Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Speech That Chief Seattle Did Not Give

Many of us who came of age during and after the environmental movement of the 1970s are familiar with Chief Seattle's Treaty Oration of 1854, which some have called one of the most beautiful and profound statements on the environment ever made:

How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees carries the memories of the red man. The white man's dead forget the country of their birth when they go to walk among the stars. Our dead never forget this beautiful earth, for it is the mother of the red man. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and man--all belong to the same family...
The problem is, Chief Seattle never said this. He did give a speech in 1854 that concerned the concession of native lands to the settlers, but it bears little resemblance to the version above, which in fact was written by screenwriter Ted Perry (who is now a professor at Middlebury College) for a movie called Home that was produced for the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission.

How did this happen? When Seattle gave his speech in 1854 (in his own language, Duwamish), a certain Dr. Henry Smith took notes, which he wrote up 33 years later and sent to a Seattle paper. Some scholars suspect that Smith's Duwamish at the time was a little sketchy, and given that he was also a poet, many think he might have taken some license with his rendering of the speech. Flash forward about 80 years to 1970 when Ted Perry was planning a film on the environment. He heard Smith's account read at an Earth Day gathering, which led him to write a script in which a fictitious Native American called for environmental responsibility. However, by the time the film found its way to the silver screen, the words of Perry's fictitious Native American had been put on the lips of Chief Seattle, and the rest (as they say) his history (or in this case, the lack thereof).

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Different Future for the NFL?

Last year sports agent Leigh Steinberg, who is believed to be the real-life inspiration for the movie, Jerry Maguire, opined in Forbes Magazine that "the looming specter of concussion consequences puts the future of the sport at risk" ("The Death of the NFL"). A year later he still believes this to be true, but not in the way you might think. He doesn't think the NFL will literally die, but he does believe that the socio-demographics of the game are going to change. In particular, he argues that middle and upper class parents are going to steer their kids away from football and toward less injury prone sports. Why? Because they're frightened by the increasing evidence about the way that football can damage the brains of our children:
Parents and athletes have accepted the fact that playing football breaks down the structure of many joints in the human body–the neck, hip, elbow, knee, ankle and back. But are parents willing to accept the reality that prominent neurologists like Dr. Julian Bailes, Dr. Bob Cantu, Dr. Mark Lovell, Dr. Mickey Collins and Dr. Tony Strickland are predicting. Our conferences showed that multiple concussions trigger an exponentially higher rate of premature senility and dementia, Parkinson’s, ALS, Alzheimer’s, depression and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. It is one thing to know that years of football will make it harder for an athlete to bend down and pick up his child when the athlete is forty. What if he can’t recognize the child because of concussion related dementia? ("The Death of the NFL")
Steinberg is almost certainly right. While watching a game a few weeks ago, one of my friends remarked half kiddingly, "Aren't you glad other parents let their sons play football?" And no doubt, my friend's not alone in thinking this way. All this and more are the subject of Mark Purdy's recent column in the San Jose Mercury News ("Agent Sees Peril in NFL's Future"). Purdy's reflections on the state of the NFL as well as on some of Steinberg's recommendations for making the game safer are worth pondering.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Birth of the Minimum Wage

Today, most debates about the minimum wage are over wage rate should be and what the economic consequences are of having a minimum wage. In the not too distant past, however, the debate was whether we should even have one. The first attempt at establishing a national minimum wage occurred in 1933, when a $0.25 per hour standard was set as part of the under the FDR Administration's National Industrial Recovery Act, but two years later the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional, and it was abolished. Not to be deterred, in 1938 FDR re-established a minimum wage of $0.25 per hour ($4.10 in 2012 dollars) as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act), and this time the Supreme Court upheld it, ruling that  Congress had the power (under the Commerce Clause) to regulate employment conditions.

But the story behind it's birth is much more complicated than that, and it's the subject of a recent Planet Money podcast ("Birth of the Minimum Wage"). The folks at Planet Money are planning a follow-up podcast on the economics of the minimum wage. I'll post a link to that when it appears.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Battle of the Bells

Schulmerich Bells and Malmark, Inc. are the two largest handbell companies in the world and are located just down the street from one other. However, while handbells often conjure up images of harmony and goodwill (especially around Christmas time -- e.g., "Carol of the Bells"), until recently these two companies were at logger heads with one another, routinely suing one another for real or perceived infractions. Luckily, there's a happy ending to this story, and on a recent Planet Money podcast ("Bell Wars") you can hear (learn) all about it.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Year in Religion

