Archive | October, 2011

Plates or pyramids? Why the government still is wrong about food

28 Oct
The Food Pyramid

The Food Pyramid, circa 2005

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is still wrong.

Back on June 2, 2011, the USDA, along with First Lady Michelle Obama, replaced the infamous Food Pyramid with the Food Plate. The Plate eliminates the “oils” group, and re-arranges the other 5 groups into an admittedly more intuitive design, but the Plate is still essentially the same as the Pyramid.

The Plate’s web site, the poorly-titled choosemyplate.gov (who’s choosing my plate?…the government?), emphasizes counting calories, eating less, having veggies and carbs be the two biggest servings on your plate, reducing your sodium intake, and drinking fat-free (skim) or low-fat (1%) milk.

There’s a little problem, though. All of those recommendations are flawed, have no scientific basis, and could actually be detrimental to your health instead of helpful to your health.

To most Americans, that last sentence is nutrition heresy. We’ve been taught since the 1980s (at least that’s when I remember it) that we need to watch our calories, not be gluttons with portion sizes, eat equally from the food groups, sodium is bad, saturated fat is bad, foods high in cholesterol is bad, whole milk is bad, etc. This is the current conventional wisdom, and we’ve bought into it hook, line and sinker.

The Food Plate, circa 2011

The Food Plate, circa 2011

So why have obesity and diabetes rates continued to skyrocket since the 1980s? If we’re getting better dietary guidelines, why is the nation getting sicker instead of healthier?

Maybe, just maybe, it’s because the dietary guidelines we’ve been given is wrong.

The real reason Americans are obese

In his game-changing book Why We Get Fat, Gary Taubes explains why these dietary guidelines are wrong (and for those who care, how we came to believe this information was right). It turns out that what makes people fat isn’t the number of calories nor the amount of food we eat. Nor do we get fat from eating foods high in saturated fat or foods high in cholesterol. According to Taubes, there actually no science behind this conventional wisdom.

Nevertheless, America is constantly being fed these incorrect guidelines, and now Mrs. Obama is even taking the lead in nagging us about how to lose weight that, frankly, isn’t going to work.

Rather, Taubes elaborates that, genetics notwithstanding, carbs (and particularly refined carbs) make us fat b/c carbs triggers an insulin response in our body to store the carbs as fat. So it’s not just sugar. It’s also white rice (heresy to Asians), white bread (heresy to Americans) and potatoes. If you want to lose weight, you have to go cold turkey and cut all those things out of your diet. What’s more, saturated fat and dietary cholesterol neither make you fat nor put you at greater risk for heart disease. On the contrary, meat products had beneficial nutrients in them. If you want the full scoop on these shocking facts about conventional dietary wisdom, Taubes describes in greater detail in his book. And he shows how those facts are backed up by science.

When I read Taubes’ book, the proverbial light bulb went on in my head. I know two people who work out religiously but are both overweight. I know a third person who is highly (not moderately) active physically yet can easily gain weight. A fourth guy was an avid runner and was a mindful eater yet suffered a stroke at age 54. And my wife and I also were trying to diligently follow that freaky Pyramid but we just couldn’t lose any significant weight, always being at the heavy end of the ‘normal’ weight range for our heights.

Michelle Obama takes on childhood obesity

Michelle Obama takes on childhood obesity

Our own personal experiences

We decided to do our own version of a low-carb diet. Though I had mocked Atkins when I first heard about his diet, it turns out he was right after all. We ate as much meat as we royally wanted as well as eggs, seafood, butter and other government-discouraged foods to our heart’s content, but we cut out all desserts, rice, bread, bagels, pasta and potatoes in our diet. We did this for a few months… and my wife lost 20 pounds while I lost 25 pounds! And we lost all this weight while stuffing ourselves at mealtimes. As my wife once said, “It doesn’t feel like a diet b/c I’m always full after every meal. I don’t have to starve myself or count calories.” Even some Hollywood types are discovering the real way to lose weight is high-protein, low-carb.

Personally, we were excited but still skeptical. What if we were getting skinnier on the outside but inside our blood vessels, they were getting all clogged up from all the meat we were eating? I went to the lab to get my blood work done b/c we figured the data from my blood won’t lie. When I got my results, I couldn’t believe it. My triglycerides went down (a good thing), my cholesterol went down (also good), and my good cholesterol went up (a very good thing).

How about Gary Taubes himself? He posted his own blood work results online, warning that he eats three eggs with cheese, bacon and sausage for breakfast every morning, typically a couple of cheeseburgers (no bun) or a roast chicken for lunch, and usually around a pound of beef for dinner. Like me, his blood numbers are all great.

Unfortunately, the federal government continues to perpetuate dietary myths. In fact, in Feb 2010, Mrs. Obama launched a new nationwide program called “Let’s Move!” with “an ambitious national goal of solving the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation so that children born today will reach adulthood at a healthy weight.” How does the program plan to accomplish this? By encouraging kids to, um, “be more active” and “eat better.” If that sounds like a regurgitation of the conventional wisdom, it is. Links for the “eat better” component of “Let’s Move!” takes you to that aforementioned, dreadfully-named choosemyplate.gov web site.

