Prince Harry: Lock him up!

If a pug dog giving the Hitler salute can constitute a criminal act, then Prince Harry, whose costume below is well documented, should be in jail for a long time. It’s offensive! Why is he still walking around?

Yes, it’s offensive, just like Count Dankula’s girlfriend’s dog, but I don’t see prosecutions in the offing.


Stephen Hawking to rest in Westminster Abbey, whose Dean touts it to demonstrate the comity of science and faith

The BBC has announced that Stephen Hawking’s ashes will be interred in Westminster Abbey, next to the grave of Sir Isaac Newton. People can argue about whether he deserves such an honor given that other scientists and artists, some of whom were atheists and Nobel Laureates (e.g., Francis Crick) are buried elsewhere—in Crick’s case at sea.  And we can argue whether an atheist should be buried in a church. I don’t much care, as Westminster Abbey is the repository for British greats, and has become more of a tourist attraction than a house of worship. Where else can you go to see the graves of Newton, Darwin, Robert Blake, and so on?

But what I don’t like is what the infernal Dean of the Abbey said (the bit in bold):

The Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend Dr John Hall, said: “It is entirely fitting that the remains of Professor Stephen Hawking are to be buried in the Abbey, near those of distinguished fellow scientists.

“Sir Isaac Newton was buried in the Abbey in 1727. Charles Darwin was buried beside Isaac Newton in 1882.”

He added: “We believe it to be vital that science and religion work together to seek to answer the great questions of the mystery of life and of the universe.”

Bloody hell! Is he being paid off by Templeton or something? Science and religion don’t work together, as their methods are completely disparate. Further, while science does produce answers, however provisional, to the great questions of the universe, religion doesn’t. Give me one answer about the Great Questions that religion has provided!

What we have here is accommodationist babble, pure and simple. But, as Christopher Hitchens said—though referring to Jerry Falwell in the U.S.)—”You can get away with the most extraordinary offenses to morality and truth in this country if you’ll just get yourself called ‘Reverend’.”  And Hall is the Very Reverend, which gives him even more license to offend.  As reader Jane (who sent me the BBC link) said about the Very Reverend Dr. Hall, “May he be sucked into a big black hole.”

The best U.S. grad schools in ecology and evolution

The academic rankings of both undergraduate and graduate schools done yearly by U.S. News and World Report are taken quite seriously. Well, at least they are by the schools that make it to the top. When a school slips, the rankings suddenly become irrelevant, and excuses are made.

For many years the University of Chicago was number one in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, and we well deserved that ranking. That’s why I came here from Maryland, for the faculty in this department were superb, and so were the grad students, who were more like colleagues than students. Sadly, we’ve slipped over the years, and now you can see, from this year’s rankings, that we’re #8.

I’m not sure how they arrive at these things, but the schools above us, including Harvard, Davis, Duke, and UT Austin, have clearly given us a run for the money.  They are excellent places to study. But at least I can say that I was an active faculty member during the best years of this department. (There were also great periods in earlier years, when the department was simply “biology”: they include the time when my adviser Dick Lewontin was here along with other greats, and even earlier when Sewall Wright, George Beadle, and other giants in the field were on the faculty.

Anyway, if you’re a student contemplating going to grad school in ecology and evolution, take a look at these schools; they’re all good.

Count Dankula, who taught his dog to act like a Nazi, convicted of a hate crime in Scotland

You’re probably heard the story, or seen the video, of a Scottish man, Markus Meechan (aka “Count Dankula”) who taught his dog to raise his paw when Meechan said “Sieg Heil”, and to react when he said “Do you want to gas the Jews”? The video is below, though YouTube makes you click through the trigger warning.

There’s no doubt that, even though Meechan claims this was a joke, it was a very bad joke, not at all funny, and quite offensive. Hell, I find it offensive, and I consider myself a secular Jew. But in the U.K. it’s also a hate crime, and prosecuting Meechan for that, and for breaching the “electronic communications act” by putting the video on YouTube, has cost the UK thousands of dollars.

