Friday, March 29, 2013

Will a Girl Finally Win American Idol?

It's been a while since a female won American Idol (Jordin Sparks in 2007 was the last), probably because over time the show's fan base has become dominated by young girls who are more likely to vote for good looking guys, regardless of whether they can sing or not (Phillip Phillips being the latest example). However, this year things are looking up for the girls. Guys keep getting voted off, and in the latest prediction markets ("PredictWise"), of the top five front-runners, four are women:

Angie Miller
Candice Glover
Kree Harrison
Janelle Arthur
Curtis Finch

Of course, it's still early so things can change, and none of the female candidates are overwhelming favorites (e.g., currently Angie Miller leads all of the contestants, but there's still only a 14.9% chance that she will win). That said, the probability that one of the top four female candidates will win is close to 50%, which means there's hope that things will be a bit different this year. We will see what we will see.

P.S.: As of March 30th, the probabilities have shifted somewhat. The women still dominate, but Candice Glover is now the front runner:

Candice Glover
25.6 %
Kree Harrison
24.5 %
Angie Miller
22.6 %
Janelle Arthur
16.6 %
Amber Holcomb
4.7 %
Burnell Taylor
2.3 %
Lazaro Arbos
1.5 %

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Pope Francis

After Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected to be the 266th Roman Catholic Pope (and took the name Francis I), a San Jose Mercury News reader complained in a letter to the editor that the new Pope was an ultra conservative. While he's certainly conservative on some issues (e.g., abortion, women's ordination), he isn't on others; for instance, shortly after being elected he reminded the Church of its obligation to the poor and lamented what he called the "tyranny of the market." Hardly something a ultraconservative would say.

(In general, I think it's a good idea to recognize that just because someone is more conservative (or liberal) than you, doesn't mean that they're necessarily a conservative (or a liberal).)

Although there's a lot we don't know about Pope Francis, two recent "Research on Religion" podcasts are helpful in teasing out the recent changes in the Catholic Church. The first, featuring Jeremy Lott, who is a "news aggregator" (i.e., someone who surfs the web and identifies and provides links for the best news stories) for Real Clear Religion, explores how the media covered Pope Benedict's resignation and Francis's election ("Jeremy Lott on the Media's Pope-O-Rama"). Here's the description from the Research on Religion website:
How well did the popular media do in covering the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the Conclave of Cardinals, and the election of Francis I? We talk with RealClearReligion editor Jeremy Lott who has a unique vantage point when it comes to answering this question. As a Catholic, a writer, and a news aggregator, Jeremy provides some very interesting insights into what he calls “pope-o-rama,” the media frenzy surrounding events at the Vatican over the past six months. He offers up a very prescient observation about a bear and a backpack, plus he reminds us of a few other stories that flew under the radar when all eyes were fixed on Rome.
In this discussion Lott, who is a Catholic also discusses a recent article of his, concerning what he saw as Benedict's reluctance to be Pope ("The Man Who Didn't Want to Be Pope").

The second podcast, which features University of Washing historian, James Felak, explores the nature of the papacy, Felaks thoughts on Benedict's resignation, and what Francis's election might mean for the Catholic Church ("James Felak on Picking Pontiffs and Pope Francis I"). Here's the description from the Research on Religion website:
With all eyes trained on the Vatican over the past two months, we turn to one of our most popular guests — Prof. James Felak (University of Washington) — to help us understand what popes do and how they are chosen. Prof. Felak then walks us through the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the Conclave of Cardinals, and the “surprise” election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who took the name Francis I. He offers up some reflections on the potential direction of the Roman Catholic Church and reveals what name he would have chosen for himself had he been tapped to sit on the throne of St. Peter. One of our most lively discussions ever!
As always, you can download the podcasts from iTunes or listen to them at the Research on Religion website.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Why Your Local Public High School's Probably Better Than You Think

Status reproduction is a term coined (or at least popularized) by the French sociologist and philosopher, Pierre Bourdieu; it refers to the process by which the status of a person, group, institution, etc. is reproduced simply by virtue of its status. That is, it's high status helps it retain its high status.

Consider college football programs, for instance. The best high school players generally want to play for the top programs, such as Alabama, LSU, Texas, Ohio State, USC, and Notre Dame ("2013 Team Rankings"), which makes it easier for them to recruit and get more of the best players, which is why they tend to remain top programs. This is true even if they don't have great coaching. Because of the talent they attract, the win in spite of themselves. Their status, in other words, helps them reproduce their own success.

