Immigration reform at last!

I know some readers think Obama is equivalent to Stalin in his policies and actions, but I think that’s completely nuts. In general, he’s been a good President, has gotten the economy moving, gotten health care enacted, and is pulling the U.S. out of our futile entanglements in the Middle East. And really, would you have preferred Romney?

But if he has one overweening failure, it’s his confidence that he could work with the Republicans in Congress to enact bipartisan reform, particularly of immigration.  That was dumb: the Republican agenda consists of four words: Defeat Anything Obama Wants.  It took a while for Obama to realize this, and then he stalled his own action on immigration reform until after the mid-term elections, hoping that this cowardly delay would help the Democrats.

Well, we know how that worked out. So, yesterday, Obama announced a fairly comprehensive plan of immigration reform, to be implemented by executive order. I didn’t watch his speech since the details had already been released, but here are a few provisions as reported in today’s New York Times and CNN:

  • Five million illegal immigrant will be protected from deportation.
  • Four million of those can apply for legal status and receive Social Security cards, so long as they are parents of legal U.S. citizen (children born here or their children who received legal status already), have been in the U.S. five years or longer. and pass background checks. They will be required to pay U.S. taxes but will not (I think) be eligible for “Obamacare”.
  • Children who were brought here illegally (the “dreamers”) will be allowed to stay.
  • A federal program that allowed document checks of people stopped for small offenses like traffic violations will be ended.
  • On the enforcement side, gang members and criminals will be increasingly targeted for prosecution or deportation, and there will be new provisions and funding to stem the flow of illegal immigrants (good luck with that!)

This was the right thing to do.  These immigrants, though often characterized as parasites on the U.S. economy, do many of the necessary but onerous jobs that Americans don’t want. Many busboys and dishwashers in Chicago, for example, are undocumented Hispanics. This gives them a chance to work their way out of poverty and to fulfill something I still believe in: the “American dream.”  There’s no way we can simply prosecute and deport every one of the millions of people who are here illegally.

So chalk one up for the President, even if this action was deferred too long.  He learned his lesson about Republicans the hard way: they have no interest in ruling by consensus with the executive branch.

Two problems remain. First, there’s the goddam Republicans, who, incensed that Obama is letting brown people stay in the country, are threatening reprisal—either further pushback of Democratic legislation or even a shutdown of the government.  That is the action of a petulant child. The only immigration “reform” most Republicans want is to keep all non-white people out of the country.

Second, it will be nearly impossible to stem the tide of immigrants, or so I think. Walls don’t stop them, police don’t stop them; nothing, it seems, will stop them. Life is simply better here—even as a low-wage undocumented worker with a crummy job—than in places like Honduras or much of Mexico. So the flow of immigrants is a problem deferred, not a problem solved.

One thing I noticed in all this debate: “illegal immigrant” or “illegal alien” has been replaced with the term “undocumented immigrant.” I wasn’t aware of this transformation, but I found one report saying that “illegal” is offensive to such people.  I find that bizarre, for they truly did come into this country illegally, and, after all, “undocumented” means “a worker without legal documents.” This is the kind of euphemism, propagated by immigration reformers, that is supposed to defuse the illegality of what happened.  (Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” gives many examples.) But let us make no mistake; these people came here illegally. Nevertheless, the fact that they broke the law (many out of sheer desperation) is irrelevant to the justice that Obama meted out yesterday.

Readers’ wildlife photographs

Reader Ed Kroc sends some photographs from rainy British Columbia:

I wanted to send some pictures from a very rainy Thanksgiving trip last month to BC’s lower Sunshine Coast.  I am quite a mycological illiterate, so unfortunately the fungus comes unidentified.  Nevertheless, they are quite impressive specimens!  The first fungus grows like a shelf perpendicular to the trunk of a tree, with a weird concentric colouration.  The second fungus looks just like a stack of pancakes sitting on the forest floor (my hand is in the shot to give a sense of scale).

Readers can help identify these:

Shelf fungus

Stack of pancakes fungus
One thing you need to be on constant watch for hiking anywhere in the forests of BC is the ubiquitous and painfully slow Pacific Banana Slug (Ariolimax columbianus). [JAC: Wikipedia says this is the second largest terrestrial slug on Earth.) These guys come in various shades of yellow, tan, green, and black, and it’s hard to go more than fifteen or twenty minutes along a trail without nearly crushing one.  The one pictured here was relatively easy to spot as he/she was feasting on some broken piece of other unknown fungus.  With all the mushrooms bursting from the forest floor, the autumn months must be good times to be a slug.

Banana Slug with feast

Banana Slug with feast close-up

And a bird or two.  This Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) is a young juvenile, digging through the mosses and the pebbles on the beach at Davis Bay.