Today Meechan was convicted, and will be sentenced next month. As Newsweek reports:

A man is facing jail after he was convicted of a hate crime for uploading a video of him teaching his girlfriend’s dog to give a Nazi Sieg Hail salute and respond excitedly to the phrase “gas the Jews.”

Markus Meechan, 30, from North Lanarkshire, Scotland, went viral in 2016 after he posted a video on YouTube entitled “M8 yer dugs a Nazi,”—Scottish argot for “mate, your dog is a Nazi.”

In the video, which went on to be viewed more than 3 million times, Meechan explains he wanted to turn his girlfriend’s pug, Buddha, into the “least cute thing I could think of” and so wanted to turn it into a Nazi.

. . . The clip then shows Buddha raising his paw whenever Meechan calls out “Sieg Heil” and react to the question “you want to gas the Jews?” The video also sees Meechan playing speeches by Adolf Hitler to the dog.

Following outcry over the video, Meechan was arrested and charged with suspicion of a hate crime and an alleged breach of the electronic communications act.

Meechan denied the allegations and insisted he was not anti-Semitic, saying that teaching the dog to act like a Nazi was nothing more than a joke intended to upset his girlfriend.

“I don’t actually hate Jewish people and the video was just an insight into the darker side of my humour, a prank to annoy my girlfriend and that I did not intend for people, other than people who knew my comedy, to see the video,” he said, reports the Jewish Chronicle.

Following a trial at Airdrie Sheriff’s Court in Scotland, the 30-year-old has now been convicted of a hate crime and could face jail when he is sentenced at the same court on April 23.

Sheriff Derek O’Carroll told the court: “The accused knew that the material was offensive and knew why it was offensive. He would have known it was grossly offensive to many Jewish people.”

Here’s the video:

And Meechan’s tweet after his guilty plea.

The U.K. is outpacing the U.S. in its attempts to abrogate freedom of speech, though Britain has no such requirement in its constitution. And it’s possible that Meechan really wasn’t an anti-Semitic bigot, but was just making an awful-taste joke. He surely knew it would offend Jews, as it offends me. But people don’t have a right to not be offended. 

What is accomplished by convicting this guy and sending him to jail? Will it deter others from making ‘hate videos’? Perhaps, but the concept of “hate speech” is so slippery that such deterrence is unwise. Meechan, after all, was not calling for the Jews to be gassed, expecting to incite Jewish deaths. Remember that many saw, and still see, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Muhammad as “hate speech”, as they see the views of Steve Bannon, Christina Hoff Sommers, or Amy Wax as “hate speech”.

Meechan would not be tried in the U.S., much less convicted, for here has the right to say what he wants, vile as it is. Recall, as well, that to defend freedom of speech, the American Civil Liberties Union went to court to allow the American Nazi Party to march through Skokie, Illinois—a Jewish suburb. Of course everyone knew this would be offensive and would piss people off! But the principle must be defended, because, if you decide “hate speech” is to be criminalized, who gets to decide what hate speech is? Is the U.S. palpably worse off than the U.K. because it allows “hate speech”? I don’t think so.

Remember this number from the movie “The Producers”? HATE CRIME! It surely would not be allowed in the UK. Notice the Hitler salutes, the goose-stepping, and even the sound of bullets.

I have the same reaction as Ricky Gervais, who’s a Brit (h/t to Grania for the tweets):

And one more, or rather three:

And another, this time with humor, from Constitutional lawyer Ken White, who writes at “Popehat”:

Well, maybe some people feel that Meechan should have been tried for teaching “Sieg heils” to his dog. Vote below, and weigh in in the comments. All I see from this side of the pond is that the UK is becoming a mire of “political correctness”, and by that I mean a place where people have to tiptoe around, or hush themselves, to avoid offending anyone.

Spring has begun!

At the exact second when this post goes up, it will be Spring in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s still near freezing in Chicago, but the crocuses are poking up above the soil, and there is no snow on the horizon (sorry, eastern U.S.).

Soon it will be duckling season!


