evidence of the superiority of God, or at least the Christian God.

Christian Charity and Differential Survival

Second, Stark argues that the Church's doctrines concerning love, charity, and social service led to higher survival rates among Christians than among its competitors. He notes that although at the time science offered no cure for the epidemics, “elementary nursing” would have greatly reduced the mortality rate. “[The s]imple provision of food and water, for instance, will allow persons who are temporarily too weak to cope for themselves to recover instead of perishing miserably” (McNeill 1976:108, quoted in Stark 1996:88).

Unfortunately, according to Stark, between “a quarter and a third” of all Roman citizens perished because they did not receive such nursing (Stark 1996:76), and a primary reason was because when the plagues struck, most people, or at least those with the resources to do so, fled. Why? Because, Stark believes, the dominant religions of the time possessed no doctrines that claimed that people were obligated to minister to the sick and dying. Christianity, however, did. And, according to Stark, these ideas translated into action. In particular, they led Christians to nurse those who became infected, which in turn, led to higher survival rates among those they nursed, both Christians and non-Christians. But, since Christians were more likely to stay behind (and receive nursing), they probably had higher survival rights.

Differential Survival and Network Ties

Finally, Stark argues that the Church's higher survival rate left its social networks (not to be confused with Facebook) undamaged for the most part, while leaving those of its competitors in disarray. This probably would have enhanced its ability to recruit new followers. Why? A wealth of research has found that people are far more likely to join a new religious movement, especially when it involves a tremendous amount of personal risk, if they already know (have a tie) to someone who is a member.

A colleague of mine (Robert Schroeder) and I used computer simulations to test Stark's argument and found that, given his assumption, it has merit ("Plagues, Pagans, and Christians: Differential Survival, Social Networks, and the Rise of Christianity"). In particular, we found that Christian social networks survived the epidemics more intact than did the social networks of its religious competitors. The differences between the two were not as dramatic as Stark originally hypothesized, but they are not substantial nonetheless. Christians lost fewer ties and gained almost as many converts as they would have done if the epidemics had never occurred. By contrast, their competitors lost more ties, most of which were to non-Christians, which increased the probability they would've converted to Christianity.

The Church and the Coronavirus

A number of scholars have challenged Stark's assumptions, from whether the differences between Christianity and its competitors were as substantial as Stark believes to whether the nursing of those infected had as much of an effect as he claims. Nevertheless, Stark's analysis raises the issue of how today's Church responds to the Coronavirus pandemic that's sweeping through today's world. Will we, as Stark believes that members of the early Church did, consider the welfare of others above our own? Will we, to paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr,
Have the courage to change the things we can,
The composure to accept what we can't,
And the wisdom to know the difference?
I pray that we will because we could be facing another crisis of faith. Let's hope the Church responds as it once did.

References

Sean F. Everton and Robert Schroeder. 2019. "Plagues, Pagans, and Christians: Differential Survival, Social Networks, and the Rise of Christianity." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 58(4):775-89. doi: 10.1111/jssr.12631

William H. McNeill. 1976. Plagues and Peoples. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Reinhold Niebuhr. [1944] 2015. "Serenity Prayer." Page 705 in Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics, ed. by Elisabeth Sifton. New York, NY: The Library of America.

Rodney Stark. 1996. The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Two Good Reasons to Practice Social Distancing

There's two good reasons to practice "social distancing," that is, the conscious effort to reduce close contact between ourselves and others in order to prevent the transmission of a virus to others. One is to lower the probability that we will contract the disease. Most everybody gets this. And, as everyone knows, some of us are more likely to become infected than others. Unfortunately, it appears a lot of folks don't get the second reason: to not pass the virus on to someone else. This attitude seems to prevail among those who think they're unlikely to become infected. The problem is, it is quite possible that they could become infected, but the symptoms are so mild, that they don't know they have it. And then they head out into public places and unwittingly pass it on to others who may not be so lucky.

So, let's all do our best to keep our distance from others. We can still visit with friends, pick up a Peet's or Philz, and maybe even dine out. But we can do so without getting into other peoples' space. We're all in this together: Republicans and Democrats, believers and atheists, the Left Coast and the South, the Northeast and the Midwest. Let's start acting like it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

How Will The Giants Do This Season? (If There is One)

How will the Giants do this season? I asked the same question last year ("How Will the Giants do in 2019?"), and my answer was that they would probably do better than many expected. I anticipated Belt, Crawford, Longoria, Panik, and Posey all to have decent years, and except for Longoria, none of the them really did. And by late May, I was calling for a rebuild ("Should the Giants Pull the Plug?" "Retool or Rebuild: A Choice, Not a Question").

