Tuesday, March 31, 2015

ten·ure /ˈtenyər/

Late Middle English: from Old French, from tenir 'to hold', from Latin tenere

1. Guaranteed permanent employment, especially as a teacher or professor, after a probationary period
2. the act, right, manner, or term of holding something (as a landed property, a position, or an office); especially : a status granted after a trial period to a teacher that gives protection from summary dismissal

1. Give (someone) a permanent post, especially as a teacher or professor
2. (as adjective, tenured) Having or denoting a permanent post, especially as a teacher or professor

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I learned yesterday that I have been granted tenure, so as of July 1st, I will no longer be an assistant professor, but an associate professor. For those unfamiliar with "making tenure," it is somewhat analogous to being promoted partner in a large law or accounting firm (although it generally doesn't pay as well). The logic behind tenure is that it guarantees the right to academic freedom: in theory, it protects teachers and researchers when we dissent from prevailing opinion, when we openly disagree with authorities, or when we spend time on unfashionable topics. The idea is that by giving scholars the intellectual autonomy to conduct research as we see fit (and to report our conclusions honestly), unique and original ideas are more likely to arise. To paraphrase the Wizard of Oz, we are more likely to think great (deep) thoughts.

To believe that it always works that way would be naive, of course. Reaching tenure can be difficult, and in some institutions, it can get caught up in the politics of the university. I know of a case of where an assistant professor in the social sciences who was up for tenure, not only met the typical requirements for being granted tenure (numerous publications, excellent teaching, the ability to attract funding, service to the university, etc.), but he exceeded them. In fact, he exceeded the output of most of his colleagues. However, the committee reviewing his candidacy did not recommend him for tenure. Why? He was a political conservative (not to mention a Roman Catholic), and in some social science circles that is the unforgivable sin. Luckily, the school's President overrode the committee and awarded the assistant professor tenure.

Luckily, I don't work in such an environment. The political leanings of my colleagues range across the ideological map, which not only makes discussions interesting, but also, I think, increases the likelihood that unique and original ideas will arise.

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Sunday, March 29, 2015

A New Way to Tell the Exodus Story

Passover begins this week. It starts on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Nisan (April 3rd this year) and lasts for either seven (in Israel) or eight days (in the diaspora). It commemorates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, a story that is told in the book of Exodus. There are numerous ways that people prepare for Passover, and students at Technion (The Israel Institute of Technology) have come up with an ingenious way to retell the Exodus story. Enjoy!

Saturday, March 28, 2015

A Sadist Is a Masochist Who Follows the Golden Rule

I'm currently reading a recently released book: Living the Secular Life, by Phil Zuckerman, who is a sociology professor at Pitzer College, where he has studied the lives of the nonreligious for a number of years. He recently founded the Department of Secular Studies, which is the nation's first academic program dedicated to exclusively studying secular culture. So far, the book's quite good. It discusses a number of different topics, such as how people who don't believe in a God or some higher power can live a moral life, how secularists promote the common good, the rise of religious "nones," and so on.

That said, I think Zuckerman doesn't always think through some of the implications of his conclusions. For example, he approvingly notes that most of the nonreligious who he has interviewed base their morality on the golden rule: namely, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It's a nice sentiment, but the problem is that the golden rule doesn't operate in a vacuum. It presupposes some notion of what is right and good and just. As someone far wiser than I (Thomas Cathcart) once quipped, "a sadist is a masochist who follows the golden rule." In other words, as long as we agree with someone's notion of what constitutes "the good," then we have no problem with them following the golden rule.

But this raises the question as to where do our notions of the good come from? I think most of us would like to believe that we arrive at them through reason and reflection, and while reason and reflection (hopefully) play a part, our notions of what constitutes the good are also tied up in the communities in which we live and move and have our being. Thus, while it is entirely possible for people to live a good and moral life without a belief in God, it is not possible for them to live a good and moral life apart from the communities in which their lives are embedded. Like people of faith secularists derive their moralities from something greater (larger) than themselves.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Win With Class? Not a Chance

In explaining some of the rationale lying behind their off-season maneuvers, Forty-Niners management (Jed York) said that in the future that they (the Niners) were going to win with class, the implication being, of course, that it was former head coach Jim Harbaugh's fault for all of the personnel problems the team experienced in the last few years (Aldon Smith, Ray McDonald, Chris Culliver, etc.).

