Readers’ wildlife photos

Reader Bruce Lyon sent us a big selection of lovely bird and butterfly photos. His notes are indented:

Here is one last selection of photos from my June trip to the Kuankuoshui (KKS) Nature Reserve, China. I will include a couple of insects this time.

Below: A spectacular Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird (Aethopyga gouldiae), named after the wife of the famous 19th century bird painter John Gould. Since this is a male sunbird, I guess it is a Mr. Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird. Sunbirds are nectarivores (eat nectar), which makes them the ecological equivalent of hummingbirds in the Old World. I find it interesting that many sunbirds have iridescent plumage, just like hummingbirds, and in some species this shiny plumage is found on the throat and crown as it is in many hummingbirds. This seems like a case of convergent evolution to me. In both groups, males are often much more colorful than females, which suggests that plumage is likely favored by sexual selection. I am puzzled as to why sexual signals would be so similar in the two group—what is it about nectar eating or foraging that favors this specific type and configuration of conspicuous plumage?

Aethopyga gouldiae IMG_4448

Below: Another male sunbird reaching for nectar.

Aethopyga gouldiae IMG_4246

Below: A female sunbird.

Aethopyga gouldiae IMG_4368

Below: This Black-throated Bushtit (Aegithalos concinnusis) is a congener of the much duller American Bushtit familiar to people in western North America and also the more dapper Long-tailed Tit of Europe. All three of these species live in large groups and are cooperative breeders.

Aegithalos concinnus IMG_3083

One taxonomic group that is well represented in China is the bulbuls (Family Pycnonotidae), which occurs throughout Asia, the Middle East and Africa.  According to Wikipedia, the Asian members of the family tend more often to be found in open habitats, while in Africa the bulbuls tend to be rainforest birds.

Below: Brown-breasted Bulbuls (Pycnonotus xanthorrhous) were very common in the open areas like tea plantations. These birds seemed feisty and I often saw them bickering with each other.

Pycnonotus xanthorrhous IMG_2688adj

Below: Brown-breasted Bulbuls like to nest in tea bushes and have gorgeous eggs.

Pycnonotus xanthorrhous IMG_3108

Below: Another very common open habitat bulbul, the wonderfully named Collared Finchbill (Spizixos semitorques). Apparently these guys eat a lot of fruit; perhaps that explains their unusual beak.

Spizixos semitorques IMG_2697

Below: One last bulbul, this time the forest dwelling Mountain Bulbul (Ixos mcclellandii). I love the shaggy look on these guys—I guess it is part of the rugged mountain look.

Hypsipetes mcclellandii IMG_3075

 A couple of butterflies. Below: A dense group of blues flushes up from bird droppings on a road.  These blues were very common along the roads and invariably occurred at bird droppings, where I suspect they were going for some nutrient like sodium. According to Wikipedia, the blues, are in the subfamily Polyommatinae in the family of gossamer-winged butterfly family Lycaenidae.


Below: This male and female butterfly chased each other for ten minutes and at one point climbed to at least 500 feet, perhaps even 1000 feet, and then plummeted back to the ground. It was a spectacular display. It seemed like the yellow one (male?) was chasing the white one. My colleague Magne Friberg suggests that the species is likely to be the Lesser Brimstone (Gonopteryx mahaguru).


Bruce adds this: “If anyone is interested in seeing the entire annotated collection of some of the best of the images from my China trip, they are posted in a Picasa album.

A child soldier in Syria, and Muslim beheadings thwarted in Australia

This short (2-minute) video will chill you, for it shows an interview with a 12-year-old Syrian child sniper who evinces no compunction about killing one person after another.

I have no idea if he’s on the side of ISIS, the Syrian rebels like al-Nusra, or some other group, but it hardly matters. This is what war and religious indoctrination do to kids. Does he have any chance to have a normal life (if he doesn’t get killed, that is), or will he be so enamored of killing that he’ll simply keep doing it?

