Jerry Lewis died

Jerry Lewis,  comedian, actor, director, writer, and raiser of more than $2 billion for muscular dystrophy, passed away peacefully this morning at his home in Las Vegas. He was 91.

I emailed the news bulletin to a friend who was a huge fan of Jerry Lewis (and did a credible imitation); his response was this:

All I can say is:
Flaven! Godspeed, you crazy, complicated, comedic sumbitch!
Flaven indeed.

The rise of Christianity

Reader Alexander called my attention to what he said was an “interesting article in Aeon. It will not make theologians happy.”

And the article, called “Christians were strangers” (subtitled “How an obscure oriental cult in a corner of Roman Palestine grew to become the dominant religion of the Western world”) is indeed worth reading, though at 3300 words it’s longer than a usual piece. The author, Michael Kulikowski, is identified as ” professor of history and classics at Pennsylvania State University, where he also heads the history department.”  His speciality is late Roman history.

As I’m off to a wedding, I’ll leave you with the puzzle posed at the essay’s beginning and then the two paragraphs at the end. I’ll let you figure out for yourself why the article won’t make theologians happy.


The Roman empire became Christian during the fourth century CE. At the century’s start, Christians were – at most – a substantial minority of the population. By its end, Christians (or nominal Christians) indisputably constituted a majority in the empire. Tellingly, at the beginning of the century, the imperial government launched the only sustained and concerted effort to suppress Christianity in ancient history – and yet by the century’s end, the emperors themselves were Christians, Christianity enjoyed exclusive support from the state and was, in principle, the only religion the state permitted.

Apart from the small and ethnically circumscribed exception of the Jews, the ancient world had never known an exclusivist faith, so the rapid success of early Christianity is a historical anomaly. Moreover, because some form of Christianity is a foundational part of so many peoples’ lives and identities, the Christianisation of the Roman empire feels perennially relevant – something that is ‘about us’ in a way a lot of ancient history simply is not. Of course, this apparent relevance also obscures as much as it reveals, especially just how strange Rome’s Christianisation really was.


As most people know from their own experience, intellectual differences can harden into intractable convictions for all sorts of non-intellectual reasons. Patronage, factionalism, political advantage, social cliquishness can all play a role in the formation of intellectual positions and in continuing attachments to them. From the fourth century onwards, Roman history is filled with bitter religious conflicts, state persecution of heretics, and the perpetual alienation of communities whose Christian beliefs pitted them against official orthodoxy. Since the time of Constantine, in fact, Western history has been plagued by the impossibility of policing belief rather than practice. After all, how do you decide what someone really believes, or does not believe?

That problem would not have come to have its historic, and tragic, consequences had Constantine’s conversion not rapidly brought much of the imperial population with him. As social advancement came to depend on being a Christian, and as the civic calendar of non-Christian beliefs was increasingly dismantled, the majority of urban Romans actively thought of themselves as Christians by the end of the fourth century. Rejecting Christianity now stood as the marked and unusual choice that embracing it had been 200 years before. How Christianity went on to become not just a state religion, but the central fact of political life, and how Christian institutions of the Middle Ages both maintained and distorted the legacy of the ancient world, is another, different story.


Dick Gregory died

Yesterday the comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory died in Washington, D. C. He was 84; the cause was heart failure. Although he started his comedy career as a convention funnyman, he gradually incorporated more material about racism into his routines. The New York Times gives some of his bon mots:

He would plant himself on a stool, the picture of insouciance in a three-button suit and dark tie, dragging slowly on a cigarette, which he used as a punctuation mark. From that perch he would bid America to look in the mirror, and to laugh at itself.

“Segregation is not all bad,” he would say. “Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?” Or: “You know the definition of a Southern moderate? That’s a cat that’ll lynch you from a low tree.” Or: “I heard we’ve got lots of black astronauts. Saving them for the first spaceflight to the sun.”

Some lines became classics, like the one about a restaurant waitress in the segregated South who told him, “We don’t serve colored people here,” to which Mr. Gregory replied: “That’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Just bring me a whole fried chicken.” Lunch-counter sit-ins, central to the early civil rights protests, did not always work out as planned. “I sat in at a lunch counter for nine months,” he said. “When they finally integrated, they didn’t have what I wanted.”

I well remember Gregory marching on the front lines of many civil rights demonstrations, and he was arrested a gazillion times. Here’s a short monologue about “black power”:

Kudos to a great (and funny) force for racial justice.

