Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The 12 Days of Christmas (An Updated Re-Post)

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the 12 Days of Christmas are not the 12 days before Christmas but the 12 days after, running from December 25th to January 5th (although in some traditions the twelve days run from December 26 to January 6th). It culminates with the Feast of Epiphany, which commemorates the time when the Wise Men present gifts to the young Jesus, who may have been as old as two years old at the time (the Bible's not clear how long it takes them to track Jesus down). Some households (such as ours) celebrate Christmastide by giving gifts on all of the 12 days, but this is more the exception than the rule.

When most people hear "The 12 Days of Christmas," however, they probably think of the song:
  • On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... "A Partridge in a Pear Tree."
  • On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... "Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree."
  • On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... Three French Hens, Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.
  • On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... Four Colly Birds (some versions using "mockingbirds" or "calling birds"), Three French Hens, Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree . . . 
  • And so on until the 12th verse. . .
  • On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... Twelve Drummers Drumming, Eleven Pipers Piping, Ten Lords-a-Leaping, Nine Ladies Dancing, Eight Maids-a-Milking, Seven Swans-a-Swimming, Six Geese-a-Laying, Five Gold Rings, Four Colly Birds, Three French Hens, Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.
The song's origin is unclear, but one story that has little historical support but is still fun to consider is that it originated as a Catholic "Catechism Song" in England during a time when Catholicism was "discouraged" (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 the Wikipedia article on the topic.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Is Pope Francis a Marxist? Rush Limbaugh Seems to Think So

Is Pope Francis a Marxist? No, not even close ("Is Pope Francis a Liberal?"), but he's probably to the left of his predecessors and his recently released apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, has really gotten under the skin of Rush Limbaugh, leading Rush to call it "pure Marxism." An apostolic exhortation is a communication from the Pope that encourages the faithful to undertake a particular activity, but it doesn't define Church doctrine, which means that it isn't to be considered an "infallible" teaching (In order for a teaching by a pope to be recognized as infallible, it must be a decision of the supreme teaching authority of the Church, concern a doctrine of faith or morals, bind the universal Church, and be proposed as something to be held firmly and immutably).

Infallible or not, Evangelii Gaudium has attracted considerable attention because of its critique of free market capitalism. Here's a sample passage (Chapter 2, I: 53-54):
Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.
Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.
In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.
Francis's critique attracted Stephen Dubner and the folks at Freakonomics, as they sought to answer the question, what is the role of markets in causing — or alleviating — human suffering ("Pontiff-icating on the Free-Market System")? To answer this, they turned to economist Jeffrey Sachs, who has spent much of his life as an advocate for both the free market and the poor (see a brief biography of Sachs at the bottom of this post; for a more complete biography click on Sachs's name above or the link at the bottom of the post).

Sachs can recall the very day he discovered that the way economics is taught and learned in academia, represents only "a sliver of a shard of a smidgen" of how economics works itself out in the real world. It was in 1985; the first time he landed in Bolivia:
I remember from the first moment, literally of getting off the airplane actually taking a deep breath and finding no oxygen there because you’re about 13,000 feet above sea level, that my mouth was absolutely agape and amazed, and I’ve never ceased that feeling. What I had learned in the classroom was such a small part of what one needs to understand to be able to apply tools of economics effectively that I’ve regarded the next 28 years as really being an extraordinarily intensive learning curve. And I continue to feel that way. The world’s very complicated. What we can learn from theory and from models and from econometrics is very useful. But if it’s done divorced from practice I think it is almost inevitably, profoundly misleading.
Sachs believes that Francis supports the free market, but what he is arguing for in his exhortation is that it be embedded in a moral framework in which all persons are valued:
I am a believer in a market economy … and I would imagine Pope Francis, too, is a believer in a market economy, but what the Church has taught … is the idea that an economy needs a moral framework. This is a very, very basic idea that we have mostly discarded but that I believe in.
Another economist, Joseph Kaboski, from Notre Dame and President of  CREDO, the Catholic Research Economists Discussion Organization, essentially agrees with Sachs. He believes that Francis makes important points but stresses that markets are crucial for eliminating poverty:
The pope has a point on a number of fronts. And you know, markets aren’t perfect, and ethics are important. I think that’s one of the things he’s trying to say. … But on the other hand, we’ve never seen an example of any country that has escaped extreme poverty because of foreign aid or NGOs. … More people have escaped extreme poverty in the past 25 years in part through the growth of China and India than in any period of human history. And all of these miracle countries — “miracle” in the economic sense, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Chile down in Latin America — they’ve all grown through, high levels of trade, market economies. And that’s important.
All I can say is that it is one of the more interesting Freakonomics podcasts in quite some time (although, I confess, that I enjoy most of them). You can download the podcast from iTunes or listen to it at the Freakonomics website ("Pontiff-icating on the Free-Market System") where the audio transcript is also available.

