“Last Dance”

I’m feeling disco-ish today, so let’s have one of the great disco songs of all time, here in a terrific live performance by Donna Summer, who of course made it famous. Her real name was LaDonna Adrian Gaines, and she died in 2012 of lung cancer. She was only 63.

“Last Dance” nabbed both a Grammy and the Academy Award for Best Song in 1978, for it was in the movie “Thank God It’s Friday.” Wikipedia adds this:

“Last Dance” was one of the first disco songs to also feature slow tempo parts: it starts off as a ballad; the full-length version on the film soundtrack also has a slow part in the middle. This part was edited out for the 7″. The versions found on most greatest hits packages is either the original 7″ edit (3:21) or the slightly longer and remixed version from the 1979 compilation On The Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes 1 & 2 (4:56). “Last Dance” started a trend for Summer as some of her following hits also had a ballad-like intro before speeding up the tempo. Her other hits of this tempo format include “On the Radio”; “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)”, a duet with Barbra Streisand; “Dim All the Lights”; and a song written by and duetted with Paul Jabara called “Foggy Day/Never Lose Your Sense Of Humor”, from his album “The Third Album”.

Here’s Summer with her long-time producer Georgio Moroder, who also produced “Last Dance”. I love this photo; it’s so. . . Seventies.


Gender-neutral pronouns come to campus

As Steve Pinker discusses in his new book, The Sense of Style, the use of “his” or “her” when writing about general situations can be tricky. For example, using only the masculine form in sentences like “A scientist shouldn’t invariably put his name on papers that come from his lab,” does marginalize women, and I can see how that would irritate the many women who are scientists—or readers. Times have changed, and it’s a form of sexism to always use “his”, which ignores half the population.

My own solution has been to alternate between “him” and “her” or “his” and “hers”, so that nobody gets left out. Or you can use “his/her”  or “his or her”, but that is a bit awkward.  But for many that’s still not a good solution, as it leaves out people who don’t identify as either male or female. Granted, that’s a small minority of people, but the “his/her” dichotomy does bother those who want to recognize that—although there is a strong bimodality of those who identify as male or female—there are some people in the dip between the peaks.

What has happened is that a variety of alternative pronouns have arisen that are gender-neutral, like “xe” and “hir” instead of “he/she” or “him/her.”  And this usage has now come to campus, at least in Tennessee. As WATE, the ABC station in Knoxville reports, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville is encouraging students and faculty to change the pronouns to neutral forms:

The University of Tennessee Office for Diversity and Inclusion is asking students and faculty to use the pronouns in order to create a more inclusive campus. They say it alleviates a heavy burden for people expressing different genders or identities.

“We should not assume someone’s gender by their appearance, nor by what is listed on a roster or in student information systems,” Donna Braquet, the director of the University of Tennessee’s Pride Center said. “Transgender people and people who do not identify within the gender binary may use a different name than their legal name and pronouns of their gender identity, rather than the pronouns of the sex they were assigned at birth.”

For the first week of classes, Braquet is also asking teachers to ask everyone to provide their name and pronoun instead of calling roll. “The name a student uses may not be the one on the official roster, and the roster name may not be the same gender as the one the student now uses,” ze said.

“These may sound a little funny at first, but only because they are new,” Braquet said. “The she and he pronouns would sound strange too if we had been taught ze when growing up.”

Braquet said if students and faculty cannot use ze, hir, hirs, xe, xem or xyr, they can also politely ask. “’Oh, nice to meet you, [insert name]. What pronouns should I use?’ is a perfectly fine question to ask,” ze said.

Here’s the chart of guidelines (this is not a requirement or an official policy) given to UT faculty and students:


I don’t have strong feelings about this one way or the other, except to say that I don’t think it will work given the tenacity of current usage, and that it seems awkward to ask someone when you meet them what their preferred pronoun is. The vast majority of the time you’ll just get the conventional answer. My own feeling is to wait until someone tells you that they don’t want you to use the word you thought was appropriate—and, as ever, to be sensitive when writing or speaking to not stick to just one of the “he” or “she” usages.