A thought about “Nazis”

I was heartened yesterday when anti-racist protests took place in several U.S. cities—and there was no violence. One of the tropes of these protests, of course, is the denigration of “Nazis”, now a broad term for all white supremacists, but also including those supremacists who aren’t members of the American Nazi Party but still march under swastika flags, celebrate Hitler’s birthday, and give the “Sieg Heil” arm salute. Of course such people are odious, for Hitler is the byword for “evil.” But when I was thinking about this, something struck me. I offer it up here as a conundrum.

When we think about why Hitler was evil, one thing comes to mind: the Holocaust. Yes, he attacked Russia and western Europe, and his crazy ambition led to the death of about 60 million people (3% of the world’s population, including millions of Germans and Austrians). But the evil that resides in Hitler and the Nazis rests largely in their murderous anti-Semitism (the figure of six million Jews is well known, and that’s out of nine million living in Europe). Yet the total figure in the Holocaust, including homosexuals, criminals, prisoners of war, the infirm and mentally ill, Romanis and others, is close to ten million. But, as is evident from Mein Kampf, the Jews were Hitler’s special scapegoat from the beginning.

So the identification of Hitler with evil rests largely on his treatment of the Jews. Indeed, as I wrote the other day about Ron Rosenbaum’s new introduction to his 1998 book on Hitler,  Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil:

. . . Rosenbaum argues provocatively that the military defeat of Germany, as well as Hitler’s suicide, did not mean he lost the war, for Hitler conceived of the war not as a military exercise against the allies, but primarily as a way to dispose of the Jews, whom he saw as viruses. In that way, says Rosenbaum, Hitler wound up winning, for he exterminated most of Europe’s Jews—and the population has never recovered.

Yet the widespread and proper denigration of Nazis doesn’t comport with the Regressive Left’s demonization of Israel and Jews, which sometimes verges on anti-Semitism. The BDS movement, Students for Justice in Palestine, and many other groups, student or otherwise, not only fault Israel for its oppression of Palestinians, but sometimes call for the dissolution of the state of Israel: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Yet that state was created largely as a refuge for Jews fleeing from Hitler’s Europe and its aftermath, as well as for Jews oppressed everywhere.

Even today in the U.S., the per capita rate of hate crimes against Jews is twice what it is against Muslims. (Any of these crimes, of course, are reprehensible acts of bigotry.) Yet Jews are not seen as an oppressed minority, even as they are directly targeted by some terrorist attacks in Europe and often singled out for disapprobation in American colleges.

So why the hatred of Nazis but the concomitant demonization of Israel and—often—Jews themselves? It doesn’t make sense.

Freud the fraud: a new book

I’m about halfway through the 600-page book (with over 100 additional pages of notes) by my friend Fred Crews, Freud: The Making of an Illusion, which will be formally released on Tuesday. It’s an excellent read: Fred was formerly chair of the English Department at the University of California at Berkeley, and writes clearly and engagingly. If you want to know why Freud was a fraud, and has fallen from grace, read this book, which attempts to answer the question, “How did a poor but ambitious Jewish boy from Vienna turn himself into a renowned doyen of psychoanalysis?” It’s not a full biography, for it concentrates on Freud’s early years when he transformed himself from a failed nobody into a world-famous figure. I’ll give the Amazon summary, which is accurate:

From the master of Freud debunkers, the book that definitively puts an end to the myth of psychoanalysis and its creator

Since the 1970s, Sigmund Freud’s scientific reputation has been in an accelerating tailspin―but nonetheless the idea persists that some of his contributions were visionary discoveries of lasting value. Now, drawing on rarely consulted archives, Frederick Crews has assembled a great volume of evidence that reveals a surprising new Freud: a man who blundered tragicomically in his dealings with patients, who in fact never cured anyone, who promoted cocaine as a miracle drug capable of curing a wide range of diseases, and who advanced his career through falsifying case histories and betraying the mentors who had helped him to rise. The legend has persisted, Crews shows, thanks to Freud’s fictive self-invention as a master detective of the psyche, and later through a campaign of censorship and falsification conducted by his followers.

This is no exaggeration; Crews’s extensive work has turned up the picture of a fiercely ambitious, self-aggrandizing man who would stop at nothing—including scientific fraud, rewriting his personal history, blatant sycophancy, and even hastening the death of a good friend through misapplication of “cocaine therapy”—to make his name. (Freud’s extensive use of cocaine, which he considered a medical panacea, on himself and his patients is especially disturbing.) He succeeded in his ambitions, of course. But from Crews’s earlier work (reprised in more detail in this book), and the research of others, we now know that Freud carried on his fraudulent “science”—which involved a hefty dose of confirmation bias and simply making up stuff—after he’d become a famous psychoanalyst.

