German fans help an ailing football club

Lord, soccer fans can be cruel to their own clubs. This video showing such behavior was sent by Matthew Cobb, who noted:

In 2012, FC Magdeburg had gone 5 games without scoring, so the fans decided to help their strikers.

How embarrassing this must have been for the team. And, even with this help, Magdeburg still lost!

Starlings take a bath, in slo-mo

All of us, I bet, have seen a bird take a bath, be it in water or dust. And what we see is a quick blur of feathers surrounded by flying dust or splashing water. What happens when you slow the action down?

Earth Unplugged used extremely slow motion to film a starling taking a water bath, and after the singleton bathes, a whole group bathes at once, as if in a Turkish bath.

I was struck by how they manage to get between all their feathers which, of course, is to remove dust and parasites. It reminded me of how my parents would tell me to wash between my toes when I was small.

I wasn’t not clear why the filmmakers talked about how the baths help the birds maintain their waterproofing, but a Stanford University website on why birds bathe has one answer, at least for dust baths:

When birds bathe in water or saturate themselves with dust they are actively maintaining their plumage. In well-watered areas bathing is most common, in arid ones dusting is more often observed. Experiments with quail show that frequent dusting helps to maintain an optimum amount of oil on the feathers. Excess plumage lipids, including preen oil, are absorbed by the dust and expelled along with dry skin and other debris. If quail are prevented from dusting, their feathers quickly become oily and matted. Dusting may also help to discourage bird lice, but no experimental evidence exists as yet showing that to be the case.

Wrens and House Sparrows frequently follow a water bath with a dust bath (one reason to suspect an anti-parasite function for dusting). Overall, the amount of time and effort birds put into bathing and dusting indicates how critical feather maintenance may be. Feathers are marvelous and intricate devices, but keeping them functional requires constant care.

Of course getting rid of parasites and grit has to be an important function of bathing as well. The half-page piece is well worth reading, as it describes how different kind of birds manage to bathe themselves using a diversity of techniques.

h/t: Heather Hastie

Reza Aslan denies that religious belief produces violence, misrepresents Sam Harris again

Reza Aslan is enjoying a spurt of fame (I’d call it notoriety) since the altercation between Sam Harris + Bill Maher vs Ben Affleck on Maher’s show. Always a Muslim apologist, who can’t even admit that Muslims believe that Muhammad deflowered a 9-year-old girl, Aslan has become the Karen Armstrong of Islam.

In an op-ed on CNN, “How strong is the link between faith and terrorism?“, Aslan basically denies that beliefs play a “necessary and distinct” role in actions, although he never defines what he means by “necessary and distinct”:

After all, there’s no question that a person’s religious beliefs can and often do influence his or her behavior. The mistake lies in assuming there is a necessary and distinctcausal connection between belief and behavior — that Bibeau’s [the Canadian Muslim who shot a Candian soldier] actions were exclusively the result of his religious beliefs.

The notion that there is a one-to-one correlation between religious beliefs and behavior may seem obvious and self-evident to those unfamiliar with the study of religion. But it has been repeatedly debunked by social scientists who note that “beliefs do not causally explain behavior” and that behavior is in fact the result of complex interplay among a host of social, political, cultural, ethical, emotional, and yes, religious factors.

Well, I don’t know the studies to which Aslan’s referring, but to say that beliefs do not causally explain behavior seems insane.  What about men who shoot their wives, or their wives’ lovers, because they believe they’re cuckolds? What about gangsters who kill other gangsters who, they think, have muscled in on their territory? What about honor killings? Are those not behaviors that come directly from beliefs? The “complexity” bit is just a canard that Aslan throws in to make us think, “Wow–things are really complicated! Maybe I ought to stop harping on religion.”

In truth, Aslan wants us to think that it’s only religious beliefs that don’t determine (“necessarily and distinctly”) behavior, because his interest is in defending religion, Islam in particular.  But what does “necessarily and distinctly” mean? I’d say that if there is a purported mix of factors that are said to determine a behavior, and that the behavior never occurs without a certain one of the factors (say, religious belief), then, yes, religion necessarily and distinctly influences that behavior. It’s like a multifactoral statistical analysis, in which you partition out the contributors to an outcome and find one has the overriding influence.  Only the willfully blind would say, I think, that the murder of Shiites by Sunnis, the stoning of adulterers, the killing of apostates, and so on, would still occur had religion never inflicted itself on our species (for one thing, we wouldn’t have Sunnis and Shiite sects, which separate people of identical backgrounds and ethnicity).