But because Pinker has pondered this issue, I asked him what he thought of the Tennessee guidelines, and received the following response, which I reproduce with permission (note that Pinker emails are always perfectly written):

I did write about gendered pronouns in The Sense of Style, including mention of the dozens of gender-neutral pronouns that have been floated over the course of more than a century. Not surprisingly, none of them caught on. In general it’s difficult for anyone to engineer linguistic change other than governments, or professional societies within their publications, partly because it’s difficult to get hundreds of millions of people to do what you want, but  also because conventions require “common knowledge” – everyone has to know that everyone else knows that everyone else knows … ad infinitum, that the new convention will be followed (see the attached paper, whose intro also makes some seldom-appreciated points about the evolution of cooperation – biologists tend to conflate it with the evolution of altruism, but there are important evolutionary puzzles in the evolution of mutualistic, win-win cooperation as well). Sometimes there are unpredictable tipping points, as with fashion, in which some public figure or movement creates a critical mass, as in the switch from Mrs. and Miss to Ms. (though even here Google ngrams shows that Mrs. and Miss are going strong), and Black to African American. But it’s far tougher to change “functional” or “grammatical” or “closed-class” morphemes such as pronouns than it is to change common nouns; these small words are embedded with the grammatical infrastructure of a language, are acquired early, change slowly over history, and even may be represented in different parts of the brain.

Steve then looked up the usage of “Miss”, “Mrs.”, and “Ms.” over the last century by tracking usage among all Google books online. The figure gives the percentage of total words that fall into these three classes between 1900 and 2000.

Screen Shot 2015-08-29 at 11.57.36 AMSteve noted:

I was surprised by this – not by the trend, which is common sense, but the fact that “Mrs.” and “Miss” are still going strong, and dominating “Miss.” Changing a pronoun would be orders of magnitude more difficult.

And he added this caveat:

The hits for the text string “Miss” could include other senses such as “Miss you!” and other instances in which it’s upper case.

This effort then, well intentioned as it is, is likely doomed to failure. However, readers should feel free to note below what they think of the recent push towards gender-neutral pronouns.

Esquire’s debunking of the “Proof of Heaven” doctor is again available for free

This is just a note to let readers know that Luke Dittrich’s critique of Eben Alexander’s “proof of heaven” experience (and book) is back online at Esquire, and is no longer behind a paywall. For a while you had to pay to see it, which, given its importance, was annoying.

You may recall that Dittrich wrote a devastating piece (“The Prophet”), showing that neurosurgeon Eben Alexander’s “visit to heaven,” which supposedly occurred when his brain was nonfunctional during a coma produced by bacterial meningitis, was deeply dubious, and that Alexander also had a history of shady behavior.  I wrote about Dittrich’s piece, and about Alexander’s undeserved acclaim, in January of last year.

Nevertheless, Alexander’s book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlifewas a huge success, topping the New York Times‘s bestseller list for months, and ultimately selling more than two million copies (that translates into several million dollars for the author). Despite the fact that the book was pure bunk, its sales are a prime example of religious confirmation bias: people love books about visiting Heaven because it confirms what they want to believe. (Take note: if people didn’t really believe in Heaven as an actual prize they’d win for living a pious life, they wouldn’t seek this kind of confirmation. So much for the notion that religious belief is a form of “quasifictional credence”—something that believers don’t really believe in the same way they believe that Paris is in France.) And now it looks as if Proof of Heaven will become a Universal Pictures movie. 

