A tw**t from The Worldwide Times. I assume the picture is authentic:



h/t: Grania

Salon jumps the shark, becomes official secular atheist-bashing site

I hereby declare the official editorial policy of Salon to involve atheist-bashing, especially in the form of  the “I-am-better-than-everyone” stance so effectively portrayed in this famous xkcd cartoon on atheists:


And if a picture’s worth a thousand words, than the picture above is worth the 1,666 (!) words of Andrew O’Hehir’s new piece in Salon, “America: stupidly stuck between religion and science.” O’Hehir’s piece says absolutely nothing new, but simply reiterates the idea that fundamentalism is dumb, but not all religion is fundamentalism, that the New Atheists like Dawkins and Harris attack religion as if it were fundamentalism, and therefore they’re dumb too. Have you heard that one lately? O’Hehir’s looking for some kind of middle ground between science and religion, but, bizarrely, admits in the end that it doesn’t seem to exist. I wonder why that is?

Here, in words, is the supercilious first paragraph of O’Hehir’s piece, which could serve as a caption for the cartoon above:

Karl Marx’s famous maxim that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce, can apply just as well to the history of ideas as to the political sphere. Consider the teapot-tempest over religion and science that has mysteriously broken out in 2014, and has proven so irresistible to the media. We already had this debate, which occupied a great deal of the intellectual life of Western civilization in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it was a whole lot less stupid the first time around. Of course, no one on any side of the argument understands its philosophical and theological history, and the very idea of “Western civilization” is in considerable disrepute on the left and right alike. So we get the sinister cartoon version, in which religious faith and scientific rationalism are reduced to ideological caricatures of themselves, and in which we are revealed to believe in neither one.

Yes, we have had this debate, and it has continued, though I don’t think it was more active in the 18th and 19th centuries than it is now. And no, it’s not more stupid this time around, because we know a lot more about science, and we’ve seen how science has made even more hash of religious claims.  And note how O’Hehir implies that he, but nobody else engaged in these arguments, understands their philosophical and theological history. Such hauteur! In fact, many of the New Atheist arguments against religion are either the old and supposedly “less stupid” ones (viz. those of Russell or Hume), or newer responses to the defensive but unconvincing lucubrations of Sophisticated Theologians.™ You want stupid? Pick your side: Karen Armstrong or Steven Weinberg.

O’Hehir does indeed go after “young earth creationism” and its spinoffs, but then says that these worldviews are “a tiny fringe” movement in Christianity, implying that most decent Christians are of the liberal Eagleton stripe. He fails to note that 46% of Americans—hardly a tiny fringe minority—are indeed young-earth creationists when it comes to human evolution; that about 70% of us believe in Satan, angels, and Hell; and that 30% of Americans see the Bible as the direct word of God, while another 49% see it as “inspired by the word of God.”  O’Hehir clearly doesn’t get out enough, but at least he notes some of the dangers of melding Christianity and politics. Yet even those he hedges in a strange way:

This creationist boomlet goes hand in glove with the larger political strategy of Christian fundamentalism, which is somewhere between diabolically clever and flat-out desperate. Faced with a long sunset as a significant but declining subculture, the Christian right has embraced postmodernism and identity politics, at least in the sense that it suddenly wants to depict itself as a persecuted cultural minority entitled to special rights and privileges. These largely boil down, of course, to the right to resist scientific evidence on everything from evolution to climate change to vaccination, along with the right to be gratuitously cruel to LGBT people. One might well argue that this has less to do with the eternal dictates of the Almighty than with anti-government paranoia and old-fashioned bigotry. But it’s noteworthy that even in its dumbest and most debased form, religion still finds a way to attack liberal orthodoxy at its weak point.

He’s right about the “persecuted minority” canard, but I fail to see why gay rights, vaccination, and climate-change avowal are either “liberal orthodoxy” (they happen to be things that are either true or moral) or “weak points,” but never mind.  Certainly creationism and persecution of gays are strongly based on religion, and, of course, bigotry is not something that is separate from religion. Religion is certainly one of the main sources of bigotry.