I don’t think that anyone would claim that many actions that are largely motivated by religious beliefs have no other causes, something that Aslan claims all New Atheists think.  For example, a Muslim growing up in Minnesota probably won’t behead a journalist because of the accidents of geography and history. Yet Aslan claims that, for example, Sam Harris thinks not only that religion is only cause of bad behavior by Muslim extremists, but also that those extremists should be killed before they even do anything—as a sort of preemptive strike. As he says:

But to argue that Breivik’s or Bibeau’s actions were motivated solely by their religious beliefs — or that their religious beliefs necessarily dictated their actions — is simply irrational.

And yet, this trope has become exceedingly common among some critics of religion. Take the following excerpt from the bestselling book “The End of Faith,” by the anti-theist activist Sam Harris (Note: because Harris has repeatedly tried to defuse the significance of his argument and has even gone so far as to accuse those, including me, who quote his words of defamation, I will present the passage in its entirety so that there can be no confusion as to his meaning).

“The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense.”

Harris’ argument is that a person’s religious beliefs do not merely influence his or her behavior. They determine it. In other words, people holding certain beliefs should be killed, not because those beliefs may lead to violent behavior, but because they necessarily will. Therefore, in order to save ourselves (“self-defense” Harris calls it) we may be justified in killing the believer before his or her beliefs turn into action — as they inevitably will.

This goes on, but you get the point. According to Aslan, Harris thinks we should nuke Muslim extremists because we predict they’ll engage in bad behavior. They don’t have to have even done anything; they only have to be threatening.

But of course Aslan, as is his wont, is misrrepresenting Harris. Not only that, but (as we’ll see), Aslan actually agrees with the “preemptive strike” position: he’s more extreme than is Harris!

You can read Harris’s own response to Aslan’s claim, written before Aslan’s article, in a piece at Harris’s site: “On the mechanics of defamation.” Although it’s been a while since I read The End of Faith, that quotation immediately struck me as having been taken out of context. Sure enough, Sam’s post gives the full context, which explains that people deserve being taking out if they have already shown, through their behavior, direct and convincing evidence that they will commit harms in the future (he mentions in an endnote to this passage that Al-Qaeda’s bombing of the World Trade Center is one example). It is when beliefs are translated into malevolent actions that we are justified, or so Harris says, in killing people. One can argue about this, but it’s patently clear that Aslan is leaving out the part about “having beliefs that one is warranted in thinking will produce even more harm in the future.”

I don’t need to defend Harris; as he showed on his discussion with Cenk Uygur, he can do that himself.  What I’m arguing here is that Aslan is intellectually dishonest, and he’s learned that his distortions (which begin with him misrepresenting his own credentials) only bring him more attention.

To top it off, for someone who criticizes Harris for being preemptively hawkish, Aslan has no business saying this in an interview in New York Magazine:

How do you counter the group? [ISIS]
The way you confront an organization like that is twofold. No. 1, you kill their militants. There is no room for discussion or negotiation when it comes to an ISIS or an Al Qaeda militant. They don’t want anything concrete. And if you want nothing that’s measurable or concrete, there is nothing to talk about. You must be destroyed. But that’s not the end of the argument because, as you rightly say, this is an organization that has managed to draw Muslims from around the world to their cause by setting themselves up as a group that is addressing their grievances, whatever those grievances may be.

Aslan also argues that ISIS is not an Islamist organization, but a jihadist organization, and is “transnational” because they don’t want a country (no, they only want the world as a Caliphate). The distinction is lost on me, for their motivations, as nearly everyone but the blinkered admit, are to carry out what they see as the dictates of the Qur’an.

And so Aslan, blinkered himself, cannot see a connection between religious ideology and action. It is as if religion is the sole form of belief that is immune to being translated into action. One more quote from his CNN piece will suffice:

It is true that religious beliefs can often lead to actions that violate basic human rights. It is also true that a great many of those actions are taking place right now among Muslims. But it is ridiculous to claim that the actions of Islamic extremists are either necessarily or exclusively the result of their belief in Islam.

“Ridiculous”? Really? What would it take, Dr. Aslan, to convince you that ISIS wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing if Islam had never existed? And what do you mean by “necessarily or exclusively the result of their belief in Islam”?  Yes, there are many Muslims who don’t engage in the barbarities of ISIS, just as there are many Christians who don’t bomb abortion clinics. But what is really ridiculous is to pretend that an extreme belief in the tenets of Islam is not what’s motivating the perfidies of ISIS.

Jonas Salk’s 100th birthday and the conquest of polio

I was still young when polio was a scourge of the world, and I well remember being terrified of getting the disease and having to spend my life in an iron lung, or walking with braces. The disease peaked in the summer, and we were always told to avoid public swimming pools, where you were supposed to be especially susceptible to the virus.

