Friday, November 9, 2018

Some Thoughts after the Mid-Term Elections

After a sleepless night—actually, I slept like a babe; I cannot lie—I tried to get some straight information about what happened; a summary of the election outcomes, but unlike in earlier years when I went to the TV or YouTube this election, I got only some vague hysteria.  I fairly soon learned the main facts: the Democrats had gained a majority in the House, and the Republicans had got a couple of extra seats in the Senate; an absolute majority, in fact.  Well; I like the House gaining a majority, though the days when the House acted predictably and reliably seem to have gone—had gone some time ago.  A few years ago I would have thought that the Republican majority in the Senate would not be anything to worry about.  But no; these days, even the Senate is running scared before Trump.  I now understand: it appears that when Trump campaigns for his favorite members of congress, they tend to win; when he does not campaign for Republicans, they lose.  So by selective campaigning, Trump appears to have weeded out those who do not support him implicitly.

Before I try to guess what the implications are, beyond the obvious ones, I would like to say that Nancy Pelosi, in her press conference a couple of days ago, came across as someone who was capable of dealing with the situation much more competently than I had thought.  She struck what I thought was the appropriate tone; she did not seem to seethe with anger, but she gave the impression of being very determined; she drew the lines in the sand that hardly anyone could argue against: she would not tolerate interference with the oversight of the other branches of government with which Congress has been charged.  All the time, she was cool and polite, and did not indulge in any sort of incendiary rhetoric at all.  But she did come across as very old, but hardly decrepit.

For those who want to see Nancy Pelosi in a more informal setting, here she is with Stephen Colbert.  Stunningly confident, but not worrisomely so.  I was delighted to hear her occasional chuckles, while Steve Colbert cringed, thinking her prediction of success would precipitate a bad turnout.  (It is possible that the outcome might have been better if halfhearted Democrats in the southern states had not taken Ms. Pelosi's blithe confidence to be permission to sit out the election, but it is a free country, even if some of us wish it wasn't.)

To summarize: Trump gave a rare press conference the day after the elections, and he deplored the fact that those Republicans who had not embraced him with open arms had not won their seats; he hurled insults at those who accused him of being racist; he refused to answer (or answered vaguely) questions about what he would do, now that the Democrats had a majority in the House; he did not answer questions about his cabinet.  Soon afterwards, he banned a particularly aggressive CNN reporter from the White House Press Corp (Jim Acosta), though I personally believe that Jim Acosta was at fault for not surrendering his microphone, and thus hijacking the press conference.  What is Trump to do: just patiently wait until Acosta thought he was done?  (Sarah H. Sanders played a video—which some Democrats insist has been altered—to support their claim that Acosta wrestled a female intern for the microphone.)  Next, he asked Jeff Sessions for his resignation, and then appointed a fellow called Matt Whittaker as acting head of the Justice Department.  There is some belief that such an appointment had to be approved by the Senate.  (But of course, now the Senate is running scared that without Trump's willing support and campaign, they may never win an election again.)

Among the freshman congressmen/congresswomen are two Islamic women, two Native American women, and two openly gay women, not all of whom are distinct; for instance one of the Native American ladies is openly gay.

 One article on the Internet (Atlantic Monthly) suggests that the divide between the Left and the Right is based on attitude towards education.  This was reported by at least two scholars.  Looking deeper at the effect, using exit polls, some scholars concluded that behind the "Diploma Divide" were uglier attitudes expressed as follows:
If you look at white people who voted for Trump—both those with college degrees and those without—and identify everybody with a high level of resentment toward minorities, women, and Muslims, as well as those who want an arrogant, assertive leader, there’s almost no one left. The vast majority of Trump voters share those sentiments, the researchers found, regardless of education level.
Sad as this makes us feel, we must remember that these attitudes are not permanent.  The article goes on to say that this seems to flow from nostalgia on the part of less educated white voters for a time in the past when blacks and immigrants did not share the rights and privileges that were exclusive to whites.  But whites with education appeared to have less distaste for the increased equality of more recent times.

Education.  Not related to the elections as such, I'm wondering what we can expect from the Federal Government in the area of Education.  Of course, personally knowing fellow-students of other races and colors is likely to make college youth more comfortable with the society we have.  But what can the Federal Department of Education (currently headed by Ms. Betsy De Vos) do for the country?