The front-page review of the book in today’s New York Times, by George Prochnik, is largely negative, but Prochnik’s assessment is way off. He decries the book’s negativity, but in fact Freud was pretty much an odious character, and his “science”, and even his insights into the psyche, were largely worthless. (Crews has emphasized here and in his earlier writings that what is seen as valuable in Freud’s ideas was developed by people before him, and Freud added almost nothing except a bunch of specious and now-discredited hypotheses.)


Yet, confoundingly, Freud “is destined to remain among us as the most influential of 20th-century sages,” Crews writes, claiming that the attention bestowed on him by contemporary scholars and commentators ranks with that accorded Shakespeare and Jesus. Here is a fascinating conundrum: The creator of a scientifically delegitimized blueprint of the human mind and of a largely discontinued psychotherapeutic discipline retains the cultural capital of history’s greatest playwright and the erstwhile Son of God.

Crews is right that the matter demands further investigation, but this is not the book he has written. Instead “Freud: The Making of an Illusion” focuses on the man — specifically how a reflective young scientist with high ambitions and gifted mentors lost perspective on his “wild hunches,” covered up his errors and created “an international cult of personality.” In practice, this translates into 700-plus pages of Freud mangling experiments, shafting loved ones, friends, teachers, colleagues, patients and ultimately, God help us, swindling humanity at large. Here we have Freud the liar, cheat, incestuous child molester, woman hater, money-worshiper, chronic plagiarizer and all-around nasty nut job. This Freud doesn’t really develop, he just builds a rap sheet.

But Freud’s character and duplicitous practices were already in place when he was a young medical student, and in that respect he didn’t develop: he remained the same man when he later hit on a set of ideas that were thought to be not only culturally transformative, but personally curative. Freud’s acolytes, as is well known, have bowdlerized his history, censoring letters and documents that make him look bad, and not looking too hard at Freud’s supposed “cures” (which didn’t take). Only now have people like Crews begun to delve into Freud’s archives (his letters to his fiancee, quoted extensively by Crews, are telling), and the results aren’t pretty. I’m not an expert on Freud, but Crews’s scholarship paints a damning portrait of the man—and the scholarship, though conveyed in lively words, is extensive. Tellingly, nowhere in Prochnik’s review does he find fault with Crews’s scholarship and evidence.

Google says this about Prochnik:

GEORGE PROCHNIK’s essays, poetry, and fiction have appeared in numerous journals. He has taught English and American literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is editor-at-large for Cabinet magazine, and is the author of In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise and Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology. 

Prochnik hurls this brickbat at the end:

Crews has been debunking Freud’s scientific pretensions for decades now; and it seems fair to ask what keeps driving him back to stab the corpse again. He may give a hint at the opening of this book, when he confesses that he too participated in the “episode of mass infatuation” with psychoanalysis that swept the country 50 years ago. The wholesale denigration of its founder is what we might expect in response to a personal betrayal of the highest order, such as only an idol can deliver. Paraphrasing Voltaire, if Freud didn’t exist, Frederick Crews would have had to invent him. In showing us a relentlessly self-interested and interminably mistaken Freud, it might be said he’s done just that.

This is unfair. Yes, Crews was once taken by Freud’s ideas, and was slowly disillusioned. Given that those ideas dominated much of twentieth-century thought—Freud is ranked with Einstein and Marx as one of the three Jewish men who changed modern humanity’s self image—it’s completely fair to reveal what one found when further digging into Freud’s life and practice. What Prochnik is doing here is psychoanalyzing Crews, and blaming the book’s “negativity” on an intellectual acting-out based on disillusionment. And even if that were true—and I’m sure it’s not—Crews’s scholarship stands on its own, and does indeed show us a “relentlessly self-interested and interminably mistaken Freud”. One could well question Prochnik’s motivations in writing a negative book review while neglecting the facts that the book adduces, but psychoanalysis of an author is a mug’s game.

I’m not writing this defense just because I know Fred, but because Prochnik’s review is unfair and inaccurate. If you have any interest in Freud and psychoanalysis, I highly recommend this book. It’s by no means dull or tedious, for the writing is great and the evidence damning.