Jeffrey D. Sachs is the Director of The Earth Institute, Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development, and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University. He is Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals, having held the same position under former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He is Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. He is co-founder and Chief Strategist of Millennium Promise Alliance, and is director of the Millennium Villages Project. Sachs is also one of the Secretary-General’s MDG Advocates, and a Commissioner of the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Development. He has authored three New York Times bestsellers in the past seven years: The End of Poverty (2005), Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet (2008), and The Price of Civilization (2011). Note: Bio from The Earth Institute Website at Colombia University: http://www.earth.columbia.edu/articles/view/1770.

Friday, December 20, 2013

100 of the Best Holiday Songs

In addition to being inundated with holiday movies, most of us are being inundated with holiday songs. Below is a list of some of my favorites. One of these years, I'll provide links to iTunes so that you can download the song. But, for now, here are my top 100 (in alphabetical order -- I hope):
  1. All I Want for Christmas Is You - Mariah Carey
  2. Angels We Have Heard on High -- Glee Cast
  3. Auld Lang Syne - James Taylor
  4. Ave Maria - The Carpenters
  5. Away in a Manger/Child in a Manger - Michael W. Smith
  6. Baby, It's Cold Outside - Dean Martin
  7. Baby, Please Come Home for Christmas - Eagles
  8. Believe - Josh Groban
  9. Blue Christmas - Elvis Presley
  10. Breath of Christmas - Amy Grant
  11. Carol of the Bells - Various
  12. Carols Sing - Michael W. Smith
  13. Celebrate Me Home - Kenny Loggins
  14. The Chanukah Song - Adam Sandler
  15. Christ is Born - The Carpenters
  16. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) - U2
  17. Christmas Can't Be Very Far Away - Amy Grant
  18. Christmas Canon - Trans-Siberian Orchestra
  19. Christmas Hymn - Amy Grant
  20. Christmas in Your Arms - Alabama
  21. Christmas in Hollis - Run D.M.C.
  22. Christmas is Coming - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  23. Christmas Island - Jimmy Buffett
  24. The Christmas Shoes - NewSong
  25. The Christmas Song - Nat King Cole
  26. Christmas Time is Here - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  27. Christmas Waltz - Michael W. Smith
  28. Christmas Was Meant for Children - Sandi Patti
  29. Christmastime - Michael W. Smith
  30. Cold December Night - Michael Bublé
  31. Deck the Halls - Mannheim Steamroller
  32. Do You Hear What I Hear? - Whitney Houston
  33. Do They Know It's Christmas - Glee Cast
  34. Emmanuel, God With Us - Amy Grant
  35. Extraordinary Merry Christmas - Glee Cast
  36. Feeling Good - Nina Simone
  37. Feliz Navidad - José Feliciano
  38. The First Noel - Josh Groban & Faith Hill
  39. Frosty the Snowman - Jimmy Durante
  40. Go Tell It On The Mountain - James Taylor
  41. God is With Us - Casting Crowns
  42. Going Home For Christmas - Phil Coulter
  43. Good King Wenceslas - Various
  44. Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer - Elmo & Patsy
  45. Greensleeves - Various
  46. Grown Up Christmas List - Amy Grant
  47. The Happiest Christmas - Michael W. Smith
  48. Happy Xmas (The War is Over) - John Lennon
  49. Hark the Herald Angels Sing - Diamond Rio
  50. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - Vonda Shepherd
  51. Hey Santa - Carnie and Wendy Wilson
  52. High Plains (Christmas on the High-Line) - Philip Aaberg
  53. Holly Jolly Christmas - Burl Ives
  54. I Believe in Father Christmas - Emerson, Lake & Palmer
  55. I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day - Casting Crowns
  56. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus - John Mellencamp
  57. I Saw Three Ships - Craig Duncan
  58. I Wonder As I Wander - Sandi Patti
  59. I'll Be Home for Christmas - Michael Bublé
  60. In the Bleak Midwinter - Phil Coulter
  61. It Snowed - Meaghan Smith
  62. It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year - Andy Williams
  63. I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm - Frank Sinatra
  64. Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring - Amy Grant
  65. Jingle Bell Rock - Bobby Helms
  66. Jingle Bells - Michael Bublé
  67. Joy to the World - Aretha Franklin
  68. Last Christmas - Glee Cast
  69. Let it Snow - Dean Martin
  70. Linus and Lucy - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  71. Little Alter Boy - The Carpenters
  72. Little Drummer Boy - Various
  73. Manger 6 - Bob Rivers and Twisted Radio
  74. Merry Christmas Baby - Bruce Springsteen
  75. Merry Christmas Darling - The Carpenters
  76. Mister Santa - Amy Grant
  77. Mistletoe and Holly - Frank Sinatra
  78. Nothin' New for New Years - Harry Connick, Jr. & George Jones
  79. The Nutcracker Suite - Various
  80. Patapan - Various
  81. Please Come Home For Christmas - The Eagles
  82. River - Joni Mitchell
  83. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer - Burl Ives
  84. Santa Claus in Coming to Town - Bruce Springsteen
  85. Santa Baby - Madonna
  86. Skating - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  87. Silent Night - Sarah McLachlan
  88. Sleigh Ride - The Carpenters
  89. Snoopy's Christmas - The Royal Guardsmen
  90. Snow - Bing Crosby, Danny Kay, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen
  91. Song For A Winter's Night - Sarah McLachlan
  92. Sweet Little Jesus Boy - Casting Crowns
  93. Tennessee Christmas - Amy Grant
  94. There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays - Perry Como
  95. This Christmas - Vonda Shepard
  96. Walkin' Round in Women's Underwear - Bob Rivers and Twisted Radio
  97. What are You Doing New Year's Eve? - Ella Fitzgerald
  98. Where Are You Christmas? - Faith Hill
  99. White Christmas - Bing Crosby
  100. You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch - Boris Karloff