After he gets religion out of the way, O’Hehir goes after his real target: atheists. And here he gets just about everything wrong:

Things can’t possibly be as bad on the scientific and rationalist side of the ledger, but they’re still confused and confusing. [Neil deGrasse] Tyson has made diplomatic comments about science and religion not necessarily being enemies, a halfway true statement that was never likely to satisfy anybody. (Meanwhile, “Cosmos” thoroughly botched the fascinating and ambiguous story of Giordano Bruno, a cosmological pioneer and heretical theologian burned by the Inquisition.) 

I didn’t see this show, but my impression, and that of others, was that the Bruno example was not used to show a conflict between religion and science per se, but a conflict between faith and rationality: how blind faith impeded and persecuted free thinking. O’Hehir argues that Tyson’s aim was to show that, à la Gould, religion and science occupy separate magisteria, but I don’t recall any viewers mentioning such a claim appearing in “Cosmos”.

O’Hehir then takes off the gloves and uses New Atheism as a punching bag, but again gets a lot of it wrong:

Creationists and other Biblical fundamentalists, needless to say, are having none of it: For them, the empirical realm is always and everywhere subservient to the revealed word of God. Meanwhile “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, along with their pop-culture sock puppet Bill Maher, espouse a similar view from the other direction. Their ahistorical or anti-historical depiction of religion is every bit as stupid as Ken Ham’s. Since there is nothing outside the empirical realm and no questions that can resist rational inquiry, the so-called domain of religion does not even exist. These debased modern-day atheists conflate all religion with its most stereotypical, superstitious and oppressive dogmas – a mistake that Nietzsche, the archangel of atheism, would never have made – and refuse to acknowledge that human life possesses a sensuous, symbolic and communal aspect that religion has channeled and accessed in a way no other social practice ever has. Strangely, their jeremiads urging the sheeple to wake from their God-haunted torpor haven’t won many converts.

First, nobody claims that “the so-called domain of religion” doesn’t exist, if that’s conceived as religious practices. If O’Hehir means that there is no evidence for any of the empirical claims of faith, then yes, we have no evidence of that sort. And that is completely independent of history or even the human longing for spirituality. After all, Sam Harris’s next book is on spirituality without religion.

O’Hehir thinks that somehow, because these human longings exist, they give credibility to religion. Well, they do, but only religion as a social or philosophical organization—not as a purveyor of truth. Further, who among us has “refused to acknowledge” that humans do long for symbolism, sensuality, and communality, something that religion tries to channel (along with its other less palatable aims)? Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell was in fact an attempt to show why, given the human character, religion has gained purchase. Finally, O’Hehir is simply wrong to say that the efforts of New Atheists “haven’t won many converts.” Has he ever looked at Dawkins’s “Converts Corner” site? That site has 120 pages of letters from people whom Dawkins has helped “convert” to unbelief. In contrast, I know of not one secularist who has become religious because he or she was turned off by the “militant atheism” of people like Dawkins. O’Hehir is a journalist who simply hasn’t done his homework, one who spout soothing platitudes without checking his facts.

What O’Hehir is missing is simply this: despite religion’s catering to some human needs, New Atheism opposes it on three grounds. First, its truth claims are false, and lead people to abandon rationality in other areas of inquiry. Second, that abandonment of rationality, and adherence to dogma, has pernicious effects on today’s world (O’Hehir himself cites America’s religious right, which even he admits has a malignant affect on society, but fails to mention Islam). Third, we can have the good things of religion—the communality, the sensuality, and yes, the spirituality—without the false, corrosive, and divisive claims of faith. After all, Scandinavia, France, and Germany do. And they’re doing fine.

And have a look at this deepity:

While [Ken] Ham’s beliefs are avowedly irrational and Dawkins claims to represent absolute rationality, both come off as passionate extremists within the cool, denatured, post-ideological space of the mass media — where in any case there is no obvious difference between those things.