Meanwhile, according to multiple sources (including the Associated Press), 800 police in Sydney and others in Brisbane have just conducted huge raids against terror cells of Muslims. One group in Sydney planning to behead a random Australian citizen in public as a demonstration of their ardor. No doubt it would have been filmed and used as propaganda. According to the BBC:

One man has been charged with planning an attack. Prosecutors said he planned to “gruesomely” execute someone.

Australian media reports said a plot involved beheading a random member of the public after draping them in an Islamic State flag.

Asked about the reports in a press conference, Mr Abbott said: “That’s the intelligence we received.”

“Direct exhortations were coming from an Australian who is apparently quite senior in ISIL (Islamic State) to networks of support back in Australia to conduct demonstration killings here in this country.”

Apparently the many ISIS sympathizers in Australia are frustrated that they can’t go to fight with their coreligionists in Iraq and Syria, and wanted to do something similar in Australia.

It seems only a matter of time before this kind of public execution, like the one visited on Theo van Gogh, happens in a country like Australia, the U.S., or Great Britain.

The Age has real-time coverage of new information about the plots.

h/t: Vic, Malgorzata

Back-to-school boots

As Chicago is on the quarter system, we start school late (around the beginning of October), but the first year students show up for orientation this weekend.  It’s time, then, to don the Official Atheist Footwear™, the  better angels of our feet.  I got this lovely pair of Lucchese Classics for a song on eBay, and all but the n00bs will be able to guess the hide:


Thursday: Hili dialogue

The long sobs of the violins of autumn fill Hili with a monotonous languor:
Hili: I’m looking with sadness at these brown leaves. Do they mean that this year there will be winter again?
A: Judging from the history of the world up to the present, there probably will.
In Polish:
Hili: Patrzę ze smutkiem na te brązowe liście. Czy to znaczy, że w tym roku też będzie zima?
Ja: Sądząc z dotychczasowej historii świata, chyba tak.

Still Church, but not with evolution

Crazy church signs are a genre unto itself. This one graces (pardon the pun) the Calvary Baptist Temple in Fort Collins, Colorado, whose motto is below:

Screen shot 2014-09-17 at 6.41.54 PM

They’re worried!

And here are two of their signs posted on the reddit atheism site, with the caption, “At the end of June I was driving by this church and saw their sign so I decided to pull over and take a picture. Then two and a half months later… “:


Oh, the irony!

And they have videos on YouTube, too. Here’s their exciting preview of last year’s activities, accompanied by a wonderfully inane song:

There’s nothing like the Baptists! (Thank God!)

h/t: Amy

Daily fox: Man rescues fox kit with its head stuck in a can

I’ll try to find a good daily fox video for the next three or four days; I have at least two in line. This is a good one because it’s also a heartwarmer. It comes from The Dodo, where there isn’t much information. The kit got its head stuck in a can, and the nice man freed it. Let’s hope it found its mom afterwards.

It’s cries are plaintive and sad, but it comes for fusses after it’s freed.

Here’s a gif of the critical moment. What a cutie it is, even if it is related to the d*g! Look at that face!


h/t: Lauren

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s talk at Yale: no “hate speech” in evidence

Well, Ayaan Hirsi spoke at Yale two days ago, and the Apocalypse didn’t happen. Here’s an account of what she said from the Yale Daily News:

The talk was attended by over 300 individuals, with lines to enter the auditorium stretching more than a block. While the MSA [Muslim Students' Association] did not organize any formal demonstration during the actual event, the organization did maintain a booth outside of the lecture hall with educational leaflets about Islam.

During her speech, Hirsi Ali reiterated her views on the religion in which she was raised, focusing on her childhood and adolescence in a Muslim community in Somalia. She said she believes her experiences are relevant to the current state of Islam, which she described as violent, intolerant and in need of reform.

Growing up, Hirsi Ali said religious teachers taught her the duties of being a Muslim, such as worshipping Allah, telling the truth, looking after those in need and being obedient and modest. She said in her community, those who neglected their religious duties were never ostracized or attacked, but rather were “left alone” or “nudged gently” at most.

