Wednesday: Duck report

The weather has cooled down (right now it’s a comfortable 70°F (21°C) in Chicago, and the ducks are happy and healthy. Now they’re up to four feedings a day—but only if, after the third, they still act hungry. When I walked by the pond on my way to the library this morning, they were all dabbling, including Honey, so I’m sure they’re getting food between meals. Whether a pond this small can support nine birds, however, is another question. That’s one reason why I supplement the pickings from the pond with good healthy duck food.

These photos are from yesterday, and the scene below is what I see when I go out early in the morning and emit one short whistle. Like a V-shaped formation of geese, the family heads rapidly for me, this time Honey in the lead this time (she’s usually in the rear to keep an eye on the brood). One duckling was a little slow to the gate, and I made sure he/she wasn’t weak or anything.

I can’t tell whether they’re male or female, and maybe won’t be able to even before they fledge (last year I suspected there were three drakes and a hen). This, and the inability to tell them apart, keeps me from giving them names.

Later on in the day (it was overcast) they were foraging on the grass, and I stood back and tossed them corn. They all ate but, as usual, Honey eschewed a normal ration to watch over her brood. She’s such a good mom!

The ducklings are almost palpably bigger from day to day, and they’re turning brown (and growing big-duck feathers). They have cute little feathered tails now.

After the third meal (they’re like hobbits, eating all the time), they had their inevitable postprandial bath with mom looking on. I’m not sure why feedings incite this behavior, although they may get small duck pellets on them when I toss them food.

My girl: Honey. Mallards, I’m told, can live 2-13 years in the wild, with a mean of 4 years. I’m hoping Honey was young when she showed up last year, so that I’ll have some more good years with her and her kids—if she returns.

When the sun came out, all the turtles took advantage of it, stretching out their limbs and necks to absorb as much sun as possible (remember, they’re poikilotherms—”cold blooded” animals—and can regulate their body temperature only by where they go).

Americans often find it hard to distinguish between fact and opinion

There’s a new Pew survey out that asks a timely question, or rather several timely questions. How often can Americans distinguish between factual statements (that is, statements that can be empirically verified or disproven) and statements of opinion? And does that depend on whether the statements are congenial to their ideology? Does exposure to or trust in the news media help you distinguish between fact and opinion?

You can find a summary of the survey (5,035 adult Americans, 18 or older) by clicking on the screenshot below, and the full pdf is here.

Here are the five statements of fact, five statements of opinion, and there were two “borderline” statement that were mixed: part opinion and part fact. (This last group wasn’t subject to as much analysis as the first two groups.)

And here’s what the respondents were asked; remember, a “factual” statement simply makes a factual assertion—it doesn’t have to be true:

The results were that most Americans (71%) were able to pick out at least three of the five factual statements, but only half (50%) were able to correctly distinguish four or more of the factual statements as assertions of fact. People did a little better with the opinion statements:  78% were able to correctly classify three or more as opinion, but only 59% of Americans got four or more of the opinion statements correct as being opinions.

Overall, only 26% of all the respondents correctly classified all five factual statements, and 35% correctly classified all five opinion statements. This is a bit disheartening to me, as the distinction above seems pretty clear (I’m ignoring the “half factual/half opinion” statements). However, academics or scientists might be better trained to distinguish fact from opinion, as the former are the ones that are empirically testable.

As the chart below shows, people judged to have high political awareness, digital savviness, trust in the news media, and interest in the news, were (with exception of opinion for the news hounds) better able to classify a statement as fact or opinion.

Further, both Democrats and Republicans were more liable to classify BOTH factual and opinion statements as “factual” when those statements were congenial to their political ideology. This graph shows that as well. Look, for example (bottom half of figure), at how much more often Republicans classified the opinion statement “illegal immigrants are a very big problem for the U.S” as factual than did Democrats. Conversely, more Democrats than Republicans saw the “we need to increase the federal minimum wage for the health of our economy” opinion as a statement of fact.

There’s a lot more to this survey than the brief summary I’ve given here, but these are the main results. The upshot to me is that Americans are worse than I thought at distinguishing between fact and opinion, but they’re not hopeless.  And when a statement is an opinion, both Democrats and Republicans are more likely to see it as factual if it’s ideologically appealing (there’s no real difference between the parties in their overall error rate here).

