Friday, February 27, 2015

Respecting the Other

When I attended Vanderbilt Divinity School, we'd often hold a series of events, such as worship services, in honor of Black History Month. One year a worship service featured a choir from a local African-American church, and during the service, the choir leader spoke about the love of Jesus and how accepting Jesus as one's Lord and Savior can grant one a peace that surpasses all understanding. This was a bit more evangelical than many Divinity School professors and students were comfortable with, but when I glanced over at one of our more theologically liberal students, she had a smile on her face, her eyes were closed, and she was swaying with the music. And I almost threw up. Why? Because I'm fairly certain that if the choir leader had been a white evangelical, she would've walked out. In fact, she probably wouldn't have shown up in the first place.

As I alluded to in a recent post ("The Root Causes of Terrorism"), learning how to respect the beliefs and practices of others is necessary if we're to live in a world relatively free of violence and civil strife. However, respecting the other shouldn't be confused with political correctness. I've witnessed many mainline Christians feign respect for the beliefs of minority religious groups (e.g., a belief in angels and the efficacy of prayer) and then turn around and make fun of the beliefs of Mormons, evangelicals, and conservative Catholics (e.g., a belief in angels and the efficacy of prayer), evidently believing (incorrectly) that members of minority religious groups are incapable of noting such hypocrisy. Respecting what others believe doesn't mean never disagreeing with what they believe. Rather, it means affirming those beliefs that we share, while at the same time criticizing those with which we disagree with without making fun of those who hold them. In other words, it’s one thing to be critical of beliefs one disagrees with, but it is quite another to make fun of those who holds them.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Root Causes of Terrorism Redux

In my previous post, I discussed the root causes of terrorism (The Root Causes of Terrorism). As I noted there, the average terrorist (not just leaders of terrorist groups) tends to be well educated, to have come from a middle class background, and to have attended a secular, rather than a religious, school as a child. What I failed to note is that a recent Freakonomics podcast covers some of the same ground and features the following experts:
The podcast can be downloaded from iTunes or accessed (or listened to) at the Freakonomics website ("Is There a Better Way to Fight Terrorism?").

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Root Causes of Terrorism

This past week the Obama administration hosted a three-day conference on "Countering Violent Extremism," and it repeated the conventional wisdom that terrorism results from a lack of opportunities and poverty (not all of the attendees did, however) although over a decade of studies have found this to be the case. Rather, the average terrorist (not just the leaders) tends to be well educated, to have come from a middle class background, and to have attended a secular, rather than a religious, school as a child. So much for stereotypes.

For instance, Marc Sageman's 2004 study of terrorist groups ("Understanding Terrorist Networks") found that most Islamic terrorists came from a middle-class backgrounds, attended secular grade schools, weren't terribly religious as children, and attained a higher level of education than average person from their respective countries of origin. Other studies have turned up similar evidence:
  • The 2004 Pew Global Attitudes Project surveyed adults in Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey and discovered that there is no evidence that sympathy for terrorism is greater among economically deprived individuals -- instead, more schooling correlated with more sympathy
  • In a 2006 study, Swati Pandey and Peter Bergen examined the educational background of 79 terrorists responsible for five of the worst anti-Western terrorist attacks of the modern era -- the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, the 9/11 attacks, the Bali nightclub bombings in 2002, and the London bombings on July 7, 2005, and they found hat more than half had attended college, making them as well-educated as the average American. Two had doctoral degrees, and two others had begun working toward their doctorates. None of them had attended a madrassa.
  • In 2007 Claudia Berrebi of the RAND Corporation compared the characteristics of of suicide-bombers recruited by Hamas and Islamic Jihad from the West Bank and Gaza to the general Palestinian population and found that almost 60% of the suicide bombers had a high school education, which is a higher percentage than the general Palestinian population (approximately 25%). She also found that they were less than half as likely to come from an impoverished family as a typical man from the general population
  • In a 2008 study Alan Krueger of Princeton University found that there is little evidence that terrorists are poor or poorly educated
  • And recently New America studied the backgrounds of 250 US-based militants since 9/11 who have been indicted or convicted of some kind of jihadist terrorist crime and found they were middle class, reasonably well-educated family men with kids
As Peter Bergen puts it, asking, "'Who becomes a terrorist?' is a lot like asking, 'Who owns a Volvo?'" A summary of these and other findings can be found in the December 18, 2010, issue of the Economist ("Economic Focus: Exploding Misconceptions") and a recent article by Peter Bergen ("Nonsense about Terrorism's 'Root Causes'"). Also quite helpful is Scott Atran's book, Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)making of Terrorists.

