Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Consider Us Dinosaurs, They Will

I recall watching a television movie some years ago, which was about a coach who helped integrate college athletics. For the life of me, I can't track down the movie's name or the coach it was about (my recollection is that it was based on a true story), but it contained a line that has stayed with me. When asked whether he was racist, the coach replied, "Of course, but I have great hope for my kids." The coach's remark may be apocryphal, but it captures how all of us are products of the cultures in which we are raised and in which we live, and how difficult it is for us to transcend them.

Unfortunately, many of us fail to recognize this. In fact, it has become quite fashionable to heap scorn on the backwardness of earlier generations, especially historical figures from those generations that are often held up as "great." For example, when Bernie Sanders was asked which foreign leader he took inspiration from with regards to foreign policy, he pointed to Winston Churchill because of his leadership in the fight against Hitler and the Nazis. For this, Sanders was excoriated by some on the left because as Sanders noted, Churchill was something of a conservative and pursued policies (both foreign and domestic) that reflected his colonialist upbringing. Another favorite target, especially among Mainline Protestants is the Apostle Paul. Although one can make a pretty strong case that for his time Paul was rather progressive, many of us Mainline Protestants can't resist demonstrating how much more enlightened we are than someone who lived 2,000 years ago.

I'd like to suggest an alternative approach to evaluating the "greatness" of historical figures, one that takes its cue from statistics. When researchers use statistical methods with samples of data in order to test the likelihood that an observed association between two variables (e.g., level of education and voting for Trump), they determine whether the observed association differs significantly from a scenario in which there is no association at all. Specifically, when the former is greater than 1.96 standard deviations from the latter, the difference is considered to be "statistically significant," which means that there is only a 1 in 20 chance that observed association is spurious. In terms of the graph below, when the observed association falls within one of the tails of the distribution (shaded in the graph), it is considered to be a statistically significant distance from the distribution's mean ( = 0).

What has this to do with judging individuals from the past? I would argue that we can consider those who differ significantly from the population mean on various issues as potentially "great." In fact, pushing the analogy a bit farther, we could consider those who differ in one direction from the population mean as dinosaurs, while those who differ in the other as enlightened (in statistics, these are known as "one-tail" tests). Easier said than done, of course, since it's a bit difficult to return to the past and conduct surveys. However, we can roughly "estimate" how much various individuals deviate from the mainstream of their day. And I would argue that approaching history with such a framework would help us be a bit more tolerant of those from the past. That doesn't necessarily mean condoning their beliefs and behaviors, but it might prevent us from judging them too harshly. And, if such an approach catches on, it might prevent future generations from judging us too harshly although that's probably just wishful thinking on my part. As Yoda might say, "Consider us dinosaurs, they will."

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

What if Kyle Shanahan Says No?

It's official. Kyle Shanahan is the last remaining candidate for the 49er head coaching position. All of the other candidates have either accepted other positions or have withdrawn their names from consideration, which raises the obvious question: What happens if Kyle Shanahan says no? What if he tells the Niners he'd rather remain the Atlanta Falcons' offensive coordinator? Who will coach the Niners then?

