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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Why We Coffee Drinkers Should Thank Starbucks

I'm sensing that it's becoming increasingly fashionable to "dis" Starbucks. Starbucks coffee is bland, it has no bite, it's become a corporate behemoth, so we should support the local coffee house instead. All that may be true, but for those of us old enough to remember, before Starbucks (and Peet's), it was hard to find a good latte. Local coffee roasters routinely burned the milk when steaming, and the beans they ground were often little better than Folgers.

But the advent of Starbucks brought consistency to the making of lattes, cappuccinos, and so on. This forced local roasters to improve what they served, or they'd go out of business (and many did). That's why most of the baristas working in coffee shops today know how to brew an excellent cup of coffee. And that is why all of us coffee drinkers should thank Starbucks (and Peet's).

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Should the Giants Panic?

Four years ago, almost to the day, the Giants were struggling, and I wrote that they Giants shouldn't panic ("Why the Giants Shouldn't Panic"). Most of their struggles could be explained by injuries (primarily to Angel Pagan) and a bit of bad luck. In retrospect, I look like a genius since the next year the Giants went on to win their third World Series in five years.

So, what about this season? Should they panic? I don't think so. This season has been characterized by injuries to key players (Posey, Bumgarner, Crawford, Pence, Cueto, Melancon) and sub-par years from Crawford, Belt, and Pence. Pence's off year could reflect that he's getting older ("Aging Curves and Big Contract"), but there's a good chance that Belt and Crawford will bounce back next year. In fact, I'm convinced that Crawford is playing with an undisclosed injury -- he hasn't been the same since he returned from the DL. Belt's more of a mystery. His defense is as good as anyone's in the league and a key reason why Crawford and Panik won Gold Gloves last year, but he never seems to hit as well as expected, which is why the Giants might be tempted to shop him in the off season. Indeed, doing so may help them shore up the few holes that they have. Here's my mild prescription for the Giants woes:
  1. First, they need to acquire a position player who can hit with genuine power (Yoenis Céspedes would've been an ideal pickup last year, but he's no longer available). Jarret Parker has a lot of power, and I'd love it if he blossoms into an everyday player, but I don't think the Giants should take a chance that he won't. Instead, let him compete with Pence for one of the outfield positions, and use free agency to acquire a true power hitter.
  2. The Giatns also have to bolster their bullpen. With Hunter Strickland, Kyle Crick, Corey Gearin, and Sam Dyson, they have the makings of a good one, but they need a left-hander, like Javy López, who can enter a game and shut things down. They also need to find someone who can pitch the 9th inning without having a meltdown, something that has happened far too often the last couple of seasons.
  3. Finally, they need to find a fifth starer. As much of a fan as I am of Matt Cain, I think his days as a starter are over. Perhaps he can turn into a mid-inning reliever, but that's a debate for another day. Instead, the Giants need to resign Johnny Cueto, which should give them a solid starting four (Bumgarner, Cueto, Blach, Samardzija), while at the same time jettisoning Matt Moore. Perhaps, next year Moore can compete for the fifth position, but hopefully they'll find another starter or top prospect (and Vanderbilt grad) Tyler Beede will be ready by next year's All Star break.
Then, of course, there's the issue with Pablo. Three years ago I expressed skepticism about his long-term worth ("Aging Curves and Big Contract"). He was past the age that most major league baseball players begin to decline (which were reflected in his own output), and he seems to have difficulty keeping himself in shape, which only will accelerate his decline. That said, the Giants are basically getting him for free right now, so why not give him a tryout over the next couple of months. He has an incredible amount of raw talent ("Pablo, You Could've Been One of the Best"), so it may be worth seeing if he can turn it around.

I think that's about it. The Giants shouldn't panic. They have the best catcher and perhaps the best big-game pitcher in baseball. They just need a couple of players to bounce back from off years, pick up a power hitter, and find someone to replace Matt Moore. Piece of cake. And let's not forget. Next year is an even year.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Two Cheers for Conservative Religion

Not long ago ("Don't Mock Working Class Religion"), I urged folks, in particular those on the political left, to refrain from mocking the conservative religious beliefs of working class women and men. In doing so, I didn't argue that they couldn't be critical of them, but that's different from mocking them. In order to critically engage others about what they believe, you first have to respect them, which means that at the outset you can't think that you're smarter or more sophisticated than they are. If you do, then no matter what you may tell yourself, it's impossible to truly respect them.