What these studies suggest is that if we treat terrorist organizations as if they're run by ignorant fools, then we'll probably lose the war on terrorism -- or, it will last a lot longer than it has to. They also suggest that focusing solely on economic development in poorer countries will not reduce terrorism's appeal. Instead, we need to respect what others hold as sacred. We don't have to embrace such values, but we surely need to respect and try to understand them. As Scott Atran puts it (pp. 400-401),
Finding ways to reframe cultural core values so as to overcome psychological barriers to symbolic offerings that show respect for the other side’s sacred values is a daunting challenge. But meeting this challenge may offer greater opportunities for breakthroughs to peace than hitherto realized. “Mere” words and symbols may prove more powerful than billions of dollars in aid or bombs and bullets—at least in opening up opportunities for practical solutions. Though difficult, creatively reframing sacred values mayprovide a key to unlocking the most deep-seated conflicts. That’s the kind of insight that the anthropology and psychology of religion and sacred values could bring about. There may be few more urgent fields of study in the world today than “the science of the sacred.”
Respecting the values of others should not be confused with political correctness, however. I've known many a mainline Christian who will feign respect in the beliefs of minority religious groups, such as Muslims (e.g., a belief in angels and the efficacy of prayer) and then turn around and deride the beliefs of Mormons, evangelicals, and conservative Catholics (e.g., a belief in angels and the efficacy of prayer), evidently believing (incorrectly) that Muslims and members of other minority religious groups don't notice such hypocrisy. In my mind, respecting the sacred values of others means affirming shared values, while at the same time being willing to be critical of values one disagrees with without making fun of those who hold them. It sounds hard, I know, but I think that, at least in part, is what it is going to take.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

30 of the Best SNL Skits of All Time (A Repost)

In honor of SNL's 40 Anniversary, here's a repost from last summer: my pick of 30 of my favorite SNL skits. As I noted before, there's a bias toward older skits because I watched SNL more faithfully back in the day. Still, all are pretty good. Most of the titles are my own and reflect how I recall them, which may not always be entirely accurate. If you click on the pictures of the sketches, they should link you to the videos.

1. Dead Honky (1975): Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor in one of the few times they appeared together on screen

2. Bassomatic (1976): A classic Dan Aykroyd skit that he reprised for the 40th SNL special

3. Conehead Family Feud (1977): Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Laraine Newman, Jane Curtin -- the Coneheads are great. Bill Murray is hilarious as Richard Dawson.

4. Samurai Hitman (1977): Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Garrett Morris, Bill Murray -- Actually, there are several "Samurai" skits that are quite good. This is just one. Belushi was brilliant. The first of many SNL alums to die too soon.

5. Roseanne Rosannadanna (1978): Gilda Radner: One of many classic Roseane Rosannadanna commentaries on Weekend Update. This one's about smoking, but she quickly strays off on one of her tangents. Emma Stone's take on the 40th anniversary special was pretty good.

6. The Perfect Circumcision (1977): Dan Aykroyd: Parody of a car advertisement extolling the virtues of its shock absorbers, which allow the cutting of a diamond while driving. Perfect.

7. Baba Wawa (1978): Gilda Radner and John Belushi (as Henry Kissinger) -- Another one of Radner's great characters. Too bad she died so young.

8. No Coke, Pepsi (1978): Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Laraine Newman, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner

9. King Tut (1978): Steve Martin -- A classic when Steve Martin was at the top of his game (although he did pretty well this past Sunday night),

10. The French Chef (1978): Dan Aykroyd -- Supposedly, Julia Child loved this skit. Most of America certainly did.

11. Two Wild and Crazy Guys (1978): Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, Gilda Radner -- One of many featuring the Festrunk brothers.

12. Jane, You Ignorant, Misguided Slut (1978): Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd (although Akroyd doesn't say "misguided" in this one.