A similar process occurs in most industries. Take the venture capital (VC) industry, for instance. Most entrepreneurs hope to receive funding from top VC firms, such as Kleiner Perkins and Sequoia Capital, not just because these VC firms are seen as being more "wise," but also because their ties with the top lawyers, 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 will have their "pick" of the entrepreneurial company litter, while lower status VC firms will not. Moreover, top VC firms will generally be able to command better terms with their investments, such as getting a larger stake in the start-up's equity (Note: VCs don't make loans; they invest in companies hoping they'll cash in on their investment if and when the company goes public or is acquired by another firm). In other words, if you have 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.

What does this have to do with high schools? Well, imagine two high schools, School A and School B. Available teachers have been randomly assigned to both schools so that the overall quality of teaching at both schools will be the same. The schools differ, however, in that most of the best students attend School A and most of the worst students attend School B. So, which school do you think will score better in various standardized tests? Which school do you think will enjoy a higher graduating rate? Which school do you think will send more students to college? School A, of course. But note that it will score higher, have a higher graduation rate, and send more students to college, not because of its teaching, but because it attracts more of the best students.

Now consider a slightly different scenario. Imagine the same two schools, but this time let's say that their average performance on standardized scores is a combination of innate student ability and teaching quality. More precisely, imagine that on their own (i.e., without teaching) students can score between 0 and 50 (out of 100) and that teaching can raise their scores from 0 to 50 points. So, for instance, a student with an innate ability of 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 School B to score as high (or higher) than School A, the quality of teaching at School B has to 15 points better than School A. Put differently, School B could have the best teachers in the state (i.e., 50), but that will only raise the school's average standardized score to 80, while School A could have teachers who are 20% worse (i.e., 40), but their school's average standardized score will still be higher (85) than B's.

Granted, these two examples are stylized, but they illustrate an important point. 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. 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, between those in wealthier and poorer neighborhoods. I suspect, however, that if parents paid less attention to test scores and more to teacher quality, they'd realized that their local public high school is probably better than they initially thought it was.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Theological Liberalism With a Frown

Some years ago, the sociologist Peter Berger, who is a Lutheran and actually studied for the ministry at one point, complained about "liberalism with a frown," by which he had in mind, theological liberalism. Although he was (and is) a theological liberal (see e.g., "The Sacred Canopy," "The Heretical Imperative," and "In Praise of Doubt"), he lamented how unhappy most mainline Protestants seemed to be. In the guise of being prophetic, he noted that they always seemed to be always complaining about how bad the world was without acknowledging how good it was (Sure glad he's smiling in the picture). Hence his remark about liberalism with a frown.

I know what he means. Although the world's hardly perfect and is (and will always be) in need of redemption, it's better than it was decades, centuries, and millennia ago, but you wouldn't know it listening to some mainline Protestants. To be sure, there's still a lot to do in terms of civil rights, but does anyone honestly believe that 50 years ago an African-American American Idol finalist from Louisiana would have been honored by his hometown ("How Far We Have (Over) Come")? And as Steven Pinker has demonstrated with rigorous empirical analysis ("The Better Angels of Our Nature"), today's world is far less violent than it once was. For example, although we lament the violence of American society, especially after the Newton tragedy, the probability that one would die a violent death (at the hands of another person) in a hunting and gathering or agricultural society was between 15% and 25%; today it's less than 1%. That's not an insubstantial difference.

However, you wouldn't know it if you only listened to some mainline Protestants. Some simply aren't happy unless they're complaining about something (and wearing the requisite frown on their face). Thankfully, this isn't true of the mainline church my wife and I attend (although there are a few exceptions), which is one of the reasons we like it so much. I'd like to think that our church isn't an exception. My concern is that it is.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Krister Stendahl's Three Rules of Religious Understanding

I recently wrote that we should practice more civility in our interactions with our ideological opponents ("Sequestration, Bipartisanship, and Every-Day Civility"). This wasn't too suggest that there isn't room for a good argument. I believe there is, especially when we respect the dignity of folks with whom we disagree. The political philosopher Michael Sandel models this as well as anyone in his "Justice" class that he teaches at Harvard. Although Sandel is an Aristotelian, he demonstrates an appreciation for other perspectives and a respect for those who hold them.

Another example is Krister Stendahl, who taught New Testament at Harvard, served as the Bishop of Stockholm, and was a theological and political liberal. In his defense of the right for Mormons to build a temple in Stockholm, he argued for three rules of religious understanding:
  1. When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
  2. Don't compare your best to their worst.
  3. Leave room for "holy envy" (by which he meant we should be willing to recognize elements in the other religious tradition or faith that you admire and wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith.)
These would have been some nice rules to follow in the past presidential election.

