How do you want to die?

I’m surprised nobody has thought of this before: collecting doctors’ wishes about how they would like to die. That collection was done by Tom Chivers, announced on Twi**er, as below, and published on BuzzFeed. Click on the screenshot below to go to the article, which is a lot better than usual pieces on that aggregator site:

Screen shot 2015-07-28 at 1.46.01 PMPerhaps unsurprisingly, the doctors’ opinions are fairly well in line with each other, and probably differ on average from those of “regular people”. Physicians wouldn’t usually opt for CPR or extension-of-life procedures in the case of terminal illnesses. The doctors have simply seen too many people have sad, painful deaths, or have their lives prolonged for no clear reason.

I know how I want to go: I want to die in my sleep at a ripe old age or, barring that, have a sudden heart attack that drops me instantly—the F. Scott Fitzgerald death.  I don’t want to know it’s coming, although others may disagree.

Readers are invited to describe their preferred method of demise below.

Addendum: the first reader below suggests his/her preferred death celebration or memorial. I’ve added mine as a comment, and you can add yours, too.

Three owlets and a fly

My old friend Hempenstein sent this video, and at first I couldn’t figure out what was going on: I thought the owlet nestlings were listening for their mother. But then I realized that they were following a fly that was loose in the nest box.  As Hempenstein commented on the video:

Jesus they’re strange-looking, but 2+ min of them is somehow fascinating to watch.

They are of course barn owls (Tyto alba).

h/t: Hempenstein

Austin part deux: buying custom boots

As I’ve mentioned several times, one of the reasons I went through Austin was to get measured for a pair of custom cowboy boots by Lee Miller, in my view the finest bootmaker in the U.S. His shop is called “Texas Traditions,” and Matt Dillahunty accompanied me there a few days ago for my Big Measurement.

I’d waited five years to get to the top of the list (with a huge backlog, Lee doesn’t take new orders), and so I was quite excited. Matt is a boot lover himself, and wanted to tag along to see the process (he now has a jones for a specific kind of custom boot, but I won’t spill the beans).

I first visited the shop, just to see the operation, in March 2010, and now, five years and four months later, I got to finally order the boots (I was snuck onto the closed waiting list because I sent Lee a copy of WEIT, which he liked). Go here to see my post written after my first visit.

It took Lee about forty minutes to measure my feet. He is obsessive about getting a good fit, and does everything he can to ensure that. I sat on a thronelike chair for the measurements (pictures are by Matt):


After taking a few simple measurements with those metal slidey-scales you’ll remember from shoe stores if you’re of a certain age. Lee then gets down to business. Tape measures are applied all over the foot and calf, and then he makes you wear a sock of normal thickness, puts a piece of masking tape on each foot, and then measures around the foot at about six marks made along the tape, which he then puts in a file folder.

Tape results

He then applies a metal comb with moveable teeth to the top of the foot so you get the contour of each foot (essential for a good fit):

Comb 1

Here’s the upper contour of my left foot:

Comb 2

I was then asked to stand on a big inkpad in my socks and then make an impression on a piece of paper. That gives the bootmaker an idea of how your weight is distributed.

After the long period of measurement, Lee gets a bunch of data (below) that he needs to make the last: a wooden or fiberglass three-dimensional model of the foot that is used as the substrate to build the boot around.

Matt asked if making a last couldn’t somehow be done by 3-D computer printing, and Lee responded that we’re not quite there yet, for he has to adjust the dimensions of the last based on subtle aspects of his boot-making experience. Here are my foot data, including the tracings from the “comb”:


Here are some lasts of some of Lee’s customers(note the names). Once you have a last made, you don’t need to be measured further, but can order boots at long distance—unless your foot has somehow changed.