I’ve gone on too long, but Dittrich’s piece, now free, is well worth reading, and a lesson in both the credulity of the public and the diligence of a reporter who seeks the truth as a ferret seeks a rabbit. It is a Professor Ceiling Cat Reading Recommendation.™

When rereading Dittrich’s piece, I came upon a subsequent (and short) piece he wrote giving his feelings about the “takedown”, a piece called “The Prophet, revisited.” Dittrich doesn’t want to be known as a debunker, but simply as a thorough reporter, and he said the following:

. . . The contours of the story I was working on were already clear. I’d already gathered more than a thousand pages of documents from four courts in two states, and had spoken with a host of Alexander’s former colleagues and friends. My reporting was beginning to make it pretty clear that Alexander’s bestselling book, Proof of Heaven, was a stew of factual inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and omissions. But that wedding gift, sitting there heavy as a brick, weighed on me. It was a reminder that Eben Alexander wasn’t just a character in a story. He was real. You could almost call him a family friend. And this article I was working on, well, it didn’t look like it was going to be a friendly one.

There’s no good way to resolve that sort of tension.

I could lean on a creaky old excuse: The ends justify the means. Over the past few millennia, many people have invested much faith and money in self-styled prophets who come bearing fresh revelations from God. When a new one emerges, shouldn’t his claims be subject to a rigorous fact-check, even if my grandfather knew his father?

In the end, though, I don’t claim to be a crusader, or even a debunker. I actually have very mixed feelings when people refer to this profile of Eben Alexander as a “takedown piece.” That implies a sort of gratuitous and single-minded intent that wasn’t there. To me, this profile isn’t all that different from other profiles I’ve done.

Which is to say, I piled up as much information as I could about the person I was profiling, then sifted through it, looking for the storyline hidden inside. In the case of Eben Alexander, it just happened to turn out that the most compelling storyline I found was the way the tale he’s been preaching doesn’t appear to match up with reality.

And that’s the case with all of these best-selling “I visited Heaven” stories. None of them have stood up to examination, and that’s beside the observation that different people describe Heaven in very different ways.

Other criticism of Alexander’s tale is documented on Wikipedia, including statements by Sam Harris as well as by the late Oliver Sacks, who wrote this in The Atlantic:

Alexander insists that his journey, which subjectively lasted for days, could not have occurred except while he was deep in coma. But we know from the experience of Tony Cicoria and many others, that a hallucinatory journey to the bright light and beyond, a full-blown NDE, can occur in 20 or 30 seconds, even though it seems to last much longer. Subjectively, during such a crisis, the very concept of time may seem variable or meaningless. The one most plausible hypothesis in Dr. Alexander’s case, then, is that his NDE occurred not during his coma, but as he was surfacing from the coma and his cortex was returning to full function. It is curious that he does not allow this obvious and natural explanation, but instead insists on a supernatural one.

To deny the possibility of any natural explanation for an NDE, as Dr. Alexander does, is more than unscientific — it is antiscientific. It precludes the scientific investigation of such states.

But, as they say, Alexander is crying all the way to the bank.


Finally, if you lack integrity, there’s a sure way to get rich. Simply engineer a near-death experience and then write a book that gives details about how you visited Heaven. If any topic guarantees a best-selling book, and lots of dosh, that one is it.

Readers’ wildlife photographs

We start today with a bird that Stephen Barnard photographed in his hand. The explanation:

Immature male Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas). He stunned himself by flying into a window. After I snapped the photo he seemed OK.


And Joe McClain from Williamsburg, Virginia, sent some animal “selfies” as well as a picture of his son doing field work:

You remember the pictures I send of my son Jake trapping kestrels on the Eastern Shore? After he got his degree at William & Mary, he enrolled in a graduate biology program at the University of Arkansas, studying with David Krementz. Jake is still trapping birds, but now he’s after bobwhite quail [Colinus viginianus]. His current project involves studying the effect of mesopredators on quail populations in an area of Missouri.

He traps and bands the quail. There’s a Jake and Colinus virginianus selfie and a couple of other quail photos. He sometimes gets other birds in the live trap. It’s something to see the beautiful pattern on these birds close-up.




Mesopredators are what we call “varmints” back home — coyotes, raccoons, possums and the like. They love eggs and can make a serious dent in the quail population. To track the activity of the varmints — I mean mesopredators — Jake has set up a series of game cameras. He has collected a set of interesting field candids of mesopredators and bycatch. I am particularly fond of the color ones, especially the shot showing the stealthy, single-file approach of the three Procyon lotor.