I have written numerous blogs on this subject, but I know I have failed to be clear, mainly because I was a teacher at the time, and I was too close to the facts to be entirely objective.  (I had taken the view that students had to learn all that was in the curriculum, because it was good for them.  And many of them needed all that, because they were certifying to be high-school teachers themselves.  But the culture that it was necessary to sweeten the deal with entertainment was gradually overtaking our institution, at which point I chose to depart.  But if some clever young fellow would be able to teach the syllabus as well as keep his students entertained, then he should be allowed to do it!  However, there was a simultaneous tendency to sacrifice some of the more difficult topics in favor of more entertainment, which seemed perverse.  The question is: are those last few difficult topics worth the effort?  If the objective is to be better at anything that Japanese, or Finnish, or Chinese students, then, yes.  But if teachers in high school are not really expected to cover all the topics that they covered in the past, then no.)

Everybody seems to be confused about the Federal role in Education, despite the fact that primary and secondary education is controlled by local governments.  Some people think that it is an economic issue: the nation needs educated labor if it is to compete economically with other countries.  But in the face of increasing globalization of manufacturing and commerce, the role of government needs to be re-thought.  It is more expensive to manufacture practically anything in the USA because life is more expensive, and education is more expensive here, because the kids must be entertained, too.  So our young people are going to be at a disadvantage in jobs that require actual hard knowledge, whereas they're going to be excellent at jobs that involve low-level thinking.

I was watching news programs where investors were discussing what to do in the event of a Blue Wave vs. a Red Wave, and they were talking about the S&P 500, and what it did on such-and-such a date, and how some investing firms focused on selling stock, while other firms focused on buying under-priced stock, and so on and so forth.  In certain quarters, this sort of knowledge is given a premium, and some of this is taught in Business courses in college.  It seems to me that the training (if you can call it that) received by a investment manager makes him or her useless for anything else.

However, if the Department of Education were to focus mainly on an excellent elementary education for all, they can't go wrong.  I think carrots are going to be more useful than sticks.  I have not studied the problem, but I have gathered that elementary education responds well to Federal support, provided they do not push it too hard, and provided elementary teachers do not respond too wildly.

To improve the level of high school education would be the greatest thing the Federal DOE could do, but I think it is going to be a tough undertaking.  There is more push back at every level, and hardly any success in the past on which they can base a successful program.  On top of all of this, the Alt-Right probably contains more than its share of education-haters, and parents of high-school kids are more likely to resent Federal supervision or influence than parents of elementary school kids.

Arch

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Many Ways to Be a Girl, but One Way to Be a Boy: The New Gender Rules

This article: Many Ways to Be a Girl, but One Way to Be a Boy: The New Gender Rules is on a topic that has lots of relevance to something that I am concerned about.  But let's look at the main point first.

Because of the tireless efforts of feminists, girls are gradually being liberated to present themselves in a variety of ways: all the way from being ultra-feminine to being almost ungendered, in the sense of having interests and dress preferences that are neither feminine or masculine, and personal styles that do not fit into those of their parents' generation.  Make no mistake: not all of these are endorsed with equal enthusiasm in every location, or by every society.  In some conservative hell-holes, a girl who wants to be a fireman or a police officer would be looked at with some concern, or even scorn.  But a boy who wants to dance ballet, or wear a dress, is regarded with almost universal distaste.

To make myself perfectly clear: it isn't literally true that there is only one way that boys are permitted to present themselves. There are increasing instances of boys who have creatively found ways of presenting themselves differently than the athletic, masculine, taciturn, "man of action" type of guy.  The beer-swilling, football-playing type of boy who claims to be uninterested in school is a stereotype that has had its day, certainly.  But this is, in some ways, the central stereotype from which boys dare to diverge in some ways, but usually not too far.  Depending on where you live, there will be young fellows who reject this 'norm' utterly.  They can be uninterested in athletics, perfectly articulate, interested in school, and satisfied with almost any drink but beer, and also depending on the locality, they may be called nerds, or some other uncomplimentary term, invented by the morons who find the old stereotype comfortable, and probably the only one they can aspire to.  But the point of the article above is a rather relative thing: girls can safely stray much further from the feminine stereotype norm, and with fewer negative consequences, than boys can stray from their stereotype; and this is what is being talked about: why not boys as much as girls?  Why isn't the spectrum of tolerated personality styles as wide for men as for women?

