Sullivan on Trump and vitamin D

This week’s New York Magazine column by Andrew Sullivan (click on screenshot below) is, as usual, in three parts. The first one is, as always, the main one, and it’s about Trump’s pathology. The second discusses Vitamin D as a possible palliative for coronavirus infection (something I haven’t heard about), and the third is about Sullivan’s old mate and new Labour leader Keir Starmer, whom Sullivan much admires.  I’ll give excerpts just from the first two sections.

You’ve heard Trump’s many gaffes about the pandemic and virus these past few weeks: his “per capita” fluff, the infamous “put light and bleach up your bum” remarks, his claiming to take hydroxychloroquine, his failure to understand the difference between a positive or negative test, and so on. To reverse the famous saying of Walter Brennan as Grandpappy Amos, it was all “No fact, just brag.” And, as I wrote this morning, the failure of his arrant stupidity to alienate his supporters is pretty baffling, and doesn’t speak well of American rationality. I used to dislike Trump intensely and opposed his election and policies from the outset, but I’ve grown to despise the man with the white heat of a thousand suns. No, I’m not “biased against the man,” as one reader accused me of this week; he has made me despise him because of his incompetence and miserable failure as a leader. But I digress:

Here’s a bit of Sullivan’s take:

I know we’re used to it [all of Trump’s meshugga statements], but there is no rational or coherent explanation for any of this. There is no strategy, or political genius. There is just a delusional pathology in which he says whatever comes into his head at any moment, determined entirely by his mood, which is usually bad. His attention span is so tiny and his memory so occluded that he can say two contradictory things with equal conviction repeatedly, and have no idea there might be any inconsistency at all.

His COVID-19 press conferences were proof of his mental limits. He couldn’t understand basic questions. He had no grip on epidemiology. He believes that tests are bad, because they make America look bad, and then boasts of his record in testing (which is, of course, not good). When a White House staffer, Vice-President Pence’s spokesperson, Katie Miller, tested positive for COVID-19, this is what Trump said: “She tested very good for a long period of time. And then all of a sudden today she tested positive. So, she tested positive out of the blue. This is why the whole concept of tests aren’t necessarily, right, the tests are perfect but something can happen between a test where it’s good and then something happens and then all of a sudden, she was tested very recently and tested negative.” With anyone else, we would assume he was drunk when he said that. His sobriety is indistinguishable from alcoholic stupor.

. . .The key thing, however, is that none of this seems to matter to the supporters of the president. For them, the pathology seems to be the point. It is precisely Trump’s refusal to acknowledge reality that they thrill to — because it offends and upsets the people they hate (i.e., city dwellers, the educated, and the media). The more Trump brazenly lies, the more Republicans support him. The more incoherent he is, the more insistent they are. Bit by bit, they have been co-opted by Trump into a series of cascading and contradicting lies, and they are not going to give up now — even when they are being treated for COVID-19 in hospital.

Tribalism is now not just one force in American politics, it’s the overwhelming one, and tribalism abhors reality if it impugns the tribe. But you can’t have both tribalism and public health. When you turn wearing a simple face mask into a political and cultural symbol of leftism, when you view social distancing as a concession to your enemies, you deeply undermine the power of millions of small impediments to viral outbreak.

What we are seeing is whether this tribalism can be sustained even when it costs tens of thousands of lives, even when it means exposing yourself to a deadly virus, even when it is literally more important than your own life. We are entering the Jonestown phase of the Trump cult this summer. It is not going to be pretty.

Finally, Sullivan, who as an HIV positive man is immunocompromised, says he’s started taking Vitamin D, as he says that it “enhances our innate immune systems” and prevents a “cytokine storm” when the immune system is overstimulated. He quotes experts who say that vitamin D isn’t really a preventive, in the sense that it will help stop you from being infected, but could reduce the severity of a viral infection.

Sullivan argues that the palliative effects of Vitamin-D might help explain why black and Latinos die disproportionately often from the virus (vitamin D is made in the skin upon exposure to UV radiation, which is why it’s called the “sunshine vitamin”), and pigmentation reduces the rate of its production. But of course, as Andrew notes, there are cultural rather than genetic reasons why minority groups might have higher death rates. Sullivan also says that the Vitamin D effect might “help explain why, for example, Florida has done so much better than New York.” (But of course sunny Brazil is suffering mightily from Covi-19.)

