Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Regression to the Mean and the 49ers' Next Coach

Regression to the mean is the statistical tendency for traits that lie far above or below the mean for a population to move (regress) toward the mean. That is why the IQs of children of extremely low or high IQ parents will, on average, cluster much more closely around the population mean than those of their parents. It is also why professional golfers who shoot extremely high or low scores in the first round of a tournament will probably shoot scores in the second round that will bring their scores after two rounds closer to the tournament average. In other words, a golfer who shoots a very low score in the first round is likely to shoot a higher than average score in the second.

This phenomenon also helps explain why when a NFL team fires its head coach, the team almost always finishes with a better record the following season. As a recent FiveThirtyEight article explained ("There's Not Much Evidence A New Coach Will Help the Jets, 49ers or Falcons"):
Teams that change coaches have a strong tendency to improve the following season, which could be taken as prima facie evidence that swapping in a new coach makes a profound difference. But it also could simply be the residue of regression to the mean. A poor record is generally required for a team to consider dismissing its coach, but much of the differences in NFL team records is due to luck and not the comparative skill levels of the teams themselves. When that luck evens out, the team appears to improve, even if its underlying skill didn’t change all that much.
In other words, it's likely that regardless who the Jets, 49ers or Falcons hire as their next head coaches, they will post regular season records in 2015 better than their 2014 records. This will almost certainly be true for the San Francisco 49ers who were one of the most injury-plagued teams in the NFL this season ("NFL Injury Report"). Thus, even if the Niners finish next season with a better record than 2014, it's unlikely that it'll have anything to do with who the new coach is. That may even be true even if the Niners win the Super Bowl next year.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

NCAA Basketball: One and Done?

Basketball fans either love or hate John Calipari, the head basketball coach for the Kentucky Wildcats (although most who hate him would love him if he coached their hometown team). A common criticism of him (and the Kentucky program) is that most of his recruits only play for a year before leaving for the NBA. But that really isn't his fault. It's the NBA's. It allows players to declare for the draft after playing only one year in college. If it changed its rules and required players to stay at least three years (like college baseball players), one and done programs like Kentucky would have to change.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Schulmerich and Malmark: Battle of the Bells

Schulmerich and Malmark, Inc. are the two largest handbell companies in the world and are located just down the street from one other. In fact, a former employee of one started the other. However, while handbells often conjure up images of harmony and goodwill (especially around this time of year -- 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 rebroadcast of a Planet Money podcast ("Bell Wars") you can hear (learn) all about it.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Christmas Stories

Mainline biblical scholars tend to regard the Christmas stories more as theology than history. This is largely because of the considerable differences between the narratives found in Matthew and Luke. For example, according to Matthew Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem and Jesus was born at home, whereas in Luke they lived in Nazareth and traveled to Bethlehem for a census and Jesus is born in a stable. Or again, in Matthew Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee to Egypt because Herod the Great orders the killing of all male infants under the age of two in Bethlehem, and after all is safe, settle in Nazareth; by contrast, in Luke, Jesus and his family simply return home to Nazareth after his birth. Finally, in Luke Jesus is visited by shepherds, whereas in Matthew he is visited by the magi (i.e., the wise men).

That said, Matthew and Luke do not disagree on all of the facts. For example, they agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and grew up in Nazareth. They also agree that Mary and Joseph were engaged, not married, when Jesus was born. And they agree that Jesus was a descendant of King David, even though they trace the lineage through different genealogies.

Nevertheless, the differences between the two accounts have led most mainline scholars to argue that what we find in Matthew and Luke is mostly fiction. For example, they argue that Matthew and Luke have Jesus born in Bethlehem for theological reasons, not historical ones, in order that a prophecy in the book of Micah, which predicted that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, would be seen as fulfilled. In other words, Matthew and Luke didn't base their birth narratives on historical evidence but rather on a theological conviction that the Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem.

