Saturday, December 20, 2008

My Genetic Journey

For my birthday, I got a kit from National Geographic's Genographic Project. For $99, you can submit a cheek swab and have the DNA of either your maternal or paternal lines analyzed. (Women will have to settle for just the maternal line.)

I had my paternal line done this year; next year, maybe I'll have the maternal line done.

The results are in, and they're not a surprise. I'm a member of Haplogroup E3b1, which, the project says, " is most heavily represented in Mediterranean populations. Approximately 10 percent of the men in Spain belong to this haplogroup, as do 12 percent of the men in northern Italy, and 13 percent of the men in central and southern Italy. Roughly 20 percent of the men in Sicily belong to this group. In the Balkans and Greece, between 20 to 30 percent of the men belong to E3b, as do nearly 75 percent of the men in North Africa. The haplogroup is rarely found in India or East Asia. Around 10 percent of all European men trace their descent to this line. For example, in Ireland, 3 to 4 percent of the men belong; in England, 4 to 5 percent; Hungary, 7 percent; and Poland, 8 to 9 percent. Nearly 25 percent of Jewish men belong to this haplogroup."

Here's how my ancestors are believed to have moved around from about 60,000 years ago to about 20,000 years ago.

Of course, since this data reflects only my father's father's father's .... father, it doesn't tell me about most of my ancestors. But it's still oddly moving to contemplate.

Sadly, some Native Americans are opposed to the Genographic Project, because learning about their ancestry "can clash with long-held beliefs".

Why We Never Lied to Our Kids About Santa

There are many things to dislike about Christmas: the bloated newspaper ads, the second-rate music repeated endlessly in shopping malls, the inane evangelical bleating that "Jesus is the reason for the season", and the pressure to conform lest you be labeled a Scrooge, or, even worse, a Grinch.

Of course, there are things to like about Christmas, too. Everybody enjoys giving presents, and some even like receiving them. A break from work is always appreciated -- even if, like me, you just use it to catch up on work left undone -- and a house that smells of roast turkey is one worth coming home to.

But there's one Christmas tradition that my wife and I have never shared: deceiving our kids about the real nature of Santa.

You know -- Santa Claus, Jolly St. Nick -- the man in the red suit who delivers the presents, as immortalized in the classic poem by Clement Clark Moore. (Shhh - don't tell the kids that Moore, a dour, humourless man who owned slaves and opposed abolition, probably stole the poem and its authorship from Henry Livingston.)

Ever year, Christmas offers adults the opportunity to participate in an absurd fraud against your own children: to pretend that Santa Claus is real, that he spookily monitors their behavior, that Santa won't bring them presents if they misbehave, and that he somehow manages to invade a billion houses in one night, aided by eight (or is it nine?) aviating ungulates.

I can already hear the howls of outrage. "It's a harmless fantasy," some will say. But it's not that harmless. Someday your Santa lie will be discovered. If you lied to them about Santa Claus, kids will wonder, what else did you lie to them about?

"It's only a little lie," others will say. But it's not so little. Once you lie about Santa's existence, you have to lie another time when your kids see Santa in two different stores. You have to lie once again when the kids leave Santa cookies before going to bed, and in the morning they're gone. It starts small, but it soon becomes an elaborate deception. We refused to play along.

I have nothing against fantasy stories. As a child, I loved the Lord of the Rings trilogy and read it over and over again. But it's important to know the difference between reality and fantasy. I never believed that Tolkien's Middle Earth was real, and my parents didn't lie to me that it was.

My wife and I never lied to our kids about Santa Claus. We treated him as a mythical figure, just like the the Easter Bunny and the Great Pumpkin.

Our kids don't seem to have been permanently harmed by our choice. Both like reading and telling stories, and they enjoy fantasy and role-playing games. The Narnia books are some of their favorites. They've even been known to wear Santa hats and play Christmas carols on their violins.

"You deprived them of a magical experience," some will say. I don't think so. Our kids know there is magic in the world, because they've looked through a microscope at a cell, and they've looked through a telescope at the rings of Saturn. They know that the tilt of the Earth's axis is the real reason for the season, but they also know the magic of their parents' love.