When she was 15, Hirsi Ali said she encountered a different kind of religious teacher — whom she referred to as a “Preacher Teacher” — who encouraged youths to enforce the religious duty of Islam and wage jihad against those who did not obey. Witnessing this process of “indoctrination,” she said, makes her statements relevant to Islam today.

Hirsi Ali added that this “indoctrination” is at the source of radical Islam and leads to intolerance and violence. Therefore, she said, in order to fight the symptoms of radical Islam, the “core creed” of Islam — the Qur’an and hadith — must be reformed. Hirsi Ali called on Muslims to listen to their consciences and stand up to Allah, rather than bending to his will.

Hirsi Ali repeated many times that the western world acts with “restraint” when dealing with conflicts of Islamic terrorism and radical groups.

“The clash is there, but what we follow up with is restraint. And restraint is what we’ve been showing for the last 30 years,” Hirsi Ali said to the audience.

Although she said she did not blame U.S. President Barack Obama for his reservations in handling situations such as the current rise of ISIS, she also spoke in favor of perceiving her former religion as “one Islam” whose core creed involves complete submission to Allah, the Islamic god that she previously deemed “fire-breathing.”

The MSA’s campus-wide letter last week announced the group’s worries over Hirsi Ali’s talk and brought attention to her history of anti-Islamic statements.

Hirsi Ali directly addressed the MSA during her speech, asking why the organization took the time and resources to “silence the reformers and dissidents of Islam,” including herself, rather than fighting against the violence, intolerance and indoctrination Hirsi Ali associates with Islam.

Good question!

“MSA students of Yale, you live at a time when Muslims are at a crossroads,” she said. “The Muslim world is on fire and those fanning the fire are using more creed. With every atrocity [they underscore] your commitment to Allah … Will you submit passively or actively, or will you finally stand up to Allah?”

Hirsi Ali also responded to the MSA’s critique of her lack of academic credentials by saying that even scholars with substantial credentials who have criticized Islam have been “bullied into silence.”

Unfortunately, those who opposed her, and said that urgent counter-speech (favorable to Islam) was needed, were too afraid to say anything.

The MSA declined to comment, pointing instead to previous statements made in the email to students, which articulated concern and disappointment over Hirsi Ali’s invitation, but ultimately conveyed hope that the discussion would be constructive and respectful.

Still, individual Muslim students interviewed expressed a variety of reactions to Hirsi Ali’s talk, but declined to attribute their names out of fear of retribution. Some said Hirsi Ali’s presence made them feel uncomfortable being on campus, and others felt that Hirsi Ali’s talk invalidated their experiences as Muslims.

Irony of the year: “Fear of retribution?” What are they talking about? The person who has real fear of retribution is the person whose talk they were opposing. I doubt that the members of the Muslim Students’ Association at Yale need bodyguards. And have they asked themselves why, if Islam is so peaceful, that Hiri Ali needs bodyguards?

As for “invaliding their experiences as Muslims,” that’s just postmodern doublespeak. Their experiences are theirs, and hers are hers. What they mean is that she got to talk and they didn’t. Well, as far as I know the members of the MSA can write or say anything they want about their experiences—that is, they would if they weren’t so afraid of retribution! I guess their experiences will have to remain “invalidated.”

At least one Yale student wasn’t afraid, though:

Other audience members interviewed have been impressed with Hirsi Ali and the contents of her lecture.

Judith Liebmann GRD ’69 praised Hirsi Ali for her bravery in speaking about these problems, as effectively as her previous traumatic experiences.

“She is an amazingly gentle particular person … with a courageousness that’s incomprehensible to me,” Liebmann explained, adding that she had been disturbed by the fact that students voiced opposition to Hirsi Ali’s speak.


Florida decision to distribute Bibles in schools backfires: Satanists can hand out their stuff, too!

