Readers’ wildlife photos

Time to gather together your wildlife photos and send them in! The photo tank is dropping, though I still have a reserve.

Tony Eales from Australia sent some creepy-crawlies, because of course everything in Australia is venomous. But these animals are also lovely. His notes are indented:

Went back up into the rainforest last weekend to a different section of the national park to find some more creepy crawlies to photograph.

I managed to find and photograph my first Mygalomorphs. This is the infraorder of spiders that includes tarantulas and the deadly Sydney Funnel-web [JAC: the Funnel-web is regarded as the world’s deadliest spider]. The ones I found are in the family Dipluridae aka the Curtain Web Spiders. The second photo was positively identified as Australothele jamiesoni by Robert Raven who was the researcher to first describe the genus and the seven species in it. The second photo looks similar and photographed very close by, it’s probably A. jamiesoni as well but I can’t be certain. The two long spinnerets that can be seen in the photos are characteristic of the family. The spiders look scary but they’re not large: only around 20mm long.

In addition to spiders I found a couple of scorpions. Homurus waigiensis the Rainforest Scorpion, although I have found them outside of rainforests in swampy open forest. And an unidentified member of the Lychas spinatus species complex.

Lastly a Water Spider, in the family Pisauridae. Robert Raven said it looks like a Megadolomedes trux juvenile but has an unusual pattern. I have seen full-grown M. trux years ago and they are an impressive sight. While having relatively small narrow bodies their span can be as large as a man’s spread hand. They hang out on the underside of rocks above rainforest streams and can eat fish, tadpoles and even small frogs and toads.



Friday: Hili dialogue

We’ve again reached the end of another week: it’s Friday, June 22, 2018, the second day of summer. Now the days will slowly begin getting shorter. It’s National Chocolate Eclair Day, and not much else.

On the duck front, it’s been raining continuously here, impeding my ability to get photos. The duck islands are now covered with water, as the drainage system of the pond, which keeps the water level constant, can’t keep up with the rain. The brood has thus been hanging out on the shallow edges of the pond or in the reeds. I don’t like this, as it makes them vulnerable to predators. However, there are still eight ravenous ducklings, and the rain should stop sometime today, giving us a sunny and dry weekend. In the meantime, I get drenched several times a day doing the feedings, as it’s impossible to feed ducks, which requires two hands, and hold an umbrella at the same time. So it goes.

Not much happened in this day in history. On June 22, 1633, the Catholic Church forced Galileo to recant his view that the Sun rather than the Earth was the center of the Universe. But of course all soft-on-religion scholars of science will argue that this was not a clash between faith and science: it was something else, like a battle of personalities (read Ronald Numbers if you want to see this brand of weaselly historical apologetics).  On this day in 1942, the U.S. Congress adopted the Pledge of Allegiance; this is its present form:

“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

The words “under God,” to which all rational secularists object, were added in 1954 in a bill signed by President Eisenhower. This is what Ike said:

From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty…. In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.

Finally, it was on this day in 1986, during the World Cup in Mexico, that Diego Maradona helped lead Argentina to victory over England (2-1) by scoring two goals (Argentina went on to win the World Cup). One, the “hand of God” goal, was clearly a handball and should have been disallowed. The other, a marvel of dribbling, is often regarded as the greatest goal of all time. Here again are both:

Notables born on June 22 include chess champion Paul Morphy (1837), Julian Huxley (1887), John Dillinger (1903), Billy Wilder (1906), Meryl Streep (1949; the year I was born: I judge how well I’m aging by looking at her. She looks great but I think this comparison is irrational), and Cyndi Lauper (1953).

Also born on this day was Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006), a well known science fiction writer, though not known to me. Google has celebrated her birth with a Doodle:

Notables who died on this day include poet Walter de la Mare (1956), David O. Selznick (1965), Judy Garland (1969), Fred Astaire (1987), Dennis Day (1988), Pat Nixon (1993), and George Carlin (2008). On the anniversary of George Carlin’s death, here’s his famous riff on religion:

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, the Hili dialogue is again a bit enigamtic, so I asked Malgorzata to explain:  “Isn’t there a saying in English “Silence before storm”? There is one in Polish. So that’s what Hili is talking about: it’s eery quiet and she is afraid that this may suddenly end.”

Hili: Unsettling silence.
A: Why?
Hili: Because something may go boom.
In Polish:
Hili: Niepokojąca cisza.
Ja: Dlaczego?
Hili: Bo coś może huknąć.

Some tweets from Matthew: including this lovely fossil of a swift:

The foot of a nightjar has a comb, shown below, presumably used to clean the rictal bristles, which project from the edge of its bill (“whiskers”):

Here’s Matthew exactly sharing my sentiments about the power of selection. He even gets a bit Hallelujah-ish at the end!