Then, Jonas Salk (1914-1995), after years of field trials, announced a successful killed-virus vaccine in 1955, when I was five. I got inoculated, as did everyone else, and within a few years polio was no longer a fearsome scourge of Americans (it took longer to tackle the rest of the world).  As Wikipedia reports (and they have a nice article on Salk)

By 1962, polio had become almost extinct [in the U.S.], with only 910 cases reported that year—down from 37,476 in 1954.

The Guardian describes the field trials:

In 1954, over 300,000 doctors, nurses, schoolteachers and other volunteers across the United States, Canada and Finland took part in one of the most complex and monumental medical trials in history. The plan was to test the effectiveness of a newly-developed vaccine for a disease that was devastating the lives of children across the US: polio.

It was a mammoth task – a double-blind experiment, in which 650,000 schoolchildren were given the vaccine, 750,000 were given a placebo, and over 400,000 children acted as a control group and were given neither. For taking part, each participant was given a sweet and a certificate proclaiming their role as a ‘Polio Pioneer’. The results, announced in 1955, were just as monumental: the vaccine was safe and effective. As a direct result of the development of the vaccine, polio was completely eradicated in the US by 1979.

Here’s a “Polio Pioneer” certificated from the Gianelloni Family website:



Today would be Salk’s 100th birthday had he lived (he was born only a day after Dylan Thomas); and Google celebrates Salk’s great achievement with a Doodle. Click on the picture below to access it, and then again to see some articles about Salk.

Screen shot 2014-10-28 at 5.44.40 AM

There is now a Global Polio Initiative, with the goal of completely eliminating the disease from this planet. Since the virus cannot survive outside the human body, it is entirely within our capacities to get rid of the disease, as we have with smallpox and rinderpest. The initiative has reduced the number of cases from 350,000 in 1988 to only 416 cases last year.  And, if the antivaxer Hindus, Muslims, and Western nutjobs would relent, it would drop to zero.  As The World Health Organization reports, the disease is now endemic in only three nations: Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria.

Three questions:

1. Why didn’t Salk patent the vaccine? The answer is often given that he was a pure humanitarian and not interested in getting wealthy.  In a famous exchange, journalist Edward R. Murrow asked Salk who had the patent on his vaccine. Salk answered, ““Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Here’s the video of that famous exchange:

But, as BIOtechNOw reports, the story is more complicated:

As pointed out by Robert Cook-Deegan at Duke University, “When Jonas Salk asked rhetorically “Would you patent the sun?” during his famous television interview with Edward R. Murrow, he did not mention that the lawyers from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis had looked into patenting the Salk Vaccine and concluded that it could not be patented because of prior art – that it would not be considered a patentable invention by standards of the day. Salk implied that the decision was a moral one, but Jane Smith, in her history of the Salk Vaccine, Patenting the Sun, notes that whether or not Salk himself believed what he said to Murrow, the idea of patenting the vaccine had been directly analyzed and the decision was made not to apply for a patent mainly because it would not result in one. We will never know whether the National Foundation on Infantile Paralysis or the University of Pittsburgh would have patented the vaccine if they could, but the simple moral interpretation often applied to this case is simply wrong.”

Nevertheless, many modern patents rely on prior art, and it’s unthinkable that something like the Salk vaccine wouldn’t be used today to enrich researchers and pharmaceutical companies. And from what I know of Salk’s life (he was a real humanitarian), I don’t think he even cared about making any money off the vaccine. To me he’s still a scientific hero.

2. How much would Salk have made had he patented the vaccine? Salk’s killed-virus vaccine is now the inoculation of choice over the live-virus Sabin alternative.  The riches spurned by Salk are discussed in a piece by Amar Prabhu in Forbes, who estimates that Salk would have made over two billion dollars had he patented the vaccine (Prabhu’s article is a fascinating analysis).  Of course Salk made a decent salary as a physician, medical researcher, and later as head of the Salk Institute, and became about as famous as a scientist can get, but that’s still a lot of dosh to forgo!

3. Finally, why didn’t Salk (or his rival Sabin) win the Nobel Prize? Salk was festooned with honors, degrees, and awards in his life, but one prize always eluded him: the Nobel. The common explanation, as implied in question #1 above, is that Salk’s vaccine wasn’t innovative in a technical sense, since it combined elements of previous research, such as using material from a dead microbe to induce immunity. But still, as Wikipedia notes, that isn’t really a sufficient answer:

Because Salk was the first to prove that a killed-virus could prevent polio, medical historian Paul Offit wrote in 2007 that “for this observation alone, Salk should have been awarded the Nobel Prize.” Virologist Isabel Morgan had earlier shown and published that a killed-virus could prevent polio, although she did not test her vaccines on humans. Morgan’s work, nonetheless, was a key link in the chain of progress toward the killed-virus polio vaccine for humans later developed and tested by Salk.