Picking the design, leathers, toe shape, stitching, and everything else consumed nearly two more hours with the help of Carrlyn, Lee’s wife, who runs the shop and does a lot of the designing. We decided on kangaroo hide, which is very tough and (unlike calf) doesn’t crack. I chose a cognac color for the footpiece (the vamp) and a dark, forest-green color for the shaft:


I won’t reveal my design until I get the boots in four or five months, but one hint: they incorporate a feature of Charlie Dunn’s personal boots, shown in this earlier post.

While choosing the leather, I once again saw Lauren Bacall’s personal boots (she was taken to the shop by Lyle Lovett, a steady customer who was starring in a Robert Altman movie with Bacall). These boots were returned because they didn’t fit well: she was said to have hard-to-measure feet. Lee simply kept the returned boots and made her a pair that fit, for no additional charge. He’d do that for any customer whose boots didn’t fit. Note her initials on the inside of the pulls. They have the classic Texas bluebell design in inlays.
Bacall boot

I took a photo of Lee and Carrlyn (pronounced “Car-Lin”) in the workshop. They’re delightful people; a pure pleasure to work with. Lee is wearing pigskin boots (very tough) that he made for himself. Carrlyn owns one pair of boots: a black alligator pair with a design similar to the one I chose (she’s not wearing them in this photo). Note the lasts hanging everywhere.

Lee and Carrlyn

When my boots arrive in four or five months, I’ll give them a premiere on this site.

The world’s largest aggregation of snakes

Since Greg is posting twice about snakes this week, I declare it Official Website Snake Week.™

My colleague Steve Arnold used to work at my university, and since his research was partly on garter snakes, I knew about the amazing mating aggregations of that species that occur in some locations. But by far the largest aggregation is in Winnipeg, Manitoba, as reported in National Geographic and called to my attention by reader Taskin, who lives near the snake mosh pit:

Screen shot 2015-07-26 at 5.23.56 PM
The pit contains 75,000 garter snakes writhing about in a space the size in your living room! To see the 3.5-minute video, click on the screenshot below (TRIGGER WARNING: LOTS OF SNAKES!), which also takes you to the article.

Screen shot 2015-07-26 at 5.22.58 PM

Christine dell’Amore’s piece gives all the information you want to know, and if you’re a woman, you’ll feel a special pang. A few snippets:

Each spring, masses of red-sided garter snakes congregate inside limestone caves to form mating balls, in which up to a hundred male snakes vie for a single female. She, in turn, “is desperately trying to get out of the pit,” said Colangelo, an environmental documentary photographer.

These slithery swarms appear to be a “frenzy, but a closer look reveals a much finer dance,” Colangelo said in his field notes. “The small males court the larger female by rubbing her head with their chins and maintaining as much contact between their long bodies as possible.”

. . . Why is this the largest gathering of snakes? What attracts them?

This grouping of red-sided garter snakes has the most northern range of any reptile in the Western Hemisphere. It’s due to a lucky coincidence of two geological features: limestone crevices and marshes. It’s a fantastic place for snakes to be in the summer because there are huge marshes loaded with frogs, but in the winter it drops down to -40. The only reason all these snakes can survive these winters is because of the large limestone crevices that reach deep into the ground, below the frostline. They spend about eight months of the year in these large underground chambers. They come out in the spring, mate in these dens and [then travel] up to 20 kilometers [12 miles] to their summer grounds, load up with amphibians and worms, and head back to the cave. (See National Geographic’s pictures of snakes.)

. . . What’s interested you the most about the snake pits?

Mating balls are the most intriguing part. All of the males come out first and hang out at the base of the pit, and females are instantly mobbed. The females then give birth out in the summer grounds, in the marshes. The curious thing is that those newborns are immediately abandoned. None of those newborns return to the dens. They find spots in the summer grounds to overwinter. Not much is known about why they don’t migrate to the dens or how they survive the winter. (See more of National Geographic’s snake videos.)

Yep, it’s a tough life for female garter snakes. . . . and female ducks, dragonflies, H. sapiens, and a gazillion other species. Evolution is a cruel process, and this demonstrates that if it’s the product of God, God doesn’t like females. But we already knew that. . .



