Hail hurts!

Reader Diane G sent me this nice (well, in one way) video of a pair of ospreys weathering out a bad hailstorm storm on their nest. As she commented,

These poor ospreys! Hail hurts! It is a bit sad, but touching at the end, seeing those great reproductive instincts take over again. (Sweet pair-bond; a little home repair…)

Reluctant hero Nicholas Winton, who rescued 669 children from the Holocaust, dies at 106

Nicholas Winton is not only an unknown hero, but a reluctant one.  A London stockbroker, he flew to Prague in 1938 and, seeing the many Jewish refugees (and prescient about what would happen to Europe’s Jews under the Nazis), he went to work organizing a series of railroad trains to evacuate Jewish children to Britain, one of the few countries that would accept them. Winton saved 669 lives in seven trainloads, but on Sept. 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, the trains stopped. The 669 children lived, but became orphans, as nearly all their parents died in the concentration camps.

Here’s Winton with one of his beneficiaries:


From the NYT: A family picture of Nicholas Winton with one of the hundreds of Jewish children whose lives he saved during World War II. Credit Press Association, via Associated Press

Winton, whose effort was hercuclean—involving bribes, donations, and complicated paperwork—never spoke of his deed after the war. Indeed, even his wife didn’t know about it until fifty years after the war, when she found a scrapbook in the attic. Eventually his deeds were recognized (though he always minimized his role), and he received many accolades, including, in 2003, a knighthood.

According to the New York Times, Winton died Wednesday at the age of 106.  Do read the Times article; it’s a fantastic tale, and you’ll be astounded at how humble this man was. He’s my kind of hero: one who doesn’t boast of his accomplishments.

I learned about Winton when he appeared in a segment on the only television show I watch, Sixty Minutes. Do watch that 15-minute segment below; it will bring tears to your eyes when you see him meet up again, after many years, with some of the children he saved—now old people.

How many of us can claim to have done nearly as much good in this world?

Did that make your day?

Inbreeding depression in man

by Greg Mayer

In a paper soon to appear in Nature, Peter K. Joshi and a cast of thousands show that inbreeding can make you shorter, ‘dumber’, and less likely to succeed in school, but not a blowhard. In a study of hundreds of thousands of people from dozens of populations from all over the globe, they found that height, educational attainment, g (‘general intelligence’, derived from various cognitive tests), and expiratory volume (the amount of air you expel while breathing) are all negatively correlated with the degree of inbreeding. An original aspect of their study is that they did not estimate inbreeding from pedigrees, but by directly examining large swathes of the genome for homozygosity, thus allowing the scope of their study to be considerably enlarged.

The slopes (beta) of the regressions of 16 phenotypic characters on the estimated inbreeding coefficient, F. Note that all slopes are near 0, except for those for educational attainment, cognitive ability, height, and FEV1+ (a measure of how much air the lungs expel when you breathe out), which are all negative. negative slope

The slopes (beta) of the regressions of 16 phenotypic characters on the estimated inbreeding coefficient, F. Note that all slopes are near 0, except for those for educational attainment, cognitive ability, height, and FEV1+ (a measure of how much air the lungs expel when you breathe out), which are all negative.

This is an interesting, but expected, result. It has long been known that matings between close relatives, in both plants and animals, can lead to reduced viability, reduced vigor, reduced fertility, and phenotypic abnormality: inbreeding depression. Though long known to breeders, the phenomenon was first quantitatively investigated by Darwin (who fretted over the possible effects on his children of his own consanguineous marriage– Emma was his first cousin); he studied the effects of inbreeding and outcrossing in a number of plants, many of which have adaptations that limit the extent of inbreeding and insure outcrossing. Inbreeding is also often said to have afflicted the royal families of Europe, who repeatedly married within a small group of families. A historically famous case often attributed to inbreeding, that of the ‘Habsburg jaw‘, however, is not due to inbreeding, as the allele causing prognathism is apparently dominant (see below on why this is relevant), although inbreeding may well have contributed to the family’s physical and mental decline.

Charles V , Holy Roman Emperor, ca. 1515 (reigned 1519-1556).

Charles V , Holy Roman Emperor, ca. 1515 (reigned 1519-1556).

