Cat Watch 2014

by Greg Mayer

The BBC has been running a new series Cat Watch 2014, which started on October 7. There are three episodes, all of which have had their first run, but there are still re-broadcasts and the full episodes are available online in the UK. They are not, unfortunately, available in the US, so readers will need to check their local availability. There are a series of video clips from the series, each a minute or two long, that should be viewable from any location. Much of the film uses “cat cams“, miniature spy cameras attached to the cats, which have been used successfully before in cat studies and a previous BBC program (which we also noted here at WEIT).

Cat watch 2014

Although the clips have embed codes, I can’t get them to work. However, if you click here, you will be taken directly to a full screen view of a clip from the “Cat Talk” episode– meowing (or miaowing, if you prefer). Speaking of talking, I couldn’t exactly place the presenter’s accent– does anyone recognize it? (She sounds like Emma Thompson to me.)



Here are a few holiday snaps from Sofia, just so you can see some of the sights of Bulgaria’s capital.

The most famous tourist site in the city is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.  It’s fairly new, having been completed in 1912. It’s rarely used for services, I’m told, but can hold 10,000 people and, before the Soviet era, was once was an important religious gathering spot. Its inside lacks any seating, but the walls are covered with icons and paintings. One of the sights I’ve gotten used to here is people actually kissing the icons on the wall and then crossing themselves, a custom of the Orthodox—and a good way to spread germs!

Nevsky church

The Saint Sofia church is the second oldest church in the city, with Christian worship beginning in the 6th century after the supposed Jesus-man but with Roman ruins underneath some 400 years older. When you visit the church, you walk downstairs through the successive ruins, winding up with the Roman foundations.

The city of Sofia is actually named after this church, which in turn is named after a Christian martyr (see below):

The photo below is not mine, but taken from Wikipedia. This structure itself dates back to the sixth century but has been extensively restored. It was also converted to a mosque during the Ottoman occupation.


Mosaics at one of the lower levels of the church. I don’t know if they’re Roman; perhaps an astute reader can tell me.

Old mural St. Sofia

Old wall painting in the church, inaccessible but visible through a window. I don’t know the date of this painting either, as the plaques were in Bulgarian.

Old mural

A sign outside the church, promising God’s blessing if you guy the religious geegaws on offer inside:

Church sign

Next to the church is apparently some headquarters of the Orthodox Church in Sofia. At the top of the building is a nice mural of three bearded Orthodox patriarchs (or priests):Patriarchs

The Bulgarian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier:

Tomb of unknown soldier

A flea market next to the Nevsky church sells all sorts of odds and ends, including some cool-looking Soviet-era cameras. Here’s a guy in his camera stall; perhaps photography buffs can recognize some of the arcane models:


Old signs from Sofia.  Those who can read Cyrillic can translate them, but I’m told one of them (the rectangular blue one below the triangular yellow sign with a wheel grinding something) reads “exemplary house.” Vassi told me that if you had a really nice house with a garden, you could put up one of these signs. They also had them for “exemplary apartment.” I have no idea what most of the other signs are supposed to convey:

Old signs

A street scene in Sofia, with trolleycar. It is a lovely town, at least the parts in the center I saw, and is well worth visiting. I don’t think many Americans come here.

Street scene sofia

Saint Sophia the Martyr, the patron saint of the city, atop a huge pedestal. As a goddess of wisdom, she’s holding an owl on her arm.

Saint Sophia the Martyr (died 137 AD) is venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Church on September 17. Born in Italy, Sophia had three daughters: Faith (age 12), Hope (age 10) and Love (age 9), who were named after virtues mentioned by Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 13.

They are said to have been martyred during the reign of Hadrian (117–138). The guards took Sophia’s daughters one by one, from the eldest to the youngest and beat and tortured them to death. Sophia buried her daughters’ bodies and remained by their graves for three days until she died herself.

Lubo told me that when the made the statue, they discovered they’d given Sophia too much. . . er. . . pulchritude, and so she had a breast reduction before she was erected.

St. Sofia statue

One of the government ministries in the center of town is guarded by two soldiers wearing helmets festooned with eagle feathers. The guard is changed every hour on the hour.


In the middle of the complex of buildings is the oldest church—indeed, the oldest building—in Sofia, built by the Romans in the fourth century after the supposed Jesus-man died. It is the Church of St. George. It was closed, so we couldn’t go inside to see the famous frescoes.