Other photos show a fox, a bobcat, possums, and an armadillo. Some turkeys wandered into the shot and there’s also a young buck photobomber.


My beautiful picture



Oliver Sacks died

I needn’t explain to the readers who Oliver Sacks was. And I say “was” because The New York Times announced that Sacks died this morning in New York. He was 82.

As I’ve written on this site, he documented his diagnosis of terminal cancer (a melanoma in his eye that eventually metastasized to his brain) and his thoughts on mortality in a series of poignant pieces, also in the Times.  Today’s arts section of the paper also contains a postmortem appraisal, “Oliver Sacks, casting light on the interconnectedness of life.

He was a delightful guy, much admired and loved, and, at the end, finally came out as a gay man. How sad that he found true love only at the end of a closeted life! But at least he had that experience, short as it was.

It’s a convention to say at these times that although the man is gone, his works will live on. And  they will—for a while. But, truth be told, I’d rather he had stayed with us a goodly while longer.

Sacks’s last piece in the Times, “Sabbath“, appeared just two weeks ago, and ended this way:

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.

Here’s a short video of Sacks discussing his writing:

Oliver Sacks

h/t: Pyers

Sunday: Hili dialogue

It’s a Sunday morning full of languor, or, as Wallace Stevens put it in his eponymous poem

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.

Alas, there are neither oranges nor sunny chairs, as it’s again overcast here. But in Dobrzyn, Hili gets not only sunny chairs, but rodential comestibles:

Hili: Sunday.
A: So what?
Hili: The church bells are calling Sunday mouse-hunters.

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In Polish:
Hili: Niedziela.
Ja: I co z tego?
Hili: Dzwony kościelne wzywają na niedzielne polowanie na myszy.


Neil Young live at the BBC

The BBC concerts are some of the best live performances I’ve seen, and here’s a wonderful half hour with Neil Young, the dark man in the plaid shirt. This was in 1971, when Young was only 26. (Did you know that his middle name is “Percival”?)

My three favorites in this performance are “Out on the Weekend,” (the beginning), “Old Man” (4:00), and  “A Man Needs a Maid” (20:12).

If ever a voice could be described as “plaintive,” it was his.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: a strident atheist?

It would seem so if you take at face value this statement that I found on Facebook:


To most of us, I bet, this statement means that all religions are crazy, as they all make unwarranted truth claims, and the story of Xenu isn’t any loonier than the stories of talking donkeys, smited fig trees, demonized swine, and the Resurrection. But, tracking down the claim, I found that it’s not what it seems. Here’s the full quote from an interview Tyson did with The Daily Beast:

I’m curious what your take on Scientology is, because the intergalactic story of Xenu does encroach on your territory a bit.

So, you have people who are certain that a man in a robe transforms a cracker into the literal body of Jesus saying that what goes on in Scientology is crazy? Let’s realize this: What matters is not who says who’s crazy, what matters is we live in a free country. You can believe whatever you want, otherwise it’s not a free country—it’s something else. If we start controlling what people think and why they think it, we have case studies where that became the norm. I don’t care what the tenets are of Scientology. They don’t distract me. I don’t judge them, and I don’t criticize them.

Yes, it’s a free country, and Tyson is free to avoid judging or criticizing believers and their beliefs. (I think he’s made a conscious decision that being more vociferous about religion is inimical to his career as a science educator and popularizer.) But really, how can he not criticize faith when he says this in the next sentence:

The line I’m drawing is that there are religions and belief systems, and objective truths. And if we’re going to govern a country, we need to base that governance on objective truths—not your personal belief system.

That of course implies criticism of those belief systems as neither valid nor useful for running society. For surely Tyson criticizes those who withhold medical care from their children on religious grounds!