Gal Gadot demonized for her memoriam for Stephen Hawking

The outrage mob, always sniffing for ideological impurities, has struck again. When Stephen Hawking died on March 14, actor Gal Gadot—you know, the Wonder Woman phenom who is also an Israeli—issued this tweet:

Now most of you are on the Left, but look at that tweet and see what you could find objectionable if you’re a Pecksniff. You’ll spot it instantly, I bet. Yep, it was the idea that after death Hawking will be “free of any physical constraints.” Now I don’t know if that means he’ll have an afterlife where he’s not in a wheelchair (implying Gadot is religious, though most liberal Jews don’t believe in an afterlife), or that he’s simply gone and therefore not thereby constrained.

But if you’re a Pecksniff, you can also be huffy and say, “Well, this is ableism, pure and simple. It implies that Hawking was ‘constrained’ mentally as well as physically, and that he could have accomplished more had he not been afflicted with ALS (or polio).” That is arguable, because perhaps being confined to his chair enabled his mind to roam more freely. But that’s not what Gadot meant, I bet, for she pays tribute to his “brilliance and wisdom”. She was, I suspect, just paying tribute to him, and saying that he’s free from “constraints”—exactly as many people say, when someone dies, that they’re finally “at peace”, or “beyond suffering”. And that tweet, of course, got 53,469 likes when I put it up.

Yet the termites are ever dining, and so there’s a piece on Mashable called “People aren’t thrilled with Gal Gadot’s tribute to Stephen Hawking“, which presents exactly seven tweets accusing Gadot of ableism, and one supporting her. Apparently seven people is some kind of consensus.

Here are some Pecksniffs:

Yes, the last tweet is accurate: people should chill out about this, and there’s no doubt that, these days, many people are simply “looking to be offended.” I suppose there are psychological reasons for that, but this is above my pay grade.

But what was Hawking’s view? Would he have preferred to have had his ALS (with its putative benefits for his science), or to have never gotten it?

This video, which I found on YouTube, supports the latter, for it shows Hawking supporting the “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge“, in which someone challenges another to dump a bucket of ice water on their head. If they don’t do it within a stipulated amount of time, the one who forfeits donates to The ALS Association or other groups fighting motor neuron disease.  It’s estimated that the challenge not only brought awareness of this dreaded ailment, but raised over $100 million dollars for research and treatment.

And here’s Stephen Hawking participating in that challenge, urging his kids to drench themselves. They do. And Hawking adds, with his computer voice, “I urge everyone to donate to the MNDA to eliminate this terrible disease.” Yes, it’s terrible, and one has to conclude that Hawking would prefer not to have been afflicted.

That, of course, doesn’t mean that one should treat the disabled as lesser humans, or make fun of them (as Trump did during his campaign); it just means that we should keep working, raising money, and using the best science we can to get rid of those ailments that people don’t want. I suspect that most people with disabilities would just as soon not have them, though some deaf people say they wouldn’t want to hear even if that were possible.

And people should lay off Gal Gadot.

By the way, yesterday I mentioned a piece in the Torygraph intimating that Hawking’s final science paper might have shown a way for us to test the idea of the multiverse, heretofore seen as hard or impossible to test. A new article in Gizmodo by George Dvorsky, however, says that the Torygraph’s interpretation is overblown, and urges considerable caution:

The scientists say it may eventually be possible to see signs of the multiverse in the background radiation of the universe, but that has yet to be proven. If someone down the line can expand on this work, and show us what we should be looking for, then it can be said that Hawking and Loeb were truly onto something. But for now, that’s a big if.

. . . Frank Wilczek, a theoretical physicist at MIT and Nobel laureate, was less charitable about the new work.

“It’s heavy on speculative assumptions, and I don’t see any concrete predictions,” Wilczek told Gizmodo. “Very hard to understand, though, at least for me, and I may be missing something.”