Crews and his book

Readers’ wildlife photos (with more science)

We have another great installment in Professor Bruce Lyon‘s series of researches on the biology and behavioral evolution of American coots (Fulica americana). He added this in his email: “This one is a bit different since it focuses on one very specific study and quite a bit on a former student of mine but I think your readers might enjoy a behind-the-scenes view of how science is often done. Lay people often have a Hollywood view of how science is done (antisocial nerds in lab coats, everything turning out just as the complex math on the blackboard” predicts).

Bruce’s notes are indented.

Another installment about our work with American coots (previous posts herehereherehere). Today I focus on an amazing discovery made by my former PhD student Dai Shizuka (now a professor in Nebraska). In my PhD thesis work, I concluded that American coots do not recognize brood parasitic chicks. With a combination of key natural history insights and elegant experiments, Dai proved me wrong and I was delighted about the outcome. This research was the single most exciting project I have ever been involved with.

The story has a few messages that may interest readers—the discoveries themselves, but also the important realization that science is often a messy meandering path to enlightenment. Experiments often fail, but sometimes in ways that yield important new insights. In addition, incidental natural history observations that initially seem weird and puzzling can turn out to be vitally important for figuring out what is going on. And a bonus coincidence: Dai Shizuku was a postdoc with Jerry’s colleague Trevor Price at Chicago and was based in the lab right next door to Jerry for a year.

Below: Dai Shizuka at our BC site.

Below: My initial conclusion that coots don’t recognize parasitic chicks was not surprising given what we know about the more famous interspecific brood parasites like cuckoos and cowbirds. Virtually all of their hosts fail to recognize parasitic chicks, even when the difference between host and parasite is ridiculous, as the photo below of a common cuckoo (Cuculus canoris) and Eurasian reed warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceusshows. The cuckoo chick looks nothing like the host and is several times larger than its foster parents (photo from the web). This lack of chick recognition has long been an evolutionary puzzle, particularly because the hosts are often extremely good at recognizing cuckoo eggs that differ only subtly from their own eggs.

Below: Back to within species parasitism in coots: can you spot the parasites? I bet you can’t because I would not be able to do so without notes on which chicks came from which eggs. This is an experimental brood that contains some chicks that are not the host’s own chicks (I know this because we added them to the brood).

Dai did not set out to study chick recognition; this would have been a crazy idea for a PhD project given the lack of recognition in systems like cuckoo hosts. Instead, he was interested in the function of the extreme hatching asynchrony coots show and he set up some exploratory experiments in which he created synchronously hatching broods by swapping chicks between nests.

Below: We hatch all of the coot chicks in incubators at the field cabin, which makes it easy to swap chicks among broods for experiments. We collect eggs from their nest as soon as they show signs of hatching (slight cracks on the shell) and return the hatched chicks to a nest (home or foster nest depending on the experiment) on the day they hatch. Due to the hatching asynchrony, we have to visit the same nest several days in a row to get all of the hatching eggs and releasing chicks back to the nest. The photo below shows Dai processing chicks in our three incubators.

Swapping offspring among families (called cross fostering) has a long history in evolutionary biology; it is used in heritability studies to control for environmental affects on traits. A critically important assumption is that foster parents treat the cross-fostered offspring as they would their own, but of course coots have a mind of their own. Dai came to me one day with both bad and good news. The bad news: the cross fostering experiments failed as a method to investigate hatch patterns because the fostered chicks had significantly worse survival than the host’s own chicks. The good news: this survival pattern suggested that coots might be able to recognize some parasitic chicks. Cross fostering is like adding parasitic chicks to a brood; the birds are given chicks of another pair, and when these chicks do worse it would most likely be due to discrimination by the foster parents. These preliminary results called for a full-scale experimental study to investigate chick recognition!

The following year we repeated the same experiment but with a much larger sample size. After a hell of a lot of work, we found no evidence for recognition. The year after that, more experiments and more toiling, but again not a shred of evidence for recognition. We even did a second experiment that involved cross fostering chicks while maintaining the normal pattern of hatching asynchrony, but this too failed to show evidence for recognition.

Now, a sane person would have given up at this point and concluded that the birds really don’t recognize parasitic chicks. However, Mother Nature kept teasing us with tantalizing signs that these birds really can distinguish their own chicks from brood parasites. While conducting brood observations from a floating blind, both parents of a brood I was observing suddenly turned on one of their chicks and began to peck at it really aggressively in a way that differed from normal spankings. There were several bouts of these attacks and it seemed they occurred whenever the chick called out. I eventually lost track of the chick, but Dai found it dead in the marsh a few hours later. Its tag revealed something really interesting—the chick was from a brood parasitic egg! This was the first time we had witnessed direct infanticide and it involved a brood parasite. The video below shows this attack:

Second, adoption is very rare in our population, so it was bizarre when a coot pair adopted three chicks from their neighbor. Checking the chick ID’s in our records revealed that all three adoptees were from parasitic eggs the adopting female had laid in the neighbor’s nest. The parasitic chicks had come back home to their biological parents! If this story involved humans, Hollywood would be asking for a movie script about now. This observation suggested that the parents recognized the chicks as their biological kids even though they had hatched in the neighbor’s nest.

