Saturday, January 31, 2009

Leaves floating in river (pic)

This is a time exposure of leaves floating down a small stream in fall. I thought the idea was really cool, but the resulting picture was so-so. Maybe I'll try again from a different angle.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Presidential approval ratings

Here's an interesting graph from the Wall Street Journal. It shows each president's public-approval ratings and how they changed over the course of his time in office.

It's remarkable how much variation there for many of the presidents. Some of them had high highs and low lows.

Also, most of them ended lower than they started. Only Clinton ended higher than he started--with the impeachment and all. Go figure. Clinton also started with rather low ratings.

Obama has approval ratings at 69%, last I read, so it will be interesting to see if he can keep them this high.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The more you learn, the more you don't know

Here's a comic strip that highlights a frustrating dynamic of academics, one that goes beyond graduate school. The more I learn, the more that I know that I don't know. Every time I learn something I also learn of several things that I don't know yet... ugh. Still, it makes it always interesting and a challenge.

Thanks Andrea!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Judge, sob, I had the fish

Well, just when you thought things couldn't get any worse, with the global financial crisis and whatever else is bad in the world, comes this news. Apparently Applebee's restaurant has been serving Weight Watcher approved food with more calories than claimed. "For example, the Cajun Lime Tilapia was advertized [sic] has having 6 grams of fat and 310 calories, whereas results from Analytical Labs of Boise Idaho showed 14.3 grams of fat and 401 calories."

This being America, there is a class action suit being filed against both Applebee's and WW. The legal announcement makes the following pitch:

"If you or a loved one has suffered ill health or damages in this case, please click the link below and your complaint will be sent to a lawyer who may evaluate your claim at no cost or obligation."

I think that I'll stuff a pillow under my shirt and have my wife roll me into the courtroom in a wheelchair, and I'll sob: "I was fine until that Tilipia".


Life imitating art

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Recession belly

One of my favorite sociological ideas is the culture of fear--that various people have incentive (financial, prestige, etc...) to scare people. Understanding this idea highlights the some of the crazy things that people claim to create fear.

This weeks entry: "recession belly". We're apparently all so upset about the financial crisis that we're eating too much bad food, getting fat (fatter), and ruining our health. (Read in a newspaper recently, not worth digging up to cite.)

Wow, just thinking about that makes me, well, stressed.

Not to worry, though, for when things get better we'll celebrate the economic recovery by eating more!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

NYT story on Mark Driscoll

Two weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine ran a substantial piece on Mark Driscoll, a very controversial evangelical pastor in Seattle. Some of the discussion about Driscoll revolves around his Calvinist theology, other about his somewhat traditional views about gender roles. Most notably, however, is his personal style. He presents himself full of machismo and disavows the feminine style that marks much of what the church does. From the article:

'Driscoll disdains the prohibitions of traditional evangelical Christianity. Taboos on alcohol, smoking, swearing and violent movies have done much to shape American Protestant culture — a culture that he has called the domain of “chicks and some chickified dudes with limp wrists.” '

One of my very first posts on this blog regarded Driscoll, and I don't think that I have much to add, but it's interesting to see him get all this attention.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Tim Tebow

Recently Florida won the college football BCS championship, and it's lead by a vocal, apparently devout, Christian quarterback -- Tim Tebow.

Here's a clip from an article about him:

"As a 15-year-old, Tebow preached to 10,000 high school students in the Philippines. "It gives me a sense of purpose of how to handle things knowing that football is not the most important thing," he said. "People always ask me, 'How do you handle the pressure, and how do you handle this or that?' Being places where I've been with people who are there trying to fight for their next meal, I think that's pressure, not trying to win a football game.""

A lot of athletes talk about their religious faith, but I haven't heard of too many coming from the mission field. Does this mean that football scouts are now scouring missionary outposts for future players?