HuffPo to students: Even if you’re not religious, go hang out with your college chaplain

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush is an ordained Baptist minister who also serves as the Huffington Post’s “Executive Editor Of Global Spirituality and Religion”. (He was previously Dean of Religious Life at Princeton University). In a new piece at PuffHo, “7 Reasons to hang out with your college chaplain (even if you’re not religious)“, he lays out his rationale for why all students, including nonbelievers, should, as he urges, “run not walk to your college chaplain’s office.” Here are his reasons (indented) and my off-the-cuff reactions:

1. Chaplains are interested in the big questions.

While college chaplains may at one point have been involved in the business of providing answers to the big questions, today most view it as their responsibility to provide provocative and open forums where students are able to grapple with the questions that are at the heart of a liberal arts education such as: Who am I? What kind of life do I want to live? What do I believe? How will I contribute to this world? These conversations are held in a non-graded space so it is ok, and expected not to know all the answers.

Well, you can also take a philosophy class (or talk to a philosophy professor) in which the Big Questions can be discussed without any reference to the unevidenced supernatural. Now I’m sure that some college chaplains have training in psychological counseling, and perhaps some also have training in philosophy or the history of philosophy. Further, I’m sure others aren’t the least bit interested in proselytizing or giving you answers that comport with their own faith. But I’d recommend discussing these issues instead with your fellow students, from whom you can learn much about life. And why not talk to the heads of (or members of) the local humanist and secular groups?

2. Chaplains have your back.

Spending time getting to know the chaplain, and letting the chaplain know you can be of immense help during the twists and turns of an education. There may be times when you just need someone with who you can talk to without fear that it will go beyond the two of you.

So can counselors and therapists, who are also required to maintain confidentiality. Virtually every American college has them on staff.

3. Chaplains go on fantastic trips.

This will depend from college to college but often the university chaplain has budget for trips for community service as well as spiritual exploration.

The “spiritual exploration” will no doubt involve trips to religious sites. As for “social justice work” and community service, see #7 below. But, if you just want a free trip to the Holy Land, well, go for it. . .

4. There is always food.

Yeah, pretty much always a place to get bagels, cookies, candy etc. It’s like a 7-Eleven in there.


5. It’s a place of peace.

Sometimes chaplains have inherited a beautiful chapel that they have opened up to be a special place on the hectic campus where you can go and sit, breath and reflect — and where nobody will bother you.

Indeed, but you don’t need to talk to the chaplain to go sit in a chapel. After I was brutally strip-searched in 1972 by the Guardia Civil in the Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona (they mistakenly took me for a thief), I was so shaken that I walked to the Gothic cathedral nearby and sat in a pew for an hour to compose myself. I didn’t need to speak to a priest.

6. Chaplains can help you understand your roommates.

There are three questions that I emphasized during my time as a college chaplain: What do you believe? What does your roommate believe? How will your beliefs influence your actions?

Why would they help you understand your roommates better than anyone else could?

7. Chaplain offices are often a locus for social justice work.

If you are looking for a way to make a positive difference in the world, your chaplain’s office is often one of the most active locations for service organizations and social justice groups.

Perhaps, but colleges usually have a panoply of secular groups dedicated to helping the poor, the marginalized, and the dispossessed.

In the end, nearly all the issues above apply not just to students, but to everyone. Why wouldn’t Rausenbush urge everyone to go to a minister, priest or rabbi, whether or not they’re in college?

Below is Raushenbush on HuffPo live explaining why chaplains can immensely enrich your college experience by being “challenging: intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually in the best way.” Click on the screenshot if you want to hear more.

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Now don’t get me wrong: insofar as they can serve as counselors or empathic figures, chaplains might sometimes be helpful. But since there are others who are actually trained to do that stuff, do you really need the religious overtones?

When I was in college I went to the chaplain exactly once: when I was trying to get conscientious objector status (CO) in the military draft. Had I not gotten that status, I had resolved to go to jail rather than fight in Vietnam or serve in the army.  (One of my friends, more of a purist than I, refused to even seek CO status and wound up in prison, where he had a rough time.)