Lists abound of the top newsmakers, celebrities, and sport stars from 2013. Here's one from RealClearReligion ("14 Religion Newsmakers of 2013"), which is a "news aggregator" site (i.e., one identifies and provides links for the best news stories on a particular topic) whose editors also pen the occasional article. This one is by Jeremy Lott, who is an editor-at-large for RealClearPolitics (a related site). His brief comments on why he considers these individuals to be the top religious newsmakers are worth perusing:
  1. Pope and Change -- Pope Benedict retires (much to the delight of liberals) and Pope Francis is elected (much to the delight of liberals).
  2. Oxbridge's Finest -- C. S. Lewis: The 50th anniversary of the former Oxford don's death (same day and year as John Kennedy and Aldous Huxley).
  3. Born Again, One Last Time -- Billy Graham preaches his final sermon.
  4. Binders Full of Women -- Women in the Mormon Church fight for more rights and authority.
  5. Your Own MFA Jesus -- Fox's interview with Muslim Reza Aslan, about his book on Jesus (The Zealot) causes a minor firestorm and helps his book sell.
  6. God, Guns and Ganders -- ABC's hit reality show, Duck Dynasty, is a huge hit but runs into a public relations speed bump.
  7. Rebranding Southern Baptists -- Southern Baptists moderate their rhetoric.
  8. Cauldron of Controversy -- Mega-church pastor Mark Driscoll found himself in a lot of hot water over the content of his tweets, his alleged plagiarism, and even the clothes he wears.
  9. Atheism's Old Man -- Richard Dawkins targeted Muslims a bit more this year than he has in the past, but according to Lott, his rhetoric has become passé. As the Spectator of London put it, "The atheist spring that began just over a decade ago is over, thank God." 
  10. Aqua Buddha Strikes Back -- Libertarian and Kentucky Congressman Rand Paul has a knack for landing himself in religious controversies.
  11. Bombed in Boston -- Boston bombers ties to Islamic Chechen radicals has raised concerns of the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
  12. Still Prosperous -- Rumors of Joel Osteen's abandonment of Christianity proved premature
  13. Tips Against Jesus -- Early in the year a female pastor creates a controversy for writing on a restaurant receipt, "I give God 10%. Why do you get 18?"; at the end of the year anonymous tippers started leaving very large tips tagged, @tipsforjesus (one of the anonymous donors was evidently one of PayPal's founders.
  14. Love Loses - Evangelical Rob Bell, author of the book, Love Wins, finds his popularity apparently waning.
Lott is also interviewed on the latest Research on Religion podcast ("Jeremy Lott on the Religious Newsmakers of 2013") where he discusses some (not all) of these stories with host Anthony Gill. Here's a brief summary of the podcast (from the Research on Religion Website):
Jeremy Lott of RealClearPolitcs joins us to discuss the top religious newsmakers of 2013. We cover a significant ground ranging from the Boston Marathon bombers to Pope Francis. Along the way, we engage in discussions about the new direction of the Southern Baptist Convention, the issues surrounding various megachurch pastors such as Mark Driscoll and Rob Bell, the controversy surrounding religious gratuities (or lack thereof) at restaurants, and the last sermon of Billy Graham. And, of course, we get Jeremy’s thoughts on the first year (roughly) of Pope Francis’s reign.

Friday, January 17, 2014

One Way to Get a Free Upgrade On Your Next Rental Car

Here’s one way to get a free upgrade on your next rental car. After you sign all the documents and the clerk tells you which car is yours, get into and drive off in the car you really want to drive. Almost all of the rental car agencies leave the keys in the cars now, so pick out a nice one and head to the gate. Of course, when you get to the gate and hand the paperwork to the guard, they’ll note that you have the wrong car, but there’s a good chance they’ll let you keep the car you're in and upgrade you for free. If they don’t, you can always go back and get the one you were supposed to have.

How do I learn about this? Because after I flew into Washington D.C. late last Thursday night, I caught the shuttle to Avis, checked in, signed the paperwork, climbed into what I thought was my car (the clerk wrote the wrong parking slot # on the paperwork), and drove away. When I got to the gate, the guard looked at my paperwork and informed me that I had the wrong car, but even though I volunteered to turn around and get the right one, she said, “Forget it,” and upgraded me (free) from a Ford Focus to a luxury Volvo wagon. So, there you have it: One way to get a free upgrade on your next rental car

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Bet

In 1968 the biologist Paul Erlich and his wife published The Population Bomb, which became a bestseller and predicted that overpopulation would, in the very near future, lead to overconsumption, resource scarcity, and mass starvation. Erlich became something of an academic rockstar. He was well-spoken and funny, he went on tour, and appeared on The Tonight Show 20 times! Johnny Carson was quite impressed with him.

One person who wasn't too impressed was the economist, Julian Simon, who argued that human welfare would flourish thanks to flexible markets, technological change, and collective ingenuity. The debate between the two academics became quite acrimonious, and eventually Simon challenged Erlich to a decade-long bet (which Simon won). The bet is the subject of a new book by Paul Sabin ("The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future"), as well as a the topic of the latest Planet Money podcast ("A Bet on the Future of Humanity"). I haven't read the book yet (just learned about it this morning), but I did enjoy the podcast. I think many of you will too.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Final College Football Rankings