Church govt blds

I love the old fascistic Soviet-era buildings. This one was once the Parliament. A big red Soviet star once crowned the steeple, but was removed by helicopter after the Russians left. The big steeple now bears a small (too small) Bulgarian flat:


Sofia has many lovely parks with big old trees. The locals, particularly older ones, were hanging out on the benches on this lovely day.


An old news kiosk (reminiscent of the ones in Paris), dating from 1874. Sadly, like too much of Sofia, it’s been defaced by graffiti.


The Russians built a National Cultural Palace: a huge building now used for various events and exhibitions. We were allowed to go into the lobby only, but it is cool, with a vaguely Art Nouveau look:

National cultural palace

Finally, Vassi told me that these statues are of the two inventors of the Cyrillic alphabet. Some judicious Googling suggests that they are Sts. Cyril and Methodius (written in Cyrillic on the base), two brothers and missionaries who devised the alphabet in the 9th century A.D.

Inventors of cyurillic


Monastery of the Transfiguration of God

Today we visited a famous monastery near Tarnovo (itself 2.5 hours from Sofia): the Monastery of the Transfiguration of God, reportedly dating to the 14th century. No monks were evident (the place seems to be undergoing a renovation).  Located in the woods up on a mountain, it was very peaceful, and I got a special treat, as you’ll see in the last photo.


I’m told the escarpment on the mountains, as you see above, is a special geological formation, but I’m not sure what it is or how it’s formed. The entire mountain range surrounding Tarnovo has a normal vegetated top, and then a layer of rock like the one above, and then the vegetation resumes Perhaps a reader can tell us how this happens.

This is where the monks live:


I believe this is the refectory:


It’s fall, and I like this picture:


And the best part: the monastery had kittens—friendly ones. They followed us around, and I got to pet them and, finally, carry them around with me (one at a time). They were friendly and purred, unlike most of the feral street cats of Tarnovo (more pictures to come). I named these Fyodor and Lev, though I didn’t know their sexes.



Reza Aslan and Chris Stedman: Atheists and Muslims have lots in common and should be pals

When I stayed in England in my younger years, I used to read the Guardian, which I was told was the only good liberal newspaper in the country.

But how low it’s sunk!  I find little of interest there, and what we find is polluted with the mush-brained and predictable rants of Andrew Brown, as well as a spate of ill-tempered and poorly argued pieces attacking New Atheism, “Islamophobia”, and the like. The paper must be desperate for clicks. Whatever. It is to kneejerk liberals as the Sun is to soccer yobs.

This latest accommodationist post, though, takes the cake, or, as the Germans say, “nimmt den Kuchen” (my grammar’s probably wrong). The piece is by the unholy duo of Reza Aslan and Chris Stedman, and is called, “‘Violent’ Muslims?’ ‘Amoral’ atheists? It’s time to stop shouting and start talking to each other.

Stedman, of course, is a religion-friendly atheist (head of Humanist Community of Yale University), whose book was called Faitheist; while Aslan is the premier apologist in America for the excesses of Islam, someone who pretends to be a credentialed religious scholar. Their joint article should really have been called “Why can’t Muslims and atheists be pals?”

Here is their argument:

1. Both Muslims and atheists are reviled in America, especially by Christians.
2. Both groups are also numerical minorities.
3. American Muslims are more critical of civilian “collateral damage” in wartime than are members of other American faiths, hence, they are not only benign, but appaarently more liberal than non-Muslim Americans—if one considers this single issue.

Their conclusion: Muslims and atheists should talk to each other, find common ground, and be friends.

As the duo write:

So why hasn’t there been more dialogue and solidarity between Muslims and atheists? Can’t we all just get along?

The divide has to do in part with our natural inclination to retreat into our own communities or get defensive when confronted with difference. As a result, stereotypes about both groups not only go unchallenged – they become amplified as each side clings to its preconceived notions of the other. While it’s certainly not the only cause, the amplification of this “us against them” attitude has contributed to large majorities of Americans labeling Muslims as “violent” and atheists as “amoral”.

The irony is that when atheists and believers get to know one another, they often discover that many of their values are not so different after all. That is something that we, a Muslim and an atheist, have learned from our friendship – even as we acknowledge our differences and disagreements.

This dialogue between Muslims and Heathens is supposed to be mutually beneficial:

When 46% of Americans think Islam is more violent than other faiths but only 37% even know a Muslim, and when atheists remain one of the most distrusted groups in the country, it’s clear that a conversation between these two communities could benefit both. But that won’t happen until we Muslims and atheists commit to spending less time speaking past one another and more time speaking with one another.