The converse of inbreeding depression, hybrid vigor, has also long been known: the offspring of crosses between unrelated individuals or different strains of the same species often show increased vigor, increased viability, and increased fertility. Almost all of the corn grown on farms in the United States comes from seeds produced by crossing disparate varieties. So-called ‘hybrid corn’ has higher yield than the parental varieties (and also insures that the seed companies get paid every year, as the high-yielding variety cannot be regenerated by the farmer the next season by reserving some of his yield for seed). A similar phenomenon can occur in interspecies crosses, but offspring of such crosses, despite being large and vigorous, may well be sterile (e.g., mules, a cross between horses and donkeys), so such sterile crosses are said to show somatic luxuriance.

There is a longstanding debate in genetics over the cause of hybrid vigor/inbreeding depression. There are two main possibilities. First, inbred individuals may have reduced vigor because they are more likely to be homozygous (i.e. possess two copies) for deleterious recessive mutations. In a heterozygote, the deleterious effects of a recessive allele are masked by the dominant allele, while in a homozygote such deleterious effects can now be expressed. And, the chief genetic effect of inbreeding is to increase homozygosity, and hence the phenotypic effects of deleterious recessives. The second possibility is that inbred individuals are less likely to be heterozygous at loci that show overdominance for fitness, and thus will express the less fit phenotypes associated with the homozygous genotypes. In overdominance for fitness, heterozygotes have the highest viability and/or fertility, while both homozygotes are lower. Perhaps the best known example of overdominance for fitness is the sickle cell allele of human hemoglobin in malarial environments: heterozygotes don’t get sickle cell anemia, plus they are resistant to malaria, and thus have higher fitness than either homozygote. (In a non-malarial environment, the fitness of heterozygotes is essentially the same as that of wild type homozygotes.) Both of these genetic phenomena– deleterious recessives and overdominance for fitness– can lead to inbreeding depression. In an extensive literature review a few years ago, Deborah Charlesworth and John Willis showed that the predominant cause is deleterious recessives, and that overdominance is a minor contributor.

The relationship between dominance and fitness also figured in another longstanding debate in evolutionary genetics: the debate between R.A. Fisher and Sewall Wright, two of the founders of theoretical population genetics, over whether new, deleterious mutations are recessive ab initio (fide Wright), or whether selection on modifying alleles causes initially dominant or additive effects of deleterious mutations to become recessive (fide Fisher). Wright showed that the selective effect of such modifiers would be very small (of about the same strength as mutation rates, which are very small), and he doubted that such modest selection could prevail over other factors (including selection on other phenotypic effects of the modifying alleles) in natural populations. Fisher, who thought that natural populations were large, thought they could. The fact that newly observed mutations were generally recessive, and some rather clever work by Jerry’s student Allen Orr using a normally haploid alga to show that recessivity was the rule even when there had been no opportunity for selection of modifying alleles in a diploid state, has finally convinced most people “that recessive phenotypic effects of rare mutations do not result from selection on dominance modifiers.” (Charlesworth and Charlesworth, 2010:183).

Joshi’s study focused on the relationship of the phenotypic traits and inbreeding within populations, so it says nothing directly about the effects of intermarriage between ethnic and national groups. For largely additive, polygenic traits like height, children of such marriages would be expected to be intermediate between their parents in height (not taller than both), but hybrid vigor in other traits cannot be ruled out.

Alvarez, G., F.C. Ceballos and C. Quintero. 2009. The role of inbreeding in the extinction of a European royal dynasty. Plosone 4(4): e5174, 7 pp. pdf

Charlesworth, B. and D. Charlesworth. 2010. Elements of Evolutionary Genetics. Roberts, Greenwood Village, Colorado. (pp. 170-183)

Charlesworth, D. and J.H. Willis. 2009. The genetics of inbreeding depression. Nature Reviews Genetics 10:783-796. pdf

Darwin, C. 1876. The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom. John Murray, London. (Darwin Online)

Joshi, P.K. et al. 2015. Directional dominance on stature and cognition in diverse human populations. Nature in press. html

Orr, H. A. 1991. A test of Fisher’s theory of dominance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 88: 11413-11415. pdf

Provine, W.B. 1986. Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. (pp. 243-260)

Thompson, E.M. and R.M. Winter. 1988. Another family with the ‘Habsburg jaw’. Journal of Medical Genetics 25: 838-842. pdf

Peregrinations: Colorado Springs 2

Tuesday I spent a nice day in Colorado Springs with reader Stephen Q. Muth, who happens to own Butter, a flame-point Himalayan rescue cat whom we featured before (be sure to click the link). They are very close, and indeed, Butter, who looks like the epitome of a curmudgeonly cat, is a very sweet and affectionate animal. So let me start with a few pictures of Stephen and Butter:

Butter getting fusses: despite his expression, he really does enjoy them!