It would be interesting to ask other questions as well, like “Hate speech (speech that denigrates religion, ethnicity, or national origin) is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution” (a factual statement, though a false one), and “The Constitution allows all Americans to own handguns to protect themselves.” (Another false factual statement; not all Americans are allowed to own guns.) You can also invent your own questions.

Upping the percentage of people who can distinguish between facts and opinions could in fact be a very useful goal of a “critical thinking” course. In fact, it might be the very first exercise in such a course.

Matthew Cobb and others on BBC: “Do insects feel pain?”

Have a listen to this 26-minute BBC show (click on screenshot to go to the show, which should be accessible worldwide). It’s the second part of a show about whether it’s moral to kill or hurt insects.

A personal note: I avoid killing insects, or any animal, whenever possible. I may swat a mosquito, but if I see a millipede, an earwig, or anything else in my home or lab, I take it outside and release it. Yes, I killed millions of flies doing genetics research over my career, but I always killed them humanely, first putting them to sleep. (When I was doing undergraduate research on flies at William & Mary, I would take my spare flies to the roof of the biology building and let them go. I was finally caught doing this by my advisor, who chewed me out for polluting the natural gene pool—of the cosmopolitan species Drosophila melanogaster!) But yes, I do eat meat, and am aware of this hypocrisy, so there’s no need to remind me of it.

This show features a number of scientists, including our own Matthew Cobb, weighing in on the issue of whether insects feel pain. It’s not just pain alone, though—it’s a matter of sentience and consciousness, of whether in some sense insects value their lives. Of course we don’t know what it is to be a fly or a bee, but some scientists and philosophers urge caution because of the possible consciousness (and pain “qualia”) of insects. I always err on the side of caution, and my grounds are these. Both insects and mammals like us have evolved the ability to avoid stimuli that might hurt our survival and reproduction. Pain is simply an evolved sensation that tells mammals to get away from harmful stimuli. If pain wasn’t, well “painful,” then we wouldn’t be so quick to avoid it. Thus it’s at least possible that insects also feel “pain” in the sense that they don’t like sensations that are harmful. (Of course that doesn’t mean that aversion involves anything like the pain we feel when we sit on a thumbtack.)

Of course it’s possible that the whole aversion behavior in insects and so-called “lower” animals comes through a system of evolved automatic response that doesn’t make its way through consciousness or produce qualia. But it’s possible that it does include that, so, like many other scientists (see below) I err on the side of caution. After all, science progresses: one example is recent evidence that fish can feel pain, after people thinking for years that they didn’t. With this increasing awareness of possible animal sentience comes stricter regulations on how scientists can treat their research animals.

Anyway, have a listen; it’s a good show, with thoughtful opinions on both sides. Matthew, as always, is eloquent. I asked him if he had a quote about the show for readers here, and he sent this:

I think it’s a very thought-provoking programme by Adam Hart, and the producer, Andrew Luck-Baker. My take? We don’t know the answer, so be as nice as you can to insects, just in case. Which, in my experience, is how most scientists act towards their animals. But maybe readers think we are wasting our time doing this?
h/t: Christopher

Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ those damned fundamentalist atheists

The latest Jesus and Mo strip, called “speech” came with a note:

The original story is here.

And that leads to an article in The Freethinker (click on screenshot to read the whole thing):

Jesus and Mo’s reaction:

This strip will of course be banned in Pakistan, the land of Outrage about Religion. But since it satirizes both Christians and Muslims, it should be banned everywhere. Clearly, the Religion of Peace is really The Religion of Offense.

Readers’ wildlife photos and videos

It’s time to start getting your photos together if you’d like to submit them here. I still have an appreciable backlog, but there can never be too many. Today we have (wait for it) DUCKS! Yes, more Anas platyrhynchus. Charlie Jones of Pennsylvania has sent the brood near him, and his notes are indented:

You’ve got 8 ducks, Stephen of Idaho has 9, and we’ve got TEN.  Not that this is a competition.

