Young Autists Next Door

My house is near an LSS housing unit. Lagen om stöd och service till vissa funktionshindrade, “The Law of Support and Service for Certain Disabled People”, mainly caters to the needs of people with autism and the like. In 6½ years on Boat Hill, the young people living there have never caused us any trouble at all.

But I still cringe a little when I recall my phone conversation with the man who runs the municipality’s LSS housing units. I called him because I was curious about who the young folks living next door are, what diagnoses they have etc. I made it very clear that I was not afraid of them, I was not hostile to them and I had experienced no trouble with them whatsoever. I just wanted to learn about them, and I didn’t feel it appropriate to ask the kids themselves. “Oi, woss wrong with you then?”

This guy immediately went on the defensive and clearly assumed that I was trouble. He explained what the law does, but refused to say anything specific about what sort of disorders will get you an LSS apartment in my municipality. He retreated into surly monosyllables.

But our conversation ended well after I told him I like prog rock and recognised his name. He’s the bass player of one of Stockholm’s longest-active 70s prog bands.

“Matilda”: Class Perspective

Matilda-Bad-Blood-1In Roald Dahl’s last book, Matilda (1988), we are invited to laugh at the main character’s parents. They hate books, love TV, dress tastelessly and subsist on microwave TV dinners. Yet only when I saw the musical at the Cambridge Theatre in London this past Tuesday, where the mother additionally practices competition ballroom dancing and both parents speak in a broad Cockney accent, did I realise what the whole thing is actually about.

It’s an opportunity for us middle-class bookworms to laugh at a tasteless working-class family who’s come into a bit of money (through the husband’s fraudulent used-car dealership). Their unfeeling cruelty towards their bookish daughter makes them worse even than Harry Potter’s aunt and step-father. And sitting in an audience of predominantly white middle-class feminist book lovers, I started to find it hard to laugh at Matilda’s parents. The musical is an excellent production. But I didn’t like the ham-fisted way in which my buttons were being pressed.

Jules Verne at Disneyland

Though I really enjoyed my late 70s childhood visits to Disneyland and Disneyworld, I am no friend of disnification, and I’ve always seen the Paris Disneyland as a bit of a joke. But my mom wanted to treat my kids to a visit last week, and so I came along too.

The Paris Disneyland has five sections. The US small-town nostalgia section full of Disney memorabilia shops, the faux-16th century fairytale section, the adventure movie section and the wild west section didn’t do very much for me – though the Pirates of the Caribbean ride is admittedly hugely atmospheric, and the Small World ride provided a strongly hallucinogenic (though not altogether pleasurable) experience.

The Nautilus and the moon cannon
The Nautilus and the moon cannon

The best part of Paris Disneyland is instead the retro-futuristic section, because it’s the least disnified one, and because its design largely builds upon the characteristic settings and illustrations of sometime Parisian Jules Verne’s novels. We went on board the Nautilus and we got shot out of the moon cannon onto the Space Mountain 2 roller coaster – where the security seat couldn’t quite accommodate me, so I hurt my shoulders pretty badly in addition to being scared witless.

The kids though, 15 and 10, were very happy with it all.

See also Jules Verne’s awesome grave monument.

Parked Vernian dirigible
Parked Vernian dirigible

Critical Thinking Training Makes Kids Smart And Also Atheist

I’m weeks late to the party here. If you pay attention to atheist issues you’ve probably heard that a recent major meta-study* concludes that at the population level, atheists are a bit smarter than religious folks (mainly Protestant Americans and English in this case). Not dramatically so, but in a statistically significant way. The difference persists even if you control for gender and education level. This means that if you look only at poorly educated people, the unbelievers are a bit smarter, and likewise if you look only at highly educated people, or women, or men. Here are some thoughts about this.

Intelligence is, to the extent that it is measurable, caused by both genetics and environment. Take a pair of twins and give one good nutrition, care and education – and withhold all this from the other twin. Then the first twin will score better at IQ tests than her sister. On the other hand, kids with smart parents tend to grow up smarter than other people even if they are separated from their parents at birth. The new study documents a drop-off in the difference in intelligence between atheists and believers after higher education. Atheists are still smarter, but the difference shrinks. That is very telling to me.

I don’t think having atheist beliefs makes you smarter. Nor does being smart make you more likely to become an atheist. The study’s authors suggest that the main explanation for the difference is that “intelligent people do not accept beliefs not subject to empirical tests or evidence”. This is almost certainly the wrong explanation. It may be an observational truth, but it is not a causal explanation.