13. Medieval Barber (1978): Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner.

14. Killer Bees (1978): Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Garrett Morris, Dan Aykroyd, Elliot Gould, Jane Curtin, Lorne Michaels -- the Killer Bees sketches were great. I tried to track one down, "The Bad News Bees" (featuring Walter Matthau), but I couldn't find a video of just it. To see it, you have to watch the entire episode (although it's pretty funny).

15. Blues Brothers (1978): Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi -- Before the movie, before the album. Aykroyd's dancing is hilarious. Belushi's is pretty good too.

16. Buh-Weet Sings (1981): Eddie Murphy

17. Mr. Robinson's Christmas (1984): Eddie Murphy

18. Ronald Reagan (1986): Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz, Dennis Miller, A. Whitney Brown, Kevin Nealon, Dana Carvey, Nora Dunn -- Hartman is wonderful as Reagan. Another SNL alum who died too soon.

19. Church Lady (1988): Dana Carvey, Al Franken (Pat Robertson), Phil Hartman (Jimmy Swaggart) -- "That's so special"

20. Hans and Franz (1990): Dana Carvey, Kevin Nealon, and Patrick Swayze -- We're here to "pump you up!"

21. Chippendales (1990): Chris Farley and Patrick Swayze. Farley is hilarious. I can't imagine taking my shirt off looking like that.

22. Living in a Van Down by the River (1993): Chris Farley, Phil Hartman, Christina Applegate, Julia Sweeney, David Spade. Maybe the best skit of all time (Rolling Stone certainly thought so) although "More Cowbell" is right in there for the best too.

23. The Chanukah Song (1994): Adam Sandler -- One of my favorite "Christmas" songs ("100 of the Best Holiday Songs")

24. Celebrity Jeopardy (1999): Norm MacDonald, Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon, Darrell Hammond. Darrell Hammond as Sean Connery is a hoot. I was tempted to replace this one with the one from the anniversary special.

25. More Cowbell (2000): Will Ferrell, Christopher Walken, Jimmy Fallon, Chris Kattan, Chris Parnell, Horatio Sanz -- if I were to rank them, this would be a candidate for #1.

26. The Bush's Go Hunting (2000): Dana Carvey and Will Ferrell -- Dana Carvey's multiple portrayals of the elder Bush are wonderful, and this is just one of them. However, when you add Will Ferrell as "W," then you have a classic.

27. Katie Couric and Sarah Palin (2008): Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. An instant classic. Hats off to the real Sarah Palin for showing up to the anniversary special.

28. Dusty Muffin (2010): Betty White, Molly Shannon, and Ana Gasteyer -- some folks prefer "Schweddy Balls," but this is my favorite "Delicious Dish"

29: Pandora Intern (2012): Bruno Mars -- I'm not a huge Bruno Mars fan, but he's amazing in this

30. Boy Dance Party (2013): Bruce Willis, Kenan Thompson, Bobby Moynihan, Taran Killam, Jay Pharoah, Beck Bennett. I had to include at least one from the 2013-14 season. I'll have to update for 2014-15 at some point.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Does Energy Efficiency Save Energy?

What if it turned out that although energy regulations have made our cars and houses burn energy more efficiently, we don't use less energy because the money we save, leads us to drive more, build bigger houses, and let our appliances (e.g., hot tubs) run all the time? A disturbing thought, but that's the tentative conclusion of the environmental economist, Arik Levinson, who teaches at Georgetown and, for a time, was a senior economist for environmental issues with the Council of Economic Advisors under the Obama Administration. Here's the abstract from his current working paper on the topic (emphasis added):
Construction codes that regulate the energy efficiency of new buildings have been a centerpiece of US environmental policy for 40 years. California enacted the nation’s first energy building codes in 1978, and they were projected to reduce residential energy use—and associated pollution—by 80 percent. How effective have the building codes been? I take three approaches to answering that question. First, I compare current electricity use by California homes of different vintages constructed under different standards, controlling for home size, local weather, and tenant characteristics. Second, I examine how electricity in California homes varies with outdoor temperatures for buildings of different vintages. And third, I compare electricity use for buildings of different vintages in California, which has stringent building energy codes, to electricity use for buildings of different vintages in other states. All three approaches yield the same answer: there is no evidence that homes constructed since California instituted its building energy codes use less electricity today than homes built before the codes came into effect.
Levinson is currently circulating the paper, and some folks are quite critical of it. Nevertheless, if he is right, then environmental policy may need to change. In particular, Levinson argues that the most "efficient" way to reduce our carbon emissions is to raise the cost of emitting them. In other words, tax them. As anyone who pays attention to the political scene, however, in the current environment raising taxes is political suicide.

