Ceiling Cat help us: Guns everywhere in Georgia

This country is going nuts: Georgia’s governor Nathan Deal signed a really, really dumb gun bill today. From The Hill (you can see the bill at the link; my emphasis):

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) signed sweeping gun legislation on Wednesday that some have described as unprecedented.

Licensed gun owners will be able to carry their firearms into public places including bars, schools, churches and government buildings, among other areas.

The NRA called House Bill 60, The Safe Carry Protection Act, “the most comprehensive pro-gun bill in state history.”

Georgia’s legislature passed it at the end of this year’s session, and Deal told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that it had support from both Republicans and Democrats.


“There are always opportunities for people to use any piece of legislation as a political tool if they don’t like it. But there was bipartisan support for the bill,” he said.

State Sen. Jason Carter (D), grandson of former President Jimmy Carter and his party’s gubernatorial nominee, voted for the bill and told MSNBC last week he believes he helped “make the bill better than it was when it first started.”

Two proposals that did not make it into the bill include a provision that would have legalized the carrying of guns on college campuses, and one that would have required houses of worship to allow guns unless leaders ban them.

Bars, schools, and government buildings (which presumably include courthouses): that’s just where you want a bunch of people with guns.

And, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, it gets worse: the cops aren’t allowed to stop anyone carrying a weapon to see if they have a permit. (Apparently they can ask the person to show up later in court to show the permit, but that won’t keep someone without a license to wreak some havoc before their presumed court appearance.)

I don’t understand the mentality that can favor something like this—guns in bars and schools, for crying out loud—and am deeply disappointed that Carter’s grandson favored this insane legislation.

Cats (and other animals) on sports fields

by Matthew Cobb

Jerry noticed this nice photo from Liverpool Football Club’s ground, Anfield, which was originally posted on Retronaut about 18 months ago, and for some reason has just popped up again on Tw*tter. The photo was taken in 1964, and shows a rather fine-looking cat running towards the stands.

The photo is as interesting for what it says about English football as it is for the cat. The young boys are all down at the front of an all-standing terrace – they would be pushed down there, where it was safer and they could see better. And several of them have retro ‘rattles’ which you’d whirl round to make a noise. These have started to make a bit of a come-back. And there are no women that I can see and the crowd is 99% white – women now make up a substantial minority of spectators, and the ethnic composition of Liverpool has changed substantially since then.

Anfield apparently has a tradition with cats. In 2012, a match against Jerry’s beloved Spurs was interrupted by a rather battered tom running onto the field.

The cat instantly acquired several Tw*tter accounts, one of which @AnfieldCat, is still going strong with some rather tiresome sexist tw**ts and 56,000 followers who like that kind of stuff.

The cat was taken to a stray cats’ home, named Shankly after Liverpool’s most famous manager (let’s hope he wasn’t an Evertonian), was cleaned up, had the snip, and was eventually rehoused:


Other animals also get involved in sporting events. This squirrel came onto the US Women’s Tennis Open:


This Swiss fox steals golf balls (to be honest, the golfers are chez lui, so they get what they deserve):


And just to prove that Switzerland is a dangerous place to play football, there was the famous pine marten incident with footballer Loris Benito (there’s a bitey mammal joke there but I’ll leave it to you):

The moral of that story is fairly obvious: don’t try picking up a frightened mustelid with sharp teeth…


D*gs appear so regularly on playing pitches that they aren’t worth remarking on.

Deepity Chopra and Rudolph Tanzi sell Big Brain kit; admit science behind it is weak

A while back Deepity Chopra tw**ted at me to read a piece he’d written with Dr. Rudolph Tanzi, a neuroscentist at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital. (How someone who is a credible scientist got mixed up with Chopra is beyond me). At any rate, I read Chopra and Tanzi’s piece, “You will direct your own biology,” which I criticized here.  It’ about how you can change your genes and the course of human evolution simply by thinking about it, meditating, and living the Chopra Life. Here are a few excerpts (my emphasis):

This means that control is being given back to each person; we are no longer seen as puppets of our DNA. The human genome is set to be the stage for future evolution that we ourselves direct, making choice an integral part of genetics. This is in stark contrast to the “biology as destiny” view where genes override choice. Unless decisions, lifestyle, environment, and personal preferences are included, a full picture of the mysteries of our DNA cannot be attained.