I’ll contact my doctor and ask him to comment here about what evidence, if any, there is for a Vitamin D effect, and should we be taking it. The upside compared to nostrums like hydroxychloroquine is that the vitamin is much safer, and in reasonable doses has no bad side effects.

Sullivan closes with his advice for us:

Even among those most at risk, health-care workers, the disproportionate rate of deaths for racial minorities is striking. And even studies that fully control for preexisting health conditions alongside socioeconomic factors found part of the gap unexplained. A new study goes further and “argues strongly for a role of vitamin D deficiency in COVID-19 risk.” It seems to me a good idea to educate those most at risk — especially racial minorities and the old — and suggest taking a modest vitamin D supplement. It’s cheap, easily available, and might cut the death rate dramatically. What’s the harm?

Well, first do no harm. I suspect Andrew’s right about this, but let’s find out before we rush to the drugstore for Vitamin D.

Duck pics: May 23

I’ve been remiss in posting duck pictures, but my hands have been full tending them. Most of these pictures of Honey and her brood (with a few exceptions) were taken four days ago, on May 20, and the dates of the videos are given below.

First, the usual pandemonium on the “beach”, with sleeping ducklings interspersed with turtles (red-eared sliders) while Mom looks on.

Turtle and duckies live together in perfect harmony.  You can see that the ducklings have grown a lot.


A lovely little girl takes in the spectacle.

This was a first for me: a duckling sitting and then sleeping atop a large turtle!

The turtle even moved a bit, and the duckling, who got a short free ride, didn’t even wake up.

Honey sitting on her favorite place in the pond: a big clump of grass that, sadly, is close to the fence, so she’s abandoned it since she’s so often disturbed there by gawkers. Notice Wingman standing guard above; the drake is worth his weight in gold.

What’s under her when she sits on the clump. Aren’t they adorable?

Proud father Wingman:

Sunning on the beach:

The babies are getting elongated and assuming a more ducklike shape. Soon they’ll be in their spiked “punk” plumage:

A video of the young ‘uns learning to nibble grass:

Dorothy still comes in every day or two. Yesterday I saw her fly up to the window where she last nested, and I wonder if she’s renesting in her old nest. I am not keen on that since I don’t want Honey, who has become a Killer Duck (viz., the Rouen ducks that she attacked when some misguided person tried to introduce them into the pond), to attack a new brood of Dorothy babies (her own will be of an age so different that she won’t adopt them). When she comes, the two-timing Wingman often consorts with her.

Dorothy and Wingman:

A video of the brood sunning with turtles:

Here are two short videos taken with the phone of Jean Greenberg, my colleague who also enjoys duck watching. They show the young ones beginning to have the “zoomies”: skittering quickly over the surface of the water and diving and swimming underwater. You can hear us chatting and me answering people’s questions during the videos.

The behavior is contagious, and will get more frequent as the ducklings mature. And then, on one fine day, the skittering will turn into weak flight, and they’re on their way. It’s interesting for me to think about what goes through a duck’s brain when it first gets into the air. I’m sure they have no knowledge that they’ll develop that ability!

Stay tuned for the next installment, featuring photos of me and Sammy, the adorable duckling that I took care of for two days. He’s been rehabbed to a good wildlife shelter, and I have high hopes

A large percentage of conservatives (indeed, of U.S. adults) subscribe to a bizarre Bill Gates conspiracy theory

It’s unbelievable what Trump supporters, Republicans, and conservatives can bring themselves to believe, but this new Yahoo/YouGov poll shows that bizarre and unevidenced beliefs are held by a substantial proportion of not just those on the Right, but of all U.S. adults. This article (click on screenshot below) centers on both Bill Gates and the coronavirus, particularly a vaccine. The poll was conducted in May, and you can link to the main results by clicking on the screenshot below.


The most bizarre contention, debunked by Snopes, is that Bill Gates is using his money and promoting Covid-19 vaccinations to create an authoritarian country where everyone will be surveilled via the implantation of microchips (presumably inserted surreptitiously during vaccination).  As Snopes notes,

primary focus of that foundation, and of Gates’ philanthropy in general, is the reduction of inequalities in health outcomes, with a focus on the developing world. Via these organizations, he also funds research into technological solutions to public health problems in the poorest communities globally. Since 2015, he has been raising alarms about the world’s potentially catastrophic lack of preparedness for a pandemic.

