Monday afternoon gifs

by Matthew Cobb

Three tw**ted gifs for a Monday:

JAC: Readers should feel free to explain the last illusion.

An adorable baby tiger and a stately egret

UPDATE:  They caught the threatmaker, who appears to be a student at a nearby school, the University of Illinois at Chicago. We got this:

From: Robert J. Zimmer, President
To: University of Chicago Campus Community
The University of Chicago has received confirmation from the FBI that an individual is in custody in connection with yesterday’s threat against the University.
Classes and events remain canceled for today. The security precautions we announced last evening remain in effect for the remainder of the day. We understand that law enforcement officials will provide more information on the investigation later this afternoon. Once we have this additional information, I will write again with more details, including our plans for tomorrow.

I’m still locked up in my office but the campus and my building are deserted, as everybody’s afraid of getting shot. So far nothing out of the ordinary has transpired, though.

To celebrate my survival, I’m putting up a video that advertises National Geographic’s Big Cat week, and appearing on PuffHo. I dislike both of those sites, but I can’t help putting it up because it has an adorable baby tiger, though Millie doesn’t seem to be enjoying her stint on t.v.  I’d give a lot to be that guy! Also, don’t miss the 50-pound black leopard (“panther”) following Millie’s appearance.

Click on the screenshot to to go the video:

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 11.56.08 AM

To counterbalance the squee, here’s a video by Tara Tanaka showing the magnificent reddish egret (Egretta rufescens) fishing. I have no idea how it spots the birds, as it appears to be looking around nonchalantly before it strikes. Her notes;

Earlier this year I put the finishing touches on my video of a Reddish Egret showing off his dance and hunting moves. I hope you enjoy it.

This video was shot in 4K and 1080 96fps using a GH4 + 20/1.7 mounted on a Swarovski STX 85 spotting scope. It was digiscoped by manually focusing the scope.

This bird has a limited range, and I’ve never seen one:



h/t: Rick

The New York Times prints a FAQ piece on climate change

It’s hard for most of us to keep up with the issue of global warming, which I don’t see as a “controversy” because virtually all scientists agree that anthropogenic warming is happening and that we’re in trouble. But unless you’re a weather fanatic, there’s simply too much information and discussion out there. Is there a place you can go to see what the consensus is, and how bad things will get?

Never fear. The New York Times has just published a useful piece called “Short answers to hard questions about climate change,” which has succinct answers to 12 FAQs about climate change. The upshot: things are heating up fast (“The heat accumulating in the Earth because of human emissions is roughly equal to the heat that would be released by 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs exploding across the planet every day”); there’s virtually no doubt that this is cause by humans; the warming could cause serious trouble within a century; the best thing you can do is reduce your number of plane flights; technology may help but we’re not spending enough to develop it; and the opposition comes from libertarians (viz., Matt Ridley) and economic interests like fossil-fuel companies.

Is there any hope? I have very little. The article claims that the summit meeting now taking place in Paris is a cause for optimism, showing that world leaders are finally taking the problem seriously. But it also notes, correctly, that until individual citizens begin to act on the scientific consensus, realize the trouble we’re in, and begin agitating for change, little change will occur. And I’m not optimistic about that, because this agitation won’t happen until people begin personally suffering from climate change. Abstractions and pictures of shrinking icecaps are not nearly as powerful a motivation as seeing your beachfront home inundated by rising seas or your crops destroyed by drought.

But you should read the piece and get informed.

A court liberalizes abortion laws in Northern Ireland

Reader Piet called my attention to a BBC post giving a new ruling from the Belfast High Court on abortion. Up to now, abortion in Northern Ireland (NI), like that in its southern neighbor the Republic of Ireland, is legal only when pregnancy endangers the life of the mother or poses a permanent risk to her mental or physical health. That does not include cases of rape, incest, or that of a fetus having a “fatal fetal abnormality” (FFA) that would certainly result in a dead or doomed fetus but that does not endanger the mother’s life. The penalty for violating this law in Northern Ireland is the harshest in Europe, for it can involve life in prison!