These intriguing natural history observations suggested that we were missing something with our experiments. The critical missing piece came from an observation of what appeared to be a completely deranged pair of coots. Once again I was in a floating blind observing a pair of coots with their very recently hatched chicks. Everything seemed to be normal but then a switch seemed to go off—one of the parents started to kill its own chicks, one by one, until they had all been killed off. I was stunned because we had never seen anything like this before and we were also certain that these were the biological chicks of these parents.  Here is a video showing the chick killing behavior (a different brood from experiments described below but it shows exactly the behavior I saw with the killer parents):

Several days later, over dinner, Dai made sense of why these birds went crazy, and he had an epiphany that solved everything. During dinner discussions, one of the field assistants recalled seeing the crazy killer parent coots feeding two chicks for a short period of time before their own eggs hatched. These birds had temporarily adopted their neighbors’ chicks before their own eggs had hatched, but the chicks returned home before the pair’s own eggs hatched. Dai reasoned that coots learn to recognize their chicks and that the short exposure to the wrong kids had caused these parents to learn from the wrong chicks and then when their own chicks hatched, to incorrectly see their own chicks as brood parasites.

This line of thinking led to the hypothesis that coots learn to recognize their chicks by imprinting on the chicks that hatch on the first day—they use these first hatched chicks as reference chicks to learn some recognition feature that they could then apply to chicks that hatch on the following days. The simple rule of using chicks that hatch on the first hatching day would be a pretty reliable rule since at most nests, only host chicks hatch on the first hatching day. The chicks’ features that the parents learn could involve vocalizations, smell or visual appearance—or a combination of these. To be useful, the features would have to vary among pairs but not within a pair’s own brood—just like the way they recognize eggs. This hypothesis could also explain our consistent failures up to that point. If parents learn from the chicks that hatch on the first day, then parents at nests where both hosts and parasites hatch on the first day would learn that both chick types are their own and would not be able to recognize parasite chicks. This was the design of all of previous experiments. Doh!

These insights came near the end of what was supposed to be the final field season of the project, but we decided that the idea was so interesting that it needed to be tested. So we went back one final year—it was do or die for showing that coots recognize parasitic chicks.

We conducted two main experiments to test Dai’s hypothesis. Since we hatch all chicks in captivity, we got to decide which chicks parents are exposed to, and in what order. In the ‘host first’ experiment, we gave birds their own chicks on the first hatch day, and then gave an equal mix of host and foreign chick on each day after that. Foreign chicks were chicks from a second brood and are the equivalent of brood parasites. The graphic below shows the experimental design. If parents use the day 1 chicks to learn which chicks are their own, then we can predict that the foreign (‘parasite’) chicks will survive less well than the host chicks (assessed only for chicks from days when both types hatch). For testing mechanisms like learning, real proof comes from tricking the birds to do the wrong thing. We therefore did a second experiment where birds were given only foreign chicks on day 1 and then an equal mix of host and foreign on later days (‘foreign first’ experiment). If the birds really do learn from the first hatched chicks then they should imprint on wrong chicks and discriminate against their own chicks.

After setting up the first few experiments, we were on pins and needles. Then, after surveying only three broods I knew that we had finally broken the curse. The results were so clear and strong that we now had convincing experimental evidence that coots can recognize parasitic chicks. Birds given their own chicks on the first day were able to recognize many of the parasitic chicks that hatched from day 2 onward, while birds given somebody else’s chicks on the first day treated their own chicks as parasitic. Evidence for recognition came from big survival differences between chick types that matched predictions. And these survival differences happened so quickly that we were barely able to see what exactly was causing them (the differences had already happened before our first survey on most broods). However, we were able to watch a few broods right at hatching to see what was happening. Just like the deranged pair of coots that killed all of their own kids, these birds very quickly dispatched many of the chicks that were the ‘wrong’ chicks. In three broods we only saw the female culling the chicks but in another brood both sexes were involved. Our experiment not only showed chick recognition, but how it occurs: parents learn something about the chicks that hatch on the first day. We do not yet know what information the parents learn but I strongly suspect that the information is in the chicks’ vocalizations.