BTW, some time it would be funny for a player to put a really obscure verse under his eyes... just a thought.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

8-year-old Floyd almost takes down 15-year-old Gus

Over the holidays, Floyd, our eight-year-old son, almost pulled of the prank of his young life. You see, Gus, our fifteen-year-old son was organizing a holiday party at our house. So, he was in the process of e-mailing an invitation to 14 friends, many of whom were girls (!). Now, Gus is a reasonably secure young man, but like any high school sophomore, he cares deeply what his friends think of him.

Well, Gus got up to get something to drink, and Floyd sat down on the computer and added a coda to the e-mail. He wrote, and I quote: "I am a butt face". It was the perfect prank--absolutely embarrassing, and maybe even worse to have to explain that your cute little brother pranked you.

The only hitch in this otherwise brilliant plan--Floyd, having never used e-mail, did not know how to send the message, so he was hitting various buttons on the screen when Gus came back in. Gus read the message, screamed, and ripped the keyboard out of Floyd's hands. Gus was rather panic stricken at what almost happened.

I can only surmise that Floyd gets his sense of humor from his mother.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

RIchard Dawkin's Atheist bus

In an amusing story, Richard Dawkins, noted atheist, has backed an effort that put advertisements on 800 English buses. The advertisement reads: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

I particularly enjoyed the "probably." When I first read it, I was pleased that he was intellectually honest enough to write "probably", but, alas, that wasn't the case. Instead, he wanted it dropped, but "the British advertising authority said should be thrown in to keep the ad from being potentially misleading, on the grounds that no one can say with 100% certainty that God does not exist." When religion meets bureaucracy.

Two things that make this interesting. One, it shows atheists acting more like a religion. This would seem to fit nicely under the heading of proselytizing. I wonder if this will have an unintended consequence, for one of the common critiques of Christians is that we proselytize. Will these kinds of efforts weaken this critique.

Two, the message implies that religious people worry and enjoy their lives less. I'm not sure if this is the case. I'm sure that surveys have asked about these two things, as well as religion, so it would be interesting to find out how their levels vary by religious affiliation. Hopefully one of you will know of such data, otherwise I'll try to dig some up in the next few weeks.

Monday, January 19, 2009

It finally happened, oh, not yet

I stumbled in this morning, half asleep, sat down at my office desk and opened up an official letter from the Dean. The first sentence:

"I regret to inform you that the appeal of your dismissal has been denied."

So, not only did I do something worthy of firing, but I'm so forgetful that I had forgotten that I was fired.

Turns out that I was being cc'ed on another matter, but I tell you, there's nothing like thinking you've been fired to wake you up on a Monday morning.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Pond in fall (pic)

This was a lovely scene that I didn't really do justice to. A blue heron flew around the pond when I was setting up.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Dead cat bounce

I like obscure slang expressions, and here's one that came up in the presidential election, and I've been looking for a chance to use it.

A dead cat bounce. It refers to a brief increase after a rapid decrease, but the decrease is expected to continue. (In the election coverage, someone referred to a rise in McCain's poll numbers as a dead cat bounce.) This expression both describes a pattern we might not have noticed otherwise, and it's anti-cat, both of which are a plus for me.

Here's my usage: I hope that my losing weight now reflects a true lifestyle change, but I worry that it's just a dead cat bounce on my way to obesity.

How about you? Any good uses of this expression?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Playing Wii: The (rare) benefit of being old school

A very generous family member bought the boys a Nintendo Wii this Christmas, and so we've been playing it a lot. Floyd, the eight-year-old, wanted me to play with him, so he was teaching me some of the games. We started with Mario Kart, which is a cross between a road race game and the bizarre events in Alice in Wonderland. Okay, I didn't do so well with that one. Floyd gloated a little bit until I glared at him. He commented that perhaps I just wasn't that good at video games, but that's okay.

Then we tried some other games, and lo and behold, we came to one that I beat him handily at. He and I were both surprised, and then I figured out why I did well--it's a game similar to the old missile command video game, which I used to play a lot.

