Thursday, April 26, 2012

(Light Take Thursday) French Man’s Behavior in Eastern Europe Confirms Suspicions: (At Least Some) French Men Do Not Eat Everything

Eat that?  Non, non, et NON!

While recent parenting articles and blogs have extensively documented the advantages of continental children in regards to their eating habits, our European correspondent was recently able to validate concerns that their adult counterparts are not as reliable. While on vacation with his family in his wife’s native country, Didier P* brought along a week’s supply of chicken thighs, rice, and produce. During their stay in Eastern Europe, he refused to eat any of the native food. Speaking in a combination of broken English and his native dialect, Didier explained, [local expletives deleted] “Who know what they put in zee food? I prefer not take risks—so I bring wif me.” His wife and sister in law confirmed that he paid little to no regard to standard European conventions of hospitality. “He refused to eat any of the food people cooked for him,” his wife confirmed, “Back at home, he eats a pretty wide variety of things, but he was very suspicious of the food here and would not even try anything that was offered to him. His behavior was very alienating to my grandmother and other family that he was meeting for the first time. But there was really nothing I could do. He’s a grown man—you know?”  Many people have suggested that Didier might benefit from a return to the womb and a short stay in Paris where, presumably, the purer version of French culinary upbringing is practiced in the hope that he might (re) learn to eat everything the way that French children do.

*Based on a true story. The man’s name has been changed to protect his family from embarrassment and him from excessive numbers of American parents who might try to seek validation by trying to  friend him on Facebook.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Three Times and You're Out!

So…something that came up at dinner after Schwartz’s talk was things that it’s difficult or impossible to make your students believe (when they’re true). Schwartz’s glaring example was the extent of randomness, especially as it affects our understanding of sports. He’s had the darndest time convincing Swarthmore undergraduates that what they call a “hot” or “cold” streak is really no such thing. He’s not saying that such a thing may not exist, mind you, but that what we often term evidence that a player is on a hot or cold streak is not really evidence. It’s very hard for us to believe that chance could generate long streaks. Schwartz mentioned that many iPod shuffle users complained to Apple that the shuffle wasn't really playing music at random. Their evidence? That sometimes the same song would play twice in a row. But that is, indeed, something that can happen at random. Our difficulty in believing in chance is easy to test: statistics professors will give the assignment of flipping a coin 100 times to their students. They can tell who ACTUALLY flipped the coin vs. those who made up their flips by the ‘runs’ (of just heads or tails) their students report. Most students will not make up long runs--and a long run tends to be (only) 3 or more in a row. Mere chance (per the coin flip) will generate long runs of heads or tails—but hardly anyone believes that. So when a player has a streak of hits or misses, we say he’s hot or cold. But really, it’s just him (or her) being himself—a player’s performance is surprisingly consistent over time. But who will believe it?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Today I’m not posting—I want to keep my mind focused on bigger and more important matters than my own thoughts. To that end, I will (among other things), be walking through downtown Philly with my family while meditating on Christ’s Passion.
But I wanted to (literally) borrow a page from a meditation I found really helpful. It’s by Fr. Rich Veras and was in the Magnificat’s reflections on Holy Thursday this year. I think it makes a nice connection, actually, between the second guessing that can easily dominate our lives (per Barry Schwartz’s observations) and the greater reality that beckons us, often cloaked in circumstances we aren’t enthusiastic about.

The devil tried to get Jesus to doubt his Father, to doubt his Sonship. However, Jesus never faces temptation alone. Jesus never had been and never will be alone, neither in his divinity nor in his humanity. Not in his divinity, because God is  never alone but was, is, and ever shall be a community of Persons. Not in his humanity, because Jesus recognized everything as a sign of his Father. This night is not the first night that Jesus went with his apostles to pray. He invited them to come away with him on another occasion, and then they got to the place they saw a hungry crowd waiting and begging for food (Mk 6:30-34). Jesus did not look upon those people as an annoyance, but as the very face of his Father. He recognized in the presence of that crowd the presence of his Father relating to him, lovihg him, expressing his will, which Jesus knew would be greater than what he himself had planned. While the apostles wanted to send the people away, Jesus embraced the circumstances and thus affirmed that all reality is a sign of his Father.
                This is why the devil hates reality. This is why the devil deals in “ifs.” Earlier in the evening of Holy Thursday, Jesus showed how small is the tempter’s imagination as compared to reality. For the devil challenged Jesus to turn stones into bread. At the Last Supper, Jesus instead turns bread to God! Not because anyone has challenged him to do it. Not because anyone asked him to prove his Father’s love; but rather it was the merciful initiative of God, freely giving himself to us in the Eucharist.
                In the garden of Gethsemane, the devil is playing on Jesus’ imagination, as he once played on Adam and Eve’s in the garden of Eden. On this night , he is counting on Jesus fearfully imagining all the suffering that lay before him. However, Jesus vanquishes the devil when he says to the Father, “not my will but yours be done.” Original sin came because our first parents trusted their imagination of God over the reality of the gift of the beautiful garden around them. Salvation comes because that man who seems to be praying all alone is affirming the merciful love of God the Father even in the midst of the most harrowing circumstances. Reality belongs to the Father. In the end, all this suffering and death will belong to the glory of the Father shining forth in the victory of his Son.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Satisfy(c)ing the College Application Process: A Simple Way to Ease the Pressure Cooker That No Admissions Department Will Accept (But Should!)

Fortunately, the whole college admissions process is still a ways down the road for us. But I fear it will come far too quickly. One of the things that came up during and after Barry Schwartz’s talk at Villanova on the Paradox of Choice was the problem that excess choice creates for students, parents, and admissions directors when it comes to college. The problem: tons of people applying for few spots at good and top colleges. A complicating factor: the people applying are, for the most part, ‘qualified’ in the usual sense. That is, many (even most) of them may have the SAT scores; the AP credits; the range of extracurricular activities-- in short, the academic promise the institutions are looking for.  But there are simply too many of them. In general, colleges have addressed this by having (generally secret) ways of determining who the best are among the many qualified candidate. But it’s too hard, and the increasingly elaborate and private process ups the ante for students in a big way. A large number of the students are really good, so (Schwartz argues, and I tend to agree) college admissions officers come up with complex and elaborate ways to try to narrow the list. But there is more margin of error in their methods of analysis than there are differences amongst the candidates they are assessing. Schwartz’s solution? Choose a set of criteria—very high criteria are fine—to limit the pool to people deemed acceptable. And then, from that reduced pool, choose at random. The disadvantages: moving away from the current ‘maximizing’ strategy towards a high standards ‘satisficing’ one seems less precise, less elite.  The advantages? Huge! In particular, simplifying the admissions process and thereby reducing the pressure cooker that high school has become for students look to go to top notch colleges. If kids don’t feel compelled to cover every imaginable base in order to get into the school of their choice, students  might stop pursuing extracurriculars they have no interest in, doing community service for people they don’t want to care for, and start focusing on their real interests. The admissions process would not feel as overwhelming for people on either end. Plus, students might learn to stop yearning after schools they didn’t get into and actually get the most out of the place they *do* get into. It’s a win-win. But it’s a leap to make that kind of change, and so far, no one’s biting. More’s the pity.