Three ferret gifs

by Matthew Cobb

Because it’s that kind of day.

Thursday: Hili dialogue

Good morning!

A weighty subject is the topic for discussion in Dobrzyń this morning, as Hili entertains a dangerous thought. I am a little curious as to what Andrzej’s reply was. Let us hope it was diplomatic!


Hili: I have a serious question.
A: I’m listening.
Hili: If there is no god, then who am I?


In Polish:

Hili: Mam poważne pytanie.
Ja: Słucham?
Hili: Jeśli boga nie ma, to kim ja jestem?

Cat cafes are popping up all over

by Greg Mayer

Cat cafes– places where you can get a cup of coffee, some pastry, and hang out with some cats (not the kind Adam Duritz had in mind, but the real thing)– have been around in Taiwan and Japan for some time, but they’re quite a new thing in North America. Jerry has been following and supporting the progress of one of the first, the Denver Cat Company, and it is now officially open. The owner, Sana Hamelin, has just sent word to us of some coverage they’ve received from Cafe Society, part of Denver Westword, a local news and culture website.

The interior of the Denver Cat Company, by Danielle Liriette, Cafe Society, Denver Westword.

The interior of the Denver Cat Company, by Danielle Liriette (Cafe Society, Denver Westword).

They’ve got coffee, books, art, and, of course, cats. The cats come from a local shelter, and are available for adoption. Far Eastern cat cafes are mostly an opportunity to interact with cats for people who like cats, but can’t have them at home due to lease restrictions. In America, while customers can just enjoy the cats with their coffee, there’s a definite emphasis on adoption, in order to find permanent homes for the cats. In addition to photos accompanying their article, Cafe Society has also posted a slideshow of the cafe.

A cat at the Denver Cat Company, by Danielle Liriette, Cafe Society, Denver Westword.

A cat at the Denver Cat Company, by Danielle Liriette (Cafe Society, Denver Westword).

An article in the New York Times highlights Cat Town Cafe & Adoption Center in Oakland, California, which was apparently the first cat cafe to open in the United States, although beating out Denver Cat Company and others by only a whisker. There’s now a cat cafe– Meow Parlour– in New York, and others have just opened or are in the works in Naples (Fla.), Toronto, Montreal (the first in North America, having opened this past September), Portland (Ore.), San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle. Unlike the Denver Cat Company, at the Cat Town Cafe the cats are kept in a separate room (different cities have varying regulations on what you can serve in a room where an animal is), and you pay a fee to visit the cat room (which is the more usual arrangement in Far Eastern cat cafes). They’ve already adopted out over 50 cats.

The cat room at Cat Town Cafe, Oakland, CA, by Jim Wilson, New York Times.

The cat room at Cat Town Cafe, Oakland, CA, by Jim Wilson (New York Times).

My local pet shop, Havahart Pets, in addition to its own cats, always has a few cats from the Humane Society living at the store, where they are showcased for adoption. That’s where I met the Philosophickal Cat, Peyton, who after a few visits consented to come home with us. She had been so friendly to all the shop’s customers, that on a couple of occasions people who came to our door for one reason or another, on seeing her come to the door, asked “Is that Peyton?”, having first made her acquaintance at the pet shop. (She already had the name Peyton, and was known by it at the shop.)

So, support your local cat cafe, especially if you’re in or near Denver; Sana tells us that one WEIT reader has already stopped by.

McMullen case resolved: a big victory for secularism as proselytizing professor told to keep opinions on Christianity and creationism to himself

Our plane to Calcutta has been delayed by three hours due to fog (this is typical), so I’m able to write this post passing on some good news.