Here’s how I think it works. It has to do not only with the amount of education controlled for by the study, but with the content of your early indoctrination and later education – specifically, whether you are encouraged to think critically or not.

By definition, religious upbringing and education teaches acceptance of some scriptural authority. Not only on ethical issues, but on matters of fact, such as “Is there a god and what’s her name?”. This is why religious affiliation runs so strongly in families, communities and cultures. There are an awful lot of Hindus in the world, for instance, but geographically and culturally they are sharply delimited. This religion’s success has nothing to do with smart people in India looking over the global options and picking the best one. It is due to everybody in that area, smart or stupid, being indoctrinated in the readily available and culturally accepted default faith. Religious people often attend religious schools and universities.

Non-religious upbringing and education, on the other hand, tends to be equally big on the ethics but more critical and open on factual issues. My kids, for instance, often get the reply “Can you guess?” when they ask their dad questions. This, I believe, gives a child’s intelligence a big push. The fact that this correlates with atheism is simply an epiphenomenon. If taught critical thinking, kids become more intelligent and also happen to be less open to accepting untestable or empirically false religious beliefs. Critical thinking training makes kids a bit smarter – and also atheist.

* Zuckerman, M.; Silberman, J. & Hall, J.A. 2013. The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A Meta-Analysis and Some Proposed Explanations. Personality and Social Psychology Review, Aug. 6, 2013.

I was inspired to write this blog entry by the discussion on episode #100 of the excellent Skeptikerpodden podcast. Congrats guys, keep up the good work!

Recent Archaeomags

001_CWA058_COVER-finals-1-229x300Current World Archaeology #58 (April/May) has a seven-page feature on the 8th century mass graves in ships at Salme on Saaremaa in Estonia. This astonishing find interests me greatly as the ships and the dead men’s equipment are Scandinavian, and so I mentioned it here back in 2008. One of the sword pommels is an example of the animal-figurine weaponry Jan Peder Lamm and myself have published on and suggest Finnish involvement. And boat burial in and of itself is a theme with which I have worked a lot. Here we seem to be dealing with Scandies who got badly beaten when attempting a raid, and who spent a considerable amount of time and effort burying their fallen comrades in their ships on the beach.

Skalk 2013:2 (April) has another seven-page feature, this one on the Hårby valkyrie miniature that I blogged about in January. It has excellent pictures including a detailed drawing of the interlace decoration on the lady’s right-hand side, showing it to be ring knots typical of the Borre style which flourished c. 850-950. The authors suggest a date already around 800, but do not argue much for it except that they understand that the figurine is Viking Period and believe (erroneously) that the valkyrie’s hair knot is mainly a Vendel Period feature. I was thrilled to read the “Song of Spears” out of Njal’s Saga for the first time, detailing the symbolic links between valkyries, faith, weaponry and weaving.

Current Archaeology #278 (May) has a feature on mass graves at Kilkenny Workhouse from the Irish Potato Famine about 1850. Starving people congregated here for free meals, infectious diseases spread through the weakened population and horrifying numbers died. But the piece is an interesting read: one detail particularly caught my eye:

An early attempt to alleviate the suffering by Prime Minister Robert Peel involved the bulk import of maize, or “Indian meal”, from America in 1846 and 1847. … Stable isotope analysis by Julia Beaumont from the University of Bradford has revealed that three individuals, aged six, seven and 13, preserve traces of a sudden shift from a potato to a maize diet in their bone collagen.

The same technique has recently been used to show that the cannibalised 14-year-old whose de-fleshed bones were found in a 1609/10 Jamestown waste midden was a well-nourished recent arrival from Europe.

Choose Your Ethnic Slurs, Kid

Juniorette’s best buddy Betty looks a lot like Juniorette and is almost like a second daughter to me. Her mom is Korean and her dad is Turkmen, great people both. The other day Betty got into a fight at school with another girl who started calling her names. (Betty, by the way, is a very well put together child and not overweight at all.)

Other Girl: You fat Chinese!

Betty: You can be a fat Chinese!

Other Girl: But I’m not Chinese!?

Betty: Me neither!

Ridiculous School Funding Drives

A perennial annoyance for me as a parent is the many odd ways in which schools force parents to organise the funding for trips and stays at camp collectively. The general idea is sound: it would not be fair to make the parents pay up front, because then the poorer families might not be able to send their kids. But our specific cases are ridiculous, because my kids’ schools cater to some of the most affluent communities in the history of the world. I’m by far the poorest of the parents involved, and I can easily afford to pay for my kids’ trips and camp stays.