Butter and Stephen

Butter having a nap. He always looks either affronted or ticked off.

Butter 1

Butter doesn’t get to go outside but he sits at the screened front door and gazes out:

Butter 2

And sometimes he looks diabolical:

Butter, diabolical

Stephen has a collection of art objects that someone sent him for safekeeping. Here’s he’s holding what is said to be a piece of Saddam Hussein’s palace after it was ransacked. He uses the decoration as a doorstop.

Muth architecture

I put up the following three photos so that readers might help identify this object. It’s an old print, and clearly a print from Albrecht Dürer, as the “AD” signature at top left clearly shows. I’m not sure how old the print is, or whether it has any value, but I added the printer’s notation and embossing below it so that any readers with art expertise could tell us something about it:

Durer 1

Bottom right of the print, clearly showing a French origin:

Durer 2

The embossing on the paper, which implies it was produced by a French museum. Perhaps it’s just a largely worthless reproduction, but I’m not sure:

Durer 3

We headed downtown for lunch. Along the way you get this view of the famous Pike’s Peak  (el. 14,115 feet or 4,302 meters), with the main street running right toward it. This was done deliberately when the city was laid out. You can take the expensive cog railway up to the top, or even drive to the summit. The descent by car has ruined many a person’s brakes.

Pike's peak

Lunch: a delicious green chile cheesburger at a local diner. The two burger patties are topped with a slew of chile-laden meat stew and cheese:


We then visited Manitou Springs, a touristy area adjacent to Colorado Springs, where one can (for $75!) take the cog railway up to the top of Pike’s Peak. The springs aren’t really really a spa, but a pool of underground water that can be tapped, and comes out of drinking fountains like the one below.  The water is truly delicious: slightly carbonated and full of minerals like calcium. We filled a bottle and sipped on it throughout the day, but many people come and fill gallon jugs with the stuff.

Manitou Springs is now completely overrun with kitschy stores, ice-cream stands, pizza joints, and even a hemp store where you can buy “marijuana” shirts, but the one good feature of the town is an old arcade with the kind of mechanical games and pinball machines that we had when I was a kid. I didn’t photograph it, but it’s a trip back in time, and well worth visiting.


We saw a deer just a block away from the water fountain. Colorado Springs and its environs, like much of Colorado, is full of deer. While driving to Aspen, a deer dashed in front of my car on a busy road, and I was very upset. I didn’t hit it, but it failed to jump the barrier between the lanes and fell into the road. Fortunately, it righted itself and crossed the highway safely, but it was a close call. I can see why I saw so many roadkill deer on my trip from South Dakota to here. One would think that natural selection would endow these animals with a strong aversion to asphalt!


Since the sale and consumption of marijuana is now legal in Colorado, and the stuff is sold widely, I asked Stephen to show me where it was sold. It turns out that it’s sold in three kinds of places. The first two are called “dispensaries,” and are recognized by their having a green cross (emphasizing the medical benefits). Some dispensaries sell only to those who are prescribed marijuana for its therapeutic effects on various conditions (there is no shortage of doctors willing, for a fee, to certify you), while other dispensaries sell both medical marijuana and recreational marijuana—the latter at a higher price.

This is an example of a rather unprepossessing dispensary. There is not much identifying signage save for the green crosses.

Dispensary cheap

Below is a more famous dispensary selling marijuana and its derivatives for both recreational and medical use. We asked to visit, not trying to buy anything, and, after ID checks (they take your drivers’ license), they let us visit the “bud room”, which I wasn’t allowed to photograph.

Dispensary fancy

A close-up of the sign showing what they sell: “MJ” (marijuana, of course, known to us in college as “Mary Jane”).


Below are the state rules for purchase and consumption of marijuana that they hand you when you visit. Note the reference to the many kinds of products that has marijuana or its deriviatives in it. We saw not only samples of the different kinds of dried plant, but elixers (liquid flavored substances that you put into your mouth with a dropper bottle), pressurized “delivery systems,” cookies, lollipops, and waxes and “shatter,” new and very powerful extracts of the active substance THC. We didn’t sample any, but I’m told that these new forms of marijuana, as well as the various new types of extracts, are extremely powerful!

