How Pitino Beats Lawrence of Arabia

Malcolm Gladwell’s article on underdogs from last week’s New Yorker was interesting and full of anecdotes, though the fawning over Rick Pitino gave me great pause because Rick Pitino did a little destruction of the Celtics that lasted until the middle of this decade. Along with Pitino, you’ll read about David and Goliath, Lawrence of Arabia, a girls basketball team from CA, and wargames. The single paragraph that attempts to explain antisemitism was weird and unnecessary in the scheme of the article, but there’s a couple nuggets like the one below that belong on a motivation poster.

We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. It’s the other way around. Effort can trump ability—legs, in Saxe’s formulation, can overpower arms—because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coordination.

Update: Gladwell has posted a response to some criticisms of his description of the press and calling Rick Pitino’s 1996 Kentucky team an underdog.

How Pitino Beats Lawrence of Arabia

Smart Cars Parked Sideways on Newbury St

I love this picture of ticketed Smart Cars parked on Newbury St perpendicular to the street instead of parallel. Since I first saw Smart Cars in Berlin, I had been wondering how parking authorities would address the innovative parking possibilities offered by tiny cars. So far, Boston isn’t reacting too well.

Smart Cars parked the wrong way on street.jpg

I guess it comes down to the question of whether, when parking at a meter, you are paying for a right to park, or for the use of the space. If it’s for the use of space, then you should be able to fit as many cars as you can into the space. If it’s for the right to park on the street, well, then you’re just going to keep getting tickets if you try to double up.

Via URwingman.

Smart Cars Parked Sideways on Newbury St

The Arc of the Moral Universe

Justin Katz of Anchor Rising is a very interesting person to argue with. He’s eloquent and clearly passionate in his support of the issues that are important to him, and his sensitivity and decorum are to be lauded. Even though I disagree with him on every point of substance we’ve raised, I salute and respect his commitment to having these difficult and important conversations.

Plus, the dude used the word “especial” non-ironically. Got to give it up.

The core of Justin’s argument against legalizing same-sex marriage has to do with procreation. He asserts the primacy of procreation in marriage over and over in his posts and comments. In our most recent exchange in the comments section, I think I got as close as I’ve ever come to understanding what Justin means when he links marriage to procreation. Marriage, he says, “is primarily intended to encourage that expectation that procreation happens within its boundaries. Men and women should marry because what men and women do can create children, and children, as often as possible, ought to be raised in the stable marital homes of their biological parents.”

Let’s investigate further the expectation that procreation should happen with the boundaries of marriage. Where does this expectation come from? If it comes from a religious conviction that a marriage is the only legitimate context for having a child, then I have to grant Justin his right to that belief, and still ask for a secular explanation.

I assume that he has one. He might point out that studies have shown that outcomes are better for children that are raised by their married biological parents. This research is extremely interesting, but misleading. This paper from the Center for Law and Social Policy is very instructive:

This research has been cited as justification for recent public policy initiatives to promote and strengthen marriages. However, findings from the research are often oversimplified, leading to exaggeration by proponents of marriage initiatives and to skepticism from critics. While the increased risks faced by children raised without both parents are certainly reason for concern, the majority of children in single-parent families grow up without serious problems. In addition, there continues to be debate about how much of the disadvantages to children are attributable to poverty versus family structure, as well as about whether it is marriage itself that makes a difference or the type of people who get married.

In other words, correlation does not imply causation. Further investigation suggests that many of the negative outcomes (in terms of behavioral problems, education achievement, etc) are also correlated with low family income and social status, which is not surprising. (Here is another report that indicates that the outcomes associated with single-parenthood may well vary by race.)

It’s intuitive that a child living with both of his or her parents would benefit from that situation, but does it matter if the two parents are married or simply cohabitating? My intuition is that it shouldn’t matter, and the admittedly thin data seems to bear this out.

Research suggests the importance of distinguishing between cohabiting families with two biological parents and those with a biological parent and another partner. Some evidence indicates that school achievement and behavioral problems are similar among children living with both biological parents—regardless of marital status—and that children in both formal and informal step-families also fare similarly in these areas.

All this to say that I’m unconvinced that the state has a specific interest in encouraging that marriage be the appropriate context for having and raising children, and that I am convinced that the state has an interest in providing support and assistance for families with children.

But let’s set this aside. Even stipulating that, as a society, we have an interest in promoting procreation within marriage, I’m struggling to understand why allowing same-sex marriage undermines this interest. No rational heterosexual couple would be discouraged from marriage just because homosexual couples can do it too.

A same-sex couple that wants to have children can’t (barring biological innovation) have a biological child together, so there’s no mechanism for them to create the “ideal” family unit — children living with their married biological parents. Same-sex couples that want children will find ways to have them whether they can marry or not; if marriages promote stable family structures, wouldn’t we (if the welfare of children was our primary concern) want to encourage same-sex couples to marry, not prevent it?