It is just as important to recognize that although some of the beliefs embraced by theological conservatives are problematic, there is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Or, to put it differently, there are some aspects of theological conservatism that are redemptive, that actually improve the lives of individuals. For instance, there is considerable evidence that Pentecostal churches have helped improve the lives of thousands in South America; by demanding that members (in particular, male members) stop drinking and put in a full days work in their jobs, family incomes have risen substantially and spousal (and child) abuse have dropped dramatically. Similar effects have been witnessed in the U.S. as well. Consider, for instance, the following examples:

1. The book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, tells the true story of Louis Zamperini's journey from juvenile delinquent to track star to prison of war. As the book (but not the movie) makes abundantly clear, after he returned from the war, Louis's life slowly spiraled downwards. To forget his tormentors (one in particular), he drank increasingly, waking up at home sometimes without knowing where he left his car. And his marriage deteriorated to such an extent that his wife announced that she planned to divorce him. However, Louis turned his life around, and it was a Billy Graham Crusade that did it. Louis stopped drinking, smoking, and spent the rest of his life preaching the virtue of forgiveness. In fact, he returned to Japan in order to meet with and forgive his captors (one--the "Bird"--refused to do so).

2. The movie, Hacksaw Ridge, tells the true story of Desmond Doss, who as a combat medic refused to carry or use a firearm or weapons of any kind. He became the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor, for service above and beyond the call of duty during the Battle of Okinawa. In particular, during the battle, he saved the lives of 75 wounded infantrymen atop the area known as Hacksaw Ridge. It will come as a surprise to some that Doss's pacifism was rooted in his Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs, beliefs which most observers of religion would consider to be "theologically conservative."

3. In his NY Times best seller, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J. D. Vance recounts his experience of growing up poor in Appalachia (in Ohio and Kentucky). In it, he notes the important role that the church can/could play in the revival of the area. "Regular church attendees commit fewer crimes, are in better health, live longer, make more money, drop out of high school less frequently, and finish college more frequently than those who don’t attend church at all… It’s not just that people who happen to live successful lives also go to church; it’s that church seems to promote good habits” (p. 92). According to Vance, the
church offered something desperately needed by people like me. For alcoholics, it gave them a community of support and a sense that they weren’t fighting addiction alone. For expectant mothers, it offered a free home with job training and parenting classes. When someone needed a job, church friends could either provide one or make introductions. When Dad faced financial troubles, his church banded together and purchased a used car for the family. In the broken world I saw around me—and for the people struggling in that world—religion offered tangible assistance to keep the faithful on track. (pp. 93-94)
Thus, as those on the theological and/or political left (of which I consider myself a part) try to address and understand the grievances of those who supported Donald Trump for President, a good first step would be to recognize that conservative religion confers tangible benefits to its adherents and that it's okay to embrace its positive aspects. A second step would be to take the time and energy needed to truly understand conservative forms of religion, not as they are often caricatured in the media, but in terms of their actual beliefs and practices. Those who take such time would discover a level of sophistication that many on the left don't realize exists.

More than once I've remarked that it's  tempting to portray our ideological opponents as immoral, stupid, or both. It may be tempting. It isn't, however, helpful.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Lakers Are Why the Warriors Signed Durant

Have you heard that Paul George wants to play only one more year for the Indiana Pacers and then move to Los Angeles and play for Lakers? And the rumor that LeBron James plans to finish his career with the Lakers seems grows stronger everyday (much to the chagrin of Cleveland fans); the latest is that James's wife wants to live in LA year round, which may prod James to jump ship sooner rather than later.

George and James are not unusual in their desire to play for the Lakers. Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone, Ron Artest, and Gary Payton are among several players who left the teams that drafted them in order to play for LA. Why? Most hoped they would win a title, and many (but not all) did just that. That's probably what's floating around in the back of George's mind, and James is still chasing Jordan's six titles (never mind that Bill Russell has 11!), and he may believe he has a better chance of doing so in LA than in Cleveland.