You may have forgotten the case of Emerson T. McMullen, the Georgia Southern University (GSU) history professor (actually, an associate professor) who proselytized both Christianity and creationism in his history/science classes. (For relevant posts, go here.) Such pushing of creationism and religion in a public university violates the Constitution’s provisions for separation of Church and State. Or so we all thought.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation and the Richard Dawkins Foundation then sent a complaint to GSU (I drafted the scientific critique of McMullen’s arguments for Biblical creationism), and the University said it would investigate. After doing so, the chief counsel for Georgia Southern sent the fellowing response yesterday to Andrew Seidel, an FFRF attorney pursuing the matter:

Dear Mr. Seidel,

This email is to follow up with you concerning the recent investigation prompted by a letter from your client, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc., to Georgia Southern University. I am writing to inform you that the investigation has been completed and the University has taken steps to prevent any activity that is inappropriate for a public, state-funded institution. As a student-centered University and an EEO institution, the University places a high priority on the well-being of its diverse student body. We appreciate your assistance in calling this matter to our attention. Please share this information with your client and do not hesitate to let me know should you have questions or concerns.
Maura Copeland
This is a masterpiece of noncomittal prose, and I was prepared for a long wait to see what, if anything, had been done. But then we got a copy of this letter from the GSU Dean giving the case’s outcome. It is a memo from the Dean to McMullen himself, reproving him and demanding changes in the way he teaches: in particular, keeping his personal religious beliefs out of the classroom and not testing students on religious issues. McMullen has agreed, as you can see by the fact that he had to sign the letter. If he hadn’t, huge legal problems would have ensued for GSU.
It is very favorable; a solid victory for secularism, in fact. As I predicted, McMullen can’t proselytize for either religion or creationism any longer.  I will cite the “executive summary” prepared by the FFRF’s Andrew Seidel (indented):

GSU “investigate[d]

whether problematic speech and/or conduct was, in fact, occurring in [his] classroom. This inquiry included review of ten (I 0) course syllabi, fifty-two (52) examinations, sixteen (16 )extra-credit opportunities, and thirty-seven (37) course evaluations, all dated between 2008 and 2014.”
The course evaluations revealed a pattern of religious proselytizing, one noted by the students and criticized by some of them. A summary of the students’ evaluations:
Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 4.20.12 AM
To GSU, these comments bespoke a pattern of religious coercion, even if unintended, and McMullen was told “it is inappropriate for you to interject your personal religious beliefs into classroom and class-related discussions with students, and you are accordingly directed to stop doing so immediately.”
You can’t get clearer than that. More from Seidel’s summary:
This [investigation] revealed some interesting facts:
  • In each examination given between Fall 2012 and Fall 2014, there ·was an extra credit question asking students to identify one of the Ten Commandments.
  • In Spring 2014, [McMullen] assigned as optional extra credit the opportunity to see the movie entitled, “Is God Dead” and “write a two-page report on the movie, concentrating on the arguments given in class”

And McMullen was told to follow these guidelines from now on (quotes from GSUs memo):

“To that end, you are directed to avoid asking religion-based questions on examinations where such questions are not related to the curriculum of the course.”
Re McMullen’s requiring that his students see and report on the ludicrous atheist-bashing movie “God is dead”:
“To that end, you are directed to cease any such interjection of your personal beliefs into classroom discussions.”
I believe this also refers to creationism, which at any rate would fall under “religious beliefs,” as specified by Federal courts in previous cases. McMullen’s creationism, which is straight Biblical creationism, and which I refuted in my part of the complaint, is certainly a “religious belief,” for it’s sure not science!
“we are directing that you “not discuss your religious beliefs or opinions under the guise of University courses.”
“Please review this memo closely and make certain to comply with the restrictions contained therein. Failure to do so will place the University at risk of violating the Establishment Clause and will result in undue pressure on the students in your courses to conform to your personal religious views.”
The FFRF (and I, too) see this as a hands-down victory for the First Amendment, an amendment specifically cited by Georgia Southern. Kudos to the university for acting promptly and strongly.
The letter to McMullen is given below; as it’s from screenshots of pdfs, please forgive the blurriness. It’s only 2.5 pages long, and I urge you to read it in its entirety. This outcome will no doubt serve as a precedent of sorts about how public universities should deal with First Amendment violations by faculty. It is also heartening that GSU is located in the deep South, a hotbed of both religiosity and creationism.
I believe the yellowing in the letter came from the FFRF lawyers.
Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 3.53.14 AM Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 3.53.45 AM Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 3.53.59 AM
You can read the FFRF’s press release here and the GSU memo here.
Nice, eh? I am proud to have worked with the Dawkins Foundation and the FFRF on this issue, though we’ll no doubt be denounced as “censors.” But passion in the defense of the First Amendment is no vice.