So no, Virginia -- Santa Claus isn't real. But there's nothing phony about human imagination, fantasy, the telling of tales, the complexity of our universe, the desire for a better world to live in, and our ability to achieve that world if we work hard enough and care about others. We told our kids the truth about those things, too.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

How to Handle Obama's Choice of Rick Warren to Give Inauguration Invocation

President-elect Obama has chosen Rick Warren, that clueless hypocrite and gay marriage opponent to deliver the invocation at his inauguration.

Well, I'm one Obama voter who thinks there shouldn't be a religious invocation at all. But if there is going to be one, I don't want a creep like Warren to be the one to deliver it.

Now, there's simply no way that Obama's going to go back on this choice. Once invited, the man stays invited.

But we can still express our displeasure.

So here's my solution: if you're going to the inauguration (and more than a million people may go), when Warren gets up to the podium, boo.

That's right, boo.

Boo loudly and lustfully. Boo more than once. Boo for more than just a few seconds. Drown out Warren's first sentence in a chorus of boos.

Boo Warren because you think he's an anti-gay bigot. Boo him again because he's prejudiced against atheists. Boo him once more because his book is a piece of crap.

At the inauguration, let Warren and Obama know what you think of this appalling choice.

They're So Predictable

When you read a theist's denunciation of atheism, one thing is certain: you are not likely to find any original criticisms. Instead you'll find the usual nonsense:

  • Atheists are "dogmatic" and their criticisms are "shrill".
  • Deep down, atheists really believe in a god.
  • Atheists have mental problems.
  • Atheists are hateful.
  • Atheists have no moral code.

etc., etc. For more along these lines, see my account of Tim Kenyon's talk last January.

Now look at this silly opinion piece by Dow Marmur, a "rabbi emeritus" at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. How many of the atheism myths can you find?

The wonder is that the Toronto Star found this drivel suitable for publication. At least the letters published in response, including one from Larry Moran, uniformly disagree with the good rabbi emeritus.

Hat tip: Ed Barsalou.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Blowhard of the Month: Joseph Epstein

Academia is one of the few places in American society where accepted truths get questioned. Ronald Reagan was a great president? The general public may think so, but historians definitely don't. Religion is a positive force in American society, and believers are more moral than non-believers? Sociologists might beg to differ.

Conservatives, however, like accepted truths -- and the older the truth, the better. This produces a certain kind of academic who yearns for an earlier time and, secretly or not-so-secretly, despises his students. Such a man (and it is nearly always a man) has little or no understanding of any discipline outside his own, and labels his colleagues as "sour" or "depressed" or "overpaid". He is almost always to be found in an English or philosophy department, and distrusts science because its achievements are beyond him and its practitioners are too excited by the joy of learning and discovery to be encapsulated by his thesis.

Allan Bloom was that kind of academic. In his screed, The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom claimed that what American universities really needed was a healthy dose of the Great Books. Reading Plato, Bloom said, would cure the University's ills, while modern science was not to be trusted.

And here's another: Joseph Epstein. In this egregious 2005 piece from the Weekly Standard, he calls university teaching a "racket", describes university working conditions as "complete freedom", and claims academics work "fewer than six months a year". His colleagues are "obviously disappointed, depressed, and generally demoralized". They are "dour". He wonders why no one has done a study on academic unhappiness. Well, someone has.

For example, in 1999 Melanie E. Ward-Warmedinger and Peter J. Sloane studied job satisfaction among Scottish academics. They concluded that "levels of overall job satisfaction among academics are high, though not with pay and promotion". By the standards of the study, 41.5% of respondents found their jobs highly satisfying, while only 5.9% reported being highly dissatisfied.

A 1997 study by Lacy and Sheehan, published in Higher Education in 1997, found that about 60% of academics in Sweden and the US were satisfied with their jobs. Job satisfaction was lower in the UK, Australia, and some other countries.

A 2007 NORC report found that teachers were among the most satisfied of all professions, with 69.2% "very satisfied", compared with 47% for all workers (but the survey report seems to have lumped together all teachers with college and university professors).

Yale Law School surveyed its graduates from 1996 to 2000 and found that academics were the most satisfied of all its graduates, with 75% reporting that they are "very satisfied". (By contrast, only 24% of those working at private law firms said they were "very satisfied".)

Finding these sources took me about half an hour. Why couldn't Epstein find them? Because he is not interested in the truth; he is, in the words of William James, only interested in rearranging his own prejudices. And prejudices abound: when discussing a black female English professor he met at Denison University, he feels it necessary to condescend parenthetically that she was "very nice, by the way".