Readers’ wildlife photos

Stephen Barnard sends us some photos from Idaho: stills of the aerial dogfights (or ballets) he sees daily between two species of hummingbirds battling around the feeder on his porch. You should know by now that these little guys, while adorable, are fiercely territorial. I’m not sure what damage they can do to each other while defending a feeder: perhaps those sharp bills can poke out an eye! His notes:

The Rufous (Selasphorus rufus) and Black-chinned (Archilochus alexandri) have been fighting over the feeder. So far it’s a standoff. The Rufous are pugnacious but the Black-chinned are persistent and by no means shrinking violets. They go at this all day long, with at least hundreds
of other aggressive encounters.

(Don’t forget, you can see the photo at its original size if you click through on it twice.)







In an email, Stephen asked me if I knew of any other vertebrate that had antagonistic encounters with members of other vertebrate species on such a constant basis. I responded that hummingbirds probably didn’t attack each other like this except around a huge, defensible resource like a nectar feeder—something that doesn’t occur in nature (though big masses of flowers do); and if that’s the case, then perhaps lions defending the remains of their kill from hyenas or wild d*gs would compare. But, as Stephen pointed out, the d*gs and hyenas never win.

Tuesday: Hili dialogue (and Leon lagniappe)

Professor Ceiling Cat here; I’m heading home at last from Louisiana but visiting old friends along the way, so posting will light for just a few more days. As always, I will do my best. Greg has another post on snakes to put up (make sure you read his terrific post on the four-legged fossil snake); I hope Grania will pitch in; and perhaps Matthew as well.  And I still have trip posts in the offing.

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, the cherry harvest is copious, but has been interrupted by rain. I am informed that there will be no dearth of pies for me when I next visit. My goal is to have cherry pie EVERY DAY when I go to Poland in late September/early October.  And Hili is up her usual vertical peregrinations:

Hili: How did the Roman Empire fall?
A: More because of the bureaucracy than because the might of the Vandals.
Hili: I will be careful then.


In Polish:
Hili: Jak upadło cesarstwo rzymskie?
Ja: Raczej z powodu biurokracji niż z powodu potęgi wandali.
Hili: To ja będę ostrożna.
Here’s a new Leon monologue:
Leon: Shall we roast a sausage?

Peregrinations: Austin, part I

Here’s the first of two posts of my visit to Austin (the second will be the documentation of my getting measured for and ordering custom cowboy boots. On the drive from San Angelo to Austin, which was largely on back roads, I got a good view of Texas country life. Many of the small towns are clearly dying, with their stores shuttered up, but Llano (home of KITY radio!), not far from Austin, retains the charm of small-town Texas life. It appears to be thriving, and has the classic central city hall of Texas, and the row of small stores surrounding its plaza:

Llano 1

This is right out of the movie “The Last Picture Show” (filmed in Archer City, Texas):

lano 2

I arrived at the home of Matt Dillahunty and Beth Presswood in the early afternoon. Both are atheist activists: Matt co-hosts the the well-known Atheist Experience t.v. show and also does dozens of debates with theists, while Beth is co-host of the Godless Bitches podcast. Austin, being the exceptional Texas city that it is (it’s full of signs and bumper stickers saying, “Keep Austin Weird”, attesting to its non-Republican nature), has a thriving atheist community.

Matt loves reptiles, and has had several in his life, including a rattlesnake. Now he keeps two small ball pythons (Python regius):

MD and ball pythong

For lunch on the day I arrived, we drove the 25 minutes or so to one of my favorite BBQ places, Black’s (established 1932), located in the BBQ Capital of Texas, Lockhart. (They have three famous joints in that small town.)

Black's facade

Here’s a video of Texas’s oldest family-run BBQ:

First you go through the “fixins” line to get potato salad, beans, mac and cheese, biscuits, cornbread, and desserts (including a fantastic warm peach cobbler):

Black's line

Then you go to the meat section and specify whether you want, ribs, a giant beef rib (which looks like something Fred Flintstone would have eaten), smoked homemade sausage, and—my favorite—brisket. I got about a quarter-pound of brisket.