In part because of his advocacy for vaccines, Gates has also been a major recipient of the anti-vaccine movement’s vitriol for well over a decade. Years of manufactured animosity built by false claims from these anti-vaccine groups have, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, combined with the dubious claims of doomsday soothsayers and cryptocurrency Youtubers to create a sprawling COVID-19 conspiracy theory centered on Gates.

The basic allegation against Gates goes like this: He is using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to push a vaccine with a microchip capable of tracking you along with the rest of the world population.

Snopes debunks this, saying that Gates’s only remotely related argument is that perhaps people should have certificates of either immunity after having contracted the virus or after having been vaccinated, and those documents could be used for travel and entering new countries. Whether they will be required is up to the countries, not to Gates. That’s about it.

So that’s the basic allegation. How many Americans agree with it? See the chart below of the poll’s results, and weep copiously.

Yes brothers and sisters, friends and comrades, 44% of Republicans and 19% of Democrats—one in five Dems—accept this bizarre theory. Indeed, half of all those who get most of their news from Fox News accept the theory, while only 26% think it’s false. As expected, those who voted for Trump four years ago have statistics almost identical to those of Republicans in general. Those who are most sensible are the Democrats, those who get most of their news from the liberal station MSNBC, and those who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But even the latter categories show more than a quarter of people saying that they aren’t sure whether the microchip implantation theory is true.

Why on earth does anybody believe such a palpably false myth, one supported by no facts at all? Well, for the Right, it’s tribalism, with right-wing tribalism going along with an antivaxer stance. It’s above my pay grade to dilate on why the right is so suspicious of vaccines given that many conservatives support them, but some how it’s taken hold. The Yahoo site gives details:

The new Yahoo News/YouGov survey shows that skepticism about a possible coronavirus vaccine is already taking root on the right. There is little partisan disagreement over vaccines in general: 83 percent of Americans consider childhood vaccines either “somewhat” or “very” safe, and more than 80 percent of Democrats, independents and Republicans share this view. The same goes for concerns over the safety of “fast-tracking” the vaccine through the typical research and regulatory process: 73 percent of Americans are at least somewhat concerned, with little difference by party affiliation.

But when it comes to actually getting vaccinated, Clinton voters are nearly 30 points more likely to say they will (72 percent) than Trump voters (44 percent). A majority of Trump voters say either that they plan to skip the shot (29 percent) or that they aren’t sure (27 percent), even though the president himself has been pushing hard for a vaccine. 

As a result, only half of Americans (50 percent) now say they intend to get vaccinated “if and when a coronavirus vaccine becomes available,” with nearly a quarter (23 percent) saying they won’t — a 5-point decline in the percentage of “yes” responses and a 4-point gain in the percentage of “no” responses since the previous Yahoo News/YouGov survey two weeks ago. The rest (27 percent) say they’re not sure.

With 83% of Americans considering childhood vaccination safe, half of us still won’t get vaccinated when there’s a safe coronavirus vaccine. This is the downside of all the doubt sowed by the conspiracy theorists: it makes people less likely to get vaccinated. And this isn’t the same as ignorant suspicion of evolution or advocacy of flat-earthism, for doubt about tested vaccinations leads to sickness and death. There are no fatal complications of creationism.

There’s more misinformation and tribalism concerning—yes, you guessed it—hydroxychloroquine, which has been unproven as a virus preventive and seems positively harmful when given to those already infected. Have a look at this:

Vaccines are not the only subject of misinformation. Another example with dire implications is hydroxychloroquine. A majority of Fox News viewers (53 percent), along with nearly half of Trump voters (49 percent) and Republicans (44 percent), think the antimalarial drug is an effective treatment against COVID-19 — even though study after study has not proved that to be true. In fact, a new study of 96,000 hospitalized coronavirus patients on six continents found that those who received the drug had a significantly higher risk of death compared with those who did not.

Far fewer Trump voters, meanwhile, say that hydroxychloroquine is ineffective (just 17 percent) or that they are not sure (34 percent) — an upside-down perspective that may have something to do with the fact that the president told reporters Monday that he has been taking the drug for the last “couple of weeks” as a preventive measure.

In contrast, only 5 percent of Clinton voters say hydroxychloroquine is effective. Seventy-three percent of Clinton voters say it is not.