Now, boys who would like to wear feminine dress are not rare at all.  For example, Ronald Reagan's son, Ron Junior, who wanted to dance ballet, was often humiliated, but as anyone who has seen him recently will agree, is a man with a personality that will probably satisfy the most bigoted sexist.

Now here's my point: first of all, I deeply dislike the rush of some parents to gender modification of underage children.  A boy who wants to present himself in a more feminine style should simply be allowed to do so.  Often the parents are horrified by this situation, but more often it is the classmates and the school administration that is more uncomfortable with it.  Until we take a more aggressive attitude towards freedom of gender expression,  (I don't even know whether that is the proper term for what I want to talk about, but it ought to be clear) there are going to be kids---and some overenthusiastic parents---who want to settle the problem once and for all, but replacing the poor guy's genital apparatus with those of a little girl, or hitting him with hormones, with the intention of surgical 'improvements' later on.  And the same goes with girls who want to present themselves in the style of boys.

There certainly are children who are hermaphrodites by birth, where the gender assignment is ambiguous.  Not being one of those, or even knowing one closely, I don't know how traumatic that is for the child, though it is doubtless deeply problematic for the parents, especially in a society that views gender as a very dichotomous thing.  But those are the exceptions; the vast majority of children who feel themselves to be gender fluid in the sense of (a) not comfortable with their assigned gender in every regard, and (b) not satisfied with their assigned sexual orientation, should be permitted to express themselves in terms of personal style (clothing, hair, personal presentation, etc) any way they wish, without it being considered imperative that they should have surgery at the first opportunity.  In fact, they should not be permitted to have (and their parents should not be permitted to encourage) gender reassignment surgery until they're old enough to marry, for instance.  This is obviously an arbitrary choice of age, but considering that the surgery is not easy to reverse, this can be considered something that society should enforce for the protection of the minor.

If there was a way for a child to experience what gender reassignment is like without the actual surgery, (assuming it is not permanent,) it would be ideal, and that could be tried when the child is young, and not yet in a calcified gender state.  (In fact, it might be a good thing to moderate tendencies in certain young males towards sexual harassment, to let them experience what it feel like to be at the receiving end.)

These problems are very First World, admittedly.  For that very reason, unless we in the West do not address the issue ourselves, it is unlikely that anyone else will.  (Except, of course, that Japan might take the lead in this one, since their traditions seem to be more flexible in these sorts of matters.)

I'm still thinking about this problem, but for lack of a forum in which to talk about the issue, my thoughts on it are slower than molasses...

Arch

P.S.
On a related note, perhaps it is time to insist that whenever an instance of pedophilia is discovered in clergy, that a huge fine be levied on the church, which must be given to state controlled charities.  I'm talking a fine of millions of dollars, which should not go to the victim, certainly not all of it.  Ultimately, I believe that the blame has to be placed on the church, for requiring or encouraging celibacy on the part of the clergy.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