Ah, there’s a big kerfuffle in Orange County, Florida, and it’s all the fault of those troublemakers at the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF).  You can see the story at many places, like here, here, and here).

The trouble began when the Orange County School District allowed evangelical Christians (“The World Changers of Florida”) to distribute Bibles in public schools.

The inevitable (well, usually inevitable) followed: they were sued. As I recall, the FFRF proposed to distribute atheist literature in the school as well, and they were refused. The FFRF and the Central Florida Freethought Community then took the school district to court, and won: they could distribute atheist literature in the schools. (The stuff they wanted to give out seems pretty tame [see below]: no God is Not Great or The God Delusion, but of course books are expensive.)

Now something even better has happened: the Satanic Temple is elbowing in as well, for if Christians and atheists can distribute literature, so can Satanists. The can of worms is opened, and the annelids are crawling free. Of course this is going to drive the Floridians nuts, for they simply didn’t anticipate this. I could have told them!

At first I thought Satanists must be baby-nomming devil worshippers and promoters of evil, but they seem pretty innocuous. In fact, they seem a lot more beneficent than most other religions. The website of the Satanic Temple says this about their mission:

The mission of The Satanic Temple is to encourage benevolence and empathy among all people, reject tyrannical authority, advocate practical common sense and justice, and be directed by the human conscience to undertake noble pursuits guided by the individual will. Civic-minded, The Satanic Temple has been involved in a number of good works including taking a stand against the controversial and extremist Westboro Baptist Church, working on behalf of children in public school who have been subject to corporal punishment and more.

They’re better than Christians! In fact Satanism seems like humanism.

The Satanists also say this about the distribution of their literature in the schools:

The Satanic Temple’s spokesperson, Lucien [!] Greaves, explains, “We would never seek to establish a precedent of disseminating our religious materials in public schools because we believe our constitutional values are better served by respecting a strong separation of Church and State. However, if a public school board is going to allow religious pamphlets and full Bibles to be distributed to students — as is the case in Orange County, Florida — we think the responsible thing to do is to ensure that these students are given access to a variety of differing religious opinions, as opposed to standing idly by while one religious voice dominates the discourse and delivers propaganda to youth.”

Like the Satanists, the FFRF issued a statement saying that the school district forced them to this end, and that they really don’t want any religious literature in the schools. I heartily agree! Keep atheism, religion, Satanism, whatever out of public schools. That’s called “secularism” or “respecting the First Amendment to the Constitution.”

This is from the FFRF’s statement:

FFRF does not believe that satanists or Christians or even atheists should be distributing literature to public school students. We have given Orange County every opportunity to close the distribution forum and repeatedly asked them to do so. Each time, they have refused. FFRF does not endorse the New York based Satanic Temple’s literature any more than we would endorse the bible or think it should be given to students. However, Orange County Public Schools cannot legally prevent the temple from distributing its literature.

One thing should be absolutely clear: Orange County Schools has chosen to allow these groups in. Orange County is allowing Christians, atheists and satanists to distribute literature to students, but it does not have to.

FFRF will only distribute its own materials this January, including pamphlets such as An X-Rated Book: Sex & Obscenity in the Bible.

In case you want to see what the devotees of The Hornéd One are going to hand out, you can download The Satanic Children’s BIG BOOK of Activities for free here. I’ve reproduced the cover and two inside pages:

Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 7.29.14 AM

Two page from the Satanist book:


Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 7.32.29 AM

Something tells me that the distribution of religious literature will stop promptly.

h/t: Stephen Q. Muth, half of Butter’s staff

The argument for Not God from the Empty Roll

godnow (1)

More important, where is Diana MacPherson now? This situation would drive her insane: there’s no directionality!


Guest post: journalist Faye Flam tells scientists how to talk to reporters

UPDATE: If you have any questions you want to ask Faye about science reporting, especially on this topic, feel free to do so in the comments. She’ll drop by and answer some later.