The poll also found that a plurality of Trump voters (41 percent) say they would take hydroxychloroquine if it were available to them. Only 4 percent of Clinton voters say the same; 80 percent say they would not take the drug. The Food and Drug Administration has warned that hydroxychloroquine should be used only in clinical trials or hospitals because it can trigger fatal heart arrhythmia in COVID-19 patients.

Well, physicians who are responsible doctors won’t treat infected people with the drug, and I hope that they won’t write prescriptions for it as a preventive. But some will. The upshot is that trust in science in general will be eroded, as well, I think, as trust in vaccinations.

As we saw from the statistics above, the Left isn’t resistant to the blandishments of misinformation, either. For example, on the issue of “reopening” cities and states, we see this:

The left is not immune to picking and choosing its preferred version of events. Democrats (58 percent) are more likely than Republicans (33 percent) to believe that “coronavirus-related deaths have surged” in early-to-reopen red states such as “Florida, Georgia and Texas” — as are Americans in general (45 percent). Yet average daily deaths have declined in Georgia and Florida since reopening, while holding roughly steady in Texas.

The statistics for reopened states were given on the news last night, and, as the poll notes, they contravene the Left’s scenario that prematurely reopened states will suffer huge tolls from a resurgence of the pandemic. That hasn’t happened so far, and yet the Left believes it more than the Right. Again, tribalism. It is, of course, possible that these states will suffer another onslaught of the virus, and our best attitude should be a wait-and-see one.

There are a bunch of other results, all showing tribalism in belief about what’s true, even when we don’t have sufficient data yet (well, what did you expect in such a religious nation?):

But views on reopening are starting to diverge as well. Asked in previous Yahoo News/YouGov polls whether stay-at-home orders were the only way to stop the spread of COVID-19 or whether “the cure is worse than the disease,” majorities of Americans, both Democratic and Republican, said the former. Now for the first time, a majority of Republicans (53 percent) say the cure is worse. Among Trump voters and Fox News viewers, that number skyrockets to 59 percent and 66 percent, respectively.

On the right, nearly every question about reopening is trending in the same direction. Pluralities of Republicans (44 percent) and majorities of Trump voters (55 percent) and Fox News viewers (61 percent) now support the protesters demanding an end to lockdown measures. Wide majorities of these right-leaning groups also say they are more concerned about lifting restrictions too slowly than too quickly; most Americans — by a 61 percent to 39 percent margin — still say the opposite. And while 62 percent of Americans say they’re more worried about the impact of the coronavirus on people’s health than on the economy, the right disagrees: 63 percent of Republicans, 68 percent of Trump voters and 73 percent of Fox News viewers say they’re more worried about the economy.

This is going to cause another fractious election result, which we knew anyway. I still think Trump will lose, and have bet a few hundred bucks on that result; but I’m appalled at how many American continue to support a man who’s so obviously mentally ill—a narcissist of the first water—and how many still buy into his ridiculous statements. As I’ve said, I lived through the Sixties—through Nixon, Reagan, and W., but I never thought I’d live to see a President and an administration so dysfunctional. And, even worse, how many Americans support Trump. Do they really admire the guy, or are they using him as a cudgel against the Left and what it represents to them (lax immigration policy, more concern for racism, and so on)?

And I have no idea why tribalism has increased so much in the last decade or so. Even the Reagan years seem almost halcyon compared to the today’s seemingly irreparable divisions in the ideology of Americans. I’d be interested in hearing readers’ take on this.

Apropos, here’s a photo sent in by reader Barry:

h/t: Ken

Duck o’ the week

This week’s duck species again comes from evolutionist John Avise. Look at the photos, see if you can identify the species, and then go below the fold to see the ID, some information, and a range map. Learn your ducks!

Click “read more” for the ID and more information: Read More »

Sunday: Hili dialogue

Good morning on Sunday—Ceiling Cat’s Day, for truly the Sabbath was made for cats, not cats for the Sabbath. It’s May 24, 2020, and National Escargot Day (cultural appropriation), and I cannot abide the snail, though I’ve tried them in France. It’s also Asparagus Day.

News of the Day: Terrible, and it makes me quite low. As I wend my way closer to the Big Nap, I see that my remaining time will be constricted by the ravages of Covid-19. I am no longer young and can’t look forward to many good years. Yes, I know others have it worse, and I wish they wouldn’t, but I, at least, can’t assess life satisfaction based on everyone who’s less well off. If one did that, then everybody but the worst-off person in the world should be consoled.