The contest for ownership of Shahada

By Grania Spingies

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has written an op-ed for TIME in the aftermath of the tragic and brutal siege in Australia, very worth reading for yourself. Her focus is on the Shahada, now becoming a familiar sight on television news as the white writing on a black flag waved by extremists. She points out that in and of itself, the inscription is a simple declaration not particularly different in tone from many other religions’ declarations such as the Catholic Creed.

“I bear witness that there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is His messenger.”

This is indeed the position that many Muslims espouse, and one that had been reiterated by many Muslim groups in Australia in the wake of this tragedy. However, she goes on to point out that it can also have a political message as well, depending on whether the interpretation favors a pre or post Medina version of Islam. The pre-Medina era saw peaceful proselytizing, post-Medina the tactic changed, and proselytizing was accompanied with real and threatened violence. Ayaan argues that the more politicized version, as reviled as it is by the majority of peaceful Muslims, needs to be marginalized, both in the pulpit and on the podium.

“To the extent that sincerely peace-loving Muslims wish to combat this trend, they need to do more than utter platitudes. They need to disown the likes of Man Haron Monis before they resort to violence, when they are preaching it.”

As she points out, many countries in the “West”, for want of a better term, have fostered and protected such speech and such speakers. However, side-lining any speech whether it be racism or extremism is a tricky affair if one is not to trample on the right to free speech and avoid doing collateral damage by vilifying and marginalizing an innocent group who already are targeted by xenophobes and reactionaries. It’s a tactic that proponents of politicized Islam have certainly tried to use against Ayaan Hirsi Ali herself, as was recently seen in her invitations to speak publicly. She’s probably right though, extremist preachers need to become unwelcome in otherwise peaceful communities. Those preaching death to anyone not sharing their ideology deserve no respect.


Read her full piece here:

Wednesday: Hili dialogue

Happy hump day! The end of the week is finally in sight.

In Poland today, Hili appears to be on a fishing expedition, and you have to admit she does look very sweet.


Hili: I am not a saint.
A: I’ve never suspected you to be one.
Hili: But you must admit that sometimes I look as if I were.

In Polish:

Hili: Nie jestem świętą.
Ja: Nigdy cię o to nie podejrzewałem.
Hili: Ale przyznaj, że czasem wyglądam jakbym taką była.

Sans commentaire

by Matthew Cobb

It is difficult to know what to say about the awful news from Peshawar. The front page of this morning’s Independent sums it up:


Poems from a boy who didn’t grow up

I’ve just learned that there will be no internet where I’m staying for the next 11 days, so, barring a fortuitous Starbucks or any establishment with free internet, you won’t hear from me for a while. I’ve asked my emissaries to keep things going as best they can, so keep the faith. And here’s the last post for a while:

Over at her website, in a post called “A small tragedy,” Sarah Honig tells the story of Abramek (“Abraham”) Kiplowicz (1930-1944), a Polish boy from Lodz who, because he was Jewish, was confined with his family in the ghetto by the Nazis. During that time he wrote poetry and painted, and was quite good at both, though he was only 13 when he produced what’s below.