This argument, although widely held, strikes me as a case of special pleading, however. Why? Because most, if not all, first century "messiahs" didn't come from Bethlehem. In fact, most of their birthplaces are unknown:
  • Simon of Peraea (c. 4 BCE), a former slave of Herod the Great, who rebelled and was killed by the Romans (birthplace = unknown)
  • Athronges (c. 4–2? BCE), a shepherd turned leader of a rebellion with his four brothers against Herod Archelaus and the Romans after proclaiming himself the Messiah (birthplace = unknown)
  • Judas of Galilee (6 CE), Judas led a violent resistance to the census imposed for Roman tax purposes by Quirinius in Iudaea Province around 6 CE (birthplace = Gamala in Gaulonitis)
  • Menahem ben Judah (?), the son or grandson of Judas of Galilee, was a leader of the Sicarii (birthplace = unknown)
  • Theudas (?–46 CE), a Jewish rebel of the 1st century CE, at some point between 44 and 46 CE (birthplace = unknown)
  • John of Gischala (? after 70), was a leader of the Jewish revolt against the Romans in the First Jewish-Roman War, and played a part in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE (birthplace = Gush Halav)
  • Simon bar Kokhba (also: Bar Kosiba) (?– died c. 135) (birthplace = unknown)
This suggests that hailing from Bethlehem wasn't a necessary requirement for messiahship in the eyes of most first century Jews and, coupled with the fact that two independent sources (material unique to Matthew and material unique to Luke), may help explain why even the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar, hardly the bastion of conservatism, hesitate to entirely write-off the claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Indeed, they voted the passage in Matthew that indicates Jesus was born in Bethlehem as gray, not black:
Jesus was born at Bethlehem, Judea, when Herod was king (Matthew 2:1)
Although the narrative passages the Jesus Seminar colored gray can be interpreted in different ways, essentially they indicate that although something has probably been lost in the transmission, they still might contain a trace of history. With regards to Matthew 2:1, the "gray" vote indicates that some members of the Jesus Seminar thought it possible that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

An explanation that is just as plausible and parsimonious is that, for whatever reason, Jesus was born in Bethlehem but raised in Nazareth, and this led Matthew and Luke construct infancy narratives that accounted for this. How they did so differed, but that doesn't mean there isn't some traces of history in their accounts. In fact, I also think it likely that Mary and Joseph were engaged, and not married, when Jesus was born. Of course, all this doesn't challenge the claim that the Christmas stories contain less history than they do theology, but it also doesn't mean they we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater either (or maybe the baby out with the straw in this case).

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Top Holiday (i.e., Holy Day) Movies

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!" -- Thanks to Walter Taylor for pointing that out)

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

There are several great 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 one 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, suffering from 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--the "ugly" from "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"), 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. 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, Iris's cottage (see above) 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 more? 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).

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Top Religious Liberty News Stories of 2014

The Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty (BJC), formerly known as the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, was founded in 1936 and is the only faith-based agency devoted solely to religious liberty and the institutional separation of church and state. It is composed of representatives of 15 national, state, and regional Baptist bodies in the United States, such as the Alliance of Baptists, American Baptist Churches USA, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the National Baptist Convention of America, and the Progressive National Baptist Convention.

The Southern Baptist Convention used to support the BJC, but it cut its funding to the BJC in 1990, accusing the BJC of leaning too far to the theological left. It also wanted the BJC to support the nomination of Robert Bork, which the BJC refused to do, not, however, because it didn't support Bork but because it doesn't take positions on Supreme Court nominees. Rather, BJC limits its activities to a small number of issues relating to religious liberty and the separation of church and state: church electioneering, civil religion, free exercise, government funding, political discourse, public prayer, and religious displays. It will, however, file amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) briefs with the Supreme Court in order to argue on behalf of specific points at issue in a case. Over the years, the BJC has filed more than 120 legal briefs in court cases.

The BJC recently released it's top religious liberty news stories of 2014 ("Court decisions, accommodations dominate 2014 religious liberty news"). Below is an abridged version of the news story that appeared in its newsletter. The full story can be found here: "Court decisions, accommodations dominate 2014 religious liberty news."

1. The U.S. Supreme Court Sides with Hobby Lobby

By a 5-4 vote the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a religious liberty challenge to the contraceptive mandate. It held that for closely held, for-profit corporations the requirement to provide certain contraception coverage in their health care plans violated their rights to run their businesses according to their faith. Many argue Hobby Lobby opens will allow businesses broad rights of conscience to avoid government regulations on religious grounds, but others don't think so. As the BJC's Brent Walker recently pointed out, just because some for-profit corporations may be able to raise religious liberty claims because of Hobby Lobby, that doesn’t mean they will prevail. Courts still must balance those claims against the interests of government and the interests of third parties. Moreover, the majority opinion emphasizes the decision relates only to closely held corporations. The Court did not address the issue of larger or more-diversely held companies. That may be the next legal battleground in this dispute over whether, and to what extent, corporations can claim an exemption from a government regulation.