At the time there was a religious-objection requirement for CO status, though the draft board could waive that on rare occasions when one’s objections to war were sufficiently philosophical to be seen as almost religious. But I was told that letters from credentialed religious people would help. So I went to the chaplain at William and Mary and laid out for him the reasons I was opposed to war—none of them religious. (I had already written a long paper for a philosophy class justifying my pacifism.)

The chaplain was sufficiently helpful to write me a letter. I also obtained letters from my father (an Army officer) and other military men who testified that they knew I had a sincere objection to killing. Those letters (and my term paper) were enough to get me my status without even having to be grilled by the Virginia draft board in Newport News. I then worked for 13 months as a hospital technician—my alternative service job.

A coda: Having realized that I and 2500 other COs were drafted into service illegally (I was a draft counselor and knew the law), I went to the ACLU and initiated a class-action suit against the government: Coyne et al. v. Nixon et al. What sweet words those were! The government had acted illegally by drafting conscientious objectors into alternative service but didn’t draft anyone into the army after 1972. We won in a half-hour hearing, and were all freed from service.

So yes, the chaplain was helpful, but only because the testimony of a religious figure was given special weight by the Selective Service.

An atheist comes out in Milwaukee Magazine

Most large cities in the U.S. have a magazine named after that city, highlighting the local events, restaurants, concerts, and so on. Milwaukee, about 1.5 hours north of Chicago, is no exception (Chicago has its magazine, too). Milwaukee is known as a conservative, hard-working and largely blue collar town, which makes it even more surprising that, in its August issue, there’s a nice piece called “Faith no more” by writer Mario Quadracci. I like to think that the publication of a “strident” piece like this in a big-city magazine is a heartening sign of the times. Here’s a short excerpt:

But these aren’t the reasons I abandoned my belief in God. The reason has nothing to do with the substantial evidence for the nonexistence of a deity. They have only solidified my position. The reason I’m an atheist has everything to do with the entire lack of evidence for a god. [JAC: I’m not quite clear about the distinction between “the substantial evidence for the nonexistence of a deity”, which may refer to things like the existence of moral evils, and “the entire lack of evidence for a god.”]

Theism makes a positive claim about the nature of reality: “God exists.” Atheism is simply the lack of that belief. Atheism makes no claims. Therefore, the burden of proof falls exclusively on the theist. Yet, the fact that we continue to debate the topic of God’s existence proves theism has thus far failed its probative responsibility. Certainly, if God manifests himself in reality, we should be able to detect him in some way. If he doesn’t, then he would be indistinguishable from nonexistent and should be treated accordingly. Yet, no one, ever, not even once, has been able to demonstrate anything supernatural. And so we are told to take it on “faith.”

And this is the kind of thing that you rarely see in a mainstream magazine:

Faith means belief without – and, increasingly these days, against – evidence. Faith, therefore, is intellectually dishonest. Faith creates a false certainty, which subjugates rationality. It makes good people do evil things and it makes otherwise intelligent people say and do senseless things. It forces its influence where it has no business. It flies airplanes into buildings.

. . . And as science continues to squeeze gods from the gaps of our understanding and people move away from religion’s narrow-minded worldview, us nonbelievers stand ready to have a new conversation about humanity’s place in the universe. One based on 21st-century philosophy, science and rationality, not first-century literature.

It’s time to leave the mythology behind. It’s time to stop thinking about the hereafter and focus on the here and now.

What’s even more heartening is that nearly all of the 48 reader comments are positive, thanking Quadracci for speaking out. There is, of course, some pushback. I’ll give a few comments from each genre:

Screen Shot 2015-08-29 at 6.27.44 AM Screen Shot 2015-08-29 at 6.28.07 AM

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And there are these. The first mistakes a lack of evidence for an assertion of truths based on faith:

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While this person can apparently take anything as evidence for God. I wonder where Mr. Bryan sees the evidence for a “benevolent Creator.”

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