Friday, May 31, 2013

Old vs. New, Good vs. Bad

Banacek, which starred George Peppard (before the A-Team) and ran from 1972 to 1974, was one of my favorite shows. Peppard played Banacek, a suave, intelligent, yet street-wise, freelance investigator, who recovered stolen property (e.g., paintings, sculptures) and collected 10% of the property's insured value from the companies that had insured it. His success allowed him to live well, really well in fact, and so he surrounded himself with the finer things in life, including a number of valuable antiques.

In addition to his investigative skills, Banacek was also known for his philosophizing, which typically took the form of oddly-phrased but insightful proverbs:
  • "If you're not sure that it's potato borscht, there could be orphans working in the mines."
  • "Though the hippopotamus has no sting, the wise man would prefer to be sat upon by the bee."
  • "A truly wise man never plays leapfrog with a unicorn."
  • "If a wolf is after your sleigh throw him a raisin cookie—but don't stop to bake him a cake."
  • "Just because the cat has her kittens in the oven doesn't make them biscuits."
  • "You can read all the books in the library, but the cheese will still stink."
  • "No matter how warm the smile on the face of the Sun, the cat still has her kittens under the porch."
However, in high school my favorite Banacek insight had to do with why people often seem to value "old" things more than they do new ones. In the pilot episode, one of his investigative rivals looked around at all his antiques and asked, "Don't you like anything new?" To which he responded: "It's not a question of old or new; it's a question of good or bad. We've got about maybe, 10 years of new and thousands of years of old, [meaning] that the odds are, there are more good old things than new ones."

In other words, the reason why phenomena such as "Classic" radio stations are so popular isn't because songs were better 30 and 40 years ago (although I'm sure there are some who would argue that -- remember, our parents didn't like our songs either!). But when you have 30-40 years worth of old songs to choose from as compared to 5-10 years worth of new ones, odds are that there will be more "good" old songs than "good" new ones.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Something Old, Something New

I can't remember which actress it was, but when reflecting on her days as a childhood actor, she referred to some of the movies and/or TV shows she'd been in as "cheesy;" that is, as in "not cool," "unsophisticated," or "I'm better than that now." Of course, she probably wouldn't be where she is now if it wasn't for those cheesy movies and TV shows, but that fact doesn't appear to have crossed her mind.

I don't think her attitude is unusual. I think many of us dismiss those parts of our past that we no longer deem to be cool, whether it was places we went (e.g., Disney-land), shows we watched (e.g., Leave it to Beaver), or food we loved to eat (e.g., Ron's Hot Dogs in Los Gatos). The problem is that we wouldn't be who we are apart from who we used to be. To be sure, for many of us there are times in our lives that we could have done without, but we don't have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We can embrace who we once were without enjoying who we are now. So, while I may no longer watch repeats of Hogan's Heroes and may not laugh like I used to when Hutch yelled, "Starsky!", I don't feel the need to dismiss those times because I'm now more enlightened (yeah, right). No, I can celebrate what I once enjoyed even if today I might not.

Somewhat analogous to this is how a lot of people view their religious pasts. Many of us belong to a denomination or tradition in which we weren't raised, but that doesn't mean we have to jettison all that came before because what came before is a large part of who we are now. As UCC pastor Lillian Daniel notes ("When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even in Church," pp. 181-182):
These days, very few of people who join our church were raised in the denomination or tradition we are a part of, and we are hardly unique in that. Most of my church members were raised in other forms of Christianity that were less open-minded than ours, and they may have some negative feelings about the church of their childhood. And so they drifted from church and sought to go it alone, without a faith community. 
But eventually, they hit something that was bigger than private, self-created spirituality. Perhaps it was the death of a parent, the birth of a child, a friend’s illness, or a lonely patch in life, but suddenly they found themselves remembering some of those childhood Bible lessons. They found themselves recalling the blessings of the Christian faith, and they searched for a church, but they did so very tentatively, not knowing what they would find and afraid of being hurt. 
When they do find us, they have the same reaction that so many people do when they discover a welcoming and inclusive church where you are not expected to leave your brain outside on the sidewalk. “This is the church I always wanted to find but didn’t know existed.” But our church isn’t perfect any more than the churches they left are all bad. 
A miraculous thing can happen to grown-ups on a faith journey. We come to appreciate moments from our past faith community, as different as it may be from our current one. We may recall a special Sunday school teacher who taught us the “sacred writings” in our childhood. 
That is why when people join our church, we always say, “We give thanks for every community that has ever been your spiritual home.” I believe that there really is a connection between who we were raised to be and who we are now. It might not be a straight line, but you can connect the dots. God works through all kinds of religious communities at different points in our lives. No spiritual home is all good or all bad. So give thanks for the small and tender blessings of every place that has ever been your spiritual home, and for lessons you have learned.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Gotham Religious Revival?