After that, Floyd was a bit discouraged, and so he suggested we play a different game. He described it as laser hockey, but with one look I knew I'd do just fine--it was simply an updated version of pong. Sweet...finally some benefit for living in the 1970s.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sampson & Laub's Age-Graded Life-Course Theory of Crime

When we moved to Connecticut with our five-year-old son, we wanted him to make friends. Unfortunately, we didn’t really know anyone in town, so we randomly selected two kids from his class to invite over for a play-date. Well, it went just fine, but what I remember best about it was my impressions of the two kids. Even though they were just kindergartners, they acted very differently.

One kid was quite prosocial—he was polite, listened to my wife and me when we gave the kids instructions, and overall he was “nice.” The other kid, though, was a bit of a scamp. He wasn’t mean-spirited, but he used rather rough language (at least for a kindergartner), and he would periodically act out by being too rough with my son and the other boy.

Fast forward ten years, and the nice boy is one of my son’s best friends. We see him on a regular basis, and he remains a really good kid. The other kid got kicked out of school a couple of times, and we’ve lost track of him. The last I heard from my son, he was in some sort of legal trouble. Hopefully, though, he’ll be able to straighten things out and make a good life for himself.

This story echoes an observation made by Lee Robins, a psychologist who studies crime. She noted that all antisocial adults were antisocial as children; however, not all antisocial children grow up to be antisocial adults. This observation provided important insight for theories of crime. It holds that very few “good” kids get involved in crime and other forms of antisocial behavior as adults. Once prosocial, always prosocial. In contrast, some “bad” kids grow up to be antisocial, criminal adults, but others do not. In statistical language, being antisocial as a child is a necessary, but not sufficient, predictor that a child will be antisocial as an adult.

My son’s friends support this observation. The nice, well-behaved kindergartener remains so now that he’s a high school kid. This illustrates the stability of prosocial behavior. The kid who got into trouble, however, seems to have continued to do so, but we’re hoping that he’ll work things out. This illustrates antisocial behavior continuing into adulthood, but, according to Robins’ observation, there is hope for change.

Rob Sampson and John Laub used this observation to anchor their age-graded, life-course theory of crime. They developed this theory using some of the most fascinating data ever studied by criminologists. In the 1940s, Sheldon and Eleanor Gluck conducted a longitudinal study of troubled boys in Boston. These boys were in their early teens and had already been in trouble with the law and put into reform school. The Glucks collected extensive records about the boys and studied them through adolescence. The study was put aside until Sampson and Laub found their data boxed up in the basement of the Harvard Library.

clip_image002Sampson and Laub reconstructed the data and followed-up with the original respondents, who were then around 60 years old. Sampson and Laub found out that some of the troubled boys ended up in trouble with the law for the rest of their lives, while others lived very conventional lives and had no legal problems. This variation fit with Robins’ observation, and it lead Sampson and Laub to ask why some of the troubled kids turned out well and others didn’t.

clip_image004Their answer used principles of life-course development. Specifically, they found that the troubled kids who got straightened out experienced some sort of turning point—an event or life circumstance that pulled them out of their criminal lifestyle and into a more conventional pattern of behavior. Such turning points included military service, employment, and marriage. Military service provided structure and discipline for the reform school boys. Employment and marriage provided stability and the need to walk the straight-and-narrow if they wanted to keep their jobs and marriage.

What’s important about this theory is that it brings together social influences on crime, such as family and employment, with psychological predispositions. This social psychological approach to crime adds some of the best features of strictly psychological and sociological approaches, for it acknowledges personal differences in criminal propensity, but it also makes a place for society to overrule, or at least counteract, these propensities. This gives some hope that the troubled kid who came over to our house that one day will find the right job or partnership to turn his life around.

Originally published on

Monday, January 12, 2009

My brother, the eagle

Here's a picture of my brother hang gliding--doesn't it look fun!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Schadenfreude--a sin of choice

Sometimes I wonder why Christians take serious some sins while readily accepting others. Basically, what makes a sin "bad"? I don't have any answers, though it does seem American Christians are very sensitive about sins regarding sex and substance abuse (though maybe not rock and roll).

Here's a sin that I don't know if I've ever heard preached on, but I sure practice it a lot: Schadenfreude, which means delighting in others' misfortunes.