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Social Construction of Reality (Sort of)

The social construction of reality is both the title of a highly influential book by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (see image at left), as well as the process by which our interactions with others give rise to ideas, norms, social arrangements, institutions, and so on that take on a life of their own, such that we take them for granted and regard them as “given." These ideas, norms, and so on are then passed on, primarily through the socialization of children, such that each successive generation comes to embrace them as normal, as the way things ought to be. However, and not surprisingly, societies often differ in terms of their ideas, norms, social arrangements, institutions, and this has led many social scientists to argue that all (or nearly all) of our ideas and perceptions of the world around us are socially constructed. As the psychologist Steven Pinker notes,
The social sciences have sought to explain all customs and social arrangements as a product of the socialization of children by the surrounding culture: a system of words, images, stereotypes, role models, and contingencies of reward and punishment. A long and growing list of concepts that would seem natural to the human way of thinking (emotions, kinship, the sexes, illness, nature, the world) are now said to have been "invented" or "socially constructed"... 
According to the doctrine, any differences we see among races, ethnic groups, sexes, and individuals come not from differences in their innate constitution but from differences in their experiences. Change the experiences--by reforming parenting, education, the media, and social rewards--and you can change the person. Underachievement, poverty, and anti-social behavior can be ameliorated; indeed, it is irresponsible not to do so ("The Blank Slate," p. 6).
There is certainly some truth to the theory. Consider how the concept of gender has been changed in recent years. I can remember when girls basketball was played when each team played with two sets of five players--one on offense, one on defense--because women were seen as the "weaker sex" and physically incapable of running up and down the basketball court. Thankfully, this "socially constructed" belief has gone the way of the Do-Do bird, as have other more pernicious beliefs (e.g., the superiority of the Aryan race).

At the same time, the theory's proponents often make absurd claims. Take, for instance, the case of David Reimer, a Canadian man who was raised by his parents as a girl after he suffered an accident that occurred during a circumcision went awry. The psychologist John Money oversaw the case and reported that the "experiment" of raising Reimer as a female was a success, and many social scientists interpreted this as evidence that gender is primarily learned (i.e., it is a social construction). However, by the time Reimber was 15, he began living as a male and after undergoing an operation, he got married and had kids. However, the psychological damage he suffered as a child led to bouts of extreme depression, and he eventually committed suicide.