Yes, but many discoveries that got a Nobel built on the work of others. One thinks of Watson and Crick using Rosalind’s Franklin’s X-rays (sadly, she couldn’t have gotten the Prize anyway, as she died of cancer before it was awarded), or of Erwin Chargaff’s observation that, in DNA, the proportion of G bases equalled that of C bases, and the proportion of A bases equalled that of T bases, implying G-C and A-T pairing.  (A historical note: Watson’s stint in Cambridge, where he worked with Crick, was funded by the March of Dimes Foundation, originally created by Franklin D. Rooosevelt to fund the elimination of polio.)

One could also argue that Salk’s innovation was mainly technical. But so what? Lots of prizes have been given for technical advances deriving from prior research, especially in physics.  The fact that Salk actually used a killed virus to virtually wipe out a disease, and did so in the face of formidable odds, in both research and epidemiology, make him, in my book, eminently Nobel-worthy.


Finally, two fun facts about Salk. Wikipedia notes that he and his first wife “had three children: Peter, Darrell, and Jonathan Salk. In 1968, they divorced, and in 1970, Salk married Françoise Gilot, the former mistress of Pablo Picasso.” It’s a bit strange that the same woman slept with both Salk and Picasso! Also, a personal fact: I once went to a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game with one of Salk’s sons (I can’t remember which one), as he was part of a group of Jewish kids who had a connection with my uncle (both my uncle and Salk were Jews who lived in Pittsburgh). That’s my brush with fame.

If you want to read a fascinating book on Salk and the polio story (including the March of Dimes campaign and Salk’s famous and rancorous rivalry with Albert Sabin), I highly recommend Polio: An  American Story by David Oshinsky. It won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2006, and is a page-turner.

And here’s an early film clip extolling the announcment of Salk’s successful vaccine:



Readers’ wildlife photos

Thanks to readers who sent me wildlife photos, the tank is topping up again. We have pix from two readers today; the first is a set of three from Ivar Husa. His notes:

These pictures were taken on a ‘business trip’ to Florida this month. The trip resulted in photographs of close to 30 ‘life birds’ for me. All pictures were taken with a Canon 5D Mark III with Canon 400mm lens and 1.4x teleconverter.

Here is a cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) in an ‘eponymous’ pose?

cattle egret  5OCT 2014 A2 very good

The purple gallinule (Porphyrio martinicus) is a strikingly colorful bird found largely on the Gulf and Florida coasts.

purple gallinule  12 OCT 2014 A4

The sandhill crane (Grus canadensis) was observed nomming in the grass margins of a suburban strip mall.

sandhill crane  5OCT 2014 D very good cropped

And reader Stephen Barnard from Idaho sends what he calls a “windy day flicker” (the northern flicker, Colaptes auratus):

Windy day flicker

Paradise enow

Greg Mayer sent me this photo with a note: “I like this room. Lots of books and a cat.” (Click to make real big.)



Tuesday: Hili dialogue

Uh oh. Now that Cyrus has settled in and gotten over his illness, he’s feeling a bit randy. Hili assumes a weirdly religious role and absolves her d*g friend.

Cyrus: I was looking lustfully at a bitch.
Hili: Go and sin no more.
co jest
In Polish:
Cyrus: Patrzyłem pożądliwie na jedną suczkę.
Hili: Idź i nie grzesz więcej.

It’s Dylan Thomas’s 100th birthday

How could I not realize that the several articles on Dylan Thomas that appeared over the last few days weren’t just a coincidence? In fact, they weren’t: had he lived, Thomas would be 100 years old today (and the day is already over in Wales).

As it is, Thomas made it only to the age of 39, having drunk himself to death in New York City. What a waste, but can one suppose that alcohol fueled his creativity? Regardless, he’s one of my favorite poets, and I even stayed in the village of Laugharne in Wales just to see his house and the tiny shack where he wrote some of his best poems (see this post for some of my holiday snaps about Thomas).

This was a man who could make words sing, and if you don’t believe me, read “Fern Hill,” or “A refusal to mourn the death, by fire, of a child in London,” or “After the funeral (in memory of Ann Jones,” or “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”  Or his wonderful play for voices, “Under Milk Wood.”

Yes, I know that some academics scorn him, saying that the largesse of his language hid a paucity of thought (they say the same thing of Thomas Wolfe, another favorite author of mine), but I reject such carping.