By Justin’s logic, allowing same-sex couples to marry undermines the link between marriage and procreation, and this link must be protected. I counter that allowing same-sex couples to marry would have the opposite effect: it would expand the incentive to have children within marriage to all couples that want children, not just straight couples.

In fact, and I’ve said this before, there’s no argument from procreation against same-sex marriage that isn’t, at its core, an argument against homosexuality itself. If the problem with a same-sex couple is that they can’t procreate, this problem exists whether they marry or not. A prohibition on same-sex marriage won’t drive gay people into heterosexual relationships, and allowing same-sex marriage won’t drive straight people into homosexual relationships. Some married couples will have kids, some won’t. Some unmarried people will have kids, others won’t. I’m simply unable to draw a connection between same-sex marriage and the behavior of straight people.

Here’s Justin: “We can balance the principle of procreative marriage with minimizing government involvement in our lives simply by saying that marriage is an opposite-sex relationship. To include homosexuals in the definition would undermine that tacit understanding.” I admit it: I don’t get it. How does expanding the definition of marriage constitute more government involvement in the lives of, for instance, married people? And how does saying that marriage is an opposite-sex relationship minimize government involvement? I’m stumped here.

But all of this social policy argumentation is just a pantomime, isn’t it? I know that no matter how sharp and scintillating my arguments, no matter how precise and persuasive my data, the chances that I will convince Justin (or someone like him) to embrace same-sex marriage are slim. The chances that he will convince me are just as slim. Why? Because at the core, our positions aren’t based on dispassionate analysis of the implications of either policy; they’re based on deeper, more emotional convictions. For Justin, I imagine, his position stems from his religious beliefs. For me, I’m persuaded by my innate sense of morality and fair play, and by my love for my family. So is this a hopeless conversation?

Far from it, I hope. I don’t want to try to convince Justin that same-sex marriage is the best thing since they started making Peeps for holidays other than Easter. I just want to convince him that he’s entitled to his personal convictions on the subject, but that he’s not entitled to enshrine them in law. Justin, and others, have said that marriage is “fundamentally procreative,” but I don’t know how to understand that statement, in light of Justin’s own arguments, unless we are to interpret “fundamentally” as meaning something like “usually” or “traditionally.” That’s a perfectly reasonable opinion, but it’s not a convincing argument.

Finally, I have to acknowledge preemptively that, yes: proponents of same-sex marriage are indeed trying to change the definition of marriage. This is explicitly, unashamedly, my goal. I think that such a change would be a change for the better. The civil rights history of country involves this kind of definitional change. In this century alone we’ve changed the definition of “voter” from “white man” to “man” to “adult.” This was a change that was not accomplished without difficulty and resistance, but it was a change that resulted in a more just society.

Marriage has changed in meaning, too. Marriage started out as a transaction between two men, involving the transfer of property (a woman) from one to the other. In modern times, marriage became a legal instrument between a man and a woman to unite their assets and liabilities. It’s time for marriage to take the next step: the benefits of civil marriage must be opened to any pair of eligible adults.

This is a cause that I’m passionate about. It’s one that I believe in strongly as a matter of conviction. The injustice of our current system of legal marriage is more than just an abstract wrong to me and my family and friends: it’s real, it’s unfair, and it has to end. That said, I’m ultimately optimistic that I’m on the right side of history here. Demographics are moving us inexorably towards a society that favors equal rights for homosexuals, and I’m completely confident that in a generation or two we’ll look back on this period with the same distaste and confusion with which we look back on Jim Crow. In the meantime, it’s up to us to fight the fight now.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Arc of the Moral Universe

Back To School

One of the benefits of spending ten hours a week in a car with a fundamentalist Christian is the opportunity to reflect seriously on the important things in life, like whether saving gas is really worth spending ten hours a week in a car with a fundamentalist Christian.

No, seriously, I really enjoyed many of the conversations we had in the carpool, especially when we were able to push beyond the surface disagreements to the underlying and sometimes unexamined beliefs that we hold strongly. In one memorable conversation, we ended up arguing about what was the measure of a good life. What, essentially, was the purpose of human existence? What is our destiny, as sentient and moral actors?

My carpool-mates agreed that this was an easy question: the goal of a good human life is to come to know and love Jesus Christ. Simple. It shouldn’t be shocking to you, dear readers, that I don’t think it’s quite that easy. Indeed, I argued that the essential goal of human life is to leave the world better than we found it – our duty as moral actors is to improve the world.