We are aware that experiments like ours do raise some ethical considerations. However, keep in mind that we did not create unnatural behaviors that do not normally exist. Moreover, at our site each year thousands of coot chicks die naturally from starvation; it is not clear to me that this is a kinder fate than what happens to the brood parasite chicks.

Duck update

After a day’s disappearance from the pond, Honey returned yesterday and ate a huge breakfast of corn (my mealworms arrived yesterday afternoon, so she hasn’t yet had any). She was asleep at teatime so I didn’t feed her.

This morning she’s gone again. I wonder if she’s flying about now, and then returning to the pond for assured noms. Since I don’t have a photo from today or yesterday, here’s a photo I took on June 28, showing her brood of three drakes and one hen. They’ve long since taken off, but you can see (rear duck) that at that time Honey hadn’t yet molted as she has her long wing feathers.

Sunday: Hili dialogue

It’s Sunday, August 20, and that means I have a wedding to attend this afternoon. And that means that posting will be light today as I break out the coat, tie, fancy boots, and hie myself downtown. It’s National Bacon Lovers Day, and the site offers five fun (and some dubious) facts about bacon:

  1. Bacon is one of the oldest processed meats in history. The Chinese began salting pork bellies as early as 1500 B.C.
  2. More than half of all homes (53%) keep bacon on hand at all times
  3. Pregnant women should eat bacon. Choline, which is found in bacon, helps fetal brain development
  4. Each year in the US more than 1.7 billion lbs. of bacon are consumed
  5. Bacon is said to cure hangovers

Facts 3 and 5 are the dubious ones. #3 might be right (as they say, “ask your doctor”), but I know from experience that #5 doesn’t work in everyone. It’s also World Mosquito Day, so take a mosquito to dinner. (If you’re offering a blood meal, it’ll have to be a female.)

It’s a big day for evolution aficionados, as it was on this day in 1858 that Darwin and Wallace published their joint papers on evolution by natural selection in The Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London. This joint publication was the solution Darwin’s friends brokered when Wallace sent him, a few months earlier, a manuscript in which Wallace outlined a theory very similar to the one Darwin had been working on for decades. Of course Darwin published The Origin the next year, thereby gaining credit as “Mr. Evolution.” This page marks the formal beginning of evolutionary biology, though the papers didn’t excite much attention (that had to wait over a year until Darwin’s Origin):

On this day in 1882, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture debuted in Moscow, Russia. On April 20, 1920, the first commercial radio station in the world, then called “8MK” (now WWJ, and still on the air) started broadcasting in Detroit.

There were two events on this day in 1940. First, Leon Trotsky was attacked in Mexico City, getting a ice axe blow in the head. He died the next day. The murderer was Ramón Mercader, a communist born in Spain. Mercader served twenty years for the murder, and then was released to Cuba and then went to Russia, where he died in 1978. Here’s a picture I took when visiting Mexico City in 2011; it shows the desk Trotsky was sitting at when he was assaulted; I was told that the books and papers on the desk are unchanged from that moment:

And across the Atlantic, on the same day, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made one of his most famous wartime speeches, honoring the brave lads of the RAF during the Battle of Britain, which had begun on July 10, 1940. Churchill’s speech contained the famous line “Never was so much owed by so many to so few“. The source of that line is a bit unclear, but here’s an interesting take from Wikipedia:

However, in 1954 “Pug” Ismay related an anecdote to publisher Rupert Hart-Davis; when Churchill and Ismay were

“. . . travelling together in a car, in which Winston rehearsed the speech he was to give in the House of Commons on 20 August 1940 after the Battle of Britain. When he came to the famous sentence, ‘Never in the history of mankind have so many owed so much to so few’, Ismay said ‘What about Jesus and his disciples?’ ‘Good old Pug,’ said Winston’ who immediately changed the wording to ‘Never in the field of human conflict….”

Wikipedia notes the other three famous and eloquent speeches Churchill gave to buck up the Brits:

This speech was a great inspiration to the embattled United Kingdom during what was probably its most dangerous phase of the entire war. Together with the three famous speeches that he gave during the period of the Battle of France (the “Blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech of 13 May, the “We shall fight on the beaches” speech of 4 June and the “This was their finest hour” speech of 18 June), they form his most stirring rhetoric.