A vertical take-off via Ziya Tong (click anyway if you don’t see the video):

Plants can show mimicry too, presumably to avoid consumption by predators:

Now this is an excited cat!

And the underrated Buster Keaton reads a newspaper in one of his silent movies:

We cat owners have all had this experience:

And a real Ceiling Cat! I’m worried, though, about why it’s living in the ceiling in an animal shelter. That’s not good!

And a Ceiling Raccoon:

Fun but (according to Matthew), useless imaging:

Finally, reader Mark Sturtevant sent us a “fallacious ice machine”:


WordPress completely blocks this site in Pakistan because I’ve offended Muslims

Well, once again WordPress has blocked me in Pakistan: not just one cartoon like last time, but the entire site, apparently forever. Nobody in Pakistan will ever see anything on WEIT unless they have “workarounds.”  And, once again, it’s because I posted Jesus and Mo cartoons, which offend Muslims. I just received this email from the WordPress “community guardian” (bolding is mine):


A Pakistan authority has issued a demand to block your site:

Unfortunately, we must comply to keep accessible for everyone in the region. As a result, your site is now inaccessible for Internet visitors originating from Pakistan. They will instead see a message explaining why the content was blocked.

Visitors from outside of Pakistan are not affected.

You and your readers may be interested in these suggestions for bypassing Internet restrictions.

For your reference, we have included a copy of the complaint. No reply is necessary, but please let us know if you have any questions.

— Begin complaint —
Dear WordPress Team,

I am writing on behalf of Web Analysis Team of Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) which has been designated for taking appropriate measures for regulating Internet Content in line with the prevailing laws of Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

In lieu of above it is highlighted that few of the webpages hosted on your platform are extremely Blasphemous and are hurting the sentiments of many Muslims around Pakistan. The URL’s mentioned are clearly in violation of Section 37 of Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 and Section 19 of Constitution of Pakistan.

The below mentioned websites can be found on following URL’s:-











You are requested to contribute towards maintaining peace and harmony in the world by discontinuation of hosting of these websites for viewership in Pakistan with immediate effect. We will be happy to entertain any query if deemed necessary and looking forward for your favorable response at your earliest.


Web Analysis Team
— End complaint —

Name redacted. – Community Guardian

As you see, what was objectionable to the Pakistani authorities, based on some peoples’ complaints, was my reposting of Jesus and Mo cartoons.

What really bothers me this time is that Pakistan’s Telecommunication Authority has the power to block this site itself; it doesn’t have to ask WordPress to do its dirty work for it. But, as you see above, it’s easier for WordPress just to block me so they can keep making money when their other sites are viewed in Pakistan.  That way they keep on good terms with the Pakistani government, which, I suppose, would block all WordPress sites if they got sufficiently pissed off.

I pay a decent sum of money to WordPress to keep this site going: I pay for hosting, for the right to put up an unlimited number of photos, and even to keep ads off the site. In return, WordPress, which claims that it is “committed to freedom of speech”, isn’t really—not when it acts as a censor itself at the behest of a foreign government. This, for example, is what WordPress says at its “Beat Censorship” page (their emphasis):

Access to the Internet is subject to restrictions in many countries. These range from the ‘Great Firewall of China’, to default content filtering systems in place in the UK. As a result, blogs can sometimes be inaccessible in these places. As far as we are concerned, that’s BS.

There are a number of ways available to bypass these restrictions. As part of our commitment to freedom of speech, we have listed some of the possibilities below. Bear in mind that the most effective route will depend on where you are connecting from. . .

As far as I’m concerned, that is BS. Yes, they list ways to bypass restrictions, but they also are putting the restrictions in place themselves. I emphasize once again: it is not Pakistan that is censoring me, but WordPress, which is doing so to keep its profitability in that region.

I’ve already written to WordPress protesting the previous censoring of a single Jesus and Mo cartoon. They did not respond. Some “commitment to freedom of speech”!

Well, so be it. My Jesus and Mo cartoons (but not my many posts criticizing Islam) have “hurt the sentiments of many Muslims around Pakistan.” Those who object are acting like spoiled children, for they don’t have to look at my site! And the Pakistani government is acting like a parent who puts site-blocking software on their childrens’ computers.  Needless to say, Islam is the only faith that would cause something like this to happen. Thanks, WordPress, for acting as censors on behalf of Pakistan! Why couldn’t you just let Pakistan block me by itself?

Jacinda has a duckling

. . . . or rather, a Kiwi. And as an honorary Kiwi, I’m delighted to announce that New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, gave birth to a baby girl yesterday. The father is her parter Clarke Gayford.

The happy couple with their first child:

As the Guardian reported:

Ardern posted the news to her Facebook page, saying her daughter was born at 4.45pm.

“Welcome to our village wee one,” she wrote, next to a picture of her and partner Clarke Gayford cuddling the newborn.