The photos were taken by Hannah Jones in low light at the Wingfield Pines acid mine drainage treatment area about 8 miles south of Pittsburgh.  Since you sometimes visit the area, I thought you might be interested to know (if you don’t already) that they took an environmental problem—a gushing spring of acidic mine waters that are very rich in iron—and turned it into a series of settling ponds and a wetlands that are otherwise rare in our region.  (Since the glaciers stopped north of here, we do not have the abundant lakes and wetlands seen farther north.)  The passive treatment system attracts a host of birds that would otherwise fly over us, which makes Wingfield Pines a local birding hotspot.  Giving the acidity of the mine waters, the analogy of turning lemons to lemonade is relatively apt!

And a video.

This one has the ducklings working hard, and near the end the rear duckling rear-ends his siblings, causing a bit of a chain reaction.

A blue-winged teal makes a cameo appearance.

Wednesday: Hili dialogue

Good morning on a temperate Wednesday, June 20, 2018: National Vanilla Milkshake Day (eccch!) as well as World Refugee Day. We’re in a for a coolish and rainy week in Chicago—good weather for ducks!

First, watch what the latest immigration news did to Rachel Maddow (h/t: Matthew):

Not a lot of things happened on this day in history; do events slow down in the Northern Hemisphere’s summer?  On this day in 1756, a group of British soldiers, Anglo-Indian soldiers, and Indian non-combatants was imprisoned in the Black Hole of Calcutta. About 65 went in, and about 23 survived the one night in stifling, cramped, waterless quarters.  On this day in 1840, Samuel Morse was given a patent for his telegraph.  On June 20, 1944, the Nazi’s MW 18014 V-2 rocket attained an altitude of 176 km, technically becoming the first man-made object to reach outer space. Ironically, exactly one year later the U.S. State Department approved the transfer of Nazi rocket scientists, including Wernher von Braun, to the U.S.—to help us build rockets!  On June 20, 1972, the famous 18.5-minute gap appeared in White House tape recordings between President Nixon and his aides. The crooks were discussing Watergate, and the gap was fobbed off as a mistake of Nixon’s secretary Rose Mary Woods, who said she hit the “record” button while transcribing the tapes, accidentally erasing the segment.  Finally, on June 20, 1975—43 years ago—the movie “Jaws” was released in the U.S.; as Wikipedia claims, it became “the highest-grossing film of that time and start[ed] the trend of films known as ‘summer blockbusters’“.

Notables born on June 20 include Lillian Hellman (1905), Audie Murphy (1925), Eric Dolphy (1928), Brian Wilson (1942), Anne Murray (1945), Lionel Richie (1949), and Nicole Kidman (1967). I could find only one notable who died on this day: gangster Bugsy Siegel (1947, born 1906; murdered, of course).

A tweet for a musical genius who’s had a rough life:

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is playing Socrates:

Cyrus: Everything we know indicates that…
Hili: That we know too little.
In Polish:
Cyrus: Wszystko co wiemy wskazuje na to…
Hili: Że za mało wiemy.

Reader Paul sent a tweet showing a real Ceiling Cat:

Remember, he’s watching you and everything you do!

Tweets from Matthew: this first one shows a moving rainshower:

This cat wants only love (NOT!):

From the writer and scientist Adam Rutherford (note to Adam: start wearing other colors? Are you a hipster?)

Au + Hg = ?

Another photo from Matthew when he was in Zermatt: sunrise on the Matterhorn:

This is real; click and read the article. You will lose what remaining faith you have in humanity.

From Grania:

A tweet from a First Lady retweeted by another First Lady. Mr. Trump, TEAR DOWN THAT POLICY!

And if you still have any faith in humanity left, have a gander at this.

. . . but you can still have faith in cats being cats!

The thread that follows this tweet is very good; have a look (the official pundit now is a deaf white cat named Achilles).


FFRF once again fights government over unconstitutional housing allowance for ministers

For years the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) has been fighting a no-brainer legal battle against the U.S. government, which by law makes all ministers’ housing allowances completely tax-exempt. This means that if a minister is given, say, $10,000 per year by his church to subsidize housing, that money is completely tax free. It is, in effect, a gift.