Comity was not reached, but it was a stimulating conversation. On reflection, though, it left me dissatisfied. Thinking it over later, I realized that if this is what I believe (and it is), then I’m not doing a very good job living up to it. I’ve spent ten years in a field that I’m pretty good at, and that has provided me with a very comfortable living, but was it helping to make the world a better place?

“Sure,” I could argue, “I work for a company that makes software that helps accelerate the pace of discovery, innovation, development, and learning in engineering and science. This is a good thing.” And it is. Our products are used to design better and more efficient cars, communication systems, medical systems, and so on, but the truth is that my contribution is really too abstract and remote for me to take real pride in the positive outcomes. I write software that helps people write software that other people can use to do good things – that’s just too nuanced for me to take much comfort in.

As it happened, I’d been pretty down on my job anyway. It was becoming clear that my dissatisfaction was over more than my particular job at this particular company. The whole enterprise of writing software just wasn’t getting me out of bed in the morning. Maybe a decade of programming was all I could take.

What could I do instead? What flavor of do-gooder would I become? Medicine was right out, both because there’s no way I’m going to go through medical school and because I pretty much faint at the sight of a needle. I wasn’t going to go build houses in impoverished countries because, well, I don’t really like the out-of-doors. I decided that I need to get into public service, in some capacity that involves mostly talking, writing, and thinking. And, if at all possible, sitting.

To that end, I’m excited and terrified to say that this fall I’m quitting my job to start working towards a Masters in Public Policy at the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions at Brown University. Excited, because I’m going to be a grad student! At Brown! Terrified, because I’m quitting my job. Rachel (who functions as the CFO in our relationship) assures me that we’ll still be able to live in our house and buy food, but we will have to institute a series of strict austerity measures. For instance, we might have to stop shopping at Whole Foods. And I probably won’t be able to buy an iPhone. Talk about sacrifice.

I feel really good about this decision, and I feel especially good having the decision behind me since I’m sure my family and friends were getting tired of hearing me whine, “Should I go to grad school?” Of course, I still have to decide just what area of public policy I want to focus on, and what I want to do when I eventually get out of school, but I have some time to figure those things out. My dream job is to be Sam Seaborn from the West Wing, but I think I may need to find a slightly less ridiculous way to phrase that ambition.

Back To School

My War on Christmas

I’m not even supposed to like Christmas. For crying out loud, I’m Jewish. You may have heard there’s a war on Christmas, and I’m pretty sure I’m the enemy.

Even as a kid I remember having a sort of complicated attitude toward Christmas. I remember a first grade art project around the holidays where we made cards (or something) for our parents out of construction paper, crayons, glue, glitter, and cotton balls. I knew that I was supposed to use the blue and white paper, but I remember thinking how pretty the other kids’ red, green, and white creations looked. To me, at that time of year, those colors meant “winter.”

This isn’t to say that I don’t love Chanukah. Although as an adult my family’s primary holiday is Thanksgiving, all of my childhood holiday memories are of Chanukah. Or, I guess, Passover. Or Purim. Or Rosh Hashanah or Simchat Torah or Sukkot. OK, let’s say that all of my winter holiday memories are of Chanukah.

My family did it right. Mom would fry up delicious latkes while we sang the song we learned in Sunday School: “Grate potatoes, grate potatoes, grate potatoes, and an onion, too.” (The song, while insipid, certainly helped a few years ago when my mind blanked as I was shopping for latke ingredients.) The house was littered with gelt — gold-foil wrapped chocolate coins. And not the crap you find in supermarkets, I’m talking about the good stuff, Elite brand, from Israel. We had at least 6 menorahs, one for each member of the family plus a few extras. At some point nearly every kid had made an ugly, brown, misshapen clay menorah in Sunday School, and some of these stayed in active rotation for much longer than you might expect. One of my mother’s most clever innovations, I think, was the extensive layer of aluminum foil that covered the side table in the dining room on which the menorahs sat, so four snot-nosed kids could wave lit candles around without dripping wax all over the furniture.

Chanukah is a very minor Jewish holiday. It celebrates the defeat of the Greek Assyrians, who had conquered the kingdom of Judah and defiled the Temple in Jerusalem, in a guerilla war led by the priestly (Hasmonean) family of Mattathias and especially his son Judah Macabee, the original Hebrew Hammer. Then there’s some kind of bubbe-mayse about how, after the Temple was rededicated, there was only enough consecrated oil left to burn for one night, but it lasted until some new oil could be obtained: eight nights. Hence, eight nights of candle-lighting. Chanukah is notable in that it is one of the few days in the Jewish religious calendar in which we commemorate a time someone tried to kill a bunch of Jews and didn’t actually succeed, but it is still a very minor celebration. There are much more significant holidays, and if it weren’t for the fact that Chanukah happens to fall in December, most non-Jews wouldn’t have heard of it. (How many of you have ever heard of Tisha B’av?)