The speed and extent of change at the genetic level would astonish researchers even a few years ago. Yoga and meditation, for example, can trigger almost immediate responses in genetic activity. Exercise, a balanced diet, good sleep, and stress reduction – all well-known for improving bodily function – exert beneficial effects via our genes. So the next frontier will be to discover how deep and lasting such changes are, how much control we have over them individually, and how they can be passed on to future generations through so-called “soft inheritance,” in which the parents’ life experiences and behavior directly influence the genome of their offspring (transmitted via the epigenome, which controls how the activities of our genes are turned up and down).

. . . The mind and emotions directly affect gene activity, and since the mind is the source of a person’s lifestyle and behavior, it directs one’s biological transformations. Self-awareness holds the key to this process of self-transformation. Consciousness is invisibly reaching into the biochemistry of every moment of life. In your body, as in every cell, regulation is holistic, self-generated, self-organizing, and self-directed in concert with consciousness.

This is, of course, pure unadultrated woo; there’s not a shred of evidence that humans can change their genes in a permanent way via changes in our lifestyle, much less through exercise or meditation. This is Lamarckian self-help.

One reason, perhaps, that Tanzi has formed an unholy alliance with Chopra is that Deepakity is a huge cash cow. Here, for example, is the Super Brain Kit, which, I’m horrified to report, is a prize you can get for donating $144 to the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). It uses some of the self-modifying tropes touted in the article above:

As emphasized in our recent book, Super Brain, we believe there is also a better approach to understanding the brain. Your neural networks are being reshaped with every thought, feeling word, and act. This process is intimately tied to genetic activity. Today you will casually perform some very mysterious actions: As an aware being you will imbue your desires with intention (“I’ll have the tuna salad”), direct your attention to specific objects and aspects of the world (“Just look at that sunset!”), and experience the shifting landscape of your inner world (“This movie is boring”) as you navigate the terrain of your mind.

“I’ll have the tuna salad”??? Really? That’s what you pay $144 for?

Screen shot 2014-04-23 at 5.10.05 AM

At any rate, “Yakaru,” an author at the site Spirituality is No Exercise, has followed up on this offer, describing his results in the post Dr. Rudoph Tanzi’s rainbow bridge to quackery.  Yakaru reports the kerfuffle on my own site, which I never reprised; so let me do so here. The comments appeared on my post cited above:

Or as one commenter put it to Tanzi directly:

“Can you provide any kind of evidence that human thought can voluntarily influence gene expression, that this supposed effect is epigenetic, that it can be stably inherited and that it can be adaptive?”

After Tanzi’s usual blustering and threats of libel action (he’s threatened me repeatedly for simply decrying the weakness of the science), he admitted that no, the evidence isn’t there. As Yakaru notes:

Eventually after much evasion, complaining, insults, obfuscations, threats of libel suits, and hand-waving, he mentioned, among other things, a study on mice. Here, epigenetic changes relating to stress were inherited by offspring for a generation or two, before disappearing. Well and good. But making a grand leap from lab mice to humans — isn’t that rather a lot like the very worst of the “old paradigm”? And just because it works for stress in mice, will it also work for consciously directed thought in humans? Is it heritable by epigenetics? And if so will it be stable enough to eventually affect evolution?

Tanzi finally admitted he has no evidence for any of that…. “yet”. In his words (Yakaru’s emphasis):

“So, no, we do not yet have direct molecular evidence of humans changing their DNA epigenetically in response to life experience and perceptions accompanied by biochemical and molecular genetic reactions…..”

Let me Finish Tanzi’s quote (taken from a comment at my site) so I won’t be accused of  letting Yakaru’s quote stand out of context (and it’s not out of context):

“. . . We are only proposing this will be an important area of study in the future and would have profound implications on our own trans-generational evolution. With this idea we proposed a “consciousome” project aimed at understanding how our experiences and psychological and physiological reactions to those experiences affect our genomes, as well as those of the next generation. The preliminary data from current epigenetic studies of lower organisms suggests that this is a feasible and worthy of investigation in humans. Our piece was aimed at planting the idea and getting this line of investigation going.”

Yakaru then takes the opportunity to rewrite Chopra and Tanzi’s blurb for “Super Brain”:

Well maybe they could have could have chosen a title that reflected the reality of the situation a little better. Like maybe –

Super Brain: hypothetically Unleashing the possibly Explosive but so far purely speculative Power of Your presumed Mind to Maximize or at least minimally affectHealth, Happiness, Spiritual Well-Being if we ever figure out how.

I have problems with people promoting an ill-conceived idea of how we can affect the structure of our genome in an adaptive way by simply changing the way we think; but I have an even bigger problem when those half-baked (indeed, not even quarter-baked) ideas are used in a $144 self-help project.  I call that profiting from quackery, and bilking a gullible public.