Fortunately the August 20 speech was recorded, and here it is. The description of the RAF’s exploits, containing the famous line, starts at 2:42:

Finally, on this day in 1998 Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that Quebec was not legally allowed to secede from Canada without the approval of the federal government. I suspect Canada will remain united forever.

Notables born on August 20 include Benjamin Harrison (1833), Paul Tillich (1886), H. P. Lovecraft (1890), Jack Teagarden (1905), Eero Saarinen (1910), Rajiv Gandhi (1944), Connie Chung (1946; I once lived across the hall from her and husband Maury Povich in a multi-unit cond0), Robert Plant (1948), and Amy Adams (1974). Those who died on this day include the medical researcher and Nobel Laureate Paul Ehrlich (1915), Fred Hoyle (2001), and Elmore Leonard (2013).

Today’s Hili dialogue needed a bit of explanation, which Malgorzata provided: “Oh, yes, for Listy [Hili is the website’s editor]. She is lying on Andrzej’s desk chair, where most of Listy is produced. They are always fighting about this chair. Hili thinks that as an Editor-in-Chief she is absolutely entitled to it and that Andrzej should find some other place to sit.”

Hili: Are you aware what responsibility lies with me?
A: Of course.
In Polish:
Hili: Zdajesz sobie sprawę z tego, jaka odpowiedzialność na mnie ciąży?
Ja: Oczywiście.

Reader Bill from Oz sent a picture of himself with what I suspect is the same Talkeetna airport cat I showed in yesterday’s Hili dialogue. His comment:

In 2014, my wife and I, along with friends of ours from Minnesota, took the same trip to the top of Denali. We also encountered a lovely, smoochy cat (photos attached). I wonder if he is the same cat?
Here’s the Talkeeta airport cat I photographed in 2006. Same moggie or not? I’m pretty sure it is based on the smudging on the left cheek. So it was at least eight years older in the photo above.
There’s no Leon today, but the intrepid, Twitter-obsessed Matthew Cobb sends three tw**ts:

And I’m not sure of the language, but it looks as if moggies stepped in the dumplings. I don’t know the language. Translation, anyone?

And a reply!


Agatha Christie on determinism and criminal justice

Reader John found a passage in a nearly 90 year old Agatha Christie novel that presages the views of Sam Harris, Robert Sapolsky, and many other determinists on the application of determinism to our justice system. This is what John sent:
I  just read an Agatha Christie novel called “The Murder at the Vicarage” (published in 1930), and I found the following passage very interesting. Given your thoughts on determinism and capital punishment, I thought you’d enjoy reading it as well.
It is a conversation between a doctor (Haydock) and a vicar (Clement). The doctor is speaking first. The first-person narrator is the vicar.
The text follows; note that the doctor doesn’t say that people shouldn’t be punished, but that they should be sequestered to keep them out of society (he doesn’t mention rehabilitation or deterrence—other valid reasons for putting someone away). Emphases are mine.

“We think with horror now of the days when we burnt witches. I believe the day will come when we will shudder to think that we ever hanged criminals.” [Doctor]

“You don’t believe in capital punishment?” [Vicar]

“It’s not so much that.” He paused. “You know,” he said slowly, “I’d rather have my job than yours.”


“Because your job deals very largely with what we call right and wrong—and I’m not at all sure that there’s any such thing. Suppose it’s all a question of glandular secretion. Too much of one gland, too little of another—and you get your murderer, your thief, your habitual criminal. Clement, I believe the time will come when we’ll be horrified to think of the long centuries in which we’ve punished people for disease—which they can’t help, poor devils. You don’t hang a man for having tuberculosis.”

“He isn’t dangerous to the community.”

“In a sense he is. He infects other people. Or take a man who fancies he’s the Emperor of China. You don’t say how wicked of him. I take your point about the community. The community must be protected. Shut up these people where they can’t do any harm—even put them peacefully out of the way—yes, I’d go as far as that. But don’t call it punishment. Don’t bring shame on them and their innocent families.”

I looked at him curiously. “I’ve never heard you speak like this before.”

“I don’t usually air my theories abroad. Today I’m riding my hobby. You’re an intelligent man, Clement, which is more than some parsons are. You won’t admit, I dare say, that there’s no such thing as what is technically termed, ‘Sin,’ but you’re broadminded enough to consider the possibility of such a thing.”

It strikes at the root of all accepted ideas,” I said.

“Yes, we’re a narrow-minded, self-righteous lot, only too keen to judge matters we know nothing about. I honestly believe crime is a case for the doctor, not the policeman and not the parson. In the future, perhaps, there won’t be any such thing.”