I was recently talking to my friend Faye Flam, a science reporter, about how I’d just been interviewed by another science reporter and had wondered whether I had the right to ask such reporters what their “hook” was, what they themselves thought about the issue, if I could see what they reported I said before publication, and so on. I added that scientists who talk to journalists could use some guidelines, and Faye kindly agreed to write up a few of those guidelines. Ergo, the guest post below.  I think it will be useful not only for scientists who talk to journalists, but for all experts who talk to journalists about their work.

A few words about Faye: she has a physics degree from Caltech, is a former science columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer (>16 years), and is now a freelance writer and and science blogger.  She’ll soon have her first piece in the New York Time’s “Science Times” section, scheduled for Sept. 30. Finally, she has an orange tomcat named Higgs (after the boson, of course).

I’m putting this up to coincide with her first piece for Forbes, which appeared this morning: “Salt: Why top experts give wildly conflicting advice and what to do until they figure it out,” It gives a good summary of the disparate advice doctors and experts give about whether salt is good or bad for you, and how much to eat. [UPDATE: She also has another post suggesting that diet soda may play hob with your gut bacteria.]

Faye’s website is here.  Without further ado:


How to talk to a reporter without being misquoted, betrayed or disappointed.

by Faye Flam

Journalists can be great fun to talk to. At our best, we pose challenging and engaging questions and use your insights and quotes to help a diverse range of people understand your field of science. At or worst, we can be annoying, ill-informed, and pushy. Our questions can make you uncomfortable, and the final product could turn out to be a piece of trash not worthy of putting under the cat litter box.

Biologist Jerry Coyne didn’t know which way it would go the first time he got a call from me, a reporter he’d never heard of, writing an unfamiliar science column for the Philadelphia Inquirer. I remember the reluctance with which he agreed, even though the topic was right up his alley. I wanted to talk to him about a statement the Pope had made about evolution. I’d discovered that Dr. Coyne had written a book called Why Evolution is True, and on his website of the same name he’d written something to the effect that science was incompatible with the Catholic belief in souls.

As far as I can tell, Jerry Coyne was pleased with the column that resulted, since he posted a link on his website, and we’ve had many conversations since, sometimes regarding other journalists who want to interview him. In one of those conversations a month or so ago, it occurred to him that I could lay out a few simple things scientists can do to increase the odds of a good experience with an interview.

I know from experience that being interviewed is scary. Though I’ve interviewed thousands of people for stories in Science and The Philadelphia Inquirer, and more recently the New York Times, I’ve also been interviewed a few times – usually about my work as a journalism critic, or about a book I wrote on evolution and sex. I got some very strange questions about the sex book.

The first thing to remember is that you can ask a lot of questions. Feel free to find out what the journalist is trying to achieve. We often just want to explain something important but technical to a diverse cross section of people with varying levels of education.

That diverse readership was something dear to me when I wrote for a newspaper. I had been a news writer for Science, specializing in physics, but I jumped at the chance to write about science for the Philadelphia Inquirer because I believed in the paper’s mission – as it stood back in the 1990s anyway. All kinds of people read the paper – lawyers, doctors, construction workers, artists, hot-dog vendors, students and people looking for work. We reporters were supposed to find ways to write so they could all get it.

People sometimes wrote to me to say they enjoyed my stories, though they had previously been led to believe they lacked the capacity to understand science. When that happened I felt accomplished. I hate the expression “dumbed down” because there are many reasons people fail to get a good education that have nothing to do with being “dumb”. It’s hard to make stories on complex topics easy to read, but it’s worth doing.

When newspapers such as the Inquirer were strong, they gave almost everyone the chance to experience a piece of their community’s intellectual life – arts, business, politics, world events, technology and science.

Below I’ve added a few more specific suggestions.

Try to determine if the journalist is misguided.