I started thinking about it when I read the following letter to Dear Abby. I was so happy at what this man did. Now, whether he should have done so is another question, I'm wondering about my delighted response at the suffering of another.


DEAR ABBY: A few weeks ago, I returned home after mowing the lawn at my mother's place and parked my truck behind my house. I left the lawn mower and a 5-gallon can of gas in the bed of my truck and went into the house for a drink of water. When I returned, the gas can was missing.

I bought another can, filled it with gas and added 2 pounds of sugar. Again, I parked my truck in the same spot with the gas can visible. An hour later, it too had disappeared.

A short while later, I noticed a neighbor's son and his friends pushing his car up the street. They said they had “engine problems.” My wife thinks what I did was wrong and that I should offer to pay for this lad's engine repairs. What do you think?

– “A-Gassed” in Illinois

What do you think? Is schadenfreude something Christians should/ do think about?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Barn and lilies (pic)

I love water lilies... My goal is to shoot more of them this coming summer.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Christian Smith's "Why Christianity Works"

A year or so ago, sociologist Christian Smith published a provocative essay entitled "Why Christianity Works." I say provocative because he takes an old question in the sociology of religion--why has religion endured--and taken a fresh approach to it. Rather than talking about larger social forces, Smith links the persistence of religion, in this case a single religion--Christianity, to the desirable effects it has for those who practice it.

Quoting from a Christianity Today interview with Smith:

"Such sociological accounts are valid as far as they go," Smith writes. "They often can illuminate the social processes influencing the extent and shape of religious practices. But in the end, such sociological accounts possess limited abilities to explain the persistence over millennia and into the modern world of religion generally and—for my purposes here—Christianity in particular."

What sociologists sometimes miss, Smith writes, is that there's something in Christianity itself that may explain its persistence.

"[T]he belief content of the Christian faith gives rise to certain practices and experiences—particularly emotional ones—that many people find highly engaging, compelling, persuasive, and convincing," he says. "[T]he very internal logic of doing Christianity persistently produces events, interactions, and feelings in and among people compelling enough to keep the tradition flourishing despite many countervailing forces."

What's interesting about this approach is that it fits with both skeptics and believers' views of the faith. A skeptic says Christianity is a crutch, the believer says it's beneficial--both are giving a similar reason for the staying power of Christianity.

This approach reminds me of CS Lewis' writing on the rewards of Christianity.

"We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."

Needless to say, because Smith 1) didn't not emphasize traditional sociological concepts and 2) spoke positively (gasp!) about Christianity, a number of sociologists have written critiques of this essay (making for an interesting read in the latest issue of Sociology of Religion). Forgive my cynicism, but I wonder if the reaction to the article would have been much more positive had it been about paganism or some other non-mainstream religion.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Baby Blue Tuxedo

Would you like to know the secret to life? I think that it's finding the right tuxedo for the occasion. For my money, you can't go wrong with a sweet looking baby-blue tuxedo. For whatever reason, in high school I thought that was the coolest color, so I wore one to a number of dances. Oops...

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Gottfredson and Hirschi's Low Self-Control Theory; or why kids feed lizards to crocodiles

One of the better known criminological theories of recent decades is Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) low self-control theory. This theory holds that children develop levels of self-control by about ages seven or eight, and these levels remain relatively stable the rest of their lives. Children with low levels of self-control end up being more prone to crime, and their criminal propensity continues into later life.

Low self-control manifests in a variety of ways. People with low self-control are unable to delay gratification, for they are focused on the present. They want it now! As a result, low self-control people act impulsively—without much thought and based on what they are feeling at the moment. This makes them risk takers; if we don’t consider the consequences of our actions, we’re willing to try lots more behaviors—even if they are potentially damaging to us. Finally, low self-control people are focused on themselves rather than others, making them insensitive to other people. Empathy isn’t a big deal for them.

It’s easy to see how low self-control would lead to criminal behavior. Crime usually involves a desire for immediate gratification, like taking what you want. It can also be impulsive, happening on the spur of the moment without any planning. Given the possible negative consequences of crime, it involves taking risks. It also often creates victims, so criminal behavior can require indifference toward other peoples’ well-being.