News and Opinion: Another Look

Dear Readers:
One of the major problems we are facing is the fact that there is widespread distrust of the news media.  You know as well as I do that the president has disparaged most of the mainstream news sources, resulting in the so-called Alt-Right completely rejecting everything originating from anywhere except their own certified news sources.
Many of us, too, have become alarmed at the escalation of name-calling, and all such symptoms of the polarization between the Left and the Right, or at least those leaning towards the Democrats, and those leaning towards the GOP.
Late night comedy show hosts---and I certainly confess to watching at least some of them---do go over the top with their mocking of the administration, and their very pointed style of presenting summaries---or even details---of the events of the day.  But they are not intended to be trusted news sources (even if people sometimes do get their news from those comedians).  For some reason, many comedians seem to lean to the Left, though there is nothing intrinsically funny about being a socialist of any stripe.  I used the word Left, because the word liberal really does not mean anything except in the highly specific context of the US.  (In Australia, for instance, the Liberal Party is the party of the conservatives.)
What I want to state is that News Programs are expected to deliver the news, objectively and impartially.  In addition, there is an editorial function, which is merely a commentary on the news.  It is intended to make the readers or the listeners think, and not necessarily either agree with or disagree with.  They are intended to point out possible repercussions of the events of the day: the fallout, as it were.  But today, the commentary has been given so much importance that it becomes easy for the alt-right to disagree with it, and throw out the news with the commentary.
The question is:  Is there some way the news media can gradually regain some of their lost ground?  Is it possible to make the tone of the news objective, dispassionate, unbiased?  Admittedly, it is a lot more fun to editorialize on the news than to just deliver it.  But that's what creates a useful news bulletin, and over time, a trusted source of news.
To do this is very important in this last week before the elections.  People of all stripes will be watching a wider variety of news sources than they usually do, especially those who are beginning to view highly biased news programs with some distaste.  Not tightening up the quality of news programs now, not trying to present the news with as even a tone as possible, amounts to declaring that the elections have really been settled long since, and that there's nothing more to be done in terms of helping the electorate understand the issues, and make up its mind.  Minds will be made up gradually, all the way until the last second, and the greatest thing the news media can do, in a time when everybody is doing the wrong thing, is to take newscasting seriously.
Meanwhile, the commentators, whose job is seen as providing informed opinion, can help by calming down, and presenting reasoned argument, rather than heated condemnation.  Some viewers among the Alt-Right may not always have been as "Alt" as they are now; they may long for the old days when news commentators did not wallow in hysteria as they do now.  If hysteria is all every news source has to offer, we may as well watch the cartoons.
Despite all the name-calling, many on both sides long for simple, basic information, and I hope some news sources will deliver this much-needed thing without coloring it with opinion.
Arch

Friday, October 26, 2018

Two things we're puzzled about

The first is:  Why does Trump do and say the things that he does?
The second is:  Why aren't conservatives and MAGA people upset about them?

The second question has to remain unanswered for the moment.  Perhaps they are turned off by careful speech, tact and diplomacy:  "Why can't 'people' just say what they mean?"  ('People' do, but there are many who don't recognize it, and can't quite interpret what they hear.)

As to the first question, there are several possibilities.

(1)  Trump tried, in the early days, to be just a little more reasonable, but pretty soon his advisors (for lack of a better term!  I mean those who piped their reactions back to him, and gave him their best sense of how his fans were receiving his speeches and / or Tweets) perhaps gave him negative feedback, saying that toning down his flamboyant talk wasn't going down well.  Soon afterwards, the Press started ramping up their condemnation of his lies and inaccuracies, and Donald might have thought: what does it matter?  I'm gonna get blasted anyway, so I might as well get back on the rhetoric, regardless of whether it contains true or accurate information.  That approach probably did go down well with the home boys.

(2)  Not being accustomed to having to answer for everything he does, Trump tried his best to think on his feet, but simply kept tripping over himself.  This is probably the most plausible explanation.  There are some attitudes and beliefs that he holds that would make sense only to conservatives, businessmen, and most of all, conservative businessmen.  They are based on the mysticism of business, which boils down to a sheaf of rules of thumb that don't always work.  But businessmen always believe that business has risks, so they've gotta expect a few fails.  They don't see that some of the fails could have been spotted a mile away.  As long as we keep electing MBAs as presidents, (and boy, does the Wharton School have a lot to answer for,) the administration is going to depend on these failed rules of thumbs on which to base their governing of fiscal policy, and foreign policy.

(3)  A view held by many is that Trump is being given bad data by his homies.  Pretty soon, he probably does not believe any data, and thinks that all news is fake news.  It is possible that gaslighting is happening in the white house, but it might not be originating from Trump.  GIGO*, as the computer guys say.

At one time, I thought the entire business community--at least Big Business--was all of one mind with Trump.  But then, on thinking a little further, I began to realize that that was not the way Big Business operates.  Big Business is a mass of suspicious entities, viewing their competition with great hostility.  They may cooperate on a limited basis for a while, but then they relapse into their fighting stance.  They play their cards close to the chest, and they might give Trump some slight gratitude, on a play-by-play basis.  I haven't watched the Godfather movies, but I imagine many of the elements of those movies will feel familiar to those who have watched the Administration pick its way through the last two years.  We might not be seeing Chess, exactly, but it might be something similar, like tic-tac-toe.