“Cool, denatured, post-ideological space of the mass media”? What does that mean? (“Denatured”?) And does O’Hehir really see no difference between Ham’s crazed religiosity and arguments about the Flood and the Ark, and Dawkins’s refusal to accept these things because there’s no evidence for them? Yes, there is passion on both sides, but only one side has the evidence. Somehow “evidence” seems to have gotten lost in O’Hehir’s tirade.

I won’t reprise the rest of O’Hehir’s self-satisfied but unconvincing argument, except to reproduce his last paragraph, which I find thoroughly confusing:

Eagleton claims that our “post-theological, post-metaphysical, post-ideological [and] even post-historical era” is reacting with intense anxiety to the rise of a renewed fundamentalism, and the news flash that God isn’t dead after all. But he’s writing from the context of Britain, one of the world’s most thoroughly secularized societies. The American dilemma lies in the fact that we’re not post-anything. The Enlightenment never entirely took hold on this continent, as Thomas Jefferson accurately predicted, and the faithlessness or supermarket spirituality of consumer culture coexists uneasily with intense religious feeling and intense mythological nationalism. If Americans keep fighting the old philosophical battle between faith and reason over and over again, in increasingly silly forms, that reflects an unresolved spiritual contradiction at the core of our national identity. We long to be a shining city on a hill but cannot build it; we long for a mystical synthesis of science and religion but cannot find it.

On the one hand, O’Hehir bemoans the continuing conflict between Enlightenment values and religion. That’s a very real conflict, not a “silly” one.  And while it may be more intense in America than in, say, northern Europe, this conflict is not at “the core of our national identity”. Rather, it’s simply a holdover from the bad old days, combined with the adverse social conditions in America that has kept religion from waning as it has in much of Europe.

The reason the debate goes on is not because it’s been taken over by those “silly” New Atheists who don’t have the proper historical and theological grounding, but because there is a fundamental incompatibility between seeing the world through faith and through the spectacles of reason.

I, for one, do not long for a mystical synthesis of science and religion. Given religion’s methods for finding “truth,” which don’t find truth because each religion has settled on a different version of reality, and can’t find truth because faith accepts things without evidence, no synthesis is possible. That’s why we can’t find one. It’s beyond me why O’Hehir cannot see this simple fact. But perhaps he’s blinded by his animus towards atheism, and by his protruding chest, which, like that of a courting prairie chicken,  has become so puffed up by his preening and strutting that it has occluded his vision.

If anything is “silly” in all this, it’s O’Hehir’s futile effort to straddle the fence between science and religion. His article comes off as saying nothing beyond “both sides are stupid,” and he offers neither a synthesis nor a cogent analysis of the problem.


h/t: Marcel

Readers’ wildlife photos

One of my hosts at Davis, Luke Mahler, is a postdoc who specializes in evolutionary biology of reptiles. He’s been all over the world chasing these ectotherms, and has taken some crack photos. On the way to the airport for my return home, we stopped and looked for some burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) in North Davis.  There was indeed a colony; they nest in ground squirrel holes, but here is a telltale sign of an owl-inhabited burrow: tamped down grass around the hole and owl pellets nearby (my photo):


And we did see one owl. My own photos were lame, as I had a point and shoot camera, so from here on in, including the herps, I’ll show Luke’s photos from two days ago. His commentary is indented.

Look closely at the owl – it’s both banded and radio tagged!  In both photos you can see a long antenna on its back.  Looks like this is a research animal.


It took flight, and Luke got a good shot:


Some reptiles and amphibians (collectively, “herps”) from Luke:

The newts are Rough-skinned Newts (Taricha granulosa), made famous by Butch Brodie and colleagues for their variation in toxicity (which covaries geographically with toxin resistance in garter snakes, one of their principal predators). These ones are from Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve [near Davis] from last spring during breeding season.
The colorful snake is the Pacific Ring-necked Snake, Diadophis punctatus amabilis. These little guys are pretty harmless, but will flash their bright underparts to predators. I’m not sure quite how this is effective, although they exude a nasty cloacal musk, and that may play a role. I believe it’s been suggested that this widespread species mimics coral snakes and is more similar to them in areas where they overlap (i.e., the Deep South and Southwest). They eat a wide variety of invertebrates and small vertebrates (e.g., slender salamanders) typically found in leaf litter or under rocks or logs, which is where they occur.