“You’ll have cured it?”

“We’ll have cured it. Rather a wonderful thought…”


As Jake said at the end of The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

This passage is remarkably prescient. Thanks to John for transcribing it!

Ice cream versus “frozen dairy desserts”?

For years I’ve been buying Breyers ice cream, thinking that it really was “ice cream”, which, according to Business Insider (BI), is legally stipulated by the Food and Drug Administration to be this:

In order to qualify as ice cream, a product must meet two criteria:

1. Ice cream must contain a minimum of 10% dairy milkfat.

2. Ice cream must have no more than 100% overrun and weigh no less than 4.5 lbs. per gallon.

But what the heck is “overrun,” you ask? Well overrun is the amount of air that is whipped into the ice cream base during freezing and is usually presented by a percentage. For example, with 100% overrun, for every gallon of ice cream base you would wind up with 2 gallons of finished ice cream.

The more air churned into the ice cream base, the lighter and fluffier the texture. A product with low overrun will be more dense and heavier. The FDA regulates the amount of overrun in ice cream in order to prevent unscrupulous manufacturers from producing and selling an ice cream product that is mainly air instead of cream. (Thanks, U.S. government!)

Now I don’t buy ice cream near as often as I used to, what with watching more carefully the stuff I ingest, but I do look at ice cream in the grocery store, and rarely buy a carton, which I’ve learned to eat directly from the carton with a spoon (not if I have visitors!) rather than put in a bowl, for this method of ingestion reduces intake.  It did tick me off, however, when some ice cream manufacturers, including Breyers, reduced the standard half-gallon carton by 25% to make it 1.5 quarts instead of two. And they did that, as far as I’m concerned, to increase profits, hoping the consumer wouldn’t notice the downsizing. (I wrote them a letter at the time but can’t remember the reply.)

Now, when I went shopping today, I noticed that many of the flavors of Breyers didn’t have “ice cream” written on the cartons. “Were they really ice cream?”, I asked myself. Well, you have to look closely to see, as in this one:

And there, written in small letters at the bottom, it says “frozen dairy dessert”. That’s not legally ice cream. Flavor after flavor I looked at said that, though a few flavors did say “ice cream”.

What’s the difference?  As BI notes, “Anything with less than 10% milkfat and/or more than 100% overrun cannot use the term ‘ice cream’ officially, hence the designation of ‘frozen dairy dessert’.”

Well, most consumers aren’t going to inspect the top for that designation, I suspect. And I wondered how many of Breyers’s products are real ice cream versus “frozen dairy desserts”. BI says this:

A company may sell multiple types of dairy-based products from line to line. For example, Breyers sells both ice cream (their original “Natural” line) and frozen dairy desserts (the entirety of the Breyers Blasts! line), which include many of the candy flavors like Reese’s.

So I googled “Breyers Ice Cream”, looking for real ice cream, and found this link (click on screenshot to go to site):

And it takes you a page that includes this (and more flavors):

I would have thought these were all ice cream since they’re on the linked page, and the bit at the top implies to me that they’re ice cream (“we start with fresh cream”, etc.).

But they’re not. You have to click on each flavor to find out if it’s “ice cream” or “frozen dairy dessert”.  Here’s a real ice cream:

And here’s a frozen dairy dessert:

Sometimes you can’t even tell from the description, but have to click on the “See nutrition facts, ingredients, and more arrow” to find out. Here’s one that used to be a staple for me:

But if you click on the arrow, you see this:

So caveat emptor: read the carton if you’re looking for real ice cream (I realize that it won’t make a difference to many readers). There were a surprisingly large number of “frozen dairy desserts” on the page you get when you click on the “Breyers Ice Cream” link shown above.

When I buy ice cream now, and I don’t know when I will, I’ll stick to real ice cream, some of the small gourmet types like Ben & Jerry’s, or a local staple, Blue Bunny (made in Iowa), which proudly bears “Ice Cream” on its carton. (And yes, I know that once Blue Bunny “Cookie Dough” Ice Cream was recalled because of Listeria contamination.) And even Blue Bunny has downsizing: this one’s 46 ounces, others are the now standard 48 ounces (1.5 quarts).

Blue Bunny doesn’t mess around, and although they have “lite” ice cream, the vast bulk of their product is the real thing, and I absolutely love their “double strawberry”: strawberry ice cream with big pieces of strawberry in it as well as swirls of strawberry sauce. It comes in the 48 ounce tub.

So get off my lawn with your “frozen dairy desserts”!