I find these rulings completely irrational and retrograde, and they certainly derive from religious doctrine. It’s especially odd because Northern Ireland is part of the UK, and in England it’s legal to get an early-term abortion. Many Irish women travel there when they’re pregnant.

As the BBC notes, a case was inspired by NI resident Sarah Ewart, who was carrying a fetus with anencephaly, a fatal condition in which the fetus is missing major parts of the brain. Although such babies are either born dead or die shortly after birth, Ewart was being forced to carry that infant to term. She went to England to get an abortion, and the attention to the case caused NI’s Department of Justice to ask the Court for its opinion.

Justice Horner ruled that Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion law indeed violated Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which says this:

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 7.43.35 AM

From Horner’s  decision 

“In the circumstances, given this issue is unlikely to be grasped by the legislature in the foreseeable future, and the entitlement of the citizens of Northern Ireland to have their Convention rights protected by the Courts, I conclude that the Article 8 rights of women in Northern Ireland who are pregnant with FFAs or who are pregnant as a result of sexual crime are breached by the impugned provisions.”

Horner also asked that Northern Ireland’s present law be scrutinized to see if there’s any way it could be considered compatible with this Article. If it wasn’t, then that law was illegal.

Of course if Northern Ireland’s law is illegal, then so is the Republic of Ireland’s. But as far as I know, these Articles are advisory, so a country like the Republic of Ireland that breaches them is not kicked out of the EU.

Amnesty International celebrated the ruling, and on its site also quotes Ms. Ewart:

“I hope that today’s ruling means that I, and other women like me, will no longer have to go through the pain I experienced, of having to travel to England, away from the care of the doctors and midwife who knew me, to access the healthcare I needed.”

“I, and many women like me have been failed by our politicians. First, they left me with no option but to go to England for medical care. Then, by their refusal to change the law, they left me with no option but to go to the courts on my and other women’s behalf.

“I am an ordinary woman who suffered a very personal family tragedy, which the law in Northern Ireland turned into a living nightmare.”

When most liberal democracies are liberalizing abortion rights, Ireland and Northern Ireland still prohibit abortions of doomed fetuses, or those resulting from rape or incest. What benighted morality would force a woman to carry such infants to term? Oh, right: religious morality.

You won’t believe these pictures of molecules!

Well, I just wrote my first clickbait headline as a test to see if it attracts readers. I’m referring here to a 2.5-year-old paper that just came to my attention; I call it to yours because although the chemistry is complicated, the pictures are lovely. The work in question is by Dimas de Oteyza et al. and appeared online in Science Express in March of 2013 (reference at bottom; free download). There’s also a blurb at the campus news site at UC Berkeley, where the work was done.

The research was an attempt to synthesize large structures of “graphene“, a honeycomb of hexagonal carbon structures that has a lot of practical uses. But rather than detect the products of their reaction through chemical analysis, they decided to do it visually using non-contact atomic force microscopy (nc-AFM; see below). They started with reactant 1 below, heated it and chilled it on the visualization surface (this stops molecular motion cold), and looked at the products.

The figure below shows the outcome. The chemical structures are at the bottom, the top row gives the visualization from coarser scanning tunneling microscope (STM), which uses a fine metal tip that moves across the sample.

But look at the second row, which shows the improved resolution with nc-AFM. You can see the chemical bonds themselves and the hexagonal carbon structures with double bonds. When I was a kid, I used to say that all our evidence for atoms and molecules is indirect: based on prediction and observation on the macro level. It’s astounding to me that humans have now developed the technology (and I emphasize that all of this technology comes from raw elements and molecules found on Earth) to see individual atoms and molecules.


(From UC Berkeley figure): Non-contact atomic force microscope (nc-AFM) images (center) of a molecule before and after a reaction improve immensely over images (top) from a scanning tunneling microscope and look just like the classic molecular structure diagrams (bottom).

Here’s the amazing way they visualized these molecules: an nc-AFM appartus that scans the surface of the plate using a single carbon monoxide molecule as the probe, which moves back and forth over the molecule—not touching it—on the chilled plate. The CO molecule’s interaction with the big carbon molecules is detected by displacement of the plate, which is then converted into images by a laser hitting the plate, producing a readout of displacements in all three dimensions:


An atomic force microscope probes a molecule adsorbed onto a surface, using a carbon monoxide molecule at the tip for sensitivity.