Now, Deepak, let the tw**ts begin!

Americans’ knowledge of science is in the dumper

Several websites have already posted about this, so I’ll be brief.  The Associated Press, in collaboration with GfK, conducted a poll on the state of American science knowledge, and the results were truly dispiriting. You can get the pdf of the results here.

1,012 adults were interviewed about their degree of confidence in what scientists regard as “truths”, as well as about issues like their religious and political affiliations, income, demographic information, health care, and so on.

The survey of science knowledge can be summarized in this chart prepared by CBS News:

Screen shot 2014-04-23 at 7.41.36 AM

That’s really depressing, especially, to me, the fact that 72% of Americans are very or somewhat confident that there is a “supreme being” behind evolution. That’s “theistic evolution,” the form of evolution most commonly endorsed by Americans, and the one that’s basically okay with organizations like the National Center for Science Education, who can’t be bothered too much about whether evolution is naturalistic or guided by a deity.

And that makes me worry a a bit about the 55% who appear to agree that life on earth evolved through natural selection (Larry Moran will no doubt kvetch about genetic drift!), for most of those probably feel that God was behind that process! What is most upsetting  is that only 60% of Americans are confident that the earth is 4.5 billion years old (with more than half of those being “somewhat” rather than “very” confident), and only 46% agree that the universe is 13.8 billion years old and was formed after the Big Bang.

What’s going on here? Well, some of it is surely plain ignorance (i.e., lack of knowledge), but other stuff, like the widespread rejection of global warming, is wish-thinking derived from capitalism, and, of course, the rejection of cosmology and evolution is largely based on religion. That’s not my take, but comes from statistical analysis of the poll itself, which isn’t given in the pdf. As CBS News reports:

Political and religious values play an important role in a person’s belief in science, the AP noted. Democrats were more likely than Republicans to express confidence in evolution, the Big Bang, the age of the Earth and climate change. As faith in a supreme being rises, confidence in the Big Bang, climate change and the age of the Earth decline, according to the poll.

“When you are putting up facts against faith, facts can’t argue against faith,” said 2012 Nobel Prize winning biochemistry professor Robert Lefkowitz of Duke University. “It makes sense now that science would have made no headway because faith is untestable.”

. . . The results of the poll are troubling to some scientists, who say it highlights “the iron triangle of science, religion and politics,” according to Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

Indeed. As I always say, the best way to get Americans to accept an old earth and the fact of evolution is not through education, but through weakening the grip of religion on the public mind. If you’re not religious, you have no reason to reject evolution and an ancient Earth and universe. And I suspect, though the pollsters didn’t give some kind of multivariate analysis, that the reasons Republicans have less confidence in evolution and the age of the earth is that Republicans are more likely to be religious than are Democrats.

Finally, we have the accommodationists coming out of the woodwork, trying to deny the palpable fact that these figures, at least for cosmology and evolution, reflect religious opposition to science. After all, when properly conceived, Scripture and science are compatible!

People who take the word of the Bible literally are even less likely to believe in evolution, the age of the Earth or Big Bang. But Francisco Ayala, a former priest and professor of biology, philosophy and logic at the University of California, Irvine, noted that these three scientific concepts can be compatible with the belief in God.

“The story of the cosmos and the Big Bang of creation is not inconsistent with the message of Genesis 1, and there is much profound biblical scholarship to demonstrate this,” said Darrel Falk, a biology professor at Point Loma Nazarene University and an evangelical Christian.

If science is so obviously compatible with religion in these ways, why does the conflict persist? It’s because Falk (former director of BioLogos) and Ayala simply refuse to recognize the truth: evolution and cosmology don’t sit well with the religious beliefs of many Americans, and they’re not going to accept the scientific facts so long as they feel that those facts contradict scripture. Many of them see the “message of Genesis I” as what that chapter explicitly says. And, as BioLogos has discovered to its horror, telling evangelical Christians that their faith can be compatible with evolution simply doesn’t work. There are a number of aspects of evolution, for instance, that simply discomfit the religious—among other things, the pure naturalism of natural selection, the loss of human status as “special creatures,” the horrible possibility that our morality may be partly evolved rather than bestowed by God, and so on.

Physicist Brian Greene, co-director of the World Science Festival, also expresses his dismay at the figures:

“It is enormously distressing that science, which is our most powerful means for gaining insight into the world, insight into truth, is so mistrusted by so many people,” Brian Greene, a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, told CBS News.

Greene, who co-founded the World Science Festival and World Science U. to help educate and excite the public about science, says understanding scientific ideas is not just academic — it’s essential to a vital democracy. “Issues like climate change or nanoscience or genetically modified foods — I mean all of these issues, and a thousand others, are scientific at their core,” he said.