What’s particularly silly is that a lot of the accepted ways to collect the shared funding are so damned inefficient. Imagine one of these moms who’s a district attorney or a neurosurgeon or head of marketing at a tech company. She may spend six hours baking cakes and selling them at a fundraiser in order to donate the meagre proceeds to the class. But she has a huge salary! She would be able to donate twenty times that sum if she just stayed at work for those six hours instead! And when I point this out at meetings I get these looks like I had suggested that we sell one of the kids into slavery.

And then there are the “jobs” intended for the kids. “Buy a bunch of candles / a box of olive oil bottles / a clutch of ‘easily sold’ salami sausages, and send your kid out to sell them to family and neighbours”. Of course all of these families end up “buying” most of the shit from their kid instead.

My suggestion is that we should quietly agree to buy 25 jars of blueberry jam, one per kid, and then pay $600 per jar to the class treasury. So far no takers, because there’s this perception that it is important for the kids to “deserve” their trip. As if our kids weren’t one big bunch of hugely over-privileged gits to begin with.

But this year I have finally managed to steer clear. After conferring with my ex, I just wrote the organiser of this year’s olive oil campaign:

Dear Mrs. So-and-so,

Junior’s mother and I are not willing to distribute any olive oil. But we will be happy to pay for our share. Please just tell me the amount and the account number.

Best wishes,


Odd & Annoying Survey Methodology

Our municipality has contracted a survey firm to evaluate the after-school activities for children that it supports. Circus school, piano lessons etc. Questionnaires have been sent to (some? all?) enrolled children.

My kid is in three of these activities. I got three almost identical questionnaires, interpreted them as a mail-merge glitch, responded to one and threw two away unexamined. Then I was nagged about those two.

If I were running the survey I would purposely avoid collecting data on the same kid for more than one activity.


I found this lovely portrait on Wikipedia. 18th century portraits almost exclusively show people with European looks. But here a Russian painter has painted a Kalmyk girl in 1767. The Kalmyks are a Western Mongolian group living in south-west Russia. The girl looks just like Juniorette’s buddy whose parents are from Afghanistan and Korea! This picture presses all my dad buttons.

Her name was Annushka and she was a serf and protegée of Countess Varvara Sheremeteva (later Countess Razumovsky). In the picture, the girl is holding a portrait of the Countess. The painter, Ivan Argunov, is a major figure in the history of Russian art — and was a serf of the Countess’s father, Count Pyotr Sheremetev. One of Moscow’s airports is named for this wildly rich family.

My Kid’s School Takes All Pupils On Festive Procession To Church

The former Swedish state church has been reasonably independent for twelve years. Now Juniorette’s school plans to send the kids walking in festive procession with flaming torches to the Swedish church’s local branch for an “Advent gathering”. Good fun no doubt, and Juniorette would probably be most displeased if I made her stay in school with the more orthodox among the Muslim kids and a temp teacher.

I don’t enjoy being pushed to make this call. So I’ve drafted a letter of protest to the headmistress where I point out that such non-educational favouritism for one of the country’s many religious organisations is inappropriate and illegal. The event will give the Swedish church free brand recognition and goodwill. I emailed the file to the other parents and offered them to make improvements and co-sign the letter with me.

One of the parents replied as follows.

There is something called an ecumenical meeting that you should read up on, Martin. Of course the children should take part in the torch procession. It is both fun and then being in the church is both beneficial and educational for most of them regardless of religious background. Secondly it is not illegal! Where in the school law of 1 July does it say so?

I find this to have some wider interest and I don’t want to spam all the other parents with this discussion. And so I’ve decided to reply here on my blog.

1. Ecumenical meetings by definition take place between people of different religious faiths. Not between religious organisations and the secular municipal school system. Secular schools should offer children an unbiased outsider’s view of all major religions, not offer one of them them free support under fun and festive circumstances.

I’m all for religious groups making ecumenical contact among themselves if it can reduce hate between them. But I would much prefer it if people would instead just leave those groups.

2. The school law of 1 July states (as have previous versions going back many decades) that Swedish schools must follow the state curriculum. The 2011 state school curriculum states in its second paragraph (p. 7) that Undervisningen i skolan ska vara icke-konfessionell, “Teaching in school must be non-denominational”. Whether an activity in school should be seen as teaching or not is usually judged simply on the basis of whether it takes place during scheduled school hours, as the Advent gathering does.