Such a scenario is not beyond the realm of possibility. The Niner head coaching position isn't the most attractive in the NFL. As Steve Ruiz of USA Today put it a few days ago ("Kyle Shanahan should avoid the 49ers job"):
Why would Shanahan want to leave Atlanta - and guys like Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman - for a team with no quarterback and a dearth of offensive playmakers? The 49ers rosters is still years away from competency, but the incompetent owner seems to think the team should win now. And when it doesn't, don't expect York, who runs the organization, to hold himself accountable... Chip Kelly and Jim Tomsula got one year apiece despite overseeing one of the least talented rosters in the league. Give Bill Belichick or Pete Carroll that team, and you're getting roughly the same results.
One has to wonder if that is why Josh McDaniels decided to remain the New England Patriots offensive coordinator for another year. The official reason was that he didn't want to move his family, but local columnist Tim Kawakami has speculated more might have gone into his decision not to take the Niner position ("Josh McDaniels pulls out of 49ers’ search, so now Kyle Shanahan has all the leverage; do York and Marathe understand this?"):
I believe, and have believed from the outset of this long search, that the only candidates who possibly could fix the 49ers should and will have strong demands for Jed/Paraag, who have very much proven that they don’t like strong demands. We just saw the result of those competing interests, I’m very sure. 
McDaniels had the leverage to ask York and Marathe to clear out of his way, let him pick his own GM (likely ESPN’s Louis Riddick), and guarantee him a commitment level that allayed general concerns about the Yorks’ impulsive, short-sighted, leak-prone, race-to-2-wins ways. If the 49ers had the wherewithal to meet those demands, they’d be worth McDaniels uprooting his young family and taking a shot with this talent-depleted roster.
And I am guessing that, once they heard what McDaniels was telling them, York and Marathe were not pleased–because one thing we know about the Yorks is that they love to be praised and flattered, not challenged.
But now that Tom Cable has also dropped out (thank the Lord), Kyle Shanahan should have even more leverage than Josh McDaniels did. He should be able to name his price -- not so much in terms of $s (although I'm sure he'll be offered that too) but in the words of Kawakami, the power to "pick his own GM... and guarantee him a commitment level that allayed general concerns about the Yorks’ impulsive, short-sighted, leak-prone, race-to-2-wins ways." Or as ESPN's Nick Wagoner put it ("To land Kyle Shanahan, 49ers must be willing to give"):
It was already pretty much a given that York and the Niners would have to concede a lucrative, long-term contract to whoever they hire as head coach. No strong candidate would walk into this situation after the events of the past few years without plenty of built-in security. Likewise, there are some concessions the Niners might have to make in terms of personnel control, or at least in terms of making sure Shanahan has a general manager he feels comfortable with.
But what happens if Shanahan says no?

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Can Jed York Do Anything More to Alienate Fans?

Jed York is quickly becoming the least-liked owner in the NFL (Note: Technically, Jed doesn't own the 49ers; his parents do). He alienated the 49er fan base by first firing Jim Harbaugh and then hiring and firing two more head coaches, assuming that they were the problem rather than himself. He did make a move in the right direction by finally dispatching GM Trent Baalke, but until Jed admits that he knows less about football than he thinks he does, it could be a long time before the Niners return to the Super Bowl.

Off the field Jed has probably proved to be more of a disaster. It all started out well with the construction of Levi's Stadium, which opened in 2014. However, the team wanted to take over the soccer fields next to the stadium for parking, and in 2012 York wrote a letter in which he proposed to “underwrite’’ new fields on the grounds of Santa Clara schools. Most people interpreted the letter to meant that the team would build and maintain several new fields. Jed had a different interpretation. Then in February of 2016 the Niners cancelled a girl scout sleepover because they booked a lucrative concert -- sense ultimately prevailed, the Niners managed to reschedule the sleepover, but the damage to public relations was done. Since then the City of Santa Clara has audited the Niners books, which led to a letter from the City Council accusing the them of potential breaches of contract. And then last Fall a mysterious "BLUPAC" sponsored attack ads against allies of the city's mayor, and now (just this past week), the Niners have sued the city for accusing them of breach of contract. Considering that the contract between the Niners and the City of Santa Clara has another 37 years to go, this is not a good start.

It's hard to imagine how Jed will restore the Niner image with both the fan base and the surrounding community. He (and his parents) appear to be more interested in making money than fielding a winning team or being a good corporate citizen. Unfortunately, it's unlikely that the Yorks will sell the team. The Niners do turn a profit. But that doesn't mean we Niner fans can't hope. It's going to be on my next year's grown-up Christmas list.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Possessive Singular