The good journalists are like good scientists – driven by curiously and desire to cut to the truth. The bad ones come in several varieties, all similar to bad scientists. Some think they care about truth but are deluded into believing their hunches and assumptions are true. Like bad scientists they seek only evidence to back themselves up. There may also be bad journalists who are willing to distort the truth for a little publicity and attention, though in my experience self-deception is a lot more common than outright dishonesty.

It often doesn’t take more than a few minutes to read a few stories by the person about to interview you. If you suspect you’re about to be interviewed by a misguided journalist, you can still do some good by trying to set the record straight.

As a recent example, a story in the Dallas Morning News portrayed creationists in a very favorable light, suggesting they had some good points. There was a scientist interviewed, and while the story still didn’t come out very well, it would have been even worse without the scientist.

Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions before you start answering them

We see interviews on TV or hear them on radio and forget that for a web or print story, most of the conversation will go unprinted. So you should feel free to ask what the journalist thinks about the issue, why she’s writing about it, who else she’s interviewed, what those other sources have said. The creationists made some claims in the Dallas Morning News story that went unchallenged – about the time frame needed to form galaxies, mutate DNA and fossilize dinosaur bones. If you ask what else is in a story, the reporter may give you a chance to debunk those sorts of claims.

A good, truth-seeking reporter would do this automatically but mistakes get made, and shortcuts taken.

You can also ask personal questions. If the story is about science and religion, go ahead and ask if the reporter is religious. Asking questions can make an interview feel more like a normal conversation. Everyone is more comfortable.

Don’t intersperse comments that are “off the record”.

It gets too confusing if we’re interviewing dozens of people. It’s much better to keep it all on or all off. 95% of the time I wouldn’t want to use off the record comments anyway. They usually consist of irrelevant gossip. Or I might try to convince you to say it publicly, if I think there’s a public benefit to having it said. The other thing to keep in mind with off-the-record information is that you’ve got to be sure you and the reporter agree on what it means. It might mean just that it can’t be used in the story. But if Dr. Y tells me off the record that Dr. X made a mistake with a statistical analysis, I might want to return to Dr. X and ask him about the alleged error. The upshot: Be specific if you mean the reporter isn’t supposed to tell anyone.

Suggest other sources, and questions to ask them.

Suggest challenging questions for sources with whom you disagree. Suggest reading. Most journalists like to read and will even plow through whole books. If there’s an important scientific paper, you might need to walk us through the technical parts and the graphs, but we’re usually happy to get a guided tour.

Find out why you were chosen

Why is a journalist after you for an interview? If you know why you were chosen, it can help put you at ease.

I chose Dr. Coyne for the column about the Pope and evolution because I came across one of his blog-like website posts and realized that he’d not just written on religion and science, he’d really thought about it. I also had a feeling he was someone I’d want to know considering that I was embarking on a unique newspaper column devoted to evolution.

Ask to see the finished product, but don’t insist on it.

We journalists strive to be fair, or at least most of us do. And if there’s a perceived controversy between you and a rival, it might not be fair to let your rival read the story and not show it to you. However, if the story requires a lot of interpretation of technical material, we might want you to check for errors or places where we oversimplified to the point of misleading people. I prefer for there to be no unpleasant surprises.

In the story about Catholics and evolution, I didn’t want to show the story to anyone who was in the story, but I told everyone who else was being interviewed and roughly what was being said, so that all the sources had a chance to respond to each other.

The story started with an idea that popped into my head after the Pope made remarks about embracing evolution except when it came to the human mind. I wondered whether the belief in some sacred specialness of the mind or soul, was really compatible with Darwinian evolution. If we evolved gradually from other species, how and when would our lineage possibly acquired a soul?

In the end my column was not a he said/she said. Thanks to the help, openness, and insightfulness of the people I interviewed, I was able to come out and say there’s no good way to square the traditional belief in souls with what we know about human evolution. Attempts to reconcile them lead to the absurdity that there was a stage of partial souls or a generation of ensouled kids born to soulless parents. Talk about a generation gap!

My goal was not to be even-handed but to be fair, to be factually correct, and to give people something thought-provoking to read.


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