Dispensary rules

Below is an old-time garage that, because it was decorated with crosses, could have been mistaken for a dispensary (granted, dispensary crosses are green, but desperate stoners might not make that distinction). Notice the sign on the wall: “Private Property. Not a dispensary.”

Dispensary fake

This, the third class of marijuana vendor, is what’s known as a “speakeasy,” where people go to smoke dope in congenial settings (we peeked in the door: it’s kind of a lounge with carpets and leather couches). They also sell various forms of dope that you can smoke on the premises (I’m not sure about the legality of all this, but I guess it’s okay).


Here’s a close-up of the sign. I love the phrase, “Where everybody knows your strain!”. That, of course, is a take-off on the old television show Cheers, about a Boston bar “where everybody knows your name.”


I left early for the four-hour drive to Aspen over the Rockies. On the way you cross Independence Pass (12,095 ft, 3,687 meters), one of the highest paved roads in the US. It’s also astride the Continental Divide: waters to the east of the Divide flow into either the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic, those on the west to the Pacific. The beauty of the drive was stunning, though I failed to see the pronghorns and bison that sometimes show up along the route.


Pirate Party helps repeal Iceland’s blasphemy law

Reader Fernando sent me this item from the New York Times; I had no idea there were such shenanigans going on in Iceland!

It turns out that there is a political party in that country called The Pirate Party (“Píratar”) that appears to have an extreme left-wing political agenda. Apparently there are “pirate parties” in several countries, and Wikipedia characterizes them like this:

Pirate Party is a label adopted by political parties in different countries. Pirate parties support civil rights, direct democracy and participation in government, reform of copyright and patent law, free sharing of knowledge (open content), information privacy, transparency, freedom of information, anti-corruption and network neutrality.

Iceland’s Pirate Party won three seats (out of 63 total) in parliament in the 2013 election, becoming the first Pirate Party in the world to actually sit in a national legislature. Here is its symbol:


And some Pirates:


Their platform includes making Iceland a member of the EU only by national referendum, and to grant Edward Snowden Icelandic citizenship (the latter bill failed).

But the Pirates have just had a notable legislative success. According to the Times, the party was the driving force behind a bill that makes blasphemy legal (it was previously illegal in Iceland):

The repeal of Iceland’s 75-year-old law, which protected religions against insult and mockery, came in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre:

Birgitta Jonsdottir, one of three Pirates in the Althing, Iceland’s Parliament, was among party activists celebrating the vote in favor of their bill to repeal the prohibition on impious irreverence, which had been in force since 1940.

The measure to repeal the law, which made “ridiculing or insulting the dogmas or worship of a lawfully existing religious community” an offense punishable by a fine or up to three months in jail, was introduced in January, in the wake of the deadly attack in Paris on Charlie Hebdo, the satirical weekly that enraged devout Muslims with its mocking portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad.

While the vote was underway in the Althing on Thursday, The Iceland Monitor reported, all three of the party’s members took the floor to say, “I am Charlie Hebdo.” After the bill was made law, the party said in a statement, “The Icelandic Parliament has issued the important message that freedom will not bow to bloody attacks.”

Ms. Jonsdottir is a free speech advocate who helped script and edit the WikiLeaks video “Collateral Murder,” made from American military footage leaked by Bradley Manning, now known as Chelsea, that showed the killing of Iraqi civilians and journalists by fire from United States Army helicopter gunships.

So congratulations to the Pirates! Now, says the Times, their Party may become a formidable force in Parliament, in fact, it may become the dominant party. If so, watch out! And Iceland’s Prime minister is worried: “‘Pirate rule, Mr. Gunnlaugsson added, ‘would take society in a whole other direction, where it would be difficult to hang onto those values that we possess and have been building on for decades.’” Yeah, like values that protect religion from criticism. . . .

Screen shot 2015-07-03 at 6.33.41 AM



Readers’ wildlife photographs

Reader Damon Williford from Texas is a new contributor, and sent some nice photos of the local birds, along with some information (his comments are indented):

Attached are photos I’ve taken over the past 5 years of the raptors and cuckoos of South Texas. Texas may be the land of the theocrats but there is some interesting wildlife in the state. The first four photos are of some of breeding raptors, including the Crested Caracara, Harris’s Hawk, and the White-tailed Hawk. Caracaras and White-tailed Hawks are fairly nervous, making it difficult to even get cruddy photos, but its fairly easy to get good shots of Harris’s Hawks, Considering that Harris’s Hawks will nest in suburban and urban areas, that’s not too surprising. The preening Harris’s Hawk in the second photograph was sitting on top of security lamp in a parking lot at a state park. I was within 25 feet of the bird and it ignored me completely.