Savannah Sparrow juvenile

The Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus) was found fishing alone at dusk at Francis Point Provincial Park.  This one is in his/her winter plumage, which lacks the eponymous “horns” of summer that usually flare up from the sides of the head.  Still, the red eye commands a good amount of attention.

Horned Grebe at dusk



Friday: Hili dialogue

It’s cold in Chicago, but fortunately the great blizzards inundating the U.S. have missed us: we have no snow. Meanwhile, in Dobrzyn, Hili recounts her day’s noms to Cyrus:

Cyrus: What did you eat today?
Hili: Two mice, one sparrow and some treats bought from a profit-hungry corporation.
In Polish:
Cyrus: Co dzisiaj jadłaś?
Hili: Dwie myszki, jednego wróbelka i trochę smakołyków nabytych od żądnych zysku korporacji.


Percy and Orlando meet the catnappers

by Matthew Cobb

This is an apparently heartwarming story – David Allinson was reunited with his cat, Percy, after 10 years apart. Percy went missing in 2003, and David gave up hope of ever seeing him again. But Percy had moved 15 miles down the road, where he lived with an old lady. When the old lady died, a woman called Ruth Hart took him on, and decided to get him chipped. But Percy already had a chip – showing he was David’s cat. And in one of those amazing twists of fate, it turned out that Ruth was one of David’s work colleagues. The Guardian reports:

Allinson said: “After I called Ruth, we arranged a meeting so I could be reunited with Percy.“He was afraid and was hiding behind the sofa, but when I called his name he came running into my arms. I burst into tears – I couldn’t believe it, it was my Percy.”

Here’s a picture of Allinson with Percy:

Allinson decided to leave Percy in his new home, and goes to see him regularly. A lovely heartwarming story.

Or is it? The old lady was clearly a CATNAPPER. This is a phrase that strikes horror into me, as when I was a child I read Orlando the Marmalade Cat books, large-format, beautifully-illustrated books and in one of these (Orlando – His Silver Wedding), Orlando was catnapped.

Orlando was written and drawn by Kathleen Hale, who died in 2000 aged 101. She was heavily influenced by Japanese art. Here’s a picture of the Catnapper, who was in fact (like Percy’s oldlady, no doubt) a kindly soul. He was just addicted to cats!

Orlando was saved from the cat-napper by his Wicked Uncle Truffle (not so wicked really), who was a scary-looking black cat:

The Orlando books were very popular in the 40s and 50s, and I grew up reading them, and made sure my children read them, too. In 1968 he went to the moon (before Armstrong and Aldrin). In the 1990s, he even got a stamp!

One of my favourite books is Orlando Goes on a Camping Holiday. Here’s a picture from that book of Orlando and his wife Grace playing their instruments, while their kittens – Blanche (white, obvs, Tinkle (black) and Pansy (tortoiseshell)  join in. Some of the local wildlife are in the picture, too. (Notice where Orlando wears his watch.)

If you want to see some of the books, here’s a list with pictures of the covers. Many of the books were reprinted in the 1990s and can be found at reasonable (ish) prices. The originals are, of course, pretty pricey.

Doesn’t anyone care?

Every time I take the bus, as I did today returning from the Rugby Scrum, I’m forced to see this:

Bus label

Doesn’t anyone care that this policy gives priority only to customers with two characteristics: they have a disability and are with a senior? Don’t they see that they could easily fix it by simply changing the wording to say “seniors and customers with disabilities”?  “Priority seating is for customers who are seniors or have disabilities.” (I knew I’d screw this up!)


I’m sure I’ve posted this exact sign before, but I’m too lazy to look it up.

What Would Pinker Do?


The answer to a burning question

From Quora (a question-and-answer site), via reader Peter:

Screen shot 2014-11-20 at 5.16.38 AM


Another unconvincing redefinition of free will

I can’t remember whether a reader or someone else recommended that, since I’m interested in free will, I should read Michael Gazzaniga’s book Who’s in Charge? Gazzaniga, a well known neuroscientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, gave the prestigious Gifford Lectures (an annual series of endowed lectures in Scotland that have been going since 1898) in 2009 and 2010.

All Gifford lectures deal with the intersection of science and religion, but aren’t Templeton-esque since they’ve included explicit critics of religion like Steve Pinker and Carl Sagan. They’ve also included religionists, of course, including William James, Terry Eagleton, Rowan Williams, and Alfred North Whitehead. Traditionally, the Gifford Lectures are turned into a book, the most famous of which was James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. And Gazzaniga’s book represents his writing-up of the lectures. Sagan’s lectures were, after his death, edited by Ann Druyan into the lovely book The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God (recommended by Professor Ceiling Cat). Those who see Sagan as a “kinder Old Atheist” should have a look at that book.