Reimer's case is only one instance, of course, but the empirical evidence against the theory, what Pinker refers to as the "Blank Slate," is piling up. For example, research on identical twins who had been separated at birth has found that they were strikingly similar in terms of behavior and other likes and wants. For example, they score similarly in terms of verbal, mathematical, and general intelligence, and they share similar attitudes towards issues such as the death penalty, religion, and (interestingly) modern music (p. 47). Moreover, identical twins are far more similar than are fraternal twins, who do not share as many genes. Such similarity cannot be explained by the environments in which they grew up because they were often quite different. Another example is the work of anthropologist Donald Brown, who has drawn up a list of hundreds of human traits ("Human Universals") that can be found in every society ever documented, and the social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues have found that across cultures, people share similar moral instincts ("Aristotle and the Righteous Mind"). Such findings would be impossible if all the world was a social construct.

According to Pinker, regardless of the evidence, the blank slate theory has become "the secular religion of modern intellectual life" (p. 3), primarily because it's seen as providing the intellectual justification for and the means by which values that most of us hold dear (e.g., equality of the sexes, races, etc.) can be promoted through social engineering. In fact, many believe that without such intellectual justification, society could devolve back into a world where oppression and discrimination are justified (p. 139), and this, according to Pinker, is why some social scientists continue to defend the theory, explaining away any and all evidence mustered against it:
The fact that [the theory] is based on a miracle--a complex mind arising out of nothing--is not held against it. Challenges to the doctrine from skeptics and scientists have plunged some believers into a crisis of faith and have led others to mount the kind of bitter attacks ordinarily aimed at heretics and infidels. And just as many religious traditions eventually reconciled themselves to apparent threats from science (such as the revolutions of Copernicus and Darwin), so... will our values survive he demise of the Blank Slate (p. 3). 
Unfortunately, hard-core social constructionists continue to stroll the halls of academia (which is about the only place they can still find employment), force-feeding their unsuspecting students with fundamentalist zeal. But then again, why should they let empirical evidence get in the way of a theory that confirms their biases and justifies their causes?

(As an aside, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann referred to earlier should not be grouped with hard-core social constructionists. While they obviously believe that some things are social constructions, they don't believe that all thing are. Berger, for instance, doesn't believe that God is a social construction and is, in fact, a Christian).

Eventually, though, these social constructionists have to come to terms with the evidence (or they will become increasingly irrelevant), and a good place to start is the anthropologist Donald Brown's list of universal human traits ("Human Universals"). Pinker's book should also be a must read, but for the less ambitious, his TED talk (see below) is excellent. Like all TED talks, it's approximately 20 minutes long. It isn't as complete as his book, but then again it's not nearly as long either.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What A Difference A Year Makes

A little over a year ago the NY Giants beat the SF Niners 26-3 in a rematch of the previous year's NFC Championship game. At that point in the season, the Giants looked like world beaters, while the Niners looked ordinary, but it was the Niners who ended up in the Super Bowl, not the Giants. In fact, the Giants didn't even make the playoffs. Even more interesting is the fact that Eli Manning was at the top of his game, and Alex Smith was not (although his offensive line didn't help -- 6 sacks), and I seem to recall Bay Area newspapers wistfully wishing that Eli was the Niners' quarterback, not Smith.

What a difference a year makes. Smith now plays for the Chiefs, and the Chiefs (and probably the Niners) are going to the playoffs, but the Giants will miss them for the second year in a row. Moreover, Smith is having a good year, but Eli is not. As a case in point, this past Sunday, Smith threw 5 touchdown passes, while Manning threw 5 interceptions, and as the table below shows, Smith is having a lot better season than Manning. Smith's passer rating, the standard quarterback rating (with the highest possible score = 158.3), and total QBR, which takes into account a quarterback's ability to run and/or to avoid sacks (with a highest possible score of 100.0).