2. Supreme Court Upholds Christian Prayers at Local Government Meetings

By a 5-4 vote the Supreme Court held that the town’s policy allowing clergy to offer sectarian prayer does not violate the separation of church and state. The majority emphasized the historical tradition of opening legislative sessions with prayer, including Christian invocations. Because of that tradition, the Court rejected arguments that such prayers must be non-sectarian and inclusive to be lawful, and it declined to draw any distinction between a state legislative assembly and a town commission meeting. The Baptist Joint Committee filed a brief urging the Court to prohibit such prayer policies in local government meetings in which citizens must be present to make their voices heard.

3. Supreme Court Hears Argument Over Religious Freedom Rights of Prisoners

In the case of Holt v. Hobbs, the Supreme Court questioned Arkansas Department of Correction officials over their refusal to allow an inmate to grow a beard as required by his faith. A brief signed by the BJC urged the Court to side with the plaintiff, Gregory Holt, a practicing Muslim serving a life sentence. While the state has a strong interest in ensuring safety and security in its prisons, here they offered only hypothetical security concerns. Justice Samuel Alito joked that perhaps combing through such a beard would helpfully reveal guns or other contraband hidden there. A decision in the case is expected in 2015.

4. Religious Nonprofits Continue to Challenge Contraception Coverage Rules

While the Hobby Lobby decision settled questions regarding the contraceptive mandate for closely held for-profit corporations, other challenges are still making their way through the courts. The Affordable Care Act exempts houses of worship from the requirement altogether, and it provides an accommodation mechanism for religiously-affiliated nonprofit organizations. However, many organizations argue that the mechanism is insufficient because it will trigger another provision in the law that provides employees with access to contraception through other means. The Supreme Court halted enforcement of this rule in one case while litigation is pending. Appeals courts have largely ruled in favor of the administration, finding that any burden placed on the religious exercise of such organizations by having to file the form is not substantial enough to invalidate the provision.

5. Obama Non-Discrimination Order Declines Religious Exemption

The White House issued an executive order in July barring federal contractors from discrimination in hiring based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Many religious leaders pressed the administration to include an exemption for contractors that are religious organizations, but the president’s order rejected that request. President Obama did leave intact an order that allows religious organizations that contract with the government to discriminate in hiring based on religion. Many advocates, including the BJC, argued against the exemption, saying that when a religious group agrees to take federal funds, it should be bound by the same hiring rules as other federal contractors.

6. Religious Accommodation Policies in the Military Questioned

In January, the Defense Department announced changes to its policy of religious accommodation. The changes evinced a new willingness to make exceptions to grooming standards when they conflict with a service member’s religious beliefs. Previously, such accommodations were extremely rare.
Many religious liberty advocates argued the changes did not go far enough in assuring adherents of minority faiths the right to serve in the armed forces. In April, a letter to the Pentagon signed by the BJC expressed concerns that service members under the new policy would be required to comply with grooming standards while they await the outcome of their request, and they would have to resubmit the accommodation request upon transfer.

7. Conscience Rights Dominate Religious Freedom Discussion

A growing trend in 2014 was the focus on the right of business owners to refuse to provide marriage-related services to same-sex couples. In states and cities where non-discrimination laws prohibit such refusal generally, this year’s increase in same-sex marriage legalization has brought with it understandable conflict for those who object on religious grounds. While churches and houses of worship will not have to participate in same-sex marriages, the rights of other individuals and businesses to refuse is still the subject of debate, and in the coming years courts will have to consider where the proper lines should be drawn to balance the religious freedom rights of service providers with the rights of individuals to be free from discrimination.

The BJC also noted the key religious liberty stories that are likely to emerge next year:

Workplace Discrimination: The Supreme Court agreed to take up a case of religious discrimination in employment involving Abercrombie & Fitch, a clothing retailer that refused to hire a female applicant because of her head covering. The company argues they were unaware the head scarf was a religious requirement.

School Vouchers: The Colorado Supreme Court will decide the fate of a school voucher program. The BJC joined a brief arguing that the program violates the state’s constitution because it sends taxpayer funds to support religious education. And in North Carolina, the Supreme Court has intervened to hear the appeal of a ruling that vouchers in that state are unconstitutional.

Contraceptive Mandate (Part 2): Next year could see the Supreme Court take on the question of whether the Obama administration’s accommodation process for religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations violate their religious freedom rights.

RFRA debates: This year’s religious accommodation battles changed the way state Religious Freedom Restoration Acts are viewed. Instead of focusing on their helpful religious liberty protections, the legislation is often seen as a way to refuse service to others based on religious grounds. Will this continue?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The 12 Days of Christmas Don't Begin Tomorrow

The 12 Days of Christmas don't begin tomorrow. 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 unclear 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.