When people think of New York, seldom do they associate it with high levels of religiosity. Yet, that is exactly what journalist Tony Carnes has discovered through the "A Journey Through NYC Religions" project he heads. In fact, it appears that 1978 was a turning point in New York's religious life. It was at that point that the number of church (and synagogue, mosque, temple, etc.) foundings began to outpace the number of closings. Indeed, Carnes refers to NYC as a postsecular city. I wonder what Harvey Cox would make of that. While the project's website is awash with stories, pictures, videos, and more, you can get a taste of the project through a recent Research on Religion interview of Tony Carnes ("Tony Carnes on Jesus’s Auto Body (and Soul) Shop, Blessed Pizza, and NYC Religions Part II"):
A hat shop in Harlem that dispenses spiritual advice. A circle of Korean limo drivers holding Bible studies. An auto body repair shop named after Christianity’s savior. All of this stuff, and more, can be found in New York City and Tony Carnes has been on a mission to find this and document it. Following up on previous interview about Carnes’s project “A Journey Through New York City Religions,” we delve into some of the interesting, surprising, and sometimes unusual details of what constitutes NYC’s spiritual lifeblood. We go over some of the meta-trends as well as looking at the fine details. A fun and informative look at the post-secular city.
This is actually the second time that Research on Religion host Tony Gill has interviewed Carnes (hence, the "Part II" in the title of the podcast). The first interview, however, is more background than it is about the actual project. Hence, I recommend listening to this one rather than the first. As always, the Research on Religion podcasts are available on iTunes and at the Research on Religion website ("Tony Carnes on Jesus’s Auto Body (and Soul) Shop, Blessed Pizza, and NYC Religions Part II").

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Is Texting Ruining the English Language?

Is texting ruining the English language? When texting, we often shorten words (e.g., r u ready?, c u later), use a lot of acronyms (e.g., LOL, IDK, GIGATT), and ignore most rules of grammar, rendering our sentences syntactically incorrect and attracting the ire of the semantic police. The concern is genuine. If in our every day usage of language, we write incorrectly, will we lose the ability to do so when it's needed?

I honestly don't know (predicting the future is tough), but I think there's reason to hope that all will be well in the grammatical world. Consider the following phrases taken from a series of letters written in the early 20th century:
  • I have seen several things wh. have not been very pretty since I have been up here.
  • I know the Buffs wd never have done this.
  • At times, I think I cd conquer everything—& then again I know I am only a weak vain fool. But your love for me is the greatest glory & recognition that has or will ever befall me: & the attachment wh I feel towards you is not capable of being altered by the sort of things that happen in this world.
  • ... actions like Firket in Egypt— wh are cracked up as great battles and wh are commemorated by clasps & medals etc etc... 
  • So far as I am concerned if you find it necessary to make a change here, I shd be glad— assuming it was thought fitting— to be offered a position in the new Government.
  • The youth of Europe— almost a whole generation— will be shorn away. I find it vy painful to be deprived of any direct means of action.
Not exactly pristine examples of written English, but their author, Winston Churchill, could write remarkably well when it was called for (I apologize for the dangling preposition). Churchill, in fact, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953. He was also a remarkable orator and, of course, was elected to Parliament several times and Prime Minister twice. Not bad for someone who shortened which to wh, would to wd, could to cd, and apparently disliked commas.

For a slightly different take on texting, check out the TED talk by John McWhorter, who is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, as well as the author of "What Language Is (and What It Isn't and What It Could Be)." He argues that texting is less like writing and more like speaking, and people speak differently from the way they write.

Also see the brief article based on his talk: "Is Texting Killing the English Language?")

Sunday, May 19, 2013


California drivers have an issue with signaling. They don't. Surely how to signal is still taught by driving schools. Who knows, maybe it isn't, and maybe this disease isn't limited to Californians. Regardless, it would sure be nice if everyone would make the extra effort to signal before turning or changing lanes. It may come as a shock, but driving's a lot easier when you know what the car in front of you is going to do.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Seve, Sergio, and Tiger

Evidently, the great Spanish golfer, Seve Ballesteros, often tried to disrupt his opponents' in a variety of ways.  For example, sometimes, just as his opponent was about to make a shot, Seve would reach into his pocket and jingle a few coins or keys just loud enough for his opponent to hear (but no one else). What's interesting, is that when Seve was in his prime (e.g., when he won the British Open at St. Andrews in 1984 -- I was there), few, if any, of his opponents publicly complained about his gamesmanship. If they did, not only would they sound like whiners, but (more importantly) Seve would know that he'd gotten inside their head and his probability of winning had just increased.