Epstein's conception of academia seems entirely limited to English. He shows no awareness of the existence of other departments. He maunders on about "feminism, Marxism, and queer theory", but says nothing at all about quantum cryptography or string theory. Joe: there's an exciting world out there in other academic departments; maybe you should make an effort to learn what's going on.

When he says that aging professors "discover the students aren't sufficiently appreciative; the books don't get written; the teaching begins to feel repetitive", he's not describing anything in my experience. My students are absolutely terrific, and I don't waste time thinking about whether I am unappreciated. My books do get written, and so do those of my colleagues. While some teaching is repetitive, it is easy to enliven it by covering new topics. And when he labels academics as jealous of the success of others ("Meanwhile, people who got lots of B's in school seem to be driving around in Mercedes, buying million-dollar apartments, enjoying freedom and prosperity in a manner that strikes the former good students, now professors, as not only unseemly but of a kind a just society surely would never permit.") it gives you some idea of what Epstein himself thinks is valuable.

All this is typical blowhard fodder. But wait, there's more.

In his most recent piece in the Weekly Standard, Epstein criticizes Obama's administration because (wait for it) it has too many people who attended schools like Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Oxford, and Yale. Epstein dismisses such people because they "[work] hard in high school and [pile] up lots of activities, and [score] high on [their] SAT's". He seems to have no conception that good students might do well because they actually enjoy learning.

Epstein justifies his criticism by saying that "some of the worst people in the United States have gone to the Harvard or Yale Law Schools: Mr. and Mrs. Eliot Spitzer, Mr. and Mrs. William Clinton, and countless -others [sic]". Whatever you think of Hillary and Bill Clinton, labelling them as "the worst people in the United States" is ridiculous rhetorical excess. (If he gets to mention the Clintons as examples of bad people who attended elite schools, then I get to mention George W. Bush, Pat Robertson, and Phyllis Schlafly. I think I win.) As for Mrs. Spitzer -- that is, Silda Alice Wall Spitzer -- it's not clear why Epstein despises her. Was it her founding of Project Cicero, which works to improve classroom libraries? Or her founding of Children for Children?

Epstein clearly doesn't believe in government by educated, knowledgeable people who attended good schools. What we need, he says, is someone who attended a second-rate religious school like Eureka College: Ronald Reagan. Reagan, Epstein tells us, was one of the two greatest presidents of the 20th century. Reagan, that most conventional of small-minded men, is, in Epstein's view, "without the least trace of conformity or hostage to received opinion or conventional wisdom." I guess that explains why Reagan believed that evolution is a "theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science and is not yet believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was believed. But if it was going to be taught in the schools, then I think that also the biblical theory of creation, which is not a theory but the biblical story of creation, should also be taught." Yup, it sure looks like a Eureka College education made Reagan challenge conventional wisdom there. If this passes for intellectual conservative commentary, it is yet more proof that intellectual conservatism is dead.

Or maybe, what we need is government by second-rate hacks who achieve their positions by being born to achieving fathers. You know, like George Bush and Epstein's employer, William Kristol?

Maybe Epstein thinks academics are "sour" and "unhappy" because he is, I don't know. Maybe Epstein is unhappy because his fellow academics don't put up with the kind of fact-free claptrap he displayed in these two articles, I don't know. But I do know that Joseph Epstein is December's Blowhard of the Month.

Postscript: It might be objected that I addressed job satisfaction, not happiness. So I went to the NORC survey website and, based on the interface at, I tabulated the happiness of "teachers, college and university" for the years 1972-2006. The cumulative results are: 37.95% report being "very happy"; 54.8% report being "pretty happy", and only 7.3% report being "not too happy". By contrast, for all professions the results are 34.1% report being "very happy", 54.6% report being "pretty happy", and 11.25% report being "not too happy". I conclude that academics are, on the whole, slightly happier than the average person.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Great Guitar Performance

Here's a YouTube video of a terrific guitar performance. José Antonio López plays an arrangement of Fernando Bustamante's guitar solo piece, "Misionera". This piece has it all: dramatic changes in dynamics, some flamenco strumming, sul ponticello, sul tasto, tremolo, and virtuoso runs. Just the thing to warm you up on a cold fall day here in Canada.