Sadly, their argument is utterly ridiculous, and for several reasons. First, who really wants that dialogue? Do Muslims hunger for dialogue with atheists? No. Perhaps they want to be accepted by atheists and others, but I doubt they want to talk to atheists with the aim of benefitting themselves. I suspect that if anyone wants dialogue, it’s accommodationist faitheists like Stedman (remember, he applied the term “faitheist” to himself). Even Aslan hasn’t shown himself to be particularly desirous of conversing with atheists. So far, his “discourse” has consisted of nonstop sniping at atheists who, he claims, simply misunderstand Islam, and impute to the faith perfidies that are really cultural in origin, or stem from colonialism. Does Aslan really want a dialogue? I’ll believe that when I hear him actually listen thoughtfully to what New Atheists say.

Second, American atheists don’t revile American Muslims that much, for that group, embedded in a liberal democracy that prevents obvious extremism, is indeed far less harmful than many of their extremist coreligionists elsewhere. Nevertheless, I deplore most of the doctrine of Islam, which includes institutionalized marginalization of women, calls for death of apostates, the imposition of repressive sharia law, and so on. To the extent that Muslims adhere to this kind of belief, I criticize those beliefs.  And I will criticize them in the U.S., precisely as much as I criticize the pernicious beliefs, of, say, Catholic.

My own quarrel with Islam is not with the actions of American Muslims, but with how Islamic belief is translated into action in other places. It is odd that the Guardian, a British paper, chooses to promote friendship between American atheists and American Muslims when the real quarrel is between worldwide atheists or liberals and worldwide extremist Islam—the form that is misogynistic, oppressive, and even murderous.  Do you have to know a jihadi personally to criticize him? I don’t think so.

And don’t forget that many Muslims in the U.S. and the U.K. while criticizing the barbarity of ISIS, fail to do so with respect to the other malevolent and unenlightened brands of Islam. So long as a religion oppresses the half of its members that lack a Y chromosome, I will oppose it. Do male Muslims in America allow their daughters and wives the same kind of freedom of opportunity as members of other faiths (I except here some of the Pentecostal Christians as well as some Mormon sects)? I hope so, but I’m not sure.

Now, what is the benefit of atheists talking to each Muslims? I may learn that some Muslims are nice people, but I know that already, having traveled in countries where Islam is prevalent (Turkey and Morocco, for instance). This is not news to me. But that doesn’t mean that I will become soft on Islamic theology, just as knowing Catholics doesn’t make me softer on Catholic theology. I do not hate Andrew Sullivan (in fact, I kind of like him sometimes), but I will criticize to my last breath the views of the Church to which he adheres. And I will never accept, in dialogue with Muslims, the widespread view that woman are like breeder cattle whose job is to produce nascent Muslims, and whose testimony is, in sharia court, worth but half of a man’s.

And shouldn’t atheists and Muslims be talking not to each other, but to the Christian majority who reviles both of us? Wouldn’t that effect more comity than friendship between two reviled groups? What is the point of two small minorities talking to each other rather than seeking acceptance from the majority. Aslan and Stedman don’t explain.

In the end, I see nothing substantive to be be gained by this conversation except getting to know our neighbors. What thoughtful atheists oppose is the pernicious effect of Islamic doctrine, not the existence of peaceable Muslims who live alongside us. If they embrace Islamic doctrine but don’t act on it (i.e., if they allow Muslim women complete freedom of dress, of opportunity, of mate choice, and so on), then that’s fine. But if they oppress women or gays in any way, that’s not fine, even if Muslims don’t like the killing of civilians in wars. Oppression of women and hatred of gays is also collateral damage: a byproduct of Islamic faith. And if they tacitly support coreligionist extremists by remaining silent about that excesses of Islam, that, too, is bad. Needless to say, there is no branch of atheism that supports killing those who revert to religion, or seeks to murder those who still believe in God or who have sex with someone of their own sex. Muslims don’t go around with bodyguards because they fear assassination by atheists. And atheists issue no fatwas.  You have to look hard to find any kind of “doctrinal” parity between atheists and Muslims. And there lies the problem. Finally, we have this quote from Aslan and Stedman:

“When 46% of Americans think Islam is more violent than other faiths but only 37% even know a Muslim, and when atheists remain one of the most distrusted groups in the country, it’s clear that a conversation between these two communities could benefit both.”
As a friend said who sent me this piece:
It is a complete non sequitur if you follow the implied course of actions to their logical conclusion: Muslims and atheists can become a group that is hated by the Christian majority together? How is that going to be useful or productive?

