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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Can the Giants Get Back on the Road to the Playoffs?

Have you noticed that once people pull into a parking lot, many of them forget how to drive? Skills such as stopping at appropriate places, signaling when turning, awareness of other drivers and pedestrians, and so on, seem to go out the window in their quest for that parking spot that is 20 feet closer to the store than the one they just passed up (never mind that the extra time and money spent on gas isn't worth it).

For whatever reason, I thought of parking lot drivers while lamenting the latest blown save by the San Francisco Giants' bullpen. The 9th inning appears to be their parking lot. Through the first 8 innings of a game, they're as good or better than most teams, but when the 9th inning arrives, all they know about pitching seems to go out the window. They lead the majors with 29 blown saves. No other team contending for a playoff spot has more than 20. Santiago Casilla is the team's poster child for blown saves, but he's not the only guilty party. Plenty of Giant relievers have had a 9th inning meltdowns. Like all Giants' fans, I hope they find their way out of the parking lot and back on to the road to the playoffs. I'm becoming increasingly skeptical, however.

Note: If the Giants don't make it this year, wouldn't a Cubs-Red Sox World Series be great?

Friday, September 16, 2016

Slow Vehicles Must Turn Out

The sign to the right appears quite often on the road to South Shore Lake Tahoe. Apparently, however, most people think that it doesn't apply to them. It doesn't matter whether there's a line of cars stretching back a mile or more, most drivers will not pull over. This is somewhat akin to those drivers who plod along in the left lane of a freeway (aka, "road boulders"), forcing those driving faster to change lanes in order to pass.

The most common excuse is, "I'm going the speed limit" (although there a plenty of drivers who aren't). The problem is that if people want to pass, they will, regardless of how safe or dangerous it is. And there's already plenty of evidence to suggest that most automobile accidents occur when people are changing lanes. So, we need to ask ourselves whether it is more important "being right" (i.e., going the speed limit) or protecting the lives of those around us. I vote for the latter.

Note: In some states, you can get a ticket for not pulling over to let someone pass even if you are going over the speed limit but slower than the flow of traffic ("Left-Lane Passing Laws").

Monday, September 12, 2016

Basket of Deplorables? Seriously, What Was Hillary Thinking?

As most people are now aware, last Friday at a private gathering of some of her supporters, Hillary Clinton remarked:
To just be grossly generalistic, you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorable. Right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it. And unfortunately, there are people like that and he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people, now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric.
It's hard to believe she was dumb enough to say this (although her opponent says stuff like this on a regular basis). It strikes me that in political campaigns it's strategically okay to go after your opponent but it's never okay to attack your opponent's supporters (at least not their person -- attacking their actions is fine), regardless of what you might privately think of them. To her credit she expressed regret for her remarks the following day ("Last night I was 'grossly generalistic,' and that's never a good thing. I regret saying 'half' -- that was wrong"), but at least in the short-term the damage was already done.

It may all be forgotten, however, given that almost passed out on Sunday at a 9/11 ceremony due to complications from pneumonia, which was first diagnosed on Friday night. It could turn out to be ironic that her bout with pneumonia may help distract from one of her more unfortunate comments (at least from the perspective of her supporters) on the campaign trail to date.

Note: In something of an ironic twist, at a rally in North Carolina today where Trump called on Hillary to apologize for her "basket of deplorables" remarks, one of his supporters hit two protestors in the head ("Man at Trump Rally Hits 2 Protesters in the Head"). You can't make this stuff up.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Largest Seminaries? Evangelical (and Primarily Southern Baptist)

On more than one occasion I've lamented the demise of Mainline Protestantism and the (public) denial by of Mainline Protestant leaders that there's anything wrong (Mainline Denial; Mainline Denial Redux; The Myth of Evangelical Decline). However, data published by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) once again reinforces the fact that Mainline Protestantism is in decline and Evangelical Protestantism continues to thrive. More precisely, the ATS data indicate that evangelical Protestant seminaries draw the largest share of students seeking training for church ministry. While all of the ten largest seminaries are evangelical, half are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). In fact, five of the six are associated with the SBC although the largest is Fuller Theological Seminary, which is not affiliated with the SBC. There has been little fluctuation among the list of the top ten schools over the years although this year Reformed Theological Seminary (of the evangelical Presbyterian Church in America), Princeton Seminary (Presbyterian Church, USA), and Candler School of Theology (United Methodist Church) fell off the list (from The Aquila Report as reported in Religion Watch).