Big Business would have to be fools to accept Trump as The Messiah.  A few decades or so ago, no CEO would have been fooled by Trump for a minute.  But who knows; Big Business isn't what it used to be . . .

All I can say with certainly is that this is no way to run a country, not even Saudi Arabia.  I wonder whether there will be a drift of moderate Saudi individuals and families out of that country, which might leave it with only Trump-like goons who shoot from the hip.  This is sad and worrisome, but what can we say?  Some things are best left to trained professionals.  I don't mean surgical implements; I mean diplomacy and policy.

Arch, castling furiously

*Garbage In, Garbage Out.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Elections are coming, the Geese are . . . well, no.

All my friends, and many of my acquaintances are contemplating the forthcoming elections with distaste and bafflement.  Except for a few, everyone wants major changes, but they're not clear about what those changes should be, exactly.

In the past, there have always been pundits who suggested what each sort of person should do, but in the past three years we have learned one thing for sure: the pundits are going to get it wrong; they have thoroughly discredited themselves.  I too got it wrong, and I ... well, let's forget about that.

I want to remind my readers of things they might forget, and things they should consider carefully, but I have no prescriptions, except for the obvious ones.

Many astute observers, including the conservative commentator David Brooks, says that he sees polarization dominating the psychology of the voting population on both sides.  In other words, it appears that people are voting against whom they hate, rather than for whom they want elected.  In yet other words, people are getting emotional (and facebook and twitter are amplifying these feelings, and maybe Putin is not entirely to blame; we're sitting ducks when it comes to mob psychology), which is not good.

Why?  Because the issues are even more complicated this time, and nobody does well with complicated matters when they're mad.

I know for a fact that many conservatives---regardless of whether they voted with the GOP or whether they were Libertarians---are not going to vote Democrat, simply because the Democrats, mostly young Democrats, are so furious that they have been manufacturing memes blaming the entire spectrum of conservatives for the spectacular missteps of the president.  So these frustrated conservatives may well stay home, or vote for, say, Green Party candidates, or what have you.

Of course, that's their right.  But it is quite possible that they may add their vote to those moderate Democrats who are coming forward to run for office, if they did not feel so shunned by the sharp-mouthed liberals, and my readers probably know a few of those.

There are young liberals pouring out ridicule and humiliation on conservatives, blaming everyone for electing Trump, when the fault lies in the readiness with which Democrats were incited to believe the negative stories about Hilary Clinton.  Sure, there was a lot of help from Russian propagandists, but we liberals swallowed the propaganda wholesale.  There is a point where we can't point the finger anywhere except at ourselves.

Wage propaganda war, if you think that's going to help.  But we're never going to win any votes except the few that the more energetic among us will bestir ourselves to cast, if we make any potential crossovers feel stupid.

I say: make nice for the next few weeks, and if crossover conservatives help us remove the Trump fans in Congress and the Senate, we will have to graciously grant that conservatives helped to ease Trump out of the White House, and point him towards the Big House, because things are looking very, very bad.  (Not good, to be perfectly clear.)  Trump has no clue about what the consequences of his actions are.  He pretends not to care, but in fact he is simply surprised at the fallout of everything he does and tweets.  We have been taught to be gentle with mentally deficient people, but let's make an exception in this one case.

Arch

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Out of the Mouths of Professors / A Freshman Seminar