Two more points: atheists and Muslims have talked to each other, but both parties must rely on rational discourse and not extremist dogma. Productive discussion can be seen between, for example, Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz. (Nawaz, as a liberal Muslim who decries coreligionist extremists, is widely hated by both Muslims and liberals.) Unproductive dialogue can be seen between Richard Dawkins and people like Mehdi Hasan, who adheres to preposterous tenets of Islam and is certainly not interested in any kind of comity.

There are many comments at the Guardian, and lots of them highlight the inanity of Aslan and Stedman’s argument, but I’ll just post the latest two comments:

Screen shot 2014-10-20 at 3.47.43 PM

Readers’ wildlife photos

Reader John sends us oodles of photos from The Gambia, and I’ve stuck a lizard (my own photo) in at the bottom:

Having recently returned from NYC, the reported US cases of Ebola has prompted me to try and highlight the indirect impact of the virus on the West Africa country of The Gambia via your Readers’ Photo slot.

Gambia is the smallest country in Africa and despite being surrounded by countries affected by the ravages of the virus, it has remained free from the disease. However, it is now suffering adverse economic impacts because many who normally travel there during its relatively short tourist season, are staying away. This very poor country will find it very difficult with one of its main economic drivers so badly affected. I am in regular contact with friends in Gambia who are confirming their plight.

The Gambia has a terrible history associated with slavery – your older readers will remember Arthur Haley’s Roots story which begins in 1767 when his ancestor, Kunta Kinte, is kidnapped from the banks of the River Gambia at Juffura – and I have met some African Americans visiting to retrace their own ‘roots’.

On a brighter note, it is also known for its fabulous birdlife which makes it a popular destination for many European ‘twitchers’ because of the varied mix of resident African and Euro-Asian migratory species.

The most spectacularly colourful are the iridescent, and aptly named, beautiful sunbirds (Cinnyris pulchella) which appear to occupy the same nectar-eating niche as hummingbirds. The first three photos are of the brighter male with one of the drab female.

1 Beautiful Sunbird

2 Beautiful Sunbird

3 Beautiful Sunbird

4 Beautiful Sunbird

Sticking with colourful species, the yellow-crowned gonolek (Laniarius barbarous), red billed fire finch (Lagonosticta senegala) and two species of flycatcher, African paradise (Terpsiphone viridis) and black-headed paradise (Terpsiphone rufiventer), lurk in the rainforests adding bight flashes when they appear.

5 Yellow Crowned Golonec

6 Red Billed Firefinch

7 African Redbellied Flycather

8 Paradise Flycatcher

I have included two owls, Firstly the diminutive (only 6 inches) pearl- spotted owlet (Glaucidium perlatum) and the catlike African Scops Owl (Otus senegalensis)

9 Pearl Owlet

10 African Scops Owl

There are many species of Roller; I have picked the ubiquitous Abyssinian Roller (Coracias abyssinica) and this one hunted the beach outside our hotel.

11 Abysynian roller

And of the many Kingfisher species, I include the spectacular Giant (Megaceryle maxima) and the agile hovering Pied (Ceryle rudis)

13 Pied kingfisher

12 Giant Kingfisher

 The last bird is a wader, the Senegal thick-knee (Burhinus senegalensis)

14 Senegal Thick Knee

And Professor Ceiling Cat snapped this lizard yesterday at the castle at Vileka Tarnovo, Bulgaria. I have no idea what it is, but ten to one someone will tell me soon.



Monday: Hili dialogue

And so begins another week, and in one more week I’ll be home. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili snoozes away the day.

Cyrus: Are you asleep?
Hili: Why do you ask?
Cyrus: I would like to go for a walk.
Hili: I’m asleep.

P1010802 In Polish:

Cyrus: Śpisz?
Hili: Dlaczego pytasz?
Cyrus: Poszedłbym na spacer.
Hili: Śpię.

Proof of Flying Spaghetti Monster

This image of his Noodliness was found last night by reader Matt on an artichoke leaf. He says the photo was “not altered in any way”:



An experiment: an open thread

My absence in Bulgaria, and inability to post so often, has prompted this experiment: a readers’ thread.  Feel free to post links or even videos that you think might start a conversation, and see if you can keep it going. Feel free to change the subject if you’ve talked one dry.