Soon thereafter, however, the Niners signed wide receiver, Jerome Simpson, who missed the entire 2014 season for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy (as well as part of the 2012 season). Then 49er fan-favorite Bruce Miller was arrested for spousal abuse, and there is no indication that the Niners plan to jettison him any time soon. And finally, although they later denied it, the 49ers reportedly were interested in Greg Hardy, another player accused of domestic abuse. As Mercury News sports columnist, Tim Kawakami recently point out, 49er General Manager, Trent Ballke
has a proven and calculated fondness for collecting troubled players. That’s Baalke’s track record. That’s the kind of GM he is. That’s the kind of roster the 49ers have had–most arrests, most controversies, most problems, a lot of talented players. It’s a trade-off that Baalke is happy to make.
Put simply, this wasn't a Harbaugh problem. But it does appear to be a 49er problem.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Will the Niners Implode in 2015?

Back in late 2014 I wrote that regardless of who the San Francisco 49ers hired as their head coach, they would almost certainly have a better year in 2015 than they did in 2014 ("Regression to the Mean and the 49ers' Next Coach"). There I argued this would occur because of a phenomenon known as "regression to the mean." As a FiveThirtyEight article noted ("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.
Add to this the likelihood that the 49ers would suffer as many injuries in 2015 as they did in 2014, it seemed almost certain that 2015 would be better than 2014.

Now, I'm not so sure. Largely because of the way management treated head coach Jim Harbaugh, the Niners had a hard time finding anyone who was willing to work for them (you know you're in trouble when even Lane Kiffin turns you down). They eventually hired Jim Tomsula, who by all accounts is a great guy and a talented defensive coach, but how he will perform as a head coach is an unknown. Since that time there appears to be a mass exodus from the Niners. To wit:
  • Frank Gore left for the Colts with an eye of winning a Super Bowl ring
  • Guard Mike Iupati left for Arizona, also with an eye to winning a Super Bowl ring
  • Cornerback Chris Culliver signed with Washington
  • Dan Skuta signed with the Jaguars
  • Michael Crabtree reportedly won't be back (it'd be hilarious if he signed with Seattle)
  • Pro Bowler Patrick Willis retired
  • Rookie Chris Borland retired
  • Pro Bowler Justin Smith is reportedly planning to retire
Teams always lose some players in the offseason. Losing so many high quality players may be unprecedented, however, and it's arguable that if the players believed they had a chance at winning the Super Bowl next season (which will be played at the 49ers stadium), not as many would have left or retired. To be sure, the Niners have been able to acquire some talent, such as Reggie Bush, Torrey Smith, and Jerome Simpson (the last calling into question the Niners' commitment to "winning with class"). However, I think it unlikely that these acquisitions will offset their losses, which does not bode well for the Niners' prospects in 2015. That said, if they do manage to have a good season, then Jim Tomsula may prove to be the second coming of Bill Walsh.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Religious Rhetoric of Honest Abe

Many scholars have commented on Abraham Lincoln's rhetorical gifts. Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address is regarded by some as the greatest speech in U.S. History (with the Gettysburg Address coming in a close second). One of Lincoln's gifts was his ability to draw on biblical texts, allusions, and imagery in crafting his speeches, as well as a cadence similar to what one finds in the King James version of the Bible.

Lincoln's religious rhetoric is the subject of a recent (and quite excellent) Research on Religion podcast ("Daniel Dreisbach on Abe Lincoln’s Religious Rhetoric"), which features Dr. Daniel Dreisbach, who is a professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C. Among his published works include Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State, Faith and the Founders of the American Republic (co-editor), and The Sacred Rights of Conscience (co-editor). Dr Dreisbach has also penned a short article on Lincoln's Second Inaugural, which covers some of the same ground as the podcast ("Lincoln’s 700 Words of Biblical Meditation") (the article's word count is higher than Lincoln's Second Inaugural).

Note: Research on Religion host Tony Gill "is well aware of his odd pronunciations of 'rhetoric' and 'address' and was surprised at how 'ploughboy' he sounded when reviewing the tape.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Harold Everton, R.I.P.

My dad, Harold M. Everton was born on January 2, 1924, in Grants Pass, Oregon, to Percy Thomas and Grace Josephine (Hiller) Everton. He was the second youngest of eight children and was the last to go when he passed away this past Tuesday (March 3, 2015) at the age of 91. He also outlived most of his friends.

My dad attended Grants Pass High where he played football, basketball, tennis, and track. After high school, he was drafted into the US Army and helped with the liberation of Normandy. Before heading to Europe, he spent some time in DC where he attended Georgetown University, an experience he treasured all his life. In the war he was awarded the bronze star for saving the lives of members of his squad by leading them from behind enemy lines back to their platoon "under heavy enemy artillery, mortar and machine gun fire." In so doing he was shot in the leg for which he received a purple heart (and a several month stay in a local hospital). In writing home to tell mom and dad of his adventures, he didn't get around to mentioning the bullet wound until the 5th page of the letter.