Some years ago (don't ask how many), colleges across the country were finally driven to do something about the perceived gap between what the faculty was ready to teach incoming freshmen, and what these freshmen were equipped to, well, absorb.  Freshmen seminars were created, to help faculty and freshmen make the transition to the patterns of college instruction and thinking.  This blogpost is not about freshman seminars, but it was sparked by an event at one.
In the institution to which I was indentured, there was, one year, a newly-designed Freshman Seminar, and one of the components of this week-long program was a Forum; a panel discussion in an auditorium, with some of the most celebrated faculty of our school seated on stage, each of whom had a few minutes to give their best advice to the freshmen.  The rest of us faculty sat in the audience, prepared to be disgruntled (after all, the thing we professors hate most is to be deprived of an audience).
I am surprised that now, a couple of decades later, I still remember at least two of the professors, and their advice.  I won't keep you waiting.
1.  One of our most illustrious faculty members was a professor of religion.  He was a respected author in his area of expertise, which was basically comparative religion.
He said that the basis of Judaism was hospitality to the stranger.
The professor went on to say that, despite a multitude of details that confuse the issue, the bases of Christianity and Islam too, were exactly the same.
I hardly need to say that this floored many in the audience, some of whom must have never even thought about any sort of basis for their belief (except perhaps John 3:16, and I invite all those who subscribe to this belief to hurry on to the next part of our post; remember Jesus himself offered a summary of "All the laws and the prophets," and this verse was not it).
I certainly have thoughts about how the rules of conduct of Judaism evolved into the moral system of the early church, but more on that later.  One thing is clear, though.  If one has read anything at all about Islam, through the pens of European commentators of around the 1700's and earlier, one sees a confirmation of the opinion that hospitality forms a central core of the Islamic moral code.

That alone would have given anyone much to think about.  But the suggestion given by the next speaker was just as interesting (but of course, not being related to religion, did not have the sheer shock value of the previous one).

2.  One of the panelists was a celebrated political scientist, who had also earned much respect as an author.  His advice was a lot more personal, as befitted an occasion in which he had been invited to participate not as a specialist in his area, but as a member of the faculty at large, and a successful scholar.
I always, he said, keep a notepad by my bedside, to record those crazy ideas that come to me in the middle of the night.  (The wordly-wise freshmen must have thought this plan eminently worth ignoring.)  Often, he said, he would read what he had jotted down while half asleep, and laugh.
However, he said, some of his best ideas had been among those he had written down while half asleep.  In other words, those were the ideas that had not been filtered out by pragmatic considerations, or the cynicism of his waking moments.
Something to think about.
I believe that we have been a little too strongly influenced by the pragmatism of Business.  It is rarely that a successful businessman gets a wonderful idea in the middle of the night, which survives the censorship of his business sense.  I see this insight—recognition of the value of ideas that bubble up through our subconscious minds—as part of the college experience, and as part of the very sort of thinking that ignorant citizens (who want to squelch any ideas that do not profit business) find so repugnant in colleges.  We are sadly headed towards a sort of idea-free system of education, which would seem ideal to those who think of college as merely a place in which to efficiently manufacture docile middle-management.  (Upper management, of course, requires no education.)

Friday, October 5, 2018

Those DNA ancestry tests you get in the Mail . . .