Finally, the turtle is a young Pacific Pond Turtle (Actinemys marmorata) from Putah Creek, just west of the UC Davis campus. 



Tuesday: Hili dialogue

Hili: These flowers smell delicious.
A: But they are made out of wood.
Hili: Yes, but they were in the attic and they smell of mice.


In Polish:
Hili: Te kwiaty pięknie pachną.
Ja: Przecież to są drewniane kwiaty.
Hili: Tak, ale one leżały na strychu i pachną myszami.

Sony World Photography winners

Here’s another photography contest—this time the Sony World Photography Awards. The selection of photos below—the ones I like best—come from a post at Higher Learning. 

Hindus pray in front of Shri Shri Lokanath Brahmachar Ashram temple during the Rakher Upobash festival of fasting in Barodi, Narayangonj, Bangladesh. (© Suvra Kanti Das, 2014 Sony World Photography Awards)

Hindus pray in front of Shri Shri Lokanath Brahmachar Ashram temple during the Rakher Upobash festival of fasting in Barodi, Narayangonj, Bangladesh. (© Suvra Kanti Das, 2014 Sony World Photography Awards)


A wide-eyed baby Orangutan takes in the new world around him from the safety of mom’s embrace. (© Chin Boon Leng, 2014 Sony World Photography Awards)

A wide-eyed baby Orangutan takes in the new world around him from the safety of mom’s embrace. (© Chin Boon Leng, 2014 Sony World Photography Awards)

Crossing the river es muy peligroso for wildebeest:


The annual wildebeest migration which takes place every July in Kenya. (© Bonnie Cheung, 2014 Sony World Photography Awards)


Aerial shot of trains at an industrial site in Gdynia, Poland. (© Kacper Kowalski, 2014 Sony World Photography Awards)


Skiers wait their turn in Poland (© Kacper Kowalski, 2014 Sony World Photography Awards)

Skiers wait their turn in Poland (© Kacper Kowalski, 2014 Sony World Photography Awards)


Just two praying mantises looking awesome (© Hasan Baglar, 2014 Sony World Photography Awards)

Just two praying mantises looking awesome (© Hasan Baglar, 2014 Sony World Photography Awards)


A member of the nomadic horse-riding Kazakh people of Mongolia watches over his horses. (© Palani Mohan, 2014 Sony World Photography Awards)

A member of the nomadic horse-riding Kazakh people of Mongolia watches over his horses. (© Palani Mohan, 2014 Sony World Photography Awards)



Scientology’s dirty little secrets

From MobileMedia, the great-grandson of L. Ron Hubbard washes the family laundry in public:

Jamie DeWolf seems like an ordinary man, except he has an extraordinary family tree. He’s the great-grandson of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. But he has a dirty little secret. At 1:47, I learn of the secret [JAC: It's not so startling]. At 3:43, I’m shocked how his family was treated. And at 7:39, I feel the irony of the God and the man.

If you want a really good history of scientology, and a portrait of the bizarre character of L. Ron Hubbard (as well as the instability and violent temper of David Miscavage, the new head of the “church”), read Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright. What you’ll find is that although DeWolf comes across as a bit hyperbolic in his story, what he says is all true. Wright’s book is superb, reflecting an amazing amount of work and an ability to ferret out the well-hidden truths of the Church of Scientology.  And after you read it, you’ll be incensed that this “church” gets tax breaks, even if you’re already incensed that all churches get tax breaks.

h/t: Gregory

Ross Douthat and David Bentley Hart tell us how to find religious truth

One would think that Ross Douthat would have liked Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent New York Times piece describing a “numinous” experience she had when younger—an experience that could have been due to fatigue and hypoglycemia. From that she suggested that there may be something truly mysterious in the universe: another form of consciousness, perhaps something beyond materialism.