Then, the performance of a few new players, such as Kevin Pillar, Mike Yastrzemski, Donovan Solano, and Alex Dickerson, plus the revival of Pablo Sandoval, altered the landscape. The Giants started winning, and rather than dealing Madison Bumgarner at the trade deadline, they held on to him, hoping they could make a run at the playoffs. They didn't, but at 77-85, they finished better than preseason projections (73-89 per PECOTA, and 71-91 per 538). So, I guess I was right after all (albeit for all the wrong reasons).

I'm pretty much taking the same position this season. Currently PECOTA projects the Giants to win 68 games (538 has yet to release theirs), but I believe they will win more than that. I do think Posey will have a better year than last; he seems to be healthy, and he's been hitting with more authority this Spring training. Additionally, it looks like Crawford and Belt will be platooned this year, splitting their time with the likes of Marcio Dubon, Wilmer Flores, Donovan Solano, and Yolmer Sánchez, which should improve their numbers relative to plate appearances, as well as the Giants overall numbers at short and first. In the outfield we have Yaz and Dickerson coming back, and Hunter Pence (yea!) will probably platoon with the latter. That's a pretty good combination. Austin Slater showed promise last year, as did Jaylin Davis, so our outfield may be okay. Rumor has it that Marcio Dubon will be spending time in the outfield too.

Pitching could be a major problem. No MadBum, and Tyler Beede, probably our best pitching prospect, has arm problems, and it's unclear when he'll be back. It'll be up to Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija to have better than expected seasons if the Giants hope to be competitive. Who knows how the rest of the rotation will fare. That, I think, is the Giants' biggest uncertainty. And then there's the bullpen. More uncertainty. Tyler Rogers could turn out to be a good closer, and we do have Tony Watson returning. The bullpen may turn out better than it appears at first blush. Only time will tell.

I do anticipate the Giants acquiring players that turn out to be pleasant surprises. Farhan Zaidi is doing with the Giants what he did with the Dodgers. Picking players off a waivers, signing unheralded free agents, and trading for players other teams want to unload, and then giving them a shot. And while most don't pan out, some do. Think Justin Turner or Chris Taylor. We need to find players like them (Darin Ruf?).

And then there's Joey Bart. The Giants number one prospect. He'll almost certainly be pulled up to the majors this year, which means that Buster will see more time at 1st base. The Giants have a few more prospects that may not be too far from making their major league debuts either: Sean Hjell, the 6'11" pitcher who had a pretty good Spring training, and Heliot Ramos, who hit a massive home run in Spring training and is only 20 years old.

So, how will we do? I say we will win about as many games as last year. However, if Beede gets healthy, and Joey Bart makes even more of splash than anticipated, we might surprise a few people. I doubt that we'll reach the playoffs, but the second half of the season may prove entertaining and we could be pretty well set up for 2021 (perhaps, we'll start talking about the magic of "odd years" in the future).

Friday, February 28, 2020

Can Bernie Win?

Can Bernie win? Can he beat Trump? On most days, I'd say no. He won't attract enough moderates. They'll hold their nose and vote for Trump, not because they like the latter, but because they can't imagine voting for a self-avowed socialist.

But then, think about how much Bernie's campaign is reminiscent of Trump's campaign four years ago. Remember how no one (including me) thought Trump could win? Trump's base was a bit fanatical, but remember how most of us thought he wouldn't attract enough moderates in the general election? Well, we know how that turned out.

To be sure, Trump did lose the popular vote in 2016 by almost 3 million votes, but he won key battleground states that helped him win the electoral college. Although in New York he lost to Hillary by almost 2 million votes, for which she was awarded 29 electoral votes, Trump won Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania by just under 78,000 votes, which earned him 46 electoral votes. That margin was largely due to white working class Americans who had voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 but went for Trump in 2016. It is not inconceivable that, given the policies Bernie advocates for, those same voters would vote for Bernie. Put differently, Bernie could win the popular vote by even a smaller margin than Hillary but still pull out an electoral college victory.

Then there is what political scientists call "party fatigue," which occurs when voters grow tired of a particular party being in power and vote for the party out of power. It is possible that as disruptive as Trump's presidency has been with its daily tweets and mercurial behavior, enough voters will have had enough of Trump--that is, they'll be suffering from "Trump-fatigue"-- and they'll vote for whomever Democratic nominee is.