If you think doling out incorrect dietary guidelines is bad, there are more areas where the federal government hurts, rather than helps, its citizens besides guidelines on how to lose weight. Sad but true. Will post those in the future.

Your turn

What do you think? Is Gary Taubes wrong? Are the blood results misleading? Is there a different reason Americans continue to become obese and diabetic in record numbers despite more vigilant government campaigning about how to eat right?

8 Culture Changes Theo Epstein Can Bring The Cubs

25 Oct
Epstein introduced as Cubs Baseball President

Epstein introduced as Cubs Baseball President

Even before former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein was formally introduced as the new Cubs President of Baseball Operations, writers gave their opinions of what he should do with the Cubs. It was the typical assortment of obvious suggestions, like “get rid of Soriano & Zambrano” and “go after free agent Prince Fielder b/c you’ll both help your team while weakening your division rival.”

I don’t like being Captain Obvious but I do like giving opinions. Epstein in his introductory press conference today mentioned several times about changing the culture within the Cubs. So aside from making the culture focus on winning, here are some of my thoughts on what else Epstein can do about changing the Cubs culture.

1. Fire Mike Quade. Okay, so this suggestion was also voiced by some of those Captain Obvious writers, but here’s my spin on this one. Nothing says culture change than firing the manager who brought a losing culture (91 losses) to the Cubs, even while trying to win a few extra games down the stretch of the lost season by playing veterans instead of developing youngsters. Quade also was clueless when asked about Starlin Castro‘s focus issues on the field. Clearly, Quade has no managerial vision. A nice guy who loves to give strange nicknames probably can stay in the organization as a coach of some sort at some level, but managing is over his head.

Some writers argue that Epstein retained manager Grady Little when Epstein took over as Boston GM in Nov 2002 and didn’t hire a new manager until the following season. But Little and Quade share no similarities. Little had just finished a 95-win season in Boston; Quade has just finished a 71-win season.

If Epstein doesn’t fire Quade, Epstein will lose almost immediately all the goodwill built up by his arrival.

2. No long-term contracts unless they are front-loaded, performance-based, or both. In Epstein’s press conference today, he alluded to the fact that he learned from his mistakes (apparently in reference to John Lackey‘s 5-year, $82 million contract and Carl Crawford‘s 7-year, $142-million contract), and that contracts will be based on future performance, not past performance. To have Epstein recognize and declare this is music to Cubs fans’ ears.

Worthless long-term contracts is also a sensitive topic among the Cubs. Alfonso Soriano‘s 8-year, $136 million contract still has three years left. Carlos Zambrano has one year remaining on his five-year, $91.5 million contract. Ryan Dempster is expected to exercise his $14 million player option to return to the Cubs for 2012.

Former Cubs GM Jim Hendry often gave escalating salaries in long-term deals, which is short-sighted. If you’re signing a free agent because he is perceived to be valuable now, why would you then pay that player more money later in his career when his skills are likely to have diminished, rather than earlier in his career?

3. No long-term contracts to people past their prime, or even to players currently in their prime. Epstein also addressed this in his press conference, saying that a player’s prime is roughly between 26-32 years of age. Studies done by Bill James and other analysts confirm that baseball players generally peak in their mid- to late twenties. Lackey was already 32 when Epstein signed him to that five-year mega-contract. Soriano was 30 when Hendry signed him to that eight-year mega-deal. Dempster was 31 when Hendry signed him to a four-year, $52 million deal. See the pattern? Big bucks given to players who are at the tail end of their prime, and then the length of those contracts keep those aging players  chained to their teams for many years past their prime.

Prince Fielder at 27 is in his prime right now. Albert Pujols is 31. Both will seek long-term contracts in the neighborhood of $200 million. Is it a wise investment to pay for a guy whose value can only go down from here?

Consider the strategy that fellow noted sabermetrics GM, Tampa Bay’s Andrew Friedman, employs as described in the book The Extra 2%. Friedman gives long-term contracts to young players, not aging players. Thus, the contracts end when the player is nearing the end of his prime years, capturing those players’ “best seasons without breaking the bank.” For example, when Carl Crawford was 23, he was given a 4-year, $15.25 million contract with two team options (discussed in next point below). Over the duration of that contract, baseball analysis web site FanGraphs showed that Crawford produced $108.9 million worth of value, far outpacing his salary. Once Crawford hit the free agent market for 2010, his prime years were nearly all behind him and it ironically was the Red Sox who overpaid for a long duration of Crawford’s post-prime years.

Another example was the Rays giving 23-year-old rookie Evan Longoria a six-year, $17.5 million contract. This would give the Rays control over Longoria until he was 29 (in 2013). Already, Longoria has far outplayed his contract.

Of course, if Crawford and Longoria didn’t pan out, the Rays would still be on the hook with two long-term contracts, but the risks are much lower when compared to the risk of older players with mega-contracts who don’t pan out, like Lackey and Soriano.

Signing Fielder or Pujols to a long-term contract will be a mistake as soon as the ink is dry. It will be like Soriano redux, trust me…great for everybody during the first year or two, but make you want to bang your head on the wall all the remaining years of the deal.

4. The only “goodie” given out in long-term contracts should be the team option. Hendry was infamous for giving out no-trade clauses in contract negotiations, as well as player options. Carlos Zambrano has a no-trade clause. Derrek Lee had one too. So does Aramis Ramirez. And Alfonso Soriano. If you dealt with Hendry, you probably got one too.