Ain’t humans smart?

According to the authors, this isn’t just a neat trick, for they say they’ve gotten insight into the precise chemical mechanisms,induced by heat, that convert the molecule on the left to the three molecules on the right; and they give a detailed scenario (of interest only to chemists) of what has happened. For our purposes, we can just gape in awe at what we can see happening, and the fantastic apparatus that helps us see it.


Oteza, D. G. et al. 2013. Direct imaging of covalent bond structure in single-molecule chemical reactions. Science 340: 1434-1437

Readers’ wildlife photographs

Reader Damon Williford from Texas sent us some photos of birds and insects. His notes:

Attached are photos of South Texas birds and a couple of insects from this summer and fall.
The first are some shorebirds, including a migrating Red Knot (Calidris canutus), Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) which is winter resident on the Gulf Coast, and an American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus, a permanent resident).
2015-09-27 Red Knot (Beach Access Road 2) 2
2015-09-27 Piping Plover (Beach Access Road 2
2015-09-27 American Oystercatcher (Beach Access Road 2) 2
The next two are migrating songbirds, Northern Parula (Setophaga americana) and Hermit Thrush (Cathartes guttatus).
2015-11-01 Northern Parula (Paradise Pond)
2015-11-01 Hermit Thrush (LT Birding Center Port A) 2
Some more permanent residents from South Texas:
Ladder-backed Woodpecker (Picoides scalaris), a Neotropical version of a Downy Woodpecker.
2015-11-15 Ladder-backed Woodpecker (Paradise Pond)
Two photos of a Great Kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus), the largest tyrant flycatcher in the United States.
2015-10-17 Great Kiskadee (TAMUK) 3
2015-10-17 Great Kiskadee (TAMUK) 4
A Green Kingfisher (Chloroceryle americana). Unfortunately the quality of the photo isn’t great due to poor light conditions on the day I took the photo. Kingfishers are just not easy birds to photograph.
2015-10-17 Green Kingfisher (Dick Kleberg Park) 2
The last two photos are of insects, including a pair of mating Common Green Darners (Anax junius) and a pair of blister beetles. The website BugGuide helped me identify the genus of blister beetles (Epicauta); however, the species (E. albida) is uncertain. I’m guessing that the larger of the 2 beetles is the female.
2015-08-16 blister beetles (Epicauta albida)--Kingsville
2015-11-01 Comon Green Darner (Paradise Pond)

Today’s Google Doodles honor Scotland, Nessie, and Lucy Maud Montogomery

Today there are different Google Doodles for the UK and the US (I don’t know about other places). The UK Doodle, as pointed out by reader Dom, features a celebration of St. Andrews Day, but there’s an added reptile:


I wonder if the Scots like the addition of Nessie (a fictitious creature) to their celebration. The Google Doodle page simply says this:

Saint Andrew’s Day is a time to celebrate all things Scottish, with parties, kilts, and of course, the flying of the iconic blue-and-white Saltire. We went in search of one of Scotland’s most reclusive citizens this year and even they have come out to play today, as seen in our animated Doodle by Sophie Diao.

You can read more about St. Andrews and his Day at the Torygraph, and you can see past Doodles celebrating this holiday.


Meanwhile, visible in the U.S. is this animated Doodle honoring Canadian author Lucy Maud Montogomery, born on this day in 1874 (died 1942), and famous as the writer of the Anne of Green Gables series. I believe there are at least three different Doodles.


I must admit that I know nothing about her books, but saw part of a dramatization of one of her AoGG books on public television last night. I thought it was set in Britain (Anne was a teacher in a girls school), as everyone had a British accent, but I now learn that most of the books were set on Prince Edward Island.

I also didn’t know of the books’ immense popularity—their fans included Mark Twain and Margaret Atwood—nor that copies of the books were given to Polish resistance fighters during WWII to inspire them. You can find a list of Fun Green Gable facts here.