Monday, March 18, 2013

IKEA's 4-wheel Drive Carts

The picture on the right is an uncommon site: Someone who enjoys pushing an IKEA cart. As many of you know, IKEA makes relatively attractive and reasonably-priced furniture, but they provide customers with four-wheel carts that allow you to push the cart in every direction except straight ahead. As someone else has posted ("IKEA Carts Make Me Want to Punch Someone in the Neck"):
What is the deal with these God forsaken carts? Why on earth would anyone test drive one of those suckers, and deem it acceptable? What was that thought process like? Wow, this cart has the ability to turn on a dime! It can go every which direction but straight. Look how fun it is as it rolls forward sideways! I think the joke’s on us, America. As if navigating through the always-crowded maze that is IKEA isn’t frustrating enough, they add insult to injury by forcing us to push heavy pieces of disassembled furniture around in carts that would fail even the most forgiving of sobriety tests.
Then, there's the blogger whose daughter drew about their experience at IKEA ("IKEA: The Animated Adventure"), including IKEA's carts (picture along with commentary):

Oh, the carts at the big blue happy box, IKEA have special, magical shopping cart powers.

They may be pushed in ANY direction.



Super neat.

ANY direction except forward.

And f you're wondering, yes, my wife and I recently went to IKEA. Yesterday, in fact. And then to add insult to injury, we spent a couple of hours putting together a TV stand, following the wordless instructions provided with every IKEA product. It sure is a good thing, we like the way their furniture looks...

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Kant, Einstein, and All Creatures (Great and Small)

A little over a year ago I wrote that people who love animals are more likely to be kind to all of God's creatures than are those who do not ("James Herriot and Jimmy Stewart's Dog Named Beau"). I didn't argue that everyone who loves pets is destined to be compassionate (I believe Hitler was quite attached to one of his pets), or that those who dislike pets are incapable of expressing compassion. Rather, I simply argued that those who are able to love dogs, cats, horses, and so on are much more likely to show compassion to others that are those who do not. Since then, I've learned I'm in good (intellectual) company:

"We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals"
-- Immanuel Kant

"Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, 
man will not himself find peace."
-- Albert Einstein

Then, of course, there's the wonderful English hymn written by Cecil Alexander and used by James Herriot for his series of books about being a vet in Yorkshire in the 1930s:

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Double Blind Review

In deciding what articles to publish most scholarly journals follow a process known as double-blind review. What this means is that if I submit an article to a journal, the journal's editor strips my name from the article before he or she sends it out to other scholars for them to review. After they return their reviews to the editor, he or she then removes their name from their reviews before sending them on to be. In other words, reviewers don't know who writes the articles they review, and I don't know who reviews my articles. Hence the term, double-blind review.

The idea lying behind this approach, of course, is that it allows reviewers to be more honest in their reviews. They don't have to worry that if they critically review an article written by a prominent scholar, they won't face retribution some time in the future. This is a reasonable concern, and the double-blind system is probably the best system available, but it does yield some ironic reviews from time-to-time.

For example, when Mark Granovetter submitted his first submitted his article, "The Strength of Weak Ties," one reviewer commented that it wasn't worthy of being published in a third-tier journal. Mark almost didn't resubmit it. Good thing he did, though. It is now one of the most highly cited articles of all time and has been featured in books such as Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" and Albert-László Barabási's "Linked."

Recently, two of my colleagues and I received a review for an article we submitted a couple of months ago. We used a theoretical approach known as "institutional logics" to explore the venture capital industry, and one of the reviewers suggested that we didn't know what we were talking about, that we needed to read a particular book on institutional logics. The irony is that one of the colleagues who wrote the paper with me was a co-author of that book. Go figure.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Predicting the Next Pope

I've posted about prediction markets before ("How Good Are We at Predicting the Future?" "Election Update"), but if you don't remember, they are futures markets created for the purpose of predicting the outcome of various events. People who invest in them want to make money, so they try to take into account a variety of factors in making their decisions, and if a particular event attracts enough activity, they can be quite accurate. For example, various markets picked President Obama to win reelection back seven months in advance ("No One Likes an 'I Told You So,' But..."), and it accurately predicted several weeks in advance that Philip Phillips would win last year's American Idol competition.

Not surprisingly, there are markets attempting to predict who the next Pope will be ("Who Will Be the Next Catholic Pope"). As of now, the front runners are Archbishop Angelo Scola of Italy (26.6% chance of being selected) and Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana (19.8% chance of being selected). It's unclear whether there's been enough activity to make these predictions accurate, of course. What's interesting, though, is that a number of those in the running for the position are from Italy, which means that the chances that the next Pope will be from Italy are quite high.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Dance Moms Behaving Badly

I've previously posted on misbehaving Little League dads "Little League Dads Behaving Badly," but they haven't cornered the market on taking their kids' activities a little too seriously. No, moms can be guilty of the same sin as evidenced by the behavior of moms on one of the worst reality shows ever, "Dance Moms," which follows the careers of children in the dance show business. On this show you can witness the remarkably bad behavior of the children's' moms. It's evidently compelling viewing, however, since Lifetime just renewed it for another season.