It isn't surprising that millions of people are interested in learning about their ancestry.  I certainly am, so I assume most people are. For those who are new to this idea: numerous companies now offer (online, mostly, or sometimes in junk mail) to give you an analysis of your ethnicity; that is, where your ancestors probably came from, based on the genes in your DNA.
DNA is a protein-like molecule that lives in the nucleus of every cell in your body.  All the DNA molecules in any one person are identical, and essentially unique to that person, unless he or she has an identical twin, or something like that.  (Triplets, Quadruplets, and so on.  If you're one of Octuplets . . . just kidding.) 
It is a long strand, organized into 23 chromosomes, which we can think of as a list of 23 smaller lists.  As far as I know--I'm not an expert--these lists, which are lists of genes, actually, together define how your body is built, and how it functions.  For instance, in some one of these 23 chromosomes, in some specific place in its list (remember, each chromosome is itself a list!) there is a gene that specifies what shape your right ear is, for instance.  Unless I'm mistaken, that gene, in that position, in anybody's DNA, specifies the shape of their right ear.  Another gene specifies sensitivity to the sun, let's say.
Many genes have functions (they specify things) that are not known.  Many characteristics (such as ear shape) might be specified by several genes.  But the essential fact is that if two people have a segment of their DNA string identical, they will share some characteristic, or several characteristics, but of course, they might be very minor characteristics.
Now this whole string comparison thing falls plumb spang in the middle of the discipline of Mathematics, specifically in the area of analytical topology, so naturally I was curious about how they went about doing this ancestry business.  And, to make it more interesting, they were reporting to their clients the places from where their ancestors probably came!  How did they do that?
I went on the Internet, and without trying very hard, found this web page entitled Pulling back the Curtain on DNA Ancestry Tests.  Exactly what I wanted!  Of course, I was not so naive as to expect a detailed description of the process, but it turned out to be a lot more useful than I had expected.
First, a warning.  The article states that these companies get far more money by selling their information to commercial companies that can use the information (e.g. medical research outfits, or perhaps even companies that have less worthy objectives) than they get from you.  So the $100 or so that you pay for the service hardly compares with the money they get in other ways, and they might as well give you the service for free, for supplying them with a data point.  Also, the privacy agreement they make with you will not be valid if, for instance, they sell the company, or it is acquired by another company somehow.  So you have to be prepared for your genetic information to be compromised almost certainly.  For instance, if your DNA string information falls into the hands of a company that is investigating a certain variant of a gene to see whether it is a useful indicator of some horrible medical condition, and if they discover that you have it, well, they're sort of morally obliged to let you know that you're at risk for this condition, and depending on the laws of your state or the country, disclosing this information to, say, a medical insurance company, which is obliged to raise your insurance rates!  None of this might happen, but then, it might, especially in the very business-friendly political climate in which we try to live.  (And think: the company that buys the DNA information might be a subsidiary of an insurance company in the first place, which could have reciprocal agreements with who knows how many other insurance companies?  But most people will have nothing to hide, and I do not want to chill your possible interest in discovering the various skeletons in your ancestral ethnicity closet.)
From what I understand, these companies mostly check genes, in the sample you provide, for genes that are common in certain regions, and which are uncommon in other places.  It all depends on how they decide that this gene (gene variation, actually; everyone has to have all the same genes, or they would not be human.  Everyone has to have a WX67 gene of some kind, but that gene could come in different varieties.  I just made up the name of that gene, but you get the idea.  Some people will have WX67, variant 1, and others will have WX67, variant 2, and so on, all the way to variant 4796.  Yes, there are thousands of variants, called mutations.  Viruses, it seems, have the most types of mutations).  For example, a company will get hold of a number of samples of DNA from native Americans from some tribe, and study the sample for genes that are common to all the samples, and particularly uncommon in almost any other DNA.  (This is a big undertaking, and if the company takes this job seriously, they have to be given credit.  Still, the idea is simple.)  Now, if you send in a sample of your DNA (basically a little saliva), and that gene is present in your DNA, they would conclude that you have some ancestry within that tribe of native Americans.
If they have identified, say, 100 different gene variants in that tribe of native Americans, and you have every single one of those, then the probability that you have that type of native American ancestry is very high indeed.  Honestly, it won't be necessary for you to have all 100 gene variants for them to declare with 100 certainty that you have that ancestry.
In addition to telling their clients that they have some ancestry: say, Middle Eastern ancestry, these companies tell their clients what percentage of their ancestry comes from that region.  Again, we can only guess how they arrive at those numbers.  They look at large numbers of genes (remember there are a vast number of genes, so they're still looking at less than x% of your genes to make these conclusions.  But that alone is no reason to doubt the validity of the conclusions; the tests used could be very subtle and delicate indeed; we just don't know how hard they have worked on these tests, and we have to trust them.  So, we have to take the results of these tests with a dash of ketchup.  Furthermore, there is the possibility for checking sets of genes, which will provide a more subtle analysis, a finer sieve of results.  (Maybe that last observation was redundant; we were talking about the possibility of 100 different genes in a given tribe, after all.)
By this time, you have to have concluded that I'm trying to explain something that I'm not entirely qualified to explain, and you would be right.  But you would certainly have some information on which to hang your reasoning now, and against which to assess the documentation they provide, if you choose to go through with the test.  Remember, there are several companies you can get the service from.
No matter what you do, you should think clearly about your potential heredity.  If you're black, you could still have Viking ancestry, because at least a few of the plantation owners could have been from the Scandinavian countries, and they were known to make free with the female slaves they owned.  (However, it is also well known that not all plantation owners were cruel to their slaves, though the ones who were humane were probably largely in the minority.)  You could watch YouTube videos of those who got the service, and see their reactions.  The responses are initially surprise, but in hindsight, every instance that I saw was absolutely plausible.

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