Two alternatives:



Monday: Hili dialogue

I awake to find an email from our university president saying that there’s a terrorist alert on campus today, and they’ve closed the University. This must be a first at the University of Chicago, and I can’t remember another American university being closed in advance because of a warning of violence:

To: University of Chicago Campus Community

From:  Robert J. Zimmer

The University was informed by FBI counterterrorism officials today (Sunday) that an unknown individual posted an online threat of gun violence against the University of Chicago, specifically mentioning “the campus quad” on Monday morning at 10 a.m. Based on the FBI’s assessment of this threat and recent tragic events at other campuses across the country, we have decided in consultation with federal and local law enforcement officials, to exercise caution by canceling all classes and activities on the Hyde Park campus through midnight on Monday. All non-medical faculty, students and non-essential staff are asked not to come to the Hyde Park campus on Monday, or to remain indoors as much as possible if they are on campus.  Students in College Housing are asked to stay indoors and await direct communication from College Housing Staff.

In response to the threat, the University will have an increased police and security presence on and around campus, including police personnel with visible weapons and other additional measures. University security personnel are keeping in close contact with the FBI, which is continuing to investigate the threat.

In addition to canceling all classes and events at the Hyde Park campus, the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, the University libraries, the Quadrangle Club, and other campus facilities will be closed on Monday. The University of Chicago Medical Center will remain open to patients, with added security measures. Student Health and Counseling Services will be closed; students may consult for additional information. Medical Center faculty and staff involved in patient care will receive additional details later this evening.

All University staff and faculty members who do not have emergency duties or patient care responsibilities are encouraged to avoid coming to the Hyde Park campus on Monday. Individuals with questions about their status should contact their immediate supervisors. We will provide updates at the University homepage,, as more information becomes available, with the expectation of resuming normal University operations on Tuesday.

If you see anything unusual or have urgent questions about security measures, please contact the University of Chicago Police Department at 773-702-8181. Students living on campus who are seeking additional information should contact their resident heads.

All I can say is that if Parisians can go to cafes, I can bloody well go to work. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, the Princess of Poland is petulant, and has also learned a fancy term:

Hili: An empty bowl gives rise to cognitive dissonance.
A: So what are you going to do about it?
Hili: Nothing, I will see whether you are going to fill it when I throw it on the floor.


In Polish:
Hili: Pusta miska wywołuje u mnie dysonans poznawczy.
Ja: I co w związku z tym?
Hili: Nic, zobaczę czy ją napełnisz jak ją zrzucę na ziemię?

An unusual fishlike sea slug

Nudibranchs, or sea slugs, are in the phylum Mollusca and the class Gastropoda, which means that they’re snails. But they’ve lost their shell during the course of evolution, though a vestigial shell is retained in the early larval stage. They’re also often toxic or venomous, and have therefore adopted aposematic (warning) coloration (note: because many reef fish are also colorful but not aposematic, there may be some camouflage or species-recognition involved here too.) Nudibranchs are in fact some of the world’s most gorgeous animals. If you do a Google Image search for “nudibranch”, these are the first four rows of pictures that come up. It’s like an LSD vision of animals:

Screen Shot 2015-11-29 at 1.28.50 PM

Most nudibranch species are benthic: that is, they crawl around on the substrate looking for food, and that food is other invertebrates, including sponges, coelenterates, or other nudibranchs. This video shows some lovely nudibranchs and their habit of crawling around on the substrate (often reefs). Some, however, can swim for a short while if disturbed.

A few species, however, are completely pelagic, hunting in the open ocean. Deep Sea News reports one of these species, in the genus Philliroe (there are only two species, and the one shown is not identified), has undergone convergent evolution to a fishlike form. Part of its body has a split “tail fin,” another a “dorsal fin”, and it even has a pair of horns that act as stabilizing pectoral fins:


Photo (c) Fabien Michenet /

They get up to 5 cm long: about two inches. Here’s another view:


The white zigzag lines in Phylliroe’s otherwise clear body are digestive glands, helping it liquify jelly prey. photo: (c) Fabien Michenet /

Here’s another shot of one nomming its preferred prey: jellyfish. Another remarkable aspect of the slug is that it’s bioluminescent—it glows in the dark.