Friday, December 12, 2014

What's Broken? America's Schools or its Students?

Much ink has been spilled on what is wrong with America's schools and what should be done about it. There seem to be a lot of good ideas out there, but it's hard to know which ones will work and which ones already have. Some people recommend fixes focus on the recruiting and training of teachers. Others focus on how to improve the communities in which students live.

Two recent Freakonomics episodes explore America's education system: "Is America’s Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem?" and "How to Fix a Broken High Schooler, in Four Easy Steps." In the first you'll hear from Joel Klein, the former New York City schools chancellor (and head of the U.S. Dept. of Justice’s Antitrust Division) who now runs Amplify, a News Corp education-technology startup; David Levin, a former teacher who co-founded, with Mike Feinberg, KIPP, the Knowledge is Power Program; John Friedman, an economist who works on public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School; and Dana Goldstein, author of The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession. The second features a program called Pathways to Education, which came out of a community health center in a housing project in Toronto that reduced the dropout rate among high schoolers from 56% to 10%. Both episodes are interesting but one comes away with the sense that there are no easy fixes.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Bowls, Bowls, Bowls

I love the college bowl season, not just because it's politically incorrect (although that's an incentive, but because unlike most sports where every team that qualifies for the post season loses its final game except the champion, in college football there are multiple winners. The winners of each of the bowl games. In fact, there will be 38 winners this year, which means the players and fans of those schools will be able to end of their football season on a high note. No other sport does that, and that's nothing to sneeze at. Here's a brief summary of each bowl game: "Ranking the Bowls 1-38"

Saturday, December 6, 2014

C'est La Vie, Jim Harbaugh?

Apparently, the 49ers plan to sever ties with Jim Harbaugh at the end of the season. All of this is stunning considering that Harbaugh almost single-handily resurrected the Niner franchise: A 43-16-1 record, 3 straight trips to the NFC Championship game and 1 trip to the Super Bowl. One would think that a record like that would allow a head coach to have an off year, but it is looking more and more that this has been the Niners' plan all along (last year's rumors of trading Harbaugh to Cleveland were apparently genuine). Perhaps if the Niners won the Super Bowl this year, there might have been a chance of Harbaugh staying on, but that's not going to happen. Evidently, the Niners brass (i.e., Jed York and Trent Baalke) simply don't like Harbaugh. Then again, not too many folks like Bill Belichick, but that hasn't led the Patriots to cut ties with him.

You'd think the Niners would think twice about jettisoning Harbaugh since the last time they let a successful coach go (Steve Mariucci), they went nine years before they reached the playoffs again (under Harbaugh). Of course, it doesn't have to work out badly for the Niners. Back in May the San Francisco (oops, Golden State) Warriors fired their head coach, Mark Jackson in spite of the fact that he led the Warriors to consecutive playoff appearances for the first time in over 20 years; they then hired in his stead, Steve Kerr, and that move, at least for now, appears to be working out. Niner fans can only hope that York and Baalke display the same sort of wisdom of Warriors co-owner Joe Lacob.

P.S. The Niners may want to seriously consider trading up in the draft to pick up Marcus Mariota and then hire a coach that likes to run a read-option offense. Who knows, maybe they can trade Harbaugh for Chip Kelly?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

101 of the Best Holiday Songs (Updated with iTune links)