No-trade clauses make trading an unproductive player difficult. The Cubs need to get out of the business of doling out no-trade clauses. They also need to end the practice of giving “player options” in contracts, which gives the player the right to choose whether to stay with the team for an extra season at a pre-determined salary or to enter free agency. Instead, the Cubs need to give “team options” instead, which gives the team the right to choose whether to keep the player or let him leave. Remember Dempster? He has a player option that is expensive for his team (at his age, odds are pretty good he won’t be performing like a $14 million starter in 2012).

Meanwhile, no one embraces team options (aka club options) like Friedman and the Rays. Friedman tacked on two team options to Crawford’s original contract, thus effectively controlling him for six years. The Rays also signed starting pitcher James Shields to a four-year, $11.25 million contract…with not one, not two, but three team options that could extend the deal to seven years but only if the Rays see that Shields continues to pitch effectively for each of those three  years after age 30. Less than halfway through Shields’ deal, the Rays have already made their money back.

Team options are excellent ways to offset the risk/reward of managing players who may or may not be at the cusp of diminishing skills.

5. Let free agents walk. What is a Type A free agent anyway? Does that mean they are go-getters? Um, no. According to about.com, if a team offers its player salary arbitration and the player refuses to accept the offer in order to become a free agent, the Elias Sports Bureau determines whether the free agent is “Type A”, “Type B”, or neither. Type A free agents are those who are in the top 20% in their positional group. Type B free agents are those who are in the top 21-40% of their positional group. All other free agents are neither type. If another team signs your free agent and he is “Type A”, then you get two draft picks: either a 1st round pick or a second round pick (depending on other factors), and a “sandwich” pick between the 1st and 2nd rounds. If your free agent is a “Type B” free agent, you only get a “sandwich” pick. The idea behind such compensation draft picks for signing free agents is to help a team who is losing its top free agent(s) restock its talent.

Let’s go back to the interesting case study of Carl Crawford. As you recall, he left the Rays to sign a long-term deal with Boston…not a good idea as we already discussed. But in addition, Crawford was a Type A free agent. Therefore, when he signed with the Red Sox, the Rays got a first-round draft pick and a sandwich pick, the 24th and 38th overall picks in the 2011 draft. In fact, in that 2011 draft, the Rays got an amazing nine compensation draft picks…that’s 10 of the top 60 players in the draft when you include their normal first-round draft pick! Combine that with the Rays’ top scouting/sabermetrics department and you can be assured the Rays will continue to successfully compete in the cutthroat AL East for years to come.

Epstein talked several times in his introductory press conference about building a “scouting and development machine” with the Cubs”. One of the easiest ways to do that is to pile up high draft picks. After all, it’s much easier to build your farm system with cheap, homegrown talent when you have two fistfuls of picks before the second round of the draft even starts, rather than just the traditional one pick among the top 60 players.

6. Stress defense when evaluating players. According to The Extra 2%, the Red Sox, A’s and a handful of other teams locked onto on-base percentage when using sabermetrics to mine for undervalued baseball players. The idea was that batters can knew how to draw walks would help you score more runs and wear down opposing pitchers faster.

The problem was that defense was ignored when evaluating such players. Teams like the Chicago White Sox highly valued sluggers like Adam Dunn b/c he had at least 100 walks in 7 of his 10 seasons before 2011, in addition to his nearly 40 homer average. Yet Dunn would give much of that value back on the defensive end, and this year, when his batting average was lower than his weight, White Sox fans openly called for his release.

As mentioned in a prior sports post, defense isn’t necessarily more important than offense. But it shouldn’t be entirely shoved aside during player evaluation either.

7. Stress young pitching. Cubs fans know that Jed Hoyer is widely assumed to take over the official role of Cubs GM after the 2011 World Series ends. Hoyer is a fan of Friedman’s moves, so hopefully, Hoyer and Epstein are already aware of the importance of young pitching.

In 2007, Friedman traded young outfield star Delmon Young, subpar infielder Brendan Harris and minor league outfielder Jason Pridie to the Twins for starting pitcher Matt Garza, slick-fielding shortstop Jason Bartlett and minor league pitcher Eduardo Morlan. Hoyer, watching from the Red Sox offices, was quite upset b/c he liked Garza and Bartlett as well and was impressed with Friedman’s ability to make a deal.

In 2011, Hendry made a deal with Friedman for Garza but the Cubs farm system paid for it. The Cubs sent their #1 prospect, starting pitcher Chris Archer, along with outfielder Brandon Guyer, catcher Robinson Chirinos and shortstop Hak-Ju Lee, along with major-league outfielder Sam Fuld. The Rays made the playoffs in 2011 without Garza anyway, while the Cubs with Garza sputtered along to a 71-win season. Sure, without Garza, maybe the Cubs only win 66 games. But smart GMs know that the difference between 66 wins and 71 wins is meaningless.

Footnote: Garza is going to be 28 in a month and has two years of arbitration remaining, so his window of prime years is closing soon. Remember (going back to point #5 above), when Garza becomes a free agent, don’t sign him to a long-term deal; let him walk.