The 2018 UN World Happiness Report: most atheistic (and socially well off) countries are the happiest, while religious countries are poor and unhappy

The 2018 edition of the World Happiness Report is out, and it shows pretty much what other recent reports have shown: Western European countries are the world’s happiest, the poor countries of Africa and the Middle East are the world’s unhappiest, and Finland has moved into the #1 spot. A new aspect of the report deals with immigration, and finds that immigrants quickly tend to approach the happiness of the countries to which they moved. This is expected because, after all, immigrants usually move to where they expect to find a better life.

The report is carried out and prepared by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and “happiness” is simply inhabitants’ self-report of their state of mental well-being. The study found, as always, that happiness is strongly correlated with variables like income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity. (Note: religiosity isn’t mentioned, at least not that I can find.)

Click on the screenshot to access the full report (you have to download individual chapters and the appendices):

And, here are the rankings, from happiest to unhappiest countries, with the statistical analysis of what factors contributed to the overall happiness, which is measured on a scale from zero to eight (data from this part of the report).

Most of the top 20 countries are from Western Europe or are Anglophone, while, with the exception of Ukraine, all the 20 bottom countries are from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. This is similar to the results of last year’s report.

Here’s a map of happiness measured in 2017. Greenest countries are the happiest (scores above 5.0; darker green indicates real happiness), while red and blackish-brown countries are the unhappy ones (scores below 5.0).  You can see that misery correlates with social well-being, including poverty. But it also correlates (negatively) with religiosity.

As I said, the self-perceived happiness of people is highly correlated with their income, health, freedom, and social support, which explains the patterns above. But I’m absolutely sure, based on partial surveys I’ve reported before, that happiness is also, across all countries, strongly and negatively correlated with their religiosity. That is, the most religious countries (which happen to be those in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa) are the unhappiest, while the most atheistic countries—those in Scandinavia and Northern Europe, as well as Australia and Canada—are the happiest. (The U.S., which is the most religious First World nation, ranks as #18.)

It would be lovely if some reader with extra time correlated religiosity with happiness. I’ll bet $50 the correlation is negative and statistically significant. Reader Gluon Spring did a correlation two years ago with some of the data, and here’s the result, with the 95% confidence interval around the regression line:

No wonder people ignore religiosity when they’re analyzing happiness! Who but a petulant atheist would even make a plot like this?

Of course correlations are not causation, and the negative correlation that I expect between religiosity and happiness does not mean that atheism makes people happier, or religion unhappier. What it means—and this is supported by several sociological studies (see here for one)—is likely that people either turn to religion or maintain their religion when their social situation is so dire that they’re unhappy.  When conditions are good, and there’s lots of social support, including help for sick people, old people, free medical care, and so on, then there’s no need to be religious, no need to supplicate a god for what your society can’t provide. When you’re well off, your country gradually loses religion, the thesis of Norris and Inglehart in the preceding link.

In short, what makes people happy is not religion, but material well being and the assurance of material aid. That’s supported by the study’s finding that immigrants, including Muslims from the Middle East, quickly gain the happiness of their new country, while (I suspect), still keeping their religion, though perhaps in an attenuated form.

Religion is simply what you do when you don’t have well being.

I always quote Marx on this point. I’m not a Marxist, but here’s one place he was right:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

—Karl Marx (1843)


Readers’ wildlife photos

Reader Joe Dickinson sent some bird photos (and one reptile snap); his captions are indented.

Here are the best of my non-goose  photos from the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.   (Autocorrect tried to make that “sacrament”, not appropriate for this site.) This is, I believe, my first ever photo of an American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus).

This great egret (Ardea alba) stared intently into this shrub without moving for several minutes.  I suspect he heard something rustling around in there.  Approaching traffic forced us to move on before he did anything.

 I did not know what these were when I snapped the picture, but consultation with my Sibley Guide convinces me that they are white-faced ibis (Plegadis chihi).  (Try to type that without autocorrect insisting on “chili”.)  I’m surprised to see them flying in a flock of over twenty (some stragglers cropped out of the finished photo) because we saw them wading mostly solo and never more than two or three together.