But the problem was that Ehrenreich not only ruled out God (Douthat is religious), but said that —horrors!—maybe science could address these mystical experiences. As she noted:

Is science ready to take on the search for the source of our most uncanny experiences?

Fortunately, science itself has been changing. It was simply overwhelmed by the empirical evidence, starting with quantum mechanics and the realization that even the most austere vacuum is a happening place, bursting with possibility and giving birth to bits of something, even if they’re only fleeting particles of matter and antimatter. Without invoking anything supernatural, we may be ready to acknowledge that we are not, after all, alone in the universe. There is no evidence for a God or gods, least of all caring ones, but our mystical experiences give us tantalizing glimpses of other forms of consciousness, which may be beings of some kind, ordinarily invisible to us and our instruments. Or it could be that the universe is itself pulsing with a kind of life, and capable of bursting into something that looks to us momentarily like the flame.

Now the type of science she’s suggesting here is obscure, but never mind.  To Douthat this kind of talk is a no-no. He not only wants his God, but he wants it to be immune from empirical testing so that it can forever remain a possibility—or, for him, a certainty. Therefore, in his new opinion piece in the Times, “How to study the numinous,” he tells us where Ehrenreich went wrong. Douthat’s argument draws heavily on David Bentley Hart’s new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. As you may recall, Douthat promoted that book as the one that atheists must come to grips with since it makes the best argument for God.

I’ve just finished that book, and it’s not the best argument for God. It in in fact a series of recycled arguments for God couched in fancy and often arrogant language. Hart, however, claims that his book is not a proof of God’s existence, but merely a distillation of what God means to all religions (he claims it’s pretty much the same for every faith: a transcendent Ground of All Being that is above yet immanent in all things, and not anthropomorphic—though he calls the god a “he” and says it’s capable of anthropomorphic feelings like love). But most of Hart’s book is really devoted to adducing evidence for God. He brings up the cosmological argument (something had to get it all started) as well as the existence of things like consciousness, rationality, and the sense of the beautiful that, he says, could never ever, be explained by naturalism. Indeed, at times he argues that beauty, consciousness, and rationality are God, so that there can be no way to disprove his/its existence at all. 

But most of Hart’s book is a sophisticated series of old but updated God-of-the-Gaps arguments, which have gained traction because of a). Hart’s exceedingly refined version of God, one not shared by most believers, and b). the well-written (and sometimes pedantic) reiteration of old arguments about consciousness and the like that probably appeal to a new generation of believers. Further, Hart doesn’t argue for the existence of his God (the Eastern Orthodox Christian one), so we are stymied in understanding why he holds the faith he does. He’s cagey when dealing with his personal beliefs: when it comes to what he thinks about miracles, for example, he simply says he’s “pulling the veil” in front of his thoughts. 

But back to Douthat. Hart’s influence on him is clear in the following dismissal of science’s attempts to understand the supernatural (my emphasis):

Which is not to say that science is helpless in the face of all supernatural claims and possibilities. Its methods are very good at debunking the claims of people — professional psychics and alleged practitioners of telekinesis, most notably — who insist that they have rendered the numinous predictable and found a way to consistently harness invisible powers to visible ends. But this debunking is possible because of what’s being claimed by the Uri Gellers of the world — a pretty-much-consistent power, with mostly-consistent results, that’s under direct human control. When you’re dealing with experiences that nobody really claims are predictable, and that at least seem — as Ehrenreich suggests — to represent a kind of breaking-in from outside rather than an expression of human gifts or willpower, the same debunking logic just doesn’t apply.

So by all means, neuroscientists should seek to understand mystical experiences, as they should seek to understand every other sort of experience … but absent a revolutionary breakthrough in the science of consciousness, for the foreseeable future the best way to actually penetrate any distance into mystical phenomena  will probably continue to be the twofold path of direct investigation and secondhand encounter. By direct investigation, of course, I mean personal prayer and meditation, which is the major path to knowledge if the major religious traditions are right about what’s going on here, and probably a useful path to some sort of knowledge even if they’re not.