This is unique for religious organizations and doesn’t apply to nonprofits like the FFRF or charitable organizations.  It’s also patently unconstitutional because it privileges religion over non-religion. The FFRF, or any nonprofit atheist organization, may give housing allowances to its employees or heads, but those are taxable. (According to FFRF lawyer Andrew Seidel’s description of the case on Patheos’s Freethought Now! website, the exemption is for “ministers of the gospel.” I suppose that means all pastors, rabbis, imams, and the like, but only Christians really preach the gospel!”) Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, married co-Presidents of the FFRF, also get a housing allowance, but must pay taxes on it.

As the FFRF notes in an email bulletin, it’s not just the cost of housing (rent or mortgage) that is subsidized:

Clergy are permitted to use the housing allowance not just for rent or mortgage, but also for home improvements, including maintenance, home improvements and repairs, dishwashers, cable TV and phone fees, paint, towels, bedding, home décor, even personal computers and bank fees. They may be exempt from taxable income up to the fair market rental value of their home, particularly helping well-heeled pastors. The subsidy extends to churches, which can pay clergy less, as tax-free salaries go further.

This tax break given to ministers costs the government (i.e., the taxpayers) about $700 million per year! There is no rationale for keeping it unless similar exemptions are given to people, regardless of religion, in similar situations, i.e. nonprofit organizations. And the FFRF’s efforts to overturn a palpably illegal law have been stymied by the government over technicalities.

An original suit filed in 2011 was victorious; Judge Barbara Crabb for the Western District of Wisconsin ruled in 2013 (here) that the religious exemption violated the Establishment Clause (the First Amendment) by privileging religion. This was a major victory for the FFRF—and for secularism. It was also a shock to the government, and to the many churches and ministers who benefit from this illegal arrangement.

The government appealed. They won in 2014, but only on a technicality. The three judges on the Seventh Circuit court of appeals ruled (decision here) that the plaintiffs lacked the “standing” (legal requirement) to sue. That was because Gaylor and Barker had never asked the Internal Revenue Service for a refund of their taxes on the housing allowance. This was a way for the government to dismiss the case without having to face the First Amendment issues involved.

With standing, the plaintiffs went back to court. And they won in October of last year. And once again the government, determined to privilege religion, appealed to the Federal District Court of Appeals. Yesterday the FFRF filed yet another brief before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (Annie Laurie Gaylor et al. v. Stephen Mnuchin [Treasury Secretary] et al., pdf here). As an email I got from the FFRF noted:

The 7th Circuit threw FFRF’s original suit out on standing, arguing that Barker and Gaylor hadn’t gone through the motions of asking for a refund of their housing allowance from the IRS. Accordingly, they sought the refunds, and when denied refunds for the year 2012, went back to court.

Also named as a plaintiff is Ian Gaylor, representing the estate of FFRF President Emerita Anne Nicol Gaylor, who died in 2015 but whose retirement was paid in part as a housing allowance she was not allowed to claim in her lifetime.

As FFRF’s brief puts it, “Only ministers can exclude cash housing allowances, a result that is patently unfair.” Even the bible, the brief cryptically notes, commands citizens to “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.” The government “ignores basic principles of neutrality and fairness when it comes to clergy taxation,” charges FFRF.

The brief takes digs at the numerous friends of the court briefs filed against FFRF, representing outraged ministers and denominations as varied as Unitarian Universalists, Jewish, Muslim, mainstream Protestant and evangelical Christian groups, and some 8,000 individuals. “The silence of the amici is particularly noteworthy as none even suggests that expanding the cash housing allowance exemption to non-clergy might be fair. They confirm the value of the exemption, while seeking to confine it to themselves,” contends the brief.

As Andrew Seidel notes in his Patheos post, the government’s brief consists largely of a list of religious organizations favoring the exemption, so their argument is basically not a Constitutional one, but simply “a lot of us do it and want that tax break.” If the courts are really determined to keep the ministerial privilege, they’ll have to do some fast tap-dancing this time. And of course if the government loses, they can keep appealing—all the way up to the Supreme Court.  Yet the tax break is really so palpably unconstitutional that I can’t imagine what the courts could do to keep it, unless they give similar tax breaks to atheist nonprofit organizations or any comparable nonprofit.