The Big Nom in Sofia

The night before last, several people connected with the “Ratio” science event repaired to one of the two most famous “local cuisine” (i.e. Bulgarian) restaurants in Sofia: a place called “Under the Linden Tree,” which of course is nearly the name of a famous street in Berlin. Below you can see the restaurant from the outside after it became dark. Built to resemble a traditional Bulgarian home, it’s is on several levels, and entirely paneled in wood on the inside.


To begin, a traditional Bulgarian beer: this is a Stolichno white beer, and though it is made of wheat, it’s darker than American wheat beers. Accompanying it is the traditional Bulgarian hard liquor, rakia. It comes in several flavors (peach, apple, grape, and so on), but this is the traditional one distilled from grapes. It was surprisingly tasty and smooth.

I suppose this is the Bulgarian equivalent of a beer and a shot.


To begin, two heaping platters (for the eight of us) of the most famous Bulgaraian salad, shopska.  It’s made with Bulgarian feta cheese, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, and other stuff; you can find the recipe here. Delicious!


With the shopska came a heaping plate of various spreads for bread, which you can also eat on their own. They included cucumber/cheese spread, pepper spread, eggplant spread, and another I couldn’t identify. They were all scrumptious:


You can also dunk the bread (delicious, served warm, and made in house) into a dry mixture of various spices, which is supposedly secret. There is salt and cumin, but I couldn’t identify the other flavors. Here’s Vassi showing me how to do it:


There was also shish kebab for the table: chicken and grilled vegetables. The roasted onions were to die for:


Vassi also recommended (at the waiter’s suggestion) a special stewed pork dish with wild mushrooms and potatoes. It was great, but I could barely finish it after chowing down on the bread, spreads, shashleek (shish kebab) and salad:


The dinner was accompanied at intervals by traditional Bulgarian music: a man playing a Bulgarian bagpipe made from goatskin, and accompanied by a wonderful folk singer with an eerie, nasal voice. (I took a film of this and will put it up when I return.

And there were three desserts. First, a cake made with yogurt and fresh peaches:


A Bulgarian equivalent of baklava: crunchy, syrup-covered pastry filled, I was told, with loukom (Turkish delight):


Finally, what is called “dried yogurt with fruit,” which was a very concentrated yogurt (probably left in cheesecloth to let the water drip out) covered with local berries and served in a clay pot (I’ve scraped the berries aside so you can see it). The yogurt was very thick and concentrated, much richer and heavier than the Greek yogurt one buys in the U.S.


Needless to say, the only utterance I could make after this feed was, “Oy, am I full!”

What a dinner!



A tame hummingbird

This is a touching YouTube video showing a man and his semi-tame hummingbird. The YouTube notes give this information:

João Silvestrini lives in barretos, Brazil. Has two hummingbird mother and child visiting your home. This video is 01/10/2014. João on message reports that this is the puppy, and makes one months that Mom hummingbird presented the child to Mr. João

Although we can’t see the bird very well, perhaps one of our readers with tropical experience can identify it.

A translation of what João says from the YouTube comments:

Hey, hey.
Come here.
Let’s film you here.
Here here.
Let’s talk here real close, look.
You seeing (it)?
There, look.
And, eh, come here, here now.
Come drink a little bit, eh?
Like that, look here, come here.
Come here, there (closer to ‘like that’), there. Look.
Let’s go to the camera again?
There, look!
Look there!
It’s filming, it’s filming.
Like that, sit on my finger, there there. You see? Like that.
Look there, without embarrassment he stays here the whole day calling me. He goes and (not sure about ‘rodea’, means turns but might be slang I’m not familiar with), it’s already been half an hour that I let him call me.
This is the little son. His mom introduced me to him here, and left him here in my window, on the porch (not really a porch, just kinda a small landing outside), and he’s accustomed to this. All the time he comes to call me here. All the time.
Eh? Yeah, like that. There, sit on my finger.
Come here! Come a little bit more, come here, sit here. Come, come.
There, a little bit more. Take advantage of the video here. See?
There. Like that. Drink there, very close to the camera there.
Don’t want any more, don’t want it? I’m gonna put it away. There, it’s put away. I leave it closed here, and he keeps (‘me rodeando’ again, literally translates to ‘turning me’) and calling and calling, so I get him/it (could be either here, no actual pronoun so vague), come here, and attend to him.

h/t: Michael~


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