But I did (and do!) love the presents. When I was a kid, every year Mom would put out a pile of presents for each kid in the living room, and we’d choose, at our discretion, some number of gifts from our pile to open each night. I often think that the true miracle of Chanukah is that that tiny pile of presents lasted for eight whole nights.

My most indelible memory of Chanukah happened when I was about 13 or 14 years old. It was the last night of Chanukah, and I’d opened my last present. Then Mom told me that she had one more present for me upstairs, and that it wasn’t down in the living room because it was “too big to wrap.” The 60 seconds between this announcement and Mom coming back down with the present were some of the happiest in my life. My mind was racing, trying to imagine what it could possibly be. The palpable envy of my incredulous siblings was perhaps the sweetest elixir of schaudenfreude I have ever tasted. For that minute I was the luckiest boy in the world.

Needless to say, I came crashing back down to earth when Mom came down the stairs carrying a canvas “director’s” chair with my school’s crest on the back. This was not, I confess, one of the images that had been dancing in my head. To this day, the phrase, “it’s a chair” still conjures a sense of trenchant disappointment.

But I loved Chanukah, and I loved being Jewish, and I never envied my friends who celebrated Christmas. (One night? Please. Mythical fat man delivering presents? How childish.) In fact, I was downright Scrooge-like. Well before it was (apparently) trendy, I was decidedly anti-Christmas. I spun up a minor huff every year at the Christmas decorations that decked the halls of my (private) school. I was in the glee club (What? Shut up!), and the highlight of our year was the Christmas concert. I drew tortured ethical lines about which songs I could sing and which I couldn’t. I scored the coveted “Five Golden Rings” solo in our popular annual rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” so that was OK, but I ostentatiously sat out “Good Christian Men Rejoice.” When someone would wish me a “Merry Christmas,” I’d scowl. I complained loudly about the Christmas carols that were ubiquitous from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.

So, the weird thing is that as I’ve gotten older and, perhaps, mellowed, I’ve really come to like Christmas. I don’t know how much of this is because I’ve been in a long-term relationship with someone who celebrates Christmas (something that, frankly, would have appalled my high school self) and how much is that first grade sense of aesthetics ripening in the fullness of time. I have found myself — almost against my will — getting into the holiday — by which of course we mean Christmas — spirit. I really like the look of a city street strung with white lights and lampposts wrapped in garlands. I like the look of candles in the windows of snow-covered houses. (Interestingly, I am still opposed to colored and/or blinking lights and to illuminated characters on lawns. My Christmas tastes, I’m embarrassed to say, are decidedly WASP-y.)

My very first Christmas with Rachel’s family was met with some trepidation, especially on her part. The year before some friends had invited us to go caroling with them, and I was decidedly surly about it. (“I don’t know any of the words,” I huffed.) So she expended a lot of emotional energy fretting about how I would fare for the weekend. Would I be overwhelmed by all the Christmas cheer? Would I secretly resent being forced to participate in a holiday that I did not ordinarily celebrate? Of course it was a perfectly lovely weekend, and my growing maturity allowed me to unwrap gifts in the presence of a tree without pitching a huge fit. There were some quiet laughs later about the fact that the Christmas lunch spread the family put out for the weekend they welcomed their daughter’s Jewish boyfriend was anchored by a big bowl of lobster salad and a giant Christmas ham.

Rachel and her family celebrate an entirely secular Christmas. You will not find a baby Jesus among their decorations, and their homes are even largely Santa-free. Honestly, this made it possible for us to combine our households and our winter celebrations. She’s enthusiastically embraced Chanukah (and even made a beyond-the-call effort to learn the candle blessings very early in our relationship), and I have come to enjoy having a tastefully lit tree in the living room. Not to mention (what with Chanukah plus Christmas at each of her parent’s house) 10 days of gifts. I personally think that our lit menorah next to our Christmas tree and our holiday iPod playlist of the Irish Tenors Christmas and Debbie Friedman’s Chanukah CD is a beautiful bit of ecumenical winter celebration and a very satisfying combination of our backgrounds and traditions.

That’s not to say that it’s not sometimes still a challenge. Society as a whole sometimes seems to define “Jewish” as “doesn’t celebrate Christmas,” and I know that I’m blurring a line that I once considered inviolable. I’m sure many of my fellow Jews would be appalled by the Christmas-ification of my life. Frankly, I still have twinges of righteous rage whenever someone seems blithely to assume that everyone celebrates Christmas. My personal war on Christmas, however, is over. It ends not in victory or in defeat, but with, I hope, a lasting peace. At least until it comes time to decide whether to tell our kids about Santa Claus.

Happy Holidays.

My War on Christmas