If you want links to the judicial history of the case, here are some:

Appeal Documents

Dan and Annie Laurie (and the whole apparatus of the FFRF) are formidable and tenacious foes, and of course I hope they win. Here they are with their new brief:

I’m a member of the FFRF (it’s only $40 a year, and you get a cool and long monthly newspaper), and am also on the honorary board of directors. If you can spare $40, I’d urge you to throw it their way, as they use the money to actually get stuff done—and to keep this country secular, the way its Founders intended.


Readers’ wildlife photos

Young Jamie Blilie has sent the second installment of his most recent photos via his dad, James Blilie. The captions are indented. At bottom we have a Stephen Barnard photo of DUCKS!

A flock of Common Redpolls going after the thistle seed feeder (Acanthis flammea):

A Nashville Warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla):

A Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia):

A Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia):

A House Finch (?) on our thistle seed feeder (Haemorhous mexicanus).

An albino Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis).

And from Stephen Barnard in Idaho: “My mallard family” [Anas platyrhynchos].  Note that there are eight ducklings, the same number Honey has: [UPDATE: Stephen emailed me that there was a straggler, ergo 9 ducklings.]

Spot the paraglider!

Matthew originated the “Spot the. . . ” posts, and they’ve always been wildlife. But here’s one he took from his hotel balcony in Zermatt, and it’s SPOT THE PARAGLIDER.  Can you see it? Click photo to enlarge:

The answer is below the fold:

Read More »

Tuesday: Hili dialogue

It’s June 19, 2018, and a cruel Tuesday. But palliate the cruelty with a drink, as it’s National Martini Day. And it’s also a day I didn’t know existed: World Sauntering Day, decreed to prompt us to slow down and smell the roses. Wikipedia defines what we’re supposed to do:

Sauntering is a verb describing a style of walking. It is simply to walk slowly, preferably with a joyful disposition. Sauntering has been spoken of most notably by many of the naturalist writers in history including Henry David Thoreau and John Burroughs. See saunter.

It’s also Juneteenth; see below.

Not much happened on this day in history. On June 19, 1269, Louis IX of France ordered all Jews to wear an identifying yellow badge in public or face a fine. Only a bit less than 700 years later, a similar order obtained in a neighboring country.  It’s also Juneteenth, a saddish holiday commemorating the day in 1865 on which slaves in Galveston Texas, fully two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, were finally informed that they were free. On June 19, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted of spying for the Soviet Union, were executed at Sing Sing prision in New York.  Also on this day, exactly 40 years ago, the comic strip Garfield made its debut; it now holds the Guinness World Record for the most widely syndicated comic strip in the world.

Here’s the first strip:

Finally, it was June 19 six years ago that Wikileaks boss Julian Assange asked for asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid extradition to the U.S. He remains in the embassy, as he’d be arrested for violating bail conditions were he to step outside.

Notables born on June 19 include Blaise Pascal (1623), Wallis Simpson (1896), Moe Howard of the Three Stooges (1897), Guy Lombardo (1902), Lou Gehrig (1903, died of ALS 1941), Lester Flatt (1914), Aung San Suu Kyi (1945), Salman Rushdie (1947), and Laura Ingraham (1963).  Those who expired on this day include J. M. Barrie (1937), Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (1953, see above), Slim Whitman (2013), and Otto Warmbier (last year after being transported to the U.S. from the DPRK).

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili has a taste for mouse:

Hili: Time for hunting.
A: You’d better come home.
Hili: Too late. I’ve heard the call of Nature.
In Polish:
Hili: Czas na polowanie.
Ja: Chodźmy lepiej do domu.
Hili: Za późno, usłyszałam wołanie natury.

From Matthew, who calls this tweet, “DON’T DO IT, FLY!”:

Some kind of mutant or developmentally messed up tadpole. LOOK AT THE SIZE OF THAT THING!

Thanks to natural selection, even the tiniest creatures can be ridiculously complex. Look at this gastropod larva:

Matthew has just returned from an academic sojourn to Switzerland, including a stay in Zermatt. Here’s a picture he tweeted from there:

Who could resist giving a magpie some money to watch it stick it in the bank?!

And a cat in some futuristic thing that I don’t understand because I don’t follow these things.

Finally, a tweet (modified) which Matthew says was modified from the Brazil/Switzerland World Cup game (a 1-1 tie).