Another variable is the economy. If the economy tanks, then it won't matter who the Democrats nominate. He or she will win, even Bernie. As I noted previously ("Democrats Could Be in Trouble"), the one guarantee of economic expansions is that they always end. There's always a recession in their future. It's just difficult to predict when they'll occur. The economy has been good to Trump so far, and if it continues to do so, then he'll be tough to beat. But, if it turns south, then he may be looking at a one-year presidency.

So, although Mayor Pete's my favorite ("Pete Buttegieg Won't Save American Christianity, But He'll Probably Help It"), and I think a moderate like Joe Biden or Mike Bloomberg is a better bet ("Candidate Ideology and Vote Choice in the 2020 US Presidential Election", "Bernie Sanders looks electable in surveys — but it could be a mirage"), it is conceivable that Bernie could beat Trump in November. 2020 should be an interesting year.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Democrats Could Be In Trouble

Democrats could be in big trouble. Donald Trump is one of the most unpopular presidents in US history, but if the economy remains strong, they will have a hard time beating him in November. They still might win the popular vote, but winning the electoral college might be a bridge too far.

Making matters more difficult, they could nominate someone who has little to no chance of winning. Among the candidates on the left, Bernie Sanders seems to have the best chance of securing the nomination, and while I personally like him ("Bernie Sanders and Civil Discourse"), I'm skeptical that he'll attract enough moderate voters to win. (I actually have imagined one scenario in which he can win, but that's for a future post.) Among the moderates, Mayor Pete's my favorite ("Pete Buttegieg Won't Save American Christianity, But He'll Probably Help It") and I think Amy Klobuchar would do well, but Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg probably have the best chance of beating Trump. However, the former appears like he has little or nothing left in the tank, and the latter has to show that he can do more than produce slick (albeit impressive) campaign ads.

The Democrats best hope might be for the economy to tank. Pointing out that the current economic expansion began under Obama will have little effect. Nevertheless, the economy will stop expanding at some point. There's always a recession in the future when you're in the midst of an expansion. But predicting when that will happen is anyone's guess. If it begins in the next couple of months, then the Democrats' chances will improve substantially, regardless of who's nominated. But if it doesn't begin until the late Fall (or after), it will probably be too late.

Does this mean Democrats should just give up? Of course not. Who knows what might happen. The one thing they have going for them is Trump's unpopularity and what political scientists call "party fatigue." Party fatigue occurs when voters grow tired of a particular party being in power and vote for the party out of power. It is possible that as disruptive as Trump's presidency has been with its daily tweets and mercurial behavior, enough voters will simply have had enough and swing the election to whomever the Democratic nominee is.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

What Makes a Good Restaurant?

Peter King is a former chef who now writes mystery novels. His first set of mysteries focus on an unnamed “Gourmet Detective,” who isn’t really a detective, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, he’s a former chef who specializes in tracking down rare food ingredients and advising restaurants and producers where to locate substitute or replacement foods, especially for those that no longer exist. Still his “detecting” inevitably leads to real detecting, usually when someone connected to the food industry (chefs, owners, critics) gets him or herself killed.

All of the books feature descriptions of dishes that can leave the reader's mouth watering. In the fourth book, Death al Dente, the Gourmet Detective is asked to evaluate three chefs who run restaurants in Italy, so we are treated to the Gourmet Detective's opinion as to what makes a good restaurant. Here's a sample:
  • The lighting should be good, as if to emphasize that there is nothing to hide, and the acoustics should be excellent — points overlooked in too many restaurants.
  • Skepticism concerning quality is justified when the menu is as thick as a magazine, for it means that many of the products are frozen.
  • The service is a clue to the restaurant itself. Close your menu and someone should be there to take your order. Put down a piece of silverware and a fresh one should immediately take its place. If you leave the table, your napkin should be removed and a clean, folded one should await your return.
  • Any waiter must be able to answer any question about the food, its ingredients, and how the dish is prepared. If you eat all the sauce and food remains, you evidently liked the sauce and a good waiter will offer you more. When the bread basket is emptied, it should be refilled.
I can't say I've been to too many restaurants that meet all of those criteria (if at all). I'd be interested to visit one that does, however (as long as I can afford it).

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Fans Having Fun with the Astros Sign Stealing Scandal

Unsurprisingly, baseball fans are having a little "fun" with the Astros sign stealing scandal. For example, someone edited the Wikipedia page listing major league baseball's MVPs:


It was edited back not too long after it was changed. Another Wikipedia entry, this one about the 2017 American League Championship Series between the NY Yankees and Houston Astros, was also edited to read, "The Astros cheated the Yankees in seven games after falling behind three games to two."