I did not get a good shot of a wading ibis on this trip, so here is one from a couple of years ago.

Speaking of flocks, I initially took these to be starlings since I am used to seeing them in large flocks, but actually they are red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus).

Here is a blackbird close up.  It seemed a bit early to me (late January), but some males seemed to be at least tentatively making territorial displays.

This bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) kindly stayed put while I maneuvered my car to get a clear shot.  (Refuge rules require visitors to remain in their vehicles at all times.)

The most common raptors on the refuge were the northern harrier and the red-tailed hawk, both most easily identified in flight, at least for me, so I struggled with identifying this perched bird before settling on juvenile redtailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).  I would be happy to be corrected by one of your many more competent readers.

Not a great photograph, but I need to share what for me was a remarkable concentration of black-crowned night-herons (Nycticorax nycticorax).  I count over forty in this frame, and this is about one fourth of the contiguous strip of trees and shrubs that they occupied.  They are sufficiently reliable that the printed map of the refuge actually shows where to find them.

One non-avian species:  I’m pretty sure they are northwestern pond turtles (Actinemys marmorata).

There were plenty of ducks, mostly duplicating the species featured in a previous submission from the Merced NWR, but I think these ring-necked ducks (Aythya collaris) are different.

I did send northern pintails (Anas acuta) previously, but I think this is a particularly handsome male.

The end.


Tuesday: Hili dialogue

It’s March 20, 2018, a Tuesday and the day when Spring begins this year: the vernal equinox. (Spring officially begins at 12:15 EDT in the U.S., and I will announce it on this site.) Here’s a celebratory tweet about Spring in Chicago (found by Matthew):

The photo is by Anthony Artense at NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day, is called “Chicagohenge: Equinox in an Aligned City”, and the explanation is this:

Sometimes, in a way, Chicago is like a modern Stonehenge. The way is east to west, and the time is today. Today, and every equinox, the Sun will set exactly to the west, everywhere on Earth. Therefore, today in Chicago, the Sun will set directly down the long equatorially-aligned grid of streets and buildings, an event dubbed #chicagohenge. Featured here is a Chicago Henge picture taken during the last equinox in mid-September of 2017 looking along part of Upper Wacker Drive. Many cities, though, have streets or other features that are well-aligned to Earth’s spin axis. Therefore, quite possibly, your favorite street may also run east – west. Tonight at sunset, with a quick glance, you can actually find out.

For some reason Winter has seemed interminable, though that shouldn’t be the case for someone of my age. (My theory, which is mine and which can be tested, is that time appears to go by more quickly as you age, for you see a span of time in relationship to how much time you’ve spent on Earth. My test: ask people of various ages to tell you when they think five minutes have passed, and ensure that they can’t count or look at a watch. Prediction: older people will judge that less time has passed.) It’s also National Ravioli Day as well as “The Great American Meatout,” celebrating the abnegation of carnivory. Finally, it’s a lovely holiday—World Sparrow Day—celebrating the beautiful but neglected House Sparrow (Passer domesticus).

On March 20, 1616, Sir Walter Raleigh was released from the Tower of London, having been imprisoned there for 13 years. On this day in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published. On March 20, 1915, Albert Einstein published his general theory of relativity; 51 years later, Tunisia gained independence from France. On this day in 1985, Libby Riddles became the first woman to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a grueling competition involving 1,135-miles of mushing and three weeks in the snow. Here’s Riddles’s victory and her induction into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame:

You may remember the sarin attack on the Tokyo subway by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, which killed 12 people, severely injured 50 and created temporary vision problems for nearly 1,000 others. That attack took place on March 20, 1995. 13 members of the cult are on death row, which is a long time  in Japan (you’re only informed you’re to be killed on the morning of execution). Finally, 15 years ago on this day, the U.S., U.K., Australia, and Poland invaded Iraq, an unwise decision that’s cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars.