If a singer's career lasts long enough, they will almost certainly cut a Christmas (oops, Holiday) album at some point. Even Neil Diamond has (he's released three), and he's Jewish! I grant that the continuous playing of Christmas songs (and movies) can be a bit much this time of year, but for now I am, once again, caught up in the spirit of the season ("'Tis the Season") and enjoying listening to the songs the season has to offer. In keeping with that spirit, below are some of my favorite versions of 101 of holiday songs. There are a handful of changes from last year, but more importantly, they now include links to iTunes, so you can listen to (or at least preview) the songs yourself. They appear in alphabetical order (hopefully):
  1. Adestes Fideles - Frank Sinatra
  2. All I Want for Christmas Is You - Mariah Carey
  3. Almost There - Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant
  4. Angels We Have Heard on High -- Glee Cast
  5. Auld Lang Syne - Colbie Caillat
  6. Ave Maria - The Carpenters
  7. Away in a Manger/Child in a Manger - Michael W. Smith
  8. Baby, It's Cold Outside - Dean Martin
  9. Believe - Josh Groban
  10. Blue Christmas - Elvis Presley
  11. Breath of Christmas - Amy Grant
  12. Carol of the Bells - The Carpenters
  13. Carols Sing - Michael W. Smith
  14. Celebrate Me Home - Kenny Loggins
  15. The Chanukah Song - Adam Sandler
  16. Christ is Born - The Carpenters
  17. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) - U2
  18. Christmas Can't Be Very Far Away - Amy Grant
  19. Christmas Canon - Trans-Siberian Orchestra
  20. Christmas Hymn - Amy Grant
  21. Christmas in Your Arms - Alabama
  22. Christmas in Heaven - Scotty McCreery
  23. Christmas in Hollis - Run D.M.C.
  24. Christmas is Coming - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  25. Christmas Island - Jimmy Buffett
  26. The Christmas Shoes - NewSong
  27. The Christmas Song - Nat King Cole
  28. Christmas Time is Here - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  29. Christmas Waltz - Michael W. Smith
  30. Christmas Was Meant for Children - Sandi Patti
  31. Christmastime - Michael W. Smith
  32. Cold December Night - Michael Bublé
  33. Deck the Rooftop - Glee Cast
  34. Do You Hear What I Hear? - Whitney Houston
  35. Do They Know It's Christmas - Glee Cast
  36. Emmanuel, God With Us - Amy Grant
  37. Extraordinary Merry Christmas - Glee Cast
  38. Feliz Navidad - José Feliciano
  39. The First Noel - Josh Groban & Faith Hill
  40. Frosty the Snowman - Jimmy Durante
  41. Go Tell It On The Mountain - James Taylor
  42. God is With Us - Casting Crowns
  43. Going Home For Christmas - Phil Coulter
  44. Good King Wenceslas - The Piano Guys
  45. Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer - Elmo & Patsy
  46. Greensleeves - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  47. Grown Up Christmas List - Amy Grant
  48. The Happiest Christmas - Michael W. Smith
  49. Happy Xmas (The War is Over) - John Lennon
  50. Hark the Herald Angels Sing - Diamond Rio
  51. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - Vonda Shepard
  52. Hey Santa - Carnie and Wendy Wilson
  53. High Plains (Christmas on the High-Line) - Philip Aaberg
  54. Holly Jolly Christmas - Burl Ives
  55. I Believe in Father Christmas - Emerson, Lake & Palmer
  56. I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day - Casting Crowns
  57. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus - John Mellencamp
  58. I Saw Three Ships - Craig Duncan
  59. I Wonder As I Wander - Sandi Patti
  60. I'll Be Home for Christmas - Michael Bublé
  61. In the Bleak Midwinter - Phil Coulter
  62. It Snowed - Meaghan Smith
  63. It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year - Andy Williams
  64. I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm - Frank Sinatra
  65. Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring - Amy Grant
  66. Jingle Bell Rock - Bobby Helms
  67. Jingle Bells - Michael Bublé
  68. Joy to the World - Amy Grant
  69. Last Christmas - Glee Cast
  70. Let it Snow - Dean Martin
  71. Linus and Lucy - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  72. Little Alter Boy - The Carpenters
  73. Little Drummer Boy - Bob Seger
  74. Manger 6 - Bob Rivers and Twisted Radio
  75. Merry Christmas Baby - Bruce Springsteen
  76. Merry Christmas Darling - The Carpenters
  77. Mister Santa - Amy Grant
  78. Mistletoe and Holly - Frank Sinatra
  79. Nothin' New for New Years - Harry Connick, Jr. & George Jones
  80. The Nutcracker Suite - Various
  81. Pat-a-pan - Various
  82. Please Come Home For Christmas - The Eagles
  83. River - Joni Mitchell
  84. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer - Burl Ives
  85. Santa Claus in Coming to Town - Bruce Springsteen
  86. Santa Baby - Madonna
  87. Skating - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  88. Silent Night - Sarah McLachlan
  89. Sleigh Ride - The Carpenters
  90. Snoopy's Christmas - The Royal Guardsmen
  91. Snow - Bing Crosby, Danny Kay, Peggy Lee, and Trudy Stevens
  92. Song For A Winter's Night - Sarah McLachlan
  93. Sweet Little Jesus Boy - Casting Crowns
  94. Tennessee Christmas - Amy Grant
  95. There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays - Perry Como
  96. This Christmas - Vonda Shepard
  97. Walkin' Round in Women's Underwear - Bob Rivers and Twisted Radio
  98. What are You Doing New Year's Eve? - Ella Fitzgerald
  99. Where Are You Christmas? - Faith Hill
  100. White Christmas - Bing Crosby
  101. You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch - Thurl Ravenscroft