Today’s reported Covid-19 death toll is 97,426, so not quite the 100K highlighted in the papers (see below); but that will come. The world death toll is now roughly 342,000. The disease is beginning to ravage both Africa and, especially, South America. The news from Brazil, with mass deaths and a medical system unable to cope, is especially depressing.

Here’s the headline for today’s New York Times:

The picture associated with that tweet has disappeared, but here’s part of the front page, which lists the names of everyone who died of the virus (I presume the list continues inside, and is fairly complete):

For some reason I can’t embed that tweet, which had the graphic below, but here’s the front page:

And I find the tweet below a bit harsh; Trump is far from the only person who mishandled the pandemic:

Finally, I find this suggestion quite dispiriting:

No, that’s now what I need. I need to go to Poland, to Antarctica, to Paris, and many places yet unvisited. Making a virtue of necessity, the author suggests we can have a lot of fun vacationing in our own countries. Wismayer suggests, for instance, that Britons should visit their seaside towns, which have become neglected and decrepit. Should they re-create Butlin’s holiday camps? Develop a taste for Brighton Rock? Oy!

Stuff that happened on May 24 includes:

  • 1607 – One hundred English settlers disembark in Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America.
  • 1683 – The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, opens as the world’s first university museum.
  • 1689 – The English Parliament passes the Act of Toleration protecting dissenting Protestants but excluding Roman Catholics.
  • 1738 – John Wesley is converted, essentially launching the Methodist movement; the day is celebrated annually by Methodists as Aldersgate Day and a church service is generally held on the preceding Sunday.
  • 1844 – Samuel Morse sends the message “What hath God wrought” (a biblical quotation, Numbers 23:23) from a committee room in the United States Capitol to his assistant, Alfred Vail, in Baltimore, Maryland, to inaugurate a commercial telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington D.C.
  • 1883 – The Brooklyn Bridge in New York City is opened to traffic after 14 years of construction.
  • 1940 – Igor Sikorsky performs the first successful single-rotor helicopter flight.

Here’s an early newsreel shows an early Sikorsky helicopter setting a record for duration of “flight in suspension”: 92 minutes.

  • 1940 – Acting on the orders of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, NKVD agent Iosif Grigulevich orchestrates an unsuccessful assassination attempt on exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in Coyoacán, Mexico.T

Trotsky was murdered, again on Stalin’s orders, on August 21 of that year, with an ice axe to the skull.

Here are some of the Freedom Riders’ mug shots. Note that, contrary to the assertions of the 1619 project, there were many whites, young and old, secular and religious, who fought alongside African-Americans (the main impetus, of course) for an end to segregation:

In fact, California cabernets beat Bordeaux in this blind tasting, a result repugnant to the French. Here’s a picture from Wikipedia of some of the competing wines, with their caption:

A collage of several producers who competed in the 1976 Judgement of Paris wine tasting event. From top left row-by-row: Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (Note SLV not Cask 23 was the Paris Winner) (California), Chateau Montelena (California), Château Haut-Brion (Bordeaux), Château Mouton-Rothschild (Bordeaux), Château Montrose (Bordeaux), Château Léoville-Las Cases (Bordeaux). Note: With the exception of the Chateau Montelena image, the actual wines tasted were from different vintages and/or series.

  • 1991 – Israel conducts Operation Solomon, evacuating Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
  • 1999 – The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, Netherlands indicts Slobodan Milošević and four others for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Kosovo.
  • 2019 – Under pressure over her handling of Brexit, British Prime Minister Theresa May announces her resignation as Leader of the Conservative Party, effective as of June 7.

Notables born on this day include:

If you want to know how the freezing and boiling points of water were set at 32 and 212 degrees respectively in this cumbersome system, read here.

  • 1819 – Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom (d. 1901)
  • 1941 – Bob Dylan, American singer-songwriter, guitarist, artist, writer, and producer; Nobel Prize laureate
  • 1960 – Kristin Scott Thomas, English actress

Notables who took the Big Nap on May 24 were few, and include:

  • 1879 – William Lloyd Garrison, American journalist and activist (b. 1805)
  • 1974 – Duke Ellington, American pianist and composer (b. 1899)
  • 1995 – Harold Wilson, English academic and politician, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (b. 1916)

Here’s the Duke and his band playing “It Don’t Mean a Thing” in 1943, just after the Band reached its peak (the “Blanton-Webster” incarnation) in 1942. The quality of the video is poor but the sound is smoking:

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili claims dominance over Szaron:

Szaron: Why are you looking at me like that?
Hili: So you know who is in charge here.
In Polish:
Szaron: Dlaczego tak na mnie patrzysz?
Hili: Żebyś wiedział kto tu rządzi.