In this way he immunizes the search for God against empirical considerations. Forget about the argument from evil, unanswered prayer, or God’s notable absence in the world.  You can’t apply science to God because he reveals himself in unpredictable ways.

But that’s specious because, although personal revelations might be unpredictable, the kind of God that emerges from them, if such revelations are really a source of truth, should be pretty consistent across religions. It isn’t.  His second mistake is to argue that “personal prayer and meditation” (I almost wrote “medication”) are “paths to knowledge.” Again, if they are, then that “knowledge” should be consistent among revelations. And again, it isn’t. I won’t reiterate how the basic tenets of different faiths conflict, except to give one: if you’re a Muslim and think that Jesus was the son of God and was resurrected after being crucified, you’ll go to hell. (Muslims also think that the Jesus who was crucified was an imposter—a stand-in for the real prophet.) But if you’re a certain type of Christian, you think precisely the opposite: that accepting Jesus as God’s son and savior is the only way to get to heaven.

Anyone who maintains that prayer and meditation are paths to knowledge about the divine has no idea what “knowledge” really means. Douthat’s caveat—that maybe, if this path is wrong (how would we know?), there’s still “some sort of knowledge” to be salvaged—doesn’t hold water. Which knowledge is to be accepted, and which trashed?

The “secondhand encounter” path to understanding God is William James’s path: study the lucubrations of mystics and those who have experienced revelations. As Douthat says:

In the case of the numinous, this means reading actual mystics and religious texts, reading novelists and poets and essayists who take up these experiences and themes, exploring theology and philosophy, delving into the sociology and anthropology and psychology of religious experience, and so on.

This comes up against the same problem: while all these people have had “mystical” experiences, they differ in content, so how can “truth” be distilled from them, particularly if one can get such experiences from drugs, electrical stimulation of the brain, or fatigue? (Read Michael Shermer’s experience of alien abduction during a long-distance bike race.)

Finally, Douthat quotes a passage from Hart’s book—one that occurs near the end—that really annoys me. Remember that Hart’s book was promoted as the one book that, as atheists, we simply had to read to truly come to grips with the meaning of God.  But now the bar is set higher! 

It’s remarkable how many recent “explorations” of religion (cough, Daniel Dennett, cough) don’t seem to grasp this point, which David Bentley Hart’s recent book distills as follows:

“… even if one’s concept of rationality or of what constitutes a science is too constricted to recognize the contemplative path for what it is, the essential point remains: no matter what one’s private beliefs may be, any attempt to confirm or disprove the reality of God can be meaningfully undertaken only in a way appropriate to what God is purported to be … In my experience, those who make the most theatrical display of demanding “proof” of God are also those least willing to undertake the specific kinds of mental and spiritual discipline that all the great religious traditions say are required to find God. If one is left unsatisfied by the logical arguments for belief in God, and instead insists upon some “experimental” or “empirical” demonstration, then one ought to be willing to attempt the sort of investigations necessary to achieve any sort of real certainty regarding a reality that is nothing less than the infinite coincidence of absolute being, consciousness, and bliss. In short, one must pray: not fitfully, not simply in the manner of a suppliant seeking aid or of a penitent seeking absolution but also according to the disciplines of infused contemplation, with real constancy of will and a patient openness to grace, suffering states of both dereliction and ecstasy with the equanimity of faith, hoping but not presuming, so as to find whether the spiritual journey, when followed in earnest, can disclose its own truthfulness …” [my emphasis]

Nope, now it’s not enough just to read a book to be able to say with authority that we’re atheists. No, we have to engage in long-term prayer, for crying out loud!

But how are we atheists supposed to do that? How can we pray to a Ground of Being we don’t accept? I simply couldn’t do it. How are we supposed to pray and leave ourselves open to grace with “the equanimity of faith” when we don’t have any faith? Does this mean that Sam Harris, who has meditated for years and yet remained a nonbeliever, is the only one of us who qualifies as an expert atheist? And what about all those believers who once prayed ardently but then rejected their faith? Since they fulfilled Hart’s requirement, what do we make of them?