Crested caracara (Caracara cheriway):

Crested Caracara (Caracara cheriway)_Kleberg Co_2014-11-23

Harris’s hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus):

Harris's Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus)_Kingsville_2011_07-24

Harris's Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus)_Choke Canyon SP_2014-11-28

White-tailed hawk (Buteo albicaudatus):

White-tailed Hawk (Geranoaetus albicaudatus)_Jim Wells Co,TX_2011-03-14

The Zone-tailed Hawk (Buteo albonotatus) breeds further west but it shows up occasionally in South Texas during the fall and winter.

Zone-tailed Hawk (Buteo albonotatus) Mission 2014-11-09

Three members of the cuckoo family breed here, including the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Greater Roadrunner, and Groove-billed Ani, which gets my vote for the goofiest looking bird in the world (but possibly tied with the Hoatzin for that honor). The only other place in the US where 3 species of cuculids co-occur is Florida.

Readers—what’s your vote for the world’s goofiest bird?

Yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus):

Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus)_Kingsville_2015-06-20

Greater roadrunner (Beepus beepus):

Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californicus)_Kingsville_2011-09_10

Grove-billed ani (Crotophaga sulcirostris):

Groove-billed Ani (Crotophaga sulcirostris)_Kleberg Co_2014-08-11)

Friday: Hili dialogue

It’s my last day at Aspen. For some reason I was very tired yesterday (perhaps from driving) and attended only Richard Dawkins’s presentation, after having discovered that Paul Bloom’s evening talk required a ticket, which I didn’t have. But Richard did a great job in his discussion; more information follows soon. Today I’m speaking (or rather discussing my book with Elliot Gerson) at noon, but I doubt it will be livestreamed (you can see the videos that will be here).  Tomorrow I leave for the Big Drive to Idaho; Stephen Barnard’s place is about a 14-hour drive from here, so I may have to break it up into two segments and—God forbid—get a motel in northern Utah. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili and Andrzej discuss the thorny subject of love:

Hili: What is love?
A: Love is friendship and desire.
Hili: My love for mice is just desire.


In Polish:
Hili: Co to jest miłość?
Ja: Miłość, to przyjaźń i pożądanie.
Hili: Moja miłość do myszek to tylko pożądanie.


Peregrinations: Colorado Springs 1

Three days ago I visited Robin Elisabeth Cornwell, who lives in Colorado Springs. Many of you may recall that she was the former Executive Director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation (fR&S), and is now the only research scientist at Camp Carson, studying the effects of trauma and other experience on the brain.  Robin has two cats and one d*g, a d*g I actually found somewhat likeable! Her name is Kali (after the Hindu goddess of death) and she’s a Portuguese water dog—the same breed as the Obamas’ Bo. Kali is being trained as a therapy dog to help old people.  Here is Robin and d*g:


Kali, looking up expectantly for fusses. She got splattered with paint when the inside of the house was being painted:


Robin has two black cats, but both, sadly, were shy. I barely managed to get a photograph of Luna, the one pictured below, as she was always hiding under stuff when I was around.


The other black cat was Artemis, who was a bit friendlier to me and distinguishable from Luna by her lack of a collar and her possession of a white locket.


One afternoon we walked around the Garden of the Gods, a gorgeous geological formation that was once frequented by many tribes of Native Americans, and now by tourists and rock climbers. It’s a lovely place with craggy red rocks jutting above the pine forest. Moreover, admission is free: the plot of land was bequeathed to the city by the businessman Charles Elliott Perkins on the condition that they could never charge admission. That’s a refreshing change in a land where, unlike the UK, you have to pay to see everything, but it’s a source of chagrin for Colorado Springs, which knows it could make a pile by charging admission.


Wikipedia on the formations:

The outstanding geologic features of the park are the ancient sedimentary beds of deep-red, pink and white sandstones, conglomerates and limestone that were deposited horizontally, but have now been tilted vertically and faulted by the immense mountain building forces caused by the uplift of the Rocky Mountains and the Pikes Peakmassif. The following Pleistocene Ice Age resulted in erosion and glaciation of the rock, creating the present rock formations. Evidence of past ages can be read in the rocks: ancient seas, eroded remains of ancestral mountain ranges, alluvial fans, sandy beaches and great sand dune fields.