And nearby, at the site of their future home, Leon and Mietek ponder the haying of the big field next door:

Mietek: Will not this haying harm our voles?

In Polish: Czy te sianokosy nie zaszkodzą naszym nornicom?

Two memes from Bruce Thiel. This first one’s a groaner of the good kind:

From Jesus of the Day:

A tweet from Matthew that I retweeted with a similar story of my own (I’ve related it here before):

Two tweets from Clementine Ford (posted by Isabelle); supposedly a joke, but the mask slips in her second tweet:

Below: good news from The Friendly Atheist. I wrote about this issue earlier this year when Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna School Board,(MSSB) serving the second largest school district in Alaska (about 16,000 students), pulled these 5 books from the 11th and 12th grade reading lists (that’s 17- and 18-year olds!):

 “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison
Catch-22” by Joseph Heller
The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou
The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

No longer!:

A tweet sent by reader Barry, featuring our own Matthew Cobb identifying a parasite removed from a wasp (a successful operation!). Strepsiptera are endoparasitic insects parasitizing other insects, and have a bizarre life cycle. Read about them here.

A tweet from reader Ken. Henry Ford was a bigot and a notorious anti-Semite. Here Trump touts him for Ford’s “good bloodlines.”

Tweets from Matthew. CORVID-!9 = SATAN!

OMG a fossilized cockroach fart!

This feat is absolutely unbelievable. What humans won’t do for kicks! Sound up, please.

Ceiling possum! How dare they criticize this animal?

Photos of readers

Today’s photos are from reader Lenora Good, who sent a post called “Lenora in lockdown,” including two photos and their captions (indented).  She’s suffering from a problem I share: lack of haircut; but Lenora’s hair is nowhere near as wild as mine is.

Jerry, you asked for them, so here are my two lockdown photos. You may use either, both, or none as the mood strikes.
Here I am proving an elder can learn a new trick. I’m learning how to record/make podcasts. I am not remodeling (the apartment manager would take exception, I’m sure), the 2″ thick sheets of foam insulation are to help keep the traffic noise out of my room as I’m recording. I also quilt, write, and read–none of which make exciting pictures. I also walk the d*g, but can’t take a selfie with him along.
As you can tell, my hair was considerably shorter when the lockdown started. This is the first mask I made. Behind me is the Columbia River. No, the pictures isn’t crooked, the far shore just didn’t show up. It’s there, and horizontal, not angled. Honest. Trust me. 😉

Hummingbird-like drone films inside a monarch butterfly swarm

We have two PBS videos today. First, a lovely video that uses a tiny “hummingbird drone” to fly inside a monarch butterfly swarm in their Mexican mountain destination.  Look at how thickly the trees are festooned with butterflies!

And, as a treat, here’s a video of a real tiny hummingbird, in fact the smallest bird on Earth: the bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae). It’s endemic to Cuba and the Isla de la Juventud.

How big is it? Wikipedia says this:

The bee hummingbird is the smallest living bird. Females weigh 2.6 g (0.092 oz) and are 6.1 cm (2.4 in) long, and are slightly larger than males, with an average weight of 1.95 g (0.069 oz) and length of 5.5 cm (2.2 in).  Like all hummingbirds, it is a swift, strong flier.

In other words, it would take 175 females to weigh a pound. And they have the typical hummingbird metabolism, eating half their weight each day in nectar and the occasional insect.

Eggs the size of coffee beans! 80 wingbeats per second! A nest smaller than a golf ball, and beautifully festooned with what looks like liverworts. This, like all hummingbirds, is one of the most marvelous products of natural selection.

Tips and guidelines for watching the ducks at Botany Pond

Because of the crowds that now flock to see Honey and her brood at Botany Pond, and the occurrence of some unfortunate situations (dogs jumping into the pond, people trying to release orphaned ducklings as well as full-grown domestic ducks into the water, etc.), I’ve formulated a set of guidelines for visitors, and combined them with a few tidbits of duck biology that people can observe at the pond.