“Feeling very lucky to have a healthy baby girl that arrived at 4.45pm weighing 3.31kg (7.3lb). Thank you so much for your best wishes and your kindness. We’re all doing really well thanks to the wonderful team at Auckland City hospital.”

. . . The former prime minister Helen Clark told Radio NZ that the birth was a fine example to young people in New Zealand.

“Jacinda’s done it her way, what a remarkable story.

“She’s taken it in her stride, New Zealanders have taken it in their stride … all round I think we’re showing huge maturity as a country with this.”

Ardern is taking only six weeks of maternity leave although she’s entitled to 26 weeks of paid leave. She has a country to run!

I add my congratulations to that of the U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand, though I don’t understand the Maori words (readers can help):

Gayford, a television presenter, announced that he will become the “First Bloke,” a stay-at-home dad. What a great country!

Oh, and the 37-year-old Ardern is only the second world leader in modern times to give birth while in office. (The first was Benazir Bhutto in 1990.)

Thursday: Hili dialogue

Good morning to all; it’s a rainy Thursday, June 21, 2018, the June solstice, and the official beginning of summer, which starts in exactly two minutes (5:07 a.m.). That makes it the longest day of the year, and it’s celebrated by Google with an animated Doodle:

It’s National Peaches and Cream Day, though I haven’t seen a fresh peach in Chicago since last year. More important, it’s World Humanist Day, set to coincide with the solstice.

Posting will be light today as I must do errands downtown. As always, I do my best.

On June 21, 1749, the town (now city) of, Halifax, Nova Scotia was founded. On this day in 1940, according to Wikipedia, “The first successful west-to-east navigation of Northwest Passage begins at Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.” Curiously, though, the relevant Wikipedia article on the Northwest Passage gives the starting date as June 23. Another error! On this day in 1964—and I remember this well—the three civil rights workers Andrew GoodmanJames Chaney and Michael Schwerner (two whites and a black) were murdered by the Klan in Neshoba Country, Mississippi. Ultimately four people were convicted of violating the murdered men’s civil rights (the trial of one man was in 2005), but none convicted in the first trial served more than six years.

This is a picture of Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey (right, a Klan member) and deputy sheriff Cecil Price on trial for the murders. It typifies their cockiness; Rainey is dipping into some Red Man chewing tobacco, and both are smiling. Rainey was acquitted; Price served 4.5 years for civil rights violations.

On this day in 1989, the U.S. Supreme court ruled in the case of Texas v. Johnson that burning the American flag was a form of political protest and was protected free speech. On June 21, 2005, the case of the Chaney, Goodman and Scherner murders continued: Edgar Ray Killen, previously acquitted, was convicted of manslaughter 41 years later. He died in prison in 2018. Finally, on June 21, 2009, Greenland assumed self-rule, making it largely but not completely independent of Denmark.

Notables born on this day include Increase Mather (1639), Reinhold Niebuhr (1892), Jean-Paul Sartre (1905), Mary McCarthy (1912), Michael Ruse (1940), Nils Lofgren (1951), Benazir Bhutto (1953), Edward Snowden (1983), and Rebecca Black (1997). Remember Black’s self-financed song “Friday”—the worst song of our era? Here it is again, now with over 122 million views on YouTube. She’s still trying to forge a music career, but it is not going well:

Notables who died on June 21 include Inigo Jones (1652), Nikolai Rimsky-Kirsakov (1908), Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman (1964; see above), Preisdent Sukarno of Indonesia (1970; he ruled from 1945-1967), and Carol “Archie Bunker” O’Connor (2001).

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is once again being a narcissist. I asked for an explanation of Hili’s behavior, and Malgorzata responded:

“Hili thinks she is the navel of the world. If she decides to hide under the magnolia the world should be worried and look for her. But the world didn’t oblige and after getting bored sitting there alone she came out and complained.”

The dialogue:

Hili: I’ve been under the magnolia.
A: What for?
Hili: I was hoping somebody would come to me.
In Polish:
Hili: Byłam pod magnolią.
Ja: Po co?
Hili: Miałam nadzieję, że ktoś do mnie przyjdzie.

Some tweets from Dr. Cobb. I love this first one, or rather the response below the photo:


Remember Ötzi the Iceman, who died about 5000 years ago and whose corpse was preserved by cold? Well, shade is being thrown on him.

An amazing partly cryptic butterfly. When it wants to hide, it folds its wings (watch the video).

Some reading for you:

And from reader Pliny the in Between, a scathing cartoon:


Wednesday: Duck report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Americans often find it hard to distinguish between fact and opinion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The original story is here.

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

Jesus and Mo’s reaction:

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

Readers’ wildlife photos and videos

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

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

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

And a video.

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

A blue-winged teal makes a cameo appearance.