Monday, September 5, 2016

2016 Presidential Election Prediction

Every four years I venture an educated guess as to who will win the Presidential election. Except for Bush vs. Kerry in 2004, which I declared to be a tossup, my record is spotless. This year isn't like any recent election year, however, so I am less confident that I usually am. I was certain, for instance, that Trump didn't have a prayer to win the G.O.P. nomination, but I (along with a lot of other people) were horribly mistaken. Thus, although I think Hillary will win, I am less certain in a long time. But I am getting ahead of myself

For years I looked primarily to the state of the economy at election time (i.e., what I believe will be the state of the economy) for basing my conclusion. If the U.S. economy is doing well, it generally helps the incumbent party. It's not that a healthy economy affects the voting behavior of most voters, but it tends to exert a large influence on undecided voters, which are often the key to winning an election. A healthy economy helps incumbents more than it does the party, however; thus, while it looks like the economy will be relatively robust come November 8th ("The Economy Will Probably Be Pretty Good On Election Day"), it won't help Hillary as much as it would Obama if he were running.

Obama's increasing popularity should also help Hillary although how much is unclear. Hillary is very unpopular. Her unfavorability ratings would set records for a presidential nominee if it were not for the fact that her opponent's unfavorability ratings are even higher. As I noted in an earlier post, regardless of who wins, our next President will be very unpopular ("Our Next President Will Be Really Unpopular").

In recent years I've relied increasingly on prediction markets, which have been remarkably accurate in predicting the outcomes of presidential elections (see e.g., "Election Update"). Prediction markets are speculative markets created for the purpose of making predictions, and current market prices are interpreted as the probability of the outcome occurring. People make money in the markets by buying low and selling high. For example, currently the price of a share of Hillary Clinton sells for around $0.75, which means that if she wins, holders of shares in Hillary will receive $1.00 for each share they own. The price of a share is interpreted as the probability that someone will win. Thus, currently prediction markets believe that Hillary has a 75% of winning the election.

The prices for Hillary shares increased steadily after the close of the Democratic Convention, but after a couple of weeks, they began to fall (see chart above -- from PredictWise, which aggregates several prediction markets). It is tempting to attribute the rise after the convention to a "convention bump," but prediction markets tend to factor in such things, so most of the rise is probably due to Trump's several missteps, such as attacking the family of a fallen soldier, intimating that gun owners might have to take matters into their own hands if Trump loses, suggesting that Obama was the founder of a terrorist group that formed long before Obama was elected, and so on.

This year I'm also incorporating (Nate Silver's) FiveThirtyEight's election forecasts ("Who Will Win the Presidency?") into my prediction. These take into account poll data at the state and national levels. FiveThirtyEight has actually built three forecasting models: a polls-only forecast, a now-cast, and a polls-plus forecast. The first takes into account trends in recent polls; the second only looks to current polls; the third is similar to the first except that it factors in other factors, such as demographic, economic, and historical data (e.g., presidential races tend to tighten as they get closer to election day). The polls-plus tends to be the most conservative in that it reacts least to recent shifts in polling, while the now cast reacts the most. Below is the polls-plus graph predicting the probability of Clinton or Trump victory. Currently, the models predicts that there's a 70% chance that Hillary will win the election.

To be clear, these are probabilities of winning, not the vote share each will get. Indeed, the FiveThirtyEight model that produced the above graph also predicts that Clinton will get approximately 47.7% of the vote and Trump will get 44.4%. In other words, the models predict that Clinton will win, but it won't be a landslide, at least not in terms of the popular vote, and probably not in terms of the Electoral College vote.

Taking all of these factors into account, I hesitantly (I haven't been this unsure in a long time) predict that, barring a major scandal (unforeseen email problems) or world event (e.g., another 9/11) Hillary Clinton should become the next President of the United States. She should win the popular vote by 3-5%, but if Trump reverts to shooting himself in the foot, she could win by more. That said, if Trump continues to reign his impulsiveness in, he may make it a lot closer. He could even win by a whisker.

Note: I wrote most of what appears in this post mid-August, but I decided to wait until after Labor Day, in order to give the polls time to settle down after the conventions.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Free Speech for Me But Not for Thee: Colin Kaepernick and Public Protest

Several years ago the civil libertarian Nat Hentoff published the book, Free Speech for Me but Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other. His central argument, which you can gather from the book's title, is that most people are in favor of free speech as long as they happen to agree with what others are saying. If not, then they try their best to shut them up. I couldn't help but think of Hentoff's book in the wake of the brouhaha over Colin Kaepernick's refusal to stand for the national anthem at least week's San Francisco 49ers game. My sense is that those who support and oppose Kaepernick's stand (well, not in this case) do so based more on the content of his protest than out of any allegiance to the concept of free speech (or the lack thereof). Put differently, if Kaepernick had spoken out against, say, transgender bathrooms, then many of those supporting him in the name of free speech wouldn't have been so quick to rise to his defense (and may have called on the NFL to fine him for his insensitive remarks). Similarly, many of his opponents who think athletes should keep political opinions to themselves would've rushed to his defense (and probably cited the concept of free speech in support).