It's somewhat ironic, then, that another Spanish golfer, Sergio Garcia, recently complained about Tiger Woods's attempts at gamesmanship. This past week at the Tournament Players Championship (TPC), Tiger removed a club from his bag just before Sergio was about to shoot. This, in turn, led the crowd around Tiger to cheer (not sure why) and Sergio's shot went awry. Replays show, however, that Garcia had not begun to swing. He could have stepped away, gathered himself, and then taken his shot, something professional golfers do all the time. But he didn't.

There's some debate as to whether Tiger reached for his club at exactly that time on purpose or not.  He claims that one of the course marshals told him that Garcia had already hit, so that's why he took the club out of his bag. The head TPC Marshal disputed Tiger's account, claiming that there was no communication between Tiger and the marshals, but yesterday two other marshals came forward and said that there was such communication ("Course Marshals: Tiger Didn't Lie"). In fact one of the two indicated that he was the marshal who told Tiger that Sergio had hit.

Regardless, Sergio should have kept his mouth shut. The moment he complained to the media about what Tiger had done, Tiger knew that he'd gotten into Garcia's head. And sure enough, the next day at the 17th hole, with Garcia and Tiger tied, Garcia plunked two balls into the water (he also hit one into the water on 18). Tiger didn't and went on to win the TPC. As others have pointed out, there's a reason why Tiger has won more tournaments and more majors (14 -- 16 if you count his US Amateur wins) than Sergio has (Sergio has yet to win a major). He has what it takes to win.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

How Religion Benefits Everyone, Even Nonbelievers

Back in January, Susan Jacoby wrote an op-ed for the NY Times ("The Blessings of Atheism") in which she argued that since atheists don't believe in an afterlife, this should lead to them to place a greater emphasis on their actions in this world than do people of faith. While her argument is logical, that's not what's occurs in the real world: When it comes to charity and volunteering, people of faith contribute far more of their time and money than do their secular counterparts.

But wait, you're probably thinking, this is only true because they contribute their time and money to religious institutions with which they're affiliated. However, while it's true that they do contribute to religious institutions (e.g., churches, synagogues, Habitat for Humanity), they also contribute to secular institutions, and they do so at rates higher than their secular counterparts. That's right. People of faith, on average, contribute more of their time and money to secular institutions than do nonbelievers.This is not to say that nonbelievers don't contribute to secular (and nonsecular) institutions. They do. It's just that, on average, people of faith contribute more.

This well-documented fact (and others) are the subject of the sociologist Rodney Stark's recent book, "America's Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists." It explores, as its provocative subtitle suggests, how religion benefits all of American society, not just believers. For instance,
  • People of faith are much less likely to commit crimes
  • The higher a community's church membership rate, the lower its burglary, larceny, robbery, assault, and homicide rates
  • Western Europe's burglary, theft, and assault rates are higher than those in the US -- to be sure, the US homicide rate is higher than WE countries, but it is primarily because the rate among African Americans is extremely high -- the homicide rate based on white victims is about the same as those in Western Europe -- why this gap exists is a matter of debate among scholars
  • Religious husbands are substantially less likely to abuse their wives and children
  • People of faith, on average, enjoy better mental and physical health, which in turn lowers the "costs" of poor mental and physical health that the rest of society has to bear
  • Religious Americans are much less likely to drop out of school; this is especially true for African Americans and Hispanics
This is not to suggest that religion in America is an unmitigated good. It isn't, but in a world where it's fashionable in some quarters to view religion as a "poison" (Christopher Hitchens), an empirically-based reality check is in order.

While I recommend reading the book, an alternative is to listen to a recent Research on Religion (RoR) podcast that features Rodney Stark discussing his book with University of Washington political scientist Tony Gill ("Rodney Stark on How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists"). As always, you can download the podcast from iTunes or listen to it at the Research on Religion website (see the link above). Here's a short description from the RoR website:
Frequent guest and popular academic author Rodney Stark joins us to discuss his new book “America’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists.” We discuss whether or not spiritual life in the United States is actually on the decline, and then review how the activities of religious Americans have positive spillover effects for society as a whole in a wide range of areas including health, voluntarism, pro-social behavior, the economy, and intellectual life. We even talk about “s-e-x.” 
The podcast begins with an interesting discussion of the religiously unaffiliated, who are sometimes referred to as the "religious nones." It is not uncommon for people to incorrectly assume that the 20% of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated are non-believers. However, as a recent study by the Pew Forum found ("No Religion on the Rise"), lack of religious affiliation should not be equated with non-belief (Susan Jacoby makes this mistake in her NY Times op-ed). For instance, of the religiously unaffiliated,
  • 18% consider themselves religious
  • 37% consider themselves spiritual but not religious
  • 33% believe that religion is somewhat or very important
  • 41% pray weekly or more
  • 68% believe in God
  • 30% have had a religious or mystical experience
  • 30% believe in spiritual energy in things like mountains, rocks, and crystals
  • 31% have been in touch with someone who has died
  • 25% believe in astrology
  • 19% have seen or been in the presence of a ghost
  • 15% have consulted a psychic
I'm not sure how you would categorize such folks, but "atheist," "irreligious," and "secular" aren't the first words that jump to mind. Unchurched is a possibility, but then again 5% of the religiously unaffiliated attend church weekly and 19% attend on a less regular basis. Go figure.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Randomness and Winning (and Losing) Streaks