This demand for prayer is asking too much, and is a sneaky and deceptive move on the part of Hart. First he claims that he’s not giving evidence for God. Then he tells us, at length, that the evidence is readily available to everyone: the existence of consciousness, rationality, the love of beauty, and the fact that the universe had to begin somehow. Then, finally, he says that we can’t fully absorb all these arguments until we fall on our knees and make ourselves open to the God we don’t believe in—and for a long time, too.

Forget it.  If God wants us to know him, he wouldn’t require this kind of three-step tomfoolery. And if we do what Hart says, and pray for a long time, and yet till remain atheists, what’s the next hurdle he’ll raise before us? It’s turtles all the way down!

Sorry, but I’ll just suspend belief until God makes himself more obvious. As Delos McKown said, “The invisible and the nonexistent look very much alike.”


Monday: Hili dialogue

Hili is late this morning as the University email was down until just now. But better late than never. . .

Hili: Your desk is a tragic mess.
A: I need all those papers.
Hili: Nonsense, a pillow would be enough.


In Poilsh:
Hili: Masz rozpaczliwy bałagan na twoim biurku.
Ja: Te wszystkie papiery są mi potrzebne.
Hili: Nieprawda, wystarczyłaby poduszka.


The New Scientist goes Templeton

This issue isn’t yet available through my library’s e-journal site, and it may not be an issue at all but a special collection, one dealing with “The Big Questions”

Screen shot 2014-04-04 at 5.02.15 AM

Sound familiar? That’s because it’s the John Templeton Foundation’s main theme:

Picture 3


New Scientist’s “Big Questions”, as touted on one site, includes the following:

The Big Questions

The first issue, entitled The Big Questions, explores and answers some of the profound questions we ask of ourselves and the universe around us:

Reality – Perhaps the most fundamental question of all – what is reality? It’s not as obvious as you may think.

Existence – What do the discoveries of modern science mean for our own existence? From the search for aliens to the bizarre possibility that you’re a hologram.

God – A new perspective is cast on one of the oldest answers in the book: that everything can be explained by the existence of an all-powerful supernatural being.

Consciousness – How can something so incredible be produced by 1500 grams or so of brain tissue, and why can you not be sure that everyone else is not a zombie?

Life – A phenomenon that, as far as we know, is confined to a tiny corner of the universe – life established itself quickly but why did it take so long to give rise to complex creatures?

Time – The everyday ticking of a clock might seem the most natural thing in the world, but it masks a very peculiar phenomenon.

Self – What is the self, which seems so solid and enduring to each of us and yet doesn’t appear to actually exist?

Sleep – The familiar yet strange world of sleep and dreaming – it’s a place we visit every night but which nonetheless remains eerie and elusive.

Death – There is perhaps no older question about human life than why it must one day cease. Is this New Scientist or New Superstitionist?

Well, some of these sound interesting, but they’re verging on the woo-ish, and what on Earth are they doing discussing God? (Note that the deity appears prominently in the ad.) Is there some new scientific evidence for his existence?

Indeed, New Scientist seems to be changing into New Superstitionist.

h/t: Diane G.

Holiday snaps: Davis (mostly noms)

Posting will be light today as I must catch up after my return to cold, rainy Chicago. Here are few of my holiday snaps (no work snaps) from Davis:

Flying over the Sierra Nevada:

. . and into California’s Great Central Valley, almost all farmland

central valley

First meal out in Davis: lunch at Redrum Burger. Once called Murder Burger, it was subject to a lawsuit because the name was already taken, so they simply reversed the name to make it something out of “The Shining”:

Burgers and fries:

Two burgers
My friend (and informal host) Phil Ward, an entomologist and ant expert, sharing a pitcher with me at the Delta of Venus after work, one of the last redoubts of the with-it-restaurant in Davis (it’s funky and hippy-ish, and serves Jamaican and Caribbean food as well as a good selection of local beers):


Et moi. . .