Personally, I support Kap's right to not stand for the national anthem, just as I support the right of Jehovah's Witnesses and Mennonites to do the very same thing. With many others, I wish he'd lodged his protest in a different way. I think Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman's remarks on the matter are well stated ("Richard Sherman Opens Up, Disagrees With Kaepernick's Method" -- I know, it's hard to believe I'm quoting Richard Sherman). They capture the nuance of what's going on a lot better than much of the rhetoric that's been flying around (that's not too surprising -- he's a Stanford grad):
I thought that was interesting. What he meant was in a good place. He wanted to make a stand. Obviously, any time you don't stand during the national anthem, people are gonna criticize it. And that's the unfortunate part of it -- you can't ever stand against the flag, a lot of people have sacrificed for it -- but there is also a deeper meaning to what he did. 
He's talking about the oppression of African Americans in this country and that has been going on for a long time. And I think a lot of the focus has shifted away from his message -- and shifted to some people, rightfully so -- to him taking a stand against the nation. But I think there's also things in this nation that people need to remember... this country is the same country that had "whites" and "colored" signs on the bathroom. We're still in that country, we're still in that nation and that needs to be acknowledged... 
There are people with that mentality that still exist and that needs to change... there are people that still treat people of color with subjectivity. They treat them a certain way... there are certain statistics that are put out there to make sure that police profile certain people in certain neighborhoods and that needs to change. So there is some depth and some truth into what he was doing. 
I think he could have picked a better platform and a better way to do it. But everyday they say athletes are so robotic and do everything by the book, and then when somebody takes a stand like that, he gets his head chopped off.
The problem with protesting the flag is that, as the sociologist Robert Bellah noted years ago in his essay on American Civil Religion ("Civil Religion in America" see also, "Thanksgiving and American Civil Religion"), the American flag has taken on a sacred status in the U.S. Attacking it is somewhat analogous to walking into a Christian church and throwing the Lectern Bible on the floor (or similarly, damaging a Torah in a Jewish congregation, or defiling a Quran in a Muslim mosque). The emotions that such actions generate can preclude the possibility of having a meaningful discussion about the issues at hand (there is certainly a discussion about what Kap did but very little about the content). That doesn't mean that Kap was wrong about the issues he raised (note that Sherman agrees with him on that point); it just means that there may have been a better way for him to raise them. Still, it's better than going out and shooting someone.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

What I Learned in Paris

A few weeks ago our family spent a week in Paris, and it wasn’t nearly enough. The museums, the sights: What can I say? I can’t wait to go back. We weren't there long enough to enjoy it all. So, what did I learn?

Parisians like to eat out, and they like to eat late. Cafés are everywhere and most are crowded (especially at night). In fact, it isn’t unusual to see a group still eating and drinking at 11 and 12 at night. I could adjust to such a life style. Many of the cafés offer WiFi, but they are spotty at best (sort of like the air conditioning). Moreover, you often have to wade through a number of web pages; it's obvious that the goal of many is to get your email address so that they can send you advertisements.

The Paris metro (subway) is amazing. I was impressed 35 years ago, and I still am. You can get to within a few blocks of almost anywhere in Paris. In fact, I read somewhere that when asked residents often identify where they live by the nearest metro station.

Versailles is stunning. I missed it the last time I was in Paris, and I'm glad I didn't this time. Talk about the excesses of the rich. No wonder there was a revolution. That said, I’m glad that the revolutionaries left Versailles alone (at least for the most part).

Craft beer in Paris is quite good (as, of course, is the wine, but I already knew that), which was a pleasant surprise. Craft brewing isn’t as big in Europe as it is in the United States, but France may be a leader. One would think that Germany would be, but because of some very old purity laws (“Pure, Cheap, and a Bit Dull” “Pure Swill”), Germany appears to be falling behind. The "Hoppy Paris" website is quite helpful. Some of our favorites included the various "Frog" pubs, "Paname" (nice view along the Bassin de la Villette), and Brewberry Bar, but there are plenty of others.

Paris's pastries and other deserts are excellent. We ran into an excellent eclair shop, L'Eclair de Genie, which is in Paris's Marais district. My favorite desert? Limoncello liqueur poured over lemon sherbet or sorbet. Unbelievable. Could've eaten it all night if given the chance. Probably a good thing that I wasn't.