Perhaps Greene, then, might reassess his policy of accepting large amounts of funding from the John Templeton Foundation for the World Science Festival. After all, Templeton’s mission is to blur the boundaries between science and religion, boundaries whose violation is amply evidenced by the data above.

Moar Joni

This half-hour video of Joni Mitchell is from a BBC special in 1970, when she was only 27, yet already a hugely accomplished singer/songwriter.

Why is she the best? It’s the combination of skills, one that not even Bob Dylan had. She could write fantastically complex and inventive songs (often about her loves ["My Old Man," in this video, is about Graham Nash], but with infinitely more panache than the minimally-talented Taylor Swift), her voice is absolutely gorgeous, with a huge range, and she could play guitar (she invented many of the open tunings that made her sound so distinctive), dulcimer, and piano. (She could also paint, and very well.)  Bob Dylan, whom someone suggested as her male equivalent, could do one thing well: write songs.  He couldn’t sing (his voice always irritates me), and his ability to play guitar is, well, limited.

Don’t get me wrong: Dylan was enormously talented as a songwriter, and perhaps the biggest influence on the music of the last five decades. But in terms of musical greatness, I think there are others who are superior.

Anyway, Mitchell demonstrates all her skills in this video, playing many of her great songs.  The best, “California,” starts about 16:30.

It’s so sad what’s become of Mitchell lately; I don’t even want to talk about it.

Her best album? “Blue“. Second best: “For the Roses“, followed by “Court and Spark“.

Wednesday: Hili dialogue

A: Hili, why are you sitting under the stairs?
Hili: Because of the lack of a new, attractive cardboard box.

In Polish:
Ja: Hili, czemu siedzisz pod schodami?
Hili: Z powodu braku nowego atrakcyjnego kartonu.

My New Republic piece on “atheism of the gaps”

The New Republic has published a revised version of my “atheism of the gaps” post from yesterday. In the magazine it’s now called “Atheists could learn a lot from religious people about how to win debates”.

Give ‘em a click to keep the love and secularism flowing.  I’ve added a few references and a couple new “religion of the gaps” arguments.  Thanks to the readers for weighing in.

The faitheists and believers aren’t gonna like this one. Expect some explanations for things like evil and Jesus’s broken promise to appear in his contemporaries’ lifetime.


A gorgeous 100 million year-old robber

by Matthew Cobb

Anyone who’s watched Jurassic Park knows that back in the time of the dinosaurs, flies would get stuck in amber and then hove up, millions of years later, for the delectation of scientists. A paper has just come out from Torsten Dikow and David Grimaldi, describing a new species of robber fly (Asilidae) found in Cretaceous amber, around 100 million years old.

Just think. 100 million years old. All that time ago, this fly was buzzing around. The specimen is simply stunning. Even if you don’t like flies, this is just gorgeous:


This is a male of the newly described genus and species Burmapogon bruckschi. The etymology is sadly rather dull:

“From Burma, the original name of the country where this amber is deposited, and Greek pogon, “beard,” a common suffix of Asilidae generic names, referring to the mystax. The generic name, to be treated as masculine, refers to the region of the amber deposit.”

The ‘mystax’ is a cluster of hairs just above the animal’s mouth. Here’s a picture of the mystax on a modern robber fly Stichopogon albofasciatus, which is found all over Europe and in North Africa. The photo is taken from the delightfully retro www.robberflies.info

Stichopogon albofasciatus - Mystax - frontal

The Burmapogon bruckschi specimen was found in amber from Burma – this is apparently the first time that robber flies have been found in the scores of thousands of pieces of Burmese amber that contain insects. The reason for that is probably that amber was produced by trees, and Asilidae don’t like wooded areas.

Look at the detail on this left middle leg:













Amazingly, Dikow and Grimaldi found two B. bruckschi flies, a male and a female, in two separate pieces of amber. This is not the oldest robber fly – as Dikow and Grimaldo write: ‘The oldest definitive Asilidae, †Araripogon axelrodi Grimaldi, 1990, was described from limestone of the Crato Formation (Albian, ~112 myo) in Ceará state in northeastern Brazil (Grimaldi, 1990).’

Robber flies (also called assassin flies) are extremely agile predators that can catch and suck the juices out of prey much larger than them. We’ve talked about them here before. This video gives you some idea of their amazing behaviour.