This was vetted by University media folks as well. It’s not official by any means, but I’m posting it here for the record so that people can refer to one place where the guidelines are collected.


Visiting the Ducks

What you’re seeing at Botany Pond are wild mallards, the most common duck in America. The vast majority of individuals in this species live and nest in the wild, but some have become “urbanized” and live close to humans. The Botany Pond mallards are urbanized, and it’s our responsibility to ensure that they’re not injured by proximity to humans.

The ducks are wild animals; please be respectful and quiet as the pond is now a duckling nursery. Above all, observe and learn! To keep the waterfowl happy and healthy, here are some rules we ask you to follow:

  • Please do not run, yell, or shout around the ducks. Please keep your distance, and don’t chase or stalk them. Walking too close to these wild birds can frighten them.


  • It’s OK to take photos, but please don’t disturb them or come too close; the mallard ducklings are babies and need proper rest and warming time out of the water. Do not chase them off the shoreline, planks or pond banks.


  • Please do not feed the ducks anything; these ducks are fed a variety of appropriate, high-quality duck food several times per day by the staff of Team Duck. They are well cared for and monitored by a live webcam.


  • Please keep dogs away from edge of pond and keep them on a short leash; ducks are prey animals and are very sensitive to the presence of dogs. They will quack alarm calls, which stresses all the other ducks. You may notice the mothers quack when they see a dog; they have very good vision. Never let dogs drink at the edge of the pond or go near the water.


  • Children are welcome to learn about ducks and nature at Botany Pond. Please make sure children refrain from yelling, throwing anything in the water or chasing any of the animals at the pond. Do not attempt to catch or pet the ducklings or turtles.


  • Finally, no one is permitted to walk around the back perimeter of the pond alongside the building (Erman Hall). It not only disturbs the ducks, but is dangerous (people have fallen into the water).


Tips for duck-watching:

  • If you watch them closely, you will see lots of interesting biology. Listen for the calls of the mothers to their offspring (there are several types: warning calls, “time to eat” calls, and “come to me” calls). Likewise, the ducklings peep when they’re lost, and the mothers then call to them to retrieve them.


  • Female mallards (the brown ones) are called “hens”, and the green-headed males are called “drakes”. Only the hens can give the famous duck “quack”; males make a lower sound.


  • Also, like Mom, the babies groom themselves and oil their feathers from a special gland in the base of their tail. They like to swim fast and play, forage underwater (called “dabbling”), and swim underwater for short distances as practice for avoiding predators. They often sleep in a heap to keep warm. You may see them roaming on shore, picking at vegetation and prey.

And here’s a gratis picture of Dorothy back when she had some of her own babies. She may be nesting again; stay tuned.

A short Francis Collins interview on the BBC

Here’s a short (7.5-minute) interview with NIH director and Templeton Prize awardee Francis Collins that was played on NPR yesterday but came from the BBC Newshour.  Collins answers questions about God, evil, coronavirus, and so on, but you may already be familiar with his theological views, which are at the preceding link.

Collins’s interview starts at 30:07 and ends at 37:34; click on the screenshot below to hear it.

You’ll hear that Collins is scientific and religious because science answers the “how” questions but—citing Steve Gould’s NOMA hypothesis—only religion can answer the “why” questions, questions like “Is there a God?”, or “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Collins claims that faith provides the answer to these questions, but of course it does not. Collins knows there’s a God because humans have a “moral law” (a ridiculous idea), but I’d like to hear how his Christianity answers the second question. Is “God did it” the answer to “why is there something instead of nothing?”

When asked why the coronavirus has killed so many (the question of “physical evil”), Collins has no answer. When asked if the virus is a “God-given plague”, he says that faith provides the answer, which is “no”. But then when pressed about why God would allow so many people to suffer, and whether there’s a moral dimension to the suffering, Collins says this:

“The question of suffering and its meaning and why a loving God would allow it is one of the toughest ones that both believers and nonbelievers have to wrestle with. I don’t have an easy answer to that and I grieve for all those who are suffering and all those who have lost family members to this terrible plague. . .”

Now that’s just plain weird.  Why do nonbelievers have to wrestle with the question of suffering? It’s a non-question for atheists, or at least an empirical question that has no “why” answer. And the secular answer is better than any religious ones. All we have to say is this: “It’s a virus that’s evolved to do its thing in the cells of other organisms, and its reproduction involves killing the cells and getting passed on through respiratory droplets.” I suspect that Collins wasn’t thinking about what he was saying here.