8. Stress value. Despite being “annoyed” by the Rays’ Young-for-Garza/Bartlett deal, Hoyer didn’t think the Rays would be a threat in the AL East before the 2009 season because Hoyer “didn’t think the bullpen was good enough.” And indeed it wasn’t. But Friedman would take care of that.

Back in 2006, Tampa Bay dealt outfielder Joey Gathright to Kansas City for left-handed starting pitcher J.P. Howell, a former first-round pick who had difficulties in the majors. Howell continued to struggle into 2007 but the Rays remained patient. Howell’s big curve fulfilled the crucial requirement that a pitcher have an out pitch against opposite-handed batters, and Howell flashed excellent strikeout-to-walk ratios, a sign of good command. In 2008, the Rays shifted him to the bullpen, where he flourished and by 2009 was the team’s nominal but effective closer.

What’s more, Friedman made a deal at the 2007 trade deadline, sending big right-handed pitcher Seth McClung and his blazing fastball to Milwaukee for reliever Grant Balfour, who was almost 30 at the time of the deal. While Balfour was outside the typical age range for a Rays player under Friedman, some of those years were spent on the disabled list, so Balfour wasn’t 30 years old in baseball mileage. Plus, Friedman trusted his scouts who pointed to Balfour’s long record of success in the minor leagues and his dormant skills, and knew that Balfour’s upside far exceeded the minimal risk of a contract for just over the league minimum. He posted a 1.54 ERA in 2008, striking out 82 batters in 58.1 innings, joining Howell to form a devastating bullpen.

The White Sox kind of had their own value find in picking up Philip Humber, also a former first-round pick, who jumped out to an 8-3 record and a 3.52 ERA in 2011. However, Humber slumped to 1-5 and a 6.15 ERA in his last 10 starts. Still, for sabermetric fans, he had a WAR (wins above replacement) value of 3.5, where average starting pitchers are worth 2.0. So for only $500,000 this year and an above-average WAR, that’s good value.

The bottom line

As you can tell, I’m a fan of Andrew Friedman. But I’m also a fan of Theo Epstein. A big fan. You can’t win more World Series titles than the Yankees over the past ten years and not be impressed. I’m personally very excited that he’s joining the Cubs to lead them over the next 5-10 years. He has a plan. He’s learned from his Red Sox mistakes. And it sounds like he’s already a believer in some of the concepts I’ve described in this post, which would already be a substantial improvement over Jim Hendry. Whether or not Epstein embraces all of the suggestions posted here is not my concern. After all, he’s the one with the resume, not me. I just thought it would be fun to post some of my minor insights.

Your turn

What do you think? Am I off the wall? Do the Cubs need to sign a premium free agent to a long-term contract? Did I miss something on what the Cubs can do to change their culture of losing?

Devotional: Don’t think you’re insignificant!

21 Oct

This is a devotional I did with my kids recently. Given how kids have the propensity to forget things, I’m posting it here so that they won’t forget the lesson behind it.

(I’m sure some preachers have preached this before, but this was something I stumbled across during one of my morning quiet times, so, no, I didn’t steal any of this material from someone else.)

When I grew up as a child, I was not a Christian. My mom was not a Christian. I was in a low-income family. No house. No car. No father. But I still had aspirations. I wanted to be somebody. Maybe a famous cartoonist. Maybe a major league baseball player. Maybe a scientist who would invent something important.

Of course, none of those things happened. Was rejected in attempting to be a syndicated cartoonist. Failed to make the cut in walk-on tryouts for UIC baseball. Definitely not a scientist.

But I don’t look at my life as wasted or insignificant. I graduated college, am still married to the girl of my dreams, became born-again, and have six kids in whom I’m hoping to instill their own faith in Christ. The first three accomplishments had significant hurdles I had to overcome, and the last accomplishment is a significant responsibility that I’m still working on. So even in what I would view as a failure to be significant in my childhood goals, I’d argue that what I’m doing is still significant even if I never became famous for it or if no one else appreciated what I did outside my immediate family.

Not all kids grow up with aspirations to become significant, however. Some just go through life without deep thoughts about the future. Some grow up with deep thoughts but wondering what life is all about. Others will grow up like I did: getting a decent job and raising a family but not feeling significant. Maybe you too wonder if there’s more to life than this.

In the book of Genesis, there are seven major people or groups of people that the author focuses on. They are:

  • Adam & Eve
  • Cain & Abel
  • Noah
  • Abraham
  • Isaac
  • Jacob
  • Joseph

These are what we would consider to be the significant people in Genesis. Drilling down further, it appears that the most significant of Jacob’s 12 children is Joseph. In fact, Joseph is so significant that Genesis devotes 13 chapters (26%, more than a quarter) to Joseph’s amazing history.

I love Joseph. His love, patience, and ability to handle sexual temptation are all very inspiring qualities. Don’t you love Joseph?

But there is a child of Jacob who is even more significant than Joseph. Far more significant. Can you guess who it is? That person is Judah.

Now, in the book of Genesis, Judah is not significant at all. In fact, Judah’s mom was “hated” by Judah’s father (Gen 29:31), so you could say he grew up in a dysfunctional home. Can significance come from dysfunctional homes? In addition, neither was Judah the firstborn child of Leah; he was Leah’s fourth. What’s more, Jacob loved his brother Joseph the most. Joseph was a firstborn child…of Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel. Judah just doesn’t have a lot going for him.