The story of Abramek and how his poems were saved by his stepbrother Eliezer Grynfeld is fascinating, and given in detail by Ms. Honig.  Here are two relevant paragraphs from the longish post:

. . . the boy’s father, Mendel Koplowicz, labored at a workshop producing cardboard boxes for the Germans. An ordained rabbi, he became a confirmed atheist after reading many secular philosophy books. Abramek worked at a shoe-making workshop, occasionally showing up at his father’s workshop to entertain the laborers by reciting poetry and satirical skits in verse. The handsome boy delighted his listeners, who unanimously agreed that he was a genius. One of those who heard him was Haya Grynfeld, Lolek’s mother and Mendel Koplowicz’s co-worker.

When the Koplowicz family was taken to Auschwitz, the mother, Yochet Gittel, was immediately sent to the gas chamber. The father and 14-year-old Abramek were sent to forced labor. But as he left for work, Mendel Koplowicz left his son in the barrack in order to protect him from the ordeal. Upon his return, he found it empty. The Germans had come and sent all those inside to death.

It’s ineffably sad that such a child (or any child) was plucked from the tide of life by the Nazis. If you want a real gut-wrenching experience, go to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam and see the pictures she pasted on her wall while hiding from the Germans in their “annex”. Also deeply moving is the “height record” on the wall that her parents kept of their children as they grew during the two years in the annex.

Anne and her family were, of course, also captured, and she died of typhus in the camps at the age of 15. The Diary of Anne Frank may be somewhat overexposed, and represents only one child among millions of the exterminated, but because she, like Abramek, left behind her words and feelings, we get an idea of what was snuffed out in the gas chambers.

Here are two poems by the 13-year-old Abramek, translated from Polish into English by Sarah Lawson and one of Hili’s staff, my dear friend Malgorzata Koraszewska. They are from the collection of Eliezer Grynfeld, and are published here with his permission.

A DREAM  (Marzenie)

When I am twenty years of age,
I will burst forth from this cage
And begin to see our splendid Earth
For the first time since my birth!
In my motorized bird I’ll soar so high
Above the world, up in the sky,
Over rivers and the seas,
With such stupefying ease,
With my brother wind and sister cloud, I’ll
Marvel at the Euphrates and the Nile;
The goddess Isis ruled the land that links
The Pyramids and the massive Sphynx.
I will glide above Niagara Falls,
And sunbathe where the Sahara calls;
If I want to escape the scorching heat,
I will fly up north to an Arctic retreat.
I will top the cloudy peaks of Tibetan fame
And survey the fabled land whence the Magi came.
From the Island of Kangaroos
I’ll take my time and cruise
To the ruins of Pompeii
At the edge of Naples Bay,
I’ll continue to the Holy Land, then seek
The home of Homer, the celebrated Greek.
More and more astonished will I grow
At the beauty of the Earth below.
In all my travelling I’ll be twinned
With my siblings, cloud and wind.

All those dreams were, of course, never fulfilled. Here’s part of the manuscript of the poem above:



The only picture of Abramek:


(From Sarah Honig): The only relatively clear remaining photograph of Abramek, showing him as a toddler with his parents.

SACRIFICE   (Ofiara)

In a peaceful hamlet Berele and his parents led contented lives
Until one fine day bad news arrives:
Mobilization! War has been declared!
Will they take her son? Deep in her soul the mother’s scared.
Suddenly her worst fears come true; Berele is called up to fight.
He bids his parents farewell. His throat feels strangely tight.
He tears himself away from the familiar domestic scene,
For Berele is a man now, not a boy; he’s turned eighteen.
Berele fights valiantly in the dark fog of war
And is promoted to a member of the officer corps.
Now a battle is raging, soldiers are dying;
Thousands have fallen, but the flag is still flying.
Cannons roar, grenades explode, the din is mad,
But in Berele’s heart he longs for home and mum and dad.
His homesick longing must be that pain in his chest,
But no, it’s a bayonet. The bullets fly—he’s going west.
He is trampled in the mud; he cannot rise.
“Goodbye mother and dad,” he whispers as he dies.
Back home in the hamlet, after many years hope still makes them run
To every man coming up the road; he could be their beloved son!
But it’s always a stranger. “Time heals all wounds”, but it hasn’t done.
The father dies from longing for his son, but the mother will not rest.
In her dreams she kisses him tenderly and clasps him to her breast.