Levinson's study, the debate surrounding it, and its potential implications is the subject of the most recent Freakonomics podcast ("How Efficient is Energy Efficiency"), which can be downloaded from iTunes or listened to at the Freakonomics website. This one is well worth it, but you need to listen to it all the way through because not only is the summary of his study interesting but so is the discussion about the interplay of economic and political policy.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Who's Better: Tom or Joe (or Sammy or Johnny or Otto or Roger or Bart)?

The debate has begun. Who the best quarterback of all time: Joe Montana or Tom Brady? As a Niner fan, no one will ever convince me that Tom is better than Joe, but I'm biased, so that doesn't advance the argument too much. A recent statistical analysis by the folks at FiveThirtyEight list Montana as #1 and Brady as #3, but conspicuously absent from the list are greats like Sammy Baugh, Johnny Unitas, and Otto Graham, not to mention the fact that other great QBs, such as Bart Starr and Roger Staubach don't even finish in the top-10. The fact that Starr isn't even in the conversation is stunning. He won 7 championships (he went to 8), including the first two Super Bowls. There is clearly a chronological bias going on here. More recent quarterbacks are given more weight than more distance ones.

The bigger problem, however, is this: It's hard, if not impossible, to compare QBs from different eras because they played under different rules, with different offensive schemes, and against different types of defenses. I think the best we can do is identify the best of each era, but even that is fraught with difficulties (e.g., there are many who think Manning is better than Brady but Brady had more success because he played for better coaches and teams). Still, it's far more doable than comparing Tom Brady with Sammy Baugh or Otto Graham.

P.S. As my friend, Tom Olson, points out, without Bart Starr the Lombardi Trophy would probably be called something else.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Is the Legion of Boom Doomed?

Something has gotten lost in the controversy surrounding Pete Carroll's decision to throw on 2nd and goal rather than handing the ball off to Marshawn Lynch: Namely that, the Patriots racked up over 300 yards passing against the so-called "Legion of Boom," what many people think is the NFL's best defense. Imagine, for a moment, that after the ball hit Jermaine Kearse's knee, it had bounced toward one of the two Patriots' defensive backs in the area, rather than to Kearse, and the Patriots had intercepted the ball then rather than a few moments later? No one would be tearing into Pete Carroll; instead, they'd wondering what happened to the Seattle defense, how it happened to give up 14 points in the fourth quarter and squandered a 24-14 point lead.

I'm pretty certain this hasn't been lost on everyone. In fact, I'm willing to bet that offensive coordinators around the league will be spending the offseason studying the fourth quarter, learning what the Patriots did in order to move the ball so (relatively) easily, and incorporating whatever insights they can glean into their own offensive schemes. Combined with the fact that the Seahawks are losing their defensive coordinator (heading to Atlanta) and probably one of their defensive backs, the legion of boom may be doomed. The rest of the NFL can only hope :-)!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

What Are the Rules About Breaking the Rules? (Or: Why I Can't Root for Pete Carroll)

"If you're not cheating, you're not trying hard enough" 
-- Mark Grace, Chicago Cubs 1st Baseman