But that’s not all. Gen 38 records a part of Judah’s history, oddly nestled among the pages in Genesis discussing Joseph. Here we see that Judah takes a Canaanite girl as his wife. It was already established that the people of the Promised Land were not to take Canaanite women as their wives.  Not good.

Even worse, Judah winds up impregnating his daughter-in-law Tamar, rather than giving her to his son Shelah. Oops. Tamar has twins, Perez and Zerah. Remember that name Perez…we’ll come back to it later.

Just to make sure we know that Judah is not a great guy, we read in Gen 37 that the plan to sell Joseph into slavery to the Ishmaelites was planned by none other than Judah. While it could be argued that Judah’s plan was instrumental to what would then happen to Joseph, the fact remains that Judah isn’t exactly a guy we cheer for and tell kids about with admiration in Sunday school.

The final nail in Judah’s coffin of significance is that when his father Jacob is dying, Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh. Judah, not surprisingly, is nowhere to be found.

But wait a minute. If you turn to Matthew 1:2, the genealogy of Christ doesn’t say “Jacob father of Joseph and his brothers”; it says “Jacob father of Judah and his brothers.” Judah? The guy who couldn’t do anything right…and schemed to do things wrong?

But don’t stop at verse 2 in that genealogy. Verse 3 says: “and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron.” So Gen 38 is important after all. Remember that name Perez, three paragraphs ago? Here he is again…Judah’s odd son/grandson, part Canaanite child, is listed in the genealogy of Jesus Christ. Wow.

Do we know anything else that Judah or Perez did? No. They were as insignificant as they come, when it comes to accomplishments. If you were to ask either of them on their death bed whether they felt significant, I bet both of them would agree with you that they were lived insignificant lives.

But Judah and Perez are part of the lineage of the Messiah! You and your child, no matter how unlikeable they may be, no matter how insignificant they may think they are, matter to God. No one knows how the Lord will use you or your child for His glory. You may not see it in your lifetime, and your child may not see it during his/her lifetime either…just as Judah and Perez didn’t. But that doesn’t mean God doesn’t have a plan for you and your child.

As I write this post, there’s an article today in the Wall Street Journal about the number of trophy homes Oracle CEO Larry Ellison owns. Some of his homes are worth $108 million dollars. That’s not even his net worth; it’s just one of his many homes.

Are you or your child feeling like life is just a grind, or that your life isn’t amounting to much? Be encouraged! God has a plan for you to be significant! Not in a monetary or physical possessions way b/c Christ already condemned those as insignificant. Rather, your significance comes in your family’s multi-generational legacy. Genealogies are used in both the Old and New Testaments for a reason: the offspring you raise are what’s significant, not the stuff you buy with your wallet. If you are a parent, continue to raise your children and your grandchildren for God’s glory. If you are a child, continue to love the Lord your God with all your soul. It is the soul, after all, that is what’s significant.

Gattaca DVD review: 4 stars

20 Oct

No, the year is not 1997 right now. That is when Gattaca was released. For some reason, I never considered watching Gattaca at the time it was released in theaters, and apparently I wasn’t alone. The movie bombed at the box office, making only $4.3 million in its opening weekend and $12.5 million total (the movie’s budget was $36 million).

But I discovered the premise of this sci-fi film recently and thought it would be interesting to watch, so I picked up the DVD. It’s unique among sci-fi flicks in that it does not involve aliens, floating spaceships or explosions. It’s more like Minority Report than Star Wars.

The story

In Gattaca, Vincent  (Ethan Hawke) lives in a world where scientists are able to genetically engineer babies with the parents’ most ideal genes. Such babies grow up in a privileged society and are labeled “valid”. Couples can make babies the “old-fashioned” way, by making love. The resulting children are called “faith babies”, or more derogatorily as “in-valids”, and are oppressively relegated to insignificant roles like janitors. Vincent is an “in-valid”, born with a heart problem that makes him due to die around 30 years old. His brother Anton is a “valid”, superior to Vincent in every way as the two boys grow up. But Vincent has big dreams. He wants to be an astronaut someday. Unfortunately because of his genetic makeup, Vincent’s father tells him that the only way Vincent will be in a spaceship is if he’s cleaning it.

”]Cover of "Gattaca [Blu-ray]"

Vincent doesn’t accept his fate. He agrees to illegally switch identities with a highly superior valid named Jerome Morrow (Jude Law) who was paralyzed in his legs from an car accident. The very complicated scheme works. Soon, Vincent is training to go on a mission to one of Saturn’s moons under the identity of Jerome. But the space center facility has many checks to make sure its trainees are valids, and Vincent must be extremely careful at all times. For example, he rubs his body with a pumice stone to remove any loose skin cells that might implicate him. After all, when the government has everyone’s DNA records, a single eyelash that falls out, saliva on your drinking glass, or even a single shed skin cell could betray him as not being Jerome, but Vincent has been successful so far in escaping unnoticed by doing his daily scrub-downs and by providing Jerome’s genetic samples at every checkpoint.

But with just a week before the mission and with Vincent becoming a finalist for the mission, the mission director is found dead and police are all over the space center trying to find the culprit. Will Vincent’s fake identity be found out?