Black's meatA lovely lunch (mine): brisket, potato salad, beans, jalapeno cornbread, and, of course, sweet tea. I had peach cobbler for dessert.

Black's lunch

Beth and Matt are the staff for four cats. This is Dax, their orange tabby. He has a few stripes but looks a lot like an Abyssinian:
Cat 1

Matt loves his kitties. He claims that he was once a d*g man, but that cats are “growing on him.” Beth is clearly the motivating force behind the feline melange:

Cat 1a

This is Hana, a beautiful green-eyed tabby:

Cat 2

Bonsai, the tortoiseshell cat:

Cat 3

There is also a calico named Miso, but she’s shy. I snapped them all at feeding time:

Feeding time

Matt is an accomplished magician, and often performs at atheist conventions when he’s not arguing against theism. He was kind enough to set up his magic table and show me a full hour of close-up magic. It was amazing. He did card tricks, coin tricks, and other tricks, and I had no idea how he did them although he was sitting only a few feet from me.

Here I asked him to set out four “perfect” bridge hands in order, and then shuffle them. He did so repeatedly, cutting and shuffling, and continued until I asked him to stop. Then he fanned out the cards and, mirabile dictu, the suits were still in order. (Clearly he was only pretending to shuffle, but it sure as hell looked real to me. This takes skill acquired from years of practice!)


After I spent 2.5 hours ordering boots (Matt came along because he was interested in boots and owns two pair), we had a nice sushi lunch, Texas style. One of the rolls was called “Texas roadkill roll” and others had jalapenos in them.


And that evening for dinner we went to a famous Austin chain of taco restaurants (now found throughout Texas), Torchy’s Tacos.  (Note to Colorado readers: there’s one in Denver, too! Don’t miss it.) Beth favors striking clothes, and here she was a vision in orange:

Matt and Beth

The food was fantastic. We started with a bowl of molten queso and chips to whet our appetite. I had a lemonade that was pink as it was flavored with red opuntia cactus fruit.

Tacos queso

My dinner: a pork and green chile taco and a chicken taco. They were superb: the ingredients were fresh and homemade: the signature of Torchy’s. Two of them (for about six bucks) is an ample meal. Torchy’s is always crowded.

Tacos, tacos

In between boot ordering and eating, Matt and I had lots of conversations about religion, atheism, debating, and so on. I wish I had consulted him when I wrote my latest book: he’s immensely knowledgeable. At any rate, he taped one of our conversations for a video for his Patreon patrons (join the others if you can spare some dosh; it’s a great cause), and I’ll put it up when it’s edited and available.

Thanks to Matt and Beth for their hospitality in Austin!

NYT quotes my post on the Bogotá twins—without permission

I suppose the “fair use” policy allows magazines and newspapers to quote this website without permission, but it would have been nice had the New York Times asked me before quoting part of my post about Susan Dominus’s wonderful NYT Sunday Magazine piece on the mixed-up twins of Bogotá. (Do read her piece if you get a chance; it’s a fantastic story.)

At any rate, my quote is in the magazine’s letter’s section that appeared yesterday, with the excerpt running first. I’m of course pleased at that, but editors normally ask permission and seek verification before publishing letters. Here’s what they quote.

Ethics dictates that we can’t do the kind of experiments on humans that we can on flies and cows: separating individuals at birth and seeing how much difference in behavior and appearance can be created by rearing siblings (identical or fraternal) in different environments. Data so far show that a surprisingly large amount of variation in human behavior rests on variation in genes, but these studies aren’t perfect. Still, they should give pause to those who believe (often based on political ideology) that genes don’t play much of a role in the diversity of behavior among individuals in the human population. Jerry A. Coyne, in a post on his blog, Why Evolution Is True

I like the fact that they include my words on ideological opposition on genetic determination of human behaviors—as some keyboard-warrior atheists have adopted this misguided stand on political grounds—but Earth to NYT: it’s not a blog!