This famous formation is called “The Kissing Camels”:


There are lots of rock climbers there, who are allowed to climb certain formations. There’s one in this photograph. Can you spot him? (This is an easy one!)


Here’s a wolf spider we saw along the trail; it’s carrying babies on its back! I don’t know the species, but can some alert reader identify it? I know we have arachnid experts out there.


See the antennae on top of this mountain? This denotes the site of the NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), bunker a cold-war setup designed to monitor all air and space traffic that might post a danger to North America. It’s a joint operation with our Canadian friends.

To insulate the headquarters from nuclear attack, they built the Cheyenne Mountain headquarters and nuclear bunker in 1961, and it lies way, way below the mountains (the antennae on top are for communication. You used to be able to visit it, and see the vast underground city it comprises (including an entire lake for fresh water), but after 9/11 it’s been closed. The Wikipedia link gives a lot of fascinating information.


The facility was designed to withstand a 30 megaton nuclear explosion within 2 kilometres—the equivalent of an early hydrogen bomb!  Here’s one photo of part of the anti-nuclear precautions (caption from Wikipedia):

The 25-ton North blast door in the Cheyenne Mountain nuclear bunker is the main entrance to another blast door (background) beyond which the side tunnel branches into access tunnels to the main chambers.


It’s built not only to withstand a near direct nuclear hit, but also to be completely self sufficient (food, water, and electricity) for an entire six months—this to avoid fallout.

Tomorrow I’ll post pictures of my visit to the second reader in Colorado Springs, Stephen Q. Muth, and recount our (non-purchasing!) visits to the legal marijuana stores and “speakeasies” of Colorado.

The Lancet removes image of the Buddha from its cover after protests of hurt feelings

We all know that many Muslims go wild when Muhammad is depicted in unflattering ways, but I never would have expected that Buddhists would object to an image of the Buddha in a scientific journal—one shown in a flattering way. But such are the sensitivities of the faithful.

According to the site Retraction Watch, the British medical journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases has removed an image of the Buddha from its online cover because it offended the religious sensibilities of some Buddhists.

Here’s the original cover:


What was it meant to depict? As the journal itself explained after removing the cover:

The journal has received several emails making the same point as made by Arjuna Aluwihare.

The cover drawing is based on the Article on dihydroartemisinin-piperaquine failure associated with a triple mutant including kelch13 C580Y in Cambodia, by Spring and colleagues, which was published in the June, 2015, issue of The Lancet Infectious Diseases.

The drawing depicts a feature typical of Cambodia, a statue of the Buddha, with the statue contemplating a mosquito, the insect vector of the malaria parasite. No other interaction between the statue and the mosquito is intended or illustrated. The cover artist modelled the drawing on photographs of Cambodian Buddha statues that are freely available on the internet.

At the time of publication, we were not aware of any proscription against picturing statues of the Buddha. However, given the complaints received, the illustration was taken down from the journal’s website on May 22.

But, as noted above, several readers objected. One of them, Professor Arjuna Aluwihare of Sri Lanka, was even a Christian, and here’s his email:

I am a Christian living and working in Sri Lanka and was shocked to see that an image of the Buddha was used on the cover of the June issue of The Lancet Infectious Diseases. Generally, depiction of the Buddha statue is frowned upon in Sri Lanka unless in a Buddhist context. Thus your use as a cover illustration is not forbidden, but displays a lack of sense and sensibility, with which I have associated the Lancet journals in the past. This incident bears similarities to the French magazine Charlie Hebdo’s publication of images of the Prophet Muhammad, and the ridiculous and insulting competition held in Texas, USA, that encouraged people to draw anti-Islamic pictures.

That is, pardon my Spanish, caca de vaca.  It is not at all like the Charlie Hebdo images, which were meant to call attention to the problems of Islam. The mention of Pamela Geller’s competition is irrelevant and meant only to inflame, and the image of the Buddha above seems rather nice. (Of course, I’m not a Buddhist.) But it’s certainly not insulting.

When Retraction Watch contacted Aluwihare, he added this to explain why he was offended:

Here it may cause more issues because the mosquito (who should be killed) is there and Buddhists are supposed not to kill — even a snake who may kill a man! However, many Buddhists are nonvegetarian — very contradictory. In this picture apart from religious feelings it might lead to mercy on ‘mossies’! At least to add ‘the picture of the Buddha should not be used as an excuse for sparing mosquitoes — like the one also in the picture.’