Positive elements

Gattaca‘s very first frame is a quote from Ecclesiastes about how people should not try to alter what God has made. Clearly, the movie is against genetic engineering (what we now call “GMO”, or genetically modified organism). And what’s scary about this movie is the possibility that such genetic engineering of babies could one day become reality. What if kids could be engineered to be 50 IQ points smarter, or have a natural resistance to cancer? Will people reject it as unethical, or embrace it as useful? It’s a legitimate concern, and Gattaca takes a clear position against it.

For example, Vincent, though labeled an “in-valid”, has dreams bigger than genetically superior Jerome. He also has greater determination than his genetically superior brother Anton, in fact saving his brother’s life during a childhood swimming contest. Neither of these are traits that can be genetically engineered.

Among the genetic choices that parents could make, Gattaca did not list homosexuality as one of them. Certainly, the movie could have subtly implied that homosexuality is genetic, but it didn’t.

Vincent begins a relationship with a valid named Irene (Uma Thurman). She eventually discovers that he is an in-valid but still chooses to love him.

Negative elements

Violence: There are a couple shots of the murdered mission director, one of which shows his head in a pool of blood. We don’t see how he died since it’s irrelevant to the film, and the shots aren’t very graphic, but younger kids probably won’t enjoy seeing that. There is also one scene of someone being punched until unconscious, although none of the punches are shown on-screen.

Sex: There is a scene of Vincent and Irene kissing, as well as a scene of the two in bed together (clothed). We see Irene’s bare back in bed after they have had sex. We see Vincent’s nude body (private parts obscured) in a non-sexual scene where he is scrubbing his body.

Language: I don’t recall exactly, but I think there are two f-words uttered.

Other: There are a couple scenes of smoking and drinking. An attempted suicide is mentioned and an actual suicide is implied. Vincent must lie and cheat about his invalid status repeatedly to become an astronaut finalist. Vincent’s parents must choose one of four fertilized but genetically engineered eggs, thus in effect aborting the three others.

What went well

The suspense surrounding the potential discovery of Vincent’s true identity is well-done throughout the movie, particularly as the detective and police start targeting the real Vincent. This aspect makes Gattaca more like a thriller.

Gattaca  is highly thought-provoking. As mentioned, the ethical issues of GMOs are at the forefront. But other questions are raised. Would you cheat and lie to achieve your dreams? What if “the system” would condemn you to a life of worthlessness if you didn’t cheat and lie (in one scene, the area where in-valids hang out looks like a prison)? Do high expectations of a person (in the movie, inherently borne from genetically making something perfect) create unrealistic expectations? And more importantly, do high expectations of a person cause more traumatic disappointments if those expectations are not met? Do we discriminate against supposedly less capable people in our own lives? In addition, how concerned are you about privacy issues when the government has everyone’s DNA and uses that to confirm identities? Is anything sacred?

But some more minor thought-provoking concepts are also raised. Would you blindly cross a furiously fast expressway for your true love? Would you love someone who is not your equal or even inferior to you in some way? Would you as a parent conclude that your child is destined not to amount to much because that’s what people tell you about your child…or even if you believed it yourself?

There are a couple plot twists along the way, which add to the interesting complexity of the movie.

What could have been better

Vincent and Irene are not married but engage in premarital sex. The swearing was also completely unnecessary.

A scene involving a 12-fingered pianist concludes with the line, “That piece could only have been played with 6 fingers (on each hand).” While Vincent thinks 6 fingers isn’t necessary to play well on the piano, that last line seems to imply that perhaps unusual genetic engineering might be acceptable (to some people, at least).

The ending is unsatisfactory (explained in the Conclusion).

Can kids watch it?

While some Christian user reviews think it’s definitely not a movie for kids, I don’t think it’s as cut-and-dry. It may be ok for teens, depending on their age and maturity.

The most obvious factors in whether a movie is appropriate for kids (sex and violence) are muted in Gattaca, as previously discussed. If you discuss the suicide scene and premarital sex with your child(ren), I don’t think those would be issues. But there’s the issue of the f-words that are uttered, as well as the smoking and drinking. And the issues surrounding genetic engineering would be too deep for most kids under 13.

So overall, I’d say ‘definitely not’ for kids under 11, and ‘probably not’ for kids 11 and 12. ‘Maybe’ for kids 13-17.

Conclusion: recommended

A smart, thoughtful sci-fi movie, Gattaca is definitely worth watching. The main message is consistent with a Christian worldview: a child knitted together by God is ultimately seen as better than a child knitted together by man. A more subtle message is sent in how sterile the world appears in the halls of Gattaca, which is brimming with valids: sterile environment, and sterile personalities. It takes a “faith-child” in Vincent to draw life and personality out of Irene.

The only reason I didn’t give Gattaca a higher rating is because the ending was not entirely satisfactory. [Spoiler alert: skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know some parts of the ending. Final warning…] Irene is no longer relevant to Vincent; I would have liked it better if Vincent decided not to go on the mission and instead stayed on earth to marry Irene. Vincent makes a statement about having “a hard time leaving” the world…not sure what that meant. Why would he have a hard time leaving it when that’s been his dream all along? And the meaning of Jerome’s gift to Vincent is a mystery (to many other viewers apparently…google it).