There are several other letters, but only one is of interest:

What’s not often considered in studies of identical twins reared apart is whether identical twins reared together actually grow up to have more differences from each other than they might have had if they had been reared apart but in very similar circumstances or as an only child. Twins raised together need to find some interests or achievements that are unique to them and that distinguish them from their twin. Twins raised apart or alone would have much less motivation to be different from ‘‘themselves’’ in order to be noticed and praised, and thus they would be less driven to pick interests or modes of expression that differ from their twin’s and perhaps from their own genetically driven inclinations. You could speculate that epigenetic effects may also influence or even develop from these differing behaviors and the natural desire of an identical twin to be somewhat less than completely identical in the eyes of the rest of the world.raflei00, posted on

I’m not aware of any evidence that identical twins raised together are actually more different than such twins raised apart; I suspect that evidence exists, but hasn’t been examined because the more important issue is that the similarity of identical twins raised apart (compared to fraternal twins raised together or apart) gives us important information about the genetics of behavior, “IQ” (whatever that may be), and physiological and morphological traits.

Granted, identical twins raised apart may sometimes be put in more similar environments than are normal siblings separated at birth (I’m not sure if this is the case, but the issue has been bruited about), so that environmental similarities may be conflated with genetic ones. But one fact stands: if identical twins raised apart are substantially more similar than are fraternal twins raised together, that suggests a big genetic component to variations in human behavior. After all, it would be a misguided scientist (or an ideologue) who would claim that the environments of identical twins raised apart were more similar than that of fraternal twins raised together!

Finally, as far as I know, identical twins raised together often seem to seek to be similar: dressing alike when they’re old enough to have a choice, and hanging around together. These issues wouldn’t apply for twins raised apart, and would militate against the thesis of the letter-writer above.

As for the speculations on “epigenetic effects”, well, that’s irrelevant to the author’s otherwise interesting speculation, for it involves the effects of different environments on the twins’ DNA—something that probably doesn’t happen, and—as it would disappear in their children—would be of minimal interest.

h/t: Diane G

Think positive: how could we get to a good 2100?

by Matthew Cobb

On Tw*tter the @realscientists account just posted an interesting challenge.

I came back with what I think is probably going to be the correct answer:

While Laura Schmitt responded in similar vein:

But Corey Bradshaw (@conservbytes) who is currently curating the @realscientists account (it’s what’s called a ‘rocur’ account – that’s ‘rotationally curated’ – a different scientist runs it each week) responded with a rather more interesting challenge:

I gave a facetious reply:

And then a more serious one:

So, the challenge to readers is this: what do you think a GOOD 2100 would look like? Apart from stopping getting more CO2 into the atmosphere, how can we get to a good place in the 21st century, and what would that look like? Shoot my ideas down if you want, but I’m more interested in what you think the world should look like in 85 years when we’re all dead and gone, and how we can get there.

Check out both @laura193laura and @realscientists for further thoughts, then post your answers below.



Brother Tayler’s secular Sunday sermon: a riff on a hoax

An article in The NewsNerd notes that the American Psychological Association is about to classify extreme religiosity as a mental illness. A true God Delusion!:

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a strong and passionate belief in a deity or higher power, to the point where it impairs one’s ability to make conscientious decisions about common sense matters, will now be classified as a mental illness.

The controversial ruling comes after a 5-year study by the APA showed devoutly religious people often suffered from anxiety, emotional distress, hallucinations, and paranoia. The study stated that those who perceived God as punitive was directly related to their poorer health, while those who viewed God as benevolent did not suffer as many mental problems. The religious views of both groups often resulted in them being disconnected from reality.

Dr. Lillian Andrews, professor of psychology, stated, “Every year thousands of people die after refusing life-saving treatment on religious grounds. Even when being told ‘you will die without this treatment’ patients reject the idea and believe that their God will still save them. Those lives could be saved simply by classifying those people as mentally unfit for decision making.”