A few years back the folks at Radio Lab visited Deborah Nolan's statistics class in order to explore that nature of randomness ("Stochasticity: A Very Luck Wind"). When there Nolan divided the class into two sections. She gave one section a coin and asked them to flip the coin 100 times and record whether it was a head or a tail. She asked the other class to simply imagine flipping a coin 100 times and then record whether each flip was a head or a tail. She then left the room and didn't return until both sections had finished "flipping" their coins. After glancing at what the two sections had recorded, she correctly guessed which record represented the section that flipped the actual coin and which one had not.

Why? Because when most people think of randomness, they don't imagine that long streaks of heads or tails occur, but they do and more often than they think. It is not unusual to for a head (or a tail) to appear 4, 5, 6 or more times in a row. However, if you ask someone (or a class) to imagine flipping a coin 100 times and recording whether each flip was a head or a tail, you typically get something like this:


Such a pattern, however, is anything but random. There's a pattern to it. Instead, a series of coin flips is more likely to look something like this:


Of course, if you flip a coin over the long run you will get heads about 50% of the time and tails about 50% of the time, but there's no guarantee that in the short run you will. This is captured by the graph below, which plots the percentage of heads over 100 coin flips. As you can see, the first flip was a head, but then a series of tails occurred before a number of heads (and only a few tails). And by 100, the percentage of heads is approaching 50%.

Unfortunately, we often mistakenly see patterns in random events and interpret them in terms of cause and effect when there is none. This often occurs in the world of sports. A team will go on a 5-game losing streak, and fans will start asking what's wrong when, in fact, there is nothing wrong. Randomness has simply played a role. For example, a basketball team, which typically makes 50% of its shots, has a series of games where an unusual number of shots roll in and out. Or a baseball team keeps hitting line drives at the other team's players, while their bloop hits keep falling in.

To illustrate this, I simulated one hundred 162 game seasons for a team that wins 58% of its games. That is, a team that on average will win 94 games a year, which is typically enough to make the playoffs. However, as the graph below shows, the number of wins that such a team could have ranges from 78 to 109 (although the extremes are improbable). Needless to say, if a team won 94 games one year and 78 the next, its fans and owners would probably ask, "What Went Wrong?", when it's possible that nothing went wrong, except that the team had a really bad run of luck. However, even if the owners sense this, if they do nothing, their fans will throw a hissy fit and the rest of league will heap scorn on them.

Now consider the streaks that such a team could experience in a given season. The first graph below presents the range of the longest win streak the team would have during a season; the second, the range of the longest losing streak the team would have. In other words, in an average season, the longest winning streak of a team that wins 58% of its games will be 8 and the longest losing streak will be 4 or 5. As you can see, however, the range of possibilities (from pure randomness) is quite large although the extremes (i.e., an 18-game winning streak and a 11-game losing streak) are highly unlikely.

Is there a moral to the story? Possibly. At least for owners, managers, and players: Don't push the panic button too quick. You may just be experiencing a run of bad luck. Nothing more.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Religious Freedom and Human Rights

In previous posts, I have written about the virtues of religious freedom ("A Case for Religious Freedom," "Religious Freedom and Religious Violence"). Religious freedom is positively associated with political freedom, freedom of the press, gender empowerment, and longevity of democracy, while religious restrictions are positively associated with religious persecution and violence.

Here (i.e., below) is a TEDx Talk ("The Number of Religious Freedom") on the state of religious freedom around the world by Brian Grim, PhD, the Director of Cross-National Data and Senior Researcher in Religion and World Affairs at the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life in Washington, D.C. He is also the co-author of "The Price of Freedom Denied" with Roger Finke. LIke all TED talks, it is just under 20 minutes long.

As an interesting aside, this TEDx Talk was held at a location along the Via della Conciliazione (i.e., the Road of the Conciliation), which is a street approximately 500 meters (1,600 ft) in length that connects the Vatican and the center of Rome. In other words, the conference was held in Vatican City, but from what I've heard, the powers that be among the TEDx community thought it would be unpopular to say they were holding a TEDx event at the Vatican. This is because TED events tend to attract a disproportionate share of the irreligious or the "spiritual but not religious" crowd.