However, this movie, which flopped at the box office (people expecting aliens and explosions, maybe?), is in my mind a sci-fi classic…in my sci-fi Top 10. And from what I’ve read, it is visually beautiful on Blu-ray.

Your turn

Have you seen Gattaca? If so, what are your thoughts on the movie?

Is defense more important than offense in youth baseball?

18 Oct
Defense meets offense in youth baseball

Defense meets offense in youth baseball

One of the uncontested axioms in sports is that “Defense wins championships.” You hear it in all major team sports. You hear it in the playoffs. And you hear it from players, coaches and broadcasters.

But is it true?

According to the book Scorecasting, it is not true. For example:

  • in the 44 Super Bowls, the better defensive team won 29 times while the better offensive team won 24 times…not much better than random chance.
  • the Super Bowl champ has been a top-5 defensive team in the regular season 28 times, while the Super Bowl champ has been a top-5 offensive team in the regular season 27 times. Again, nearly even.
  • the Super Bowl champ has ranked in the bottom half of the league in defense three times, while only twice has the Super Bowl champ been ranked in the bottom half of the league in offense.
  • 27 Super Bowls have pitted a top-five offense against a top-five defense. The best offensive team won 13; the best defensive team won 14. Again, nearly even.
  • in the 407 NFL playoff games over the last 44 seasons, the better defensive teams have won 58% of the time, while the better offensive teams have won 62% of the time. Again, nearly even, this time the offense getting the slight edge.
  • in almost 10,000 regular season games, the better defensive team won 66.5% of the time while the better offensive team won 67.4% of the time.
  • of the 64 NBA Championships, 9 have gone to the best defensive team while 7 have been won by the superior offensive team.
  • in the NBA playoffs, the better defensive team has won 54.4% of the time while the better offensive team has won 54.8% of the time.
  • in the 50,000 NBA regular season games, the better defensive teams win no more often than the better offensive teams.
  • although trickier to analyze in baseball since defense includes pitching, the superior defensive team has won 44 of the last 100 World Series while the better offensive team has won 54 times.
  • in baseball postseason games, the better defensive teams have won 50.8% of the time while the better offensive teams have won 51.8% of the time.
  • same holds true in the NHL when looking at Stanley Cups, playoffs and regular season.

So statistically, it’s just not true that defense wins championships. Sometimes offense wins championships. Obviously, having both a top defense and a top offense is even better.

What about in youth baseball?

Pro sports does not show any evidence that defense wins championships. Now, as a youth baseball coach, this made me think: does defense win championships in youth baseball? I had been so ingrained that “defense wins championships” that, during youth baseball drafts, when players were rated as being able to do one significantly better than the other, I always focused on players who could field more than players who could hit. But let’s take a look at the stats in the youth baseball league that I coach in (one of the largest in the local area).

In the case of youth baseball, the better offensive team is defined as the team that scores more cumulative runs during a season than its opponent; the better defensive team is defined as the team that allows the least cumulative runs during a season.

In the 2009 playoffs for 7 & 8 year olds (tee-ball & coach pitch), two games featured one team that was better offensively while the other team was better defensively. The better defensive team won one game; the better offensive team won one game. Another draw.

But now it gets interesting.

In the 2010 playoffs for 9 & 10 year olds (coach pitch & kid pitch), eight games featured one team that was better offensively while the other team was better defensively. The better offensive team won a whopping seven of the eight times!

In the 2011 playoffs, seven games featured one team that was better offensively while the other team was better defensively. Five of those seven contests were won by the better offensive team!

Thus, even in youth baseball, again we see that it’s just not true that defense wins championships. In fact, the stats suggest that it’s actually offense that wins championships!

If you think about it, this revelation makes sense. Without curve balls and sliders to fool hitters, the old adage that “good pitching beats good hitting” just is not true in youth baseball. Unless the kid pitcher is blessed with an elite fastball, good hitters can make solid contact against good pitchers, often resulting in hits, which often lead to runs. On the other hand, a team that has many struggling hitters will also struggle to score runs, relying on their own kid pitching and defense to keep the game close. But as we covered, good hitters can hit good pitchers in youth baseball. So it’s a vicious cycle that stacks the odds against offensively-challenged teams. After all, scoring more than your opponent is what wins games.

An easier way to look at why offense wins championships in youth baseball is this: you can “hide” a subpar defensive player in the field but you can’t “hide” a subpar offensive player at the plate. The ball may never be hit to your below-average defensive player, but the ball will always be pitched to your below-average offensive player.

So the next time you go into a youth baseball draft and you’re deciding between a kid who’s an offensive star but struggles defensively vs. a kid who’s a defensive star but struggles offensively, go for offense and don’t look back.

Your turn

What do you think? Is my minor insight biased b/c of the small sample size from my youth baseball league? Or do you think it’s pretty consistent with what’s happening in the much large sample sizes of professional sports?

Courageous movie review: 4.5 stars

17 Oct

This past weekend, I went to see the new film Courageous. The movie focuses on four police officers who also happen to be fathers, and after tragedy strikes, it tracks how each family fares.