I hasn't been changed back, at least not the last time I checked. I'm waiting for an LA fan to take a shot at the Wikipedia page about the 2017 World Series. They could take some inspiration from the Pope, who has apparently joined in the fun:


Everything you read on the internet is true, right? Then there's the Astros' new Bobble Head:


Evidently other people have had their signs stolen by the Astros:


Pete Rose can't quite get his head around about the punishment the Astros' manager received from MLB for cheating:



Even Patriot-hating fans have joined the pile on:


And more than a few people have suggested a new name for the Astros:


And then there's some new Astro's batting helmets:


That's it for now. I'll keep updating this post as new memes come to my attention (at least for awhile).

Updated: March 2, 2020

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Some Thoughts on Stealing Signs in Baseball

"Win any way you can as long as you can get away with it" -- Leo Durocher, Hall of Fame Manager

"The great American game of baseball is a fraud, a treachery and un-American. It offers a regrettable example to the nation's youth, is populated by cheats, thrives on sneaky tricks, and teaches Fagin values to thousands of Little Leaguers" -- Shirley Povich, Washington Post, 1972

So, let's be clear: Stealing signs is considered to be okay in baseball. In fact, a certain amount of cheating is tolerated and expected. In fact, one of baseball's greatest cheaters, Gaylord Perry, whose spitballs were allegedly covered with so much vaseline (or reasonable facsimile) that it would hit batters in the eye when the ball crossed the plate, is in the Hall of Fame. The story may be apocryphal, but the fact that Perry regularly threw spitters is not. And it wasn't as if those who voted for him didn't know about it when they cast their ballots. Perry's autobiography, "Me and the Spitter," was published in 1974; he wasn't elected to the Hall until 1991.

Moreover, this isn't the first time that teams have used "technology" to steal signs. Apparently, the 1951 NY Giants used a telescope in the their clubhouse behind center field to steal the signals of opposing catchers, which were relayed via a buzzer connected from the clubhouse to telephones in the Giants dugout and bullpen. "Every hitter knew what was coming," said pitcher Al Gettel. "Made a big difference" ("Shot Heard 'Round the World"). The Giants won 37 of their last 44 games, caught and tied the Dodgers for the National League Pennant, and then won the playoff when Bobby Thomson's launched his "Shot Heard 'Round the World" into the left field bleachers at the Polo Grounds (see picture above).

So, what is it about the Astros' (and apparently, the Red Sox) sign stealing scandal that has everybody's knickers in a twist? Primarily, the Astros' very sophisticated use of technology to steal signs, which most observers seem to believe crossed the line. That said, while some want major league baseball (MLB) to take away the Astros' World Series championship, I think it's unlikely since many within the league suspect that the Astros probably weren't the only team doing it ("Tim Flannery on Sign Stealing in Baseball", "Jack McDowell says Tony La Russa had sign-stealing system with White Sox in '80s", "Former MLB players, coaches have mixed feeling toward Mike Fiers, the whistleblower on the Astros cheating scandal"). There's a reason why Buster Posey uses complicated sign sequences even when there isn't a runner on second. He's worried that the other team is watching on TV. Any team can have the game on in their clubhouse and have someone trying to decode the signs during the game. The Astros just happened to be the team that got caught doing it.

Unfortunately, the line between what is and isn't acceptable isn't always clear. To be sure, the MLB outlawed sign stealing using optical or other mechanical aids back in 1961 (evidently several teams were doing it), but it also outlawed spitballs (in 1920) and then looked the other way when Gaylord Perry started throwing them. Then, of course, there's the use of PEDs. Some (e.g., alcohol, amphetamines) have been tolerated for years, while others were eventually deemed unacceptable (e.g., steroids, which were banned by the MLB in 2005, four years after Barry Bonds broke the single season home run record).

(Tyler Skaggs's death from an opioid overdose this past summer makes me wonder whether opioids are replacing alcohol as the drug of choice for handling the stress associated with playing baseball (or any professional sport). I hope not.)

Practically, what this means is that players and teams will always push the boundaries between what is and isn't acceptable. To paraphrase Hall of Fame manager, Leo Durocher, they will try to "win any way they can as long as they can get away with it." And those who do won't know exactly where that unacceptable line is. They won't know it, that is, until they're caught (if they ever are).

Updated: February 2, 2020