What do Bridget Jones's Diary and Bridget Jones's Baby have in common, aside from sharing the same central character? Both movie titles form the possessive singular by adding 's' to 'Jones,' even though 'Jones' ends in 's.' As Strunk and White note in, The Elements of Style (p. 1), we should follow this rule "whatever the final consonant. Thus [we should] write,
Charles's friend
Burns's poem
the witch's malice"
Are Strunk and White alone? No. As the authors of Grammar Smart note (p. 122), "If the word is a proper noun that ends in -s, add an apostrophe and an -s. (This is the part that people get wrong)
Yeats's poem
Ross's riddle
Chris's crisis"
And aside from a few exceptions the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press agree ("Apostrophe-S vs. Apostrophe: Forming Possessives of Words Ending in S (or an S Sound)"). Still skeptical? Consider the following "real life" examples:
Anyone who chooses to believe something contrary to evidence that an overwhelming majority of people find overwhelmingly convincing... will not be convince... And so, with this book, I do not expect to convince anyone in that boat. What I do hope is to convince genuine seekers who really want to know how we know that Jesus did exist, as virtually every scholar of antiquity, of biblical studies, of classics, and of Christian origins in this country and, in fact, in the Western world agrees. Many of these scholars have no vested interest in the matter. As it turns out, I myself do not either. I am not a Christian, and I have no interest in promoting a Christian cause or a Christian agenda. I am an agnostic with atheist leanings, and my life and views of the world would be approximately the same whether or note Jesus existed. My beliefs would vary little. The answer to question of Jesus's historical existence will not make me more or less happy, content, hopeful, likable, rich, famous, or immortal.
-- Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, pp. 5-6

During our period at the abbey his hands were always covered with the dust of books, the gold of still-fresh illumination, or with fellowship substances he touched in Severinus’s infirmary.
-- Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, p. 17

But Harry was already pulling a roll of parchment from the owl's leg. He was so convinced that this letter had to be from Dumbledore, explaining everything -- the dementors, Mrs. Figg, what the Ministry was up to, how he, Dumbledore, intended to sort everything out -- that for the first time in his life he was disappointed to see Sirius's handwriting... "I can't stop the owls coming," Harry snapped, crushing Sirius's letter in his fist.
-- J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, p. 35 

Note that religion is singular in James's definition and plural in Dennett's. James is describing an experience that he takes to be universal among religions of all descriptions, while Dennett sees religions as distinct 'social systems.'
-- Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind, p. 8

In using it to build a science of the materially extended world, Descartes missed the significance of empirical measurement and inductive mathematical principles in physics; he went so far as to dismiss Galileo’s law of gravity because it was merely empirical. Descartes’s methodological pronouncements missed the actual procedures of the scientific revolution as badly as Bacon’s. Nevertheless, Descartes’s deductive system became for a generation or more the leading emblem of the “mechanical philosophy”; his Principles of Philosophy in 1644 was the most comprehensive statement across the range of science, incorporating everything from physics, chemistry, and physiology to celestial mechanics into a single materialist system.
Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies,  p. 568

Over the course of a week Amos [Tversky] gave five different talks about his work with Danny, each aimed at a different group of academics. Each time the room was jammed--and fifteen years later, in 1987, when Biederman left Buffalo for the University of Minnesota, people were still talking about Amos's talks.
Michael Lewis, The Great Undoing, p. 205
Johann Arnason has pointed out that Jaspers's "most condensed statement" of the axial age, describing it as the moment when "man becomes conscious of Being as a whole, of himself and his limitations," and "experiences absoluteness in the depths of selfhood and in the lucidity of transcendence," is remarkably similar to Jaspers's own version of existential philosophy.
-- Robert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, p. 272 

There are plenty of more examples, but surely this should suffice.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Can The Niners Send a Signal That Things Will Be Different?

Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group
In economics, signaling refers to the concept that one party credibly conveys some information about itself to another party. It is a method of overcoming the problem of asymmetric information, which is where one party has information the other party does not. For example, potential employees can send a signal about their ability level to various employers by acquiring the appropriate education credentials (e.g., BS, MBA, PhD). Employers can also send signals about the desirability of a place to work. This becomes especially important when they are competing with other firms for high end talent (e.g., high tech firms competing with one another for top engineers and computer scientists).