. . . With the new classification, the APA will lobby to introduce legislation which would allow doctors the right to force life-saving treatment on those who refuse it for spiritual reasons on the grounds that they are mentally incapable of making decisions about their health.

I’ve written at length about this very problem (in Slate, for example), especially the the United States’s shameful coddling of parents who withhold medical care from their children on religious grounds. Those parents are given a legal break in 43 of the 50 U.S. states, and it’s reprehensible and unconscionable.(47 of the 50 states also permit religious exemptions from vaccination for children attending public school.) The last chapter of Faith versus Fact, for example, discusses this issue in detail, for it’s a palpable example of severe harm caused by faith—and the onus to fix it is on all of us.

Sadly, as Jeffrey Tayler notes in his latest Sunday Secular Sermon in Salon, “The religious have gone insane: the separation of church and state—and Scalia from his mind,” this story in NewsNerd, like all others on the site, is a fake. It sounds realistic, and is what many of us would like to be true, but it isn’t.

Screen shot 2015-07-26 at 8.02.09 PM

So the largely free license that religious parents have to hurt their children via faith-healing remains untrammeled. (Tayler even pays me a nice parenthetical compliment for my discussion of the issue: “For a shocking, even heartbreaking exploration of this issue and much more, check out Jerry Coyne’s ‘Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible’, which could be a primer for all rationalists wishing to argue the case for nonbelief.”)

Tayler goes on to insist, as he has before, that extreme religiosity is a form of mental illness. Some readers may disagree, but let those who do remember that if people behaved the same way about Bigfoot as they did about Jesus, they’d be seen as delusional. Tayler:

 . . . the satire in the News Nerd’s piece derives its efficacy from an obvious truth: belief in a deity motivates people to behave in all sorts of ways — some childish and pathetic, others harmful, a few outright criminal — most of which, to the nonbeliever at least, mimic symptoms of an all-encompassing mental illness, if of widely varying severity.

Why childish?  A majority of adults in one of the most developed countries on Earth believe, in all seriousness, that an invisible, inaudible, undetectable “father” exercises parental supervision over them, protecting them from evil (except when he doesn’t), and, for the mere price of surrendering their faculty of reason and behaving in ways spelled out in various magic books, will ensure their postmortem survival.  Wishful thinking characterizes childhood, yes, but, where the religious are concerned, not only.  That is childish.

Tayler goes on to recount the palpable harms of faith: not only the death of innocent and brainwashed children, but the oppression of women, the “scarred psyches” of many of those brainwashed kids, Jesus Camp, ISIS, and so on. The list is familiar, but Tayler’s remedy is pure New Atheist:

Yet all is not lost!  If the News Nerd’s APA story was a hoax, professionals are, nonetheless, taking note of the danger it was parodying.  A San-Franciscan human development consultant named Dr. Marlene Winell, herself a survivor of a Pentecostal upbringing, has bruited the idea of “religious trauma syndrome” and established its symptoms as “anxiety . . . depression, cognitive difficulties, and problems with social functioning.”  Kathleen Taylor, an Oxford neuroscientist, has proposed treating religious fundamentalism itself as a “mental disturbance.”

The cure, in my view?  Talk therapy, otherwise known as free speech, focusing relentlessly on religion and its multitudinous, multiplying ills, to be administered by us to the faith-deranged.  Treatment might begin in language they can readily understand.  The best, most succinct notion to be transmitted to the patients: “The deepest sin against the human mind is to believe things without evidence.”  The nineteenth-century British biologist Thomas H. Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog,” said that.

It’s up to us.  For the sake of humanity’s future, for the sake of our children, rationalists need to be unabashedly “bull-doggish.”

The time has arrived to bark, and even to bite.

I’ll bite! What say you: should we treat this extreme form of religiosity as a mental illness, when we know it really is one, albeit one that’s widespread? Should we even call it a mental illness, knowing that it will alienate many of the faithful?


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