In fact, pundits are starting to wonder whether or not Eli is past his prime, but I'm guessing it's just because he's playing behind a terrible offensive line (something that plagued Smith for his first seven years in San Francisco). I don't care how good a quarterback is. If they only have (on average) three seconds to throw, they won't be successful.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Baby, You Can Drive My Car

Most of us who grew up in the South Bay remember how dangerous Highway 17 was from Los Gatos to Santa Cruz use to be. Not that it's currently a walk in the park, but it is so much safer now than it was back in the 60's and 70's when it was a four-lane road with few (if any) barriers separating the southbound and northbound lanes. It hasn't been just the addition of concrete dividers that has made it more safe, however. An improved driving surface, better signage, raised pavement markers between lanes and on the shoulder, and increased driver awareness about how dangerous a road it can be have also made it a lot safer than it used to be.

But it isn't just road improvements that have made it safer to drive from Los Gatos to Santa Cruz. Improvements to cars, such as seat belts and air bags, have helped as well. In fact, all across the nation driving is becoming safer.  Although more than a 30,000 people died in the US from traffic accidents (and more than a million died worldwide), the death rate, in terms of miles driven, has fallen by two-thirds since 1975 (see graphic below).

Not all the news is good news, though. Most driving accidents occur because of human error, and in-car distractions such as mobile devices and lattes only increase the likelihood of human error, which is why driverless cars are probably in our future. The increased safety of cars, as well as the dangers of in-car distractions, is the subject of a recent Freakonomics podcast ("The Most Dangerous Machine"), which you can download from iTunes or listen to at the Freakonomics website.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Are Gay Men Really More Affluent?

Are gay men really more affluent? That's the subject of the latest Freakonomics podcast ("Are Gay Men Really Rich?"), which was prompted by a question from a Freakonomics listener:
A Freakonomics Radio listener named Danny Rosa recently got in touch with us. He’s 22, recently graduated from the University of Chicago. He works as a youth advocate at the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center. Danny himself is gay, and he has a question for us.
"Hey, Freakonomics. I’m Danny Rosa and I’m wondering why gay men are so affluent and successful. If you walk down neighborhoods like West Hollywood in Los Angeles, the Castro in San Francisco, and Boystown in Chicago, they are all very well-kept, expensive, and highly sought after. So, I’m thinking, what is it about gay men and the gay culture that makes them so wealthy?"
But are gay men really men more affluent and successful? At first glance it appears that they are:
According to some analyses, median household income for heterosexual couples is about $86,000. For gay male couples, meanwhile, median household income is…$105,600, or nearly 20 percent more. And, for what it’s worth, lesbian couples have lower median income than heterosexual couples, about $84,000. So... gay men do seem to earn more. So the next logical question is… why? 
Why indeed? Lee Badgett, who is an economist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, says it appears that gay men tend to have higher-than-average education levels, and education and income are highly correlated with one another.  Moreover, men typically earn more than women, so having two working men in a household also helps. And then there's kids, or the lack thereof. Gay male couples are the least likely couples to have kids:
In the U.S., 43.5 percent of straight couples are raising kids under age 18. Among lesbian households, that number is 22 percent. And only 10 percent of gay male couples are raising a child. So a straight couple is more than four times as likely as a gay male couple to be raising a kid.
And when couples don't have kids, they have a lot more disposable income. In fact, one estimate found that American parents spend an average of nearly $175,000 per kid from birth to age 18, which means that childless couples can spend that money in other ways.

But, the data are not always what they seem, and in this case they are probably not very good because they aren't representative of the wider gay population. In fact, a recent study (with better data) found that if you took two observationally equivalent men (i.e., two men with the same background, same education, and so on), the gay man would earn less than the straight man. Moreover, it appears, that gay men and women are more likely to live in poverty. Why? That question (and more) is tentatively answered in the latest Freakonomics podcast, which can be downloaded from iTunes or listened to at the Freakonomics website ("Are Gay Men Really Rich?") (where you can also find the transcript of the podcast).

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Robinson Cano and the Yankees: What's Good for the Goose (is Good for the Gander?)