Where does low self-control come from? According to Gottfredson and Hirschi, it’s the product of ineffective parenting. This happens in families where there is weak attachment between parent and child and in families where parents fail to recognize and correct their children’s wrong behavior.

Recently, a story came out of Australia about a seven-year-old boy that we could probably crown the king (or maybe prince) of low self-control. This boy, and his family, lives near the Alice Springs Reptile Center, located in the outback of Australia. Early one morning, this boy snuck into the Reptile Center and started killing animals. He bludgeoned some of the smaller lizards to death, and climbed over fence to feed others to an eleven-foot-long salt water crocodile. By the time he finished, the boy had killed thirteen animals worth $5,500.

Here’s a video of the event from the zoo’s security cameras:

This behavior fits perfectly with low self-control theory. The kid was only seven-years-old, suggesting that this type of behavior starts very early. He acted without any sense of consequence for his behavior; in fact, security cameras showed him smiling as he killed the animals. He clearly showed no sense of empathy for the animals or the zoo keepers, and he took a lot of risks. Not only did he sneak past the security system, but he also climbed a fence to get a closer look at the crocodile, in the process endangering himself.

The boy’s behavior also suggests that his parents are particularly ineffective. Most parents would not enable their child disappear for such an extended period without realizing it. Also, it turns out that several years earlier, this boy’s brother had vandalized the zoo as well (though somewhat less dramatically). This suggests that his parents were not able to appropriately deter this behavior. In suggesting a more appropriate parenting style, the center director said that “In my day he'd [the boy] get a big boot up the arse.”


According to low self-control theory, this boy would be expected to continue such low self-control behavior into adolescence then into adulthood, and he would move on from harming animals to harming people. Hopefully he won’t be feeding people to crocodiles, but self-control theory would predict a lengthy criminal record for him eventually.

As a side note, while Gottfredson and Hirschi, both sociologists, popularized this approach to criminal behavior, psychologists have been studying developing similar theories for many years before self-control theory. Impulsivity, immediate gratification, risk-taking are well-established concepts in psychological accounts of crime and deviance.

Surprisingly, Gottfredson and Hirschi did not review this literature. As such, their “discovery” of low self-control is a lot like Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. Certainly he was the first European to find the Americas (except for maybe the Vikings), but there was already plenty of people here when he arrived. Likewise, Gottfredson and Hirschi didn’t invent a self-control explanation for crime, but they certainly introduced it to a broader audience. Because of them, we have a better understanding of why boys feed lizards to crocodiles in Australia.

Originally posted on

Monday, January 05, 2009

Lyrics from Toby Mac's Lose My Soul

It seems to me that song lyrics are rather boring to read unless you know and like the particular song. Having said that, here's my current favorite song with my current favorite lyrics. So, at risk of being really boring, here's Toby Mac's (with Kirk Franklin) Lose My Soul:

Father God, I am clay in your hands,
Help me to stay that way through all life's demands,
'Cause they chip and they nag and they pull at me,
And every little thing I make up my mind to be,
Like I'm gonna be a daddy whose in the mix,
And I'm gonna be a husband who stays legit,
And I pray that I'm an artist who rises above,
The road that is wide and filled with self love,
Everything that I see draws me,
Though it's only in You that I can truly see that its a feast for the eyes- a low blow to purpose.
And I'm a little kid at a three ring circus.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

According to atheist, Africa needs more missionaries

Here's an interesting article from the London Times. All too often, Christian ministries get attention only when they go wrong (e.g., sexual scandal, financial misdeeds), but they do so much good in the world. Here's some appropriate recognition:


"As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God

Missionaries, not aid money, are the solution to Africa's biggest problem - the crushing passivity of the people's mindset
Matthew Parris

Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it's Malawi, and The Times Christmas Appeal includes a small British charity working there. Pump Aid helps rural communities to install a simple pump, letting people keep their village wells sealed and clean. I went to see this work.

It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I've been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I've been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good."

The remainder of the article

Saturday, January 03, 2009