Much ink has been spilled about Deflate-gate (or my favorite, "Ballghazi"), the claim that the New England Patriots intentionally used deflated balls during the AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Colts. As I noted before, the controversy seems a bit overblown since it is quite common for teams to "cheat" in order to gain an advantage over their opponents. To wit:
  • Defensive backs regularly hold and bump receivers illegally, knowing they will only be penalized a fraction of the time. The Seahawks are notorious for doing this, as a Wall Street Journal article pointed out last year ("The Seahawks' Grabby Talons"), but they are hardly alone.
  • Pitchers doctor baseballs in order to get them to break in unexpected ways. Gaylord Perry made a career of doing this and even admitted as much in his autobiography, Me and the Spitter: An Autobiographical Confession. This didn't keep him out of the Hall of Fame, either. He published the book in 1974 but wasn't elected to the Hall of Fame until 1991.
  • Basketball players routinely foul their counterparts, but seldom, if ever, do they mention this to the referees. Can you imagine Lebron James saying to a ref, "Hey! I fouled that guy back there. You probably should let him shoot two" (yeah, right).
  • Baseball teams are constantly attempting to steal the signs flashed by catchers to their pitchers, whether its batters positioning themselves in the on-deck circle so they can see the signs or runners on second base taking a quick look before they lead off. Perhaps the best known instance of sign-stealing is the one that culminated with Bobby Thompson's "shot heard 'round the world" that sent the Giants to the World Series and the Dodgers home for the winter (I love it when that happens). It turns out that the Giants manager, Leo Durocher, devised a sign-stealing system, using a telescopic lens located in center field, that the Giants used over the last 10 weeks of the season, during which time the Giants made up 13 games on the Dodgers.
There's no doubt that these examples count as cheating, but as Yale Law School Professor Stephen Carter noted several years ago in his book, "Integrity," there are rules about breaking the rules:
A couple of years ago as I sat watching a televised football game... I was struck by an event I had often noticed but on which I had never reflected. A player who failed to catch a ball thrown his way hit the ground, rolled over, and then jumped up, celebrating as though he had caught the pass after all. The referee was standing in a position that did not give him a good view of what had happened, was fooled by the player's pretense, and so moved the ball down the field... But viewers at home... saw what the referee missed: the ball lying on the ground instead of snug in the receiver's hands. The only comment from the broadcasters: "What a heads-up play!" Meaning: "Wow, what a great liar this kid is! Well done!"

Let's be very clear: that is exactly what they meant. The player set out to mislead the referee and succeeded; he helped his team to obtain an advantage in the game that it had not earned. It could not have been accidental. He knew he did not catch the ball. By jumping up and celebrating, he was trying to convey a false impression. He was trying to convince the officials that he had caught the ball. And the officials believed him. So, in any ordinary understanding of the word, he lied...

When I began working on this book, I shared the story about the cheating football player with a few of my colleagues over lunch... They offered a bewildering array of fascinating and sophisticated arguments on why the receiver who pretended to catch the ball was doing nothing wrong. One in particular stuck in my mind. "You don't know if he was breaking the rules," of the best and brightest of my colleagues explained, "until you know what the rules are about following the rules."
So what are the rules about breaking the rules? I think the basic rule is this: it's okay to break them, but if you get caught you suffer the consequences. That is, if you throw a spitter and the umpire catches you, you'll be thrown out of the game. Or if you interfere with a receiver trying to catch a ball, you'll be penalized if the referee catches you. Or if you're a college football coach who pushes the limits of recruiting, and you get busted, then you and your program will pay the price.

Unless, of course, your Pete Carroll. Then you simply abandon ship and move to Seattle.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Partial Defense of Pete Carroll

The above images are some of my favorites from Super Bowl XLIX. Like many I was stunned when the Seahawks elected to pass, rather than run, the ball on 2nd down and threw an interception. And I've enjoyed poking fun at Pete Carroll and the Seahawks (see picture below and to the right) after weeks of making fun at my own 49ers.

That said, whatever one might think about Carroll's decision, he wasn't completely loony. With 26 seconds left on the clock and only one timeout, there was no way the Seahawks could have run three straight running plays. They would've run out of time. If they had been forced to run three plays, at least one of those would've been a pass. In fact, they would've had to pass the ball on either 2nd or 3rd down.

Why? Well, let's say the Seahawks ran the ball on 2nd down and didn't score. They would've been forced to call a time out, which means that on 3rd down, they would've passed because if they ran and didn't score, there'd have been be no way for them to stop the clock. So, if you're Pete Carroll, do you pass it on the down when everyone knows you're passing (3rd), or do you pass it when folks aren't sure (2nd)? I think you could make a reasonable argument for throwing on 2nd, rather than 3rd, down.

Still, given Lynch's knack for finding the end zone, I'd have taken a chance on running the ball on 2nd down, and then make darn sure the pass on 3rd down was either incomplete or caught for a touchdown (I'm sure that was Carroll's expectations of Wilson when he threw on 2nd down). Then, if we still hadn't scored, I'd still be able to give one more shot at scoring on 4th down. I just don't see the Patriots keeping Lynch out of the end zone twice. But, you never know. In fact, we'll never know.

I can't believe I'm (partially) defending Pete Carroll. It's time to move on.