Like everything else in the history of our planet, however, they are sometimes eaten, as this rather shaky video shows…

h/t @BioInFocus

Reference: T. Dikow and D. Grimaldi (2014) Robber flies in Cretaceous ambers (Insecta, Diptera, Asilidae). American Museum novitates, no. 3799. (open access)

David Bentley Hart: Last installment

I’m sure you’re relieved to see the title of this post, as most of you haven’t taken kindly to the quotes I’ve put up from Hart’s new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss.  But you don’t seem to realize that I’m doing you a two-fold favor here: not only saving you from having to read the book (and therefore keeping your credibility as Sophisticated Atheists), but also holding up to the harsh light of day the kinds of arguments that pass as The Best Case for God.

So bear with me while I reproduce one last quote. Please do read it, for it’s a long riff on the deepity that “God is love.” It comes from page 276. I’ve made a few comments, highlighted with asterisks and explained at the bottom.

“For none of the great theistic traditions is ‘God’ the name of a god, some emotionally changeable entity who has to deliberate upon his actions, either in respect of standards independent of himself or in respect of some arbitrary psychological impulse within himself. ‘God’ is the name, rather, of that eternal and transcendent principle upon which the gods (if there are such beings)( are dependent for their existence and for their share in all the transcendental perfections of being.  For all the great monotheisms, God is himself the Good, or the Form of the Good, and his freedom consists in his limitless power to express his nature (goodness)* unhindered by the obstacles or limitations suffered by finite beings. He is ‘the love that moves the sun and all the other stars,’ as Dante phrases it, at once the underlying unity and the final end of all things. And the absolute nature of that love is reflected in the unconditional quality of the transcendental or ecstatic desire it excites in rational natures. As Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) says, ‘Love is sufficient in itself, gives pleasure through itself and because of itself. It is its own merit, its own reward. Love looks for no cause outside itself, no effect beyond itself. . . I love because I love. I love so that I may love.** Love is something great insofar as it returns constantly to its fountain head and flows back to its source, from which it ever draws that water that continually replenishes it. . . For when God loves, he desires only to be loved in turn.*** His love’s only purpose is to be loved, as he knows that all who love him are made happy by their love of him.’”


*If God is the ineffable Ground of Being, how does Hart know he’s “good”?
** Classic deepities!
***Throughout the book,Hart denies strongly that God has any anthropomorphic properties. Yet here he clearly agrees with Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) that God not only lovees, but has a desire to be loved. If that’s not anthropomorphism, I’ll eat my boots!

The ninth pitch drop fell

What I’m about to describe is supposedly the world’s longest-running scientific experiment, and, although we already know the result, it gets demonstrated repeatedly: once every decade on average.

In 1927, Professor Thomas Parnell of the University of Queensland set up an experiment to demonstrate that some substances that appear to be solid, like pitch, are really liquids, and flow at an extremely slow rate. At room temperature, for example, pitch is solid, brittle, and can be shattered with a hammer. But Parnell wanted to show that it was really a liquid in the technical sense.

So, in 1927 Parnell heated up some pitch, poured it into a sealed funnel, allowed it to congeal for three years, and then snipped the neck of the funnel. Over the next 86 years (Parnell died 21 years into the experiment), generations watched the pitch slowly drip from the funnel (nobody’s actually seen a drop fall).

Here’s a photo of the setup:

Screen shot 2014-04-22 at 6.57.43 AM

Longtime custodian of the famous experiment, the late Professor John Mainstone. (Photo from the University of Queensland.)

Up until last week, there had been eight drops, but a ninth just fell on April 10. Here’s a time-lapse video taken over the last two years:

Sadly, the fall isn’t so dramatic, as the latest drop simply glopped onto the one below it, still adhering to the funnel. They need to move that funnel higher up!

There’s another description of the experiment at the University of Queenland’s site, which gives a bit more information:

The experiment was set up as a demonstration and is not kept under special environmental conditions (it is actually kept in a display cabinet in the foyer of the Department), so the rate of flow of the pitch varies with seasonal changes in temperature. Nonetheless, it is possible to make an estimate of the viscosity of this sample of pitch (R.Edgeworth, B.J. Dalton and T. Parnell, Eur. J. Phys (1984) 198-200). It turns out to be about 100 billion times more viscous than water! The first picture in the slide show above is of the late Professor John Mainstone, longtime custodian of the experiment. In the 83 years that the pitch has been dripping, no-one has ever seen the drop fall.

The history (from Wikipedia):

Screen shot 2014-04-22 at 6.46.06 AM

By the way, I’m told that very old windows are thicker at the bottom than at the top, supposedly the result of glass itself flowing downward. I have no idea whether this is true.

h/t: Robert


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