Beer in town

Putah Creek, the lazy stream that flows through campus. Parts of it are lined with coastal redwoods.

Davis Putah Creek

Although there was a formal dinner after my first Storer lecture, it was in a University facility and I didn’t take pictures. The next night, however, my friends Phil and Michael Turelli took me to Tucos, one of the three or four fine-dining restaurants in Davis.

As an aperitif, we began with a round of Pliny the Elder, a very highly-rated beer made by the Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, California. It was quite good: hoppy, but not too heavy on the hops, with a lovely floral nose:


Then three types of appetizers: medjool dates stuffed with goat cheese and apple and wrapped with bacon, herbed goat-cheese crostinis, and cachapas, Venezuelan corn cakes with melted cheese, served with sour cream:




My main course was one of my favorites, the Brazilian national dish feijoada, described on the menu as  “A Hearty Plate of Stewed Grass-Fed Beef and Pork Sausage and Farofa (Toasted Yucca Meal) Served with California Medium Grained Rice and House-Cooked Black Beans (Never Canned Beans) and Pan Fried Collard Greens.”


The wine was EBO Val di Cornia Suvereto 2008, a gutsy super Tuscan (and it better have been for $60 per pop—thanks, Storer folks!):


Bread pudding with golden raisins for dessert:

Bread pudding

The next day my host, Luke Mahler, took me to a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant in West Davis, Shanghai Town. We were the only non-Asian customers, so things looked good. And the food was excellent. We ate too much, starting with scallion cakes with sesame seeds, Eight Treasures, Lion Head Casserole, and Dan Dan noodles:


Chinese 8 treasures

Chinese lion's head

chinese dan dan

Lunch the next day was at a famous taco truck several miles north of Davis. Everybody in town knows about this La Kora:

Taco truck

I had three: birria (goat), carnitas (pork), and al pastor (beef), along with a Mexican orange soda. There are no tables or anything, so we sat on the curb. The tortillas are hand made, patted out by a woman who works in the truck (it seems to be a family business):


The area is apparently inhabited by feral kitties, and one came up to me. I tried to offer it a nom, but it was skittish and, after meowing a few times, walked away. It was one of the most beautiful stray cats I’ve ever seen (it was in good condition), and I deeply wanted to take it home. Look at  that silver-gray coat and those blue eyes!


On my last night, I collected on a very old bet. My friend Rick Grosberg, an evolutionary biologist who works on invertebrates, bet me in 2008 that Obama would not win the presidency. He deeply wanted Obama to, so I took the opportunity for a “sucker bet.”  I bet him a duck dinner that Obama would win, telling him that if he did, Grosberg would be so elated that he’d be glad to make me a duck dinner. (I made the same bet in 2012, so I have another dinner to collect.)

Grosberg paid off with a magnificent meal: he’s one of the two best male cooks I know. We started with a flute of Veuve Cliquot, served with local olives and pistachios, flatbread, and a local goat cheese. Then came the magret de canard (duck breast), cooked on the rare side, the way I like it. Rick had marinated it all day in pomegranate juice, molasses, and a brew of other stuff I couldn’t remember, then grilled it outside:

Cooking magret

Cutting the magret, clearly cooked properly:

cutting magret

The side dish was a wonderful casserole of leeks, Comte cheese, and croutons:


A plate fit for a king:

dinner plate

After the champagne, the wines included a fantastic Rioja from 2004, and then, for dessert, a sweet Italian—Recioto de Soave. It was the first time I had this wine, and it was luscious, tasting much like a late-harvest Riesling:


For dessert there was a grapefruit pound cake made by Rick’s partner, the well known pianist Lara Downes. Sadly, I nommed it before taking a picture.

As lagniappe, I got to hold their pet rabbit, Snuffles:


As you see, there was no dearth of noms. The next installment (I hope) will be photos of Davis’s annual Picnic Day, when the university puts on a big party with parades, sheep d*g trials, dachshund races, and all kinds of bells and whistles.



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