Yankees' fans are angry that Robinson Cano is leaving Gotham City for the Pacific Northwest. Here's a sample of tweets from some fans after learning that he signed a 10 year contract with the Seattle Mariners ("17 angry Yankee Fans Who Don’t Accept Robinson Cano’s ‘Thank You’ to New York"):
@RobinsonCano do you want the autographed ball I have back You can sell it and keep the money since that's all you care about

@RobinsonCano have fun winning 60 games for the next ten years, you no good sell out
@RobinsonCano @Mariners i hope both your acl's explode and your career is over you traitor  
@RobinsonCano @Mariners TRADER!! U will never see another October .. Ya u will be rich but no more rings .. Fade away into oblivion 
@RobinsonCano @Mariners - enjoy obscurity! Could've gone down as one of the greats... now you're just another $ fiend  
@RobinsonCano have fun with money and no rings good by traitor. You never hustled anyway, never was a true yankee
Traitor? (or TRADER -- I guess not all Yankee fans can spell). Sell out? Money is all you care about?  Where have these fans been the past few decades? Don't they realize that one of the reasons why so many fans dislike the Yankees is because they're known for using $$$$ to entice players away from other teams. Evidently not. Do names like Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Alex Rodriguez, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Johnny ("looks like Jesus, acts like Judas, throws like Mary") Damon ring a bell? (For the unwashed, all are players who left smaller market teams for the Yankees and a larger salary.) I guess as far as Yankees' fans are concerned, what's good for the goose isn't good for the gander.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Tara Isabella Burton: Secular Theologian

Tara Isabella Burton is a writer who's essays, reviews, and travel writing can be found in The Atlantic, Los Angeles Review of Books, SalonConde Nast Traveller, and many others. She also attends Trinity College at Oxford where she is currently working on her doctorate in theology although she isn't a person of faith. Tara's secular and politically liberal mother wasn't too thrilled when she decided to study theology, believing that a degree in theology would be as useless as speculating about the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin. Burton, by contrast, argues that the study of theology is important, not just for people of faith, but for those who care about history, humanity, and culture. Through her studies she says that she's able to get inside the hearts and minds, fears and concerns, of people vastly different from herself but who shape much of the world. "To study theology well," she argues, "requires not faith, but empathy" (Source: Christian Century).

Too bad more secularists (e.g., Richard Dawkins who's also at Oxford) don't share her outlook on life, and rather than deriding or making fun of those who differ from them, actually tried to understand and empathize with them. I dare say that we'd be one step closer to having a civil society.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

15 of the Best Christmas Movies in Alphabetical Order (Updated Repost)

1.   A Charlie Brown Christmas (Charles Schultz)

The best of the Charlie Brown movies (although "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" is a close second). It's one of the few Christmas movies that actually includes a reference 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.'"
Then Linus concludes, "... and that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." Yes, that is what Christmas is all about. (Note how he lets go of his blanket as he says, "Fear not!" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pn10FF-FQfs -- Thanks to Walter Taylor for pointing that out)

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

There are several wonderful 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 version 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 quite good.

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."

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). My sense is that the movie's title leads people to expect one kind of movie when in fact it's actually something quite different. The movie 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 the Luther and Nora's neighbors (especially Dan Akroyd), who continually pressure them to get into the holiday spirit. A battle, of sorts, plays out between the Kranks and their neighbors, threatening the harmony of the neighborhood. Then Luther and Nora get a call from Blair and learn that she's coming home for Christmas after all and now the Kranks 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 the tickets for their cruise 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 plays Severus Snape), 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 in this movie 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 Zooey Deschanel -- aka "New Girl"), helps NY recapture the Christmas spirit, and has a heck of a lot of fun (well, most of the time), as does the audience. Along the way you also learn about important things, such as the elvish four main food groups: 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 (played 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.   Groundhog Day (Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell)

When it comes down to it, the Christmas story is, at least in part, about personal transformation, and this movie hits it on the head. Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, an arrogant and egocentric Pittsburgh TV weatherman who, during a hated assignment covering the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, gets caught up in a time loop and ends up repeating the same day over and over again ("It's Groundhog Day!"). After indulging in hedonism and attempting suicide numerous times, he starts to re-examine his life, turns into a decent guy, and eventually gets the girl (Andie MacDowell). Director Harold Ramis (who starred with Murray in Ghostbusters) makes a cameo appearance as a local doctor. MacDowell is charming as Rita; just a year later she starred with Hugh Grant in another classic, "Four Weddings and a Funeral."

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, troubled with 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) 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. You may remember him in "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" when he played Tuco (the Ugly). 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. Also, for you movie trivia buffs -- Iris's cottage is also featured in the final episode of "Burn Notice."

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.

10. 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. 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 (how many folks watch that movie any one? I haven't even heard of it!).

13. 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.

14. 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.

15. 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 mom 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 (George's Aunt), and Vera-Ellen on the train from Miami to Vermont (pictured above).