All of which might help explain why the Warriors went after Kevin Durant last year. It wasn't just because he added a level of insurance to an already great team ("The Warriors Might Have Won the Championship Without Kevin Durant"). It was because they knew, or at least sensed, that before long, some of the NBA's top players would bolt for LA and (once again) turn the Lakers into a contender if not a "superteam." If the rumors are to be believed, it looks like they were right.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Warriors Might Have Won the Championship Without Kevin Durant

The dominant narrative is that the Golden State Warriors wouldn't have won this year's NBA Championship if they hadn't signed Kevin Durant last July. That's entirely possible, but it ignores the fact that last year, when they "blew" a 3-1 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers, in the final two games of last year's finals, the Warriors played with an injured Steph Curry and without their starting center, Andrew Bogut, whom many consider to be one of the best, if the not the best, defensive center in the NBA. As I've noted previously, winning championships not only takes a lot of talent, but it also usually requires a little bit of luck ("What Makes a Winning Combination? Talent, Luck, and (Sometimes) Chemistry"). Last year the Warriors didn't have it. This year (and in 2015) they did.

But that still doesn't mean that they couldn't have won it all this year without Kevin Durant. As a recent FiveThirtyEight article noted ("The Warriors Didn’t Need Kevin Durant To Be This Good"), what Durant means for the Warriors is that rather than having a very good shot at winning the title every year, now the Warriors have an excellent shot. Injuries and other forms of bad luck will stay play a role, but Durant's presence on the team helps minimize the ill effects of such bad luck:
While adding Durant has been a success, it didn’t end up breaking basketball any more than the Warriors had broken it already.

Counting the regular season and playoffs, the Warriors won 84 percent of their games this year — up from 83 percent last year and 81 percent the year before. Teams have only won 80+ percent of their combined season games 11 times in the 70-year history of the NBA.1 The Warriors have now done it three years in a row.

But the Warriors’ mission isn’t just to win titles, it’s to guarantee them. And Durant is both icing and insurance policy — a guarantee that the Warriors will always have an MVP-caliber, one-man offense available. Though he makes them a little bit better in his own right, his main value comes from making what happened to them in the 2016 playoffs less likely.
So, haters can complain about the Warriors signing Durant in the off season, but there's still a good chance that the Dubs would've paraded around Lake Merritt this past week anyway.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

It's Really Not OK to Kill People

This morning, James Hodgkinson, 66, of Belleville, Illinois, opened fire on Republican Representatives and staffers, who were practicing for the upcoming baseball game between Democrats and Republicans. According to his brother, he was unhappy with the recent election and had recently traveled to DC to protest policies proposed by President Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress.

I get why people get frustrated. When laws and regulations are passed that one opposes, its easy to feel powerless, to get angry, because it seems like there's nothing one can do, especially when the next election is almost two years away. But violence is not the answer. Not only is it morally wrong (we used to call it a sin, but that's intellectually unfashionable these days), it solves nothing, and in fact only hands the opposition a moral victory. So, it's time for folks to dial things back. It's okay to be angry, but take it out by sending emails to newspaper editors, calling your local and state representatives, marching "vigorously" against policies that you oppose, or on the elliptical cross-trainer at your gym. But, it's really not okay to kill (or try to kill) people. Really.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

NBA MVP: Who'd You Rather Have on Your Team?

Recently, a news reporter asked a Montana Republican who he trusted more: Donald Trump or James Comey. "About the same," the guy answered. Then the reporter asked a follow-up question, "Who would you buy a used car from?" After an uncomfortable chuckle, the man replied, "James Comey." To get to the truth of a matter, sometimes you have to ask the right question.

This exchange comes to mind when I think about the debate over who should be the NBA's MVP. The finalists are James Hardin, Russell Westbrook, and Kawai Leonard. My guess is that it'll come down to either Hardin and Westbrook. However, I think people are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking, "Who's the NBA's MVP?", they should be asking, "Who would you want on your team?" And seriously, would anyone pick Hardin or Westbrook over Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, or Kyrie Irving (or Kawai Leonard for that matter)? I don't think so. If there's anything these playoffs have made clear is that James, Durant, Curry, and Irving operate at a completely different level than do others in the league. Especially when it counts.