The San Francisco 49ers have a signaling problem. Two years ago, after Niner CEO Jed York fired head coach Jim Harbaugh and kept GM Trent Baalke the 49ers inadvertently signaled to the rest of the league that San Francisco was no longer desirable place to work or play, as evidenced by the mass exodus of players who left for other teams or decided to retire. And therein lies the Niners problem going forward as they seek to hire a new GM and a new head coach. Who will want to work for the Niners when there are other teams that are more desirable and far less dysfunctional? As columnist Ray Ratto puts it ("York Has His Work Cut Out For Him in Replacing Kelly, Baalke"):
You see, while most folks will be focusing on the identities of the next GM and coach (or coach and GM, if Jed decides to work backwards), the atmosphere is what needs the biggest workover. There is no compelling reason for excitement around either of these vacancies, no more than for the Chargers’ coaching job (Mike McCoy got canned after losing to the Chiefs), the Rams’ coaching job (Jeff Fisher was canned nine days after being extended), the Jaguars’ coaching job (Gus Bradley got it on a plane ride home), the Bills’ coaching job (Rex Ryan cleared space for Anthony Lynn to lose his first game), the Broncos’ coaching job (Gary Kubiak announced he is stepping down), or possibilities in Arizona, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and New Orleans. And yes, it figures that the 49ers would be looking for a new coach when the market is replete with more stable offerings. 
Jed is good at several things – making a stadium turn into an ATM machine, avoiding the public, firing people and paying coaches not to work for him. Other than the money thing, none of these are useful social skills or confidence-builders. 
And that is what he needs most right now – a way to indicate not just to unhappy fans but to the hiring pool that he actually does have a grasp on this football business, even if his grasp is to let go of it and hand it to someone who can repair what he has wrought. The “it’s one of 32 jobs so anyone would be desperate to have it” logic doesn’t work when the brand has been so comprehensively devalued.
In short, the Niners need to send a signal that San Francisco will once again be a desirable destination in the NFL. Doing so won't be easy. In fact, the way York handled the dismissals of Baalke and Kelly (i.e., leaks to the media, not telling Kelly personally, etc.) wasn't a good start. As Tim Kawakami noted last night and this morning:
But once again, the Yorks muffed the delivery by leaking the firings on Saturday night without first telling Kelly, then declining to formally give him word until after Sunday’s loss to Seattle at Levi’s, which gave the 49ers a 2-14 final record. How can the Yorks make all the necessary, wholesale changes to this stultified franchise if they continue to try to play these heavy-handed public-relation games? How is this team going to be any different if their owners continue to act like children? ("A Bungled Start to the 49ers’ New Era")
As we all get ready for Jed York’s 10 a.m. third annual I-fired-somebody-we’ll-get-it-right-this-time presser today, it’s time to note that the 49ers might actually get it right in 2017, but their owner’s actions so far are not quite signaling that. Basically: Some good general manager and coaching candidates are going to look at Jed’s petty behavior in the run-up to the firings of Trent Baalke and Chip Kelly and his self-serving comments afterwards and think: You know, he’s just going to blame me for his mistakes eventually. ("Jed York... continues to behave like somebody who thinks he has it all figured out, but really, really doesn’t")
The Niners remind me of the Golden State Warriors when Chris Cohan owned the team. The franchise made a lot of money during his tenure, but the Warriors only had two winning seasons in the 15 that Cohan owned the team. And Sports Illustrated ranked him as the league's fourth worst owner. I'm sure that if Sports Illustrated decides to rank football owners, Jed would end up toward the bottom (Note: Yahoo Sports Columnist Frank Schwab believes the Niners' vacancy is the least attractive of those available).

The only cure for the Warriors was Cohan selling the team, but (unfortunately) the chance that the Yorks will sell the Niners is close to nil, so Niner fans can only hope that Jed will one day realize that, like his uncle, Eddie Debartolo, he doesn't know a whole lot about football and will hand over the reigns of running the club to a GM who does. I have little confidence that such a day is nigh, however. Hopefully, I am wrong.