The main character in Courageous is Adam Mitchell (Alex Kendrick, who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay), a father of two. Adam is an excellent police officer but is a middling father. Though he provides and protects for his family, he is not really involved with either his teenage son or his 9-year-old daughter. The other officers we meet include Nathan Hayes (Ken Bevel), married with three children, including a teen daughter interested in dating. Shane Fuller (Kevin Downes) is divorced but has a young son. And rookie David Thomson (Ben Davies) is a baby-faced bachelor. One important non-police officer character is Javier Martinez (Robert Amaya), who is struggling to make ends meet for his wife and two young children.

Positive elements

Far and away, the most positive aspect of the movie emphasized how important being a committed father is. We see the repercussions of not doing so, and the regret involved. This theme struck me so much that I wasn’t just tearing up, I was flat out crying. Incredibly moving.

Scene from the movie "Courageous"

Scene from the movie "Courageous"

Courageous also effectively portrays an example of how a father can handle a boy’s (David Howze) request to date his daughter. In fact, the film’s view of dating almost exactly mirrors mine, in that kids should not date unless they’re ready to get married.

Homeschooling is also mentioned in the movie, subtly explaining very well why one would choose to homeschool.

Courageous repeatedly emphasizes that “good enough” is not good enough when it comes to fatherhood.

There are also several contemplative scenes where the men sit around in a backyard and just talk, implying that men need the fellowship of other men.

Explaining the gospel and handling questions from people who don’t believe the same as you are also depicted very naturally in Courageous.

The five main characters make a “Resolution” to be a committed father, and they take it seriously, from cash-strapped Javier buying a pricey suit for the occasion, to each father publicly making their vows in front of their family and friends during a Resolution ceremony conducted by a pastor.

David, the “rookie” police officer, shows his stripes by movie’s end, not just in the final action scene but also when he is shown presenting a gift to a person who is both a stranger to him and close to him at the same time.

The last scene is an impassioned call to action for fathers, made by Adam.

Violence

The opening scene grabs us immediately with its action and suspense, and grabs us at the end of the opening scene with a surprise revelation, subtly asking the question of whether or not we would have done the same thing. The film has several action scenes, which is the reason for its PG-13 rating.

A gang provides some of the tension in the film (besides the internal tension of whether the fathers will be faithful in their Resolution), with the gang leader (former NFL running back Tony Stallings) insinuating early in the film that he plans to kill the police officers. [Spoiler alert… skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know what happens to the police officers] In the end, no one gets seriously hurt.

What went well

While Adam can be considered the main character, the other characters (Nathan and Javier in particular) are also closely tracked in Courageous, and the movie does a good job of doing so without losing focus.

The tragedy makes an impact on the audience but Courageous does a great job of continuing to draw emotions from the tragedy long after the incident has already happened.

The men’s job and exploits as policemen served as a good backdrop, providing some needed tension to the film.

As in all Sherwood Pictures movies, there are comedic scenes, and the ones in Courageous are arguably the best ones of them all. These scenes don’t just elicit a smile; they actually make you laugh out loud. My favorites involved the use of the phrase “I love you.”

The movie is terrifically edited and would be a good study by homeschoolers or other kids interested in studying videography or film production.

What could have been better

The emotional scenes are mixed with the previously-mentioned effective comedic scenes. But sometimes I felt that the comedic scenes come too quickly after a reflective scene. I would be teary-eyed one moment and then laughing out loud the next, but I feel like there should’ve been more time allowed for the audience to take in a tear-jerker scene.

Also, when the tragedy strikes, the event itself is not shown on screen, but just mentioned from one person to another. This is a touchy subject but personally, I think it might have had even more impact if the tragedy was shown (without blood, of course). I know some will say it was better not to show it, but that’s my opinion. I just feel that the tragic event didn’t seem quite as real since we as the audience never saw it happen.

One scene between Javier and his wife Carmen (Angelita Nelson) didn’t seem particularly well-acted, although it could’ve just been me. Overall, though, the acting was credible and believable.

Can kids watch it?

Courageous contains no sex scenes, no nudity, and no profanity. The only cause for concern regarding kids is the violence. You can have your kid(s) watch the opening scene from the movie at the Courageous web site and see how they react. If your child(ren) can handle that scene, then they probably can handle the movie. Ultimately, parents will have to decide on their own, as each kid is different. I take my entire family to see it (3-year-old, 5-five-year-old, 8-year-old, 11-year-old and 13-year-old) and the only one who felt squeamish was, oddly, my 11-year-old.

Conclusion: highly recommended

Unlike other Sherwood Pictures movies, not everything ends up rosy in Courageous. And that is the point: in fatherhood, not everything ends up rosy, particularly when the father is doing “good enough” or when the father is not committed to his heavenly Father. Real stats are mentioned in the film that proclaim the supreme importance of committed, godly fathers. This is the call I have been sounding in my church for at least five years, only being somewhat heeded this past year. I am extremely pleased that the movement is gaining traction nationwide!

Well-written, warm, heart-breaking, funny, thought-provoking, beautifully shot and theologically sound in all areas it touches, Courageous is an outstanding movie that I recommend to anyone who is either currently a parent or desires to become one. It’s not just a movie for men. It’s also worthwhile for women and kids 7 and up. Even though I watched it in the theater, I plan to buy it when it comes out on DVD/Blu-ray. It’s a keeper. It’s that good.

Your turn

What did you think? If you saw Courageous, how would you rate the movie?