More issues? Seriously? Perhaps one could interpret that as the Buddha pondering whether disease-carrying mosquitoes should be killed. The journal, however, claims that the statue is meant only to represent Cambodia, and I think that’s true. But there’s no implication that the Buddha would spare mosquitoes to kill people, as Aluwihare maintains. His complaint holds no water, and it saddens me that such an innocuous cover should be censored, especially one that can not be construed as intending any offense or mockery.

What did they replace it with? Here’s the extremely boring cover that now is on the journal’s website:



Breakfast at Aspen

The atmosphere around Aspen, besides being intellectual, is also green: they provide free bikes for people to ride (not really needed on the grounds, which are compact); those who can’t walk are ferried around in electric golf carts; all the material for meals is recyclable, and there are recycling stations; and the food is healthy but delicious. That’s fine with me: I have to make up for that chili cheeseburger I ate two days ago (see tomorrow’s post). Here’s breakfast, provided free for all attendees, at today’s festival. Notice the healthy aspect:

The breakfast buffet. The covered dish holds “Egg white frittatas with roasted Provencal vegetables” (oy; I’ve never before eaten an egg without the yolk!). There are healthy Siggi’s yogurts (“More protein than sugar,” it says on the label), fresh fruit, bagels, hard-boiled eggs, cranberry and orange juice, and good coffee.


And of course what would a left-wing intellectual festival be without a smoothie bar? There were three types; I had raspberry:


My healthy breakfast: the egg frittata (tried out of pure curiosity; it was ok), a smoothie, cranberry juice, two hard-boiled eggs (to get my yolk quota), a yogurt, a bagel, watermelon and raspberries, and a banana. Note: any reader who criticizes me for having two eggs with yolks will be banned!


There were also fancy-schmancy granola bars; I took one for later:


Black-billed magpies (Pica hudsonia) hopped around the tent, hoping for crumbs. I confess that I sneaked a few to this bird. Magpies are gorgeous, and unappreciated in the western US because they’re so common.


“Yoga stations” are scattered around the grounds should you be seized with the sudden urge to do the double-headed lion, or whatever the hell those poses are called:


Most of the talks I want to see are tomorrow, but I plan to go to Richard Dawkins’s and Jane Shaw’s joint talk today, as well as Paul Bloom’s and Richard Davidson’s joint talk later (the schedule is here).

12:00 pm1:00 pm MDT on Thursday, July 2, 2015
Listen in, as two former Oxford colleagues, one from science and one from religion, talk about what leads to a meaningful life — wonder, ethics, empathy and much more. Jane Shaw, Dean for Religious Life and professor of Religious Studies at Stanford and Richard Dawkins, fellow emeritus of New College Oxford, preview the not-yet-published second volume of Dawkins’ memoir, Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science, which is a candid look at the events and ideas that encouraged Dawkins to shift his attention to the intersection of culture, religion, and the natural world.
I met Paul at the speaker’s soirée last night, and he told me he’d be talking about empathy, and would make the point that the classic conception of empathy—to put oneself in another’s shoes as a way of trying to help them—is totally misguided. The summary (it’s a joint talk with Richard Davidson):
5:30 pm6:30 pm MDT on Thursday, July 2, 2015
Empathy is typically seen as wonderful, central to cooperation, caring, and morality. We want to have empathic parents, children, spouses and friends; we want to train those in the helping professions to expand their empathy, and we certainly want to elect empathic politicians and policy makers. But empathy has certain troubling features, and questions have begun to arise about just how useful empathy really is and how it might be different from related capacities such as compassion.
Paul Bloom, Richard J. Davidson
I may also go to these two:
3:00 pm4:00 pm MDT on Thursday, July 2, 2015
In the United States, 25 percent of young adults under age 30 do not claim affiliation with any particular religion. That’s twice as unaffiliated as their parents were at their age. What does this new reality mean for communities of faith, and culture at large, as a generation of Americans increasingly turns away from such identity-forming institutions? And outside of those traditional religious institutions, what rituals, gatherings, and ways of thinking are defining the millennial search for meaning?
Mark Oppenheimer, Naomi Schaefer Riley, Jordan Alam, Casper ter Kuile, Jane Shaw
and this one (I quote Rosen in my talks on free will):
4:10 pm5:00 pm MDT on Thursday, July 2, 2015
Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, leads an interactive discussion about the myriad issues, history, and opinions.

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