After being discharged from the Army in January 1946, he enrolled in the University of Oregon where he joined Theta Chi fraternity, majored in accounting, and married Mary Ellen Carolan, also from Grants Pass. He remained a life-long Ducks fan, suffering through many football seasons in the 60s and 70s before Rich Brooks turned the football program around and finally giving Duck fans something to cheer about. Thank goodness Mike Bellotti, Chip Kelly, and Mark Helfrich carried on the tradition.

After graduating from Oregon in 1948, my dad worked as an accountant for the State of Oregon and then for a local Grants Pass CPA firm. In 1951 he and Mary Ellen moved to San Jose where he joined the international accounting firm, Peat Marwick (now known as KPMG). At the same time he began working on a law degree, first at Santa Clara University and then at Golden Gate. After graduating in 1955, he passed the Bar and eventually left Peat to practice law, something that kept him busy for the next 50 years. By the time he retired, he was considered one of the best estate tax attorneys in Santa Clara County (although he was also known for throwing a file or two at his secretaries...)

My dad loved the outdoors, which he satisfied by playing golf, fishing, and hunting. He also loved animals, which probably helps explain why his home was chock full of dogs, cats, and horses. It might also help explain why he never shot a deer while hunting. My working theory is that he went "hunting" because he loved camping with his friends and riding his horses in the backcountry. He was too good of a shot to keep missing all those years.

Once I began showing an interest in sports, my dad coached and helped with all of my youth teams. He was a great Dad. He also served as Los Gatos Little League's Treasurer, not only while I was in the league but also long after I played my final game at Balzar Field. When I played sports at Los Gatos High, my dad was forced to sit on the sidelines, but he kept himself busy by snapping lots of photos (a trait I apparently inherited) and sharing them with anyone who cared (and perhaps with a few who didn't). And when I played baseball at Santa Clara University, my dad and mom seldom missed a game, traveling with the team whenever they could. He snapped a lot of photos during my four years there too.

My dad was beside himself when his grandchildren, Brendan and Tara, were born. He worshipped the ground they walked on (and vice versa). When they were young he babysat them, and when they got older he attended almost all of their baseball, football, soccer, and volleyball games, at least up until health problems prevented him from doing so. He was a great Grandpa. When Brendan was accepted into the University of Oregon, the buttons on Harold's shirt nearly popped he was so proud, and he carried a copy of Brendan's acceptance letter around with him to show his friends. No doubt, he would have felt the same if he could've lived a couple more years to witness Tara getting accepted and heading off to college.

In recent years, he unfortunately suffered from dementia, which eventually forced him to retire from his law practice. Even to the end, though, he knew members of his family when they came to visit. He is survived by me, my mom, Mary Ellen (who remained his best friend), my wife, Deanne, Tara and Brendan, and his favorite nephews, Eldon, Gary, John, Jon, and MacDuff. He will be sorely missed.

Note: A memorial service will be held at First Congregational Church of San Jose (1980 Hamilton Avenue, at the corner of Leigh and Hamilton) on March 24th at 2:00pm. A reception will follow at the home of Sean, Deanne, Brendan, and Tara Everton.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Ideas Whose Time Has Gone

As my friends and readers of this blog will know, I am a fan of the folks at Freakonomics, both the books and the podcast, and that I freakquently write brief posts and provide links to recent podcasts. This is one of those posts. It concerns a recent Freakonomics podcast that explores ideas that should be put to rest ("This Idea Must Die"). It is inspired by the book,  This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress, which the latest edition in an annual series of books put out by the intellectual salon Edge.org and the brainchild of Laurie Santos, who is a professor of psychology at Yale. During the podcast you hear from Santos, who explains her motivation for the question, as well as from some of the authors whose submissions are included in the book:
This is an absolutely fascinating podcast although at 55 minutes, you will want to allow time to listen to it. As always, you can download Freakonomics podcasts from iTunes, or you can listen to them at the Freakonomics website where you can also find the audio transcript of the podcast.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Snow, Snow, Snow (or Hail?)!

Yesterday, we visited my mom in southeast San Jose, and as we drew close, we noticed an occasional car covered with snow and that the foothills around my mom's house were covered in snow (but the hills above them were not -- very strange). My daughter sent one of the pictures she took to the San Jose paper, and they ended up interviewing her on the phone and publishing one of her pictures in the paper (and several more on-line).

The good reporters that they are, they interviewed a meteorologist from the National Weather Service and learned that it wasn't snow but hail, copious amounts of hail, in fact. I suppose that technically the meteorologist was correct although I doubt anyone who was there thought it was hail. I was reminded of how strictly speaking a tomato is a fruit (as are cucumbers, squash, and green beans), but most of us consider them vegetables. My guess is that there isn't a ski resort in Tahoe that would not have called what fell on the San Jose foothills, snow. That's definitely what I'm going to call it (and going to tell my grandkids).