One of Abramek’s artworks:


Prayer, c.1943, a painting by Abramek Koplowicz





Delhi: a few holiday snaps

A quick post with food and stuff. Today’s vegetarian lunch: rice, chappatis, stewed turnip, a mysterious but tasty green vegetable, dal (lentils), shrimp cooked with vegetables, potatoes, mango juice (specially for me!), and, by my plate at upper left, Mr. Das’s canned rasgullah, which he wanted my opinion on. (Remember that his grandfather was the first person to can food of any sort in India, and that was rasgullah.) I pronounced it excellent, as it was flavored with Kashmiri saffron and filled with pistachios, a preparation that you don’t often see. Rasgullah holds up very well when canned, although rasmalai, being more fragile, would not.


Oy, was I full!

After lunch, Shubhra, one of my hosts and an old friend, prepared paan, the traditional postprandial digestif, consisting of a betel leaf wrapped around various stuff.  Paan is a long story (read the Wikipedia link), but I eat only meetha paan (sweet pan), which can contain date paste, cloves, cardamon, fennel seed, cinnamon, rose-petal jam, and many other things, depending on who makes it. Paan stalls are ubiquitous in India (some are quite famous), with most people getting the traditional variety containing only lime paste (the chemical, not the fruit) and areca (betel) nut. That variety is said to give people a buzz, and is the poor man’s cigarette. It’s also carcinogenic if you do it constantly, as do many Indians. (I tried it once and found it vile. Meetha pan does not contain areca or lime paste.) That traditional variety accounts for the red stains adorning Indian walls and sidewalks, which are the spit-out juices. If you remember the play South Pacific, you’ll remember the line, “Bloody Mary’s chewing betel nut; she is always chewing betel nut.”

You can now get paan in Chicago (they used to prohibit importation of betel leaves), and when I take visitors for an Indian meal up on Devon Avenue, the Indian community, I always offer them a meetha paan. Most people are taken aback, for you chew the whole leafy package, swallowing the tasty juices but spitting out the remnants, so it’s not terribly neat. But it is delicious, and the prefect after-meal mouth freshener. Most of my guests try it and like it, though disposing of the chewed fragments of leaf and seeds is tricky for n00bs, and I am greatly amused to watch. Here Shubhra puts a cardamom pod in each leaf:


We went to the market later to get a suitcase repaired, and I took a few snaps. A fruit seller (a pity there are no mangos, which are in season only in summer, when it’s too hot to visit):


A shoe repairman conditioned and polished a friend’s shoes. He has been sitting in this spot for years. Note that he still smokes a traditional hookah:

Shoe man

Tuesday: Hili dialogue

It’s 5:30 a.m. in Chicago: the time I usually post the Hili dialogues. Here in Delhi, though it’s 4:55 pm, so there’s an 11.5 hour time difference (the time zones are half-an-hour skewed here).
I plan have one or two things posted before I leave tomorrow (up at 3 a.m.), and someone else will post Ms. Hili’s lucubrations in the interim, as Internet is uncertain.  There will probably be a few open threads, and Greg will fill in as he can, though Matthew has been laid low by the flu. Stay tuned until the next time Professor Ceiling Cat gets on the internet.
Meanwhile in Dobryzyn, Hili is being bumptious, and Malgorzata is afraid for her glasses:
Hili: Tissues, glasses, nitroglycerin and a cat. Surely that’s all one needs on a bedside table.
Malgorzata: A lack of a cat would be desirable.
In Polish:
Hili: Chusteczki do nosa, okulary, nitrogliceryna i kot. To chyba jest wszystko, co jest potrzebne na nocnym stoliku.
Małgorzata: Brak kota byłby pożądany.

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