Phylliroe holding onto a small jellyfish. Its mouth is located between the two big horns, which are called rhinophores. Photo (c) Fabien Michenet /

The author of the piece raises a few hypotheses for its fishlike shape, including the silly idea that females simply prefer fishlike males (if that were the case, there would probably be sexual dimorphism in shape, with males looking fishier than females). But then the author of the piece (“R. R. Helm”) suggests what’s probably the correct reason: evolution has molded the animal to be fishlike because such an appearance enables it to swim faster.  After all, that form of convergent evolution also molded the ancestors of icthyosaurs and porpoises, land-dwelling reptiles and mammals, respectively, forming one of the most famous cases of convergent evolution in diverse taxa.

There are a few other bits of information in the piece, but I’ll let you read it for yourself. I’ll just add one other video of another example of convergence in the group: Cephalopyge trematoides, another pelagic nudibranch that’s evolved a shape like an eel, though it’s not very adept at swimming like an eel.

Remember, convergent evolution doesn’t mean that one species evolves by natural selection acting directly to make it resemble another (that’s mimicry); rather, it is the independent evolution of unrelated taxa to similar forms to deal with similar environmental challenges. (See WEIT for a figure showing the remarkable convergence of many Australian marsupials and non-Australian placental mammals.)

h/t: Ant

Will a new and benign Qur’an help curb terrorism?

CNN reports that there’s a brand-new Qur’an, published in the U.S. that seems intended—at least in part—to de-fang extremist Islam. (There’s a video, too; go to that and the article by clicking on the screenshot below.):

Screen Shot 2015-11-27 at 6.29.32 AM

The book’s website contains endorsements by many scholars of Islam (sadly including Karen Armstrong), but also promises the following:

  • A new English translation of the Quran that is accurate, accessible, and reliable in how it renders this sacred text
  • A wide-ranging verse-by-verse commentary that brings together the most respected and distinguished traditions of metaphysical, spiritual, theological, and legal interpretation of the Quran within Islam
  • A helpful introduction to each surah that provides an overview and background of its teachings
  • Essays by fifteen internationally renowned scholars on how to read and understand the Quran and its role in shaping Islamic civilization

Several ex-Muslims, including Ayaan Hirsi Ali, have argued that one way to help purge violent extremism from Islam is to convince Muslims to see the Qur’an as more allegorical, for at present the vast majority of Muslims throughout the world believe the book should be read literally and not figuratively. Another way is to show that verses that seem invidious, divisive, or brutal aren’t really that way when read in historical context. Both tactics are part of The Study Qur’an. The aim is pretty explicit:

Ten years in the making, “The Study Quran” is more than a rebuttal to terrorists, said Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an Iranian-born intellectual and the book’s editor-in-chief. His aim was to produce an accurate, unbiased translation understandable to English-speaking Muslims, scholars and general readers.

The editors paid particular attention to passages that seem to condone bloodshed, explaining in extensive commentaries the context in which certain verses were revealed and written.

“The commentaries don’t try to delete or hide the verses that refer to violence. We have to be faithful to the text, ” said Nasr, a longtime professor at George Washington University. “But they can explain that war and violence were always understood as a painful part of the human condition.”

The scholar hopes his approach can convince readers that no part of the Quran sanctions the brutal acts of ISIS.

While I applaud the editors’ aims, this seems a lot like cherry-picking to me: concentrating on just those verses that seem brutal and hateful while leaving the rest alone. One could just as easily create a “Study Bible,” which explains why Job really did have to suffer needlessly, why, given history, it was okay for Abraham to intend to kill his son, and why all that genocide of the Canaanites and other tribes was justifiable homicide. The problem, with that as with the new Qur’an, is that we have no idea which reading is correct. If you go the metaphor route, even the story of Jesus could be an allegory!

And it’s even worse with the Qur’an because the hadith, the traditional sayings of Muhammed that aren’t part of the book, are many, contradictory, and often of dubious provenance, so one can cherry-pick additional Muslim scripture from those.