Gazzaniga’s thesis is that, although determinism reigns at the brain level, so that our actions are determined in advance (though not 100% predictable), humans nevertheless still have free will and moral responsibility. In other words, he’s a compatibilist.  Compatibilism is, of course, the notion that “free will” can still exist despite physical determinism of our behaviors, including “choice”.  It contrasts with libertarian free will (the notion that we can make free and undetermined choices—that we could have “done otherwise” at any time), which almost always rests on a form of dualism: that the mind is somehow separate from the brain and can control it. It’s also opposed to incompatibilism, which holds that free will (one must define it, of course), is incompatible with physical determinism. Since my definition of “free will” is the traditional one, held by religionists and many laypeople alike, I’m an incompatibilist. Here’s my definition, taken from biologist Anthony Cashmore:

[F]ree will is. . . defined as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature.

That’s explicitly dualistic. Of course, compatibilists define it differently, as they must if they’re to harmonize free will and determinism, but I think the above definition comports with the common (and certainly the religious) notion of free will. It is the one, for instance, held by many scientists I have met.

As an incompatibilist, I reject the notion that humans have moral responsibility for their actions, since the concept of “moral responsibility” involves “ability to choose otherwise.” I do, however, think that people are responsible for their actions; that is, they must be held accountable for what they do for the good of society. But I’ve written about that on this site before; just search for “free will.”

There are dozens of different (and sometimes incompatible!) ways to define “free will” to make it compatible with determinism, which leads me to suspect that compatibilists are like theologians, who redefine God so it always remains compatible with the latest findings of science (ergo, we now have a “Ground-of-Being” God, compatible with all possible findings.  Some types of compatibilism give free will to animals and computers, others to primates, still others to our species alone. That means that none of them can be “right” in any meaningful sense.

Gazzaniga defines free will as a function of human social interaction. The meat of his book is summarized in these two paragraphs in the penultimate section of his book, “Social interactions make us free to choose” (p. 215, my emphasis):

My contention is that ultimately responsibility is a contract between two people rather than a property of a brain, and determinism has no meaning in this context. Human nature remains constant, but out in the social world behavior can change. Brakes can be put on unconscious intentions. I won’t throw my fork at you because you took a bite of my biscuit.  The behavior of one person can affect another person’s behavior. I see the highway patrolman coming down the onramp and I check my speedometer and slow down. As I said in the last chapter, the point is that we now understand that we have to look at the whole picture, a brain in the midst of and interacting with other brains, not just one brain in isolation.

No matter what their condition, however, most humans can follow rules. Criminals can follow the rules. They don’t commit their crimes in front of policemen. They are able to inhibit their intentions when the cop walks by. They have made a choice based on their experience. This is what makes us responsible agents, or not. 

I have read this several times, and I don’t see it offering much scope for free will, even defined broadly. What Gazzaniga defines as “choice” is not a “free” choice, but a choice that has been determined by the individual’s experience—in the case of behaving well in front of a policeman, by the experience of knowing what happens when people misbehave and of seeing what happens to convicted criminals. So, somewhat like Dan Dennett, Gazzaniga sees “free will” simply as a computer program in the brain, but a complicated one that can be modified by the social environment (in this case, the presence of the police).

But even diehard incompatibilists like myself, and all scientists, agree that interaction with the environment, and that includes other people, can modify the brain and hence one’s behavior. That’s not news!  The “contract” that modifies our own brains to give us free will is simply the set of rules that social groups of humans generally live by, whether those rules be coded in our genes, the result of experience, or an interaction between these two factors. Those rules don’t differ in principle between the rules that many animals obey, or even chess-playing computers, which learn to modify their moves based on whether previous moves have brought them victory or defeat.  There is a “contract” between two squirrels (or so I have noticed) that when they are competing for a pile of seeds, the smaller one gives way to the larger. That’s a result of either genes or learning, but it’s a contract nonetheless, and is there to prevent harm to squirrels. Do squirrels then have free will and moral responsibility?

So in the end, Gazzaniga sees human free will in the behaviors we possess that resulted from our evolution and participation in social groups. We change our behavior based on our experiences, and that learning, of course, is a result of adaptive evolution itself: we modify what we do based on what we see, and in a way that preserves our well being. (I’ve written a bit on Gazzaniga’s views before, but haven’t read his book until now.)

Gazzaniga’s whole thesis is undercut by this misguided statement: “My contention is that ultimately responsibility is a contract between two people rather than a property of a brain, and determinism has no meaning in this context.” Well, if the contract is itself determined by our genes and our environment, which I believe it is, then why is determinism irrelevant to responsibility, much less moral responsibility? Why does a contract suddenly give us more responsibility than if we were solitary animals like orangutans, but could kill or injure, or steal from other orangutans? And what is “free” about the contract? Of course determinism is relevant to social contracts.