Notables born on this day include the painter George Caleb Bingham (1811), Henrik Ibsen (1828), B. F. Skinner (1904), Ozzie Nelson (1906), Carl Reiner (1922; still alive at 96!), John Ehrlichman (1925), Fred “Mr.” Rogers (1928), the historian John Boswell, who lived across the hall from me during sophomore year at William & Mary, Bobby Orr (1948), Spike Lee (1957), and Holly Hunter (1958; where did she go?).

Here’s Bingham’s most famous painting, “Fur traders descending the Missouri” (1845). It’s at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Now, is that a fox or a cat in the prow? Why is it there?

Those who expired on March 20 include Henry IV of England (1413), Isaac Newton (1726), George Curzon (1925), Chet Huntley (1974), V. S. Pritchett (1997), and David Rockefeller (last year).

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, there’s a long dialogue between Hili and Andrzej. I was a bit confused by it, and Malgorzata explained: “Hili is prepared to have something tasty which will better prepare her to meet whatever the future has in store for her.”

Hili: You can’t predict the future.
A: That’s right.
Hili: But you can prepare yourself for it.
A: What do you mean?
Hili: I’m already prepared. Is there anything tasty in the fridge?
In Polish:
Hili: Przyszłości nie można przewidzieć.
Ja: To prawda.
Hili: Ale można się do niej przygotować.
Ja: To znaczy?
Hili: Już jestem gotowa. Co jest smacznego w lodówce?

From Matthew: a captive killer whale uses bait to hunt birds. Aren’t they feeding it enough?

Matthew notes: “This is not a painting.”:

Cryptic felinity:

Be sure to enlarge the photos on this one:

From Grania, who says this is an interesting argument (I haven’t yet read it):

Check out the titles of these great bird paintings:

I missed this holiday two days ago, but St. Gertrude is indeed the patron saint of cats (see pictures here):



Did Hawking have polio rather than ALS?

As we all know, Stephen Hawking is a medical anomaly, for he lived for over half a century with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)—a disease that usually kills you within just a few years of diagnosis. As far as I know, he had the disease for longer than any human in history.

But did he really have ALS?

The Torygraph has a new article, based on a physician’s letter sent to to the Financial Times that after some effort, I finally found unpaywalled. Here it is (I think the first sentence is an unintended double entendre):

Well, this dude is a physician, and what do I know? But my impression of polio was that it does most of its damage at the outset, and doesn’t get progressively worse over decades, as Hawking’s illness seems to have done. Not that his polio—if that’s what he had—could have been ameliorated, but didn’t doctors think of that? And there must surely be a test to see if you have a virus versus ALS.

Perhaps Hawking was simply an outlier: a very rare case of hyper-longevity that has been seen in other fatal diseases. (Steve Gould’s cure of mesothelioma is similar.)

Well, it’s not of great import what disease killed Hawking; what I found more interesting was this article, also in the Torygraph (click on screenshot to see it).

An excerpt:

A final theory explaining how mankind might detect parallel universes was completed by Stephen Hawking shortly before he died, it has emerged.

Colleagues have revealed the renowned theoretical physicist’s final academic work was to set out the groundbreaking mathematics needed for a spacecraft to find traces of multiple big bangs.

Currently being reviewed by a leading scientific journal, the paper, named A Smooth Exit from Eternal Inflation, may turn out to be Hawking’s most important scientific legacy.

Fellow researchers have said that if the evidence which the new theory promises had been discovered before Hawking died last week, it may have secured the Nobel Prize which had eluded him for so long.

The problem with the idea of a multiverse, an idea that fascinates me, is that it seemed largely untestable. Hawking’s paper implies that this might not be the case:

Carlos Frenk, professor of cosmology at Durham University, told The Sunday Times: The intriguing idea in Hawking’s paper is that [the multiverse] left its imprint on the background radiation permeating our universe and we could measure it with a detector on a spaceship.

“These ideas offer the breathtaking prospect of finding evidence for the existence of other universe.”

We shall see. This is above my pay grade, so watch our Official Website Physicist™ Sean Carroll’s website for updates. His latest post is a nice summary of Hawking’s scientific contributions.


h/t: Hempenstein