Here are two examples of the de-fanging in the new book:

Take, for example, verse 47:4, a text that ISIS has used to justify its brutal beheadings of its captives in Iraq and Syria. It reads:

“When you meet those who disbelieve, strike at their necks; then, when you have overwhelmed them, tighten the bonds. Then free them graciously or hold them for ransom, till war lays down its burdens. …”

Taken alone, the first sentence could be read as condoning the killing of non-Muslims wherever ISIS encounters them, whether it be an Iraqi desert or Parisian cafe.

But the context makes clear that the verse is “confined to the battle and not a continuous command,” Lumbard said, noting that the verse also suggests prisoners of war can be set free, which ISIS apparently ignores.

I’m wondering, if the context is so clear, why Muslims haven’t perceived that. Alternatively, perhaps “the battle” is seen by jihadists as a continual battle against infidels and their modernity.


One of the most controversial sections of the Quran, 4:34 is sometimes derisively called the “beat your wife” verse. It says that if men “fear discord and animosity” from their wives, they may strike them after first trying to admonish their spouse and “leave them in bed.”

“It’s obviously a difficult verse,” said Dakake, the only woman on the translation team of “The Study Quran.”

“I found it difficult when I first read it as a woman, and when people today, both men and women, try to address the meaning of the verse in a contemporary context, they can find it difficult to understand and reconcile with their own sense of right and wrong.”

But Dakake said that while reading through the reams of commentary, she found that Mohammed did not like the verse, either. In one hadith, or saying attributed the prophet, he reportedly said, “I wanted one thing, and God wanted another.”

“That was very meaningful to me,” Dekake said. “We can say, looking at this commentary, that hitting your wife, even if it is permitted in the Quran, was not the morally virtuous thing to do from the point of view of the prophet.”

Well, remember that the Qu’ran is supposed to be the actual word of Allah, spoken through the angel Gabriel and transcribed by Muhammed. So even if Muhammed didn’t like that verse, the word of God must surely take precedence, and that’s how it’s seen by many Muslims. (It’s also not clear from the CNN report whether that hadith referred specifically to the “beat your wife” verse.)

I hope this book really does represent a consensus of interpretation by scholars and isn’t just a project designed to cast the entire Qur’an in a good light by homeopathically diluting the hatred and divisiveness that seems so clear to a naive reader. And I hope that it will change minds, or at least get Muslims to see that it’s a book of its times and doesn’t need to be taken literally. After all, that’s what’s happened in many liberal Christian faiths. But somehow the Study Qur’an project seems too too contrived—too coincident with Islamic terrorism—to represent a truly objective scholarly enterprise. I hope I’m wrong, but, I fear that I agree (in part) with two critics:

Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said radicalization is often caused by a “perfect storm” of political, social, economic and religious grievances.

So Hamid said he is somewhat skeptical about what if any effect the “The Study Quran” could have on counterterrorism.

“I don’t think we should expect major changes because of some commentary and footnotes on the bottom of the page. If it results in a more nuanced, contextual interpretation of the Quran, that’s great. But it’s hard to make the jump from there” to winning a war of ideas with ISIS.

In any case, “The Study Quran” may not be universally accepted by American Muslims. Nasr is known for his work on Sufism, an esoteric branch of Islam that stresses the inner life of adherents. Already, Lumbard said, there has been some criticism of the translation by Muslims who call it “too Sufi.” That is, too philosophical and open to myriad traditions.

I’m not sure that the political and social “grievances” attitude will be the main impediment to the book’s message. Rather, it’s likely to be the tendency of Muslims, as documented by a recent Pew poll, to see the Qur’an as containing the actual words of Allah—words not subject to liberal interpretation.

The first data below are from Africa, the only place where the question was asked (they didn’t ask it in the Middle East for obvious reasons). But I find it hard to believe the figures would differ much in other majority-Muslim nations:


Also from the Pew survey:

The survey asked Muslims whether they believe there is only one true way to understand Islam’s teachings or if multiple interpretations are possible. In 32 of the 39 countries surveyed, half or more Muslims say there is only one correct way to understand the teachings of Islam.



h/t: Phil


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