Gazzaniga’s book is worth reading, as it has a lot of fascinating information about neuroscience, how the brain works, and how split-brain patients behave when their separated hemispheres receive conflicting information. But it fails as a synthesis of neuroscience and philosophy, for there is no obvious connection to me between social “contracts” and free will. Such contracts are just another way of saying that an animal’s environment can modify its behavior.

In the end, I still hold that the philosophical exercise of finding ways to make free will compatible with determinism is unproductive: a waste of time motivated in part by philosophers’ views that, without thinking that we can “choose otherwise,” society would degenerate into a pack of wastrels, nihilists, and people who won’t get out of bed. What on earth has compatibilism accomplished? It is akin, as I said, to theology, and in many ways (one of which is the view that without belief in free will, like without belief in God, society will degenerate).

One of the most obvious resemblances of theology to compatibilism is the continual redefinition of “free will” so that (like God) it’s always preserved despite scientific advances. When Libet and Soon et al. showed that they could predict a person’s behavior several seconds in advance of that person’s conscious decision, the compatibilists rushed to save their definition, declaring that these experiments are completely irrelevant to the notion of free will. They’re not. For if free will means anything, it means that our choices are coincident with our consciousness of making them (to libertarians, our consciousness makes those choices, and we could have chosen otherwise). There is no scientific experiment, no finding from neuroscience, that will make the compatibilists give up their efforts, for they will simply continue to redefine free will in a way that humans will always have it. That resistance to evidence is another way compatibilism resembles Sophisticated Theology.™

And let me say this one more time: philosophers who are truly concerned with changing society based on reason wouldn’t be engaged in compatibilism, they’d be engaged in working out the consequences of determinism, especially its implications for how we reward and punish people.






Hermit crab housing swap

This video, which you can see at Twisted Sifter by clicking the link below (I couldn’t embed it, and the BBC version on YouTube isn’t visible in the US) is right up there with yesterday’s snail-shell-using spider as one of the marvels of nature. In fact, it’s a stunning example of bizarre but orderly animal behavior, and I demand that all readers go see it now (it’s only two minutes long).

The video, shot in Belize, shows what happens when a big empty shell washes ashore and there are hermit crabs around looking for a new home. (They grow throughout their lives and must find new shells when the old ones get too small.) Sometimes fierce competition ensues for good shells, but this video shows a fantastic dominance hierarchy that forms to get every crab a new and bigger shell. A “conga line” of crabs forms, with the biggest at the front and the smaller ones following behind, ordered by size. When the biggest one enters the new, empty shell, they all swap homes at once, moving forward to the next largest shell.

I had no idea anything like this happened, but David Attenborough documents it with his usual panache. WATCH IT!

When you click on the picture below, click on the arrow on the video to watch.

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 1.22.06 PM

Notice how fast the swap takes: I timed the big crab’s move at four seconds. That’s because the rear end of the hermit crab is soft and vulnerable (that’s why they’re in someone else’s shell), resembling a shell-less shrimp. The crab doesn’t want that bit exposed to predators for any longer than possible.

Here, from Wikipedia, is a photo of a hermit crab outside the shell; it’s naked and pathetic. You can see, though, how the abdomen is curled up so that it handily fits inside a shell.


Pagurus bernhardus

h/t: Pär


Readers’ wildlife photographs

Posting may be light today as I’m going to the Indian Consulate for my visa, an experience akin to entering a rugby scrum. As Captain Oates purportedly said, “I may be some time.” In the meantime, have a gander at these Arctic photos from reader Bob Johnson, who adds:

All these photographs where taken by me on Round Island, Alaska in August 2007. Round Island is part of the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary located in Bristol Bay on the Bering Sea.   Round Island beaches are home to a colony of male walruses, the cliffs and waters are home to many species of marine birds.  These may soon become rare as Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced the island will be permanently closed at the end of this season. The closure seems to be financial and not due to environmental concerns.
I’m not sure what Bob means by “these may soon become rare,” as closing the island to tourists wouldn’t seem to reduce the widlife population. At any rate, the critters:
Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) (males)




Pigeon guillemot (Cepphus columba)

Guillemont 537

 Common murre or Common guillemot (Uria aalge)

Murre 041

Horned puffin (Fratercula corniculata)

Puffin 197


Tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata)

Puffins 036

A milestone

Subscriptions have risen quickly over the last few days, and we reached this figure last night:

Screen shot 2014-11-20 at 5.08.45 AM

I’m chuffed, but, sadly, am unable to identify person number 30,000.


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