He then rabbits on about how we have some valuable lessons to learn from the pandemic—perhaps the reason God allows that suffering!—including pondering the “significance of suffering in general” and learning that (he quotes Scripture), “humans should not expect to be free of suffering.”

Collins ends by trying further to make a virtue out of necessity by arguing that the pandemic gives us a chance to ponder the Big Questions (which is what the Templeton prize is for)—questions about suffering, about our own natures, about our relationships, about what love means, and about what happens to us when we die.  Of course we can ponder these, but faith provides no better answers—and probably worse ones—than does Collins’s evangelical Christianity.

Listen to a very smart man who has become deluded by adherence to Iron Age mythology.

Caturday felid trifecta: Cat doesn’t want to relinquish pizza; soccer goalie cat; analysis of an ancient cat sculpture

Here’s today’s trifecta, starting with very short video of a Sphynx cat who is loud and tenacious. I suppose it’s the cheese on the pizza that attracts this moggy:


This video, which is truly viral, was sent by readers BJ, Gregory, and many others whose names I’ve forgotten (thanks to all!) The goalie cat is amazing, and were there a feline FIFA, this cat would be playing for Real Madrid. What reflexes it has! The YouTube notes:

A video of a cat showcasing its incredible goalkeeping skills is going viral on the internet. The clip shows Dixon’s cat saving the ball from entering the goalpost, every time the YouTuber tries to shoot it. He also shared that he had named his cat Meownuel Neuer, as a tribute to famous German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.


Finally, a more substantive piece from My Modern Met (click on screenshot):

This Egyptian-style cat sculpture was at the Getty Villa for many years, and was thought by Getty to be genuine (he paid £600 for it in 1955) but was later thought to be a fake, one of the many imitations made during the Egyptian craze of around 1900:

“Imitation” of a Statue of Bast in the form of a cat; Unknown; Europe (?); 19th century; Bronze; 32.3 cm (12 11/16 in.); 55.AK.9


The site recounts the detective story:

Discoveries like this often start as clues on the objects themselves. In this case, we found an inscription on the underside of the wooden base that reads:

“Mounted By W.T. Ready, Nov 1892, 55 Rathbone Pl(ace), London W.” A 19th century business directory listed Ready as “a dealer in antiquities, coins, metals and gems.”

The sculpture was suspiciously shiny for an ancient sculpture, so they did an X-ray, a metal analysis, and removed the head. The metal composition, highly leaded bronze, was consistent with true ancient cat sculptures.   They then removed the head (!):

What we saw on the interior was a completely different surface of varied topography with corrosion formed over a very long time.  In the head, a dark mass was tucked into the cavity, which also pointed to ancient molding and casting.

The “dark material” was clay, and that allowed dating of the statue. It turned out to be ancient Egyptian after all:

One of the most advanced technical processes from antiquity, lost wax casting, used a clay core over which the wax model was built up and modeled. The thin layer of wax was then reproduced by the bronze cast. We suspected that this dark material might be a clay containing core material.  If so, could it be dated by a process called thermoluminescence?  To find out, we sent a sample to a dating laboratory in Oxford England. The material indeed contained clay and could be dated to between 1700 and 2700 years ago. Taken together, the alloy and clay core date point to the cat being an ancient Egyptian work after all.

The site explains why the identity was mistaken (a worthwhile read) and the next steps in its restoration:

Coating removal in the conservation laboratory will continue to reveal the underlying aged surface. Further analysis will focus on the metal and its corrosion products, and the study of characteristic lead isotopes may help locate a production site more precisely (or at least the source of the lead). Additional provenance research may also clarify whether this cat came from Bubastis, and how it traveled to London by 1892.

Perhaps the bronze cat is reclaiming its 2300-year-old identity, moving from one stage of life into the next. A cat may have nine lives—even an ancient one.

To see what 600 pounds is worth today, I used a pound calculator and got these results:

If you want to compare the value of a £600 0s 0d Commodityin 1955 there are four choices. In 2018 the relative:
real price of that commodity is £15,460.00
labour value of that commodity is £37,350.00
income valueof that commodity is £50,160.00
economic share of that commodity is £65,440.00

Clearly, Getty got a bargain, at least in today’s terms.