Here are my "final" college football rankings. They are based (as last year) on the average of three different rankings: The final Associated Press (AP) College Poll, USA Today Coaches Poll, and the Sagarin Rankings. The first two are human polls; the third is based on a series of algorithms. Some are skeptical of the latter, but research has repeatedly demonstrated that algorithms are typically better predictors of future events than are we humans (see e.g., Chapter 21 of Daniel Kahneman's book, "Thinking, Fast and Slow"). Moreover, because it takes into account all of the season's games, it is less swayed by the results of the bowl games than are the human polls. A brief description of the three polls follow my rankings, as does a ranking of the top college conferences in 2013:

The AP Poll is compiled by polling 65 sportswriters and broadcasters from across the nation. Each voter provides his own ranking of the top 25 teams, and the individual rankings are then combined to produce the national ranking by giving a team 25 points for a first place vote, 24 for a second place vote, and so on down to 1 point for a twenty-fifth place vote (I used an identical method for averaging the three polls). Of the three, only the AP Poll was not taken into account in calculating the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) rankings. For several years it was, but after a series of controversies, the AP demanded that its poll no longer be used in the BCS rankings.

The USA Today Coaches' Poll is compiled by the USA Today Board of Coaches, which is made up of 59 head coaches at NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) institutions. All coaches are members of the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA). The Coaches' Poll began ranking the top 20 teams during the 1950 season. It was initially published by United Press from 1950 thru 1990, followed by USA Today/CNN from 1991 thru 1996, USA Today/ESPN from 1997 to 2004, and USA Today from 2005 to the present. For the 1990-1991 football and basketball seasons, the poll expanded to ranking the top 25, and it has continued to do so ever since.

The Sagarin Rankings are the brainchild of Jeff Sagarin, who ratings of various sports teams and players have been a regular feature in the USA Today sports section since the 1985. His football rankings have been used by the BCS in determining its rankings since the BCS's inception in 1998. Sagarin calculates three different rankings, all of which take into account a team's schedule strength. One, "Pure ELO," uses only wins and losses with no reference to the victory margin. A second, "Predictor," takes the margin of victory into account but applies a law of diminishing returns. A team that wins a game 10-9 is rewarded less than a team that beats the same opponent 21-9, but a team that wins a game 35-0 receives similar ratings to a team that beats the same opponent 70-0. Sagarin notes that the "Predictor" is a better predictor of future games than "Pure ELO." Sagarin added a new ranking system this year, "Diminished Curve," which uses the ELO method but takes into account actual scores. This year Sagarin used a synthesis of the "Predictor" and "Diminished Curve" rankings to calculate his "final" rankings, but for my rankings I used his "Diminished Curve" rankings.

P. S. Sagarin also ranks the top conferences for the year. Here are the to 20 for 2013 (no real surprises here):
  1. SEC (WEST) 
  2. PAC-12 (NORTH) 
  3. PAC-12 (SOUTH) 
  4. SEC (EAST) 
  5. BIG 12 
  11. MWC (WEST) 
  15. SUN BELT 
  17. MAC (WEST) 
  20. MAC (EAST)

Monday, January 6, 2014

Epiphany and the Incarnation

Epiphany (January 6th) is a Christian feast day that "celebrates the revelation of God the Son as a human being in Jesus Christ." It celebrates, in other words, the incarnation of God in Christ. For some Christians, however, the doctrine of the incarnation is problematic, at least as it has been traditionally understood. Many have a hard time imagining Jesus as literally being divine (although they often believe in other things that strike me as being no less implausible (e.g., visited a New Age fair or store recently?)).

That said, I don't think such Christians have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. My sense is that regardless of whether all of Jesus' followers had a clearly formed Christology of who Jesus was, they did see in him someone who embodied God's will for the world. That is, they saw in his life, teachings, death, and resurrection someone who incarnated the very essence of God. And while looking at it in such a way isn't necessarily incompatible with the traditional understanding of the Incarnation, it is a way of viewing it that less-traditional Christians can hold on to when celebrating the feast of Epiphany.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Judaism and Health

In previous posts I've noted that people of faith are on average happier, live longer, and less likely to commit crimes ("How Religion Benefits Everyone, Even Nonbelievers"), few scholars have focused specifically on Judaism and health. Until now, that is. A recent Research on Religion podcast ("Jeff Levin on Judaism and Health") features epidemiologist Jeff Levin, a Conservative Jew and professor of Epidemiology & Population Health at Baylor University, who has documented that the link between religious faith and good mental and physical health holds for Jews as well (see the cover of his recent book at right). The podcast discusses this link as well as issues such as bioethics, pastoral care, and the contemporary Jewish healing movement. Here's a brief description of the podcast, which can be downloaded from iTunes or accessed at the Research on Religion website (click on the link above):
Judaism is known to be good for the soul, but can it help with what else ails you? Dr. Jeff Levin, an epidemiologist at Baylor University, discusses the connection between Judaism and health. We discuss some of the historical links between the Jewish faith and health, the role of rabbis in sorting out bioethics, the importance of pastoral care to the sick, as well as the contemporary Jewish healing movement.
P.S. Although the positive correlation between religion and health is empirically well-established, it doesn't mean that all people of faith are happy and healthy and secularists never are. That are plenty of exceptions to this general tendency.