Here he lies in Laugharne, carried away by whiskey:


The inside of Thomas’s writing shed, where, among other things, he wrote “Under Milk Wood” and “Do not go gentle into that good night”:


If you don’t know Thomas, and want just one sample of his work, I’d recommend “After the funeral (in memory of Ann Jones)”, about Thomas’s aunt.  You can read it here, or hear Thomas reciting it here.


“Tapestry” comes to life

Over at Colossal, they’ve put up gifs from a music video of Roy Kafri’s song “Mayokero” (don’t ask me who he is).  The video contains a bunch of famous albums that they’ve animated, but the best one is Carole King’s “Tapestry” which—and I hope you know this—has a tabby cat.  You should also know that “Tapestry” is among the biggest-selling albums of all time: Wikipedia claims that it’s sold over 25 million copies worldwide, and it’s a fantastic album.

Here’s the animated gif:


And the music video from Vimeo (note, music not to my taste):

h/t: Todd

Oh Lord—now Berkeley students want to ban a commencement address by Bill Maher

I always considered myself pretty much on the left politically. When the University of California at Berkeley had the Free Speech movement fracas back in the 1960s, in which students vehemently asserted their right to discuss political matters in public on campus, I was fully behind it.

But somehow, now, I feel like the left is closing circles and meeting the right.  The Free Speech movement at Berkeley has turned into this, according to yesterday’s Daily Cal (the student newspaper; my emphasis):

In response to an announcement last week that comedian Bill Maher would speak at UC Berkeley’s fall commencement, an online petition started circulating Thursday that demanded that the campus rescind its invitation.

The petition was authored by ASUC Senator Marium Navid, who is backed by the Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian Coalition, or MEMSA, and Khwaja Ahmed, an active MEMSA member. The petition, which urges students to boycott the decision and asks the campus to stop him from speaking, has already gathered more than 1,400 signatures as of Sunday.

Maher, a stand-up comedian and host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, is best known for his often-polarizing political commentary. Recently, Maher faced some backlash after controversial remarks regarding Islam during a segment on his Oct. 6 show.

“It’s not an issue of freedom of speech, it’s a matter of campus climate,” Navid said. “The First Amendment gives him the right to speak his mind, but it doesn’t give him the right to speak at such an elevated platform as the commencement. That’s a privilege his racist and bigoted remarks don’t give him.”

No, of course not. Only those people with Politically Approved™ viewpoints can have such a privilege. And God forbid that they criticize religion, for that’s bigoted and hateful.  Of course, if a left-wing speaker criticized Republican views on, say, fiscal policy or abortion, that would be fine. It’s the criticism of religious ideas (not religious people) that has become an act of bigotry. And it’s worse if the religious ideas are those of Islam.  The article continues:

Navid, however, said a different set of expectations must be held for a commencement speaker. According to her, Maher insults people of all religions and backgrounds.

“(Jon) Stewart and (Stephen) Colbert are critical of religion, too, but Bill Maher has, on several occasions, said to rise up against religious people and religious institutions and take action,” Ahmed said.

Navid’s office launched a campaign called “Free Speech, Not Hate Speech” asking students to contact Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and Helena Weiss-Duman, the director of external relations.

Get it: “Free Speech, not Hate Speech”? Doesn’t that sound so reasonable. But one person’s reasonable speech is another’s hate speech, and in a democracy they all should be heard.  Who is the arbiter of what is “hate speech”? Why, the fragile students of Berkeley, of course!

Navid and the members of MEMSA should grow up. You don’t need to agree with all of Maher’s views to recognize that a lot of what he says about religion is thoughtful, and, even if you don’t agree with him, he makes you think—and leads you to hone your own arguments if you want to remain a believer in belief.  These students are like little kids: stopping their ears and going “nyah nyah nyah nyah” when they hear something they don’t like.

When my own college class graduated in 1971, and the College of William and Mary chose as commencement speaker a right-wing politician (Thomas Downing, a congressman from southern Virgina), we didn’t demand his removal. Instead, we organized a “counter-commencement” featuring Charles Evers, the brother of slain civil rights worker Medgar Evers. (Notice as well, that although I was valedictorian of that class, they didn’t let me give a valedictory address—the College had none in 1971 and 1972—because I was a known “radical.”)

If you don’t like who your college chooses to speak, oppose his or her speech with counter speech, but don’t try to prevent people from speaking. It’s the clash of opposing ideas that I found the most exciting part of college. The coddled and misguided students at Berkeley don’t recognize this, for they want to hear only the words that are soothing to their ears.


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